HC Deb 06 July 2000 vol 353 cc421-35 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 JULY—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Terrorism Bill.

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

TUESDAY 11 JULY—Consideration of a timetable motion relating to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Followed by remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 12 JULY—Remaining stages of the Care Standards Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 13 JULY—Opposition Day [17th Allotted Day].

Until about 4 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Government Neglect of the Crisis in Agriculture".

Followed by a debate entitled "The Relationship between Parliament and the Executive". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

FRIDAY 14 JULY—Subject to further discussions through the usual channels, the House may sit to consider Government legislation.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 17 JULY—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Utilities Bill.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Postal Services Bill,

TUESDAY 18 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 JULY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 20 JULY—Consideration of Lords Amendments which may be received to the Government Resources and Accounts Bill.

FRIDAY 21 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 12 July there will be a debate on European Document No: 8795/00 and COM(00)268, relating to financial assistance to the Western Balkans and an unnumbered explanatory memorandum relating to the preliminary draft budget of the European Communities for 2001 in European Standing Committee B.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 12 July 2000:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union Documents: (a) 8795/00;(b) COM(00)268, Financial assistance to the Western Balkans and revision of the financial perspective. (c) Unnumbered EM submitted by HMT dated 27 June 2000, Preliminary Draft Budget 2001. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23-xxiii (1999–2000).]

Sir George Young

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

In view of the worrying position in Northern Ireland now that troops are back on the streets, may we have an undertaking that the House will be kept informed of developments there?

The House is still owed a debate on procurement for the armed forces, which is made more urgent by today's National Audit Office report of an average four-year delay on major weapons and a £3 billion overspend. With our armed forces being asked to do more for less, that debate is urgent.

Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer make an announcement on the comprehensive spending review during the next two weeks? If so, when? The statement is as important as the Budget, and the House would welcome details of the date and confirmation that there will be a full day's debate in Government time before we rise for the summer.

Will the Leader of the House clarify the position for Friday next week? Does it require a resolution of the House if we are to sit on that day? If so, when will that resolution be taken? If the day is earmarked for the football hooligans Bill, when will the draft Bill be published? Do the Government intend to take all stages of the Bill in one day, in normal time and with a guillotine? We should certainly resist that. In view of the importance of the Bill, which we support in principle, and given the congestion in the Government's programme, would it not be better to sit beyond the planned date of rising or abandon some other piece of legislation?

Finally, can we have an early debate on the damaging proposals of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, which risk further undermining and bypassing the House of Commons?

Mrs. Beckett

I undertake to draw the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Government endeavour to keep the House informed on such matters; I know that my right hon. Friend will want to do so, should that become necessary.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have accepted the fact that there will need to be a debate on defence procurement. I am not sure whether the NAO report makes that more urgent, as—if I recall the matter correctly—the NAO was looking back at the disasters in the procurement of defence equipment under the previous Government. That does not exactly suggest that dealing with the report is urgent, although I accept that it is important and will require scrutiny in the House.

I anticipate that there will be an announcement on the spending review before the recess, although I am not yet able to give the right hon. Gentleman a firm date; we shall do so as soon as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that a resolution would be needed, were the House to choose to sit on Friday 14 July. That would, of course, be a decision for the House. He is also right to identify the fact that the possibility of such a sitting has been raised because of a possible Bill on football hooliganism. I understand that it is hoped to publish a draft Bill, or to have one available soon—perhaps tomorrow, but certainly in the quite near future. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already indicated to the House that he wants to hold the widest consultation on any proposals.

As to the notion that this matter shows, in some way, confusion in the Government's programme—

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

All stages?

Mrs. Beckett

That will be a matter for discussion.

As for the Government's programme, I have repeatedly reminded the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) that the number of Bills in train during this Session is almost identical to the number put through by the Conservative Government, in which he served, at a similar stage of the previous Session. Indeed, as one looks back over the years of Conservative Governments—especially during the 1980s—the programmes of legislation that they put through were substantially heavier than that currently being undertaken by the Labour Government.

