HC Deb 21 December 2000 vol 360 cc567-79 10.30 am
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the week after the House returns from the Christmas recess?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business for the first week after the Christmas recess is as follows:

MONDAY 8 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Homes Bill.

Motion relating to the Electoral Commission.

TUESDAY 9 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill.

THURSDAY 11 JANUARY—Estimates Day [1st Allotted Day—Half-Day—Second Part]. There will be a debate on the Sixth Report from the Science and Technology Committee on Cancer Research: A Fresh Look, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Details will be given in the Official Report.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named Opposed Private Business for consideration at 4 o'clock.

FRIDAY 12 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 15 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Capital Allowances Bill.

The House will wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 17 January, there will be a debate relating to sport in European Standing Committee C.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall during January 2001 will be as follows:

THURSDAY 11 JANUARY—Debate on energy and other non-food crops.

THURSDAY 18 JANUARY—Debate on the Fifth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee on the Greening Government initiative.

THURSDAY 25 JANUARY—Debate on Meeting the Basic Skills Challenge.

[Thursday 11 January: Relevant documents: A Fresh Look (HC 332) and the Government's response thereto (Cmnd 4928]

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House. Following the Second Reading and programme motion on the Hunting Bill yesterday, there will be just one day of Committee on the Floor of the House for consideration of the Bill. Is she able to tell us the date on which that will take place? Many Members will want to clear their diaries so that they can participate in that important debate.

May we have a debate in Government time early in the new year on the intelligence services? That would be most welcome, not least to members of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Will the right hon. Lady request a statement in the new year from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the guidance given by the Government, which might have influenced the method of operation of the board of Equitable Life? Given that the Treasury's insurance directorate suspended that guidance two days after the House of Lords judgment on Equitable Life, the House will want to question the Chancellor, not least because there might have been a duty of care that could result in compensation to policyholders.

In conclusion, I wish the Leader of the House, you, Mr. Speaker, and all hon. Members a happy Christmas and, I hope, an interesting new year.

Mrs. Beckett

I seem to remember that "may you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse. I thank the hon. Lady for her good wishes, and return them to her, to all hon. Members from every party, to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the staff of the House.

I cannot tell the hon. Lady when the day on the Floor of the House for consideration of the Hunting Bill is likely to be, but we shall try to give Members as much notice as we can. I take her point.

I also take note of her request for a debate on the intelligence services, and we shall undertake to discuss that through the usual channels.

Guidance that might have influenced Equitable Life is primarily a matter for the Financial Services Authority, particularly at this stage. It is my understanding that the authority has been asked to examine the matter and report. As that information comes together, the House will no doubt have opportunities to raise the matter in different ways.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is it possible to have a debate on international affairs in the first or second week after the recess, especially about the serious situation in the middle east in its widest sense? That includes the Palestine-Israel conflict, the serious problems in Turkey and the problems between Turkey and its neighbours because of the damming of major rivers, which is resulting in water shortages in neighbouring countries? Does my, right hon. Friend accept that the problems in the middle east could lead to a wider escalation of the conflict, and that it would be useful if the House had an opportunity to discuss them?

Mrs. Beckett

As ever, pressure on time for debates on the Floor of the House will be fairly tight early in the new year, because the Government will want to make progress with legislation. Members have already expressed wishes to discuss matters with which it has not been possible to deal before the Christmas recess. However, I note my hon. Friend's request. As he probably knows, questions to the Foreign Secretary will take place on 23 January; and the subject that he has raised is also particularly suitable for debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Will the Leader of the House make time available at the earliest opportunity for debate on a subject that is of great concern to Londoners—the future of the Government's part-privatisation proposals for London Underground? If the public-private partnership is to be ditched, Parliament would like to discuss that.

Will the right hon. Lady also provide time for a debate on the fiasco that has been the selection process for the national lottery? Such a debate would give the Government an opportunity to explain why they have chosen to abandon their manifesto pledge of a not-for-profit lottery.

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman will know, negotiations and discussions on the future of London Underground are continuing, and the Government will be seeking the best-value approach. As far as I am aware there is nothing to report so far, but no doubt the matter will come to the House in a variety of ways in the future.

