HC Deb 03 February 2000 vol 343 cc1205-20 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

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

The business for next week is as follows: MONDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Motions on Social Security Orders.

Procedure motion relating to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

TUESDAY 8 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Discipline) Bill [Lords]. WEDNESDAY 9 FEBRUARY—Conclusion of proceedings on the Financial Services and Markets Bill.

THURSDAY 10 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

FRIDAY 11 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill (First Day).

TUESDAY 15 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Postal Services Bill.

WEDNESDAY 16 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill (Second Day).

THURSDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 18 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 16 February there will be a debate on the 1999 review of telecommunications legislation and radio spectrum policy in European Standing Committee C.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 9 February there will be a debate relating to common strategy on Ukraine in European Standing Committee B, and a debate on state aid to the coal industry in European Standing Committee C. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 9 February 2000:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents:13523/2/99, Common Strategy on Ukraine; Unnumbered explanatory memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 1 February 2000, Ukraine Common Strategy Work Plan; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 23-iv and HC 23-vii (1999–2000). [Wednesday 16 February 2000:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European documents:14320/98, 12838/99, 12839/99, 12840/99, 1999 Review of Telecommunications Legislation and Radio Spectrum Policy; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC-23-i and HC 23-vii (1999–2000).]

The House may also like to know that it is the Government's intention that we should rise for Easter at the close of business on Maundy Thursday and return on Tuesday 2 May.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business, an indication of the likely business for the week after, and advance notice of the Easter recess.

The whole House is concerned about events in Northern Ireland, following the completion of the de Chastelain report. Of course, we understand all the sensitivities, but can the right hon. Lady tell the House whether the Secretary of State has any plans to make a statement later today?

Can we expect statements next week from the Home Secretary on Senator Pinochet, and from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on his proposals for the licence fee, some six months after the report of the Davies committee?

Will the Leader of the House undertake to find time for the usual St. David's day debate on Welsh affairs?

Following last night's vote, does the right hon. Lady understand that the Opposition very much regret that their nomination for the House of Commons Commission was rejected, with 16 Parliamentary Private Secretaries voting against a motion in the name of the Deputy Chief Whip? Will she use her best endeavours to resolve the inevitable difficulties that have ensued?

Finally, will the Prime Minister make a statement on Monday on his findings, following his tour of the south-west? May not that give him a welcome opportunity to revise the impression that he has given that he is totally out of touch with countryside issues?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome for some of the announcements that I made, and for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position.

The House will appreciate that discussions are continuing during the day. Given the political situation in Northern Ireland, the business that I have just announced may be subject to some revision. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland expects to come to the House later this evening to make a statement. If that statement has an impact on the handling of business, I shall announce then any necessary changes in the business of the House.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about Senator Pinochet. Although the application by Amnesty International in Belgium for a judicial review has been rejected by Mr. Justice Kay, Amnesty has renewed its application to the divisional court. In view of those proceedings, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has given an undertaking that he will not make a decision on extradition before the hearing of the application, which cannot take place before Monday 7 February. My right hon. Friend has always maintained that he will come to the House to announce the decision as soon as possible.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's wish for a statement on the Davies report. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has that in mind and will make an announcement to the House when he can. The Government intend to find time for a debate on Welsh affairs around St. David's day.

I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the later events of yesterday evening. I did not know that 16 PPSs had voted on the matter. They slipped through the net, and the Whips were unable to prevent them from going into the Lobby. That is a stirring tribute to the impression that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has made on his colleagues.

