HC Deb 10 February 2000 vol 344 cc403-16 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House 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 will be as follows:

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

Motion on the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2000.

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

Motions on the Greater London Authority (Election) Orders—the Greater London Authority Election Rules 2000 (SI 2000 No. 208) and the draft Greater London Authority (Election Expenses) Order 2000.

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

THURSDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Discipline) Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 18 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.

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

MONDAY 21 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day]. Until about seven o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Excellence in Education: the Government's Failure to Deliver" followed by a debate on the Millennium Dome. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

TUESDAY 22 FEBRUARY—Debate on the Defence White Paper on a Government motion (First Day).

The provisional business for the week following the Adjournment will include:

MONDAY 28 FEBRUARY—Conclusion of debate on the Defence White Paper on a Government motion.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 1 March, there will be a debate on European Community humanitarian and development aid in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to be reminded 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. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 1 March 2000:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: 10497/99, 10705/99, 11203/99, 12456/99, EC's Humanitarian and Development Aid. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC-34-xxxi (1998-1999).]

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business for the weeks thereafter. The House remains concerned about Northern Ireland. May we have a statement, on Monday, from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the use that he plans to make of the powers that he has been given if the current discussions are unsuccessful?

When will the Government publish the White Paper on the intergovernmental conference? Subsequent to its publication, may we have a debate, in Government time, on Labour's plans for a European army, tax harmonisation and the renunciation of the veto?

What has happened to reform of the House of Lords? The Government invited Lord Wakeham's commission to report quickly, but, since the baton was handed over to the Government, the pace has dropped from a sprint to a stroll. When will we debate the report and learn of the Government's proposals to take matters forward?

The right hon. Lady has announced a defence debate. Will the terms of that debate be sufficiently wide to embrace the critical report of the Defence Select Committee expressing alarm at the extent of overstretch in our armed forces?

Finally, reverting to my request for a St. David's debate on Wales, would it not be appropriate for the Prime Minister to open that debate and explain to the House the precise relationship between his highly centralised Administration and the devolved Welsh Assembly

Mrs. Beckett

First, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the plans of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend will, of course, keep the House informed. As to whether he will be coining to the House on Monday to make a statement, obviously the situation is fluid and I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman that now. However, I shall certainly make my right hon. Friend aware of his express request for such a statement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked when the White Paper on the intergovernmental conference will be published. I think that "soon" is the correct answer to that. However, he then made some slightly surprising observations on the European army, on tax harmonisation and on renunciation of the veto. I remind him that it was Lady Thatcher who first signed up to the notion of a European defence role. That was endorsed by her successor, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). On tax harmonisation, the Government have made it plain that we retain control of our tax affairs. On the veto, we are prepared to explore issues when there is merit for Britain's case, but we have never renounced the veto. The only person who has ever renounced Britain's veto is Lady Thatcher.

The right hon. Gentleman then asked about a debate on the Wakeham report. I have already said that we are prepared to undertake such a debate. The right hon. Gentleman may feel that he has had full opportunity to digest its contents, but I do not think that most of the rest of us have. He will remember that Lord Wakeham said that he thought it deserved mature consideration.

The report of the Defence Select Committee will certainly be part of the background to our debate on the White Paper. We had to wait for the report before scheduling the debate. I do not anticipate the debate on or around St. David's day being opened by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I hope that whoever speaks in it on behalf of the Conservatives will be able to explain their precise relationship with Plaid Cymru. I understand that the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly has said that they would be prepared to support a Government of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report commissioned by the Government on bed shortages in the NHS? It is a damning indictment of the stewardship of the Conservative Government, who allowed the situation to become so serious. Will she make time for a debate on beds in the NHS? She will be aware that a new hospital is being built in Halifax thanks to the Government, but some of us are concerned that there may not be enough beds in the plan.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I know of the enormous amount of work and expertise that she has built up on the Health Select Committee. I am aware of the report that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has published today, although I have not yet had time to study it. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it was needed because of the appalling record of the Conservatives. It considers how we should provide cover in the NHS in hospitals and outside. She may like to know that my right hon. Friend will publish a consultation paper today and the Government will respond to representations on 15 May. She is right to draw attention to the fact that we need to reassess the demand for beds in the light of changes in medical treatment.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

When will we have the long-delayed statement on the Government's response to the royal commission on long-term care for the elderly? Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the statement is made to the House, rather than to Mr. John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4? Will she undertake urgent discussions with her Cabinet colleagues—and, if necessary, in the appropriate organs of the House, such as the House of Commons Commission and the Modernisation Committee—about arrangements for making statements to the House? Is she aware that the Secretary of State for Health made a long and substantial statement on the "Today" programme this morning about the report to which the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) has just referred? No statement is being made to the House this afternoon. Indeed, we are not even being told officially about the consultation paper. Will the right hon. Lady look again at the issue? The national beds inquiry is very important, as she said just now. Why have we not had a statement today?

