HC Deb 15 June 2000 vol 351 cc1105-21 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 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]. Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate on "US/UK Air Negotiations" followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Policy on Planning, House Building, Development of Greenfields and the Decline of the Cities". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Second Reading of the Census (Amendment) Bill [Lords].

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 provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 26 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 27 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Learning and Skills Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 28 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Limited Liability Partnership Bill [Lords]

Remaining stages of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill.

THURSDAY 29 JUNE—Opposition Day [15th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 30 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

Sir George Young

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

When does the right hon. Lady expect the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House on the outcome of the European Council in Portugal?

I see that, on Tuesday, in Government time, the House is to debate a private Member's Bill—the Census (Amendment) Bill. If the Government are now finding time for private Members' Bills that are objected to on Fridays, when might we debate the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill?

Will the Leader of the House find time to debate the Neill committee report "Reinforcing Standards", given the growing concern about the politicisation of the civil service, and the Government's failure to respond to the report's recommendations?

Following the appearance by the Secretary of State for Health on the "Today" programme, will time be found next week for a statement by the light hon. Gentleman on the Government's welcome change of policy towards the independent sector of medicine? The need for such a statement is reinforced by a parliamentary answer that revealed that expenditure by the national health service on that sector has risen by almost 50 per cent. since the general election.

There is mounting interest in the comprehensive spending review. When does the Chancellor hope to make a statement on the outcome? In addition, can we resolve soon the issue of the pattern of economic debates throughout the year?

Finally, last week I asked about the date of the summer recess, so that our staff and the staff of the House can plan their lives. I incurred the usual heckle from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but did not receive the consolation of a reply from the right hon. Lady. Can she shed any light on the subject today?

Mrs. Beckett

First, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is the Prime Minister's custom to make a statement to the House after formal EU Councils, so I anticipate that one will be made. I cannot give a date, but I anticipate that it will be within the usual time scale.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asks about the Census (Amendment) Bill. He will understand that the position is unusual: Governments do not usually find time for private Members' Bills. However, the Bill is believed to be uncontroversial, and it went through the House of Lords without any difficulty. The issue it addresses was raised after the main census legislation had gone through, and it is promoted by our former Speaker, who is now a Cross-Bencher in the Lords. Until the objection the other day, there was no reason to anticipate that there would be a difficulty in the House of Commons. The matter is one in which there is considerable public interest, and there is a degree of pressure arising from the fact that the next census will not be held for another 10 years. As the alternative was not to deal with the matter at all, it seemed sensible to the Government to deal with it now, in the context of the current census.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about a debate on the Neill report. There has been no undue delay in dealing with the report, which made 41 recommendations, some of them with substantial constitutional implications. The Government are giving the matter full consideration. It was put forward as a package of proposals, and the Government will respond to it as a package. I do not see much point in having the debate before the Government's response, but I take on board the right hon. Gentleman's request for such a debate. Indeed, I welcome it, as it will give us an opportunity to remind everybody that we have given the Conservative party substantial extra sums of public money—a fact to which Conservative Members seem puzzlingly unwilling to refer.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a statement from the Health Secretary. Since, as my right hon. Friend made plain, there has been no change of policy on the issue, there is little for him to say to the House.

I have already indicated that I have taken on board the right hon. Gentleman's request for a statement on the spending review and his request for a little more clarity about the pattern of economic debates.

With regard to the recess, I apologise for having overlooked what was, I think, question 8 last week. I fear that I have, as yet, no news for the right hon. Gentleman.

Given the huge demand from the Opposition for further debates, I anticipate that they will want the House to sit until well into August.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 773?