I cannot tell the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that the Prime Minister will make a statement on Monday, following his visit to the south-west. Any anxieties about the decision that the House made last night can be aired in the normal way.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Question Time is being progressively destroyed by rambling questions from hon. Members and, to be blunt, rambling answers from Ministers? I do not disagree with the content of the answers, but I object to what is happening. We must stop the practice. What can my right hon. Friend do personally to stop it and to bring to the attention of Ministers the need for something to be done?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will know Madam Speaker's strong views on the matter, which she expressed again earlier this week. I am conscious of both aspects of the difficulty to which my hon. Friend refers. Ministers should try to give succinct answers, which are to the point. I am sure that he understands that business questions are a little different. I do not criticise the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) when I say that when Ministers are asked a range of questions, it is difficult not to speak at some length without being accused of not replying to a question.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we are considering a matter of discipline on both sides—hon. Members and Ministers. Both Madam Speaker and I will continue to preach that message.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We welcome the Leader of the House's assurance that, if developments occur, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will make a statement later today rather than waiting until tomorrow, when fewer hon. Members will be present.

I want to comment on the countryside crisis. I have read carefully the contributions of the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party to the National Farmers Union annual general meeting. Both contain an amazing mixture of complacency and refusal to accept responsibility. Will there be a statement and a debate in Government time on the rural crisis? Today, No. 10 pretends that everything is hunky-dory in the countryside, especially in the south-west. That is nonsense.

Will the Leader of the House assure us that there will be an early statement on the Competition Commission report into supermarket profiteering? Predatory pricing is causing huge difficulties to agriculture and creating more problems than exports.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on Northern Ireland.

I have not read all the reports of the NFU annual general meeting, although I know about some of the comments that have been made. I strongly rebut the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is complacent. Indeed, he draws attention to the many problems of the countryside, such as lack of transport and schools. However, he also emphasises that those problems have not simply arisen since May 1997 and that the Government are trying to improve matters. I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman an early statement and debate, although he will be conscious, as I am, that that matter is raised often in this slot and I point out to him that Agriculture questions are on Thursday next. I am aware of the Competition Commission report, which is under way, and shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the perhaps few occasions on which the British public can share in the enjoyment of the House is Prime Minister's Question Time? Does she share the concern of many Members that last week's was lost because of the efforts to talk out the business? Will she timetable a debate on procedure so that I and other hon. Members might discuss timetabling in the House, which the Modernisation Committee recommended in one of its earliest reports should be more and better used?

Mrs. Beckett

Certainly I am aware of the concern that is felt when the business of the House gets out of control. My hon. Friend is right to say that the Modernisation Committee made recommendations for the programming of suitable Bills and it proposes to examine where we are on that issue in the near future. He will also know that we debate procedural matters from time to time. I share his regret that last week's Prime Minister's Question Time was lost. He may not know that a Conservative Member who took part in that debate has made it clear on the record that Conservative Members took deliberate action in an effort to draw attention to their concerns about the business that we were debating and that they took that decision deliberately early on Wednesday morning.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

May we have a statement next week on the future of the Government information service? Of the 17 directors of communication who were in place when the Government came to office, only one remains—the 16th having been sacked last week by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. The politicisation of the civil service is a matter in which a free Parliament should take an active interest.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he hears. There is no suggestion whatever that the head of information at the Cabinet Office was sacked. He is leaving to take up a six-month post at the Centre for Management and Policy Studies. When I was President of the Board of Trade, the head of information at the Department of Trade and Industry decided to take early retirement—entirely voluntarily and very much to my regret—for purely personal considerations. [Interruption.] I say to Conservative Members that those personal considerations were serious. It was a great source of regret that she chose to leave, but she did so of her own volition. That is another example of the silliness of making such statements and assumptions.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I listened with interest to the Leader of the House's comments about a possible statement on General Pinochet, next week or whenever. She will have seen early-day motion 340, on correspondence between the Home Office and the lawyers for General Pinochet:

