HC Deb 16 March 2000 vol 346 cc505-20 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 20 MARCH—Second Reading of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill.

TUESDAY 21 MARCH—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget Statement.

WEDNESDAY 22 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

THURSDAY 23 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 24 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 27 MARcH—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 28 MARCH—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill.

WEDNESDAY 29 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

THURSDAY 30 MARCH—Second Reading of the Learning and Skills Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 31 MARCH—The House will not be sitting.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 29 March, there will be a debate on the aid system for flax and hemp in European Standing Committee A.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business for the following week. Will the Leader of the House reflect on the amount of time that she has allocated to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill? There will be some important Government amendments on the state second pension, following some confusion in Committee. Any changes in the Child Support Agency are of interest to a large number of right hon. and hon. Members, as are the controversial benefit changes in the Bill, not to mention the Prime Minister's announcement today of a new agency that will impact on the Benefits Agency. It seems that just one day to deal with all that is inadequate unless it is to be a very long day.

The Upper House has debated the Wakeham report, but there is still no sign of progress down this end of the building. Last week, the right hon. Lady said that she was giving priority to Government Bills. However, Members of Parliament need a balanced diet, with light debates on Wakeham, the intergovernmental conference and the Liaison Committee between her heavy, indigestible Bills.

On Rover, can the right hon. Lady undertake that the House will be kept in the picture next week if there are any important developments? Can we have a statement next week on the precise role in the Government of Lord Levy, as it is shrouded in mystery?

Finally, can the right hon. Lady deny what was reported in The Times on Monday about her plans to curtail debate in the Chamber? The article says: Ministers are threatening an unprecedented curb on Commons debating time amid fears that they may fail to force all their Bills through before the end of the parliamentary session. The proposal to timetable all business on the floor of the chamber has been raised by the Government's business managers. I hope that the right hon. Lady will be able to deny that. Last night, not only Conservative but Labour and Liberal Democrat Members resented the inadequate time available on the remaining stages of the Terrorism Bill. Will the right hon. Lady admit that the programme is too large to be manageable and that some of the Bills, such as the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial Bill), should be dropped?

Mrs. Beckett

First, the right hon. Gentleman asks me to reflect on the time allotted for the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, and of course I will do so, although the business for the second week is always provisional. If, as he says, a number of issues need to be aired, there may be much to be said for having proper programme motions so that we can be confident of having time to air the issues in which right hon. and hon. Members are particularly interested. On Monday and Tuesday, the right hon. Gentleman's side took a sensible approach, for which we were grateful, and we got through our business efficiently and effectively with all hon. Members feeling that they had had an opportunity to air their concerns.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mrs. Beckett

We cannot take two days for everything.

Mr. Forth

Why not?

Mrs. Beckett

Because there is not enough parliamentary time.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) asked next about a debate on the Lords. I understand his wish for a balanced diet, but he must appreciate that every Government's priority is their legislative programme. Since we have not been having programme motions, several Bills have taken more time than was allotted—or, indeed, originally asked for. Consequently, we are anxious to ensure that our Bills have proper priority.

I give the right hon. Gentleman the undertaking that he sought on the House being kept informed about Rover. On Lord Levy, I understand that the Prime Minister has answered questions about that matter. The right hon. Gentleman asked finally about a newspaper report—I cannot recall whether he said what paper it appeared in—

Sir George Young

The Times.

Mrs. Beckett

I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. The report was about Government business managers having discussions. It is completely untrue to say that there is not enough time for the Government's programme. Our programme is challenging, but there is certainly enough time, provided that the House deals with its business efficiently and effectively.

The right hon. Gentleman will find the fact increasingly appearing in biographies of me, I am pleased to say, that I am not one of those politicians who make their way through cultivating the press. I do not leak stories to the press. Anything that has appeared under any byline about my intentions or discussions with business managers has no authority behind it. It comes neither from my right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, nor from me.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend may have read early-day motion 439 on deaths from asbestos-related diseases:

[That this House regrets to learn of the death of Sidney Dalton due to mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos whilst working at the former Blackburn Meadows Power Station; calls for a public inquiry into the high incidence of asbestos-related disease amongst former power industry workers; deplores the conduct of his employers Powergen plc in forcing former employees or their widows to take their cases for compensation to the High Court; and reminds the company that under the Electricity Act 1989 they were required to take over liabilities and not just the assets of the former Electricity Generating Board, and that accordingly they have a duty to compensate former workers who have suffered asbestos-related disease.] She may also have read early-day motion 440, which draws attention to international repetitive strain injury awareness day. She will be aware of the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs on the Health and Safety Executive, and she may be aware that the Health and Safety Commission will reply, over the next week or so, to the consultation exercise carried out last year. Following that publication, will she endeavour to make time for a debate on health and safety, an important matter in a changing world, and an issue badly neglected by the Opposition during their 18-year Administration?