We got used to government by press release under the previous Administration, but things have become a great deal worse under this Administration. How can we expect the media to take us seriously and attend our debates if they can get all the information that they need from a broadcast early in the morning?

Mrs. Beckett

We had a debate on long-term care not so long ago. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's observations, but we cannot keep returning to the issue with great frequency. The hon. Gentleman also asked why there had been no statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on the report that was published this morning. Whatever the hon. Gentleman's impression may be, the figures show clearly that this Government have made far more statements in the House than did our predecessors.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the document to which he referred was a review report to the Government. My right hon. Friend was not announcing the Government's response or the policy decisions that the Government propose to take and to pursue. He was simply reporting that a review has been received and a consultation document will be issued. As for whether my right hon. Friend should have made a statement, all I can say is that if the Government were to make statements on all the issues for which statements are requested at Business questions, we would do nothing else in the House except listen to Government statements.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 381?

[That this House notes with alarm the accession to power of the Austrian Freedom Party; further notes this organisation was aided by Austria's proportional electoral system; and calls on the British Government to confirm that the first past the post electoral system is fair, accountable and tends to lead to the exclusion of extremists of all kinds.]

The motion notes the aid given to the fascist Freedom party by the wretched system of proportional representation that operates in Austria—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] May we have a debate on electoral reform so that those of us who have the odd qualm about fascists, racists and Nazis can point out the shortcomings of proportional representation? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has clearly commanded some support across the House. However, as he is aware, the Jenkins report has been published and, rest assured, no change will be made to the electoral system for this House without the specific endorsement of the British people in a referendum.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Lady will remember that last week I raised the issue of the document, "Sharing the Nation's Prosperity", and I obviously took her aback when I did so. In the past week, she will have had time to read it, and she may have read page six, which states: In broad terms, the countryside is prosperous, contented and reasonably well served". May we have an urgent debate in which we can point out the circumstances that confound that statement? In Lincolnshire, for example, we have inadequate transport, inadequate road communications, petrol charges are high, the rural post offices are closing, police numbers are falling and, as I have said many times before in the House, there are inadequate funds for the provision of important drugs such as beta interferon. We want to address those matters, and a debate in the House would be a good way of triggering that process.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has indeed raised the issue of the problems in Lincolnshire before, and I am well aware of them. They include issues such as inadequate transport and the decline of rural post offices, and they went on for decades under the Government of whom he was a distinguished and senior member. I have always thought, and frequently pointed out to the people of Lincolnshire, that their problems have much to do with their predilection for electing Tory county councils and Tory MPs.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer), may I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House whether we may have a debate on Britain's relations with Austria, so that the Opposition could make it clear that they dissociate themselves from the actions of their sister party, the Austrian People's party, which is in the Conservative International with the Tories and has entered a coalition with a Nazi? It would also be an opportunity for those of us who share my hon. Friend's views about aspects of electoral reform to point out that the problem in Austria is complex. It is caused not only by the electoral system, but by a failure to deal adequately with the Nazi collaboration and the Nazi past of that country over many years.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future, although I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that Foreign Office questions will take place on 15 February. I hear what he says about offering the Conservatives the chance to dissociate themselves from the decision taken by their sister party. It is a real source of difficulty for people across the European Union and there is much repugnance felt for the emerging attitudes of the Government of whom the fascist party is a part. I am aware that not everybody shares the view my hon. Friend expressed—or so it seemed, from the "noises off from the Opposition last week.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

While I welcome the appearance on the Order Paper of the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, and do not begrudge No. 10 the spin that this is by kind permission of the Prime Minister, does the Leader of the House realise that this conceals massive dilatoriness and incompetence on the part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? I advised the Department in January 1998 that the conditions of bipartisan support existed that would enable the Bill to go before a Second Reading Committee which, two years later, the Government have found time to do.

