HC Deb 11 May 2000 vol 349 cc1009-23 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 for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 15 MAY—Second Reading of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

TUESDAY 16 MAY—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "UK Manufacturing and Enterprise" followed by a debate entitled "The Future of the Teaching Profession". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) (No. 2) Order 2000.

WEDNESDAY 17 MAY—Remaining stages of the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

THURSDAY 18 MAY—Second Reading of the Care Standards Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 19 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 22 MAY—Remaining stages of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Television Licences (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

TUESDAY 23 MAY—Second Reading of the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 24 MAY—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 25 MAY—Consideration of Lords amendments which may be received.

Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment debate.

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 tell us whether on Thursday 25 May she envisages the House sitting at 9.30 am, which was the pattern that was adopted before the Easter recess?

The House has had statements on Sierra Leone, but has not the time come for a full day's debate on the matter, not least because we have not had a foreign affairs debate for some time and because the commitment to Sierra Leone may be more enduring than was at first thought?

Has the right hon. Lady yet decided how the House might best debate economic matters during the parliamentary year? I raised the subject a long time ago and the issue has not yet been resolved.

In the light of today's report on mobile phones, are Ministers planning to make a statement on this potential health hazard and give the House an opportunity to ask questions about the safety of our younger constituents?

The right hon. Lady will be aware that there is mounting interest in how the House manages itself. Has not the time come for a debate on the Liaison Committee's report and a debate on the Procedure Committee's report on secondary legislation? Is there any sign on the horizon of debates on either the House of Lords or the intergovernmental conference?

Now that we have in place a mayor and assembly for London, is there not a need for a dispute resolution procedure, as we have for Scotland and Wales? Clearly such a procedure will be needed for London. Will the Deputy Prime Minister make a statement to explain how conflicts between the Government and the mayor will be resolved?

Mrs. Beckett

First, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about the pattern for the Thursday sitting on 25 May. At present, it seems likely that it will be an ordinary Thursday sitting. Obviously, that depends to some degree on the scale of the amendments that we expect to receive from another place. I shall return to that subject for the House as soon as I can.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on foreign affairs. If I understood correctly, he asked for a specific debate on Sierra Leone. I am not sure about that, but will draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about economic debates. He was right to remind me of that, and I shall certainly bear the point in mind when considering the pattern of debates for the future.

On mobile phones, the Government are responding as speedily as possible to several of the report's recommendations, and we will issue advice on the others in due course. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health may well answer a question about that. I shall certainly draw the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention, and I am confident that he will seek to keep the House informed.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's request for a discussion on the report of the Liaison Committee and on the report on secondary legislation of the Select Committee on Procedure. I share his view that they are important reports on how the House will conduct its future business. In particular, the Liaison Committee's weighty and far-reaching report has substantial implications for all hon. Members. It advances proposals that would create different patterns of work and responsibilities between one group of Members and another. The House as a whole will want to consider those proposals seriously.

I am mindful of the request for a debate on Lords reform and the intergovernmental conference.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's final remarks, I believe that the devolution settlement in London is as well known to him as it is to the rest of us. We very much hope that there will be a creative relationship with the new assembly and mayor, and we shall seek to further that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Has my right hon. Friend read early-day motion 312 on the Tobin tax?

[That this House notes that international currency speculation currently stands at about $1.5 trillion a day and that the vast majority of this is unrelated to trade in real goods and services; further notes that such enormous speculative flows substantially undermine the powers of national governments and regional blocs; believes that a small levy on such speculation, known as the Tobin Tax after the name of the Nobel Laureate who originated the concept, could both help to dampen down the scale and scope of speculation and raise substantial revenues, raising as much as $250 billion each year for good causes such as development and environmental protection; recognises that such levy would have to be universal or as near to that as possible and contain safeguards to minimise and eliminate tax evasion; notes that the Tobin Tax has the backing of the Canadian Parliament, the Finnish Government and campaign groups such as War on Want; and urges the Government to discuss the concept with its partners in international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, G8 and the European Union with a view to drawing up an internationally co-ordinated and feasible tax regime for currency speculation.]