[That this House notes with pleasure the 10th anniversary of the elections on 27th May 1990 in Burma, in which the National League for Democracy, headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of the 495 parliamentary seats; but regrets the action of the military regime in failing to respond to the democratic wishes of the country; condemns the regime for retaining in prison 55 MPs elected in 1990 and for detaining 1,000 political activists last year; further condemns the regime for its brutal and inhumane treatment of ethnic minorities, such as the Karens, who have suffered from a brutal campaign of murder, forced relocation and slave labour during this period; and calls upon the British Government to exert the maximum pressure on the regime, including pressing for international court action against those responsible for crimes against humanity.] Unusually, the early-day motion has already been signed by 190 right hon. and hon. Members from eight parties. May we have an early statement from the Government on the important subject of democracy in Burma?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know that he, with others, has long campaigned on the issue and takes a great interest in the subject. I am pleased to know that there is such support across the House for the position that he has been advocating. I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate, and I am not sure how easy it will be for a statement to be made on recent developments, but I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to work steadily at the issue, as I know he would wish.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House urgently consider publishing the criteria by which Ministers decide whether to make a full and proper statement to the House on a change of policy, and when they simply use a planted question and a written answer? The right hon. Lady will recall that in the past Ministers seemed to avoid making a full statement only when an issue was causing embarrassment on the Government's Back Benches, as in the case of the contamination of crops with genetically modified seed.

There are two cases in the news today on which, I think, the Leader of the House would accept that a proper statement should have been made to the House. Reference has been made to the fact that the Secretary of State for Health made copious references to a change of policy on the "Today" programme this morning. To add insult to injury, he implied that there would be a written answer this afternoon, when no such question appears on the Order Paper. How are we to hear whether a U-turn has taken place with regard to the investment of national health service money in the private sector?

The Leader of the House will have heard in exchanges a few minutes ago that there are serious concerns in the textile and clothing industry, relating not just to C&A but, as I understand from rumours circulating in the past few minutes, to Bhs. When will we get a proper statement from the Secretary of State on the Government's policy on that very important industry?

Mrs. Beckett

First, the hon. Gentleman asked about the criteria determining when a statement is made and when a written answer is given. I entirely reject the notion that a written answer is given when the matter causes the Government some difficulty. Indeed, I well remember, as I am sure he can, many occasions on which that has clearly been disproved by the Government making a statement in just such circumstances. The practice varies from occasion to occasion.

One of the important criteria is that we do not allow statements to be made on an Opposition day, which I hope the hon. Gentleman would welcome. [Interruption.] There is no need for the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) to make a fuss. We screwed that concession out of the previous Government with considerable difficulty when she was engaged as a special adviser.

The examples given by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) do not stand up. From memory—and it is from memory, I accept—my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did come to the House to make a statement about contamination, but the issue arose, if I recall correctly, over a weekend, and there was some difficulty with timing. With regard to the textile industry, it is an important industry and there is concern about it, but we have just had Trade and Industry questions.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many of us came into politics to defend and improve the national health service. May I point out to her that private commercial health care, which is an industry, is not required to maintain the same ratio of doctors resident to patients, or of trained nurses to patients? If there is any suggestion of a reverse takeover of the NHS by private industry health care units, I hope that she will reconsider her decision not to hold a debate next week, because some of us may have rather a lot to say about the matter.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand my hon. Friend's sensitivity, and her family has many links with the health service. However, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made it plain that there has been joint working between the health service and the independent health care sector and that there is every determination to ensure that not only value for money but proper clinical standards will be maintained where there is reciprocal use of facilities.

Mrs. Dunwoody

No, no.

Mrs. Beckett

Well, that is my right hon. Friend's policy. Proper clinical standards will be maintained and those are the contracts that will be undertaken, but not at the expense of developing NHS services. Of course I share my hon. Friend's view. The whole House—well, most hon. Members—will share her view that it is extremely important that we modernise and expand the health service so that it can deal with all those who wish to use it. That is what the Government are doing.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the Leader of the House allow time next week to hold a debate on the White Paper "Smoking Kills", especially in the light of the damning report just published by the Select Committee on Health, entitled "The Tobacco Industry and the Health Risks of Smoking"? Will she ensure that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) is present at that debate to explain why the Government still allow the European Union to subsidise the growing of tobacco in southern Europe at the British taxpayer's expense? Does she realise that subsidising tobacco growers in the EU is roundly criticised by the Select Committee in paragraph (zz) of its report?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. I congratulate him on his ingenuity in making even a health issue a matter of EU policy. I would simply say that it is a little harsh for him to blame my hon. Friend, who is today a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, given that the policy was pursued through all the years of the Government whom he supported.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to hold a debate on the future shape of the NHS so that the House can openly compare the recent, welcome announcement on an early-warning system to detect all adverse events that might take place in health care with the Conservative party's apparent policy, which seems to revolve around paying for operations, such as hip replacements, which can cost up to £5,000? That policy, if it ever came about, would be a tremendous worry and burden to people in my constituency.

