HC Deb 30 March 2000 vol 347 cc495-511 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

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

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

The business of the House for next week is as follows:

MONDAY 3 APRIL—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

TUESDAY 4 APRIL—Progress on remaining stages of the Freedom of Information Bill.

WEDNESDAY 5 APRIL—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Freedom of Information Bill.

THURSDAY 6 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Armed Forces Discipline Bill [Lords].

Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day] Second Part. There will be a debate on "The Patten Commission Report on the Royal Ulster Constabulary" in the name of the Ulster Unionist party.

FRIDAY 7 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 10 APRIL—Motion on Standing Committee on Regional Affairs.

Second Reading of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill.

Second Reading of the Television Licence (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

TUESDAY 11 APRIL—Second Reading of the Local Government Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 12 APRIL—Opposition day [9th Allotted Day], there will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 13 APRIL—Debate on Armed Forces Personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 14 APRIL—Private Members Bills.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Tuesday 4 April there will be a debate on Banana Imports in European Standing Committee A. Also, on Wednesday 12 April, there will be a debate on the White Paper on Food Safety in the European Union in European Standing Committee C. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Tuesday 4 April 2000:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 13048/99, Banana Imports; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 23-v and HC 23-x (1999-2000).] [Wednesday 12 April 2000: European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union document: 5761/00, White Paper on Food Safety in the European Union; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23-x 1999-2000).]

Sir George Young

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us next week's business, and an indication of the business that will be dealt with in the following week. I particularly welcome the announcement of the first of the three armed services debates for which I asked last week. There is concern in all parts of the House about the pressure on our armed forces, and the debate will give the House an opportunity to air its worries.

I am also grateful for the right hon. Lady's response to the request that I made last week for next Thursday's business to be thinned out. She has removed Second Reading of the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill. That is the good news; the bad news is that the following Monday now looks rather congested. We must first debate, for an hour and a half, a motion on a new Standing Committee; then we must debate Second Reading of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, the remaining stages of the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, and Second Reading of a Government Bill. At a time when the right hon. Lady is under pressure from her own colleagues to ensure that the House does not sit too late, is it sensible to table so much business for one day?

In view of the widespread problems in agriculture and the expectations aroused by today's meeting at No. 10 Downing street, might we expect a statement from the Government on the outcome of the farming summit?

Last week, when I asked for a statement about BMW, the right hon. Lady replied, referring to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry: I anticipate that he will do what he can to keep the House informed on the progress of any discussion in which he is engaged.—[Official Report, 23 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 1113.] The exchange that took place at Question Time an hour ago was not sufficient. I believe that the Government owe the House nothing less than a full day's debate on the future of Rover.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the steps taken by the Government to provide some of the discussions that the House has been seeking, and for his recognition of the fact that, in response to his representations, we have thinned out Thursday's business. I undertake to look at next Monday's business, but I must point out that, in a cumulative sense, none of it amounts to more than a normal day's business. It involves useful but relatively minor measures, with which we can deal with no difficulty in the course of an ordinary sitting day. That is what I hope and anticipate that the House will do.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked for a statement on the outcome of the farming summit. I anticipate that my right hon. Friend will seek a means of making information available. He may well answer a question later today and make back-up information available to the House.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked for a statement on BMW. We have just had Trade and Industry questions and I understand that the issue took up a considerable amount of time. As for a longer debate, although I was not able to be here throughout Question Time, my understanding from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is a good judge of such matters, is that it might not be to the Conservatives' advantage to have the matter discussed at greater length.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Proof of the power of business questions came in yesterday's long-awaited announcement on the take-up of the minimum income guarantee—an issue that has been raised in this forum and in early-day motion 2:

[That this House applauds the Government's intention to ensure that all pensioners entitled to income support receive it, making it a genuine minimum income guarantee; notes that, although the minimum income guarantee was introduced in April 1999, the promised national programme of measures to maximise take-up is still awaited; and urges the Secretary of State for Social Security to announce that claims made by pensioners after the date of that announcement will be treated as having been made on that date and that arrears of benefit will be paid accordingly.]

