HC Deb 22 June 2000 vol 352 cc455-69 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the right hon. Lady to give the House 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 26 JUNE—Motion relating to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by the remaining stages of the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate 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], followed by the remaining stages of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill.

THURSDAY 29 JUNE—Opposition Day [15th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on "Priorities in the NHS" on an Opposition motion.

FRIDAY 30 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 3 JULY—Opposition Day [16th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion whose subject is to be announced.

TUESDAY 4 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Local Government Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 5 JULY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Local Government Bill [Lords]. The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

THURSDAY 6 JULY—Estimates Day [2nd Allotted Day]. At 7 o'clock, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

FRIDAY 7 JULY—Debate on the report of the Committee of Inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

I should also like to inform the House of business to be taken in Westminster Hall during July.

THURSDAY 6 JULY—Debate on the development of Community Legal Services.

THURSDAY 13 JULY—Debate on EC development assistance.

THURSDAY 20 AND THURSDAY 27 JULY—Debates on Select Committee reports are scheduled, both subjects to be announced.

Sir George Young

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

The House was hoping for the date of the summer recess, not least because it was hinted at by one of the right hon. Lady's ministerial colleagues in a speech in Westminster Hall yesterday.

In the Queen's Speech, it was announced that legislation would be introduced to improve the education of children with special educational needs. As the parliamentary Session matures, what has happened to that Bill and, indeed, to the Disqualifications Bill, which the House dealt with, at some inconvenience, in January and which has subsequently sunk without trace? Is that not further evidence of a badly managed legislative programme?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the Government would produce a plan in the next few days to strengthen the post office network. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that that will be outlined in an oral statement, given the widespread concern about the matter? In villages in my constituency, fashionable addresses such as the old rectory and the old school house are now being joined by the old post office.

Before the House rises for the summer recess, will we have the third of the three armed forces debates, this one on procurement, given widespread concern about redundances at British Aerospace? Would it be reasonable to assume that the Chancellor will be making his statement on the comprehensive spending review in the second of the two weeks? What has happened to the arrangements for discussing the economy?

Following our exchange last week, when there was widespread support for a public holiday to commemorate the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother, has the right hon. Lady had the promised discussion with the Home Secretary?

Mrs. Beckett

I should have liked to be able to give the recess date today, and I apologise that I am not able to do so. I said some time ago that I hoped that the House would not need to sit in August, and that hope has strengthened. That is all I can tell the right hon. Gentleman today.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the debate on special educational needs. I am aware that that matter is being considered. He will know that since the Bill was first proposed, there has been a pertinent, relevant, but unfortunately rather late further report about disability, which my right hon. Friend is considering alongside earlier proposals.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Disqualifications Bill. The Session is not yet at an end, and the Bill has had some hearing in the House. If I recall correctly, it had an extensive hearing.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me also about the Post Office. I anticipate that when proposals for the Post Office come forward, there is likely to be an oral statement. As for his reference to the address, the old post office, no doubt in rural areas like the one he represents there are already such addresses—so many post offices closed under the Government of whom he was such a star member.

As for the armed forces debate, I am aware of the pressure last week in the context of British Aerospace. I cannot announce a debate in Government time, but I have announced a number of opportunities in Opposition time, for which Conservative Members can press their right hon. and hon. Friends. I hope and anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to make a statement about the comprehensive spending review in the not too distant future.

As for whether there should be a holiday to celebrate the Queen Mother's birthday, I undertook last week to raise the matter with the relevant authorities, and have done so.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I wonder whether we could have an opportunity soon to discuss the work of the Modernisation Committee and the hours of the House. Many of us had hoped that we would be able to discuss these matters and come to conclusions before the end of the Session; I had hoped that we might hear some news today.

Mrs. Beckett

The matter remains under discussion in the Modernisation Committee. It is my hope that in the not too distant future the Committee may have reached conclusions that it is in a position to lay before the House in a report. I cannot, of course, anticipate the judgment of the Committee. I would remind my hon. Friend that the Session does not end until the autumn.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Bearing in mind the rather strange sequence of events surrounding Question 12 in the Chancellor's Question Time, will the Leader of the House provide time for him to make a statement on the euro and his approach to it? If he is too busy, perhaps she can persuade the Foreign Secretary to come instead.

May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to early-day motion 526?