Mrs. Beckett

I recognise, as does everyone, the importance of the moves that ale being considered to produce an early-warning system so that people can learn from the mistakes of others in the health service, as happens elsewhere. It is unfortunate that such a system has not been in place previously, but it is to our credit as a Government that it is now being developed. My hon. Friend is right to contrast that with the policy of the Conservative party, which apparently wants no one to be able to have operations such as hip replacements on the NHS, thus persecuting pensioners yet again.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Leader of the House may be aware that today BAE Systems has announced 3,800 job losses throughout the company. Some 750 of those job losses will affect the constituents of Fylde and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and other right hon. and hon. Members. As the Government are a major customer of the company, can she arrange for an oral statement, or some other communication from the Government, giving their views about the future prospects for supporting the company? There is great uncertainty and worry in the work force about the future, especially of projects such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the joint strike fighter and the future offensive air system. The Government's attitude to those projects is vital to the company's future.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the concern that the right hon. Gentleman expresses on behalf of his constituents and those of other Members. There is always anxiety in the House when job losses are announced, but I believe that he recognised that the Government support the industry and will continue to do so. We will continue to do our utmost to work with it to make sure that it stays competitive and that it sustains the highest possible employment levels.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I know that most of my constituents will have been delighted by this morning's news that the Government are to allow for the effects of sparsity in the policing of rural areas. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that there is an impatience in rural constituencies such as mine for the delivery of the Government's major programme, which I understand is to be heralded in the rural White Paper? When does she expect the White Paper to be published and is there a realistic hope that the House might debate it before the recess?

Mrs. Beckett

At this moment, I cannot be absolutely certain when the recess will be or when the rural affairs White Paper will be published, so I fear that I cannot give my hon. Friend much more information. However, I can tell him that the Government will introduce a rural affairs White Paper and will continue, in line with what he and many other Labour Members who represent rural areas are urging, to do our utmost to improve the circumstances in which we found those areas.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an urgent debate on the role of focus groups in government? The Prime Minister's very unfortunate remarks yesterday appalled the entire country with their flippancy and superficiality. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Therefore, is it not time for us here in the House of Commons to get to the bottom of exactly how far focus groups decide Government policy and whether the Prime Minister has any views of his own at all? If so, please may we have some open government in this case and the regular publication of the focus group results so that we can relate them directly to his statements?

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly cannot find time for an urgent debate on the matter. I am very sorry if Conservative Members are a little sensitive about what the right hon. Gentleman called the Prime Minister's unfortunate remarks, but it is unfair to suggest that my right hon. Friend was being trivial and superficial yesterday. After all, it is clear from Hansard that he declined to talk about such matters and wanted to talk instead about the extra 1 million jobs, the fall in unemployment and the real issues; but the Leader of the Opposition said: We would be delighted if the Prime Minister read out the comments of his focus groups …—[Official Report, 14 June 2000; Vol. 351, c. 934.] The Prime Minister then did so. Well!

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the extremely alarming increase in hospital-acquired infections? A documentary on HTV Wales this week claimed that the number of deaths from methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus in Wales alone is running at 500 a year compared with only 30 a year in the Netherlands, which has five times the population of Wales. A reason for the improvement in the Netherlands is the enhancement of standards of hospital cleanliness and hygiene, which, sadly, have deteriorated in British hospitals over the past 20 years. Cannot we debate the need to elevate the role of nurses in our hospitals and to restore the matron to her role as the most important element in our hospital services, which is what she was in the past?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must always be concerned when people come out of hospital with more diseases than they went in with. He is right to link that issue particularly to standards of cleanliness and hygiene and I share his view that the deterioration in those matters, which we have all seen in the health service over the past 20 years, is of considerable concern. However, he will know that my right hon. Friend has made it very plain that he shares that concern and that, as Secretary of State, he is discussing how we can restore standards, whether by the formal reintroduction of matrons or by some other means. Although I sympathise with my hon. Friend's question, there is no need for a special debate at this time because the matter is being addressed.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

May I press the right hon. Lady further on the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)? There have been 850 job losses in my constituency today, arising partly from the merger of BAE Systems, but also from the inability of the defence industry to compete in the modern world as a result of the level of the pound and other considerations. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate in the House on the British defence industry's competitive ability and what the Government should be doing to promote it?