The notion that the Government should abandon some other piece of legislation casts into sharp focus the progress of the present discussions with the Opposition on such issues. The shadow Home Secretary—not for the first time—comes to the Dispatch Box demanding that action be taken and offering Opposition co-operation, but follows that with constant back-pedalling after the discovery that they cannot deliver. That seems to be the position on the issue—it is one that we have been in on several occasions in the past. The fact that opposition commitments are given that the right hon. Lady apparently cannot substantiate is a matter for them; it certainly does not provide grounds for the Government to start ditching parts of their programme.

With regard to the proposals made by the Modernisation Committee, I cannot refute strongly enough the notion that they would in any way damage or undermine the ability of the House to scrutinise Government business. The proposals will provide a basis whereby there can be a reasonable—indeed, better—division of responsibility between Government and Opposition, because the Opposition would have more control over how the available time would be used. There is no suggestion that the time need be reduced. The proposals provide a framework in which decisions could be taken at a sensible time, and not at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

As my right hon. Friend may be aware, earlier this week, a British citizen, Mr. David Chell, was sentenced to death in Malaysia on charges of drugs smuggling, which he denies. Given the Government's principled opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, could my right hon. Friend find time for a statement on the steps that the Government are taking to offer Mr. Chell support to save his life?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a statement on the case in the near future, although I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Foreign Office questions will be held during the week after next, by which time the position may be a little clearer. In the interim, my hon. Friend might try to raise the matter in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that the proposed football hooliganism legislation raises serious issues, and will require careful examination. Members on both sides of the House have already said that we do not want to follow the pattern of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 and have the dangerous yobs Act passed at such speed that we do not take all the considerations fully into account. Will the right hon. Lady give us a clear assurance that it is the Government's intention to try to obtain an agreed programme motion for the discussion of this legislation?

In that connection, may I warmly welcome the report of the Modernisation Committee and ask the Leader of the House to give appropriate credit to some of the authors of the ideas that it contains? Does she recall that it was the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) who, in his capacity as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, was the pioneer of the ideas that are contained in that report?

I wonder whether the Leader of the House has also had an opportunity to read a slim little pamphlet, called "Mr. Blair's Poodle", by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), in which he promotes the very ideas for programming motions in the House to which the Modernisation Committee has now given the force of its own recommendations? Does she accept that, at long last, many members of the Conservative party recognise that the proper role of Opposition is to give effective scrutiny to the Government's legislation, rather than simply to waste time in the middle of the night?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot recall whether the hon. Gentleman was able to be in his place for the Home Secretary's statement, but I am sure that he knows that the Home Secretary did make it plain that he understood fully and shared the view that any proposals that came forward would require to be most carefully examined. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise that.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for an assurance that the Government would seek an agreed programme motion, and I can give him that assurance. We are seeking agreement; indeed, I would go further and say that the Government are seeking, if at all possible, to get an agreed Bill. If it is not possible to get such agreement, obviously that will call into question to what degree and at what pace such proposals can be proceeded with.

The hon. Gentleman then asked me about the issues that are raised in the Modernisation Committee report. I share his view that it is right and proper that the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) should receive credit for the proposals that he has advocated over many years of a long career in the House, and that the right hon. Gentleman has argued that we should take those steps.

I am afraid that I have not as yet had time to peruse the interesting pamphlet produced by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who, as I understand it, speaks for the Conservative party from the Front Bench on constitutional matters. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has read it, and tells me that it is much to be recommended. I look forward to reading it.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Disregarding for a moment the sad fact that, yesterday, the Tory dinosaurs on the Modernisation Committee rejected modernisation and attempts to improve the way in which we scrutinise legislation, does not the statement that my right hon. Friend has just made with regard to the business of the House for the next fortnight highlight the fact that we really should make more use of an earlier report of the Modernisation Committee with regard to carry-over legislation? Is it not time that we moved forward to a five-year Parliament which the people elect with a rolling programme of legislation, without the need for an annual Queen's Speech and state opening of Parliament, and time that Bills should be limited and have to complete all their stages within one year of their introduction?