Mrs. Beckett

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's point, and I understand concern across the House about health and safety matters. As I have just said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate, particularly as my hon. Friend has identified a wide range of issues. I recommend to him the debates in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) yesterday, the Prime Minister laid great stress on the importance of the farming summit that he is convening at 10 Downing street on 30 March. Can the Leader of the House give an absolute assurance that there will, as soon as possible after that event—we are getting close to it—be a statement by the Prime Minister or a debate in Government time on the crisis in agriculture?

The shadow Leader of the House referred to the huge amount of business to be undertaken on Wednesday 29 March. May I suggest a means by which we could relieve the pressure? If, instead of trailing announcements about the proposed merger of the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service on the "Today" programme or sneaking out a written answer at the end of Thursday, the Government made a proper statement in the House, we could have a proper discussion and hold Ministers to account. Given that the Prime Minister himself—according to the "Today" programme—thought the matter so important that he had to make the announcement himself, why is he not making it to the House?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

You don't have to believe everything John Humphrys says.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. One does not have to believe all that John Humphrys says. [HON. MEMBERS: "Don't you?"] That is no criticism, but a statement of fact which, I am sure, John Humphrys would be the first to endorse.

I undertake that the House will be kept informed about the outcome of the farming summit. The Government recognise its great importance to the industry and to many hon. Members on both sides. I cannot undertake that the statement will be made by the Prime Minister, but the House will be kept informed.

The hon. Gentleman referred to matters being trailed on the "Today" programme and asked for a statement in the House. There is always a balance to be struck on how the public and the House are informed. He will be aware that, as Madam Speaker has pointed out in the past, the Government can make announcements to the House through written parliamentary answers. There is nothing unparliamentary about that. Of course, I understand the pressure and the desire for more statements, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have already made far more statements than did our predecessors over a similar period. If we continue to have demands for statements on everything, there will not be time for the debates that hon. Members are calling for.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Would my right hon. Friend consider a debate on residential care for people with a mental handicap and the problems raised for devoted relatives by the complete lack of choice in many areas? The matter is set out in my early-day motion 517 on residential village communities:

[That this House welcomes the strengthened guidance given to health and local authorities last July (HSC 1999/162: LAC (99)28) confirming the rights of people with a mental handicap and their families to make informed choices about residential and other placements, but is concerned that evidence presented to an NHS conference on 28th January indicated that by a ratio of over two to one families claimed they were not being allowed the choice to which this Government is committed; and therefore urges the Government to adopt effective measures quickly to ensure that family choices, including the choice of village-type residential communities, preferred by many families are properly respected by local health and social service authorities and that more serious consideration is given to the evolution of such village communities, as argued for in, Made to Care, by the noble Baroness, Baroness Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.]

Mrs. Beckett

I take heed of the concern aired by my hon. Friend. There are local complaints procedures, if there is unhappiness. However, I take my hon. Friend's point that there is not the range of choice for people with such disabilities that one might want. I shall certainly draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I know that you, Madam Speaker, are aware of the real anger in the livestock industry about the failure of the Government to pay agrimonetary compensation up to the maximum allowed. However, you may not be aware that the Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, has recently stated that the UK is the only country in the European Union that is not paying up to the maximum allowed under the legislation. May we have an early debate so that the Minister of Agriculture can come to the House and explain why the Government are so resolute in refusing to increase those amounts to the maximum allowed? Instead of giving us excuses for his failure, can he give us some reasons for continuing to sell the farmers short?