[That this House notes that the 1986 Social Security Act introduced a halving of widows' SERPS entitlements in respect of deaths occurring after April 2000; notes that DSS leaflets and correspondence failed to reflect that change for at least a decade after the Act reached the statute book, leading to an investigation by the Parliamentary Ombudsman; notes that many more pensioners who were not actively misled by these leaflets nonetheless knew nothing about the change until they were too old to make realistic alternative provision; and therefore calls on the Government not only to compensate those future pensioners who were misled but also to exempt from the proposed cut any person who has already reached state pension age.]

There continue to be real anger and dismay at the failure to correct the Conservatives' administrative blunder, going back more than 10 years. Can the right hon. Lady find time for a Minister to explain to the House in detail how those affected can establish a claim and receive compensation for that major pensions mis-selling scandal?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I did not hear Question 12 at Treasury questions, but I see not the smallest necessity for the Chancellor to come to the House in order to repeat what he and all of us have said on hundreds of occasions. The tendency of the press to try to reinterpret a policy that has not changed over the past two to two and a half years is deeply boring, and it is even more boring when that keeps happening in the House.

With regard to widows' SERPS entitlement, the hon. Gentleman knows that Ministers have the matter under consideration and are in the process of seeing what can be done to rectify what he rightly calls a serious case of pensions mis-selling. He might, of course, press the official Opposition to raise the matter during their time, as it is they who were responsible.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that when Ministers discuss the health service next week, it would be helpful if they could make clear not only the short-term implications of a massive transfer of NHS funds into the private sector for the short-term care and treatment of NHS patients, but the long-term effects on the NHS? Ministers should also make clear the need for people being treated in the private sector to enjoy not only the same standards of care, but protection in terms of insurance and the ability to sue anyone who is not providing that high level of care, if they have been transferred without their consent into the private sector.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend is extremely well aware that it is important to the Government, as to individuals, that NHS patients be treated in the private sector only if the standards that we would all expect are preserved. I know that from time to time concerns have been expressed about those standards. Equally, my hon. Friend knows that it is the Government's intention to announce in the not too distant future proposals for a long-term plan for the health service, which should not only raise those standards, but make sure that people have access to NHS care. That is not the position that we inherited, as my hon. Friend knows, but I feel confident, Madam Speaker, that she will seek to catch your eye to make those points during the debate that has just been announced.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

During the debate on the Lords, the Leader of the House expressed a commitment to set up soon a Joint Committee of both Houses. If the Government take the view that Being democratic does not necessarily mean having elections—[Official Report, 19 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 124.]— what does the right hon. Lady think that being democratic does necessarily mean?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman was in his place, so he will know that he did not repeat with absolute accuracy the words that I used. I am sure that that was an oversight on his part. It was my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who made the remark to which he has referred. I share the view that an extra group of people elected to the second Chamber would not necessarily be an addition to democracy. If we and the people of this country want a means of electing people who then form the Government, which gives them a direct input into the use of power, it seems to me that that is best expressed through one superior Chamber and another that may give advice. That superior Chamber is this body, and I am surprised to learn that some Members of it do not wish it to remain so.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the new targets for waste recycling recently proposed for local authorities. Is she also aware that a number of waste disposal authorities are having difficulty reaching those targets because of the financial regime and the amount of investment in waste management plant, and because the landfill tax operates against such investment? Will she make time in the House for a debate on the matter, given the importance of the new targets to this country's approach to recycling in the future?

Mrs. Beckett

I am indeed aware that there is great concern throughout the country that we should pursue the right policy on waste management and that all the details and implications of its implementation should be covered. I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time on the Floor of the House, which is under great pressure. However, I recommend the extra opportunities for debate and scrutiny of the Government that Westminster Hall provides.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

I am sure that the right hon. Lady agrees that anorexia is a serious illness. However, will she advise us whether it would be possible for the Minister for Women to come to the House and explain the apparently ludicrous policy of having weight-watching police to monitor the number of appearances on television by fat people as compared with those by thin people? Will the right hon. Lady tell us whether the policy is simply a plot to ensure that the Deputy Prime Minister gets more television time? If so, Conservative Members heartily approve of it.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I missed the hon. Gentleman's punch line. The relevant Minister will attend Question Time on Tuesday week. I presume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to an article in the Daily Mail. I agree that anorexia is a serious and difficult subject, and I believe that some serious discussion took place yesterday about the way in which it can be tackled, but for me the tone of the article was set by a photograph on the next page—of two women wearing lampshades.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