The motion has been signed by 108 Members from both sides of the House, and calls for an international tax on currency speculation that would raise massive amounts of money to tackle third-world problems. There was an hour-and-a-half debate on the matter in Westminster Hall, when the Government's totally inadequate response and position were given. Would it not help the House to understand the Government's position if we had a full debate on the Floor of the House about this important issue?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's concern, knowing that he takes great interest in and favours those proposals. With respect to him, however, although he asked for a debate on the Floor of the House so that the Government's position could be made clear, my understanding both of the Government's position and of my hon. Friend's remarks is that our position is clear, just not what he wishes it to be.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House note that there is widespread support on both sides of the House for an early debate on Sierra Leone?

I endorse the view that we cannot go on having endless delays in debating the House of Lords. That debate has been postponed twice, I think. May we please have a date for it? There was a suggestion last week that we might debate the matter before the Whitsun recess, but it seems to have gone beyond that.

Will we have a statement, or a debate, on the Government's change of policy on pensions? In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) yesterday, the Prime Minister said: We therefore decided to start with the poorest pensioners first…We are now seeing how we can help those other pensioners.—[Official Report, 10 May 2000; Vol. 349, c. 834-35.] The Government resisted Liberal Democrat support for a change in the standard pension payments. When will we have a statement or debate so that we may know what the Government's pensions policy means?

Mrs. Beckett

I shall draw the concerns expressed on Sierra Leone to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Several foreign affairs issues exist, and it is not possible to find time on the Floor of the House for separate debates on all of them. That was why we brought into being and recommend Westminster Hall. I shall bear in mind remarks suggesting that there is pressure for a debate on foreign affairs.

The debate on Lords reform has been postponed only once—and, let me remind the hon. Gentleman, at the request of the Opposition.

Mr. Tyler

The other Opposition.

Mrs. Beckett

I accept that it was the request of the Conservative Opposition, not the Liberal Democrat Opposition. Nevertheless, the debate was delayed at the Opposition's request. I am not aware—[Interruption.]— Children, children. I am not aware of any indication that a debate would be held before Whitsun, although, of course, I realise that there is pressure for such a debate—indeed, the Government intend to schedule one.

I heard yesterday's exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, but I am not aware of—nor did my right hon. Friend indicate—any change in policy. Indeed, he made it plain that our manifesto said that we would focus help for pensioners on the poorest first, because the gap between the poorest and the best-off pensioners is so substantial. We would then hope to move on to help those in less great need, and we are now discussing how to do so. Furthermore, it was my impression that my right hon. Friend pointed out that that was exactly what was argued for in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concern and anguish of the many Ford employees in my constituency who work at Dagenham and at the Ford establishments in south and west Essex. Can she find time for an urgent debate on the effects of that decision on the east London and south Essex Thames gateway area, and on any possible measures that the Government propose to mitigate its outcome?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend on behalf of his constituents. I am well aware of the powerful emotional symbolism to the area of Ford at Dagenham. However, my hon. Friend will be aware—as I am—that Ford has made it clear that an announcement will be made. The full nature of the matter is not yet plain. No doubt, when the announcements are in the public domain, the House will discuss and comment on them in whatever way is possible.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on planning applications? Is she aware of my amazement at the two letters that I received this morning from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes)? One refused to call in a planning application—off Asker lane—even though a vast number of people in Matlock wanted that to be done. The second letter informed me that the Government have decided to call in a planning application for Duffield fire station, which many people are keen should be developed—including the Labour-controlled Derbyshire fire authority.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot offer to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, although I realise that such issues are often of burning concern in a locality. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman will fully recognise that, to some degree, Ministers act in a quasi-judicial capacity in such matters, so I should be unwise to be drawn into commenting on the merits of any potential decisions. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will weigh them all carefully.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the introduction of timetabling during the past few days. On Tuesday night, despite the lateness of the hour, many Members were extremely pleased that there was a guaranteed finishing time, even though it was at 12.28 am. May we look forward to further such experiments—[Horn. MEMBERS: "No."]—on timetabling in the near future?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks and congratulations, although I am not sure that they should be directed to me. As she rightly points out, the Government and the Modernisation Committee have argued that programming debates ensures better and more effective use of parliamentary time, and that all parts of legislation are properly examined as the House would want. She will also know that a competent Opposition would welcome programming. I have previously pointed that out at the Dispatch Box. However, she will have heard the noises from Opposition Members that suggest that there is some divergence of view on the matter.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