[That this House notes that on 30th January, the respected Spanish newspaper El Pais published the text of letters exchanged between the Home Office and Augusto Pinochet's lawyers from November 1999 onwards, and that these letters confirm that, despite being under no legal obligation to make such an offer, the Home Office proposed on its own initiative that Augusto Pinochet's medical details be kept secret before they received any such request from his lawyers; further notes that his lawyers informed the Home Office that their client issued them with detailed instructions about the terms under which he would submit to medical examination in November 1999 after he had allegedly suffered a major deterioration rendering him unable to prepare for trial, that, contrary to procedures adopted in previous extradition cases, the Home Office suggested General Pinochet's own British and Chilean doctors could attend his 5th January medical examination, and that the Home Office supplied him in advance with the complete list of questions they asked the independent medical team to ascertain, including queries about his ability to recall events in the 1970s; notes also that apparent loss of memory in this respect is notoriously easy to fake and that the torture offences upon which his extradition is sought occurred in the late 1980s; and therefore calls upon the Home Secretary to request that Augusto Pinochet attend a fresh medical examination at which observers for the governments of Spain, France, Belgium and Switzerland will be allowed to be present.]

The correspondence was published in last Sunday's El Pais. Will she ensure that all correspondence is made public so we can see the truth of the situation in respect of the request or otherwise for medical secrecy to surround General Pinochet's case? Will she also ensure that all the evidence and advice collected by the Crown Prosecution Service, which has been passed to the Spanish Government, is made public so that we can see the strength of the argument in respect of an appeal which would enable Pinochet to be extradited to Spain to face the trial that he so truly deserves?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I certainly cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that all the correspondence and evidence is likely to be published. All I can say is that he will know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has done everything he can to keep the House fully informed and gave a commitment to return with further information when he is in a position to do so. I shall certainly draw my hon Friend's request to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have, as a matter of urgency, a debate on the European Union's attitude to domestic politics, government and democratic elections in member states, and in particular on whether Her Majesty's Government are minded to support any intervention or interference in the democratic processes of a member state? Perhaps we could also consider whether the Government would be as interested in the domestic politics of a member state were an extreme left-wing party involved, as they apparently are—perhaps the Leader of the House will give some clarification—when the party concerned is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

I refer to important constitutional matters relating to the European Union. I am sure that the Government will want to take an early opportunity to clarify their view.

Mrs. Beckett

The Government indeed believe that it is important for all EU members to respect the provisions of the treaties. That means that they should be committed to acting against xenophobia and discrimination. Obviously, we share the concerns that other Governments have expressed.

On a lighter note, let me inform the right hon. Gentleman that, having read yesterday's Hansard, I am shocked and dismayed to discover that the views on the EU that he has just expressed are in clear contravention of the stance that he adopted yesterday. [Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman has learned since then; but, having taken a different attitude from his at the time when the British people made their choice, I will treat his remarks about Europe with much more scepticism in future.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

May we have a debate on the coal industry? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although a subsidy is available in Europe, there is doubt about whether we can obtain it? Does she realise that only 17 mines remain in Great Britain, and that every one is threatened with closure over the next 12 or 18 months?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the sad position in the mining industry and of my hon. Friend's long and hard work on behalf of the mining community. The same could be said of other Labour Members. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the House in the near future, but my hon. Friend will observe that I have announced a debate on state aid to the European coal industry to take place in Standing Committee E. He will know that other hon. Members can take part in that debate.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in a few weeks' time, the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species will consider relaxing safeguards on whaling, trade in ivory and other matters? Hon. Members have already expressed concern in parliamentary questions and in early-day motion 342, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor):

[That this House believes that strong international controls on trade in ivory are necessary to protect endangered elephants; acknowledges that the European Union's abstention on a vote to relax the ban on international ivory trade at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1997 allowed a limited resumption in ivory trade between three southern African countries and Japan; is concerned that many African and Asian elephant range states have reported an increase in elephant poaching as a result of the lifting of the ivory ban and that there have been a number of large seizures of illegal ivory in recent months; notes Labour's manifesto pledge to 'support protection for the African elephant, and oppose any resumption of the trade in ivory and elephant skins'; and therefore strongly urges the Government to fully support the restoration of a ban on international trade in ivory at the next CITES Conference of the Parties in April 2000.]