My right hon. Friend will have seen report this week about the attack on the house of Margaret Dongo, who is a Member of Parliament in Zimbabwe. Margaret Dongo is the only Member from the Movement for Democratic Change because she is a courageous woman who had the guts to challenge the electoral malpractices of the ruling party. When I spoke to her the night before last, she told of her house being attacked by rocks and stones. She cowered under a table in fear of her life. My right hon. Friend also knows that elections take place in Zimbabwe this weekend. Will she consider a debate next week on their outcome and the difficulties that will remain whatever the result?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the whole House deplores the violence to which my hon. Friend referred and the pressure that the opposition are under in Zimbabwe. My hon. Friend knows that the Government and, indeed, the whole House have repeatedly urged the right of the people of Zimbabwe to make their choice freely and fairly in the elections this weekend. The event that my hon. Friend described is a sharp reminder of how fortunate we are to have the political peace that we enjoy in this country.

I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary wishes to keep the House informed. Perhaps a time scale will be set as the information comes in. I cannot give an undertaking for a debate at the moment, but I will bear my hon. Friend's observations in mind.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

In a week in which the flower of English cricket has been bundled out of a test match in three days, the flower of English football has been bundled out of Euro 2000, and the flower of English hooliganism has been bundled out of Belgium, the only people not able to move about much were those who were trying to escape this country and who were paralysed by a computer failure at three of the main British airports and a broken rail on the London underground. Could we have a debate soon about when and whether life will improve under new Labour?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman began his remarks by referring to the unfortunate lack of success of some of our sportsmen and women. I attribute a lot of that to the sale of school playing fields under the Conservative Government.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I know that the House of Lords is a problem for everybody and that we have had a big discussion of it, but I support the third way. The third option is to abolish the House of Lords. We could then have a revising Chamber of about 100 lawyers in this place; they could dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s. We do not need a second Chamber. At least two countries do not have one. And now that we have got rid of the hereditary principle, why not abolish the monarchy as well?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not entirely sure that that is what is conventionally regarded as the third way. I do know, however, that Lord Wakeham, for instance, believes that unless the second Chamber is a distinctly different Chamber bringing different experience to bear, there is no point in having it. In that sense Lord Wakeham is a unicameralist, as he has made plain, and—although it does not represent the policy that the Government are advocating—I understand the logic of that approach.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government agree that the second Chamber should be different and distinctive, and not a clone of, or competitor with, this Chamber. That is why we are minded to accept the broad proposals in the Wakeham report.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The 8,500 multiple sclerosis sufferers who would benefit from beta interferon will be bitterly disappointed by the Prime Minister's airy dismissal of the question asked during yesterday's Question Time by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I rather suspect that, by now, the Prime Minister himself may regret having so cheaply dismissed the concerns of those who are worried about the leak from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Is it not time the Government found time for a debate on the way NICE works? Should we not debate not just the question of the drug's cost-effectiveness—which it may be reasonable for NICE to consider—but why civil servants, professors and doctors are considering the issue of affordability? Affordability is at the heart of the decision about beta interferon. Is it not time that the House engaged in a full debate to discuss the implications?

Mrs. Beckett

I utterly contest—as I think anyone who heard him would—the notion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister airily dismissed the concerns of MS sufferers. He did no such thing, as the hon. Gentleman should know if he was present yesterday—and I think, from memory, that he was.

It is nonsense to suggest that NICE is making decisions simply on grounds of cost. Only last week, it ruled that taxane drugs for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer, which are also very expensive, should be made available throughout the health service. That did not happen under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. The hon. Gentleman should also know, as there have been television interviews and so on, that there is some difference of view in the medical profession about the effectiveness of beta interferon. In any event, he must be aware that conclusions have not yet been reached. These are preliminary views which are out for consultation.

What I found most striking yesterday was the sheer opportunism of the Leader of the Opposition. As recently as 11 May, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the Opposition health spokesman, said: In any limited budget, priorities have to be set. These must be on the basis of clinical need, not political convenience. That is quite correct, but it is not what the hon. Gentleman is saying—and he may have noticed that there is a health debate next week.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton. North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Conservative party has set up a commission to consider the modernisation of Parliament? I believe that it is due to report at about the same time as the Modernisation Committee. Will my right hon. Friend give us an early opportunity, preferably before the recess, for the two important reports to be debated? The issue is pressing for many of us, and such a debate might just give us a unique opportunity to secure cross-party consensus.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the timetable for the Conservative party commission report, and I have no idea whether it is likely to be produced before the recess. I am not sure whether I would be able to find time for a debate before the House rises for the summer but, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), these matters are under consideration.

