HC Deb 27 July 2000 vol 354 cc1241-55 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the first week after the recess?

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

The business for the first week after the summer recess will be as follows: MONDAY 23 OCTOBER—The House will meet to elect a Speaker.

TUESDAY 24 OCTOBER—Second Reading of the Insolvency Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 25 OCTOBER—Opposition Day [18th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 26 OCTOBER—Debate on defence procurement on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 27 OCTOBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include: MONDAY 30 OCTOBER—There will be a debate on the Seventh Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on the Rural White Paper and the Eleventh Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on the Urban White Paper, followed by a debate on the Ninth Report from the Trade and Industry Committee on the proposed public-private partnership for British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Both debates will arise on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks after the summer recess will be: THURSDAY 26 OCTOBER—Debate on the Third Report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs on the double jeopardy rule.

THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER—Debate on the Third Report from the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on the future of the Export Credits Guarantee Department.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for the business for the first week back, and for the hint of the business for the following week.

I welcome the debate on defence procurement. Can the Leader of the House confirm that we will also have the normal two-day defence debate during the spill-over session? Will that take place on a defence White Paper?

May we have a debate on early-day motion 1027, which has been has been signed by two former Home Secretaries and a former Attorney-General?

[That this House condemns the Home Secretary for his statement during the second reading of the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill that the bill enjoyed "the active endorsement of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham" (Official Report, Volume 345, No. 58, column 886), when correspondence between the Noble and Learned Lord and the Home Secretary now shows that this was not the case; and calls on the Home Secretary to apologise to the Noble and Learned Lord, and to the House.]

Before we rise, may we also have a statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on his decision to recommend a royal prerogative of mercy for James McArdle, who was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in 1998 following the docklands bombing in which two civilians were killed? That decision has aroused the deepest concern, and the House expects a full explanation.

Today sees the publication of the Government's response to the Sutherland commission on long-term care, which is of great interest to the House and our constituents. Can the right hon. Lady find time for an early debate on it?

Can the Leader of the House shed any light on the likely date of the state opening of Parliament?

Finally, today's Order Paper contains two written questions about the future of the dome. It would be quite wrong for a decision to be slipped out by written answer as the House rises for the summer. Can the right hon. Lady confirm that the Deputy Prime Minister will make a full statement to the House tomorrow to explain how much or how little the taxpayer will receive from its disposal?

Mrs. Beckett

I can confirm that there will be a two-day debate on defence, but cannot say on what document it will be taken.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on an early-day motion calling on the Home Secretary to make an apology. My right hon. Friend has already dealt extensively with that matter in debate in the House, and I see no need for a further debate.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked for a statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I cannot anticipate granting that request. The right hon. Gentleman will probably know that, had it not been for the action taken by my right hon. Friend, Mr. McArdle would have spent longer in prison than those who were convicted at the same time as he was—the co-defendants who were convicted at the same time, two of whom were given longer sentences.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the royal commission on long-term care. I am aware that the House takes an on-going interest in that matter. I cannot promise an early debate on it, however, nor indeed can I give him more illumination on the state opening, although that will no doubt be addressed in the overspill period.

On the dome, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions anticipates answering the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) later today. I am surprised at the suggestion that the House would want a statement tomorrow, particularly as it comes from those on the Conservative Benches, who normally resist statements on a Friday.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend will know that many of us believe strongly in the principle of rotation of the speakership, which means that we will support only a Conservative or Liberal candidate as Speaker—that will mean saying no to some good friends. With that in mind, would my right hon. Friend invite the Procedure Committee to meet during the recess, which I understand is possible, to consider a revision of the rules and make a recommendation so that the House can convene during the recess to agree that? Then, when we return after the recess, we can deal with the speakership under the new rules. Some of us feel strongly and are most unhappy about the way in which matters may proceed.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that for about 35 years the speakership has alternated across the House. I was not aware of the large number of Labour Members who believe that that is an important principle because it is not a matter for the Government; it is very much a matter for the House. Therefore, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, as I am sure the House will be.

