HC Deb 17 February 2000 vol 344 cc1103-17 12.31 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 will be as follows:

MONDAY 21 FEBRUARY—Opposition day [5th Allotted Day]. Until about 7 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 business for the week following the Adjournment will be:

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

Third Reading of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

TUESDAY 29 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill.

WEDNESDAY 1 MARCH—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 2 MARCH—Debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 3 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The business for Monday 6 March will be:

MONDAY 6 MARCH—Second Reading of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill.

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

I should like to give the House advance notice of business to be taken in Westminster Hall for the remainder of March.

THURSDAY 9 MARCH—Debate entitled 'Work/Life Balance'.

THURSDAY 16 MARCH—Debate on the Sixth Report from the Public Administration Committee Session 1998–1999 on Quangos.

THURSDAY 23 MARCH—Debate on Pensions Reform.

THURSDAY 30 MARCH—Debate on the Seventh Report from the International Development Committee, Session 1998–1999, on Women and Development.

The House may also wish to know that following discussions through the usual channels, it was thought to be for the general convenience that business on Tuesday 22 February should be taken on the pattern of sittings employed on Thursdays. Business will therefore commence at 11.30 am.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business, and for that for the following week.

On Tuesday, the House heard two important statements, which require debate in Government time. The first was on the White Paper on the intergovernmental conference, and the second was on the Waterhouse report on child abuse. Can the right hon. Lady confirm that she will find time for those debates in the near future?

On Monday next, the Government face defeat in another place on free mailshots for candidates in the London mayoral election, an issue on which they have few friends. If they are defeated, can the House have a statement on their plans, as time is beginning to run out?

I welcome the two-day defence debate. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that we shall also have the traditional three separate debates on defence matters?

When can we expect an announcement on the BBC licence fee? The Government have had the Davies committee's report for more than seven months, but there is still no sign of a decision.

Finally, next Tuesday marks the anniversary of the Prime Minister's statement to the House on the national changeover plan. Will he come to the House then to tell us the Government's estimate of the costs of changeover, and how it compares with the £36 billion estimated in today's newspapers?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman asked for debates on the IGC and the Waterhouse report. On the IGC, he knows that such matters do not move at break-neck speed, so I take heed of his observation. We shall look for an opportunity to find a slot in which those matters can be aired—although such an opportunity might not be exclusive to the IGC.

The Government realise that there is great interest in the Waterhouse report on both sides of the House. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, time for debate on the Floor is at a premium, but we may be able to find time for an initial debate in Westminster Hall—we could explore that.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the possibility of a Government defeat in another place. It is interesting that he makes that point. If the Government are defeated, we shall have to take account of that and consider whether to make a statement to the House. However, it is a bizarre proceeding when a House in which not one person is elected presumes to make a judgment as to how an election should be run.

It is even more bizarre because the cost of a free mailshot, in what is—with respect to this great metropolis—a local election, would be about £15 million. I understand that that would be the cost of employing another 500 or 600 police officers. The people of London would probably think that Opposition parties had strange priorities if they chose to spend public money in that way. Standing would be a good investment for any candidate—another factor that a responsible Opposition might take into account—because, for a few thousand pounds, that person would get a free mailshot to every home in London.

It is bizarre that, for the first time since 1968—when, by a remarkable coincidence, there was also a Labour Government—the House of Lords might choose to flex its muscles in that way. I hope that it will have more sense than to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we would hold the three separate day defence debates. We have given an undertaking that those debates will be scheduled in due course; we stand by that. I cannot tell him when an announcement on the licence fee will be made, although it will not be next week.

I have not read the stories about the national changeover plan to which he referred, so I am unable to assess their validity. I do not anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will rush to the House on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

May we have a debate on genetically modified foods and producer liabilities? I ask that for two reasons. First, I have received a letter from NFU Mutual Insurance to an east midlands farmer, Peter Lundgren, pointing out that he and other farmers are not insured for the loss of value of farm land on the open market resulting from the growing of GM crops; nor are organic farmers covered for the loss of GM status. No farmers will be covered for the potential loss of crops through cross-pollination.

