HC Deb 08 June 2000 vol 351 cc421-36 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give 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 12 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill. TUESDAY 13 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. WEDNESDAY 14 JUNE—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. THURSDAY 15 JUNE—Debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. FRIDAY 16 JUNE—The House will not be sitting. The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 19 JUNE—Debate on the royal commission report on the reform of the House of Lords on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. TUESDAY 20 JUNE—Opposition day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced. WEDNESDAY 21 JUNE—Second Reading of the Children (Leaving Care) Bill [Lords]. THURSDAY 22 JUNE—Debate on the security and intelligence agencies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. FRIDAY 23 JUNE—Debate on policing of London on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 14 June there will be a debate on European document No: 6230/00: the White Paper on Environmental Liability, in European Standing Committee A. On the same day, there will be a debate on European document No: 7828/00: Broad Economic Policy Guidelines, in European Standing Committee B.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report. [Wednesday 14 June 2000: European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community Documents: 6230/00, White Paper on Environmental Liability. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23-xiii (1999–2000). European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community Document: 7828/00, Broad Economic Policy Guidelines. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23-xix (1999–2000).]

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I am sorry, but I take points of order after questions.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for the details of next week's business and an indication of the business for the following week. I welcome the long-awaited debate on the Wakeham report, six months to the day after its publication. We hope that the Government will have something positive to say in that debate, so that they can dispel the widely held view that they wish that that issue would disappear.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister trailed a statement by the Home Secretary on the Burns report on hunting. Can the right hon. Lady confirm that there will be an oral statement, and tell us on which day it will be made?

There is mounting interest, not least among spending Ministers, in the comprehensive spending review. Will the Leader of the House tell us when the Chancellor hopes to make a statement on the outcome, and will she confirm that there will then be a debate on it in Government time?

Might we also have a debate on voluntary organisations, led by the Prime Minister, to give him an opportunity to agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) that the Women's Institute has done a sterling service to the Labour party by proving to the Prime Minister that people will not play a scripted part in choreographed politics?

Can the right hon. Lady find time for a debate on foreign affairs, led by the Foreign Secretary? There are many issues causing concern, not least the tragic death of Brigadier Stephen Saunders in Athens, on which the House will want to express its sympathy to family and friends. While we welcome the recent statements, they are no substitute for a structured full-day debate on foreign affairs. Will she also find time for a debate on the housing Green Paper—a subject that the House has not discussed for some time?

Finally, can the right hon. Lady say anything further about the date of the summer recess, so that our staff and the staff of the House can plan their lives?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks, and for welcoming the debate on the Wakeham report and the reform of the House of Lords. He says that it is some time since the report was published, which is true. In fact, we scheduled the debate earlier and moved it at the request of the Opposition. As for the content of the debate, it will be—as I have made clear from the outset—a debate in which the Government wish to hear the views of the House. As for the notion that the Government hope that the issue will disappear, those who hope that it will disappear are those who hoped that it would never be raised in the first place, and they are on the Opposition Benches.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the Burns report, which we anticipate will be delivered soon. I cannot tell him for certain today when a statement will be made, but I expect that the Home Secretary will make a statement. I shall keep him informed through the usual channels. Similarly, I shall draw his remarks on the comprehensive spending review to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor—but the timing is not yet settled.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's request for the Prime Minister to lead a debate on the issue of voluntary organisations. Participation in general debates by Prime Ministers was not a pleasure that we ever had during the days of Lady Thatcher or her successor. However, I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would enjoy taking part in such a debate, although the pressures on his time are very great. As for the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about people taking a scripted part in politics, I have actually read the Prime Minister's speech—I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman has not done so, and I understand if that is the case. It was excellent.

It is surprising that people objected to those unexceptionable remarks about the strength and importance of the health service and the need for reform. To some degree, one does wonder why it happened—[Interruption.] That is, of course, a matter for other people to decide. There is certainly some irony in the fact that an organisation that one would have thought would welcome remarks about the importance of traditional values chose, in some small quarters, to object to them.