My hon. Friend makes an important suggestion about inviting the Procedure Committee to meet during the recess. I will properly consider it, as he would expect. However, the Committee met after the election of the present Speaker and considered these matters very carefully. It concluded that it ought not to recommend a change. While I understand my hon. Friend's wish for the matter to be considered again, my immediate off-the-cuff reaction is that just before a further election—I realise that he will see the irony of this—is not the time to do it. It is a matter that ought to be considered carefully and thoroughly.

I am mindful of advice that I received some time ago as to the errors that one should avoid in government. I learned that what drove the Conservative party into the poll tax was the assumption that there must be a better system than the rates. The assumption that lies behind my hon. Friend's question is that there must be a better system of electing the Speaker and I am not sure that he is right.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I believe that there will be widespread support for the views expressed by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on both sides of the House.

In the meantime, Madam Speaker, after the great and good had their opportunity yesterday, may I say how much I regret the fact that this will be the last occasion on which I have the opportunity to address you in that way?

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read very carefully Madam Speaker's wise words to the House about the proper scrutiny of legislation? Is the right hon. Lady really satisfied that this week, and indeed in October, the House will have a proper opportunity to scrutinise some extremely important legislation, which raises important issues of great principle about which many hon. Members have considerable concerns? For example, in the crowded legislative timetable that is still ahead of us and the other place, has she considered which Bills may be eligible for carry-over? As Chair of the Modernisation Select Committee, she will be aware that if there is cross-party agreement, Bills can be carried over to a subsequent Session. Will she give a firm undertaking that she and the Government recognise that it is more important to get it right than to get it quick?

Mrs. Beckett

I did indeed take note—as, I hope, did the House—of Madam Speaker's remarks about the scrutiny of legislation, and that it is one of our key functions and it is important that we get it right. I agree too that it raises important principles for the way in which we structure and make the most efficient use of our time. I anticipate that the House will have an opportunity to address that matter.

I am disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman repeating the Conservative party propaganda that this is a crowded Session. During the parallel year under the previous Parliament, there were 37 Bills; there were 43 in the subsequent year. Of course, it is important that we give legislation proper and full consideration, but the notion that the number of Bills before the House is unusually great is not borne out by examination of the figures.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about carry-over, but he will be aware that the Government expressed the view that that could be done only by consent. He will also be aware that such consent is not always forthcoming.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mrs. Beckett

I note the right hon. Gentleman's sedentary intervention confirming that point. I simply remind Conservative Members of the recommendation of Professor Lord Norton, to whose report they said they attached much importance.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the Leader of the House suggest when a decision is likely to be made on compensation for former prisoners of war of the Japanese? That is an important issue.

As speculation and excitement will inevitably grow about the election of a Speaker—the first item of business when we return—and touching on my right hon. Friend's earlier comment, does she agree that the best advice for those on both—I emphasise both—Front Benches is not to try to influence the outcome? Members should be allowed—as I hope that we will be—to make our own decision. On the two previous occasions, the House came to a wise and sensible decision and I am sure that we shall do the same when we return.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has constantly pressed the issue of compensation for Japanese prisoners of war. I shall again draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I understand that, as yet, no decision has been made, although, as my hon. Friend is aware, the matter is under active consideration.

On the election of a Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has expressed in the strongest possible terms the view that it is certainly not a matter for the Government, but for the House. I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be unwise for parties to try to intervene officially. I share entirely his view that on the previous two occasions we made wise decisions. I am confident that we shall do so again.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

May I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the answer that she gave my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on early-day motion 1027? May I remind the right hon. Lady that, during the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill, the Home Secretary told the House that the measure had the active endorsement of the then Lord Chief Justice? However, correspondence subsequently made public showed beyond any doubt whatever that that was not the case. In view of her responsibilities to the House, will she ensure that the Home Secretary comes to the House to apologise for giving us such completely inaccurate information?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that my function here is to discuss what business ought to be before the House. Although I know that he attaches importance to the matter that he raises, the House has had an opportunity to air and consider it.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the Leader of the House set aside the business scheduled for tomorrow in order to discuss the urgent matter raised in early-day motion 1033?