I do not immediately see a logical thread linking the national lottery with London Underground, but never mind. We said in our manifesto that the Government would seek to identify a not-for-profit provider, and it is clear that a study has been undertaken. It is equally clear that the not-for-profit bidder has not yet been able to satisfy those whose purpose is to judge the bidder's case.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the deferred voting system that we have used for the past two weeks has been a great success? Its operation has been straightforward, and it has produced clear-cut results. It is a very simple system, which I am sure appeals to Members on both sides of the House. However, does not the fact that only a handful of Members have voted against some motions suggest that the House's time has been abused in the past by small numbers of mavericks who have forced unnecessary votes in the early hours?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the deferred voting system is a source of disagreement in various parts of the House, but I agree that it has already proved its worth. On the second of the two occasions on which we have used it, voting could have taken three hours on the Floor of the House, without a minute of debate.

All Members are well aware that many issues on which votes could take place are not contentious across the House. As my hon. Friend says, on a number of such issues only a handful of Members wish to express a view. I think the House will, in time, accept that, while it is of course right for Members to have an opportunity to debate issues, it is not practical to keep tens, if not hundreds, of others hanging around just to exploit the use of time.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Last week, the Leader of the House said in answer to a question from me that there were no present ambiguities in the European defence imbroglio. Was that a subjective statement on her part, or an objective statement on behalf of the Government?

Mrs. Beckett

I think that most of my statements, and indeed most statements made in the House, are subjective. I am aware that there are those who claim to be objective human beings, but I cannot say I have ever met one.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

Will there be a chance to debate today's award of a contract to BAE Systems to build type 45 destroyers? We need a debate because it seems that Vosper Thornycroft has been excluded from participating in the contract, which comes as serious news for Southampton and Portsmouth. We would like to be able to debate the matter sensibly in the House in the near future.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but I am not aware of the particular arrangements that he is describing. I also understand his wish on behalf of his constituents—no doubt other hon. Members will join him—to have the issue aired, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a debate on the issue on the Floor of the House. However, the far greater opportunities available in Westminster Hall may be attractive to him. Furthermore—depending, of course, on Mr. Speaker's view—my hon. Friend might find an opportunity to raise the issue in the debate on the Armed Forces Bill, on Tuesday.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

May I introduce an unseasonal note? Could the Foreign Secretary be asked, over Christmas and new year, to prepare to come to the House to make a statement on the case of the British citizen, Krishna Maharaj, who was sentenced to death 13 years ago, on a seven to five verdict, and whose appeal has been turned down by the Florida supreme court? The Foreign Secretary will have received a letter from Clive Stafford-Smith, of the Justice Centre, who says that Krishna Maharaj is the most likely of the 300 cases taken up by the centre to be innocent. It is not an issue that can be debated now, as I cannot apply for an urgent debate. However, the work is urgent.

The alternatives are to ask the Florida supreme court to waive the death penalty, repatriation or to allow a 62-year-old man to go through another 13 years of appeals at the federal level. As the trial judge was taken away in shackles after being accused of taking bribes in another case, there is significant doubt not only about the process, but about Krishna Maharaj's guilt.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, and it clearly is a case of some concern. I have no doubt that he has already written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who, I am sure, will take the matter very seriously. However, I do not feel that it would be right, at this moment—when my right hon. Friend might only just have received the hon. Gentleman's letter—to suggest that he make a statement to the House on the case. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find other ways of raising the issue.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 61, which deals with working on Christmas day? It states:

[That this House cherishes Christmas Day as a special day, particularly for families and children, and welcomes the campaign by USDAW, the shopworkers' union, on behalf of the 2.6 million shopworkers of United Kingdom; regrets that many shops remain open on Christmas Day because employers put undue pressure on shop workers to abandon their family responsibilities on this important religious and public holiday; notes that the vast majority of shop workers are parents who should be able to spend Christmas with their children; notes that current law offers no protection to such workers when Christmas Day does not fall on a Sunday; further notes that Christmas is an extremely busy and stressful period for shop workers and believes that they deserve at least one day off; and calls on the Government to protect shopworkers on Christmas Day.]

May I also draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the petition introduced earlier this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), and the petition that I shall introduce later today? Is she aware that many people working in shops in Britain have no legal protection against having to work on Christmas day unless it falls on a Sunday? Is it not time that we had a debate in Government time on the issue? We have a whole year before next Christmas to ensure that people are not forced to work on Christmas day and that they can spend time with their families.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand, of course, the concerns expressed both by my hon. Friend and by other hon. Members, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), who, as she said, has tabled the early-day motion. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House understand those concerns and might wish to air the issue. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in Government time. May I, once again, recommend to her the attractions of Westminster Hall?

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The right hon. Lady will recall my raising, last week, the High Court decision on the planning powers of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I understand that the Government have appealed against the decision, so there the matter must rest for the time being. However, I believe that the issue is part of a wider problem. Will the Leader of the House find time reasonably quickly in the new year to have a debate in the House on the effects of the Human Rights Act 1998, which certainly seems to have the effect of requiring the courts to move in mysterious ways?