Mrs. Beckett

We have made it clear that we certainly recognise that there are industries in which the level of the pound has caused difficulties. I understand that lately the shadow Chancellor has recognised that there is an upside as well as a downside to the strong pound.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government take seriously their responsibilities to manufacturing, whether in the aerospace industry or elsewhere. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter on the Floor of the House in the near future, but, although the right hon. Gentleman might not welcome these words, some 200 extra opportunities are available in Westminster Hall to scrutinise the Government.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I have asked my right hon. Friend before about the possibility of a statement before the summer recess on compensation to former prisoners of war of the Japanese. Is she aware that it would be totally inappropriate for the House to go into the long summer recess without such a statement and that there is overwhelming support in the House and certainly in the country for those former prisoners, who have suffered so much, receiving some compensation, bearing in mind the fact that the Japanese refused to pay when they should have done so?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has long taken a great and deep interest in this important subject. He will know that the Prime Minister discussed the matter with senior representatives of the Royal British Legion in April and undertook to consider it further with ministerial colleagues. That consideration is being undertaken. I cannot undertake today to find time for a further debate or statement on the matter in the near future, but I certainly undertake to draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Is there any chance of a comment being made in the early part of next week about the case of Mr. Gary Graham, who has served 19 years on death row and is due to be executed in Huntsville, Texas next Thursday for a crime that he is alleged to have committed when a minor of 17? He was convicted on the evidence of one witness who saw him for one second.

This is a matter of some international concern. Along with the chairman of the Bar human rights committee, I have requested an appointment with the Foreign Secretary who, unfortunately, is unable to see us, although he suggested that we could meet Baroness Scotland. Any kind of statement would be valuable. We have not executed minors alleged to have committed a crime for more than 150 years, but Gary Graham's case is now on the desk of Governor Bush.

If the Leader of the House cannot promise any comment next week, will she comment now? I do not wish to be referred to Foreign Office questions next Tuesday as there is no question dealing with US relations on the Order Paper. The first question that might be appropriate is Question 18 on ethical foreign policy, but that might not be reached. Any comment that the Leader of the House could make now would therefore be valuable in the campaign to save this young man's life.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's concern, as it is clear that the whole House does. However, I am afraid that I cannot undertake to offer him a statement on the matter in the near future. Of course, I share the concern that he expressed; indeed, I believe that the whole House does, and it is a matter of record that we do.

I remind the hon. Gentleman, as I frequently have to point out in a more contentious context, that a written parliamentary answer is a form of statement to the House. I am sure that he has raised the matter by such means previously, but he may wish to consider the merits of doing so now or of seeking a letter from the Foreign Office. I regret that the Foreign Secretary, who has a full diary, is not available to see the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, but the hon. Gentleman may wish to take up the offer of a meeting with Baroness Scotland.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that today's Order Paper contains an item entitled "Environmental Liability White Paper" next to which, in parenthesis, are the words "No debate". That document, which was issued by the European Commission, goes way beyond the implications of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which we debated this week. It includes matters such as the polluter pays principle, which could affect some of our industries, as well as the precautionary principle and how that is to be interpreted. The Order Paper states that it is the Government's intention to scrutinise the proposals. Is it possible to change "scrutinise" to "debate in the Chamber"?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, this matter has been examined on two occasions in the European Standing Committee. I accept that it has long-term implications, and I suspect that it will, in various forms, come before the House again. As my hon. Friend knows, it has long been the practice that most of these matters are considered in Committee and then a motion, such as that on today's Order Paper, is put to the House. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, but I see no reason why my hon. Friend should not seek to raise the matter in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