Secondly, the matter needs to be debated urgently because I understand that Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials are advising the Government to accept the registration of GM crops on the European common register. That would invalidate all our constraints on field and farm trials and may saddle farming communities with liabilities and bankruptcies, which would be disastrous for everyone concerned.

Mrs. Beckett

I know of my hon. Friend's long interest in that matter. I am not aware of the advice given by MAFF officials to their Ministers—let alone the decisions that they may take. He raises a serious issue and although I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate, I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I endorse the request for an urgent statement on the digital licence supplementary fee. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) was promised a statement by the end of last year—we are now two months into this year.

I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to two important, topical Select Committee reports which were published this morning and on which we cannot wait for the usual long-delayed response from the Government. The first is from the Welsh Affairs Committee on European structural funds and strongly endorses the case put by the Opposition parties in Cardiff that a statement on matched funding must be made urgently by the Government. That is, of course, relevant to the situation in Cardiff. May we have that urgent statement?

May I also ask the Leader of the House—this is very topical—for an urgent statement on the future of National Air Traffic Services on which the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs has, this morning, published a damning report that is a complete indictment of the Government's policy? The Committee says: The current proposal for a public-private partnership for NATS is, in our view, the worst of all the possible options It also points out that we have noted the Government's paltry and, at times disingenuous, reasons for dismissing the alternative models. I draw attention to the fact that there is an increasing view on both sides of the House that the way in which the Government deal with Select Committee reports is far from satisfactory. This case is a litmus test of the Government's attitude to Select Committees and, not least, to the Labour majority on this Committee.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not recall that the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) had extracted the undertaking to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, I shall draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I am always wary of promising anything. That is clearly a good rule to follow.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the reports published by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. On the first, the Government, of course, recognise the importance of European Union structural funds. However, I do not share in any way the hon. Gentleman's view that the concern that led representatives of the Liberal Democrats and others to eject recently the First Secretary in Wales was well founded. If it had not been for the Government's efforts, there would not have been any objective 1 funds to match in the first place. It is ludicrous that that pretext was used to achieve, in my opinion, entirely other ends. There is no doubt about the Government's firm commitment—in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom—on structural funds. We would not have worked so hard to negotiate them had that not been the case.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Select Committee report on the future of NATS. As he will appreciate, the report is based on evidence taken before the discussions that are under way in the Standing Committee on the Transport Bill. In due course, the Bill will be reported to the House and there will be many opportunities to pursue the issue then.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Government's announcement this week for clear targets to reduce car crime and burglary? The targets have been very much welcomed in my constituency because the audit carried out by the local police and local authority has identified those two problems as being of particular concern to my constituents. Would not such a debate provide an excellent opportunity to highlight the steps that the Government have taken to cut crime and to expose the record of the previous Tory Administration, under whom crime doubled and the number of criminals brought to book fell by a third?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is correct and I recognise the temptation that would be offered by a debate that would expose the record of the previous Government, under whom crime doubled. That would enable us to point out the steps that the Government have taken to set targets for the reduction in the number of crimes that cause particular concern and make people feel insecure. In some ways, such insecurity is out of all proportion to the impact of an individual occurrence. The debate would also give us an opportunity to trumpet the increase in police numbers that will take place under this Government. I believe that it will be more than 100 in the area that my hon. Friend represents.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have to judge their priorities firmly. Much though it is attractive to use opportunities to expose the Conservative party's record, I fear that this is another one that we shall have to pass up.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Given that the Prime Minister has participated in only 5 per cent. of the Divisions in the House in this Session, we would hardly expect him to rush here to make a statement on Tuesday or any other day. The Leader of the House will be aware that, when the Prime Minister published the national handover plan a year ago, he promised to update the House on its progress on its first anniversary. Was this a meaningful promise from the Prime Minister or was it, like his health service spending plans, merely an aspiration?

Madam Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman asking for a debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand, Madam Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman is in fact asking for a statement. As for his introductory remarks, I think that he has forgotten, or does not want to know, that the Prime Minister has spent more time in the House at Prime Minister's Question Time and answered more questions than did his predecessor. [Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members hate it, but those are the facts. My right hon. Friend has also given more statements on matters such as Northern Ireland, Iraq and international meetings than did his predecessor. There is no truth whatever in the continual allegations of Conservative Members that the Prime Minister is reluctant to come here. Indeed, I see every sign that he enjoys Prime Minister's Question Time, and he has good reason to do so.