[That this House welcomes the measures taken by the Government to raise pensioners' incomes, but notes that for five out of six pensioners, who do not receive income support, the additional basic pension payable in 2000–01 if the link with earnings had been restored in 1998 would be more than the combined value of the £150 winter fuel payment and free television licence for that year—£119 more for a couple aged 75 or over and £162 more for a couple under 75; notes the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 18th July that next year's pension increase is a matter for further consultation; and urges the Government to undertake that consultation without delay.]

The motion notes the generosity of the Government in granting pensioners a winter fuel payment of £150, plus the free television licences. However, it notes the surprising fact that, had those payments not been made and, instead, the link between earnings and pensions been restored from 1998, five out of six pensioners would have been better off. There is a need for urgency, because there is widespread dismay among pensioners that, although—as a result of the Government's good economic policies—the Government have been generous in giving major sums to many causes, pensioners seem to have been neglected. That is surprising because it has been made clear that the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings is overdue and easily affordable.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend is aware that, over the course of this Parliament, the Government will have made available to pensioners more resources than would have been case had we simply restored the earnings link. He will also be aware that those resources have been made available disproportionately to the least well-off among the pensioner community, because the Government felt that the plight of those pensioners was so severe that they deserved urgent help. However, my hon. Friend will also know that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has confirmed, the Government will publish further plans for a new pensioner credit in the autumn.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Pursuant to the questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Leader of the House said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire that the matter had been very adequately aired. I have to say, however, that the Home Secretary considered the matter in his first speech—some of us thought that a little odd, given that it was on the timetable motion—and had limited time to reply at the end of that debate. One should also note that after answering the first intervention from the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), he did not give way to him again. Therefore I think that, to be fair to the Home Secretary, he has not actually had an adequate opportunity to respond to the views of the House on this matter.

Mrs. Beckett

I say with the greatest possible respect to the right hon. Gentleman that he has identified that the Home Secretary has already dealt with the matter in the House on two occasions. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO.] He may not have dealt with it to the satisfaction of Opposition Members, but that is not the point.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

Is the Leader of the House aware that an excellent report was produced yesterday, entitled "Setting the Boundaries: Reforming the Law on Sex Offences"? Will she undertake to provide some time when that report can be adequately debated in the House?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I admit that I have not had the opportunity to study the report, which, as she knows, is a report to the Government which we have issued for consultation, but I agree that it is important. She will know that the Government are anxious to strengthen the law that protects children in particular, and I am confident that people will consider the report in that light.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady give the House an assurance that when we return, there will be an opportunity to debate both on a substantive motion and a free vote the reports of the Liaison Committee and the Modernisation Committee?

Mrs. Beckett

I anticipate that the House will be able to discuss both those reports at some point.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are pushing through a policy of transferring council house stocks into the private sector, and that many of us on the Labour Benches are extremely unhappy about what we see as a massive privatisation, which means that that stock will not be subject to any kind of democratic accountability. May we have a debate about that when we come back, so that those on the Labour Benches who are disappointed with that decision can argue that we should be investing massive sums directly into public housing, instead of hiving it off to the private sector?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will know that we have invested an extra £5 billion in housing and made resources available to refurbish a further 300,000 homes. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the overspill for an early debate on that issue, but he will know that, fairly early on, there will be questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I have no wish to introduce a note of gloom into the prospect of our summer holidays, but may I please draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that, following President Milosevic's illegal attempts to seek to change the constitution of Montenegro, tension in that country is now rising alarmingly? That is causing widespread concern. I fear that, unless real restraint is shown by both sides, over the next few months we shall see conflict—very possibly war—in Montenegro. In view of the proximity of British troops and of the implications that such a conflict would have for western policy in the Balkans, may we have the right hon. Lady's assurance that if, God help us, that conflict breaks out, serious consideration will be given to recalling the House?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the concern that the right hon. Gentleman expresses. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We must all hope that such an eventuality does not require our return.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Mr. Brian Souter spent almost £500,000 on a referendum on section 28 in Scotland, but is she aware that the conclusions of recent inquiries in Mansfield and Chesterfield into the operation of his Stagecoach buses were highly critical? When I tabled a question asking for a transcript of the decision made by the traffic commissioner as a result of the Chesterfield inquiry to be placed in the Library, I was informed that it could not be done because there was a need to minimise public expenditure. As it would cost only £200, should not fresh consideration be given to that request and will my right hon. Friend pursue it?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has been exercised by the problems that have arisen in his constituency, and I sympathise with his concerns. I share his unexpressed view that Mr. Souter would be better advised to devote his attention to running his company better. I fear that I cannot undertake to grant my hon. Friend's request at this time, but I shall look into the matter and take it up with the relevant authorities.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