Mrs. Beckett

I am confident that if the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back he will understand the reasons very well. As I understand the matter—from memory—it was part of the package negotiated at Fontainebleau by the former Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, when she decided not to participate in that scheme.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Would the Leader of the House consider giving us an early full-day debate on the Select Committee on Liaison report, "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive"? There is a carrot for my right hon. Friend in granting the debate, because if that report is implemented by the Government, it will be her enduring legacy to Parliament. It will be much more important than the botch of the House of Lords reform, the introduction of the parallel Chamber, or Thursday sittings that end at 7 o'clock. Shifting the balance away from the Executive back to this place so that Back Benchers can control the Executive will be an enduring legacy. To hold such a debate would be a huge step forward. Will my right hon. Friend do all she can to advance that major constitutional reform?

Mrs. Beckett

I am touched by my hon. Friend's regard for my place in history. However, I fear that I am much more interested in what works effectively for better governance of the country than I am in my own track record or in how I am perceived.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

The Leader of the House will be familiar with the draft strategy, "A way with waste", produced by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Ministers suggested that it would emerge in its final form early this year. Will she tell the House when that strategy will be finalised? Will she arrange a debate so that public concern about pollution and contamination from incineration plants, such as might affect the residents of Mountfield in my constituency, can be fully explored?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the subject in the near future, although I remind the hon. Gentleman of the 200 extra opportunities for debate that are offered by the proceedings in Westminster Hall. He will also have observed that Environment questions are scheduled soon and he might like to use that opportunity.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

A statement will no doubt be made next week, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the report of the Standards and Privileges Committee on the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), which has been debated in the House, and yesterday's report on the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) demonstrate that, at long last, Members' outside financial interests are being properly investigated? I emphasise the words "at long last", and I speak as a Member with 25 years' experience in the House.

Is there any reason at all why the annual tax returns of Members are not given to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? If we have nothing to hide—I know that Conservative Members will object to the suggestion—why should the Parliamentary Commissioner not see our annual tax returns?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the proper handling of our financial interests. The whole House has agreed to the way in which we handle such matters so as to make it clear that we pay high regard to our reputation and standing with the public. He made an interesting suggestion about tax returns, but I freely confess to him that, although he has made a serious point that should be carefully considered, many Members struggle to meet the new arrangements that have been made for the declaration of tax and the early filling in of forms. Certainly, I have never found it easy to make sure that I get all the information together in time to meet the deadlines, so the idea of having to meet the Parliamentary Commissioner's deadline as well is something to which I would wish to give a little careful thought.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I was disappointed with the response of the Leader of the House to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who raised with her the handling of this morning's lead news item on the amalgamation of the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service. The Leader of the House has a crucial job in protecting Parliament's interest in discussing important business. Will she tell us specifically why that business does not merit a statement today or a statement or debate next week? We have been told that the change is one of the most significant to the way in which benefits will be dealt with in future, yet so far she has offered the House no chance to discuss it.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong, I am afraid. I did not hear the report to which he referred, so I genuinely do not know whether I have sympathy for his complaint or whether I think that—and this is a sort of compliment—it is one of the bogus points frequently made by Conservative Members in pursuit of advancement of their political cause. [HON. MEMBERS: "Unfair."' That is not a criticism, because they obviously think that that is their job.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there should be a special statement. He will have observed that there is the opportunity for debate. When Members have had a chance to consider whatever is being said, no doubt they will know whether the issue is one that they can legitimately raise in the debate and will seek opportunities to do so. However, we cannot make statements on everything that comes to mind.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

My right hon. Friend may recall a lengthy and fascinating debate that we had in the House on 19 January on the Representation of the People Act 2000, including a rivetting discussion of about an hour on the meaning of the word "and" in legislation. Because of that, we could not, on that occasion, debate on the Floor of the House the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. My right hon. Friend made a statement and promised that she would bring the Bill back to the House as soon as possible. When is that likely to be and what plans has she to bring the Bill back to the House as soon as possible?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Although she may be completely right, I must admit that I do not recall using the precise words "as soon as possible". I am always a little cautious, knowing that sometimes other things intervene in the scheduling of business. However, her underlying point is absolutely right and was strongly made. The procedures of the House were used to make sure that we did not reach the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. I gave the House the undertaking that we expected the Bill to come before the House and, I hope, pass into law. That remains my view, although I cannot give my hon. Friend a date for that at present.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

We understand that the Government have to get their business through and we know from experience that Governments of both persuasions have made many blunders in trying to push business through the House and wasted more time later on. When we ask to debate certain subjects, it is a ploy of those on the Government Front Bench to tell the Opposition parties that they can use their Supply days. May I therefore plead with the Leader of the House to use her influence with the usual channels to grant a half-day Supply day to the Ulster Unionist party? It is four years since we had one, we are trying to get one and I trust that it will not be towards the end of the Session before that happens.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to learn of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. He clearly appreciates that this is not a matter for me directly, but I am confident that his observations will have been heard on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

May I ask my right hon. Friend for an early debate on the future of the BBC World Service? It has now achieved a record 151 million listeners worldwide, reaching more than 100 cities across the globe, and its information and education work reaches some of the poorest communities in the world. I would welcome an early debate on its future.