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's regret that, for the first time, it was not possible to reach more of a measure of agreement on the Modernisation Committee, but that is behind us. I am conscious, too, that it was he who, in that Committee, proposed the measures for greater use of carry-over legislation from one Session into another—of course, only by agreement—that were agreed by the Modernisation Committee in an earlier report.

The issue of a five-year rolling programme, which my hon. Friend has raised today, is a further step in that direction. It has often been considered, and may well be explored again in future, not only in this forum but among the many other bodies that from time to time consider how this place works. I am also mindful of the fact that my hon. Friend, very sensibly, has also suggested that, were Parliament to move to a wider programme, there would need to be other mechanisms to ensure that legislation did not simply drag on, as a discipline both for the House and for the Government.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The Leader of the House may know that the people of Banbury have been sending a Member to this place since the reign of Mary Tudor, and that—with the exception, I suppose, of the dark days of Charles I—never have a Government treated the House with such contempt.

We have Ministers who make statements to the media rather than to the House. The Chancellor of the Exchequer never even came to the House to announce that he was handing over to the Bank of England control of interest rates; that was something that the House learned from the media. We have a Prime Minister who has changed Prime Minister's questions from twice a week to once a week, and rarely attends the House. Now, for the Prime Minister's convenience, a book is to be placed in the Division Lobby, so that those who are too idle actually to attend the House may sign in on a Wednesday afternoon. It will be not a three-day week under this Government, but a one-day week, with the Executive treating the House and the people whom we represent with contempt.

Mrs. Beckett

I have seldom heard such nonsense, even from the hon. Gentleman. As to the suggestion that the Government in some way treat the House with contempt, may I remind him, as the statistics make quite clear, that the present Prime Minister attends Prime Minister's Question Time more frequently than did his predecessor, answers more questions and deals with more issues? Indeed, Ministers under this Government make more statements in the House than did our predecessors. Those are the facts. I know that they are loathed by the Conservative party, but they are facts.

The hon. Gentleman has perhaps slightly misunderstood our proposals. Even under this Government, it will not be possible to sign to register one's views in the Lobby without actually being present.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Has my right hon. Friend received any indication from Home Office Ministers as to when draft legislation on the private security industry is to be produced and whether that draft legislation will include measures to curb the outrageous activities of cowboy wheel clampers, who cause havoc for motorists up and down the country?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact date for the publication of draft legislation. I am well aware that it is an issue on which she has long campaigned, and I share her view that such activities cause great annoyance to members of the public. I understand that it is hoped to publish a draft shortly, but I cannot give her a more precise date than that.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Is the Leader of the House aware that a lobby is coming to Parliament this afternoon to protest against the Government's policy for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, particularly in the light of the report of the Select Committee on Defence on the subject and the effect that the policy will have on defence relations with America? Will she provide Government time soon to debate this important subject?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find Government time in the near future. The hon. Gentleman will know that, at this time of year, there is always considerable pressure on such time. I am conscious of the great interest that has been taken in the future of DERA, and the Select Committee on Defence has produced an interim report. I was not aware that a lobby was coming to Parliament, but I am sure that it will be received with great welcome by Members from both sides of the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

May I raise with my right hon. Friend a matter that I have mentioned to her on two previous occasions—compensation for former prisoners of war of the Japanese? Is it possible for her to consult her ministerial colleagues so that a decision—obviously, we all hope that it is a favourable one—can be made before we rise for the long summer recess at the end of July? There is overwhelming support for the view that these brave people should be compensated at long last, although that should have been done by the Japanese. I hope that my right hon. Friend will urgently examine the issue.

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend quite rightly said, he has raised the issue on a number of occasions. Indeed, he has campaigned long and hard on it and I know that that fact is widely recognised on both sides of the House. I fear that I cannot say to him with certainty that it is likely that an announcement will be made before the recess. He knows that the matter is receiving careful consideration, but I certainly undertake to draw his concerns and his pressure for an early announcement to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

May I join my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the shadow Leader of the House, in seeking to dissuade the Leader of the House from any plan to have a guillotine next Friday, because it is coincidental with Bastille day—a day devoted to the release of prisoners? The coincidence might confuse both schoolchildren and criminologists.