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's long support and strong efforts on behalf of what I entirely agree is a reasonable and sensible measure. However, it is not merely a matter, as he says, of the Government being unwilling or unable to deal with the matter with dispatch and efficiency. I rather think that in saying—quite correctly—that the matter generally has much cross-party support, he might have omitted from that support his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

My right hon. Friend may be aware that yesterday a number of e-businesses in the United States had to shut down because of being flooded by e-mails. Given that the Government published the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill yesterday, can she allow time before Second Reading for the Home Office to investigate the implications of that action?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an extremely interesting point. I am aware of the events to which he refers. He will note that we have a Home Office Minister present who will have heard his observations. I cannot undertake that the Home Office will be able to produce a special response to that event before the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill has its Second Reading, but I can tell my hon. Friend that that sort of event is continually under review.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I am sorry, Madam Speaker, that I was not able to catch your eye in Agriculture questions, because the subject of the debate that I would like to ask the Leader of the House to grant concerns the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I have here two letters, the first of which is from the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Franz Fischler, dated 22 December, in which he says: the Commission has recognised the BSE crisis as an exceptional occurrence, and has authorized a number of aid measures to mitigate the effects of the crisis, including aids for the pig sector. The other letter is from a firm of solicitors acting on behalf of the British pig industry support group, in which they seek the grant of an 'exceptional occurrence' and/or restructuring state aid to the pig industry". I tabled a question on 27 January; I received a reply on 7 February. My question to the Minister was— [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I am rather pleased that the hon. Gentleman did not catch my eye during Question Time, otherwise I might have had to ask him to sit down. I think that the Leader of the House has the gist of what he is seeking, which is a major debate on these issues. Is that right?

Mr. Gill

May I repeat my question very briefly, Madam Speaker?

Madam Speaker


Mr. Gill

My question to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was: what representations he has received regarding EU grants for exceptional occurrences within the pig industry The answer was: We have received no representations and there are no such EU grants."—[Official Report, 1 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 78W.] This matter needs to be cleared up in a debate.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. If I dare to disagree mildly with you, Madam Speaker, I am slightly sorry that he did not catch your eye, because he might have found someone from MAFF who was in a position to reply to his points. However, I will certainly undertake to draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I inform my right hon. Friend that I have digested Wakeham? I know that Lord Wakeham wants the life peers to continue down in the other place until they drop. Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to reflect on the implications of my early-day motion 376 on the life expectancy of life peers?

[That this House notes the recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords which allows for existing life peers to remain in the Upper House should they so wish; further notes that the average age of male life peers is around 70 years compared with 64 years for women; calculates that the expected number of life peers dying within 11 years is around 49 per cent, of the 543 life peers (out of 550) whose dates of birth are readily available; postulates that it would be around 20 years before this expected number reached three quarters of existing life peers and 29 years before this figure reached 90 per cent.; considers it inappropriate for appointed peers to serve in Parliament long into the 21st century; recognises that appointment is no substitute for election; and calls for a wholly elected Upper House of 100 members.]

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that according to my calculations, half of them will be dead within 11 years; 75 per cent, of them will be dead within 20 years; 90 per cent, of them will be dead within 29 years, but 10 per cent, will still be alive and kicking well into the next century? [Interruption.] I meant this century.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not being numerate at the moment. He had better put his question.

Mr. Prentice

Everyone knows what I meant, Madam Speaker.

May I add my Back-Bench voice to the shadow Leader of the House's call for an early debate on Wakeham?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's interesting observations and statistics, which the House will study closely when they appear in Hansard. I take note of his point, but also note that this is the first occasion, of which I am aware, on which my hon. Friend has agreed with something said by the Conservatives.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In reply to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), who requested a debate next week on Austria, the Leader of the House rightly pointed out that there will be Foreign Office questions soon. However, do we not need a much wider debate than that on foreign affairs and on the incongruity of Labour policy? The Government are forbidding high-level visits not only to Austria, but to Chile—another good friend of this country. On the other hand, a succession of high-level dignitaries have gone to Cuba, China and other countries with nefarious regimes. The ethical foreign policy is in tatters and our interests are being damaged. May we have an early debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that our policy on Austria is not merely that of the Labour party, but of all the Governments of the European Union. [Interruption.] I know that that fact may be unwelcome to the hon. Gentleman, and he may consider it a recommendation against the policy. However, Governments across Europe are deeply concerned by events in Austria and have taken the same action as the British Government.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Thank you for calling me, Madam Speaker, as I was so excited by the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that I nearly forgot to stand up.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that three weeks ago I referred to rumblings on the Government Back Benches about the freezing of the minimum wage? Does she accept that those rumblings have grown? Indeed, the rumbling that took place in Committee Room 7 last night may well have reached the Chamber by now. Does she agree that it is vital to have an early statement about a policy that seems to be leading to a decline in the real standards of living of some of the poorest people in our country? Will she ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make an early statement?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I am aware of the concern that has been expressed. I am also aware of the popularity of the national minimum wage. So popular is it, indeed, that the Conservatives have decided that they cannot afford to continue to say that they will scrap it. May I mention a slight misapprehension? The Low Pay Commission's recommendation about the minimum wage was intended to be implemented on the date on which it actually came into force. It was not set a year early, and was not, therefore, already out of date by the time it came into force.