Will my right hon. Friend consider arranging a debate on the meeting, in good time for those representing the United Kingdom to be informed of hon. Members' views?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the concern felt by my hon. Friend and, indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House. I fear that I cannot provide time for a special debate on the time scale that he suggests, but he may have an opportunity to alert hon. Members to the meeting during questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions next week.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's successful speech to the National Farmers Union this week, does the Leader of the House think that she could persuade him to make a speech to the House about the countryside? The Prime Minister does not seem to understand that, without a prosperous farming and agriculture industry, we shall not have the beauty and attractiveness of the British countryside.

Mrs. Beckett

I thought it was clear from what my right hon. Friend said yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time that he is well aware of the problems that have arisen in the countryside, and is also well aware that they did not all start in May 1997.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Can the Leader of the House tell us when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will tell the House about his proposals for the BBC's digital licence fee? As she will know, the front page of today's edition of The Sun suggests that the licence fee will be increased by £15 for all subscribers, but the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has said that there should be no increase. I am sure most hon. Members agree that it is unacceptable for the BBC licence fee to increase by £15. She might also be aware of all the concerns of our constituents. Those who are aged between 60 and 74, who do not benefit from the free licence fee that the Government have announced recently, would find it a complete insult if their licence fee went up by £15.

Mrs. Beckett

I have already said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State anticipates making an announcement about the Davies report; he will make it when he is able to do so. The hon. Lady referred to the claims in The Sun today, which are, I understand, wrong. She drew attention to the concerns of those who are not eligible for the Government's concession on television licences for the over-75s, on which I have yet to hear any Conservative Member congratulate the Government.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on employment among older workers, which just happens to be the title of early-day motion 341, which was tabled yesterday in my name? It has the support of 49 hon. Members from the three main parties:

[That this House observes with regret the lower earnings of workers over the age of 50 and the smaller proportion of workers over the age of 50 who are in employment, both in comparison with other age groups and historically; notes that the proportion of employees aged over 50 is lowest amongst large public and private sector employers; recognises that many people in their late middle years wish to be usefully employed but are not; welcomes measures taken by Governments in recent years, including the New Deal for 50 plus, and acknowledges that these measures have not had time to yield results; and calls upon the Government and other employers to put more resources into the encouragement and career development of their older employees rather than into enhancements of early retirement benefits as an addition to an active strategy to discourage discrimination against older workers.]

Simply to demonstrate a point, many of the signatories are from the older end and are hard-working, capable and valued Members of the House. It is a great pity that older workers are not so valued in other sectors of employment, particularly many Government Departments.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will, I am sure, be aware that last June the Government launched a code of practice on age diversity in employment and are actively promoting the principles of the code in government. A further large-scale promotion will be launched shortly. The code's impact so far will be evaluated to find out whether further steps need to be taken to tackle age discrimination. Of course, I recognise and endorse her view that, within the great range of Members who are represented in the House, there are many whose years and experience lend weight and value to their contributions.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House—either in a debate, or to make a statement—to confirm a report in the press that, yesterday, he confirmed plans for a new class of after-care wards for elderly patients in an effort to free badly needed acute beds? My constituents cannot understand such sentiments coming from a Secretary of State who has closed a hospital in the constituency of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) and in that of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), and who has closed even more beds in Abingdon. The Government profess to want more beds for elderly care, but they are closing community hospitals.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State continues to make a number of proposals and announcements to modernise and reform the health service so that it delivers a better standard of care. I do not think there is a community in the country that is not attached to its local hospital—whatever its provision and the pattern of that provision—and does not always feel regret and concern when any proposals are made for change. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Secretary of State makes or approves proposals with the wish to see a strong, healthy national health service that survives for the future and to improve that service, contrary to proposals that might come from the Conservative party.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate on the protection of public open spaces? May I tell her by way of example of the need for such a debate that the granting of metropolitan open land status for Field End recreation ground, Roxbourne park and Roxbourne rough is, rightly, of considerable importance to my constituents in South Harrow and Rayners Lane? I therefore ask her to put some pressure on colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to agree to such a debate.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he has been running a strong local campaign on the issue and that there is much interest among his constituents. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for another debate in the Chamber on the matter in the near future, but he may be aware that on, I believe, 2 March there will be a debate in Westminster Hall, where there may be scope for such issues to be aired.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

