HC Deb 13 January 2000 vol 342 cc423-36 12.30 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House if she would be kind enough to announce 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 17 JANUARY—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on "Meeting the Needs of Pensioners" followed by a debate entitled "Protecting Post Office Services". Both motions will arise in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

TUESDAY 18 JANUARY—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "The Government's Mismanagement of Health Care in the United Kingdom" followed by a debate entitled "The Rising Cost and Reduced Accountability of Central Government". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions. They will be followed by a motion to approve the Administration Committee Report on the Line of Route.

WEDNESDAY 19 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Representation of the People Bill.

Second Reading of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill.

Second Reading of the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill.

THURSDAY 20 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Electronic Communications Bill.

Debate on the Braithwaite Report on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 21 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

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

MONDAY 24 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Disqualifications Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

TUESDAY 25 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Disqualifications Bill.

WEDNESDAY 26 JANUARY—Progress of remaining stages of the Financial Services and Markets Bill.

THURSDAY 27 JANUARY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Financial Services and Markets Bill.

FRIDAY 28 JANUARY—The first day of debating private Members' Bills.

It may be convenient for the House to know that the Easter recess will take place the week after Easter rather than the previous week.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business for next week and the following week. I also wish her a happy new year. I thank her for giving us an indication of the date of the Easter recess. Although we do not ask for a week off in February, can she state whether there will be such a week off so that hon. Members and members of staff can make appropriate arrangements? If it is not announced soon, there is no point in having it—perhaps many of us would prefer that to be so.

Can the Leader of the House confirm which parts of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House, following the Home Secretary's statement earlier this week? Can she also confirm that the royal commission on the reform of the House of Lords is expected to report next week? Will there be a statement in the House and an early debate? Will the Government make plain their intentions for the joint Committee of both Houses, and will a Minister represent the Government on that Committee?

In the light of yesterday's statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, does the right hon. Lady accept that there is an urgent need for the defence debate that we have requested? It is unfortunate that such an important statement was made without debate in the House. Does she accept that yesterday's extraordinary statement by the Home Secretary underlines the need for a debate at the appropriate time not only on what is called the Pinochet affair, but on the inconsistency of the Government's treatment of aged people who are accused of serious crimes?

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the House is kept regularly informed of the state of the influenza epidemic? In view of her creditable record of dealing with the millennium bug, will she ensure that the Government get better at dealing with the flu bug? May we have the date of the Budget statement, again so that Members can make appropriate arrangements, and, as I asked at the beginning of my remarks, can she give a very clear indication of the remainder of this parliamentary year?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I note that the hon. Gentleman says that he is not asking for a February week, and indeed indicated that he would be happy not to have one. That is certainly consistent with the fact that Conservative Members voted against having such a week, although not entirely consistent with all the private remarks that are made to me—but there we go. I entirely take his point, however, that the benefit of such a non-sitting week lies in the House having as early an indication of it as possible. He will recall that last year we were not able to provide a full week because of the pressure of business. I am not able to give him an indication as to what, if anything, the Government feel able to offer, but certainly hope to do so by next week. I apologise that I am not able to do so today; I would have wished to, but we are not in a position to do so yet.

The hon. Gentleman asked which parts of the Bill on funding will be taken on the Floor of the House. That is a matter for continuing discussion through the usual channels and I hope that we shall be able to reach broad agreement on it. He also asked about the date of publication and the handling of the Wakeham report—the royal commission report on Lords reform—and for a statement, an early debate and an indication of Joint Committee intentions. My understanding and expectation is that the report is likely to be published next week—probably next Thursday, I believe—and obviously the Government will have to weigh it when it emerges. I take on board his request for early observations on it. We shall have that under consideration and it can be discussed through the usual channels. I am not sure how early it will be possible to give an indication about handling in terms of a Joint Committee, whether a Minister will sit on it and so on, but I shall bear his request in mind and convey it to colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the defence debate. He will know that the Defence Committee is urgently discussing the White Paper and we intend to have the debate as soon as possible. We have made it plain that we regret the delay. I was a little surprised that he said that it was extraordinary that yesterday's statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was made without debate because there is nothing at all unusual about statements of Government intent being made before debate. The hon. Gentleman will know that it was well within the public domain that, following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, the Government had indicated that they would have to take account of the decision, as every previous Government have done, and would reflect on it and make a statement in the House when a decision was made.

