HC Deb 20 January 2000 vol 342 cc984-1015

1.1 pm

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

The business next week will be as follows.

MONDAY 24 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Disqualifications Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

TUESDAY 25 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Electronic Communications Bill.

Remaining stages of the Disqualifications Bill.

WEDNESDAY 26 JANUARY—Progress on 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—Private Members' Bills.

I will give the House as much as I am able of the provisional business for the following week.

MONDAY 31 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Utilities Bill.

THURSDAY 3 FEBRUARY—Motions on the Police Grant Report (England and Wales).

Motions on Local Government (Finance) Reports. FRIDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

I fear that, in the slight uncertainty occasioned by the changes in business that I had to announce last night, I am not able to identify today the business that will be taken in the middle of the week. However, the House will want to learn that, subject to the progress of business—I emphasise that point—I propose that the House should rise at the end of business on Tuesday 22 February and would not sit on 23, 24 and 25 February.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House is grateful for next week's business and for the indication of the business for part of the following week. Although we welcome the announcement of what is not so much a constituency week but a constituency half-week, does the right hon. Lady agree that the value of such an announcement is enhanced the earlier that it can be made?

Will the right hon. Lady tell the House the date of the Budget? Will she tell us on which day next week there will be a statement by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the introduction of a new television tax?

In relation to today's business, I much regret that, at short notice last night, the Government decided to guillotine an important constitutional Bill. Although the Government put down motions to suspend the 10 o'clock rule in the name of the Prime Minister, when we reach 10 o'clock, they turn into a pumpkin and go home. The Government appear to prefer to curtail debate rather than to engage in it. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that it is vital that appropriate consideration is given to constitutional measures, even if it means sitting after 10 o'clock?

Would it not have been appropriate today to have a statement on the Wakeham report? Although we would not expect the Government to outline their policy, Members would have welcomed the opportunity to press Ministers on timing. The Government are more interested in gesture than reform on this matter and, having urged Lord Wakeham to make haste, they now appear anxious to delay. Can we have an early debate so that we can press the Government on the timing and membership of a Joint Committee and on progress with the promised independent statutory appointments commission to end the Prime Minister's patronage of the second Chamber, which Lord Wakeham condemned?

After the Home Secretary's performance last week, when his decision on Pinochet was issued to the press before any announcement was made to the House, can we have an assurance that there will be no repeat of that discourtesy and that, when he reaches his final decision, the House will be the first to hear it?

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's point that the value of the non-sitting days in February—or indeed of any non-sitting days—is greatly enhanced if the House has early notice of them. I regret that it has not been possible to give more notice, but he will know fully the reasons for that.

I cannot yet give the right hon. Gentleman the date of the Budget, but I hope to do so shortly, and I hope that that is helpful.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he regretted that a statement is not being made on the Wakeham report. I remind him that the report, which is a royal commission report to the Government, has barely been published, so it is a little early to make a statement. He suggested that the Government are more interested in gesture than reform. That comes fine from a member of a party that was not interested in reform at all and now shows every sign of being torn between gesture and reform. The Government are not anxious to delay. I can only say to the right hon. Gentleman that, when people have had an opportunity to consider the report, we shall decide what to say in the House.

The right hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that Lord Wakeham made observations about patronage, but it is a little churlish of him not to recognise that this Prime Minister is the first in history to be prepared to diminish his patronage by one jot. Not one Tory Prime Minister was ever prepared to do so. Indeed, recent Conservative Prime Ministers used their powers of patronage to stack the other place with Tory peers to bolster their numbers among hereditary peers.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned last night's decision on a guillotine. He knows perfectly well that that was on an important constitutional Bill, and the Government share his view on that, which is why we are putting forward a timetabling motion to provide an opportunity for discussion on the Bill. It is right that important constitutional matters should be fully debated. However, the right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that last night's debate concerned issues such as the use of the words "temporary" and "verifiable" in a Bill. I do not think that anyone who was here last night—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The right hon. Lady was not here.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman, who speaks from a sedentary position, is entirely right to say that I was not in the Chamber—although I was in the House—and I am profoundly thankful for that since I did not have to listen to him wasting the time of the House.