Mrs. Beckett

I thought that the date was familiar.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Can we have a statement on Inland Revenue inquiries into the criminal actions of the imposter who secured from the Inland Revenue private information on the personal tax files of Lord Levy? In that statement, can we be assured that all the journalists from The Sunday Times who are connected with the story have been interviewed? Can we also be assured that the Conservative party has no connection in any way with those criminal actions?

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's view that no one should be amused at the notion that anyone's tax affairs can be revealed simply as the result of a telephone call. Our laws do not say that, and I would have hoped that it is not what anyone in the House would expect. It is particularly remarkable that the person who obtained that information managed to do so without noticing that Lord Levy had paid—

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mrs. Beckett

Well, not only millions in previous years, but, as I understand from today's report, some £25,000 in corporation tax in the year in question. Apparently, that was overlooked by the people who wrote the story to which my hon. Friend referred. I am afraid I have no knowledge of whether people at The Sunday Times are being interviewed about the matter, nor, indeed, whether they have any connection with the Conservative party. I would hope that it is a matter of regret to anyone in the House that people's private tax affairs were not kept private.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 850.

[That this House welcomes the proposal announced in the Budget to lower VAT on women's sanitary products to 5 per cent. from 1st January 2001; agrees that women's sanitary products are not luxury consumer products; notes that continence products also classify as sanitary products and are not luxury consumer products; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to ensure that their definition of sanitary products will allow for the lowering of VAT to 5 per cent. on continence products, which are required, according to Government estimates in Good Practice in Continence Services, by up to 20 per cent. of the female population aged under 65 years, 40 per cent. of women aged over 65 years and between 7 to 10 per cent. of men aged over 65 years.]

That early-day motion has now received the support of 113 Members, many of whom are Government Back Benchers. Does the Leader of the House agree that that level of support illustrates the concern of Members about the anomaly that will exist from January 2001, when VAT on sanitary products is reduced, rightly, to 5 per cent., while the VAT that consumers will pay on incontinence pads will stay at the standard rate? Will she ask her right hon. Friend the Chancellor to come to the House and make a statement explaining his reasoning on the matter, which, if implemented as planned, would adversely affect the quality of life of an estimated one in four women in the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman will know that one reason why Chancellors in successive Governments tend to be reluctant to make such changes is that, having made a change in one area, they are pressed to make it in another. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and, as I said, I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the report of the Modernisation Committee, which she chairs. If adopted by the House, the report will finally end late-night sittings, which are not conducive to the making of good legislation. I urge my right hon. Friend to have a debate on the report as soon as possible, perhaps before the recess.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate before the recess. Indeed, that would not be necessary because, as long as the House has an opportunity to consider the matter in this Session, it has an opportunity to make its own decision as a House about whether it wishes to pursue this experiment.

I am certainly grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks, and it is important that, as a House, we use the time available to us well and effectively. Of course, although we have made repeated efforts—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has offered to conduct seminars to educate the Opposition on how to be a good Opposition—I am afraid that they are not listening yet.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Can the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate, preferably next week, on the thinking behind the Government's priorities in their legislative programme? It would appear that the Government are about to try to force on the House and the people of this country a Bill that threatens to take away some of our most ancient and precious civil liberties on the spuriously urgent grounds that the matter must be dealt with extremely quickly and without proper scrutiny or consideration.

That contrasts with the fact that, already in this Session, the Government have given great priority to Bills such as the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill, the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill and the Census (Amendment) Bill, to name but four. Does that not seem very odd? Before we are asked to sign away civil liberties on the basis of urgency, the House would appreciate knowing why the Government apparently gave greater priority to those other matters.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman chides us for making it a legislative priority to bring forward proposals to deal with issues of hooliganism, particularly those associated with football. However, I remind him that, in theory at least, that is also the priority of his Front-Bench colleagues. They challenged the Government to introduce legislation on that point and, indeed, offered the support of the Conservative party. The right hon. Gentleman has just made it plain why their words on the matter are not worth much.