Unfortunately, we have not had a chance to debate this important Government initiative, but as it has been delayed for more than a year, can we debate the possibility of giving those who have been denied the minimum income guarantee for a year the opportunity to have their claims backdated, just as pension payments delayed by the Government are backdated?

Mrs. Beckett

When I heard the public announcement of the campaign, I immediately thought of my hon. Friend and thought that it had disposed of at least one business question. I should have known better. My hon. Friend should rest on his laurels for a little while. It was an important announcement and we all very much hope that it will solve a serious problem that has existed under successive Governments of all political shades. I cannot undertake to find time for a further debate on the subject in the near future. He will know that it is constantly discussed and kept under review.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Leader of the House has just said that her right hon. Friend will make a statement on the outcome of the farming summit. Will she clarify which right hon. Friend? As the Prime Minister has made it clear for many weeks that the issue is a personal initiative and he is chairing the meeting this afternoon, can we be assured that he will demonstrate the severity of the crisis and the seriousness with which the Government are facing it by making a statement himself at the earliest opportunity? Answering a written question late on a Thursday afternoon is not sufficient to recognise the scale of the crisis.

Secondly, will the right hon. Lady clarify how the Government intend to handle the two days of debate on the Freedom of Information Bill? She will be aware that Front Benchers and Back Benchers on both sides of the House have tabled amendments, some of which have been jointly tabled. The management of that debate is extremely important for the interests of Back Benchers, for whom she has responsibility.

Thirdly, will the right hon. Lady undertake, as she has in the past, to look again at the issue of buck passing of Members' correspondence and questions? I draw her attention to a new twist in that tangled web. I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about meat inspection charges, which are very important to the agriculture industry. The Ministry sat on the question for a few days and then sent me a letter saying that, after 1 April, the issue will be the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency. By sitting on the question, the Ministry has passed the buck to a non-ministerial source. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that that is a new feature. If the Minister is accountable for the issue now, surely he must answer the question.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should hold on to the outcome of the discussions rather than answer a written question this afternoon, as I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will do, and make the back-up information available to the House as speedily as we can. The hon. Gentleman says that that is not satisfactory, but this is where we are—it is Thursday afternoon now. Unless he does not want the farming industry to discuss the issue over the weekend, I see no solution to his problem. The discussions are under way and they will be properly reported to the House. As Madam Speaker has often pointed out, to make a statement by way of a written answer is a perfectly acceptable means of providing information to the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

No, it is not.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically foolish. There is nothing wrong with it in any way, shape or form. I remind him that Madam Speaker has stated that repeatedly. It is not true that there is something wrong with providing information through a written answer to the House. Indeed, usually, hon. Members complain that they do not get information through written questions.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) asked about the handling of the two-day Freedom of Information Bill debate. I agree that it will be important to try to manage the debate well. It will be possible in that time to air the issues that are genuinely of concern and to have a properly conducted debate. However, when a number of hon. Members wish to take part and there are a number of important issues to discuss, that requires management. As ever, the Government remain more than willing to discuss how that debate might be structured, so as to ensure that Back Benchers have the chance to make their concerns heard.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

May I pursue the subject of the miners' pension fund, which was discussed earlier today at Question Time? My right hon. Friend will be aware that the previous Government and the trustees of the fund came to arrangements in 1994 after privatisation. The fund is now in excess of £23 billion and makes huge surpluses for the Treasury. Does she believe that it is time to look again at the distribution of those surpluses and to redistribute them more to retired miners—some of whom receive less than £10 a week—and to old coalfield communities, where there is still much devastation? May we please have a debate on that subject to discuss the obvious need to look again at the distribution of those funds?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising what is a matter of great concern and interest, particularly in coalfield areas. I believe that the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), is looking into the matter, and has undertaken to discuss it with the trustees and to report back. Until those discussions have taken place, I do not anticipate being able in the near future to find time in the House for such a debate, but I remind him of the existence of Westminster Hall, where he might find that those concerns can be well aired.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I know that the Leader of the House thinks that it is in order for an answer to be given to a written question on the agriculture summit today, but it is not appropriate for my farmers, who are suffering the worst crisis in years. Farmers in the Ribble Valley are going broke, dairy farmers are getting lower farmgate prices for their milk and the industry is reeling. That covers a lot of people: not just farmers, but others in business who provide goods and services to the farming industry. Please will she ask the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box? We know that he does not like the House of Commons, but will he make a statement, so that we can personally question him on what assistance he will give to our farming industry?