The right hon. Gentleman also requested a debate on foreign affairs. I know that the whole House will wish to send its sympathies to the family of Brigadier Saunders, who, tragically, was murdered this morning. Fortunately we do not often lose public servants to such a fate, and the incident is much to be regretted. I know that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made public statements, and the whole House will wish to join in sending our sympathies to the family. I have taken note of the right hon. Gentleman's request for a full day's foreign affairs debate, and I am aware that the Opposition are seeking such a debate. I remind him that I have announced four separate days of debate on various issues and an Opposition Day, so we are finding time to debate issues as well as the Government's legislative programme.

I have also taken note of the right hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on the housing Green Paper. He will know that the consultation on that is still under way, and the Government will respond in due course to the fruits of that consultation.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I wish to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 796. [That this House congratulates the Board of Science and Education of the British Medical Association for the publication of its report 'Eating Disorders, Body Image & the Media' which considers the role that the media can play in the causation of eating disorders; notes that eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric illnesses, and are an increasing problem in modern western societies; welcomes the Government summit which is to take place on this issue on 21st June; and calls upon the Government to implement the recommendations in the BMA's report which call for clearly defined targets for the reduction in the number of eating disorders through preventative measures, extra resources to be given for mental health services, specifically eating disorder clinics, and increased public education on the connections between dieting, physical activity and health, and the health risks associated with eating disorders and being underweight.] It concerns the excellent report by the BMA on eating disorders, body image and the media. My right hon. Friend will be aware that eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, are on the increase and are affecting ever younger people, especially girls. The Government will hold a summit in the near future, and I am sure that the BMA's report will be discussed there, but can my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the issue in Government time? There is a worrying trend of growth in such illnesses.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that this is a subject in which my hon. Friend has taken great interest, and it arouses great concern in the House and more widely. She is right that the Government are giving full consideration to the recommendations of the report and very much recognise the seriousness of the issues. I fear that it is not likely that we will be able to find time on the Floor of the House in the near future to debate those issues, although Westminster Hall is another option. However, I assure my hon. Friend that, by that or some other means, the Government will look at the matter very carefully.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

First, may I ask to be associated with the condolences extended to the family of Brigadier Saunders? I am sure that that feeling is shared by all hon. Members.

Secondly, will the Leader of the House bring forward the report from the Review Body on Senior Salaries on hon. Members' office costs allowance, and will she be able to find time for a debate on the matter in the next couple of weeks? I draw her attention especially to the very tragic experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones). Several of my colleagues have received advice from the police and others about adopting necessary security measures in their constituencies so that they can proceed with their normal parliamentary duties.

That is becoming a significant factor in the allocation of hon. Members' resources for the coming year. [Interruption.] When it comes to choreography, Conservative Members are better than the WI. Back-Bench Members are precisely the ones who find themselves in the difficult circumstances that led to the tragedy in Cheltenham.

Mr. Cash

Dad's army.

Hon. Members

Get a bodyguard.

Mr. Stunell

I hope that the Leader of the House will consider the matter carefully and bring a report to the House.

Finally, may I draw the right hon. Lady's attention—

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

You're safe in here, son, don't worry.

Mr. Stunell

May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to early-day motion 804, which relates to Burma? [That this House recognises and supports the Committee Representing the People's Parliament in Burma which has been established due to the military junta's refusal to comply with the 1990 election results and allow parliament to convene since that time; notes that the Committee Representing the People's Parliament has already received statements of support from the European Parliament, the Danish Parliament, the Belgian Parliament and the Norwegian Parliament; and believes that international recognition of this kind will serve to strengthen the pro-democracy movement in Burma.] A number of legislatures in western Europe have offered their support for the People's Council representing the Parliament. Will she find time for the House to do the same?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for associating his party with our remarks about the death of Brigadier Saunders.

The hon. Gentleman requested a debate on the SSRB report. If I recall correctly, that report was produced before the terrible events that took place in Cheltenham. I recognise that many hon. Members have taken advice as a result, especially for staff members in their constituencies, and that there is some concern about the financial implications. However, the SSRB did not report in the context of those issues, and perhaps the best way forward would be for the hon. Gentleman to draw his remarks to the board's attention. I shall do the same, as I know that the board keeps such matters under review.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to Burma. It has been the policy of successive Governments to recognise states rather than Governments or political parties. The question of recognition is therefore more difficult than it appears at first sight. However, we keep the matter under review, and we continue to put pressure on Burma to improve conditions at home.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is it not rather important that regular reports should be made to the House of Commons when British troops are in action? Would my right hon. Friend consider a statement being made to follow the response made yesterday evening by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces to a question that I asked about what had happened with regard to a grenade that caused so much trouble for Brigadier Shirreff of 7th Armoured Brigade and his colleagues?