As to why the Government chose to give greater priority to the Bills that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, I recognise that they are matters with which he apparently has some quarrel, but he should know that, in fishing communities, the need to tackle the problems that had arisen with the sea fishing grants regime was of considerable importance. That may not matter much in Bromley, but there are many parts of the UK where it matters very much indeed. Similarly, there was great concern about those who were affected by the anomalies that required correction by the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, which received a great deal of support from other Conservative Members.

As to whether those Bills should be a priority in terms of the time that they are given in the legislative programme, I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that they are relatively minor matters, but we believe that they make necessary improvements and they have to be passed. I agree with him that they should not have detained the House for a great deal of time, but the fact that they did is entirely down to him and his colleagues.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

May I take the Leader of the House back to the Modernisation Committee and its proposals? When we finally get round to debating them, would she welcome amendments to bring under parliamentary control and scrutiny the operation of the royal prerogative by the Prime Minister and other Ministers, to introduce a committee to scrutinise all appointments to quangos by Ministers, and to enable the House to have some say in the appointment of members of Select Committees, rather than the current arrangement whereby the Whips decide who the members should be?

Although many of us welcome any appropriate proposals that enable the public to see and understand what is happening, Parliament has an important role in asking questions and scrutinising and controlling what the Government do. Does the Leader of the House appreciate that, in modernising, we have to move forward and make the House as democratic as legislatures in many other countries?

Mrs. Beckett

Well, no, I can confidently say that I would not welcome any of my hon. Friend's proposals, for two good and simple reasons. First, they are totally outside the remit of the report to which we are referring and do not arise from the debate. Secondly, although they are obviously issues of great interest which are often discussed, ill thought out proposals would not do anybody any favours.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Further to the questions that the right hon. Lady has already been asked about the Modernisation Committee's determination to close down the House and its democratic procedures, will she tell the House exactly how she plans to proceed with the measures? Will she be offering the House a free vote on them in this Session or the next? Will she be offering any vote on them at all, so that we will know whether they are likely to go ahead? Will she explain to my constituents how it can possibly be democratic for the House to vote only once a week on important matters that affect their lives?

Mrs. Beckett

From what the hon. Lady says, I doubt whether she has read the report. She ought to know by now that such matters are put before the House for it to decide; they are House matters and as a consequence there will be a free vote. I hope that there will be a free vote for Conservative Members as well, although I doubt it. If she is nurturing the illusion that in some way there is a diminution of democracy in the proposals, she definitely has not read the report.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

I understand that Europe is about to impose VAT on tolls in this country. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that that will have a devastating effect not only on people who use the Humber bridge, which already has the most expensive tolls in this country, but on those who use bridges throughout the land? The announcement is likely to be made in the recess, so will she ensure that nothing is done until we have had a statement in the next Session and, if the matter requires legislation, could she try to bury it at the bottom of the pile?

Mrs. Beckett

I freely confess to my hon. Friend that I am not aware of the time scale for such proposals, but I certainly undertake to get a reply for her from the relevant authorities. I fully understand her anxiety about the proposal and about such an extension of the operation of VAT. It strikes me that it will weaken still further the Opposition's case that we in this country face uniquely high transport charges, since so much traffic elsewhere in the European Union is on toll roads.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Will the proposed football hooligan Bill be drawn widely enough to take into account other forms of anti-social behaviour abroad? Many of my constituents do not like lager louts in Benidorm performing acts of holiday hooliganism. Equally, those who have seen hooliganism on airliners might think that legislative attention should also be given to such people. Will the Bill be drawn widely enough to include those aspects as well?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure that even my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary could draft legislation that would deal with every kind of anti-social behaviour in all circumstances, but I understand that any legislative proposal is likely to focus particularly on those who already have convictions for violence, although not necessarily for violence previously identified as being football related. That will be the key element in the Bill, but the proposals are still being considered and will be fully discussed.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we hold a debate entitled "What happened to the peace dividend?" so that we can draw attention to the new arms race in Europe and the world? The threat to world peace has been greatly exaggerated and countries that are still impoverished, such as the former communist states, are being urged to spend less on education, health and housing and more on arms. America is pushing a new missile race based on the absurd claim that it is terrified of the might of North Korea. There has been a peace dividend, but, as always, it has cascaded into the pockets of arms traders'—principally American arms traders—who constantly exaggerate the threat to world peace.