Mrs. Beckett

The farming industry is interested in the outcome of today's discussions, and in practical advice, assistance and support, which it looks for from the Government. I do not think that it is nearly so interested in the grand standing of Opposition Members or, indeed, in expressions of concern. I do not see why the industry should be grateful to them for one second for delaying an important announcement that the farming industry wants to hear, so that they can have their day in the House at prime time. That is not what we are here for.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May we have an early debate on the hugely significant report from the Police Foundation, which was published on Tuesday and which fundamentally alters the rules about drugs? I do not want the report to be kicked into the long grass, so to speak.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, throughout continental Europe, the laws are changing: in Portugal and Spain, cannabis is being decriminalised; in Ireland, people cannot be sent to prison for using it. The report was two years in the making. There were eminent members on the commission, including two chief constables, many scientists and pharmacologists. It would be a tragedy if the report were sidelined. It should be given debating time in the Chamber.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that anyone has any intention of sidelining the report, let alone of kicking it into what my hon. Friend so aptly called "the long grass". The report is thorough and contains a large number of recommendations, and it includes an endorsement of the Government's national drugs strategy. I have no doubt that the Government will want to give it very careful and thorough consideration, and that they will report in due course. However, in all honesty, I must say to my hon. Friend that I do not anticipate that that will be in the next few days.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The right hon. Lady is a leading and distinguished member of the Government but, as Leader of the House and Chairman of the Select Committee on Modernisation, she also has duties to the House. When will she find time for a debate on the Procedure Committee's report on the Government's expenditure plans, to which she has replied, on behalf of the Government, in a way that is, sadly, very negative? The recommendations of the Procedure Committee were picked up in the report from the Liaison Committee, so when will she find time for the House to debate how important issues are discussed in the Chamber and in Select Committee, and the restoration of the House's authority and integrity?

Mrs. Beckett

I am confident that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would not be right to suggest that the House's integrity and authority had been undermined, but I accept that the Liaison Committee and the Procedure Committee have made some proposals that they consider would lead to improvement. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that every Government at this time of year naturally concentrate on getting legislation through. However, although I am mindful of the importance of the debates that he seeks, I cannot give him a date in the near future.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the proposal to establish the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, for which I have asked persistently. I also wish to place on record my acknowledgement of my right hon. Friend's personal work in the Modernisation Committee to bring that about. I do not want to anticipate the debate on the matter that we are due to have in 10 days' time, but can she assure the House that the Committee will genuinely allow hon. Members from the English regions to put forward items of business, and that there will be no inhibition against Ministers having to account for their actions in the regions?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Although we discussed the matter at the Modernisation Committee, and our debate was very helpful, the proposal to revive the relevant Standing Order that is already on what might be called our statute book stems from the Government. However, I certainly believe that the Committee will be a forum that will offer a genuine additional opportunity for debates focused on the concerns of the English regions. Knowing hon. Members, I have no doubt at all that the debates will be without inhibition.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

May I ask about the timing of the Report stage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill? The right hon. Lady will know that there has been a barrage of criticism of the technical requirements and possible cost burdens that will be placed on internet service providers by the Bill. In Committee, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), has said that he is having consultants prepare a technical document that will deal with those issues. Given the importance of knowing what the costs and technical burdens are, will the Leader of the House speak to the Minister to see whether it is possible to hold the Bill's Report stage after the consultants' report has been published, so that hon. Members can see the true picture?

Mrs. Beckett

Certainly, I take on board the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I shall draw them to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I fear that, without notice, I cannot undertake to accede to that request, as I shall have to make inquiries to discover the relative time scales, but I shall discuss the matter with my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

The Wellcome Trust appears to have been able to blackmail the Government into deciding to remove the synchrotron from the north-west, and seven of its trustees seem to have been involved in the decision even though they did not declare their professional and financial interests in it. Given that background, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make a statement about the Wellcome Trust's involvement in the future of Britain's science?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend expresses an anxiety that is felt on both sides of the House and is shared by the Government, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has frequently made clear. I fear that I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend to return to the Dispatch Box for a special statement, especially when he has only just had Question Time. The Government understand the concern expressed and will do all that we can to address it with other proposals for the science base.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I would not want to delay farmers gaining knowledge of what is going on today, but would it be possible for the First Lord of the Treasury to come to this House and make a statement in relation to early-day motion 551?