It seems to me that there was nothing in any way out of the ordinary about my right hon. Friend's statement, nor do I believe that there is anything extraordinary or inconsistent in my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's handling of a number of extremely difficult cases in which matters of extradition or prosecution have come into question. In all those cases, he has, first, borne in mind his own very grave responsibilities—which of course do not include prosecuting or deciding to prosecute people, as he has made plain throughout—and always reflected the law and the way that those matters are handled through our courts. He has observed and applied that principle with consistency to all those different cases, in which decisions as to whether to prosecute and what the weight of evidence justifies are always matters for bodies other than the Home Secretary, and quite correctly so.

The hon. Gentleman asked us to keep the House informed about the progress of the influenza epidemic and I shall certainly draw that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. As to whether we handle that as well as we have the millennium bug—I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks—I simply say to him that, even though it could justifiably have been argued that the Government had some responsibility in respect of the millennium bug, nobody can charge us with being responsible for the flu bug, although I have no doubt whatever that many Conservative Members will try.

I am not yet in a position to announce the date of the Budget statement, but I recognise that the announcement ought to be made fairly soon, and I will draw the matter to the attention of colleagues.

Finally, let me echo what the hon. Gentleman said, and wish him and the whole House a happy new year.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Leaving aside all the Pinochet defenders and apologists on the Tory Benches, may I ask my right hon. Friend to request the Home Secretary to give further consideration to putting the medical reports on Pinochet in the public domain, or at least allowing the Spanish judicial authorities to see the medical evidence about which the Home Secretary told us yesterday? I claim to speak for no one else, but I for one would be very sorry to see Pinochet returned to Chile without the conclusion of the necessary legal processes, rather than that monstrous tyrant—as I described him earlier in the week—being sent to Spain, where he should be tried for his crimes against humanity.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has strong views on this, which he has expressed clearly and consistently throughout. As he will recall, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was asked yesterday about the release of medical evidence, and also about its possible release to the Spanish Government. My right hon. Friend dealt in part with those questions, and made it plain that it is not Government practice to release confidential medical evidence.

I remind my hon. Friend that Home Office questions will take place on Monday. He may have an opportunity to explore the position further then.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I thank the Leader of the House for listening to what was said to her about the Representation of the People Bill, and allowing time for proper consideration before the Report stage on Wednesday.

Will the right hon. Lady find time in the next couple of weeks for a debate on the benefit uprating statement that we feel is due to the House? Will she recognise that, although taking the Government's proposals to restrict access to jury trials to the House of Lords is an entirely proper move, it also legitimises anything that the House of Lords may do to the legislation—especially given that the proposals were not in the Labour party manifesto and, indeed, are contrary to what was in it?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. A valid point was made to us, and the Government always try to respond to genuine points relating to what is reasonable in the handling of business, from whatever quarter of the House those points may come. I will draw his observations about benefit uprating to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, but I cannot give him a date for a debate at this stage.

The hon. Gentleman was right to suggest that views on the question of jury trials have evolved and, indeed, changed over time; but he will doubtless recall both that the move was recommended by a royal commission, and that it is supported by the Lord Chief Justice. As for his claim that the fact that legislation was initiated in the House of Lords legitimises anything that the Lords may choose to do, let me tell him that it is never wise to generalise, and, in particular, that it is never wise to encourage constitutional precedent on the basis of something that one happens to support on a certain occasion—I am thinking of the hon. Gentleman's opposition to the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill—because it is likely to come back and bite one on another occasion.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are some rumblings, at least among Labour Members, about the possibility that the minimum wage may not be index-linked? Will she give an opportunity for those rumblings to become rather louder over the coming weeks?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that people are concerned that the minimum wage should be properly handled. No decision has been taken on the uprating of the national minimum wage, whatever my hon. Friend may have read in the press, but the minimum wage was always handled through negotiation, rather than through a formulaic approach, whether with regard to inflation or anything else. Decisions will be made following Ministers' consideration of a Low Pay Commission report.