My hon. Friend said: It is certainly difficult at this stage to do so, but people should not automatically assume one particular source.—[Official Report, 7 June 2000; Vol. 351, c. 389.] Obviously, the authorities locally are conducting investigations, but is not it important that the House should know the results, as the broader question concerns what exactly is going on in Kosovo?

Is not it also important for the House to have some explanation as to why significantly more armament is being dropped on Iraq? That was revealed in answers to questions asked in last night's debate by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell).

Mrs. Beckett

Defence Ministers come regularly to the House, both to debate and to make statements. They endeavour to keep the House as fully informed as possible. It is, of course, not always possible to anticipate every issue or air every question that may come up on defence. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence endeavours to keep the House informed and will, I know, continue to do so through our regular debates and statements.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will the Leader of the House, in the forthcoming European debate or in an early statement, ensure that, for the first time, we get an accurate and straightforward account of the Government's European policy? In particular, will she ensure that Ministers answer the question about when they wish to abolish the pound, because they will be speaking against the background of a very successful "Save the Pound" weekend, led by the Conservative party?

Will Ministers also tell us for how much longer they wish the House to have the main power to tax people in this country, given the strong pressures in the draft treaty of Nice to give away huge chunks of our right to independent taxation? Is the right hon. Lady aware, for example, that it is no good defending ourselves in relation to the withholding tax in current negotiations and saying no, because if we sign the draft treaty of Nice in its current form, it could be pushed on us even if we objected to it?

Mrs. Beckett

The House is under no illusions—it knows exactly what the Government's European policy is. It has been repeated ad nauseam in the House, and was repeated again at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday. Either Conservative Members are wilfully refusing to pay attention or they have difficulty in grasping a simple, straightforward statement of policy. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have clearly indicated that only when the economic tests are met would the question of belonging to a single currency even arise.

As for the power to tax and the withholding tax, the withholding tax famously remained in play, despite claims from the Conservative party that it vetoed it when plainly it did not. The Government have continually made it clear that we will resist attempts to erode our freedom to run our own tax affairs as we choose, and we are doing so very successfully.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for her response to my advances over recent months? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I do not want to be greedy, but she has now given us the 1999 annual debate on MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, whereas this is the year 2000. When does my right hon. Friend plan to hold the debate after next?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sort of grateful to my hon. Friend for his thanks. I recognise that he has been asking for this debate for some time—but to ask for another one is pushing his luck a bit.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

May I remind the Leader of the House of the question that I asked her on 27 January, which appears in column 586 of Hansard, in which I asked her to initiate an annual debate on road safety? She will be only too aware of the appalling accidents that have happened in Derbyshire. In the year to May 1999, some 17 people lost their lives on roads in Derbyshire; up to the May bank holiday this year, the figure is 35. That is an appalling rise, and. I believe that it is also reflected in other counties. It is time that we had an opportunity to discuss this matter in the House.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's concern. The whole House is conscious of the devastation that such a level of accidents causes to the lives of individuals and to the community. The Government have, as the hon. Gentleman will know, made available substantial increased investment for transport, but it takes time for that investment to bear fruit. However, where road safety is concerned, such statistics cause alarm and require careful investigation and thought.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

There has been increasing concern about some of the criticisms in Ofsted reports on individual schools and local authorities, and there is continuing concern about some statements by the chief inspector of schools. Given that the responsibilities of Ofsted are due to be extended into the post-16 sector—the new Connexions service—and have been extended into the inspection of pre-school provision, and in view of Ofsted's unique nature as a Government agency beyond ministerial accountability, does my right hon. Friend think that it would be a good idea not just to have a debate on Ofsted in the near future, but to establish an annual debate in the House on its role and performance?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand that that issue is of considerable importance, and is one in which hon. Members—not least my hon. Friend—take a great interest. However, I fear that his request for a debate in the Chamber is yet another on the list of all those that we simply cannot satisfy. Of course there is the additional facility of debating time in Westminster Hall, to which my hon. Friend might care to direct his attention.