I do not recall a specific commitment to come to the House on the anniversary of that statement, and if that fell, as anniversaries sometimes do, on a non-sitting day, no one would be able to assume such a commitment. I shall certainly draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the Opposition are taking such an interest in the changeover plan; I thought that they were spending all their time resisting the notion of a changeover.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May we have a statement on the resignation on matters of principle and policy, particularly towards the children of Iraq, by the distinguished international civil servant, Mrs. Jutta Burghardt? She is the third international civil servant who has been in Baghdad, seen the situation at first hand and then decided to resign, following the Irishman, Denis Halliday, and another German, Hans von Sponeck. When such people, who are close to the problem, resign on matters of principle, ought there not to be some explanation from the Government and the feeling that policy should be reconsidered?

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House knows of my hon. Friend's deep interest and concern in these matters and his sympathy for those who are affected by the problems that have arisen in Iraq as a result, of course, of the actions of the Iraqi Government.

As to whether we should seek a statement in the House, the lady is, as my hon. Friend rightly says, an international civil servant. She is an employee not of the Government, but of the United Nations, and the policy to which she objects says that Iraq must face sanctions unless it complies with international demands to disarms. That is an international policy supported by many Governments.

There is, mapped out in resolution 1284, a clear path out of sanctions for Iraq and its people, if only the Iraqi Government would take it. Although I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's concern, which I presume also lies behind the resignation, the answer is in the hands of the Iraqi Government.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

It is now some four months since the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House that he would give those over 75 a television licence at the expense of the taxpayer. We were lead to believe initially that it was to be the responsibility of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It then became apparent that the Department of Social Security was having problems with the computer programme, and for that reason details of the scheme have not been announced.

I was astonished to learn by letter from a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport this week that this is now a matter for TV licensing and the BBC and that, incredibly, the Department of Social Security is now deciding whether to make its computer information available to the BBC, so that it can work out the programme. The previous system was bad, but this is a shambles. Can we have a full debate on the concessionary television licence so that my elderly constituents, who are distressed and concerned, can find out who is responsible and when they will get the licence that they have been promised?

Mrs. Beckett

If the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back he will recall that the Government undertook to seek to make such licences available from the autumn, and that remains our intention. With deep respect to him and without any disrespect to his constituents, frankly I doubt whether they will have the slightest interest in the mechanism by which the policy is delivered, as long as it is delivered, and that remains the Government's intention. He said that the policy is "at the expense of taxpayers", so I presume from that phrase that he opposes the idea of free TV licences.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on education funding, covering the passporting of money by local education authorities to schools and the inequity in education funding between different parts of the country? Schools in Nottinghamshire receive considerably less per pupil than schools in other parts of the country.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for another debate on the matter. As my hon. Friend knows, we have just had Education questions, and I am sure that he will take every opportunity to raise the concerns that affect his constituents. I believe that Nottinghamshire will benefit from receiving about £15 million from the extra money that the Government are making available. I understand his concern, which is felt by Members on both sides of the House, if he believes that that is not as fair a share as it should be. However, I offer him the consolation that this is extra money, which Nottinghamshire would not have received under a Conservative Government.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Given the way in which matters have developed in Northern Ireland over the past week, can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that we can at least question him on what is going on there, or else can we have a debate?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend is, and always has been, very willing and prepared to come to the House when he has something of substance to report, particularly when he believes that it would be helpful to keep the House informed. Equally, I am positive that the hon. Gentleman, like all hon. Members, would not wish to press for a statement at a time when the position may be less than clear and when it might not be wholly helpful to the peace process for my right hon. Friend to be making statements about a moving position. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend will of course keep the House informed as and when he can.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on rogue companies? The operations of such companies have been brought to my attention by good and decent businesses in my Stourbridge constituency, which includes the manufacturing areas of Quarry Bank, Cradley and Lye. I refer to businesses that operate for a while, go into liquidation—leaving huge unpaid bills all over the place—and start up again a matter of days later, often in the same premises, sometimes with the same staff, the same furniture and even the same telephone number. When I asked the companies that approached me how many examples they had, they said, "It happens all over the country. How many do you want?" We are talking about hundreds and hundreds of rogue companies, and it is a very important issue.