The Leader of the House may not realise it, but she is being unfair to the Home Secretary. On Tuesday night, he was put through the forensic mincing machine by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and, owing to the limited time available, to which my right hon. Friends have referred, he was unable to give an adequate explanation to do himself justice. It appears that he compounded rather than mitigated whatever offence he was guilty of in the eyes of that hon. and learned Gentleman. Surely she would be doing a service not only to the House but to the reputation of the Home Secretary if she permitted him to return to the House before Friday to give a full and candid explanation of what is recorded in Hansard at column 886 of his Second Reading speech.

Mrs. Beckett

My understanding is that the Home Secretary dealt extensively with the matter. Irrespective of the concern expressed by Opposition Members, it is my job, as the hon. and learned Gentleman perfectly well knows, to deal with the issue of whether a subject has been raised and dealt with in the House, not how adequately that has been done.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on pensions, especially pensions for war widows in the light of this week's announcement that those widows who cohabit and marry will be able to retain their service pension for life? As a sailor's daughter, I feel passionately about the matter, especially as the Conservative party did nothing for war widows in spite of years of being pressured to sort the matter out.

Mrs. Beckett

I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks. She is right that in a better world it would be possible for us to spend time drawing attention to the fact that, despite the warm words from the Conservative party, a Labour, not a Conservative Government have taken steps to assist war widows. Attractive though the prospect is, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an early opportunity for a prolonged debate on the increasing discrepancies between the written word and the spoken word, especially from Ministers? I have in mind a couple of examples, but I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members can think of many more. One is the memorandums now spewing from No. 10, which give a written version of events—not least the Prime Minister's thoughts, which seem to be at odds with what he says in public. Another is the matter referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)—the apparent discrepancies between the written word of the Lord Chief Justice and the spoken word of the Home Secretary. Surely a debate on those matters, allowing many more examples to be aired and explained, and if necessary, the appropriate resignations to be made, would be beneficial to everyone.

Mrs. Beckett

There is no discrepancy between what is emerging on issues such as the euro and what the Government have been saying in public for many months. The British people will be much more interested in the sharp discrepancy between the continued complaint of the Conservative party that only spin and not substance come from the Government and its determination to talk about spin and not issues of substance, such as the investment that the Government are making in the health service, education and transport and the jobs that have been created as a result of the Government's economic policy.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

May we have a clear statement from the Government on their approach to war crimes? We are signed up to the Geneva conventions and we are obliged under the convention on torture to arrest and prosecute anyone on our soil who is accused of torture. Recently, two alleged war criminals have come to Britain. The first is a Rwandan colonel and there had to be a request for his extradition from this country by the Rwandan war crimes tribunal. The second is an Afghan colonel, who is also alleged to have committed serious war crimes. Instead of being vague about this issue, we need a clear statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Attorney-General and the Home Office on how they approach such matters.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She will know that the Government take these issues very seriously. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an early statement—let alone time for one from three Ministers—but she might seek a debate on the matter in Westminster Hall during the overspill period.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Early after the House's return in October, will the Leader of the House call the Home Secretary to ask for a debate on the consequences of the European convention on human rights and its application to road traffic cases? Will she also ask him to reply to a request from a constituent—her son was the victim of death by dangerous driving—that anyone prosecuted for such an offence will face a lifetime ban from driving?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot undertake to provide time for an early statement, but I certainly undertake to draw the hon. Lady's remarks to the attention of the Home Secretary, who will, I know, respond to them.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