Mrs. Beckett

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's concern that countries, especially those whose finances are already under pressure, should not be encouraged to spend more than necessary on their defence, given that they have other priorities for the support of their people. Hon. Members on both sides of the House understand the concern that he expresses. With respect, however, it is easy to poke fun at the notion that the United States should be alarmed at the activities of much smaller countries, but those who have access to atomic weapons should be feared if they are likely to use them. That is the matter of concern. I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety that resources should not be misused, but equally, he, like all hon. Members, would want us to be properly defended.

Mr. Hogg

The right hon. Lady will know that many hon. Members are deeply concerned about the problems in prisons, such as overcrowding and other conditions. She will also know that there is apparently a proposal that Brixton prison should be transferred to the private sector, something of which I would approve. Will she consider holding an early debate on prisons and, perhaps more importantly, an annual debate thereafter on prisons, possibly to coincide with the annual report of the inspector of prisons?

Mrs. Beckett

I have a great deal of sympathy with the concern that the right hon. and learned Gentleman expresses about conditions in the Prison Service, and I understand his reference to the recent reports of particular anxieties in Brixton prison. That important issue needs to be aired. but I fear that the pressure is naturally heavily on dealing with Government legislation at this time of year. He will understand that from his own experience in government. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House, even on prisons. However, although this will not be welcome, I recommend the attractions of Westminster Hall, which provides a further opportunity to initiate debates and to scrutinise Government policy.

As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal for an annual debate, he attends business questions often enough to know that, if we accepted all the proposals for annual debates on subjects of great worth, we would never do anything else. Some Opposition Members might welcome that, but it would not be welcome to those who want legislative change.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on the Modernisation Committee's proposals and those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have worked hard to introduce them. I note the response that she gave to the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) for an early debate, which I would also welcome—but could that debate be held on a Tuesday or Wednesday as main business so that, in keeping with the spirit of the proposals, we introduce some of the education to which she referred, and, given that the proposals are about efficiency, so that those hon. Members who like to make efficient use of their time have the maximum opportunity to take part in that important debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks, and I am sure that all members of the Committee will be, because a considerable amount of work was done on those issues, although not all of it came to fruition. I undertake to bear her remarks in mind, although I cannot say at this point when the debate is likely to take place. However, I recognise the importance of holding that debate at suitable time.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am sure that we could all make more efficient use of our time if questions and answers were briefer.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider her response to the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who asked about a debate on the NAO report on defence projects? There has been no debate in the House on such a report for the past decade, although when her Government came to power, they promised substantial changes. Some of the issues discussed in the report are relevant to Government action since 1997 and I believe that a debate is long overdue. Considering that what has happened can be described as bungling bureaucratic incompetence at best, or a procurement fiasco at worst, the issue should urgently be discussed by the whole House.

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a defence procurement debate every year—although obviously the report was not previously available. I accept the importance of holding such a debate, but I cannot find time for it before the recess.

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

I add my congratulations to the Modernisation Committee on its report, which I skimmed through briefly before coming to the Chamber. I regret that Conservative members of the Committee have chosen to submit their own report, even though some of them did sterling work on previous reports, and previous Conservative members of the Committee made two important recommendations, which the Committee has brought forward.

May I press my right hon. Friend on the point about the House being given the opportunity to vote on the proposals, and seek her confirmation that such an opportunity will be provided this Session so that we can have a proper, efficient and effective Parliament for the next Session, which is what most of our constituents—and, I suspect, most of those of Conservative Members—desire?