Although it has been extraordinarily valuable and defeated the nonsense that was talked by the Conservative party about its impact, the minimum wage has been going only for some nine months. Although I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early debate on the matter, I draw to his attention the fact that tabling takes place today, I believe, for the next Department of Trade and Industry Question Time.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Earlier this week, the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), drew the House's attention to the fact that the announcement about the Home Secretary's intentions on General Pinochet were made to the media, not to the House. What efforts will the Leader of the House make in the remainder of the Parliament to ensure that Ministers make important public announcements first to the House, and not to the media?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was able to be present yesterday. Indeed, sometimes the Chamber is a little noisy, so it is not always easy to follow, but, had he been here, he would know that the Home Secretary made it plain that the Home Office did not make a statement to the media. What happened was that the Home Secretary's preliminary views were leaked to the media and the Home Office was then requested to confirm or deny them. He made it plain that he had intended to make an announcement first, in the proper way, through a written answer to the House. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Secretary is one of the most punctilious Ministers with regard to such matters.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

My right hon. Friend will remember that, in December 1998, we faced the depressing reality of not being ready for this century—at least that was the view of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who never lets a fact get in the way of a soundbite. Just before the recess, my right hon. Friend gave a commitment to give a statement on progress on the millennium bug. Will she do that? It is important that we have the opportunity to put on record our thanks to public servants throughout the country, in central and local government, who led Britain's exercise and led the world in many respects.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is entirely right about the observations of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who, when he was responsible for these matters—fortunately, it was not for long—made every effort to claim that, if anything went wrong, it would all be the Government's fault. However, I have heard him say nothing about how the Government deserve praise for things not going wrong in the aftermath of the changeover.

My hon. Friend is right. It is important that the House puts on record the enormous amount of work that was undertaken by many dedicated public servants, who, in the context of the millennium bug and of the millennium celebrations as a whole, gave up their free time to celebrate the holidays, so that the rest of us could do so in peace. I assure him that the Government intend to honour their commitment.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

The Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill and the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill were both casualties under private Member's Bill procedure last year, but both clearly existed as Bills in the previous Session and are now in the Government programme. Why does the Leader of the House believe that the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill is more urgent than the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

Such Bills are always a matter of fine calculation. The Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, were it to come before the House instead of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, would nevertheless probably not pass into law in sufficient time for it to make a difference as early as the right hon. Gentleman, understandably and legitimately, would wish. Therefore, there is no argument that one Bill is more urgent than the other. He will know that many Members and, indeed, members of the public, not least those in the fur farming industry, are anxious for the matter to be resolved. The Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill is the only chance for businesses that are already in substantial difficulty to get compensation. They regret the action, not of the right hon. Gentleman, but of some of his right hon. and hon. Friends, in delaying that Bill last time.

Mr. John Cummings (Easington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 150,000 ex-miners have lodged claims for chronic bronchitis, emphysema and vibration white finger, but that, under current procedures, it will take more than three years to settle those claims? Although we recognise the interest and efforts of the Minister with responsibility for those matters in making progress, several thousand ex-miners have died before their claims were considered, and several thousand more are expected to die in the next three years. Will she therefore agree to an urgent debate on that very important matter, and on other matters related to compensation for ex-miners?

Mrs. Beckett

I am, indeed, aware of the scale of the difficulties being experienced, and I know that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members—particularly those in the miners group—have pursued the matter assiduously. I agree with him—as does my right hon. Friend who speaks for the Government on those issues—that the position is unsatisfactory. I hope that my hon. Friend will be aware that a working party has been established to determine what can be done to speed up settlement of those claims. Ministers have repeatedly striven to do everything that can be done to speed up the handling of cases and the settlement of matters, and we shall continue to pursue the issue.

I cannot promise my hon. Friend an urgent debate in Government time on the matter—it is open to him, of course, to apply for an Adjournment debate—but assure him that the Government have the matter under review and will continue to press forward on it.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware—as are some hon. Members—that, while we have been keeping an eye on East Timor, there have been other events in Indonesia. Is it possible for a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister to make a statement in the House next week on the representations that have been made on what seems to be another form of ethnic cleansing—in which, on the latest figures, up to 5,000 people have died?