Given the increase of £64 million for the funding of the BBC World Service that was announced in the comprehensive spending review, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future priorities of the World Service?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have long believed that the World Service is one of the jewels in Britain's crown and that it gives us considerable prestige overseas. I was delighted to see the extra funding made available to it by the comprehensive spending review. This issue was not pursued by the Conservative party in government, and that funding would be at risk from the cuts that it intends to make.

My hon. Friend also makes an important point about a debate on the future priorities of the World Service. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate on the Floor of the House, but he, too, might explore the possibilities of holding such a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Can the Leader of the House find an early opportunity when the House returns for Ministers to explain when they think that they must answer questions and when they think that they do not need to bother with any answer at all? We have heard today about the case of the Home Secretary, in which the Government do not reflect the mood of the House, and I have just had a series of six questions on trunk roads in London blocked. They received no answer even though they related to the Government's conduct. Will the right hon. Lady promise a debate on why Ministers will not answer questions and will not even attempt to answer questions? Does that not show contempt for Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett

Having had experience of some of the right hon. Gentleman's more arcane and bizarre questions, it has always seemed to me that there is a duty on both sides of the House—a duty to ask sensible questions and, I accept, a duty to provide proper replies. However, as it became clear to me in the early days of this Parliament that it had not dawned on him that the Opposition get a Question Time for each Department only once a month, I do not take his track record on such matters all that seriously.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

May I press my right hon. Friend on her earlier answer about the timing of a debate in the overspill session on the Modernisation Committee's report—a Committee on which we both sit? The Committee's understanding is that the House needs the opportunity to vote on the report so that, if it chooses to support the Committee's proposals, they can take effect in the new parliamentary Session after the Queen's Speech.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I pay tribute to her for the worthwhile work that she does on the Committee. I anticipate that the House will have an opportunity to come to a judgment on those matters before the end of the Session.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The Government expressed their continuing commitment to the repeal of section 28, following the disgraceful blocking of that measure in the House of Lords. However, in debate and in the Prime Minister's reply to the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the Government have said that they have not decided how to tackle the issue of using further votes in the remainder of the Parliament to make clear the will of the House of Commons.

Perhaps the right hon. Lady will let me know when the Government have decided what they will do, but I offer her the use of a ten-minute Bill that I have on 31 October, which could be used to repeal section 28 in a single clause, and to get the House of Lords to think again and to submit to the will of the elected Chamber on this critical human rights issue.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. As he knows, I have great sympathy with his stance on the matter. All I can say to him is that while a ten-minute Bill may be an opportunity usefully to air these issues—

Dr. Harris

The right hon. Lady could give it Government time.

Mrs. Beckett

It is not as simple as that when we are dealing with private Member's Bills. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that thought is being given to how we can deal with the matter.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I ask my right hon. Friend to do something unconventional? In all the centuries that we have had a Parliament here, only two candidates for Speaker have ever been proposed at one time, but this time there could be a multiplicity of candidates—perhaps as many as 12. Could my right hon. Friend act as an honest broker and go-between to organise hustings in Westminster Hall on the morning of Monday 23 October? [Interruption.] This is a serious point. Will she, on behalf of all hon. Members, invite all the candidates to declare themselves this week so that we know who is intending to stand for the speakership? When it comes to that historic vote on the afternoon of 23 October, we will then have a clear idea about who we can vote for.