Mrs. Beckett

I know, even from before the general election, of the close relationship that my hon. Friend enjoys with the business community in her area, and how well respected she is by it. Having met her in such company, I understand that she has strong links with its members in that the information that they have given her represents the position as they find it. She describes a problem that is very difficult to handle—successive Governments have grappled with it. Equally, I accept that it causes real problems for people who are genuinely enterprising and are trying to make a success of business on fair and reasonable terms. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on this in the House, but I draw to her attention the opportunities that the extra sittings in Westminster Hall present. That is something that many hon. Members in all parties might wish to pursue.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Can we have an early debate about the way in which the Government are undermining the independent role of regulators? The appalling instance yesterday, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer intervened and overrode the Director General of Oftel by making a premature announcement in relation to new regulatory roles affecting the internet, wiped billions of pounds off the value of British Telecom shares and undermined the role of the independent regulator. That followed quickly upon the action of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in undermining the Director General of Fair Trading by suggesting that we were all suffering from rip-off Britain and having to pay very much higher supermarket prices than was reasonable. We now find that that was totally untrue and served only to undermine the value of the shares of leading supermarkets and make them more vulnerable to takeover. Is that not an appalling way to interfere with British business?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but he should come to business questions more often. If he did, he would find that for a happy three quarters of an hour or so, we have a succession of requests from his right hon. and hon. Friends for Ministers to make statements and pronouncements on a range of matters. It would go down badly with most of them if I said repeatedly that in each case, it was a matter for the regulator. "I want the Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and answer" is what they would say. I suggest that the Opposition get their act together and decide what they want.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I hear whispers that the countryside Bill will not be published this month. Is that true? If it is not to be published, who is holding it back?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot answer my hon. Friend off the cuff. It is possible that publication has slipped by a day or two, but if that proves to be the case, I advise him not to read anything deeply sinister into it.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The Leader of the House will be familiar with the concerns expressed by the British Medical Association about the Government's habit of announcing funds for the NHS, then re-announcing the same funds several times. The BMA stated in a letter to the Prime Minister—which, I must tell the right hon. Lady, has remained unanswered—that that makes it very difficult to deliver a stable service. Will she therefore give a commitment that in any announcements of funding that are made in the next week, real extra funding will be marked with an asterisk, and additional funding with a "B" for bogus, or even an "L" for something unparliamentary? That would allow hon. Members to determine whether it was real extra money or simply smoke and mirrors.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of what the BMA wrote to the Prime Minister. Of course the BMA is an effective, experienced and rightly respected group, which is expert, rightly, at lobbying for extra funds for the health service. I take with a pinch of salt the notion that it disrupts the stability of planning when announcements are made. Those who run the health service are well aware of what funds are being made available, the time scale and so on, and I doubt whether they pay much attention to the timing of press notices.

As to real extra funding, a great deal of hypocritical nonsense is spoken about that. There is real extra money—substantial extra money—for the health service, and every single penny that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announces as extra is extra, over and above the plans that were in place when the party that the hon. Gentleman supported was in office.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I join the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) in asking for a debate on matters relating to the internet? What the Chancellor said yesterday is supported by most of my constituents and most of Britain, who believe that British Telecom is effectively running a racket on the internet, denying millions of people access and should be stopped in its tracks.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that there is enormous interest in how we can best make use of the opportunities presented by the internet, in e-commerce, in modernising government and in various other areas. I am pleased to hear that, as I had hoped, the Chancellor's announcement has gained a widespread welcome.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the Audit Commission report on the appalling tragedy of the large number of people who are dying in our hospitals through diseases contracted in hospital? That is illustrated by the sad experience of my constituent, the late Mr. Ken Lynch. He died tragically after going into hospital suffering from an asthma attack, and subsequently being attacked by a psychiatric patient in the hospital, which resulted in him remaining in hospital for several weeks, during which time he contracted pseudomonas, from which he died, sadly, two weeks ago.