As for annual debates, we once added up the many issues on which Members on both sides of the House had requested such a debate, and came to the conclusion that if we were to grant all those requests, we should never do anything else.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

The Leader of the House told us earlier of the Prime Minister's enthusiasm to debate the voluntary sector. She may have noted that on Thursday 15 June there will be an opportunity for him to do so; a debate will be held in Westminster Hall on the role of the voluntary sector in national life—recognising and promoting volunteering.

Will the right hon. Lady advise us how many Ministers will be absent next week addressing the Women's Institute? If the number is significant, will that have as devastating an impact on the business of the House as it did on the Prime Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is business questions, and it is not usual to ask for a debate while pointing out that such a debate will, in fact, take place. His question is thus rendered rather superfluous.

It would be a mistake on anybody's part to assume that the Prime Minister was distressed—[Laughter.] Like all of us, he is slightly regretful when people do not appear always wholeheartedly to agree with him. However, he is a man who has encountered disagreement in his time, and expects to do so again.

As I have already said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), what the Prime Minister said in his speech was unexceptionable; I should have thought that 99.9 per cent. of the British people would agree with it. Probably, only someone who actively did not want to agree with it would find something to disagree with.

The most disturbing aspect of the comments made after the Prime Minister's speech went completely unnoticed by the media; it is a constant theme, which I have long believed is a besetting sin in British public life—the notion that politics is something that has nothing to do with everyday life. Everybody in this House either does know or should know that it is through the political structure that many of the decisions that most affect people's lives are taken. If people are concerned about the health service, about post offices and a whole range of other issues, that is what politics is about.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

May I ask my right hon. Friend to use her considerable influence to persuade, coerce or cajole a Health Minister to come to the House to give an explanation about a private cosmetic surgeon, David Charles Herbert, whom I have named several times in the House? He is probably operating today, has actually been accused of mutilating at least 80 women, who have sent their complaints to the General Medical Council and to the Secretary of State for Health, yet the GMC says that it cannot, under current legislation, suspend that cosmetic surgeon. We deserve an explanation.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in such matters and has long raised concerns about them—not only with this Government but with the previous Government—on behalf of those who have suffered and been affected by people carrying out plastic surgery. I am aware of her concerns about the role of the GMC. However, I fear that I cannot offer her either time for another debate on the matter or an immediate statement. As she knows, Health questions will take place in the near future, when I am sure that she will continue her many efforts to raise and to press that matter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The right hon. Lady will be aware that her Government have made dramatic changes to the constitution and to the way in which the House of Commons operates. The one thing that the Government have not done—but which, I believe, they promised to do—is to restore status and authority to the House of Commons and to Back Benchers. Proposals to achieve that have been outlined in a report by the Liaison Committee entitled "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive". May I make a plea on behalf of all Back Benchers that the Leader of the House find time for a debate on that important report, so that the House and Back Benchers can have meaningful authority and status and the power of the Executive can be properly held to account? Will she find time for such a debate?

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I have pointed out to the House before, the Government have added to opportunities for scrutiny both through the number of statements that we have made—since the general election, on average, one has been made every two sitting days—and through the opening of Westminster Hall, which allows more time for debates and for the study of Select Committee reports. Of course I recognise the wish for a debate on the Liaison Committee report, and the hon. Gentleman will recognise the fact that I am finding time for some of the many debates that people wish to hold. An interesting and important report has been produced, but it has profound implications for the operation of House—

Mr. Winterton

It does; it would restore some authority to the House.