Mrs. Beckett

From memory—I hope that the House will bear with me, because I am speaking only from memory—I did not think that the decision had very much to do with the Human Rights Act. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: as I suspected last week, the Government have decided to appeal, which means that it is a matter for the courts. As things settle down and time passes, it is likely that fewer stories will be linked to the Human Rights Act when there is only a tenuous or disputed connection.

I well remember hearing a report the other day—I do not recall the precise case—in which it was claimed that there was a dispute with the Human Rights Act. I heard a very cross interviewer continuing to ask the interviewee, "Isn't this because it has fallen foul of the Human Rights Act", to which the answer was, "No." When things settle down and there is a little less hysteria about the Act, we will know better where we stand.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of Labour Members would like to debate the fact that the facilities of the House of Commons are being used to host gatherings of a right-wing grouping that publishes racist and anti-semitic material in its magazine, "Right Now"? Is she also aware that speakers at the meetings have included the shadow Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), and that regular attenders include self-confessed racists and former National Front activists?

In the absence of any attempt to cleanse the Conservative party of racism, what procedural advice can my right hon. Friend offer hon. Members who do not believe that racism should be given house room in this, the mother of Parliaments?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend has identified, nor of the organisation to which he refers and which he describes. However, I can tell him that any hon. Member who comes across evidence indicating a misuse of the House's facilities should convey that information to the House authorities. They will then look into the matter.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

The Leader of the House will know that fishing communities around the United Kingdom face a winter of crisis and a very depressing time following the recent Fisheries Council meeting. Pursuant to her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), which appears at column 809 of Hansard for 14 December, is she any closer to fixing a date for the promised fisheries debate? In particular, does she recognise that it is urgent that she find time for that debate, so that the House can have an input to Ministers before the cod recovery programme is debated in Europe on 18 January?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I had not forgotten what I said to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). As the hon. Gentleman will have noticed from the business that I announced earlier, we have not yet identified a suitable opportunity for that debate, but I am mindful of the wish that it be held. Indeed, that was part of what I had in mind when I told my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) a few moments ago that, for perfectly reasonable reasons, there is a good deal of pressure on Government time in the new year. I have not forgotten the commitment that was made, and we are looking for ways to honour it.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 101, dealing with the payment of fees by volunteers to the Criminal Records Bureau? It states:

[That this House welcomes the decision of the Scottish Parliament that criminal record checks for volunteers working with children in Scotland will be free; notes with regret that volunteers in England and Wales will still be required to pay £10 for identical checks to be made with the Criminal Records Bureau in the coming year; and urges the Government to emulate the excellent example of the Scottish Parliament.]

Will she arrange for a debate on this issue in the Chamber? Many voluntary and children's organisations fully support measures to protect children, which require that adults with unsupervised access to children must undergo a criminal records check. However, that costs money, and organisations in the voluntary sector are concerned about the impact of those costs on the volunteers whom they deploy. We need a debate on this matter to see whether some flexibility can be found in the regime, so that voluntary organisations are not unduly disadvantaged and so that volunteers are not put off from taking part in work with children in this country?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these issues, and that he chairs the all-party group dealing with voluntary organisations. I am aware, too, of the great interest that exists across the House in the matter. My hon. Friend will know that no announcement has yet been made about the exact arrangements involved. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, but many opportunities are open to hon. Members to keep up pressure on the Government until the relevant decisions are announced.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Leader of the House has nominated the Second Reading of the Capital Allowances Bill for 15 January. Can she confirm that that is the first Bill to emerge from the tax law rewrite exercise? Will she ensure that, on Second Reading, Ministers couch their remarks in such a way that they touch on the more general work of the Joint Committee and on the wider question of tax simplification? Will she describe what further stages the Bill will go through after Second Reading?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that he is right: the Bill is the first fruit of the tax law rewrite project, which I believe he was instrumental in initiating when he was a Treasury Minister. I am aware, too, that it is part of an on-going project of simplification, and that there has been pressure from hon. Members of all parties to make progress on these issues.

I cannot at the moment give the right hon. Gentleman any further information about how the Bill will proceed after Second Reading, or at what pace, but no doubt he will be able to seek that information through the usual channels.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

With regard to future programming and votes on the Hunting Bill, did the right hon. Lady notice that something quite interesting happened last night? The West Lothian question was a dog that did not bark in the night—or rather, it just squeaked. Only six of her colleagues from Scotland voted on Second Reading last night. Therefore, most Scottish Members have taken the very correct attitude that they should not vote on matters that affect only England. To do so would be as insensitive as crashing around a neighbour's house and taking down the pictures without letting that person into one's own house.