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the more unfortunate features of the Conservatives' record in government was that they cut the funding for the World Service, which has always seemed to me to be not only a huge cultural but a huge economic asset to the country, so I thought that the cut in funding was an act of extraordinary folly. I entirely agree that the House should welcome, as I think it does, the improvement in the World Service and the additional funding that the Government have made available. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate on the Floor of the House, but I recommend to him the attractions of Westminster Hall.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

According to one of the many best-selling biographies of the Leader of the House, she was a distinguished member of the Labour common market safeguards committee. She will therefore appreciate the significance of yesterday's statement by the European Commissioner in charge of economic and monetary union, Mr. Pedro Solbes, who stated: In the longer term it's not possible to be in the Union and outside EMU. Will she find time for an early statement by the Foreign Secretary about those blackmailing tactics by unelected Commission officials, particularly in the light of the statement last October by the President of the Commission, Mr. Prodi, that the European Commission is in reality the Government of Europe?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I must slightly correct him: I do not think that there have been any biographies of me, but there are various biographical summaries of varying accuracy. They are correct in identifying that I was a member of the common market safeguards campaign. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the commissioner's remarks, but I would simply say to him that, not only do I not regard that as blackmail, but I do not even regard it as new. EMU has been a clear potential consequence of our involvement in the European Union from the very beginning, as those of us who urged caution at the time pointed out to the British people. I recognise that many Conservative Members were putting a different point of view at the time, and I hope that they are sorry, but it is too late.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

When will my right hon. Friend be able to find time for the annual debate on the police? She will know that in the Met, resources are being taken from divisions and concentrated in murder investigations. Havering, the division that I represent, will be undermined by that move.

When the Tories and Liberals whinge about not having enough time, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that plenty of Labour Members would happily sit through Easter and August and other holidays? Perhaps if she suggested that on the Floor of the House, she might see Opposition Members taking a different outlook.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first half of his remarks. I recognise the interest in and concern about policing in London. He will know that the Government have always tried to find time, on a suitable occasion, to focus on those matters, and we shall certainly bear his remarks in mind.

With regard to sitting through Easter and August and so on, I am of course well aware that my hon. Friend and other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), are always willing to be here, and that is a useful cautionary reminder to the Conservative party. However, I have to tell him that the Government's policy is for a good work-life balance, and in that light I cannot necessarily undertake to accede to his request.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Leader of the House is doubtless aware that next week the Commissioner for Public Appointments will publish her long-awaited report on Government appointments to NHS trusts and health authorities. Will the right hon. Lady make representations to her colleagues in the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office to ensure that Ministers from both Departments make early statements to the House, setting out the action that the Government intend to take to clean up the process of public appointments and to ensure that the political bias that has been evident to date is brought to a stop?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, I know that the report is to be published, but I do not know what it contains and I do not know that the hon. Gentleman does. I cannot undertake that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will come to the House to make a statement. There may or may not be any need for him to do so. It is right that the Commissioner for Public Appointments should look into such matters, as the Government intended and support, but I do not accept the notion that there is a process to clean up and that that lies at the door of this Government.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, that Conservative Members have very short memories. We remember that under the previous Government, anyone with remotely Labour sympathies was kicked off the board of every health authority and trust, as were many loyal Tories who were not thought to be sufficiently toeing the line of the policies of the then Government. It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. He knows that what I say is true.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the M2 widening that is taking place throughout my constituency? Drivers and freight will enjoy the benefits of driving through Kent to the ports, but is it not right that people who must lose their homes to accommodate the widening are fairly compensated? Mr. and Mrs. Russell of Bluebell Hill have lived in their home for 30 years and received an offer far below the market price from the Highways Agency. Will my right hon. Friend see to it that the Deputy Prime Minister makes a statement to the House about the guidelines that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions gives to the Highways Agency for providing fair compensation to people such as my constituents?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern and the matter that he raises, correctly, on behalf of his constituents. I am aware that such matters always cause great anxiety and sometimes considerable resentment. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time or to ask my right hon. Friend to come and make a special statement to the House, but I undertake to draw my hon. Friend's remarks to his attention, and I am sure that he will look into the matter.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we please have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the Part-Time Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000, which have so far been issued only in draft form? Given that the Government agreed in April 1998—probably during the tenure of the right hon. Lady at the DTI—to the incorporation in British law of the European directive on the rights of part-time workers, does the Leader of the House agree that it is shameful and appalling for British business that the Government have taken almost two years to produce the proposed directive, and that they have issued consultation proposals allowing only six weeks—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that a number of hon. Members want to put business questions. Will he now come to his point, and will all other hon. Members who are called please put their questions briskly? It happens to be an Opposition Day.