Mrs. Beckett

The report makes many proposals that would make a substantial difference to all Members of the House and to the roles that they can properly exercise. I very much hope that many more Members will read the report than I suspect have yet done so. They will then realise the implications of what is being proposed.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Although today hon. Members will rightly be concerned about the death of Brigadier Saunders, may I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the plight of another British citizen overseas? He is my constituent, Mr. Mohammed Chaudhry, who is the subject of early-day motion 810, which has been signed by 100 Members from both sides of the House. [That this House notes with grave concern that Mohammed Chaudhry, a British citizen, has been held without charge by the Saudi authorities since his arrest on 23rd June 1999 following a five month internal investigation first by Colonel Abdullah Al-Mugari of the Military Police and then by Colonel Ali Johani from the Ministry of Defence into variances resulting from stock-take amounting to approximately £1.5 million of medical supplies at Riyadh Military Hospital where Mr. Chaudhry worked in storage and distribution; notes that the stock-take was cancelled in writing by the Chief Executive of the hospital before the variances could be completely investigated; notes that the investigating authorities never carried out a stock-take to establish facts; notes that, despite the fact that no further questioning by the police investigating the case has taken place since the first few days after his arrest, Mr. Chaudhry, who has always denied any wrong-doing, remains in prison, without access to his lawyer, whilst other employees, including his immediate superior, Captain Meshal, are free; believes that a year is more than sufficient time to investigate any crime of this nature, and that the continued detention of Mr. Chaudhry is a breach of natural justice and internationally accepted human rights; and therefore calls on the Saudi authorities to either release him to return home or, in the unlikely event that there is any case to answer, to bring that case forward against Mr. Chaudhry to enable him to defend himself in open court.] Mr. Chaudhry has been detained without charge and without access to legal advice in Saudi Arabia for nearly 12 months. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to make a statement about that case, in particular, and about diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in general? Further, does she agree that British and European citizens should be advised not to visit or to work in Saudi Arabia while their basic human rights cannot be guaranteed?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has been extremely active on behalf of her constituent, with whom the whole House sympathises. I know that she will be aware that the Foreign Office has been extremely active on Mr. Chaudhry's behalf and has continually pressed the Saudi authorities at the highest level to release him and to conclude their investigations as soon as possible. I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House on the matter in the near future. However, my hon. Friend will know that Foreign Office questions will take place on 20 June, and I will certainly draw her remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention. I know that he will urge those who are dealing with the Saudi authorities to step up their efforts.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

May we have a debate on the directive emanating from article 13 of the European convention on human rights? It will have a significant impact on Church bodies and Church schools. For example, our counsel's opinion is that if a Church school was to insist that a teacher, other than a teacher of religious instruction, should be of certain denomination, it could be taken to an industrial tribunal. A Church body will be able to insist that a minister is of a certain denomination; it would be bizarre if it could not. However, it will not be able to insist that other members of staff are of a certain denomination. That is significant and important.

Before the Leader of the House says, "Well, we can discuss that next week", I point out that that would be in a general debate on important European issues such as the euro. We need a specific debate on this important directive. The issue has been before the Scrutiny Committee and it has decided, against the advice in the report submitted to it, that other aspects of the directive should not come to the Floor of the House. However, there will be hell to pay if we do not have such a debate on the Floor of the House.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a dispute about whether the effect of those proposals is as he described. Indeed, that is precisely why he wants to debate this important matter. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on such a specific issue on the Floor of the House, but it is suitable for debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

May I join other hon. Members in calling for time to be set aside for a debate on Ofsted, annually or otherwise? That would enable us to examine the need for greater accountability and transparency, and ensure consistency of inspectors' standard of performance.

Two years ago, a school in my constituency suffered badly from the diabolical behaviour of a registered inspector. When the school and I pursued complaints, Ofsted refused to say how many complaints had been made against the individual. Eventually, we were led to believe that the person concerned would not continue to inspect. I was therefore greatly dismayed to read a few weeks ago that the individual, Mr. Piers Bilston, was named as the inspector involved in causing distress to another teacher, which led her to commit suicide. Those are important matters, so we should have a debate on Ofsted.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend identifies an important and powerful concern as a result of his constituency experience. He will accept that Education and Employment questions have just taken place, and I fear that we shall be unlikely to find time for such a specialised debate in the near future. I therefore recommend to him the attractions of Westminster Hall.