May I refer the right hon. Lady to the questions asked earlier by my right hon. and hon. Friends about British Aerospace? She will be aware that I have in my constituency, I am proud to say, the Woodford plant, known as Avro International, which builds civil airliners. I discovered this morning that, as a knock-on effect of the BAE situation, there will be a relatively small but no less serious number of job losses at Woodford. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will agree that however few the job losses at Woodford may be, this is a serious matter for the people who will lose their job. I therefore ask her to reconsider her programme. I understand that it is tight and that the Government have much business that they need to get through, but this is a serious matter and many hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome the opportunity to debate it on behalf of their constituents and the industry in general, and to do so in this Chamber, where it really matters, not in the sideshow.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I share the lion. Gentleman's concern on behalf of his constituents. He will know that the Government have done a great deal to work with BAE to secure its future. Some 4,000 jobs have been created and 9,000 have been sustained as a result of our support for the A3XX; 3,000 jobs have been created and 3,400 sustained as a result of the decision on military transport aircraft; and 1,200 jobs have been sustained by the decisions on the missile for the Eurofighter.

I completely accept the hon. Gentleman's point that that is not necessarily a consolation to the individuals who are affected, but BAE is continuing, over the next 18 months, to recruit some 2,000 engineers and, over the next two years, some 1,000 young people. The picture is mixed, although it creates difficulty for those affected.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House. I am sorry that some Conservative Members seem to retain an almost ideological hostility to the notion of Westminster Hall. After all, as I pointed out earlier, that facility is covered by the reports of our proceedings, just as this Chamber is. It can be covered on television and it provides 200 extra opportunities to scrutinise the Government—something that hon. Members are always demanding but apparently do not always wish to take up.

There is also an Opposition day in the provisional business. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are unwilling to look for the opportunity of a debate in Westminster Hall and want to seek a debate on the Floor of the House, I suggest that they take it up with their Front Benchers.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Stewart report on telecommunications masts for mobile phones and the Government's response to the report? In my constituency, Orange is planning to put a mobile phone mast about 10 or 12 yd from Towers primary school. There are other such examples in my constituency and probably in every constituency in the United Kingdom. We should have the opportunity to draw attention to the way in which multinational cowboys are treating communities with absolute contempt by marching in, putting up mobile phone masts near hospitals, schools and houses and not even, in Orange's case, bothering to go to a public meeting to explain why it plans to do so.

Mrs. Beckett

I know of the considerable concern that my hon. Friend has expressed about this matter on behalf of his constituents. He will know that the Government recognised that concern by setting up the review last year, and we have welcomed the report. Further discussion and consultation on the specific elements of the report are under way. My hon. Friend might like to take the matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

As I say, I understand and share my hon. Friend's concern, but at present, the Government's role and powers are limited. That is exactly the kind of area that is being discussed and explored. However, I suspect that the pressure that my hon. Friend is bringing to bear on behalf of his constituents will, in itself, have some effect. I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, but he too may wish to seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate in Government time on the registration of doctors? I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in sending their sympathies to those lady patients who were operated on by Richard Neale, a number of whom live in the Vale of York. The Friarage hospital, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), has an excellent reputation, but how could a doctor who had been struck off the Canadian register be allowed to continue to practise in north Yorkshire, causing grief and severe clinical and personal distress to those ladies? There remains the outstanding question, which the House could address in such a debate, of the claims to be made by the ladies once the General Medical Council has reported. Will the right hon. Lady agree to such a debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot at this moment give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks, but she will know that the concern that she has expressed is widely shared throughout the House and within the Government. She is right to identify the fact that those concerns have been aired for many years now, including under the previous Government. There is an on-going and urgent discussion with the profession on how such matters can better be handled in future. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is extremely concerned to see the matter tackled as early as possible, so I feel confident that he will share the hon. Lady's wish for the matter to be discussed here. However, I cannot tell her when that might be.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Last week, the all-party parliamentary drugs misuse group published the result of its investigations into dual diagnosis, the linkage between mental illness and the misuse of drugs, which reminds me to ask my right hon. Friend when the UK anti-drugs co-ordinator's annual report is likely to be published, and whether it is intended to have an annual debate on his consideration of the misuse of drugs, which began last July.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot tell my hon. Friend offhand when the co-ordinator's report is likely to be published, but I shall ask for inquiries to be made and the answer to be given to him. I understand and sympathise with his request for an annual debate on the report, but he will know that hon. Members wish to discuss so many issues annually that the occupier of my post is always reluctant to give such an undertaking. However, I recognise my hon. Friend's concern and will draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Will the right hon. Lady consider the early-day motion, tabled earlier this week and signed by hon. Members from all the main parties in the House, expressing regret at the Prime Minister's decision not to grant a public holiday on 4 August to celebrate the 100th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother? That is perceived by many to be a somewhat petty decision, and it would give great pleasure if the Government were strong enough to reverse it.