May I reinforce what other hon. Members have said by asking the Leader of the House whether she can find time for a debate on rural affairs, so that the Prime Minister could explain to the House what he explained to the NFU annual general meeting, and particularly so that he could explain to my constituent pig farmers—who at this very moment are holding a vigil outside this place—why he is effectively sentencing them to bankruptcy by imposing charges that our European counterparts who import meat into this country do not have to face?

Mrs. Beckett

I was pleased to see in the Leader of the Opposition's remarks to the NFU annual conference an admission that I have not yet heard across the Floor of the Chamber—that agriculture's problems did not start on 1 May 1997. That is certainly true, and it is particularly true for pig farmers. Many of the regulations that they are having to meet—which we know are causing them difficulties, and on which we have given a great deal of assistance and support—were introduced by the previous Government, which the hon. Gentleman supported.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 347, on the completion of the biosafety protocol at Montreal:

[That this House welcomes the agreement reached in Montreal last week in respect of the Biosafety Protocol; congratulates the Minister for the Environment on his role in securing the support of European and non-aligned nations for the protocol; and recognises the overriding importance of the precautionary principle and environmental sustainability in all discussions relating to international trade and development.]

Many of the non-governmental organisations returning to the United Kingdom have spoken in glowing terms about the role played by the Minister for the Environment in achieving a remarkable agreement that, for the first time, puts the precautionary principle in human and environmental health alongside trade considerations in international affairs. Could we have a statement on those discussions so that the House may pay its own tributes to the Minister? Could a copy of the protocol also be placed in the Library to support the statement?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment had a considerable triumph at the Montreal conference, and I think that the whole House will welcome the fact that we have the first proper substantial international agreement on a biosafety protocol. Although I cannot find time in the near future to discuss the matter again, I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend, who I know will be grateful and will seek to inform the House, as my hon. Friend has requested.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

One understands the reasons for delays in a statement, but could the Leader of the House tell us whether the de Chastelain report will be published shortly so that people can see what he said? In the light of the Prime Minister's statement yesterday, there is deep concern that he stand by his position that no one can be in executive government without decommissioning. Mr. Ahern has said the same thing. However, because the First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), has taken a firm line, he has been criticised for trying to sabotage the agreement. Surely the House stands by democratic process.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the information that he seeks now, but I shall of course ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of the questions that he has asked so that he can consider whether he is able to answer them in the statement he expects to make later today. The hon. Gentleman will know that both my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister have been very clear and firm about what is required, and that they—like all hon. Members, I hope—are very anxious to see the peace process continue and strengthen.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

With more than 22,000 pensioners in my constituency, I am well aware that the Government have made a good start on helping pensioners, and particularly on dealing with poverty, which is all too common in the pensioner age group. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that the needs of elderly people are varied and that not all of those needs can be met by fiscal measures? Does she agree that there are leisure, education and health issues to be addressed in provision for elderly people? Does she accept that this would be a good time to have a full day's debate, in Government time, on the needs of the elderly, so that not only those issues, but financial ones, can be debated?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on the needs of the elderly, although I entirely share my hon. Friend's view—I think that the whole House will—that those needs are varied and are not solely financial. He will know how much the Government are doing, both for the health service and in education, to widen opportunities, not least for the elderly. However, I think that my hon. Friend will know that there are other opportunities which he and other hon. Members can seek, perhaps in Westminster Hall, to find time for those issues. I fear that, at present, I cannot offer him a Government day.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