I hope that there will be a report from the Modernisation Committee in the near future, and that it will help the House to reach some views. If such a report is produced, however, and if the House can pronounce on it, the matter must be resolved before the next Session. That seems to me to be the important thing, rather than the precise timing of any possible debate.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an urgent debate on the reliability, and extent of commitment, of ministerial statements? Can the debate please be led by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment? Can we have, before the debate commences—although I hope that it is held very soon—a full briefing from the chief inspector of Ofsted? That would enable us to assess how far the Secretary of State should be taken seriously, as he made an important commitment to resign his office if an important educational target was not met. We could also include a much wider-ranging debate involving several other Ministers, in order that we could judge their statements and commitments appropriately.

Mrs. Beckett

There are regular opportunities to discuss issues with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment in the Chamber. He did indeed make that commitment. He and his Department are well on course to deliver the targets that they have set. I thought that those who wished to see better government would applaud the Government's determination both to set targets and to ensure that they are achieved.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

My right hon. Friend will recall that, on Tuesday, the House was asked to consider the Second Reading of a Bill after 10 o'clock at night. That resulted in the House rising at about 1.30 am. It afforded another splendid period of nocturnal playtime for the kindergarten group on the Opposition Benches, but it did nothing to enhance the reputation of the House of Commons. Three years into the modernisation programme, the question of hours and the sensible organisation of business must be resolved. Will she ensure that the House has an early opportunity to come to a view and a decision on that?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I have said repeatedly that I think that no hon. Member objects to being here for long hours on occasion when there are matters of real substance, importance and delicacy to be addressed, but I accept that there are occasions when that is not always judged to be the case. I am also mindful of the need not to curtail debate.

I have some proposals. We have given much thought to whether it is possible to reconcile these two difficult elements. I hope that it will prove to be so. It is more important to achieve improvements in the efficiency of the way in which the House works than to be perhaps excessively nervous about the precise time that takes to achieve.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

May I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider her response to a request for a debate on the role and remit of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, given that, on Tuesday, a number of Members on both sides of the House from the north-west of England had meetings with leading neurologists, who made it clear that there is consensus in the profession that beta interferon is an effective drug for many multiple sclerosis sufferers?

In that context, is it not important that NICE should not just take a view based on the cost to the national health service budget, but bear in mind the enormous cost to welfare budgets and social service budgets, and the costs in lost earnings and lost tax revenue, which arise from the avoidable sickness of so many people?

Mrs. Beckett

I am very conscious of the concern felt by many people with MS, and that a strong body within the profession believes that beta interferon will help some sufferers, although the hon. Gentleman should be aware that it will not necessarily help all sufferers. He will know, I hope, that there is no suggestion in the NICE report that those who receive beta interferon should cease to receive it. The report is out for consultation. It is a preliminary report in draft. Neither I nor any other Member has seen it.

Yet again, I remind the hon. Gentleman of the sensible remarks of the shadow health spokesman, which I anticipate will, in consequence, be repeated in the debate in the House next week, pointing out that there has to be a system of clear, explicit and transparent priority setting, and that not to have such a system—it is exactly what NICE is—would mean putting our heads in the sand and pretending that the problem did not exist. That is what some Opposition Members seem to be trying to do.

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Following the front-page story in today's Daily Record that Mike Tyson has physically assaulted someone so that they required hospital treatment, can my right hon. Friend arrange for the Home Secretary to make a statement on whether he will review the conditions of Mike Tyson's entry into this country, bearing in mind the fact that one of the reasons for allowing him entry was that he was not considered a threat to anybody outside the boxing ring?