Mrs. Beckett

I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman will know that a great many celebrations of the Queen Mother's 100th birthday are being undertaken, not least the presentation of an address from the House, which will be led by Madam Speaker. I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but, although it is an important anniversary, which will be very much marked in the country, the provision of a public holiday at a time when most people are on holiday anyway, while welcome, might be felt by many to be not as great a mark of affection as it might usually be taken to be.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Ninety-three per cent. of young people are educated in state schools, and 66 per cent. of the top A-level grades are attained by young people in state schools, yet only 50 per cent. of Oxbridge places are filled by them. In view of that, and of the recently published research by the Sutton Trust, will my right hon. Friend find time to hold a debate on the wider issue of equality of opportunity and access to Britain's leading universities?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I understand from remarks that I heard recently by the Minister for Education and Employment that the disturbing statistics that my hon. Friend cites are replicated in applications. As my hon. Friend knows, it has been suggested that the figures result from fewer applications. However, applications show the same pattern. I therefore share my hon. Friend's view that the position does not reflect a correct balance in judging between people who have the right qualifications. However, although the issue is topical. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it in the near future.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Does the Leader of the House believe that the comparative attendance at business questions reflects good Opposition morale, poor Government morale, or both?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that it has anything to do directly with morale. My distinguished predecessor, Lord Biffen, described business questions as the occasion on which an hon. Member can deliver the speech that he has been nurturing in his bosom all week and been unable to get out. I welcome great attendance at business questions, which is an opportunity for Opposition Members to raise any issue that they wish, with a time limit that is at the discretion of Madam Speaker.

On morale, I do not know how often the right hon. Gentleman has attended Opposition day debates recently, but the turnout on the Opposition Benches has not been high. That says more about morale than today's attendance at business questions.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

In a written answer to me in column 586W of Tuesday's Hansard, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), reveals information that clearly shows that the change in Government policy on the private sector, which was announced this morning, was not a genuine change. For the past three years, the Government have been doing what they state that they have not been doing. The answer states that information was placed in the Library on Tuesday afternoon. Despite my agitation, and all the Government's spinning on the "Today" programme this morning, the information did not reach the Library until 10.45 this morning. That is disgraceful. Will the Government make a statement about their new policy on the private sector, and apologise about the misleading information in the written answer?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I deplore it if the hon. Gentleman was told incorrectly that information had been placed in the Library. I shall ensure that that is taken up with the relevant Department. [Interruption.] I accept that the hon. Gentleman says that the information is in the Library now, but that it was not there when it should have been.

The hon. Gentleman claims that the written answer shows that the policy has not been changed, but that perhaps it is being developed in respect of standards. That is exactly what I said a little while ago.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The public are increasingly worried about the explosion of spin doctoring over substance and the politicisation of the civil service. Both are a product of the many special advisers that the Government now employ. Is that because Ministers are of poorer quality and therefore need more advice, or because the spin doctors are of poorer quality and we must have more of them? Whatever the answer, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Minister for the Cabinet Office to accept Lord Neill's invitation to come here soon to answer questions about the report and recommendations that he made as long ago as February?

Mrs. Beckett

Both the former and the current Cabinet Secretary have rejected with contumely the notion that some 70 or so political advisers can politicise a civil service of thousands.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman alleges that everything is spin over substance. It is my observation and direct experience that journalists and the Conservative party want to talk about spin while Ministers want to talk about delivering. I shall give three simple examples. This week, 30,000 more applications for teacher training have been announced, but hardly reported. Tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will open the Carlisle hospital—the first of the new hospitals to be built. People had been waiting for that hospital to be built under the previous Government since about 1987. Yesterday, unemployment returned to the level that it last reached in February 1980. It was above that level for all the years of the Government whom he supported—during which I understand he was a special adviser—whereas it has taken us three years to get it back to that level. We want those issues to be discussed, and it is a pity that they are not reported instead of the comments of the Conservative party, which are frankly not very exciting.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Leader of the House will be aware that, owing to lengthening NHS waiting lists over the past three years, some 150,000 people have been forced to pay for private operations out of their own savings without having the benefit of health insurance to cover the cost.