Mrs. Beckett

I accept that this is a matter of great interest. If my hon. Friend looks back, he will find that although there were not many candidates when the votes took place, there had often been a much wider field earlier in the proceedings. I am flattered by his suggestion that I might act as an honest broker, but I have every intention of resisting, as I have from the beginning, any attempt to put me in the middle of this.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Will the right hon. Lady tell the House whether the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is able to come to the Dispatch Box today to explain whether the press reports about the docklands bomber being released are correct, given that it is alleged that it took the Secretary of State's personal intervention to about bring his release? Is the right hon. Lady aware of the disgust that will be felt throughout the country at the release of that man? Is she aware that however honourable the Government's intentions, they give a signal to the country and to terrorists that there are no depths to which they will not sink to appease the men of terror?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend will be able to come to the House today. As I said before, Mr. McArdle had co-defendants in the crime of which he was found guilty; they were convicted at the same time, and two who were given longer sentences than him have already been released. I believe that to have been the understanding behind my right hon. Friend's decision. [Interruption.] I am well aware that there are Conservative Members who continue to express outrage at the release of any of those who have been convicted of such crimes. However, I believe that the majority of the British people wish to see the peace process succeed, and that is their priority.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

May I take issue with my right hon. Friend's earlier comments about the reform of Standing Orders and the urgency of the need to amend them as they relate to the election of the Speaker? The choice of Speaker that we will make in a few months will largely define the character of the House and the pace of change here for many years to come; it is an extremely serious election. She must be aware that there is widespread concern among all hon. Members about the need to reform Standing Orders, and that many Members want amendments to be made.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Procedure Committee meets in the summer and has the opportunity to prepare proposals for amending the Standing Orders? Will she further ensure that we have an opportunity, before we assemble to elect a new Speaker, to debate and possibly to enact those amendments? If necessary, will she prevail upon the current Speaker to preside over those proceedings so that we can have a seemly election of the next Speaker?

Mrs. Beckett

On a variety of accounts, I am well aware that a number of people have sought to persuade the present Speaker to change her decision on the timing of her departure and she has resolutely resisted that. Today is the first time that the notion has been put to me that the Procedure Committee should meet and change the rules. I have undertaken to consider that, and will do so. I simply reiterate what I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours): I am not at all sure that this is the right time to rush through changes to those rules. The existing procedures have been used by previous generations and have worked perfectly well in getting the desired results. They were thoroughly examined after the election of the present Speaker. Although I will consider the matter, I have great reservations about the course of action that my hon. Friend proposes.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Will the Leader of the House make time, during one of the Prime Minister's occasional visits to the Chamber—perhaps this afternoon following his statement—for him to make a clear statement on his determination to force the country to scrap the pound? He has made it clear in his memo that he regards the politics of the matter as overwhelmingly in favour of Britain joining the euro. Will he explain to the House how that can possibly be the case, given that the European Union itself has found that 70 per cent, of the British public oppose British membership of the euro? Will he explain to whom the policy is favourable and why he wants it introduced so quickly?

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answers more parliamentary questions than did his predecessor and, as a consequence, is in this House more often. The issue to which the hon. Gentleman refers has been aired frequently and ad nauseam, and we certainly will not debate it when we return after the recess.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend announced today that we shall debate the Rural White Paper in the context of a report from the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. Although my constituents welcome much of what the Government have done, they are impatient for further action. After 18 years of Conservative Government, with the closure of schools, post offices and shops and the reduction in bus services, they want this Government to spend every penny that the Chancellor has made available. When will we debate the White Paper itself, so that the Government can turn promises into action for rural areas? We are all fed up with the Tories, who just want cuts—the same old cuts, the same old Tories.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the impatience in the countryside to see the Government's further proposals and to know what would be put in jeopardy if the Conservative party were elected. I anticipate a debate on this matter, perhaps during the autumn.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

When we return, may we have a debate on the Northern Ireland peace process? The Leader of the House will be aware that not a single bullet nor ounce of Semtex has been handed over, and that punishment beatings continue. Does she think it right that James McArdle should be released after serving just two years for killing two people in docklands? Is one year per person just?

Mrs. Beckett

I have nothing to add to what I said before: the British people's priority is the peace process.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, last Friday, the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill (Lords) was blocked by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), causing widespread anger and disappointment among my Jewish constituents and the wider Jewish community? That modest measure would have brought great comfort to a relatively small number of Jewish women who are chained in marriage by their husbands, who refuse to grant them a divorce. Can my right hon. Friend give them any hope that somehow this measure can be reintroduced at a later stage?