Some debates on the matter have overlooked the fact that the timing of the rate's setting was explicitly understood. However, I fully recognise that some people believe that the rate should be increased. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is also aware of that view.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Will the right hon. Lady find time, not too distant from the time of the defence debate, for the House to discuss the Government's response to changes in the Western European Union, the only organisation in which European countries not in NATO may discuss defence matters? Do the Government take a positive stance one way or the other—for or against—on our future parliamentary representation at the WEU? Would she also find time to discuss the future relationship of Parliament with the Council of Europe and with NATO? All three institutions require review, and all three deserve some of the Chamber's time for a debate on our reaction to proposed changes.

Mrs. Beckett

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman raises a serious point; the changes that are afoot in all those bodies are worthy of consideration. However, although those matters are important and serious, it would probably be difficult to find time for them on the Floor of the House because the pressure on business in the Chamber is always so great. The hon. Gentleman might consider whether it would pay him and those who take a special interest in these matters to pursue them in a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I know that there has been criticism from Conservative Members in the Chamber today, and outside it, about the cancellation of the visit to Austria for the trade fair in May by a high-level person. Bearing in mind that the Freedom party is led by a person who recently described SS troops as decent people who have character, will my right hon. Friend give further consideration to holding a debate on Britain's relations with Austria?

In view of the fact that some of the criticism comes from those Conservative Members who are, first and foremost, defenders of Pinochet, should we not demonstrate that it is not only Pinochet, but characters who are willing to glorify the Nazis, whom the Tories consider worthy of attention and approval?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand that some Conservative Members have criticised the decision that has been made, and have expressed unhappiness about the stance taken over developments in Austria. I also recognise how abhorrent most of us will find many of the statements that are being made by the Austrian party to which my hon. Friend refers.

However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter, although the temptation to expose the inadequacies and divisions of the Conservative party is always strong.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the right hon. Lady consider a further debate on the future of sub-post offices? Does she realise that, although many debates have been held in the Chamber, in Opposition time, and in Westminster Hall, we have never received a straight answer to the question that we put so many times? Why, despite Government assurances, does the literature that they and their agencies distribute lead people to assume that, after 2003, they will have no choice? We need a debate so that Ministers can say, once and for all, that they are encouraging people to move over to banks, or that they will change the literature that gives people that impression? We need an urgent debate on that matter— we need it next week.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid I cannot undertake to find time for the debate that the hon. Gentleman requests. Ministers have repeatedly made it clear that, of course, people will continue to have the choice to draw their benefits as they do at present. I draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention the fact that, on Tuesday, the Postal Services Bill will receive its Second Reading.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

When are we likely to have a debate on public transport substitution? With the arrival of the tramlink in Croydon, there are fears that the 130 bus will be cut—[Laughter.]—It is an important issue. Furthermore, in relation to public transport in Croydon, we need to consider guidance on retail car parking for in-town redevelopment, such as limits on car parking and environmental impacts. Might Third Reading of the Transport Bill provide an opportunity for that?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to raise issues of concern in his constituency at Business questions— many hon. Members do so. I am aware—as are many Members—that Croydon has had transport problems for a long time. They are the result—at least in part—of the Conservative legacy. I hope that my hon. Friend will use opportunities such as debates on the Transport Bill to raise those issues. It is a welcome change for an hon. Member to realise that such debates provide those opportunities, rather than to call for special debates.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an urgent debate on the subject of Mr. Romano Prodi—that well-known, intimate friend and protegee of the Prime Minister? Mr. Prodi seems to be given to making increasingly outlandish statements about the future of Europe. It would be of great importance to the House and to the people of this country if we knew much more about the Prime Minister's reaction to the statements of his friend and protegee—in whom the right hon. Gentleman places such trust and whom he so much admires—so that we can know whether the Government support Mr. Prodi's vision of the future of Europe and of the relationship between this country and Europe. Surely, that matter is of the greatest importance and urgency—before Mr. Prodi gets completely out of hand and takes the Prime Minister with him.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I see no need for a special debate, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister always makes plain his view on these matters. Secondly, I am sorry to have to tell the right hon. Gentleman, as I reminded him last week, that I fear I have ceased to take his bona fides on this matter seriously since I discovered that in 1975, when I was warning people of precisely what he is now complaining of, he was campaigning for the other side.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