In the light of that, is not it particularly welcome that the Government are now looking into ways of funding the cost of those operations for people who think that they deserve treatment at the expense of the national health service? That would be welcome to my constituent Mr. James Hickson, a pensioner who had to pay out of his life savings for a private operation because the NHS waiting list was so long.

I welcome moves that will mean shorter waits for people who are in pain and suffering. It is time the Government were prepared to allow that to be debated on the Floor of the House, so that those of us who want to urge them on in their intelligent moves to encourage private sector health care have an opportunity to do so.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's constituent in those circumstances. The Government are determined to ensure that, if the private sector is used to ease any pressures on the health service, it is done applying the right standards. As I understand the policy enunciated by the shadow Secretary of State for Health, under a Conservative Government anyone who needed an operation such as a hip replacement would be forced to do precisely the same as the hon. Gentleman's constituent.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that during questions to the Department of Trade and Industry, five Tories sought to intervene, and during business questions another six Tories have already intervened? Could I accordingly give it the spin: "Horror, shock, Tories abandon market forces"?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the sharp contrast between the Conservative Members' ideological approach and their ceaseless demand for more spending and more intervention at the same time as they claim that they want tax cuts. I fear that, as they proved spectacularly during the late 1990s, arithmetic is not their strong suit.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Will the Leader of the House give time for an important debate on the work of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, and in particular on Lord Neill's annual report, which said that the committee's work crucially depends on its independence of the Government of the day? There are strong concerns that that may not always be the case. Could she find time so that we can debate this matter?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not had chance to study Lord Neill's remarks in depth, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government widened the remit of the Neill committee and gave it the capacity to scrutinise, among other things, party political funding. That was always resisted by the Conservative party. I share the view that it is important to have proper standards and independent scrutiny of how these matters are developing. However, I utterly reject the contention that any complaint can be made about the Government.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Following a ruling by a coroner in the south-west, it will no longer be possible for police forces to use emergency powers to close streets for parades or fetes. In order to stay within the law, they will have to request a road closure order from the local authority, which requires the futile exercise of charging the fete or organisation £210 in the case of Shropshire for an advert in the back of a local newspaper that no one reads. I have written to the Minister in the other place, Lord Whitty, asking that this be changed immediately, because the cost in Shropshire alone for events with a turnover of under £5,000 is £31,500. The consequences for girl guides, scouts, remembrance day services, fetes, carnivals and parades across the country will be devastating unless this ridiculous, bureaucratic nonsense is changed quickly. Will a Minister from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions make a statement to the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, although I gather that that is common practice in some parts of the country. He has raised an important issue. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate or a statement in the near future, but I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and the fact that he raised the matter on the Floor of the House, to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Will the right hon. Lady make time for a debate—or, failing that, a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport—about the loss to the BBC of coverage of important football matches? Following the advice of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), does she agree that Government intervention is required? The football authorities have shown themselves to be incapable of looking at the long-term interests of football. Surely the people's sport should be on the people's television. Football on television should be for the many, not the few.

Mrs. Beckett

I agree that football on television should be for the many, not the few. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have taken steps to ensure that important sporting events can be seen by many members of the public. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said this morning, such issues are a matter for commercial negotiation and discussion involving the BBC and others.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's regret that the football "industry" has taken such a stand, in the context of the revenue that it seeks to raise, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will continue to look at the effects of such a policy. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special statement in the near future, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the whole House will want me to wish England well in the forthcoming match with Germany.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

May we have an urgent debate on the future of recruitment in the national health service? In Lichfield and across the land, hospitals are under threat. They stand under the sword of Damocles. People are not prepared to go into hospitals when area health authorities are reviewing whether those hospitals will continue to exist.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, although a review instigated in south Staffordshire was supposed to take only three months, Victoria hospital is still under threat 12 months later? Does she realise that it is that situation—which, as I have said, applies throughout the United Kingdom—that produced the slow handclap that the Prime Minister received when he said, "We have not abandoned the NHS"? He got a very slow handclap indeed from those in the know.