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware that my hon. Friend has taken a great interest in the matter that she raises. I have not seen the story to which she refers, nor indeed do I know whether it is well founded. May I draw to her attention the fact that it is Home Office questions on Monday, so she might find an opportunity to raise the matter then?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Can the right hon. Lady give us any indication of when the House will have the opportunity to discuss the ratification of the statute for the International Criminal Court? Given the number of individuals around the world who would benefit from the attentions of such a court—not least General Mladic, Mr. Milosevic and Foday Sankoh—is it not extraordinary that Britain took the lead in setting it up, yet we are one of the Parliaments that is slowest to undertake the necessary ratification procedure? The House deals with a number of other measures that may be of less consequence; this is of international importance. Is it not time we got on with it?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will know that no one is more mindful of pressure on the legislative timetable than I am. He will know that the ratification that he seeks will require further legislation. Although I would have hoped that the matter was not particularly controversial across the House, the hon. Gentleman will be aware, as I am, that matters that one would not have considered controversial have taken up a considerable amount of time this Session. In effect, the hon. Gentleman is making a bid for the next Queen's Speech and he will know that I cannot comment on that.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Is my right hon. Friend is aware of the fact that the Home Office working group that has been looking into forced marriages will report at the end of this month? Does she agree that it would give a great deal of encouragement to many young Asian women in my constituency and throughout west Yorkshire were we to have a debate on the outcome of that report?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a great interest in this subject and has done a great deal of work on it. Although I am aware of the existence of the working group, which does extremely important work, I was not aware that the report was likely to emerge on that timetable and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter on the Floor of the House, but it is exactly the kind of issue that she might seek an opportunity to raise in Westminster Hall.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the right hon. Lady agree to a early debate in Government time on the excessively high fuel duties and their adverse impact on road hauliers, other industries, not least the farming community, and those of us who live in rural villages and communities? It would also enable the Government to explain to the wider British public why two separate formulae were used to calculate the inflation rate for pensions and for fuel duties.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady raises the issue of the impact of high fuel duty, which has been much discussed in the House. She will know that an escalator was introduced on fuel duties for environmental reasons and that the precedent was set by the Conservative Government. This Government continued to follow that precedent for some time, although we have now ceased to do so. The hon. Lady will also know that the index on which the level of inflation for the pension increase was judged was set many years ago by the Conservative Government and this Government have not changed it, although these matters are reviewed from time to time. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for a further debate in Government time, although I have no doubt that in various ways they will continue to be raised.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

At a meeting of the all-party group on leasehold reform the other evening, Ministers indicated that a draft Bill would appear in the next month or so. Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to take further with her ministerial colleagues the discussions that were mentioned at business questions earlier this year? I refer to whether a Scrutiny Committee could examine the proposed legislation, which will introduce for the first time in English law a new form of property tender.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend—who takes a close interest in the subject, which is of considerable importance in his constituency—makes the interesting suggestion that the draft Bill ought to be subject to some form of pre-legislative scrutiny. I undertake to raise that matter with the ministerial colleagues primarily concerned.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Notwithstanding this afternoon's debate on the intelligence agencies, may we have at least a statement on the activities of another intelligence agency operating in the House—given truly shocking reports that Labour party researchers have admitted to habitually eavesdropping on a right hon. Gentleman and passing that intelligence to 10 Downing street? Does the right hon. Lady recall the fate of a politician on the other side of the Atlantic who encouraged such practices?

Mrs. Beckett

I have heard of such reports but am not aware that anybody has admitted to habitual eavesdropping on the leader of the Liberal party. If anyone employed as a so-called political adviser has been doing so, they should be sacked for incompetence.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there will be great dismay and disappointment among not scores but hundreds of hon. Members of all parties at the news that the House will not debate before the summer recess the urgent matter of modernisation? Many of us are getting fed up with a few Conservative Members jerking at the end of their chain to frustrate the clear will of the majority of right hon. and hon. Members. I ask my right hon. Friend not to say definitely today that we will be denied the opportunity to debate that matter before the summer.