Is it necessary to consider the Disqualifications Bill in Committee the day after Second Reading—bearing in mind that, when the House rushes business through, we often make mistakes?

Mrs. Beckett

On East Timor, I am aware of the other difficulties that have arisen in that part of the world. Although it is unlikely that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be able to make a statement on the matter, I remind the hon. Gentleman that Foreign Office Question Time will be held next Tuesday, 18 January, when there will be an opportunity for the matter to be aired, albeit not in a statement.

The hon. Gentleman asked, quite legitimately, about the handling of the Disqualifications Bill. Although I am, of course, conscious of the fact that the House has always to balance the need to dispose expeditiously of important business with the need to get those matters right, the fact is that—as he will be aware; however contentious the issue may be—we are pursuing a relatively simple principle that is reflected in many other facets of our legislation and in the opportunities that arise for people to sit in this place and/or other places. Consequently, we shall be pursuing not a new or technically difficult matter, but the extension of an existing principle to the circumstances of Northern Ireland and Ireland itself.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on crime? As she will know, although recorded crime in the past two years has fallen by 9 per cent., many of our communities—including my own of Gedling, in Nottingham—are still blighted by antisocial behaviour. We have to determine how, together, we might best tackle such behaviour, which causes problems for so many people as they try to pursue their daily lives.

Mrs. Beckett

I am, indeed, aware of the continuing concern among the public, which is shared on both sides of the House, about crime levels. I am also aware of how much people's feelings of personal and family security are threatened by antisocial behaviour: almost as much as by crime itself. I know, too, that my hon. Friend has been complaining long and loud on the issue. He will know that the Government have taken action both to encourage and to invest in crime prevention, and to encourage local authorities and police authorities to recognise the possibilities of the tools that we have given them to deal with antisocial behaviour. We hope that they will continue to do so.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Some £4 million of taxpayers' money is being spent on special advisers, spin doctors and general hangers-on around the Government. Amazingly, another £500,000 is being spent on flying them on jollies round the world. That sticks in the throat of the hill farmers above Oswestry, who are struggling to make a living. May we please have a full debate to explain what on earth is going on?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman's figures are wrong. The total spent from public funds on the provision of policy advice is £7 million—half to the Government and half to the Opposition. That is three times as much as the previous Government offered to us, but it does not seem to have done them much good so far.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the problems of the homeless so that we can congratulate the homelessness Tsarina on the refreshing views that she has expressed, pointing out that the problems of persistent rough sleepers relate rarely and only briefly to a lack of housing and stem mainly from mental ill health and addiction to alcohol and other drugs? Such a debate would also enable us to draw attention to what is happening in the rest of Europe, particularly Switzerland and Holland, where measures have been taken to reduce greatly the number of people sleeping rough, dealing at the same time with their problems of addiction to drugs. When those who engage in such worthwhile and progressive enterprises elsewhere in Europe are regarded as trailblazers, why are people who, advertently or inadvertently, follow similar policies in this country treated as criminals?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future. Whatever views were expressed by the person who is dealing with the issue of homelessness—"Tsarina" is a new one on me—and however those views may or may not have been misrepresented, I hope that my hon. Friend is well aware of the investment that the Government are making in a range of measures. We hope that those measures will prevent people from drifting into homelessness—they include provisions to deal with those coming out of care or the armed forces, who are the most likely to do so—and tackle the complex range of problems that homeless people have, including, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, mental ill health. There will be an emergency special needs response team; new contact and assessment teams; 60 new specialist workers specifically to help those with alcohol, drug or mental health problems; more than 4,000 more beds brought into use; more than 850 new hostel beds with additional specialist help; as well as 1,000 new housing association homes. I recognise my hon. Friend's applause for what is being done in other countries such as Italy or Sweden, but I hope that he recognises that the Government have put in place policies that should tackle the problem instead of simply deploring it.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Is it not now urgent that we have a debate on the doctrine of collective responsibility in government, specifically whether the Foreign Secretary represents the Government's view on the euro? Is it not rather disturbing that a senior member of the Government has apparently expressed a view on the euro which we think may not be reflected by other members of the Government? Surely that requires a debate. Surely it is necessary for senior members of the Government to come to that debate and let us know whether the Government have a view on the euro, what it is and whether it is the Foreign Secretary's view or someone else's.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's example does not justify his claim that there is a need for a debate. The Government's policy on the euro is unchanged. It is as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in his interview on Sunday: if the economic tests are met, the British people must decide and have a final veto through a referendum. That is unlikely to happen this side of an election and can happen only when the economic tests are judged to be met. The right hon. Gentleman is uncharacteristically falling foul of the belief that what is said in the media is in some way pertinent on that issue. Few things seem to bore the media more than consistency. Ever since we announced our policy on the euro soon after coming to office, the media have tried to see whether it has changed and whether everybody is saying the same thing. If they cannot discover evidence of dissent or difference, they continue to allege that they have found such evidence. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is familiar with those tactics and I am sorry that he has in some way fallen for them.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