The right hon. Lady knows how much I admire her. Will she now put her name into the history books and proclaim the Beckett convention—that Scottish Members should not generally vote on matters that solely concern England?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I am afraid that I will not. As for the West Lothian question not being a dog that barked, I should have thought that baying was a more appropriate term on this occasion.

I am aware of the argument put by Conservative Members, and have long believed that they have not fully thought it through. After all, it is not at all clear what their candidates in Scotland and Wales will say at the next election. Perhaps an appropriate slogan would be, "Vote for me and I will do half the job that everyone else at Westminster is doing."

As the hon. Gentleman will know, during the quite long periods in which the Conservative party was in favour of devolution, it took the view that there should not be two different classes of Member of Parliament at Westminster. That remains the view of this Government. He will also know that in the long periods in which there was devolved government at Stormont, the previous Government relied quite heavily on the votes of Northern Ireland Members.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The right hon. Lady will be aware, following press reports at the weekend, if not before, that a ministerial group has been set up informally to examine why 100,000 jobs have been lost in manufacturing in the past year and why the unemployment rate is rising in the north-east, the north-west and the east and west midlands. Clearly, the Government have some political concern because unemployment is going up in areas that are more heavily represented by Labour Members. As a ministerial group has been established, may we have a statement from a member of the group to explain which of the Government's policies the group believes is responsible for the increase in manufacturing unemployment?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the whole House is concerned about unemployment, particularly in manufacturing. It is perfectly understandable. However, I note that the hon. Gentleman identifies only the concerns about unemployment; he does not mention that the group will look, I feel confident, at other issues, such as how we have managed to succeed in increasing investment in manufacturing for the first time in many years and to increase exports for the first time for some time. The group will consider a range of manufacturing issues.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Government are concerned and wish to work with industry to see whether they can take any steps to deal with difficulties that the industry faces. He is also right that some jobs are being lost although not, of course, at anything like the rate at which they were lost under the previous Government, and it is true that many such jobs are in parts of the country represented by Labour Members. However, I am happy to say that as a result of the last election, there is Labour representation in all parts of the country.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I remind the right hon. Lady that I am joint chairman of the Middle Way Group, which supports a compromise solution on hunting with dogs and gained the support of the Home Secretary yesterday. Does she understand that there is genuine concern about whether it is possible to deal with the complexities of the three issues in a single day on the Floor of the House? Will she use her very best endeavours to ensure that no ministerial statements are made on that day?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that a day is insufficient. The House will make a broad judgment on the options. I think that most right hon. and hon. Members are already perfectly well aware to which option they incline. It will then be for the House to continue later with further and more detailed discussion. I believe that last night my right hon. Friend cited the precedent of the Sunday Trading Act 1994, which contained many more, and more complicated, options.

Mr. Luff

I was against that too.

Mrs. Beckett

If the hon. Gentleman was against that too, he has the merit of consistency. However, it does not alter the fact that that was thought sufficient time by the Government he supported to debate a number of options in exactly the way that this Government propose. However, I take his point. He will know that we are continually being pressed to make even more statements than we do, but we are mindful that there are particular days on which we seek to avoid cutting into debate time, and I will bear that in mind. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking, but I am conscious of his point.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Health, following the disturbing news from the authorities at Derriford hospital in Plymouth, which serves my constituency, that they contemplate requiring an additional consent form from patients about to undergo surgery so as to absolve the hospital of responsibility and blame for any problems that might arise due to inadequate facilities or hygiene? Is not that disturbing news that might have implications throughout the country?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman perfectly legitimately makes what he clearly feels is an important constituency point. I am not familiar with the details, as he will anticipate. Although I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on the matter, he is in the Chamber and will have heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will make further inquiries and, should they confirm the concern he has just expressed, he may find an opportunity to raise the matter on 10 January when we debate the Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the planning system? In two villages in my constituency, large former mental institutions are currently being redeveloped—mainly for housing. One is in Calderstones, near Whalley, and the other is in Whittingham. If both developments take place, they will alter dramatically the character of the nearby villages; in Whittingham, 950 houses are being considered.