Mr. Bercow

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I apologise profusely to you and to the House.

Is it not a disgrace that businesses have had only six weeks to comment on the highly unsatisfactory proposals that have only belatedly emerged from the Government?

Mrs. Beckett

Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern that it has taken so long to bring the directive forward, the Conservative party resisted doing any of that. However, I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the length of time for consultation, although from memory, I believe that that is not the first or only opportunity for consultation.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to see early-day motion 515: [That this House, noting that it is a breach of international law and a defiance of mandatory United Nations sanctions to supply arms, fuel, equipment and goods to, or to purchase diamonds from, Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebel force in Angola, calls for the public identification and, where possible, prosecution of all individuals, private companies and public officials involved; in particular calls upon the Governments of the Ukraine and Belarus to stop arms and munitions exports to UNITA, on Ukrainian pilots to stop flying weapons and diesel to UNITA, on the Government of Zambia to stop convoys of lorries and planes from crossing the border into UNITA-controlled areas with the occasional paid assistance of Zambian Ministers and public officials, on the Government of Uganda to sack senior officials implicated, including President Museveni's half brother, General Salim Saleh, on the Government of Cote d' Ivoire, Togo and Burkina Faso to act immediately to halt their longstanding supplies to UNITA, on the Government of Rwanda to stop their almost daily supply flights from Kigali and other airports to UNITA, on the Government of South Africa to crack down on the dozens of individual business people and arms suppliers who continue to supply UNITA, on the Government of Israel to act against those of its citizens involved in supply operations and those buying diamonds for sale via the Tel Aviv trading centre, on the Government of the United Arab Emirates to prevent arms being transited from eastern Europe via Dubai to UNITA, on the Government of Switzerland and banking authorities across the world to track down the millions of pounds of Savimbi's assets, secured through illegal sales of diamonds, and without which he cannot pay for the arms and fuel he needs to continue the dreadfully destructive war which has gone on for decades and which is now engulfing the whole region; supports the efforts of De Beers and the Governments of Belgium and the United Kingdom to block illegal sale of UNITA diamonds through Antwerp; welcomes the work of Canada's Ambassador Fowler in leading United Nations efforts to identify and block UNITA sanctions busters; and calls on the entire international community to act decisively to end the war by rigorously imposing sanctions on UNITA and preventing the making of money and private profit out of the misery of the Angolan people.]?