On Pinochet, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is not quite correct; the Government did not make an announcement to the press first. The Chilean embassy released information to the press and the Government then had to acknowledge whether it was correct. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it plain that he had every intention of making that announcement in the proper way in the House. He will come to the House when he has a further announcement to make on that matter.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Leaving aside Pinochet's defenders and apologists on the Conservative Benches, will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Home Secretary will make his statement before Pinochet leaves the country, if his decision is that he should leave?

While we are on the subject of those held responsible for crimes against humanity, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend about the person featured in today's newspapers, particularly The Guardian, who is said to have been a concentration camp murderer during the war. Is there to be a statement about him?

Mrs. Beckett

First, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will report to the House when he has had the opportunity to consider the representations that have been made to him. He will then make a full statement to Parliament. I shall draw my hon. Friend's comments to my right hon. Friend's attention.

On the issue that has been reported in today's press, my hon. Friend will know that it is a new report, which is being considered. It will be a matter for the police to investigate what offence, if any, has been committed. That will be the basis of any decision about prosecution that is made by the relevant authorities.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I endorse the request for an early statement—I appreciate that it cannot be made in the next few hours, but it could be made in the next few days—on the Government's attitude to the Wakeham report and, particularly, to the timetable for any implementation of the proposals? Will the Leader of the House acknowledge that the Government recognise that an interim, transitory arrangement for the composition of the other place would not be satisfactory on a long-term basis? It would leave everyone with a considerable period of doubt and indecision, which is unsavoury in a settled constitution.

May I ask two questions about next week's business? First, I know that the Government are making arrangements for amendments to the Disqualifications Bill to be tabled in advance of its Second Reading on Monday. However, it is profoundly unsatisfactory to have Second Reading and then so little time before the Bill's remaining stages. We shall not even be able to take into account Ministers' statements on Second Reading to ensure that we have tabled the right amendments for the remaining stages on the very next day. Will the right hon. Lady please try to avoid that in future? It may not be such a controversial Bill, but some Members think that it is. We face a profoundly unsatisfactory way of dealing with the business of the House.

Secondly, on the Financial Services and Markets Bill which will come before us on Wednesday, will the right hon. Lady tell us what progress she has made with Conservative representatives in trying to reach agreement on a programme motion? It is surely the type of Bill that requires such a motion. Even in the light of the ridiculous shenanigans of last night, I hope that she still has some opportunity to talk to her opposite numbers on the Conservative Front Bench, so that we can agree on how to handle the business of the House more satisfactorily.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman was here last night, and I recognise his remarks about the Wakeham report. The whole House is grateful to Lord Wakeham and his colleagues for their hard work and for meeting what was described by others as too tight a deadline. The report has been published for only two hours or so, but its publication is noteworthy because, as I understand it, it is a unanimous report. I hope that that will mean that it will lay the foundations for a reasonable degree of common ground to emerge. The hon. Gentleman will know that I have always held and expressed the view that, following the publication of the royal commission report, there might be a broad acceptance of some of the principles that it has set out. That might make the way forward rather smoother, but it is too early to say whether that will be the case.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Disqualifications Bill. He is right—I am grateful to him for allowing me to put it on the record again—to say that the Government are making arrangements to ensure that amendments can be tabled and that Members do not lose that opportunity. We would not usually wish to make such arrangements, but he will be aware that we are bringing the position with regard to Ireland and Irish Members into line with that which exists for some other legislatures. In that sense, we are not making a major decision and it is not in any way without precedent. The precedent is that this different arrangement is in line with that for other legislatures. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point entirely.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me about progress on a programme motion for the Financial Services and Markets Bill. He will know that programme motions are always on offer from the Government. We very much share the view that was expressed at the outset of this Parliament by the all-party Modernisation Committee, of which he is a member, on the worth of programme motions. They offer a way of ensuring that key parts of legislation are discussed and not overlooked because the House has got bogged down—sometimes for sound reasons and sometimes not—on more minor issues. Up to now, it has been suggested that a programme motion is not necessary because there is agreement on how we handle the Bill and deal with business expeditiously to ensure that the issues that are identified as being of major importance are fully dealt with. It may be that we shall need a few further discussions on the matter, and we are certainly prepared to undertake them.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that the Modernisation Committee considered urgently the use of, and the need for, more programme motions? Does she agree also that it is troubling that the shadow Leader of the House talks about more predictability, the problem of not knowing when the February half week is and the importance of knowing the nature of other business? Yet he still condones not having a planned agenda for the House, which would allow everyone to know what business will be discussed and when. We are wasting not only our time, but the valuable time of civil servants and the employees of the House when we are discussing et cetera ad nauseam.