[That this House notes that the deadline for the Government to submit this year's claim for agrimonetary compensation is the end of April; recognises that agriculture is going through a very difficult period, not least because of the high value of sterling against the euro; sees agrimonetary compensation as a directly relevant way of ameliorating this problem; notes that all EU states, with the exception of the UK, have over recent years claimed the EU-funded share of agrimonetary compensation; and calls on the Government to submit a full claim before the end of April.]

It deals with the drawing down of agrimonetary compensation. At a time when the farming community is under severe threat, the right hon. Gentleman might be able to tell us why, for the second year in succession, farmers in Northern Ireland—who should have had payments several months ago—have been told that they can get nothing until after 5 April, despite the Government's present surplus.

Mrs. Beckett

As the existence of the meeting today confirms, the Government are aware of, and sympathetic to, the difficulties that farmers have been experiencing. The hon. Gentleman may know that, by the end of 2001, the Government expect to have paid £529 million in agrimonetary aid since 1997. We continue to keep the matters under review. I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to come to this House to make a statement, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are more than anxious to make the news of what is proposed and discussed with farmers available to hon. Members and to the farming community.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

I have served on the Committee scrutinising the Freedom of Information Bill, where there were some full debates. In order for us to have meaningful debates in the Chamber, could the remaining stages of the Bill be discussed on a timetable motion?

Mrs. Beckett

Whether we have a timetable for the debate on a programme motion has to be agreed across the House. The Government are more than willing to engage in discussions in the hope that we can get a good structure for the debate, so that hon. Members can be confident that they will have the opportunity to air their concerns.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Leader of the House, could I have the temerity to suggest a debate in the House of Commons in Government time? I know that that thought increasingly appals the right hon. Lady, but it strikes me that it would be useful—indeed essential—following today's questions to have a full debate in Government time on Rover. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was only too happy to trumpet what he regarded as the success of his lashings of taxpayers' money for the Rover group at the time. He now seems remarkably silent on the subject, and unwilling to divulge the relationship between him being persuaded to give a lots of taxpayers' money to Rover and, a few months later, having to admit that the whole thing has turned into a fiasco. Can we get to the bottom of this by having a debate on the Floor of the House in Government time, with the Secretary of State here?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman or someone else will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not recall having a debate in Government time when the funding was made available for Rover, although it was properly announced in the House, as the House would expect. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in Government time in the near future on BMW, although it is a matter of great concern. The House is anxious about the future and welfare of people at Longbridge and in the west midlands. Everyone on this side of the House is anxious to do all that we can to assist and support them, and I hope that that is true also of the Opposition.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Can my right hon. Friend advise the House when the draft Bill on commonhold and leasehold reform will be published? Will she consider establishing a scrutiny committee for that Bill, given that it will establish a new form of property tenure in the law of England and Wales?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. I cannot at the moment give him a date for the likely publication of the Bill. However, as he knows, the Government are keen to promote pre-legislative scrutiny and good discussion, especially of Bills that are not only important but contain technical matters. My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion, and I undertake to consider it.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Given the mystification of my old-age pensioner constituents that the concessions for the over-75s on the television licence appear to have made no practical progress so far, will the Leader of the House accept that my constituents will regard it as wholly in line with their mystification that the Television Licence (Disclosure of Information) Bill is not to be published until after her statement today, and that it also seems as if it will be debated in the middle of the night?