We are used to our forces being required to pull the chestnuts out of the fire after failures in Labour's foreign policy, but it would surely be a new departure for them to be pitched into the flames of the growing conflagration of the civil war in Sierra Leone. Will the Leader of the House explain how Her Majesty's Government can possibly give priority to fur farming and royal parks trading over the safety of our armed forces in a situation that—now that British nationals have largely been evacuated—does not affect our national interest one little bit?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman's comments are, as always, wholly negative. I am surprised that it is his contention that we should ignore developments in Sierra Leone and ignore circumstances in which Britain can contribute to an improvement in public order—for our own citizens, as well as for others. On what the House debates, I accept that he raises an important matter, but I very much doubt whether the welfare and safety of a single British soldier will be much affected by whether we discuss it next week.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

Will my right hon. Friend consider providing time to debate the Government's attitude to rip-off Britain? She will know that more than 20,000 families in the United Kingdom have lost money because of the closure of the Uno furniture retailers, and I am sure that, like me, other Members have experience of dealing with the problems that that has caused for our constituents. Customers of the company feel particularly ripped off, because they have lost their hard-earned savings, they will not receive their furniture and they will find themselves at the bottom of the pile when any recompense is given. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider giving us an opportunity to discuss the matter fully.

Mrs. Beckett

I take my hon. Friend's point that the problems that his constituents experience as a result of commercial developments in the area are problems that he feels are part of a bad relationship between consumers and some elements of the business community. I understand that that can cause great distress in a locality, but I fear that I cannot offer to find time on the Floor of the House for such a debate. My hon. Friend might like to seek an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Is the apparent delay in bringing forth the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly order and a debate on the Royal Ulster Constabulary anything to do with a problem of smoke and mirrors? The House is also aware that civil servants advise Government and that the Clerks of the House advise Members. I understand that, in the Welsh Assembly and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, civil servants advise Members. How can there be real scrutiny of government if the same people advise the Government and the Assembly?

Mrs. Beckett

On the hon. Gentleman's opening remark, most people in the House very much hope that, whatever discussions are taking place, they will come to fruition in a way that will forward the peace process in Northern Ireland. His final remark about how the Assembly is serviced and from where it takes advice is not a matter for me. No doubt he will seek to draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; I will certainly draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

The millennium year is ticking away and, although we have the technology to get to the moon and to look at the worldwide web on mobile phones, we have not yet tackled the problem of millions of people still dying from a lack of basic facilities and millions more living in abject poverty and poor health. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend saw a recent television programme that showed that 9 million people in India are blind for want of a cataract operation that costs just £15.

One of the issues facing many of the poorest countries is unsustainable debt. I know that the Government have been at the forefront of tackling the problem, but much more still needs to be done. The next G8 summit is in July, so will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the issue before the summit and as soon as possible? All the minds in the House could get together to make sure that this country leads the way and that we and the international community do everything that we can to tackle poverty. As we move into the new century, millions of people should be able to live in countries that have a firm footing for real development in the future.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that she takes a great interest in this issue and expresses a concern that is felt deeply in the House and, to some extent, across the House. I accept, of course, her concern about the G8 discussions that will take place in July. I am grateful for her recognition of how much the Government have done and I assure her that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development will continue to pursue the issue of alleviation of the debt burden. I cannot promise time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, but the issue is exactly the sort that is debated in Westminster Hall, so my hon. Friend may wish to pursue it there

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

What are the Government afraid of? Why, having set about vandalising our constitution, destroying the upper Chamber and setting up a royal commission to make recommendations, are they refusing to allow or even contemplate a proper debate on the matter in this House? Are they stalling for time? Do they wish to impose a so-called temporary solution on the hapless people of this country for an indefinite period? Or are we going to have, for once, a principled approach from the Government, which will allow the House of Commons to debate the matter and then get on with providing a solution for our Parliament and legislature that will satisfy the people of this country?