In light of the interesting and controversial recommendations of the Neill committee on an appeal procedure—controversial in the sense that they will give the lawyers a real foothold for the first time in proceedings in the House of Commons—can we have an early, full day's debate on those recommendations, as many right hon. and hon. Members will have a lot to say about them?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an extremely interesting point. At the moment, I cannot undertake to find the time that he identifies as being necessary, but obviously I have taken on board his remarks. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will, indeed, take a keen interest in these matters, not least in whether and to what degree we should involve the legal profession in our affairs.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

The right hon. Lady will be aware of the importance of the fishing industry in the constituencies of at leat 50 right hon. and hon. Members. Was it not unfortunate, therefore, that the annual fishing debate was so short that only one Back-Bench Member of the official Opposition and no representative of one of the minor parties was called? In view of the crisis in the fishing industry, may we have another debate? In any case, will the right hon. Lady ensure that next year's annual fishing debate, when we discuss the quotas, is a full day's debate so that all Back-Bench Members with large fishing interests have a chance to contribute?

Mrs. Beckett

Certainly, I am very conscious of the importance of the fisheries interests. It is an important industry for the country as a whole, not just to hon. Members who represent constituencies that have fishing interests. I cannot find time for another debate in the near future, but I shall certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's remarks in mind.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

In light of the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on poverty, can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate to examine what the Government have been doing to eradicate poverty and put right 18 years of Tory misrule and the fact that the Tory Government hid from the British people the fact that they knew that they were plunging families into greater poverty?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the fact that, whether through the private remarks of Saatchi and Saatchi or the OECD study, it is now clear that, despite the fact that it was consistently denied by Conservative Members during their years in government, they presided over a catastrophic widening of the gap between rich and poor. One of the most challenging and radical goals that the Government have set themselves is to work towards the elimination of child poverty in particular over the next 20 years. I have no doubt that it is right to do so and that we have already made substantial strides in that direction.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The early-day motion is an overrated parliamentary device, with some honourable exceptions used mainly by Back Benchers to gain column inches in local papers. Therefore, the right hon. Lady may not have seen early-day motion 147.

[That this House notes with concern that the incompetence of Kent County Council's Conservative administration has led to a serious shortfall in social services funding that threatens winter provision in the county and which will create difficulties for local health authorities by causing bed blocking in hospitals; notes that the Conservatives have attempted to blame these problems on the cost of supporting asylum seekers even though this Government, unlike its predecessor, reimburses the County for at least 90 per cent. of these costs; notes that the real problem is that Kent's Conservative Council has failed, for political reasons, to plan for factors that were known well in advance such as the impact of the national minimum wage, has diverted over £5 million into largely unnecessary corporate initiatives, has based its finances on unsustainable and unworkable budgets which failed to make efficient use of the most generous Government settlement in the county's history and which inevitably have lead to a substantial overspend; notes that the Conservatives who control the council intend to resolve the problems they have created by diverting funds ring-fenced for voluntary organisations, reneging on promised regeneration funding for East Kent and cutting services for the elderly and vulnerable; and calls on the county council's Conservative leadership to work with the Government and with other political parties in Kent to devise a new budget and business plan for Kent that truly meets the needs of the county's population.]