The Government have introduced PPG3; we want to test how effective that is in ensuring that residents and local and parish councils can defend the interests of villages against wholesale development. If the guidelines are not effective, perhaps further guidelines will be necessary to protect those villages. The best Christmas and new year present that we could receive from the Government would be for them to ensure that the PPGs are effectively tightened to give better protection to local people against the influx of extra housing.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, I am aware of such developments—they take place in many constituencies, including mine, and sometimes cause concern. From what he says, the matter would appear to be rather more for the local authority than for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. However, if on mature consideration, the hon. Gentleman comes to the view that it raises issues about the nature of planning guidance, although I cannot promise him a debate I remind him that there will be questions to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on 16 January.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Can the Leader of the House promise us a statement during the first week after the break on the continuing crisis of confidence in the sub-post office network? We were told that there was to be an announcement about the universal bank before Christmas—that does not seem to have occurred. The outcome of the lottery decision is unlikely to benefit the Post Office. The bottom has fallen out of the sub-post office market. What are the Government going to do about that? Does not this crisis demand a statement during the first week back?

Mrs. Beckett

Discussions are continuing about how best we can safeguard the rural post office network. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the matter as one of considerable difficulty—not least, of course, because of the way in which the Conservative Government, whom he supported, bled the Post Office white over so many years, ensuring that it had no resources for investment, which had a bad effect on the whole network. The Labour Government will certainly do their best to protect and to save the network. However, although the matter is of concern and Ministers continue to work with the relevant authorities to do what we can to assist, the hon. Gentleman says nothing that suggests to me the need for an urgent statement in the new year.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I want to raise a matter that there was no chance to highlight at Agriculture questions. Given that the pig industry has been losing up to £4 million a week and that, over the past two years alone, 25,000 people have left the sector altogether, does the right hon. Lady agree that it is important to have a statement from the Government, as a matter of urgency, to confirm that they intend to review the proposed operation of the integrated pollution prevention controls and to confirm that they will not be applied in a way that militates against the British sector relative to our continental counterparts? Finally, will the right hon. Lady take it from me that if such a statement is forthcoming, it will be received by my constituent, Mr. James King of Cowley farm, Preston Bissett in Buckingham, as an extremely welcome wedding present?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that that is a worthwhile reason for the Government to take such a major step. As the hon. Gentleman who is a regular attender at business questions, will recall, the matter has been raised frequently over recent months. We are conscious of the problems in the pig industry and the Government have provided special help to it.

The hon. Gentleman raises the particular issue of the IPPC. It is my recollection that the Prime Minister has been discussing the issues with the National Farmers Union. I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman time for further discussions or statements on that matter, but I can and will undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May I renew my request to the Leader of the House for a statement or debate on the folly of a European army, particularly as it has now been described by a likely future assistant to President-elect Bush as a dagger pointed at the heart of NATO? While we are on the subject of President-elect Bush, does the right hon. Lady agree that the result of the US presidential election shows that to achieve an electoral victory it is not enough for a party to have had at its head a sharp-suited but shallow individual?

Mrs. Beckett

I rather think that the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question was a boomerang.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of defence and the conversations about the European rapid reaction force. I note that he moved from people in a previous American Administration to likely future assistants to the new Administration, which is a matter of concern. No doubt this Government and other European Governments will be anxious—as will the Secretary-General of NATO, Lord Robertson—to reassure the incoming American Administration about the facts of what is proposed in the European context, and that it is not in any way a risk to NATO. As for the lessons to be learned from the American election, they are many—not least that those who say that it makes no difference whether people vote have learned a sharp lesson.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Leader of the House share my concern at the reported loss of 24,000 agricultural jobs per annum? Four hundred and fifty people are drifting from the land every week. Will the right hon. Lady arrange an early statement or debate to discuss employment and training opportunities and assess what special assistance can be given to people who have lost their jobs?

Mrs. Beckett

I am indeed aware of what the hon. Gentleman rightly identified as a drift from the land. He will know that, although I do not take it lightly, that trend has occurred over generations, not just recent years. I do understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and he knows that the Government have worked hard, and will continue to do so, with representatives of the farming community to assist with what is certainly—the Government do not seek to disguise it—a continuing and serious crisis in agriculture. We will continue to try to identify a way forward, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be part of those discussions, particularly in relation to the part of the Province that he represents.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I note that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) is standing. I like to be generous, particularly at this time of year, but he must be able to hear what the Leader of the House has to say. I might have called the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot because he was not present to listen to the statement by the Leader of the House.

Dr. Whitehead

I was collecting information that has only just become available which was relevant to the request that I intended to make to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I was therefore unavoidably absent from the Chamber.

Mr. Speaker

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's difficulty about that, but when one is a Back Bencher, one has to try to find other ways to make a point.

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