Madam Speaker

is the hon. Lady asking for a debate on the matter?

Lorna Fitzsimons

Yes, Madam Speaker.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), she is a member of the Modernisation Committee. She will know that the issue of whether we are making the use of programme motions, as anticipated by the Committee, has been raised on quite a few occasions on the Floor of the House, and increasingly so in recent times. However, she is entirely right to raise the matter. It may be that as we are keeping under review the Committee's recommendations, which were made before I was a member of it, perhaps the matter that she has raised should be put on the agenda to ascertain whether we are implementing even the spirit, or the letter, of any of the recommendations.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Is it not surprising and regrettable that, given all the interviews and briefings that have already taken place, no statement is being made today about change in the House of Lords? I press on the Leader of the House the urgency of a debate on the future of the House of Lords. I hope that she recognises that there will be some in the House who do not want to see a new political establishment formed of appointers and appointees, and would much prefer to have a fully elected second Chamber.

Mrs. Beckett

I am surprised to hear someone of the right hon. Gentleman's experience and seriousness making such a point. I have seldom heard a more ludicrous suggestion that the Government should make a statement about a report that they have not drawn up and that was correctly not given to them in advance. The right hon. Gentleman talks about briefings as if they are being given by Ministers. Of course they are not. Ministers are not members of the royal commission. It is the royal commission that is briefing on its report to the Government. It is ridiculous to suggest that the Government should make a statement when there has not been time to assimilate it.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman talks about his opposition to what he calls a new political establishment. His zeal for reform has overtaken him only since the Conservative party lost the enormity of the majority that it previously enjoyed in the House of Lords. It still has a majority there, but no one would think so to hear the way that Conservative Members talk about it.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the person against whom war crimes have been alleged on the front page of The Guardian is resident in my constituency? I add to what was said earlier and urge her to ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make a statement on this matter, and particularly on whether the Crown Prosecution Service, in the light of the new evidence, will consider again whether a prosecution should be proceeded with under the War Crimes Act 1991.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. She will appreciate that we are talking about early reports. I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will yet have had the opportunity to come to a decision on whether there is a matter on which he needs to make a statement. I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to his attention, especially her observations about the Crown Prosecution Service. I hope that that is helpful.

Mr. Forth

Notwithstanding the Leader of the House's failure to explain the Government's lack of response, even at an early stage, to the Wakeham Committee's recommendations, will she give an undertaking that the Government will respond next week, if only to underline the urgency of the matter and to explain the Government's intentions for the next stage of the process? The people of this country should know the shape of their legislature before the next election. Otherwise, the impression will be given that the Government are prevaricating because the Prime Minister wants to perpetuate the position whereby he appoints Members of one of the Houses of Parliament.

Mrs. Beckett

I shall certainly not undertake to make a statement next week. As for the rubbish about one of the Houses being appointed by the Prime Minister, I point out that eight Prime Ministers have contributed to the life membership of the House of Lords, and that 90 or so hereditary peers remain there. The Conservative party retains a majority over the Labour party in the House of Lords. I do not believe that that represents the views of most people in this country.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate, or a statement, on the job losses that have been announced in the water industry throughout the country, including in Severn Trent, which is in my area? At the same time, the water companies are announcing record profits and record dividend payments to their shareholders.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot promise an early statement on the matter, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend who has responsibility for the water industry. The water regulator has said that his proposals do not require the industry to make such changes. Every time the water industry has been required to take steps about which it is unhappy, it has threatened job losses. The public will find its actions hard to understand.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 294.