It was tabled by six Kent Labour Members criticising Kent social services department for a budget shortfall. Exceptionally, will the right hon. Lady find time for this particular early-day motion to be debated so that the House can learn how the budget shortfall is not £170,000, as some Labour Members seem to have suggested, unfunded by central Government, but £4.5 million—virtually the entire shortfall—unfunded by Government and spent on economic migrants? Will she give those Members the opportunity to come to the House to apologise to their constituents for short-changing them and to join Kent's Conservatives in seeking to press the Government for the repayment of that money in full?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot undertake to find time to debate that or any other early-day motion. The Government understand the pressures on authorities such as Kent. Indeed, that is one reason for some of the changes that we have made in the handling of asylum seekers, for example, changes which at the last minute were opportunistically opposed by Conservative Front-Bench Members—although the hon. Gentleman may have voted in opposition. With regard to local government funding generally, those issues must be seen against the background of the most generous settlement since the council tax was invented.

Mr. Tarn Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I support my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) in asking for a debate on vibration white finger?

In view of three factors: the re-entry of the International Atomic Energy Authority into Baghdad; the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr. Kharrazi, who suggested that, in spite of the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian Government favoured the lifting of sanctions against Iraq; and the Turkish dam that, if it goes ahead, could cause a water war in the middle east—may we have a statement on the forgotten actions of sanctions and war against Iraq?

Mrs. Beckett

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings), the Government are mindful of concerns about vibration white finger cases. As I understand it, payments on those cases are going comparatively well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raises primarily the issue of sanctions on Iraq and their effects. As I have already said to others, I cannot find time for a special debate or focus on that issue in the near future. However, Foreign Office questions will be held next week, and I am sure that my hon. Friend has not overlooked that point. As for saying that there are forgotten effects of the sanctions, he does himself less than justice because he has almost singlehandedly ensured that we do not forget the issue.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the location of the national athletics stadium? Following the fiasco of the proposed location at Wembley, is she aware that recent reports suggest that the Commonwealth stadium in Manchester could be altered, at relatively low cost, to make it a suitable venue for the national stadium? Is she also aware that Councillor Richard Leese, the Labour leader of Manchester city council, has talked of the Government's continuing "obsession" with staging major events in London? Is it not time that the Government woke up to the fact that there is a country outside London and started to stage some events in the rest of the country?

Mrs. Beckett

The handling of the national stadium at Wembley and the athletics stadium continues to be under urgent review. It has now become clear that it was not possible to provide a stadium that could stage both athletics and football events satisfactorily. We now have plans for what will be an excellent stadium for football and we are seeking to tackle urgently the issue of a stadium for athletics. Manchester will, of course, host the Commonwealth games. I have great respect for Councillor Leese and I understand his sentiments about the Government's obsession with staging events in London, but leaders of Manchester city council—most of them Labour, thanks to the common sense of the people of Manchester down the generations—have always felt that Manchester, not London, should be the capital of Britain.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

May I ask for an early statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on the tragic drowning of seven members of the crew of the Scottish fishing vessel, the Solway Harvester, and the question of her retrieval from what are quite shallow waters? At moments such as this, people in fishing communities are reminded of the words of a character in Scott's "The Antiquary": It's no fish ye're buying, it's men's lives. A statement might enable some of us to argue the case, as we have done for many years, that no fishing vessel should put to sea without the provision of a survival suit for every member of the crew. The provision of survival suits might have had no bearing on this tragic loss, but such safety measures should be given serious consideration by the Government. It is some years now since we had a debate on the safety of fishermen.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of the tragic deaths that have recently been reported because it gives me the opportunity to express, on behalf of the entire House, our sympathy for the families and victims. He is right to make the point about the importance to those communities and families of the trade in fish which those of us who are not engaged in such pursuits so often take lightly.