Mr. Cash

The Leader of the House said that the European document on environmental liability was going to European Standing Committee A. She may not be aware that, yesterday, the Select Committee on European Scrutiny decided that the document should be debated on the Floor of the House. The Minister responsible for such matters in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has also given a detailed analysis of the document, which highlighted massive changes in United Kingdom law, changes to the burden of proof and extensions of liability, both strict and otherwise.

The consequences of that involve enormous damage to British enterprise and companies, and raise the question of GM technology and biotechnology, so the matter must be debated on the Floor of the House. Will the Leader of the House guarantee that, in line with the decision made properly yesterday by the European Scrutiny Committee, which was correctly convened, the matter will be debated on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I cannot confirm that. I was aware of the view expressed yesterday by the European Scrutiny Committee on what I accept is an important matter. The Government did consider the Committee's advice, but it has long been the practice of successive Governments to discuss such issues in the appropriate Committees, which is why the matter is scheduled for debate in European Standing Committee A.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the three early-day motions that deal with the Stewart report and the siting of mobile phone masts, which are causing a great deal of concern generally and in my constituency? In Edgware and Mill Hill, for example, masts seems to sprout all over the place like oversized weeds, without the benefit of planning consent. Will my right hon. Friend find time to organise a debate so that we can examine the implications of that, especially the safety aspects? When mobile phone masts are sited next to schools or in residential areas, naturally that is worrying for parents and constituents in the locality.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that concern has been expressed. Indeed, my hon. Friend has taken great interest in the matter on his constituents' behalf and Members on both sides of the House have received representations on it. Of course, the Government are keeping the issue under careful review and are considering, for example, the fact that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there is no requirement for planning consent for such masts.

I am afraid that I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate on the matter on the Floor of the House. I believe that it has been debated recently in Westminster Hall, but I am sure that the issues would benefit from a further airing there.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) raised a strange case. The European Scrutiny Committee was set up to represent the House; it was properly constituted yesterday and decided that document 6230/00 on environmental liability should be considered not in European Standing Committee A, but on the Floor of the House.

The document is of fundamental importance. There is an explanatory memorandum from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), which shows that the Government are, for understandable reasons, undecided about what to do. I am a member of European Standing Committee A, and few members turn up to its proceedings, yet night after night, we all go home early from the House at 10 o'clock. This is a golden opportunity for the Government to give the House a chance to go into the detail of the document and to show that the House is paramount.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman said that this was a golden opportunity. The unworthy suspicion has crossed my mind that the golden opportunity was presented to Opposition Members who found themselves in the majority on the Committee and decided to refer the matter to the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for the importance of the issue. There is an Opposition day on 20 June, as I have announced, and I am sure that he and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) will be able to press the matter on their Front-Bench colleagues.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why does my right hon. Friend not accede to some of the requests of Tory MPs to have a day's debate on the Floor of the House for this and a day's debate for that? We could delay the beginning of the recess way beyond the start of the grouse shooting season on 12 August, even though the shadow Leader of the House keeps requesting the date of the recess, and I have an idea that he wants an early start so that he can get off.

On a more important matter, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that some of us do not believe in the Liaison Committee report? We do not believe in extending the sloppy consensus and in handing over power to three unelected Select Committee Chairs. If we move towards sloppy consensus and away from the class divide, this place will finish up as non-political as the Women's Institute.

Mrs. Beckett

The best thing that I can say is that, as always, I take a close interest in my hon. Friend's remarks. He is right to identify the fact that the Liaison Committee's proposals are profound in their implications and their potential impact on the House. They need to be properly considered and weighed, and no doubt that will happen over time.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Pursuant to the right hon. Lady's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) on the Liaison Committee report, is she advancing the novel theory that the House should consider issues with shallow implications before it considers those with profound ones?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I was not making that assertion. A matter that I did not refer to, because it is under discussion, is the fact that the Liaison Committee has invited me to give evidence to it on its report, which I am perfectly willing to do, although it is slightly unusual for a Committee to take evidence after a report has been issued. I have presumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the Committee would want the debate on the Floor of the House to take place after that, rather than before.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that the Home Affairs Committee has recommended a weakening of the double jeopardy rules, which go back 2,000 years to Roman law and provide fundamental protection of the rights of the individual British citizen. Weakening those rules might allow us to resolve a few short-term injustices at the expense of having much greater injustice in the long term. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we can have a debate urgently, and certainly before the Government make up their mind? I give her notice that I cannot envisage circumstances in which I would be prepared to vote for a weakening of the double jeopardy rules.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend certainly makes an important point in identifying the serious implications involved in such proposals. He will know that that point was a recommendation of the Macpherson report—as ever, taken up on a knee-jerk basis by the Leader of the Opposition—and that the Government are taking the matter seriously and have referred it to the Law Commission, which is considering it carefully. The Government will consider the Law Commission's views carefully when it has finished its deliberations. He will also know that his concerns were expressed by several hon. Members on both sides of the House when the matter was last raised—not least by the then shadow Home Secretary, who suggested that it should be approached with caution. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman's leader unfortunately did not take that advice.