Mrs. Beckett

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government intend that the House should have an opportunity to reach a view on the proposals this Session. I share her view. I have long observed that there are those who nurture the illusion that they make sense and contribute valuably to debate in the small hours. I have never observed that to be true for the recipients.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

No one would accuse the right hon. Lady of having been unconcerned about civil liberties during her long and distinguished parliamentary career, but may I put it to her—I am sure that she will agree—that a fundamental tenet of civil society is that a person should be prevented from leaving his country only after a hearing in an independent court, free of the police and the Executive? If that centuries-old freedom is to be abrogated, does she agree that it would be absurd to do so just because a football match is coming up in early September? I ask her most seriously whether we can go through our normal procedures: the production of a proper consultation document to enable the police to give their views, Second Reading of the Bill in the House, debates in Committee, consideration by the Lords and reconsideration by the House. Then we would have a Bill that we could all support.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He will know that the Government do not intend to proceed other than with proper scrutiny and agreement, and when the draft Bill is published he may find that some of the points that he has raised are covered. He has made an important point and the Government are mindful of it.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May I press my right hon. Friend a bit further on the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)? She will have seen early-day motion 900, on the compensation to be paid by the Manx Parliament to former prisoners of war of the Japanese.

[That this House congratulates the Tynwald for its decision to make an ex gratia payment of £10,000 to residents of the Isle of Man who were either prisoners of war or internees held by Japan during the Second World War; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to make a decision on whether it will make an equivalent payment, including widows, in the UK before this House rises for the summer adjournment.]

Will she undertake to point out to Defence Ministers that time is running short if they are to make a statement and follow the example of the Manx Parliament, as I think that they want to?

Also, when Opposition Members were asking questions, it occurred to me to ask her to remind the House who introduced the Jopling proposals—our side or theirs?

Mrs. Beckett

I take on board my hon. Friend's remarks. I note that he, too, has much pressed the claims of those who were prisoners of war of the Japanese, and I undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

With regard to the Jopling proposals, my hon. Friend is right. They were produced by an all-party Committee, which was chaired by a distinguished member of the Conservative party. The proposals were put forward. in 1991–92. My hon. Friend has correctly identified part of my own contention—that that is a direction in which the House has been moving for a considerable number of years and which, in theory, has agreement in all parts of the House. The abrogation of that understanding and agreement during this Parliament has led to the present proposals.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

In the light of the recent publication of the Government's proposals for a national waste strategy, will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that we will have an early debate on the matter, so that applications such as the one in my constituency by Minosus to deposit toxic waste down the Winsford rock-salt mine can be taken in that context, instead of the present piecemeal approach, which could be extremely damaging for the long-term future of the environment and our people?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on that in the near future. The hon. Gentleman might find time for one in Westminster Hall, and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions takes questions next week.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Will my right hon. Friend allow me to pay tribute to her important role in relation to today's Modernisation Committee report in trying to reach consensus and make that an all-party recommendation? Does she agree that the proposals for programming and better use of time in the Chamber and Westminster Hall should be read carefully by all hon. Members? Those proposals are sensible and a decision should be taken to adopt them as an experimental way forward in the next Session of Parliament.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is right to say that I endeavour to reach agreement and consensus on such matters, building on the consensus that has existed in the House for many years, until quite recently. We should continue to try to get such an agreed way forward. If the House agrees to proceed with such an experiment, I expect that few will wish to turn the clock back.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Earlier, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) suggested that I was supporting the proposals in the Modernisation Committee's report for the programming of legislation. In fact, what I wrote in my pamphlet was that we in the House need to scrutinise power where it really lies—that is, with the Prime Minister, who hardly ever comes to the House, hardly ever votes here and hardly ever speaks here. Will the Leader of the House give urgent consideration to the possibility of a debate to find ways in which we can bring the Prime Minister nearer to the centre of our deliberations in the House?

Mrs. Beckett

No one ever suggested that the hon. Gentleman was supporting the proposals in the report. I confidently expect that he, along with most other, and perhaps all, members of the parliamentary Conservative party, is likely to vote against the report, as I see no indication of a free vote or free thinking on the matter on their side. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) was probably quoting his remarks that programming is not only a good and valuable way of making the best use of time, but was somewhat inevitable.

On the issue of scrutinising where power really lies, and the Prime Minister's role, I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that he should know that the Prime Minister's record of attendance in the House and his record of statements in the House are infinitely superior to those of his predecessor. It is true that there was a substantial break with precedent with regard to the number of occasions on which Prime Ministers speak in the House. It was made by the right hon. Lady Thatcher.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must now move on.

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