Mrs. Beckett

To be honest, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents care when the Bill is debated as long as it goes through and they get their free television licences.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Benefits Agency medical services, particularly the role of Sema Group Medical Services in arranging medical examinations and the instructions that it gives its doctors? In view of the number of cases that I and, I am sure, other hon. Members have seen in which doctors have spent as little as 15 minutes on an examination, including the paperwork, is it not time that the House had a proper debate about what is happening in these examinations? In that way, we can ensure that people claiming disability benefits get a fair deal and that there is a proper complaints process when the system goes wrong.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that all right hon. and hon. Members have, from time to time, experienced cases of this kind in which difficulty or resentment is caused. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has given an undertaking that he will look at such issues if they are raised, and I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to his attention.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

As we already have a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, and as under Standing Order No. 117 it has the widest possible remit and enables every Member representing an English constituency to attend, why is it necessary to bring forward a motion? Could the Leader of the House not save the time of the House by not doing so?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that the existing Standing Order on the Regional Affairs Committee, as it is on our statute book, so to speak, was devised by a previous Labour Government in the hope that devolution on that occasion would successfully reach the statute book. It has lain in desuetude in the intervening period. The Government believe that there is the potential for improvement in the proposals that were made then, particularly in building up a degree of expertise among a core membership who may specialise in regional affairs per se. The purpose of reviving an existing facility of the House which has not been used for many years is that any Member who sits for an English constituency will be able to attend and take part in those discussions. That is the worth of reviving the proposal.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the excellent and commendably short third report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology entitled "Scientific Advisory System: Diabetes and Driving Licences"? The report is highly critical of the arbitrary nature of the application of driving licence regulations to insulin-treated diabetic drivers, and makes important recommendations. There are 100,000 insulin-treated diabetic drivers in the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend think that she could find some time in the near future to discuss these important recommendations?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time, which is always at a premium, on the Floor of the House for such a debate. However, I remind him that one of the principal reasons for the proposal to have extra sittings in Westminster Hall was to find more time for debate and scrutiny, particularly of Select Committee reports. May I recommend that course to him?

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Can the right hon. Lady find time for a debate on tourism? The recent decision by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), to confirm a ban on motor sports on Lake Windermere is likely to cost around 500 jobs in my constituency. Will the Government look constructively at the case advanced by Cumbria tourist board and other organisations for assistance to those likely to lose business or their jobs?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the proposal endorsed by my hon. Friend the Under—Secretary. I appreciate that it raises concerns for some people, but it is a step that others have long sought. I see the hon. Gentleman assenting to that. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House, but shall draw his remarks to my hon. Friend's attention. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman the facilities of Westminster Hall.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of press reports suggesting that the Home Office has made up its mind on the successful applicants for the prestigious city status awards? Outrageously, the press has suggested that the Medway towns, which, as I am sure she will agree, have made the finest bid, are not in the running. She will share my joy that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), has told me that that is not the case. The criteria have not yet been written and no announcement has even been timetabled.

Those who have made applications have been kept too long in the dark. Local people make a lot of effort to present the best of their areas, and it is time we heard from the Home Office when an announcement will be made. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could pass on that message.

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly cannot tell my hon. Friend when an announcement will be made. I can, however, confirm that the document reported in the press had not been seen by Ministers and was not even official advice to them. I entirely understand my hon. Friend's strong argument in favour of his own locality, but, with my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) sitting behind me, he will understand that it is more than I dare do to endorse any applicant bid. I shall certainly draw his concerns to the attention of the Home Office.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

The Leader of the House may recall that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published its first annual report on human rights in January. The Government are responding to that report today. The Committee drew attention to the fact that a loophole in the law makes it possible for British firms to manufacture and export leg irons and shackles. The Foreign Secretary acknowledged the fault and said that new legislation would be prepared to close the loophole. Two months have since passed. Will the right hon. Lady let us know when that legislation will come before us, and what form it will take?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I recognise the serious concerns contained in the report, which are shared across the House. Two months is not long in which to consider legislative change, and it is never right for me to anticipate future decisions about the form of legislation. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point on board and shall bear it in mind.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Concern has been rightly expressed today about cars, agriculture and mining. May I bring to the attention of the Leader of the House the position of the United Kingdom's snack and biscuit industry, which employs tens of thousands of people, including the 11,000 employed by United Biscuits, which has more than 3,000 workers on three sites in Ashby de la Zouch in my constituency? They face a takeover bid by a consortium that includes an American equity finance firm with a slash-and-burn reputation that would warm the cockles of the hearts of Conservative Members. Several thousand jobs are in peril. Will my right hon. Friend please find time for a debate and urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to review that takeover bid?