The early-day motion, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), is an excellent resume of sanctions-busting in the region. On Tuesday, in Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), told the House that he was going to New York this week to discuss the flagrant breach of international law. When he returns, will there be an opportunity for the House to debate the matter?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right. There is great concern, and the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) is important. The Government sympathise, but I cannot necessarily undertake to find time for a full debate in the House. I recommend to my hon. Friend, as to others, the attractions of Westminster Hall. One of the reasons for proposing it was so that there would be more time for more specific debates on issues such as foreign affairs.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Can we have a debate on the administration of local justice? Is the Leader of the House aware that the proposals to close Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock magistrates courts have been brought forward without the alternative arrangements that were promised at the time of the original closures? Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a debate on this important issue?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I was not aware that the proposals had been brought forward without the alternatives being in place. I cannot undertake to arrange a debate, but I can undertake to draw attention to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the funding of health care? I was inspired to ask the question because I understand that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has made the somewhat bizarre claim that the Tories would revolutionise private insurance in the way that they revolutionised pensions in the 1980s. Given that my memory of insurance and pensions in the 1980s is one of rip off and chaos, is it not time that we took an opportunity to lance the boil at an early stage?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he says, the way in which the Tories revolutionised private pension insurance is well within everybody's memory. That is precisely why everybody is afraid of the Tory proposals for health care. I fear, however, that I cannot on those grounds undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter. When the Opposition next try to exploit health matters, my hon. Friend will no doubt bear in mind the points that he has raised.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the growing scandal of the £92 million which the Government spend on their own advertising? Will we have an opportunity during that debate to ascertain how it came about that Mr. Ray Porter was chosen to star in the new deal advertisements? Was it because he had been a subscriber to Labour party funds or because he was an example of a particularly bad and inappropriate employer?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not know anything about Mr. Ray Porter, but I do know about the Government's advertising. I am well aware that much of that advertising has been directed to ensuring that people are aware of the opportunities that are available under programmes such as the new deal. It is perfectly legitimate for the Government to do that and it is something that every Government have done. Unlike the previous, Conservative Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, we are making sure that our advertising covers the entire country and is not confined, as under the previous Government, to constituencies where there might be concern about unemployment without there being many unemployed people within them.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) about the status of Lord Levy, will the Leader of the House give the House the opportunity to hear, in the form of a statement, clarification of the specific responsibilities and duties of Lord Levy, who is described as the Prime Minister's personal envoy in the middle east? That would put an end to the speculation about his shadowy dealings in funding political parties in this country and in the middle east. It would be fairer to him, to the House and to the wider public, because the House needs to know to whom Lord Levy is accountable.

Mrs. Beckett

As I have already said, a written answer is a statement to the House. I refer the hon. Gentleman to yesterday's Hansard, column 221W. He says that a statement would put an end to speculation; I doubt that very much.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

May we have a debate in Government time on the work of the immigration and nationality directorate? I am sure that everybody at Croydon works extremely hard, and I know that the Minister and her private office who have a responsibility for immigration matters are always extremely courteous, but there is chaos.

I quote two cases that have arisen in the past 24 hours in my constituency. A company in Banbury wants a key person with a work permit. It has been given three different answers: first, it has been told that the case has been filed and put in the archives; secondly, it has been told that the individual can come; and, thirdly, it has been told to consult the British Consulate in the country concerned. The second case involves a lady who married and came to the United Kingdom perfectly properly last July. She applied for entry clearance to Croydon in July and is still waiting.

Those cases have arisen within 24 hours. I am sure that every colleague in the House is aware of numerous cases of this sort. Please may we have a debate? Our staff are spending a disproportionate amount of time on the telephone to Croydon and are chasing one another's tails. It must be possible to do things in a better way.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the anxieties that the hon. Gentleman properly identified. I am sure that many hon. Members have similar anxieties and experiences. I have had them for the past 20 years; I hope that a Labour Government will finally sort out the problems.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Leader of the House does a wonderful job, and I congratulate her. Will she agree to the request of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for an early debate on the Liaison Committee report entitled "Shifting the Balance"? That important Select Committee is dominated by Labour Members of long service and experience, and the report received unanimous support.

Secondly, will the Leader of the House make arrangements for a statement on what was apparently the Prime Minister's decision to locate Diamond Synchrotron in Oxford rather than Daresbury in the north-west? That decision to locate more jobs in the home counties and the south-east rather than the north-west has caused serious anxiety and disappointment across the political spectrum, including in Labour councils.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. The Liaison Committee report is a major, substantial document, which requires careful consideration. However, I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate.

I understand completely the concern that has been expressed throughout the north-west about the Daresbury project. Many of my hon. Friends have also raised the matter. The Office of Science and Technology and the Wellcome Trust recommended the site that has been chosen to the two Governments involved. However, I understand the anxiety in the north-west and the Government are endeavouring to respond to it.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I press the Leader of the House on the amalgamation of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency? When she returns to her office, she will discover that it is not a gimmick that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) or the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) dreamt up. Will she undertake to make a statement and give us the opportunity for a debate on a fundamental matter of Government policy and administration?