Mr. Nicholls

In a more bipartisan way, can I ask the right hon. Lady to consider a debate into the shambles that passes for the Government's transport policy? Would not such a debate enable us to discover whether there is any truth in the rumours coming out of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions that, once again, the funding of bypasses will take place? Would not that mean that the people of Kingskerswell, which is in my constituency, would know whether they must wait another seven years before they gain any relief, or whether they could remind themselves that under the previous Government's proposals, the building of their bypass would have started by the end of this year? People, probably including Ministers, do not know what the Government's policy is, and it is about time that we had a debate so that we could discover it.

Mrs. Beckett

Was not the hon. Gentleman a Minister in that Department?

Mr. Nicholls

No, I was not.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman was certainly involved in discussions with that Department under the previous Administration. On the building of a bypass in his locality, yes, such proposals were indeed scheduled, but he will know that, given the lamentable failure of economic policy under the previous Government, the chances of funding being available for such things were always very problematic. Under this Government, almost an extra £2 billion has been put into improving roads and local public transport, and we shall continue to do so.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is urgent need for a debate on local government finance for two reasons? First, the inadequacies of the current system are producing much eliminable misery, especially because of the inadequate financial basis for social services departments and others. Secondly, major changes have been brought about in the system, for example, by the change to resource accounting and the ring fencing of certain housing budgets, which could have the effect in my patch of losing Dacorum council some 40 per cent. of its revenue next year. Those matters are sufficiently grave to warrant urgent consideration.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the concern that my hon. Friend rightly expresses on behalf of his constituency. However, I fear that I cannot find time for a debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, but oral questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will take place next Tuesday and my hon. Friend, too, may find that he can secure a debate in Westminster Hall earlier than he could on the Floor of the House.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May I ask the Leader of the House a question of which I have given her prior notice because it is not one which she could normally be expected to answer unprepared? Will a Defence Minister make a statement in the House about what investigations, if any, the Ministry of Defence police are making into the circumstances whereby The Mirror acquired a stolen laptop computer with military secrets on it, given that fat t that my attempts to establish from The Mirror whether money was paid to the thieves rather than the police being informed of their identity have been rebutted with a degree of hysteria and abusiveness? It is a serious matter if a national newspaper pays thieves for stolen property to get headlines. Have any investigations been undertaker? I should be most grateful to the right hon. Lady if a statement could be made.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his intention to raise the matter as that has enabled me to discover that an investigation—handled in the first instance by the British Transport police—is indeed under way. He will recall that the event took place at Paddington. The Ministry of Defence police are assisting with identification of property and so on. I fear that I cannot undertake to provide a Defence Minister to make a statement in the near future, but I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, and he has shown assiduity in raising the matter. I suspect that it might be possible for the MOD to make some information available to him and I shall certainly draw his remarks to its attention, but I understand that it is not yet in a position to do so.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Have Ministers given my right hon. Friend any indication of when they will introduce proposals to reform leasehold regulations, particularly those for the purchase of freeholds? They are of particular importance to thousands of home owners in Grimsby and Cleethorpes who have purchased leasehold houses and whose leases are about to expire. Certain freeholders charge more than the market value of a property for the purchase the freehold and many residents have lost homes for which they have paid mortgages. That is a scandal and I hope that Ministers will introduce proposals as soon as possible so that no more of my constituents lose their homes.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point and, like all hon. Members, I am sorry to learn of the problems that have affected some of her constituents. The Government wish and intend to publish a draft Bill in the not-too-distant future, which would give the House an opportunity to debate those issues and whether their handling can be improved. As she will know, it would then be a matter of trying to find time for legislation. As she is a regular attender of this event, she will also have noted the many occasions on which Opposition Members have seemed to wish for the Government not to introduce any legislation. She has powerfully made the point that people wish many things in this country to change. That requires the Government to act.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