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly undertake to draw my hon. Friend's concern to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Whether my right hon. Friend calls in bids is a delicate matter requiring careful consideration. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a debate in the House, and I recommend Westminster Hall to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Can the Leader of the House understand the concern of Members who represent rural constituencies about a written question on farming on the Order Paper, tabled by a Member who represents a Bristol constituency? Given that the Government pretend to have many Members representing rural constituencies, it does not warm hearts that they have had to get a Member from Bristol to ask a question on this matter. No doubt this evening the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will give numerous interviews on television and the radio, but Members of this House, elected to represent their constituents, will not have the chance to question him. Why can we not have a statement at seven o'clock tonight?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman's first point is more than a little bizarre. My understanding of the Bristol economy is that it has always had many links with the farming community which, in many ways, surrounds it. It is a rather strange concern to express. Of course I accept that the matter is of interest to the whole House. The farming industry wants to have those discussions and to know the outcome, which we hope will be constructive and with which it will be able to work. If it is possible, it is always desirable to structure every discussion that takes place in Government so that it can be reported in the middle of the week and the House can more readily address it, but we cannot bring government to a halt on the days surrounding weekends so that the House has the opportunity to hear a statement at a convenient time. The decisions and outcome are most important. Of course it is also extremely important that Members have those properly reported to them and have an opportunity to pursue them, and that opportunity will come.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

In the light of persistent rumours that the list of new peers will include Mr. Michael Ashcroft, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the honours system? Could she conceive of any circumstances in which the Labour party would nominate for a peerage a man who has been a tax exile for the best part of 20 years, is an overseas resident and a representative of a foreign Government at the United Nations? Could she arrange, too, for proper scrutiny of the Scrutiny Committee which, apparently, only a year ago rejected his nomination but, if the rumours are accurate, has now rolled over in the face of disturbing lobbying from the Tory party which is, clearly, bankrupt in more ways than one? Does she agree that this episode illustrates beyond doubt that the party that now pioneers cash for coronets has sunk to depths previously unplumbed?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot find time for a debate of the kind that my hon. Friend seeks. I am happy to say that I have no knowledge of whether the constant rumours that one reads are true. The particular characteristics of Mr. Ashcroft, including his representation of another power, are so unusual that his nomination would be unprecedented from any party. His is an unusual, if not unique, situation. Further than that, I will not go.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on Wembley stadium and, in particular, on the Wembley taskforce? She must be aware that this subject is controversial—so controversial that the two Departments do not know which one is responsible for the taskforce. On Monday, I had a question tabled to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which was kicked into touch because that Department ruled that it was a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Does she agree that the House is entitled to debate Wembley stadium and every aspect of the taskforce's work?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course the House is entitled to debate the taskforce and its work. Nobody would contest that. I am sorry if there has been a delay in answering the hon. Gentleman's question because of the confusion that he has identified. I shall draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that last week the Government's social exclusion unit published a wide-ranging report on young people. It is a comprehensive analysis of the position facing young people today and makes several far-reaching recommendations about the creation of a ministerial group on young people and a youth card—a smart card for discounts on travel and other benefits. It calls on the Government to produce a comprehensive strategy to respond to the needs of young people. It is a vital report, yet it has not received much attention in the media. It has been overlooked, so may we have an urgent debate on the Floor of the House to raise the profile of the needs of young people in Britain today?

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's view that the report is interesting; it raises several important matters that will need to be discussed. Of course, as the report is important, weighty and worthy of consideration, it has not received much media coverage. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it in the near future. My hon. Friend may find opportunities today, or on another occasion, to raise some of the issues that it sets out. They require the thorough consideration and debate that I am sure they will receive.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Why cannot the Leader of the House find time for the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to announce in debate a success for his ethical foreign policy? Does the right hon. Lady realise how earnestly such a success is sought—most notably by the white farmers of Zimbabwe, who daily face forcible expropriation of their farms? Many of those farmers are British, and the House is entitled to know how the Secretary of State's foreign policy will curtail the lawless excesses that are being perpetrated in Zimbabwe, especially as that country is a recipient of British overseas aid and one to which Britain has exported armaments.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman must be aware of the Government's concerns about some of the things that have been happening in Zimbabwe and about the behaviour of the Zimbabwean Government. Only recently, we had to make strong protests to them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the staff in Zimbabwe have—I understand—been increased to provide continuing help and support. The Government will maintain that role.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