Mrs. Beckett

I try never to say anything definitive during business questions. I do not definitively rule out such a debate, but at present one seems unlikely. I do not fully understand the concern as to whether or not the matter is debated before the summer recess. If such a report emerges and is debated, the important point is that a decision be made in time for it to become effective at the only point when it could be given effect to—perhaps in a new parliamentary Session. I assure my hon. Friend that I have in no way lost sight of the matter.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Given that time is drawing on, may I give the Leader of the House the opportunity to say yes to a request for a debate? The right hon. Lady has considered sympathetically in the past the fate of people living in Kingskerswell and the lack of a bypass there. Holcroft Fox has now reported that the people of Kingskerswell are entitled to relief and that only a bypass can provide it. Will the right hon. Lady urgently find time for a debate, so that the Government can clarify their position on the construction of bypasses? If they mean to go ahead with the building programmes they have suggested, there is one ready and waiting to start.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future but I will draw to the attention of my noble Friend the Minister for Transport the hon. Gentleman's strong view that there is an urgent need to implement that project. My noble Friend anticipates making some proposals about his transport plan in the not too distant future.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Has my right hon. Friend yet heard when the Government's response to the Stewart report might be available? When it is available, will she ensure that we have a debate in the House on the issues surrounding mobile phones and the erection of mobile phone masts? The latter is an issue of great concern to many of my constituents, not least in my own village of Culcheth. Will she draw those concerns to the attention of Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, so that the House has an opportunity to review the laws that were brought in by the previous Government, which give residents little or no chance to make their views known through the planning process before the masts are erected?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter, not least because it enables me to say from the Dispatch Box that that concern is deeply felt in my constituency, where several residents are running a strong local campaign. I fully understand the concern that is being expressed. There has been an initial response to the Stewart report, and consideration is being given to the planning implications, but of course I undertake to draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The right hon. Lady will be aware of the rally and lobby of the House today by the British Weights and Measures Association, which is fighting a laudable, vigorous and patriotic campaign to prevent further metrication of our weights and measures. Will she confirm that Ministers will make time to meet the association today? Will she also confirm that we will have a statement responding to its legitimate requests to protect the interests of small traders especially, who have already buckled under the burden of £5 billion of extra red tape from this Government and who face further regulation through the programme to get rid of British imperial measurements?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not know what pressure ministerial diaries are under, but of course I recognise the strong concern that has been long expressed by the British Weights and Measures Association. All that I can do is ask the hon. Gentleman where he was when the previous Government made the changes. This Government have already once, if not twice, postponed the implementation of the measures because we are mindful of their impact on small traders. It is yet another example of Opposition Members deploring things that they themselves did.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

With her deep knowledge of social security, my right hon. Friend was, I am sure, burning the midnight oil last night reading the fascinating report by the Social Security Committee on the contributory principle, which was published yesterday. The report drew attention to the long-standing unfairness in the national insurance fund whereby contributions are increased annually by the higher rate of inflation, but benefits—including pensions—are paid out at the lower rate of inflation. As the report makes clear, the national insurance fund has an unneeded surplus, above the contingency funds, of £6 billion, which will grow considerably over the next 20 years, thus allowing the link between pensions and earnings—the higher rate of inflation—to be restored now and in the future.

Can we debate early-day motion 1?

[That this House welcomes the Government's decision to raise income support for pensioners annually in line with average earnings, but regrets the widening gap between the basic pension and income support; notes the Treasury's estimate that by April 2002 the National Insurance Fund's balance will be £8.43 billion above the minimum recommended by the Government Actuary; and urges that part of that surplus should be used to restore the link between the basic pension and average earnings for the remaining years of this Parliament, thus ensuring that all pensioners share in the nation's increasing prosperity and preventing a further increase in the number receiving income support.]

By doing so, the Government could add to the magnificent and beneficial measures that they have taken for pensioners, including the restoration of the link, as the nation's pensioners want.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the importance of the issue that my hon. Friend raises. He will know that the Committee said in its report: We do agree with the Secretary of State that any use of the present surplus in the national insurance fund must be sustainable in the long term. He will also know that the Government are committed to improving the welfare of pensioners as fast as we can, but we have set as our priority giving the most to the pensioners who are, by definition, in the greatest need. We will continue to do that, and we shall also continue to try to assist other pensioners, but I fear it is a matter of the time needed to remedy the deficiencies that we inherited.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Leader of the House try to persuade a defence procurement Minister to come to the House and make a statement about the unusual controversy in the Ministry of Defence over the naming of the next two Royal Navy survey vessels? They were to be named HMS Shackleton and HMS Cook. There is no problem with HMS Shackleton, but I understand that the name of the other vessel has met resistance in the Ministry of Defence.

If the right hon. Lady cannot do that, can she persuade a Foreign Office Minister to come to the House and explain why, when I tabled a written question on 13 April to ask whether Lord Levy had had contact with foreign intelligence and security agencies, it took until 7 June to get a one-line reply? It read: In line with long standing practice of successive Governments we do not comment on intelligence matters.—[Official Report. 7 June 2000; Vol. 351, c. 291W.] Would she not agree that, if that was the right answer, it should have been given me two days after I posted the question, not two months?