I note that, so far, no date has been set for the Second Reading of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, which of course ratifies the additional protocol to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It has passed through all its stages in the other place. Last year, it received support from both sides of the House with the exception of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

I would suggest that it is especially important that the Bill passes through all its stages in the House and receives Royal Assent before the end of March, because an international review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is being held in New York at the beginning of April, and it is very important that the United Kingdom Minister at those talks is able to carry forward the view of the House that we need to take further measures to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are hunted out in any country in this world.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has taken a very close interest in, and done a great deal of work on that issue. He is right that the cause that he describes is important not only to this country and to our national well-being, but to international well-being. I hope that perhaps there will be an outbreak of discipline and common sense on the Opposition Benches and that perhaps such a Bill will pass, but, as my hon. Friend knows, that remains to be seen.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Will the right hon. Lady arrange an urgent debate on the shambles that the Prime Minister has made of the United Kingdom constitution? We see an utter shambles in Wales as the Welsh reject the Prime Minister's poodle; we see the prospect of a similar thing happening shortly to the First Minister in Scotland; and—without even mentioning Northern Ireland—we see the shambles that is now emerging from the other place, with uncompleted constitutional reform and even that Chamber, with the Prime Minister's placemen, rejecting the Prime Minister's policies. We have half-hearted constitutional reform in this Chamber.

When can we obtain an early debate, so that we may point out to the right hon. Lady that the latest polls show that the majority of the people of this country believe that the Government are now damaging the integrity of the United Kingdom, rather than making it more inclusive?

Mrs. Beckett

Oh, dear, dear—I fear that the right hon. Gentleman was not listening with his usual close attention a few minutes earlier, or else he would have raised a different matter. It is pointless for any Conservative Member to talk about the shambles of policy on issues such as devolution when, despite the fact that members of the Conservative party opposed devolution because they said that it would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, they are now proposing to support Plaid Cymru, which calls for exactly that, in the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Is the Leader of the House yet in a position to say when the Government will grant the debates that were recommended by the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which called for debates in both Houses to fix the numbers of special advisers that the Government can employ? Is that not especially important in the light of today's news that the number of staff employed at Downing street has increased by 300 per cent, since the last election, and especially as we discovered yesterday that even with three times as many people at Downing street, they still cannot tell the Prime Minister what is going on?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman raised that point last week. I am aware of the report. It may come before the House at some point, although it will not be next week. However, I believe that the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party make something of an error in continuing to draw attention to that point and to say that there are now more advisers than were enjoyed by the previous Government. Given the previous Government's catastrophic record and the general election result, surely that is not an argument in their favour.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Following the humiliating circumstances of the resignation of the First Secretary in Wales yesterday, has the right hon. Lady had any approach by the Secretary of State for Wales to make a statement to the House? I understand that he does a two-day week and therefore has plenty of time available. Has she had any suggestions from the Government that the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Scotland should do a job share and merely come here occasionally to speak on the subject of Wales or Scotland?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is overlooking the folly of the argument pursued by Conservative Members, in that they are now apparently prepared to countenance a party that advocates the break-up of the United Kingdom. He is also overlooking the pattern of events in the Welsh Assembly—on occasions, with the support of the Conservative party, it has had a vote of confidence once in every 17 sitting days. How the Welsh Assembly conducts its business is entirely a matter for it, but that suggests to me that it might do more constructive things.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Given the Government's dramatic reduction in police numbers—by 1,700 since they came to power, including a further 27 in Cheshire in just the past 10 months—and given that the Home Secretary is here to listen to my point, will the Leader of the House make time for a full-day's debate on how the Government have let down my constituents in Cheshire and the people in this country, whose fears are rising in direct proportion to the reduction in police numbers that has happened under this Government? Will the Home Secretary write to every hon. Member to tell us how that is affecting our constituents?