It is some three months since the Commissioner for Public Appointments published her report, which found that the Government had engaged in a systematic politicisation of health service appointments, but we have still had no statement or debate in the House on a damning document which criticised them in trenchant terms. As primary care trusts are being set up and appointments to them are being made, is not it particularly important that we should have a statement or a debate? It is essential that the abuses of the process of making public appointments should be stopped and cleared up before those appointments are completed.

Mrs. Beckett

It was made clear at the time that the appointments were made through the proper Nolan process and that no one was appointed who had not come through it. The appointments were not simply made by Ministers. However, when the report was published, the Secretary of State made it plain that he nevertheless felt that there was room for further improvement—the appointments process was, of course, put in place by the previous Government—and he has made those changes.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I thank the Leader of the House for her gracious hospitality in giving Lady Members the welcome opportunity to see Admiralty house this week. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!] May I raise a matter with which she is familiar from her days at the Department of Trade and Industry and that is of great interest to the Women's Institute: pylons and the overhead transmission of electricity through the Vale of York and neighbouring constituencies? The Yak of York and particular parts of it such as Tockwith regularly lose their electricity supply and the fact that it is to be further jeopardised by pylons is a source of great concern. Will she make time for an early debate on the Floor of the House so that we can consider the merits of underground transmission?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) for her kind remarks, although I fear that she has stirred up a demand from those around her. I have taken that on board.

I am aware of the anxiety about electricity supply in the hon. Lady's part of the world. She knows that the issues are technically difficult and have been the subject of much discussion and careful consideration. I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future. However, its complexity and relevance to constituencies such as that of the hon. Lady makes it an issue that might well be aired in Westminster Hall. I also point out that Trade and Industry questions will take place on 15 June.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Business questions are an important part of the parliamentary week. Is not it therefore a shame that, of the Government's army of 400 Back Benchers, only six manage to stay for the duration? At its peak, only 15 or 20 attended. That may show that the Government are running out of steam. If they are not, will the Leader of the House dismiss press rumours that the state opening of Parliament will be delayed until January or may not occur, and confirm that it will take place, as usual, in November?

Mrs. Beckett

We do not tend to discuss the date of the state opening of Parliament on the Floor of the House at this stage. As ever, the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the papers.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I share the incredulity of the Leader of the House about the Women's Institute's lack of gratitude and failure to recognise how lucky, privileged and honoured its members are to be living under this Government. In the light of that astonishing lack of gratitude, do the Government intend to publish their annual report, as they have done in the past two years? If so, when will it be published and how much will it cost the taxpayer? Perhaps they have rightly decided to kybosh the entire project and spend the money on essential services for the people of this country.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot inform the hon. Gentleman offhand about the status and timing of the next report. However, as the hon. Gentleman will recall from previous exchanges on the matter, some 20,000 British citizens bought the report and paid their own money for it at W. H. Smith. Clearly, not everyone shares the hon. Gentleman's view of it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

When are we to have the much delayed debate on small businesses? Given that 99.6 per cent. of Britain's firms employ fewer than 100 people, and that they account for 50 per cent. of the private sector work force, produce two fifths of our national output and now face a sea of regulation, which is deeper and more hazardous than at any time in our history, does the right hon. Lady agree that it is important to hold a debate without delay to tackle the anxieties of those enterprises?

Mrs. Beckett

As I have already said, I have found time in the current programme not only for an Opposition day, but for four days of debate on general issues. Although there is an undertaking to consider small businesses on a fairly regular basis, there is no commitment to an annual debate on the subject, for the reason that I identified earlier.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that The Economist intelligence unit and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which considered separate matters—financial matters, such as taxation and product regulation—pointed out that our light regulation is one factor that makes the United Kingdom one of the best places in which to do businesses.