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are sympathetic to the view that he has expressed and are concerned about that matter. I can undertake that we will consider it, but he will know that there are difficulties. However, we did not object to the Bill.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Having waited seven months for the Government's response to the reforms proposed by the Neill committee and noting that, in the Government's spin, they say that they will curb the burgeoning hordes of special advisers but make no promise about the date for introducing the necessary legislation before the general election, can we hold an urgent and early debate on the reason why the Government seek to reject a raft of the reforms proposed by the Neill committee?

Mrs. Beckett

Lord Neill has welcomed the degree to which the Government have accepted his recommendations. It is yet again typical that the Conservative party prefers to talk about special advisers, memos and leaks than about the health service, education and jobs, as I am sure the British people have noticed.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Can my right hon. Friend find time to debate the potential use of objective 1 funds, which have been greatly welcomed by industry and agriculture in Wales, so that we can compare this Government's record for Wales in securing objective 1 funding and matching it with £421 million over three years with the record of the previous Government, who did not apply for one penny?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I hope that there will be opportunities to air that important issue in the overspill session. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it, but he might like to seek one in Westminster Hall, and he might remind people who was the last Secretary of State for Wales under the Conservative Government.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we please have a full day's debate in Government time on early-day motions 1042 and 1044, which relate to the possible amendment of the Local Government Act 1988?

[That this House commends the constitutional propriety of the 24 Labour, three Liberal Democrat, six Scottish Nationalist and two other Right honourable and honourable Members from Scottish constituencies, namely the Right honourable and honourable members for Banff and Buchan, Angus, Tayside North, Argyll and Bute, Dumbarton, Carrick Cumnock and Doon Valley, Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Ochil, Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, Strathkelvin and Bearsden, Coatbridge and Chryston, East Lothian, Edinburgh East and Mussleburgh, Eastwood, Edinburgh Central, Dunfermline East, Dunfermline West, File Central, Anniesland, Baillieston, Kelvin, Pollok, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Ross Skye and Inverness West, Renfrewshire West, Midlothian, Moray, Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, Perth, Paisley South, Clydesdale, Hamilton South, Livingston and Linlithgow, who abstained on the vote on 25th July to preserve section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 in England and Wales, an issue which is devolved to the Scottish Parliament in relation to their own constituencies.]

Does the right hon. Lady accept that such a debate would provide an excellent opportunity for 28 Labour Members who represent Scottish constituencies to explain why they supported the retention of section 28 in England and Wales, but its abolition for their own constituents?

Mrs. Beckett

All I can say is that I have nothing to add to what I said before. The Government will return to the discussion of such issues in time.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

In answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), the Leader of the House said that the Prime Minister had frequently outlined the overwhelming political case for the euro in public—a case to which he apparently adheres to in secret. Is not it a fact, however, that all that has ever been said in public is that there is no constitutional bar to Britain joining the euro, which is a very different matter? Will she seek to secure from the Prime Minister an honest statement of the reason why he secretly thinks that there is an overwhelming political case for signing up to the single European currency?

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend has repeatedly made the Government's position clear. The Conservative party should not encourage debate on that matter because the more we hear about its pledge to keep the pound for one Parliament, but not necessarily for ever, the sillier it sounds.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Leader of the House grossly underestimates the strength of feeling, as expressed in early-day motion 1027, which was mentioned earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young).

The Home Secretary escaped two days ago only by a slippery and semantic use of the word "it". If he came to the House, we could talk about police numbers because, in April, my police authority was 101 police officers down on April 1997. We could also analyse his use of the words "more", "extra" and "new" when he discusses police officers.

Mrs. Beckett

These matters have been extensively aired and, no doubt, they will be again. I have nothing to add to what I have said already. Finally, Madam Speaker, on behalf all those who regularly attend business questions, may I say that we shall miss you?

Madam Speaker

Thank you very much.

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