In view of the welcome ministerial statement earlier this week, announcing the deferral of the decision on the public-private partnership for British Nuclear Fuels plc; in view of the continuing pressure applied to BNFL by utilities in Japan, Germany and Sweden; and in view of the pressure to close Sellafield now being applied by the Governments of Ireland, Iceland and Denmark, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an irrefutable argument for holding a debate in Government time on the future of nuclear energy and, in particular, of nuclear reprocessing in this country?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's interest in this difficult and complex subject. May I pick him up on one point? He mentioned the calls about Sellafield from the Irish and Danish Governments. I think that I am right in saying that those Governments are not calling for the closure of Sellafield. It is not possible to close Sellafield, which is an important facility where large quantities of material need to be held and managed safely. Those Governments are calling for no further reprocessing and we have that matter under review.

My hon. Friend will know that BNFL has some current difficulties with its customers; those are for the company to resolve. Until there has been some progress on that, I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the short term.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Last week, the Commissioner for Public Appointments published a report which made important recommendations for ending what she found to be a systematic process of politicisation in NHS appointments under the Labour Government. Will the Leader of the House tell us when there will be either a debate on the report or a Government statement on when and how those recommendations will be implemented?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, I am aware of the commissioner's report. I am a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so keen to highlight the comments to which he referred, as the system under which those appointments are made was set up by the previous Conservative Government. He should be aware that the sifting and interviews for such appointments are undertaken by a panel with an independent assessor, and that the process is not open to Ministers. Nor have Ministers appointed anyone—

Mr. Brady

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not know why the hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Those are facts, not matters of opinion. Ministers are not in a position to appoint anyone who has not been through that process. The hon. Gentleman should be aware of that; if he is not, that is no doubt why he continues to raise a matter that is erroneous.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I am sad to tell the House that, for the second time within a few months, Barclays will close a branch in my constituency—this time, in Terrington St. Clement. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made it clear that the Government believe that when banks close, communities can be served by post offices. Last night's debate, in particular, made it clear that while there is uncertainty, there will be mischief making from Conservative Members about the future of the Post Office. The report that we await from the performance and innovation unit will be very important. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to provide an early opportunity, following its publication, for a proper and thorough debate in the House on its contents?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I am aware of the concern that my hon. Friend has repeatedly raised in the House on behalf of his constituents about the impact of such closures. I know that that concern is shared by many Members and in many parts of the country, and the issue was discussed in Westminster Hall yesterday. We await the publication soon of the report to which he referred, but I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on it in the near future in this Chamber. However, no doubt to the despair of Opposition Members, I recommend to him that it is a matter that can be pursued in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Today's replies from the Leader of the House on agriculture show the real problem. With my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), I represent the largest milk-producing area in western Europe. World demand for dairy products is increasing by 10 per cent. a year, but 10 or 12 quota holders in that area are applying to get out of the industry and people are emigrating to Saskatchewan. If the Prime Minister is going to devote time to the summit that has raised hopes in the farming industry, will he make time to come to the House so that we can see whether he has understood the issues?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is important for Members to put the case on behalf of their constituents. However, people in the farming industry probably think that they are capable of putting their concerns across in person to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. That is why they are meeting him today. I accept that Members will wish to pursue any announcements that are made and to raise issues on behalf of their constituents. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Members can today table questions for the next Agriculture Question Time, which will be held on 13 April.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