In reply to a question on the matter, it was stated that pseudomonas was not a notifiable disease, so deaths from that hospital-contracted illness are never reported as such. There must be a debate on this tragedy, of which the whole country should be ashamed. The sooner we have it, the better.

Mrs. Beckett

The House will understand and share the hon. Gentleman's concern and will want to extend its sympathy to his constituent's family. As I believe the heath service's chief executive said this morning, this is a growing problem throughout the world, which is increasingly being recognised and tackled. Sadly, not all infections are preventable, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have issued new standards on infection control against which NHS trusts must monitor their performance. I recognise that he is concerned about the monitoring of a specific disease, but I am sure that he will accept that it is the overall picture that is important. Compliance will be monitored against those standards by the Audit Commission and the Commission for Health Improvement, so we are putting in place structures that we hope will enable the problem to be tackled. All will recognise that it is a problem that we must do our utmost to overcome.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Has my right hon. Friend seen this morning's press reports suggesting that a police report will recommend to the Government the reclassification of the killer drug ecstasy—effectively, a downgrading of that drug? Will not that send all the wrong messages to susceptible young people when we should be doing everything possible to discourage them from taking this drug, no matter how widely used it is reported to be? I am thinking of young people, such as my constituent, John Hoskins, a former British soldier, who tragically received poisonous ecstasy in a nightclub in the Medway towns last year. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a Home Office Minister to make an early statement declaring our position to be unchanged and stating clearly that we will fight the war on drugs without any softening of our approach?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not seen the report to which my hon. Friend refers, nor am I aware whether such observations will be made to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. My hon. Friend is right to express concern, and I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to his remarks. My hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister takes a close personal interest in this area of policy and met Keith Hellawell earlier this week. I hope that he will also know that figures show that the number of young people experimenting with drugs has fallen recently, which all will find encouraging, although there will inevitably from time to time be tragedies. Again, the House will sympathise with the family of the young man to whom my hon. Friend referred. I cannot promise an early debate on the matter, but I assure him that the Government take the matter seriously, and I will draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

May we have an early debate on the difference between the rhetoric and the reality of the Government's health care provisions, particularly as it affects my constituents in south Shropshire and people living in north Worcestershire? The Leader of the House may recall that last year the Prime Minister said that all accident and emergency units throughout Britain would be upgraded, but my constituents' experience is that the accident and emergency unit at Kidderminster general hospital will be downgraded. The Leader of the House may not know that my constituents were also promised that various services would continue at Kidderminster general hospital until a new district general hospital was completed at Kidderminster, and that no services would be withdrawn from Kidderminster until 2003. It now appears that some will start to leave Kidderminster general hospital in June this year. The Leader of the House will recognise the huge disparity between what the Government continually tell my constituents and what is happening on the ground, and they are angry about that.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman, I am sure inadvertently, has misrepresented what the Prime Minister said. The Prime Minister has always been careful to be accurate in his phraseology. He has repeatedly said that all accident and emergency departments that had a considerable need for work to be done would be upgraded, and they have been. I have seen many of them in different parts of the country. But I understand and accept the hon. Gentleman's concern for the service that his constituents receive and their anxiety about changes. Changes in the pattern of hospital provision always cause anxiety. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter, although he knows that he can pursue the matter in Westminster Hall, but I undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke)