How generous a mesh does the Government Whips Office use if 16 Parliamentary Private Secretaries could slip through the net last night? In anticipation of our debate next Tuesday on the Armed Forces (Discipline) Bill, how do the Government currently enforce collective responsibility?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that, although the Government prefer people to understand and recognise when collective responsibility applies, the issue that some hon. Members were discussing late last night was a matter for the House. We are all Members of the House.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester)

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the near future for a debate on low pay, particularly given the recent conversion of the Conservative party to the national minimum wage?

Mrs. Beckett

That conversion is so recent that I have not had an opportunity to explore its strength and depth. I understand from hearsay that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) has said that the Conservatives no longer propose to repeal the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. That is welcome news, although it is slightly surprising to those of us who have long observed their hostility on the matter. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has told the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that we should have an early opportunity to debate the Cabinet Office paper on sharing nature's prosperity? Is she aware that between the summer of 1995 and the end of 1999, 81 per cent. of those prescribed interferon in the Lincolnshire health authority area did not receive treatment? Is she also aware that during the first two years of this Government, the number of policemen in the county of Lincolnshire fell by 49? Are not those good examples of Lincolnshire not sharing in the prosperity of Britain?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman may not realise that he slightly confused me by appearing to talk about sharing nature's prosperity.

Mr. Hogg

The nation's.

Mrs. Beckett

I realise that now, but he confused me for a second. He has made some serious comments about concerns in Lincolnshire relating to the health authority and the police. I am aware that Lincolnshire has not always enjoyed the prosperity evident in other parts of the country. There is a great deal of work to be done there. Having been a Member of Parliament for that part of the world, I am well aware of the enormous contribution made to the difficulties of Lincolnshire by the Government of whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a member.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that last night's decision was not merely a rejection by some of us of the judgment of Her Majesty's Opposition in nominating the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to the House of Commons Commission, but an expression of concern about the way such appointments are made? Will she find time to debate that serious issue, which was prefigured in our discussion on the Braithwaite report?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not wish or intend to be drawn in depth into the subject that was discussed yesterday. My hon. Friend is right—the Braithwaite report raises issues relating to how members of the House of Commons Commission are appointed, as well as how its responsibilities are exercised. However, I am ever mindful that the House, like any other place of business or community, works best when there is mutual tolerance.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Following the right hon. Lady's refusal to grant the debate requested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), does she accept that there is an important issue of accountability at stake? The Foreign Secretary should be sent to the Commons to explain how and why Her Majesty's Government, at the behest of the presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Union, propose to interfere in the internal democratic affairs of Austria while welcoming into government apologists for terrorism—namely Sinn Fein-IRA.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not propose to follow the hon. Gentleman down either of the two paths that he has raised. I am confident that he would not wish to be thought to be saying anything that in any way confers respectability on a party that has said things which I would hope all hon. Members would find unacceptable and intolerable. Also, I would hope that even Opposition Members would have no wish to do or say anything at this point which will in any way hinder or jeopardise the peace process.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Will the right hon. Lady find Government time for a debate on the tragic plight—now nearly 40 years old—of the nuclear test veterans and their families, and couple that with a statement on the latest situation with regard to the Government's response to military and civilian veterans of the Gulf? That should take place in the near future. If she cannot provide a debate on that, could she ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement to the House about resourcing those two groups, so that they can get further clarification and put their cases through the courts in this country and in Europe?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on these matters in the near future. However, the Government have doubled expenditure on research into the illnesses experienced by Gulf war veterans. Also, these issues can be raised in the context of the defence White Paper. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have a commitment to hold a debate as soon as we are reasonably able to do so and after the Select Committee on Defence has looked at the White Paper. He will find that there is time to raise these issues without a specialist debate in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Bearing in mind the astonishing remarks made by the Prime Minister at the National Farmers Union conference—to the effect that there was no crisis in the countryside and that any trifling problems that farmers had could be dealt with by embracing the internet—could I ask the right hon. Lady to consider again the many requests that she has had for a debate on rural areas? Would not that give us the opportunity to consider the fate of sub-post offices, such as that in Liverton in my constituency run by Kay Cooper, who runs a successful enterprise, but finds that some 50 per cent. of the turnover of the shop is attributable, directly or indirectly, to the distribution of state benefits? Surely the House ought to have an opportunity to understand the devastating effect on the rural community if the Government's clandestine policy of forcing people to do their transactions through banks comes about. Bearing in mind the requests that she has had today, will the right hon. Lady consider that application for a debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister said that there is a real crisis in the countryside, but that there was much about which to be positive as well. It is by no means the case that my right hon. Friend suggested that there was no crisis, but he drew attention also to the responsibility for that position that lies on the shoulders of Opposition Members. I understand that that does not comfort the hon. Gentleman.