[That this House is appalled by the Muslim-Christian conflict in the Moluccas, Indonesia; notes that over 1,500 people have died since the violence began in January 1999; is deeply concerned by reports that the Indonesian military have often taken sides in the conflict instead of attempting to restore order; and calls on the British Government to press for urgent UN intervention in the Moluccas to end the bloodshed and to closely link the European Union arms embargo and suspension of IMF assistance to Indonesia to the Indonesian Government and military's conduct over the Moluccas.] Had I followed the advice of the Leader of the House last week, I would have incurred your wrath, Madam Speaker, by trying to raise the matter in Foreign Office questions although it was not on the Order Paper. I plead again for an early statement on Indonesia. Not only are people dying unnecessarily there, but a democratic Government could be overthrown by conspiracy between elements of the army and some fanatic Islamic fundamentalists. It is a potential tragedy.

Mrs. Beckett

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Although the matter is under consideration, I cannot guarantee that a statement will be made about Indonesia, which is arousing considerable international anxiety. We are exploring ways of assisting reconciliation in that unhappy country. I hope that the events that the hon. Gentleman suggests may happen will not come about.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

I want to return to the sad position at the end of business last night. I support the Opposition's right to deploy the tactics that are at their disposal, just as we used the guillotine. However, many hon. Members from the 1997 intake are less tolerant of such procedures. If my right hon. Friend is prepared to consider more timetabling, or tactics that will enhance the business of the House, a willing group of us will fully support her.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank my hon. Friend for his offer of support. Of course, it is the right of the Opposition and the Government to use the tools that are at their disposal. I have always believed that the public do not understand when we spend a great deal of time discussing matters that are of no importance and complain that we have no time to consider important issues. I have always deplored that tactic, and never practised it, even during the long years we spent in opposition. It brings this place into disrepute with the public. My hon. Friend is right to say that that, from time to time, successive Governments have had to take action to resolve a growing problem that causes difficulties.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the Leader of the House accept that motion 6 on the Order Paper today dealing with the Disqualifications Bill is a procedural disgrace? Not enough time has been arranged between Second Reading and Committee for amendments to be tabled in the proper way. That is not acceptable from the Leader of the House, who leads the Select Committee on Modernisation, which urges that there should be full and proper consideration of all legislation.

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement next week by one of the Law Officers about the potential closure of smaller magistrates courts? In parts of Devon, people will have to travel 20, 30 or 40 miles to go to court. It is not acceptable for working courts such as that at Axminster to be closed. There must be a statement about that from a Law Officer.

Mrs. Beckett

The issue of time has been raised. The Government recognise that the two stages are somewhat close together, but we have made arrangements to tackle that. From time to time, it is necessary to make such decisions, as the right hon. Gentleman is well aware.

The right hon. Gentleman also asks me about smaller magistrates courts. I draw his attention to the fact that there is an Adjournment debate on that matter in Westminster Hall next Tuesday. The debate has been raised by one of his hon. Friends, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), so the right hon. Gentleman will have to take the matter up with that hon. Member. Although I cannot promise to bring the Law Officers to the House, we will have questions to the Law Officers in the near future.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

After the obnoxious tactics adopted yesterday by hard-line Conservative opponents of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, will my right hon. Friend assure the Bill's many supporters in the House and all those outside this place who abhor cruelty to animals that she will arrange for a Second Reading debate on that Bill as soon as possible?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right. It was plain—indeed, it was admitted by at least one offender last night—that the tactics deployed yesterday had nothing whatever to do with the importance of the Representation of the People Bill or the time required for it. My hon. Friend is also right to say that many people will deplore and fail to understand those tactics. I assure her that the Government will make sure that the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill reaches the statute book. It was yet another crass misjudgment on the part of the Opposition.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

As the Member for Macclesfield, which lies in the north-west, may I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to early-day motion 279, entitled "Location of the national athletics stadium".

[That this House notes the complete failure of the proposed National Athletics Stadium at Wembley; notes that the Commonwealth Stadium in Manchester could be altered at relatively little cost to meet the specifications for a national stadium; urges the Government to give full consideration to any bid by Manchester to host the National Stadium; and believes such consideration would demonstrate the Government's commitment to the regions outside London.]? In the light of the failure of the project at Wembley, is the Leader of the House aware that there is a strong feeling across the party political spectrum, particularly in the north-west and in Greater Manchester, that the stadium could be located in the city of Manchester, and that it could be provided at very little cost to the British taxpayer? Will she assure the House that a Minister, preferably the Minister for Sport, will make a statement in the House within the next few days on the matter, giving an assurance that the Government will give serious consideration to the interests of Manchester and the construction of the stadium in that area? That would be widely supported and would show that the Government were not entirely obsessed with London and the south-east.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman is the Member for Macclesfield, through which I passed on Thursday on my way to the north-west, including Manchester, where my ear was bent about Manchester's urgent desire to have the athletics stadium.