I cannot promise my hon. Friend time for an early statement or debate on the matter, but I shall certainly undertake to draw his remarks and concerns to the attention of the relevant Ministers, who I know take the matter as seriously as he does.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The House is rightly jealous of its exclusive rights to decide taxation matters, so can we have a debate—or a statement from the Prime Minister—on the Government's stance with respect to the withholding tax? Reports have emerged that the Treasury is coming under severe pressure from the Foreign Office to back down on the issue before the conclusion of the Portuguese presidency.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear, Madam Speaker, that you must be as bored as I am with the withholding tax, about which there have been innumerable statements over the months and years, all arising from stories in the press that the Government were planning to give way on the matter at any minute. I assure the House that the Government do not plan to give way on the matter. We have made our stance on the matter quite plain, and we shall maintain that stance.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

I should like to declare a non-financial interest in the question that I am about to ask. As the House will be aware, I have raised, in questions and in an Adjournment debate, the matter of the drama strategy of the Arts Council of Wales. Gwent theatre in education, probably the finest example of its type in the United Kingdom, has been denied the opportunity to continue the work that it has done over the past 20 years.

I have been concerned to find out how communities and drama companies can appeal against such decisions. An appeals procedure used to be available, but within the past 48 hours Joanna Weston, chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, has informed the Gwent company that even those who win such an appeal will still lose their franchises, as they will have been passed on to other companies. That is an insult to the company and, more importantly, to the local communities who have benefited from the theatre in education scheme.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the process in the Arts Council of Wales for making decisions and setting priorities?

Mrs. Beckett

I know of the my hon. Friend's interest in this matter, and I understand the concern that he has expressed for the interests of his local community in that connection. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future. However, in view of what my hon. Friend said about the implications for an appeals process of the remarks that he quoted, I shall draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the fiasco surrounding the millennium dome? I refer not simply to the incompetent management that caused queues and disappointment on millennium eve, but to the growing evidence of incompetence at every stage of the dome's design and construction.

That incompetence was highlighted today by the dome's former design chief, Stephen Bayley. He laid the blame at the door of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who is now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mr. Bayley described the right hon. Gentleman as "interfering, crass, incompetent" and a "paradigm of bad management". Conservative Members may have thought that all along, but it is important that we have a debate to establish why the greatest opportunity of our age has been so sadly wasted.

Mrs. Beckett

Despite the best efforts of the Opposition and of the newspapers that consistently try to advance their cause, the dome has been a success. Of course, some people will have been disappointed, but the vast majority of visitors to the exhibition have enjoyed themselves very much. Indeed, many families have said that they want to return.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to some remarks made by Stephen Bayley. I am not acquainted with Mr. Bayley, but I am aware that he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland failed to see eye to eye. Mr. Bayley has made such remarks ever since, and no doubt will continue to do so.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the rights of the child? She may have seen early-day motion 176 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

[That this House supports the establishment of a children's rights commissioner for England with linked officers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; and recognises that the duties and powers of such an officer would be to promote children's rights and interests and ensure that they are taken into account by ministers, local authorities, private and voluntary bodies, to promote compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and to ensure that children have effective ways of raising concerns and are able to participate in decision-making that affects their lives.]

The early-day motion makes a specific plea for the creation of a commissioner for the rights of the child. That matter would be an important debate, and would receive a lot of attention outside the House as it is becoming increasingly urgent.

Secondly, if my right hon. Friend felt tempted at any time to have a debate on the Pinochet story as it proceeds, she should give in to that temptation. When people outside this place hear the craven and repellent apologies on behalf of butchery and murder that will undoubtedly come from the Conservative party, the Conservatives' popularity in the country will slump even lower.

Mrs. Beckett

I am, indeed, aware of the early-day motion on the creation of a children's rights commissioner. We have set up a task force on safeguards for children, and intend to establish a children's rights director as a senior post within the National Care Standards Commission. The specific issue of a children's rights commissioner continues to be raised and will no doubt continue to be discussed. These are important steps, which I know my hon. Friend will welcome.

With regard to my hon. Friend's remarks about the opportunities presented by a debate on the handling of the issue of Senator Pinochet, I share his view that, if the public were made more aware of the degree and kind of interest that has been expressed by some on the Conservative Benches, it would do nothing to enhance the Opposition's standing. However, I fear that time in this House is under considerable pressure and I must reluctantly decline to do anything further to diminish the popularity of the Opposition. They probably need no help from me to do that, anyway.

Back to