When I was at school, if a boy showed unnatural inclinations, he was taken in the most sensitive way to see a shrink. [Interruption.] Now the Headmasters Conference has been told that, under the Government's human rights legislation, headmasters must tolerate openly homosexual relationships among their pupils. Today's newspapers carry reports that the Lord Chancellor is considering ways of protecting the legal system—and the English way of life—from the deluge of law suits that are about to hit it. Can we have a statement on the work that the Lord Chancellor's Department is doing in that respect?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that, such was the reaction to the hon. Gentleman's remarks, that I was not able to follow them as readily as I might have wished. Therefore, I will simply say to him that of course I recognise that some of the legislative steps that have been taken will have implications for the future handling of cases and for the law courts. However, I was under the impression that the general moves were supported on both sides of the House.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Will the right hon. Lady please impress on her right hon. Friends that this place is a Parliament where people are meant to parley? [Interruption.] For those Members who have not learned basic French, that means to talk. It will really not do, when there is such an important issue as Rover, for a Secretary of State to say that a written answer will suffice. At Question Time today, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry refused to make public any of the correspondence that he has had with Rover or with BMW. More worryingly, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry has announced in his question that, in effect, he has already concluded what his inquiry findings will be. Will the right hon. Lady please either insist that we have a full-day's debate or use what influence she has to ensure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry comes to the House to make a full statement?

Mrs. Beckett

Given what seem to be the rather chauvinist tendencies developing among Conservative Members, the hon. Gentleman is taking his life in his hands by using a foreign language in the Chamber, but that is a matter for him. I did not hear the exchange between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and hon. Members about the subject to which he refers, but the Select Committee's conclusion is a matter for the Committee, and one that it will discuss. My right hon. Friend keeps the House informed, as he can, about the progress of discussions, and I am sure that no hon. Member would want him to do so in a way or at a time that might jeopardise the future success of such discussions.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have an early debate, in Government time, on regional aid to the British car industry? Does the Leader of the House agree that such a debate would be an ideal opportunity for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explain to the House when he will be able to produce a regional aid map that is acceptable to his masters in the European Commission in Brussels, or simply to own up to the House that for all his charm and affability, he is not up to the job of Secretary of State and will speedily make way for someone who is?

Mrs. Beckett

Not only is it nonsense to suggest that my right hon. Friend is not extremely successful and effective in the post of Secretary of State, where he is doing a good job, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend has served in the job for longer than any of his 15 predecessors.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Opposition Members sympathise with the right hon. Lady, who is obviously still suffering from the effects of her severe cold, but at least it gave her the advantage of being able not to be present to hear the dismal performance of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry commenting on Rover. She will not therefore have heard him, when he was challenged over his refusal to make a statement to the House on this crucial matter, say by way of an excuse that he was evidently taking it seriously and that was why he was answering the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant).

Does the right hon. Lady accept that it is the duty of Ministers to answer the questions of those hon. Members who are fortunate enough to be drawn high up in the ballot, and that it simply will not do to exhibit the cowardice shown by the Secretary of State and, when a statement on a crucial matter is evidently required, to shelter behind the fact that my hon. Friend was fortunate enough to think of the question in advance and to come top of the ballot? [Interruption.]

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), as I have said before, is a very good guide in these matters, and when he says that the Conservative party failed to lay a glove on the Secretary of State, I believe him.

It is not helpful to the situation at Longbridge or to the interests of workers in the west midlands for Conservative Members to exploit the matter in the way that they are doing. It is perfectly legitimate for them to raise concerns, ask questions and criticise the Government as they choose, but they should have more regard for the interests of the car industry and the west midlands, and a little less for the interests of their own party.

As for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State showing anything other than great devotion to duty, I remind the hon. Gentleman of how frequently my right hon. Friend and other Ministers such as the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities have been to Longbridge and talked to the work force and the management. Not only is that sensible, but I fear that it is in sharp contrast to the record of Secretaries of State in the previous Government.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

I listened carefully to the earlier answer from the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). I am sure that the whole House will be deeply troubled by the appalling situation in Zimbabwe, the threat to farmers and the disregard for the rule of law by the increasingly despotic Mr. Mugabe. The House will be equally disturbed by the equivocal utterances of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), especially on the radio this morning rather than in the House. Is it not about time that we had a full day's debate to discuss the urgent question of the suspension or abeyance of Zimbabwe's membership of the Commonwealth, and to express our grave concern about what is going on in that country?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not hear my hon. Friend this morning, but I have heard him in recent days being extremely robust about our concerns about the behaviour of the Government of Zimbabwe. There will be oral questions to the Foreign Secretary on 11 April. I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the purposes of the experiment in Westminster Hall was to provide more time, in particular, for more specialist foreign affairs debates, rather than debates that might range throughout the world. I recommend such opportunities to the hon. Gentleman.