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) said this week on Radio 4 that the national minimum wage had not been effective in dealing with poverty. In the same week, the Low Pay Commission said that more than 1.5 million people had been taken out of poverty. On average, that is more than 2,200 people in every constituency in the country. Can we have an early debate on the national minimum wage to ascertain whether the Opposition's rhetoric is genuine, or whether it has more to do with the next general election, which is approximately a year away?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) has moved from his former view that the minimum wage was an immoral policy to claiming that it is not an effective method of relieving poverty. Although that view is more tempered, it is no more accurate. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the tremendous beneficial impact of the minimum wage. Attractive though it is to continue to expose the Conservative party's deficiencies and difficulties, we must unfortunately deny ourselves that opportunity because the Government have more important things to do.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The right hon. Lady has alluded to the fact that business questions make for a pleasant three quarters of an hour. However, many hon. Members are indifferent to it. Has the right hon. Lady seen the Library's research paper, which is entitled "MPs' Participation in Commons Divisions"? Is not she alarmed by the disproportionate number of Labour Members who appear not to attend at all? Some of her colleagues on the Treasury Bench do not do much better. Even the Prime Minister has only a 5 per cent. record. Should not we have a debate about that? There is no point in the right hon. Lady announcing the business when so many Labour Members do not attend our proceedings.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is a very regular attender, but he knows that, mercifully, only a tiny portion of the work of the House or the Government is done in the Division Lobby. He is also aware of the enormous amount of time that all hon. Members, including most Labour Members, spend in the House.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

When will we have the opportunity for an important debate on the powers of the police and local authorities to tackle graffiti artists and their promoters? We should especially consider granting the police the same rights to stop and search people who carry sprays that the police believe are linked to crimes as those that apply to people who carry knives. Local authorities should have the same powers to tackle those who promote graffiti products as those that apply to promoting fly-posting. I have an advertisement from a Croydon-based company, which sadly advertises sprays on the internet and through mailing. It directly incites people to produce graffiti.

Mrs. Beckett

I appreciate that graffiti can cause great offence and do great harm to buildings, which must be protected. I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety and the role that he seeks for his local authority and the police. However, I fear that, although the matter is important and causes anxiety, I cannot undertake to find time for special discussion of the matter. Perhaps he will be able to air the issue with Home Office Ministers and get a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Many Back Benchers are increasingly exasperated by Ministers' determined refusal to answer questions. The problem plumbed new depths yesterday. I am not referring to Prime Minister's Question Time, but to last night's debate on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill when new clause 2 was introduced. The new clause grants the Home Secretary powers that would make Attila the Hun blush. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department introduced the provision before midnight. Several Conservative Members, including such senior Members as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) asked pertinent questions in a non-partisan way about that devastating clause. The midnight hour passed, and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department refused to answer. He said: Members want to go home. One can understand that."—[Official Report, 16 February 1999; Vol. 344, c. 1071.] I could not understand it, and said so. May we please have a debate on ministerial responsibilities to answer questions in the House under "Erskine May" so that we can flush out the Cinderella Ministers who turn into silent pumpkins after midnight?

Mrs. Beckett

I have been a Member of the House for many years and I have never observed anybody at their best after midnight, although I have frequently observed Members who nurture the illusion that they are at their best, which is often unfortunate. Ministers always do their utmost to answer questions and deal with debates. I understand that the new clause dealt with order-making powers and they are frequently discussed by the House in a variety of contexts. My hon. Friend replied to the debate. If he did not do so to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction, I am sure that he deeply regrets it.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

When will we receive the performance and innovation unit report on post office access? My right hon. Friend will understand that, although the Government are going ahead with a modernisation programme for the Post Office and trying to secure the future of village post offices, sub-postmasters and the public are worried by the uncertainty before the fleshing out of the detail. My local press is campaigning for the retention of the rural post office and I support that campaign. When the unit reports, can we have an early debate in the House to get the view of hon. Members on appropriate access to rural post offices? That would end a dreadful period of uncertainty.

Mrs. Beckett

Members across the House acknowledge that sub-post offices do tremendously valuable work and that is particularly true in rural areas. I had no doubts, but I am glad that my hon. Friend supports the campaign in his locality. I also share the view, which lies behind his remarks, that it is wrong and unfair to those who shoulder that responsibility to raise ill-founded anxieties unnecessarily and wrongly, but he is right to say that it is important for post offices to modernise the way in which they provide services and to look for fresh business and fresh opportunities that could revitalise the whole organisation, including smaller and rural post offices. The Government hope that they will take that course. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for another special debate, but he knows that the Postal Services Bill is going through the House and I am confident that he and other hon. Members will find opportunities to raise those matters.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