Mrs. Beckett

As a result of the changes made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, police numbers in Cheshire will rise by an additional 86 over the next two or three years. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that police numbers have fallen over recent years. They fell under the party which he supports, and which gave freedom to chief police officers to make decisions on how they spend their budgets and to what degree they spent them on police numbers. It is no good Conservative Members complaining about the outcome.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

This morning we learned that the Prime Minister had had long, friendly and constructive conversations with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), even though the Prime Minister used the whole Millbank team to block the hon. Gentleman's progress to becoming First Secretary of the Welsh Assembly. We need the Prime Minister to come here to make a statement on the muddle that he has got himself and the country into with the devolutionary experiments. We would also learn how soon he intends to have jolly and friendly conversations with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone).

Mrs. Beckett

The Prime Minister has much better things to do with his time.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Could we have an early debate on the financing of the BBC? I am sure that all hon. Members realise that the two channels of the BBC are the only ones, out of the hundreds available, that are funded through a compulsory licence fee. Is the BBC's public service remit being fulfilled when the only farmers who could be found to say anything nice on the BBC about Government policy were the fictional farmers, Pat and Tony Archer? Although Greg Dyke is willing to ensure that positive spins are put on Government policy, that does not justify continuing to have a compulsory licence fee.

Mrs. Beckett

That was a rather convoluted way of asking a question about agriculture. Yes, of course the BBC has a public service remit, which it carries out. As for the notion that it is only on "The Archers" that anyone can ever be heard to say anything in favour of Government policy on agriculture or against that of the Conservative party, all I can say is that I have frequently heard members of the National Farmers Union doing precisely that.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that there is now great interest on both sides of the House in having a debate on the Government's constitutional reform programme? That would give us an opportunity to reflect on the successes or otherwise of the devolution settlement in Wales and in Scotland, on the interesting impact of the reforms in the House of Lords, and on the interesting impact of proportional representation. Most importantly, it would give the right hon. Lady and the Government the opportunity to let the House and the country know what further reforms they have in mind.

Mrs. Beckett

Given the repeated propensity of Conservative Members to raise this matter—despite the fact that I have already pointed out to them that they now say that they might support a Government containing Plaid Cymru, which is in favour of the break-up of the United Kingdom—it is a mistake for them to call for such a debate. However tempting the prospect is of a debate that would expose the shambles and misjudgment of Conservative party policy on this matter, I fear that I cannot undertake to provide time for one.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The right hon. Lady has disappointed everyone in the House with her response to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). Surely she is confusing vacancies in the police with actual numbers. Is she not aware that since her Government came to office, police numbers have dropped by 1,700, and a third of those losses have occurred in the past six months? Is she not slightly embarrassed that when the Home Secretary promised 3,000 more officers, the immediate reaction of 632 long-serving officers was to leave the force? Does she agree with Mr. Glen Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, when he says: The bottom line … is that they give with one hand and take away with the other."?

Madam Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman asking for a debate? I did not hear him do so.

Mr. Pickles

Yes, I am indeed asking for a debate— for a whole day, maybe two.

Madam Speaker

I want to have it on the record.

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman, as I have already reminded the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and others, that police numbers fell under the Government whom they supported. The budget that we pursued for the first couple of years was the one that they put in place, so if they are complaining about the consequences of that budget, they are complaining about actions that they supported.

A remarkably consistent feature of this exciting and enjoyable episode in the House this week is that Conservative Members are continually calling for increased spending on a whole range of policies, while claiming to be in favour of cuts in public spending. It is time that they made up their minds.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am sure that it was only by an accidental oversight that the Leader of the House failed to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on being named yesterday Opposition Member of Parliament of the year.

Can we have an urgent full-day's debate, in Government time, on the crucial question of political bias in television programmes in general and those of the BBC in particular? Does not the right hon. Lady agree that such a debate would be especially timely in the light of yesterday's article in the Financial Times by Mr. Christopher Dunkley, former host of the BBC's "Feedback" programme, who has spilt the beans and said that the BBC is biased in favour of the left and against the right, in direct defiance of its charter obligations? Do we not need an urgent debate about that important matter?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for informing me of the success of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth); I was not aware of it, and indeed I congratulate him on it.

I have not seen the article to which the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) refers, and I am not acquainted with Mr. Christopher Dunkley, but he does not sound like an unbiased, objective individual.