As a native of that part of the world, I recognise that Manchester is undoubtedly the capital of the universe and that that status is not properly represented. [Interruption] I am saying that not only because I am being heckled by the Deputy Chief Whip from a sedentary position. I am well aware of the pressure across the party political spectrum. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are also aware of it. I cannot undertake to ensure the decision that the hon. Gentleman wants, but I shall draw his request for a statement on the matter to their attention.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will recall that shortly before Christmas Opposition Members complained loudly that business had collapsed early a number of times that week. That happens for only one reason—they are not doing their job properly, which did not happen when we were in opposition. Last night, the situation was almost the reverse as they engaged in tactics that brought no credit whatever to the House. I want a debate on modernisation and the procedures of the House so that they can explain their apparent inconsistencies.

Mrs. Beckett

As always, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is certainly right about the inconsistency that is so frequently displayed by Conservative Members, but I fear that, if we were to try to find time to debate it every time it manifests itself, we would not have time to do anything else.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Lady may be aware of a letter that I have written to the Secretary of State for Social Security about winter fuel payments to males. She may also be aware that men in Lincolnshire aged between 60 and 65 who have applied for winter fuel payments appear to have been told that the infrastructure is not in place to make any payments, notwithstanding the ruling of the European Court. If that be true, it is unsatisfactory. Will she therefore arrange either an early debate or a statement on the matter? On another issue, is it not unsatisfactory that Monday's opposed private business is fixed for 7 o'clock and therefore likely to truncate debate on the very important Disqualifications Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised the issue of winter fuel payments. He will be aware, too, that we shall comply with the decision of the European Court, but it is quite recent and I understand that it will take time to register all those who are newly eligible. We have every intention of making the backdated payments as soon as possible and obviously the infrastructure for that has to be dealt with. He also made a point about the Disqualifications Bill. He will know that it is the norm for such opposed private business to be taken at 7 o'clock and that how business proceeds is a matter for the House.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

In the hope that I am on a winning streak with my right hon. Friend, may I bring to her attention the positive remarks made by the assistant chief constable of Cheshire on Government policy on closed circuit television? Will she consider early-day motion 283—which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), other Welsh Members and myself—on the successful use of technology in solving crime.

[That this House congratulates Dyfed and Powys, Gwent and South Wales constabularies, which by collaboration made a number or arrests in the second week of January including an alleged persistent young offender, following the use of new technology currently under trial developed by 2B Research and BT; recognises that the arrests took place within a short period of time due in the main to the use of PNIP, retrieving information from neighbouring forces; and calls upon the Home Secretary to consider a national application of this system.] Can we have an early debate on the Government's approach to improving technology to help the police in their difficult task?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing to my attention the remarks of the assistant chief constable. He will know that the Government are investing about £153 million over the next three years on CCTV schemes. We believe that that method of crime prevention is very much what the public want, although I fear I cannot undertake to have an early debate on the matter. I acknowledge the remarks made by my hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) and others about the use and value of new technology in this area and the Government will continue to pursue such steps to reduce the impact of crime.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

The Government are always saying that they want more public support for what they are doing and their legislation to pass through the House smoothly. Given the amount of controversial legislation that we are dealing with, can we have an assurance that no more controversial Bills will be introduced this Session, apart from the Finance Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

It is becoming increasingly difficult to define what some Members—excepting the hon. Gentleman and, frequently, Conservative Front Benchers—think of as controversial. Indeed, that is not always possible to identify, and it seems to take hours to deal with matters that were non-controversial until they reached their final minutes in the House. I cannot give him quite the undertaking he seeks, but I can certainly tell him that the Government shall continue to introduce the programme that was outlined in the Queen's Speech, which we believe is the programme that the public want.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

May we have a debate on early-day motion 2?