Mrs. Beckett

I know nothing about the naming of ships commissioned for the Royal Navy. However, I do know that the contract that has been placed will sustain 800 jobs in Devon. That seems much more important than what the ships are called, although I have no doubt that that will be a matter of concern to someone.

Secondly, of course I regret that the hon. Gentleman did not get an answer to his question sooner. We continually remind colleagues of the importance of responding more speedily, but I fear that, as the answer revealed, there is nothing further that I can add on security and intelligence matters.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate the real cost of rail travel in this country compared with other European countries? According to research that I commissioned from the Library, the standard inter-city fare from, say, Paddington to Cardiff costs twice as much as the fare for an equivalent journey in Belgium or France, and more than six times as much as in Italy. That is a direct result of the policies of the previous Conservative Government, although the train operating companies deny that and try to argue that British passengers get a fair deal.

Given the amount of taxpayer's money that subsidises fares in this country, does she not agree that passengers have a right to know whether they are getting ripped off by the train operators?

Mrs. Beckett

I have some sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend makes. I know that there is considerable concern about fares in this country, especially in connection with the contracts signed with the rail operators. I know also that the Rail Regulator and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions keep the matter under review. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, but I will certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

May we have an early debate on the effect of this Labour Government on Parliament and on the democratic accountability of the Executive? Charter 88 has stated that the Prime Minister has created an elective dictatorship by concentrating power in Downing street, and that the result of his control freakery is that everything is managed from the centre. Would not an early full-day debate be the appropriate way to answer that charge?

Mrs. Beckett

I have rarely agreed with much of what Charter 88 says, and I do not propose to start now.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May we have a debate on developments in the steel industry? That is especially important because the Corus group is stripping out the industry's heart and creating thousands of redundancies throughout the United Kingdom. The situation is especially bad in my constituency. Strategic sectors of British industry are being closed down, so is it not about time for the voice of Parliament to be heard?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend, and I am very mindful indeed of the anxieties felt in constituencies such as his. He will know that steps have been taken by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities to offer help and support to those who unfortunately lose out as a result of the changes.

I also understand and accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and others have concerns about manufacturing employment more generally. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter on the Floor of the House, but my hon. Friend might like to consider Westminster Hall.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on democracy so that Conservative Members can talk about this week's Charter 88 report, which referred to the worrying concentration of power in the hands of the Executive? We could also talk about the burgeoning cost of government: more than £2 billion a year more is spent now than three years ago, and the number of special advisers funded by the taxpayer has doubled. Such a debate would also afford Labour Members the opportunity to talk about the matters that interest them, such as why they cannot get home to bed by 10 o'clock at night.

Mrs. Beckett

I have not read the Charter 88 report. I wholly reject the notion that there is something unseemly in the way in which the Government is being run and managed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the figures for extra costs are completely spurious. The figures that Conservative Members continually use are simply the cash figures. In real terms, we are spending less on administration than did the Conservative party when it was last in government. Indeed, not only are we spending less, but the number of those employed in the public services at the centre has gone down, while the number of public servants in services such as health and education is rising and will continue to rise.

On special advisers, we take the view that Ministers should have a proper range of advice, and we take the same view with regard to the Opposition. The increase in advice to Government has been more than matched by the increase in advice to the Opposition, who are clearly in sore need of it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that this morning, for some strange reason, the House failed to reach my Question 34 on taxation, I would like to ask the right hon. Lady for an early debate on the need for transparency in taxation. In the light of the criticism by the Select Committee on the Treasury of the Chancellor's refusal to publish the figures that show the impact of direct and indirect taxes on the typical household and on households in other income deciles, would not such a debate allow the Chancellor the opportunity to explain whether he will mend his ways and, if he will not do so, why on earth he expects to be taken seriously when he is picking the pockets of the British people on an unprecedented scale?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government have given independence to the national statistical service, something that the previous Government never had the courage to do. That will, over time, undoubtedly increase confidence in the statistics that we publish—confidence that was sorely missing under the previous Administration.

As for the idea that the Chancellor should come here to debate the figures that he gives, I think that when he comes to the Dispatch Box we should debate the fact that we have the lowest inflation for a generation, the lowest mortgage rates for a generation, with the best levels of employment and the lowest levels of unemployment since 1980, which was the beginning of the Conservative party's term in office. Those are the issues that really matter to the British people, not the Conservative party's allegations.