On sub-post offices, the hon. Gentleman may know that we had such a debate—I think only last week—in Westminster Hall. [Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—the debate was promoted by the Liberal Democrats. In the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness was able to state that the Government have continuing concern for the fate of rural post offices but wish also to see improvements in the way in which benefits are paid. The Government do not believe that the two issues are incompatible.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have announced the Second Reading of the Postal Services Bill, and I anticipate that, whatever changes are made, that will take place in the near future. This may give the hon. Gentleman and others an opportunity, and allow my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to repeat his reassurances.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Leader of the House will recall that a fortnight ago I raised the issue of the concern felt in the north-west of England about the fact that Manchester has not been given proper consideration as the site of the national athletics stadium. Since then, I have received a communication from the British Olympic Association that makes the—to me—astonishing assertion that it regards only London as an acceptable venue to be promoted for a future Olympic games bid. Does she share my concern about that? May we have a statement, or a debate in Government time, that would allow hon. Members from all regions to express their dissatisfaction that only London is now considered a worthwhile centre for the Olympic games, should they come back to the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

I can understand the hon. Gentleman's indignation and accept that it will be shared by hon. Members from many other cities. However, I understand that it is not the British Olympic Association but the International Olympic Committee which has indicated that it wishes to consider only bids from capital cities. I understand the view that many people will find that unacceptable, but if that is the context of the IOC's considerations, it will create a difficulty for others here.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

I support the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) for a debate on low pay and the minimum wage. I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that the minimum wage was the most important legislation of this Parliament, but I am sure that she will also recognise that the time is rapidly approaching when the minimum wage will need to be increased dramatically if we are successfully to continue the fight against poverty in communities such as my own in Blaenau Gwent.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I share my hon. Friend's view that the introduction of the national minimum wage was a step of enormous importance and one of the considerable achievements of the present Government. He will know, however, that it is not the only step. There have been many others, such as the creation of the working families tax credit, which do and will bring benefit to lower-income families. I cannot undertake to find time for another debate on the matter in the near future, but my hon. Friend will have noticed that we have Trade and Industry questions next week, and he may find an opportunity to raise the matter then.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 282:

[That this House congratulates those financial institutions which are continuing to offer free access to cash machines; expresses concern that the LINK cash machine network is considering the introduction of a surcharge of £1 per withdrawal from cash machines when cash machine providers already receive a LINK interchange fee; notes the crucial role played by the free cash machines in promoting financial inclusion in deprived and in rural areas; and therefore urges all financial institutions not to adopt surcharging, due to the adverse effect this will have on the consumer in general and particularly those on low incomes and those living in areas with limited cash machine coverage.]

It stands in my name and has been signed by Members from at least six other parties. Is she aware that members of the Link network, which operates the machines, are attempting to introduce a standard £1 charge per withdrawal? Is she further aware that that will affect drastically the most impoverished and socially excluded members of our community—those who traditionally draw small amounts of money at regular intervals—who will be hit by a charge of £1 per transaction? Will she please impress on the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the need for him to make an urgent statement about what he intends to do to bring that anti-competitive cartel to book?