[That this House applauds the Government's intention to ensure that all pensioners entitled to income support receive it, making it a genuine minimum income guarantee; notes that, although the minimum income guarantee was introduced in April 1999, the promised national programme of measures to maximise take-up is still awaited; and urges the Secretary of State for Social Security to announce that claims made by pensioners after the date of that announcement will be treated as having been made on that date and that arrears of benefit will be paid accordingly.]

The motion, which was signed by 63 Members, seeks a take-up campaign for the poorest pensioners.

The situation is urgent. According to the Government's figures, 700,000 of the poorest pensioners are losing, on average, £18.18 a week. Action was promised in July 1998 by the Secretary of State for Social Security, who said that data matching would begin in April 1999, but nothing has happened. I was told yesterday in a written answer that action would be taken in the future, but no date could be given.

Early-day motion 2 asks for all the backdated money lost by pensioners to be repaid when action is taken. The pensioners lost the money not through any fault of their own, but through the fault of Government, and it would be wrong for it to be pocketed by the Treasury.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to identify the continuing problem involving claims at the lower levels, especially claims by pensioners. Like me, he has deplored it for a long time. The Government try to encourage take-up, and will continue to do so: indeed, the minimum income guarantee, which is earnings-linked, is intended to encourage pensioners to claim.

I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. As he will know, the legislation provides for payment to be backdated to the point at which the claim was made. My hon. Friend will also know that the problem has been going on for decades, and was not solved or even tackled by the Conservatives. It would be difficult to set a precedent by backdating payment to the point at which a claim might have been made. Nevertheless, I endorse my hon. Friend's basic point, which is that many people—the oldest, the frailest and those in most need of financial support—remain reluctant to claim. It is the responsibility of all Members to do all that we can to encourage them to do so.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

In a week in which talks with Pakistan about the arms trade have resumed and the embargo on the arms trade with Indonesia—which is very unstable—has been lifted, and on a day on which we have heard that Hawk jets are to be sold to Zimbabwe, which is engaged in a severe civil war throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it is obvious that the Government have dropped the ethical dimension to their foreign policy. Can we please have an urgent debate on the effect of the arms trade on foreign policy?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady has drawn on a number of examples. She will know that the embargo on arms sales to Indonesia was for a fixed period, and has expired rather than being specifically lifted. Indeed, it was introduced largely on our initiative following the problems in East Timor.

I do not accept that the Government have abandoned an ethical dimension to their foreign policy. In comparison with those who accept that there is legitimacy in some arms sales, those who oppose all arms sales are, in a sense, on an easy wicket. There will always be matters of difficulty and dispute.

I fear that I cannot promise the hon. Lady an urgent statement, but I will draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

As my right hon. Friend knows, we should have been discussing the Electronic Communications Bill this afternoon. We shall now be doing that next week, thanks to the disgraceful behaviour of the lunatic fringe on the Conservative Benches. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government still intend the legislation to be the first Act of the new millennium? If so, can she also assure me that she will deploy all the tools that the Government have at their disposal to ensure that the Bill makes progress next week?

Mrs. Beckett

The Government have every intention of ensuring that the Bill makes progress next week. Hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that it is important legislation and not party politically controversial. Therefore, we are all entitled to hope that it will reach the statute book in the ordinary way. As to whether it will be the first Act of the millennium, I am afraid that I have not had the opportunity to check.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I urge the Leader of the House to have a two-day debate on defence the week after next on the Tuesday and Wednesday, which in the current programme remain fallow? If she does not hold an early debate on defence, the view that is prevalent in the country that the Government are not interested in defence, with our troops living in tents in Kosovo and the Royal Air Force some 20 per cent. short of fighter pilots, will be heightened.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman's last point is particularly extraordinary as it takes more than a couple of years to train a fighter pilot, so, if there is a fighter pilot shortage, the blame cannot be laid at the door of the present Government. [Interruption.] It was not us. That is a simple fact.

The hon. Gentleman asks for a two-day debate next week. I cannot undertake to provide time for that next week, although I certainly take on board his remarks. The Government are conscious of the need to find time for the defence debates. It is untrue that there is no interest. Indeed, it is perhaps because rather too much interest was taken in, for example, the defence White Paper that it came in late.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. We must move on.

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