Mrs. Beckett

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that an indication, to which he and other hon. Members referred, has been given. I cannot undertake to find time for a specific statement, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Given that Back Benchers have few opportunities to speak on proposed legislation if they are not members of a Standing Committee, does the Leader of the House agree that producing timetabling motions for more Bills restricts Back Benchers' ability to represent their constituents' interests? Will she consider the rights of Back Benchers and their obligation to their constituents, and keep such timetabling to an absolute minimum? I agree with the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer), who called for shorter recesses to allow more time for us to examine Bills adequately and ensure that proper legislation reaches the statute book.

Mrs. Beckett

Under this Government, there have been shorter recesses. I know that Conservative Members deny that, but if the hon. Lady checks, she will find that that is true.

I could not disagree with the hon. Lady more. Proper timetabled debates are in the interests of Back Benchers. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I can tell the hon. Lady that I have been a Member of Parliament for substantially longer than her. During that time, when I have been involved with legislation, I have always made sure that the time was properly apportioned. That ensured that there was time to discuss the important issues.

None of our constituents understand or have sympathy for Members of Parliament wasting hours on trivial debates—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Lady does not waste time, but I simply point out that our constituents do not understand it when we waste time on trivial debates and complain that there is no time for important issues. A proper agreement to tackle important issues avoids that. I believed that when I was a member of the Opposition—we were a good Opposition—and it remains my view.

Mr. Forth

At the risk of being accused of being political in this of all places, may I tentatively suggest to the Leader of the House that it is time for a proper and, if necessary, lengthy debate on the role of so-called "envoys" of the Prime Minister? It would be in the interest of any such envoys, and certainly in the public interest, for us to know with much greater clarity what relationship they have with the Government and the ministerial code of practice, and exactly where they stand in terms of Government policy at home and abroad. They also lack accountability to either House of Parliament. This matter of great importance is worrying more and more people. In the interests of good governance, surely we must have it out in the open and clear beyond all possible doubt.

Mrs. Beckett

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is again pursuing the issue of Lord Levy. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has answered questions about that, but what is quite plain and what has not been disputed by anybody is that Lord Levy has engaged in talks and conversations, which one hopes will promote the cause of middle east peace. Most people will think that more important than such nit-picking.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

During her busy day, has the right hon. Lady had a chance to read the report entitled "EU Membership—What's the Bottom Line?", which was published this morning by the Institute of Directors? It says that, taking into account the free market in the European Union and the inward investment that results from our membership, that membership costs each British family £1,000 a year. As we want to remain in the EU, but do not want to be run by it, may we have an urgent debate on how the EU needs to be restructured so that Britain benefits from it?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that there is any need for an urgent debate because the Government report assiduously to the House and spend a great deal of time on their efforts to achieve restructuring of the EU and more efficient spending of the public moneys that it uses, which the Conservative party singularly failed to do in government.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the crisis of democracy in local government? She may not be aware that the Labour leader of Cardiff council has had his pay for his three-day week increased to £58,000. He is the highest-paid councillor in Britain, and Cardiff council tax payers face increases of 10.2 per cent. this year. Seven Labour councillors voted against the increase and one abstained. They were immediately suspended from the Labour Whip. I fear that, unless we can stop the rot in Cardiff, it will spread to every other Labour authority in Britain and council tax payers will have to foot the bill for the greed of Labour councillors.

Mrs. Beckett

I have only two things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, his party abolished the controls on those allowances in 1995. Secondly, if I were a Conservative Member I would not make a lot of fuss about people who get thousands of pounds for a few days' work.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The right hon. Lady will have noted the widespread demand for a proper debate—not merely one subsumed in the debate a week on Wednesday—on the statement that the Prime Minister is apparently making today. She will have noted also the considerable unease in the House about the precise role of Lord Levy. She has referred to the Prime Minister's answers, which I have before me. They say merely that, from time to time, Lord Levy has passed on oral messages. Will she be a real sport and pass an oral message from me to the Prime Minister? We expect changes in Government policy to be announced on the Floor of the House and we should like a little more detail as to the precise role of this extraordinary plenipotentiary.

Mrs. Beckett

I am always willing to pass on messages, but I can think of no circumstances in which it is likely that time will be found for a debate. The people of this country are much more interested in the prospect of peace in the middle east than in the preoccupation of Opposition Members. If any changes are announced, no doubt in the fullness of time those matters will come before the House. At first hearing, they do not sound to me so urgent that they need to be dealt with in five minutes. It does not sound the kind of matter that would take a short time to consider.