Mrs. Beckett

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government welcome the decision of the financial institutions which continue to offer that service free of charge. We are concerned about the issues he raises, although it is a matter for the banks to resolve with their customers in the marketplace as an issue of competition. However, he will know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has commissioned a review of banking under Don Cruickshank. We anticipate that the report will cast some light on those matters and the Government will carefully consider its recommendations.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor comes to the House at an early opportunity to explain the new underlying thinking on green taxes, in the light of the U-turn on the pesticides tax and given that the climate change levy—as it is called by the Government, although it is an energy tax—is penalising efficient, energy-intensive manufacturing industry in this country?

Mrs. Beckett

We have just had Treasury questions and that was the hon. Gentleman's opportunity to raise that issue.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The replies by the Leader of the House this morning and speeches this week by senior members of the Government show a chronic misunderstanding and grotesque underestimation of the agricultural crisis. I meet farmers every weekend and I ring them from here most days of the week. They do not want subsidies; they want the regulations, costs and conditions imposed on them uniquely by the Government to be lifted. If the Prime Minister can find two days to go to the south-west, cannot he find two hours to discuss the matter in the House?

Mrs. Beckett

We fully accept, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made plain, that there is a deep and painful crisis in agriculture, although I remind the hon. Gentleman again that the Leader of the Opposition told the NFU conference: I do not pretend that my Party can wave a magic wand and all the problems will disappear overnight. The hon. Gentleman claims that the agriculture industry does not want subsidies but wants regulations and costs imposed specifically by the Government to be lifted. All I can say is that my reading of these issues—which come up weekly and include matters such as the pig industry, which he has, quite rightly, often raised in the past—is that most of them were caused by the Conservative party in government.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Social Security to explain why in January there was a double pension pay-out to about 112,000 pensioners, at a cost of about £10 million? Was that an attempt to compensate for the derisory increase of 75p in the basic state pension, or was it just another Government computer bungle? May we have a statement on why it happened, what is being done to deal with it and what steps are being taken to ensure that such bungles do not occur again?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have Social Security questions on Monday, so he can ask my right hon. Friend himself. Alternatively, he may find an opportunity to raise the issue in the debate on social security motions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May I reinforce the request from my right hon. and hon. Friends for a ministerial statement on the proposed very large increase in the television licence fee? I am sure that the Government would not want it to be thought that a motivation for that would be to put the cost of a licence beyond the reach of large numbers of electors, who would then be deprived of the spectacle every Wednesday afternoon of the Prime Minister trying to explain why he is reneging on all his election pledges.

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that I have already said that the reports are wrong. The Government do not want to deprive people of the opportunity to watch television or indeed to watch Prime Minister's Question Time on a Wednesday. The only people who have deprived them of that spectacle lately have been Conservative Members.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

That really will not do. Further to the opaque and unsatisfactory reply that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), will she arrange for time to be made available for a full day's debate to be led by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the Government's plans for the licence fee? Even if he does not intend to impose an increase six times above inflation, would not a full day's debate allow the House to tell him, and him to tell the new Director-General of the BBC, that any smash-and-grab raid on the 20 million licence payers of this country would be wholly unacceptable, especially when concerns persist about programme quality, and inefficiency remains rife in the corporation?

Mrs. Beckett

I have repeatedly made it clear that my right hon. Friend is considering the Davies report. He hopes shortly to be able to come to conclusions and has said, as have I, that he will come to the House to make those conclusions known.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Intelligence and Security Committee has submitted its annual report to the Government, who have responded. Will she ensure that some Government time is reserved in the near future to debate it in the House?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He is a distinguished member of that Committee. I cannot give him that undertaking at this moment, but I shall of course bear his request in mind.