Mrs. Beckett

No one in the know would have reacted in that way. Those in the know would be aware of the resources being made available. Of course, the situation described by the hon. Gentleman did not come about overnight; it came about under the Government of whom he was such a strong and fulsome supporter. Moreover, those in the know would be aware that the Government have approved some 38 major hospital building projects, and have substantially improved the staffing of the health service.

Of course it is taking time, and will continue to take time, to turn around the problems that we inherited, but given Conservative Members' propensity to complain about spin over substance, let me apprise them of some facts of which they are almost certainly unaware. There are some 30,000 extra jobs in education, some 8,000 extra jobs in health, and fewer jobs in central Government. When the party that the hon. Gentleman supports said that it would fund its programme by cutting jobs in the public sector, it was talking about sacking exactly the people more of whom he wants to be employed.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

In the light of the British Aerospace job losses, will the Leader of the House consider bringing forward the defence procurement debate that we normally have? The matter is urgent. Will she also consider a debate on the importance of manufacturing generally to the regions? As well as the 750 job losses that have taken place at British Aerospace in the past few weeks, Lancashire has experienced more than 400 manufacturing job losses in Burnley, and 550 in Accrington.

This is an issue that interests all hon. Members, on both sides of the House. I know that the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) has worked closely with the Department of Trade and Industry, and, indeed, with the Conservative leader of Hyndburn council, in an attempt to alleviate the worst effects of the job losses. The loss of 750 jobs to date will have an enormous impact on communities. Whole families work in some of the industries involved, and whole families have lost their jobs.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. It gives me a pang to hear Conservative Members expressing the concern for manufacturing that all of us tried to instigate in them during the years when they were in government, but never mind. We are the Government now, as he rightly says. We share his concern, which is why—as he knows and will, I think, acknowledge—the Government have given considerable support to British Aerospace, not least in the field of defence procurement. I understand his suggestion that a vehicle for that concern to be aired might be the defence procurement debate. I cannot at the moment give him the assurance that he seeks, but I will bear his remarks in mind.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we please have a statement on the criteria used by Government Departments in deciding when regulations that flow from legislation will be subject to the negative procedure, which does not allow debate, and when they will be subject to the affirmative procedure, which does? The right hon. Lady will no doubt wish to be aware that, on no fewer than three recent occasions, in proposing and seeking to push legislation through the House, Ministers have been unable to tell the House which procedure is to be used or why.

On a wholly separate matter, what assessment has the right hon. Lady made of the progress, or lack of it, in the other place of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill has had one debate in the other place. Further than that, I cannot call its present circumstances to mind.

On the criteria to decide when regulation should be subject to negative or affirmative procedure, I understand that the hon. Gentleman seeks greater clarity as to how those decisions are made. I am not sure that it is always as scientific as he might suggest. I am not aware of an occasion on which a Minister could not suggest what the pattern for a set of regulations would be, but it sometimes depends on the outcome; it depends on the balance of the material which it is anticipated will be put in regulations, and the weight that is associated with the decisions that those regulations will enshrine. That is probably the nearest it gets to being scientific. As to why someone might have been unable to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, perhaps at that time the decisions had not been made.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady give serious consideration to bringing the defence procurement debate forward? She has heard from many Conservative Members who have British Aerospace factories in their constituencies. They are asking not for intervention, but for a debate. I happen also to have such a factory in my constituency. Can we please have that debate at an early opportunity?

Will the right hon. Lady think further about the question of a public holiday to celebrate the 100th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen Mother? Such a holiday would have the support of the official Opposition and of the Liberal Democrats. I have consulted the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and he, too, would welcome a positive response.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I have taken on board the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the defence procurement debate and undertake to consider the matter. With regard to his remarks about a further special holiday to celebrate the Queen Mother's birthday, all I can do is repeat what I said earlier: I will undertake to draw the remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.