May I return the right hon. Lady to genetically modified crops, as that matter is rather more urgent than was suggested in the earlier exchange? Is she aware of the written answer given by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb)? It made it clear that GM maize is about to be added not to the European register, but to the United Kingdom national seed register. Can she confirm that an announcement is likely to be made on Wednesday—conveniently, the House will not be sitting—and does she appreciate that a coach and horses is being driven through the policy on GM crops enunciated by the Minister for the Environment? Will she promise an early debate on this important subject?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot confirm the timing to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I have undertaken to draw the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I shall certainly add the hon. Gentleman's remarks to them. I am not aware of either the decision that he suggests is due or whether it is likely to be made on Wednesday. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will communicate with him.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I thank my right hon. Friend for agreeing to hold the Welsh affairs debate on 2 March. That is greatly valued by Welsh Members, but does she agree that the Secretary of State's report on the Waterhouse inquiry into child abuse in north Wales merits its own debate, to which all Members of the House would want to contribute?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome for what we tend to call the St. David's day debate. I understand his feeling that hon. Members should have an opportunity to air the issues arising immediately from the Waterhouse report, and also his feeling that that important matter should not completely obscure the focus on Welsh events that normally feature in that traditional debate.

As I think I told the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), as we are to engage in a Welsh affairs debate in the near future, a debate in Westminster Hall may well be the most fruitful way of pursuing the other matter, at least initially. Obviously, hon. Members will want to consider the overall issues raised by the Waterhouse report in depth.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

In connection with the devastating and stinging report of the Transport Sub-Committee, the Leader of the House gave a disappointing and fly-swatting reply to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). May we have a full day's debate on the devastating effect that the report has had? It has undermined the whole of the Government's policy and approach, in relation not just to National Air Traffic Services and public-private partnerships but to infrastructure programmes and funding.

Mrs. Beckett

As I reminded the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), there will be time to discuss those matters. Indeed, they are being discussed in the Standing Committee on the Transport Bill even as we speak, and no doubt they will continue to be discussed. I fear that the hon. Gentleman will not find that any Leader of the House is keen to provide extra time for discussion of a matter that is already being discussed.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

After business questions, will the Leader of the House and, perhaps, a few of her colleagues take a short stroll with me across the road to Parliament square to meet a number of pigmeat producers, and to see a pig in a makeshift sty? I fear that that is the closest that some of her colleagues will get to visiting a farm this year. The producers will be able to tell her about the deep crisis that the industry is experiencing, and about the number of producers who are going out of business in the current year. Perhaps that will encourage her to arrange a debate on the crisis.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the demonstration across the road; indeed, one could hardly miss it. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office was good enough to visit it on my behalf.

The Government well understand the difficulties experienced by the pig industry, and have taken steps to give what assistance they can. The Government do not rule out consideration of further problems that may arise, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find extra time for yet another debate on a matter that—I say this without criticism—has, rightly, been thoroughly aired in the House.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have an urgent debate on the estimate by Chantrey Vellacott, a leading firm of chartered accountants in the City, that it would cost more than £36 billion for Britain to abolish the pound and join the euro? Does the right hon. Lady not agree that such a debate would afford the Chancellor of the Exchequer a fine opportunity to explain to the House and the country his own eccentric view that it is sensible to spend such a phenomenal sum of public money permanently to hand over the running of the British economy to the governing council of the European central bank, which comprises three Germans, two Dutchmen, two Finns, two Frenchmen, two Italians, two Spaniards, a Belgian, an Irishman, a Luxembourger and a Portuguese?

Mrs. Beckett

It can hardly contain any Britons, as we are not part of economic and monetary union—something that I would expect to have occurred to the hon. Gentleman.

I have not seen the estimate to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I am aware that various estimates are made from time to time. The Chancellor has made clear from the beginning his view that it is not right to rule out membership of the euro for ever in principle, but that it is right to make a preliminary decision on whether or not Britain should join when the economic tests that he has set are met, and that that decision will of course be in the hands of the British people.

Whatever costs are identified in regard to any changeover plan, a large part of those costs will have to be incurred in any event, as, whatever we do in this country, the euro exists, although the Conservative party said that it never would. It is coming into circulation, and businesses here will have to prepare to handle it. That in itself will carry a cost.