Mrs. Beckett

That was very noisy. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was here a couple of weeks ago, so he will know that the Government were prepared to have such a debate. We accepted legitimate representations—I do not complain about them at all—that it was better to have the debate on a day when fewer hon. Members were out communing with their constituents and we shall schedule such a debate. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman did not notice that the debate was originally proposed for the day on which local elections were taking place. However, we accepted the reasonable view that it would be better to schedule the debate for another day, which we shall do.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The Leader of the House announced the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill as private business for 7 pm next Monday. Traditionally, the House has a free vote on private Bills. What will be the position of the payroll vote?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend points out, quite correctly, that the Bill is private business and it is for individual hon. Members to determine how to vote.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Yesterday, the Audit Commission published a report on care charges for home care. It found wide, unacceptable variations in the charges levied by local authorities and revealed that one in three councils were charging a sum that drove pensioners below the poverty line. Will the Secretary of State for Health give us an early statement, setting out when the Government will take the necessary legislative powers to direct local authorities to change their charging policies so that they are fair and promote dignity and independence in old age?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have accepted that the system has an unacceptable scale of variation. We are grateful for the Audit Commission investigation, which gives us the facts, as opposed to anecdotal evidence. However, I understand that it suggests that Liberal Democrat councils are among those making high charges. The Government certainly intend to weigh carefully the Audit Commission report which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, only came out recently. We hope to make proposals in the summer in a White Paper that will respond to the report of the royal commission on long-term care.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) about tomorrow's announcement by Ford, no one is in any doubt that Ford will announce the end of car production in Dagenham. That will be a blow of regional and national significance and a kick in the teeth for a loyal, skilled work force who, only four years ago, were told by Ford's world president that they were among the best in Europe. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that an urgent statement on Ford will be made if our worst fears are realised?

Mrs. Beckett

May I first say, as I did earlier, that I am aware of the importance attached to Ford's operations in that part of the south-east? My hon. Friend says that there are widespread reports of Ford's intention to make announcements over the next couple of days. He will know, as I do, that for 18 months to two years, Ford's chief executives have been making plain the need to restructure their operations across the whole of Europe. Indeed, substantial discussions have taken place over a long period. Of course, I accept that the matter is especially sensitive in my hon. Friend's part of the country. I cannot give any undertakings as to the precise form of any response, but I shall certainly take on board his expressed wish that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry keep the House informed. My hon. Friend will have noted that there is an Opposition half-day debate next Tuesday, which might provide a vehicle for discussion of the subject. None the less, I shall certainly draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Following the resounding success of the Conservative party in local elections last week, I am sure that the whole House is greatly interested in when we shall have a debate on the health of democratic participation in this country, the effect on turnout and other matters of various voting systems, and, not least, the question of protecting from widespread electoral fraud the postal ballot system in the event of its being extended significantly.

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly take the hon. Gentleman's point. In the aftermath of the elections, we shall evaluate carefully the pilot schemes, although it is my understanding that most, including those involving postal voting, led to increased turnout. I am not aware of any evidence that there was increased fraud, but I am sure that that is an issue that people will raise. Although I am sure that the Conservatives were relieved to have hung on—albeit not especially substantially—to the hon. Gentleman's constituency in the by-election, they would be unwise to ignore both the turnout and the result in Romsey.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the outcome of the non-proliferation treaty review conference that is taking place in New York and concludes next week will have enormous implications for global security in terms of avoiding a new arms race? Does she also agree that it strengthens the argument for an early debate on the broad range of foreign policy, in which we can discuss issues of global security, as well as individual points of conflict?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a strong point and I am grateful to him for, rightly, identifying the wide range and broad sweep of foreign affairs issues, which are a proper matter for discussion by the House. I shall certainly bear his remarks in mind.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

How does the Leader of the House reconcile the answer she has just given her hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) with the fact that the most important debate of the year—the armed forces, defence and the world debate—was this year scheduled to coincide with local elections and the Romsey by-election, and last year scheduled to coincide with European elections? Is it not about time that the Government listened to representations of the all-party Select Committee on Defence, of which I am privileged to be a member, which asked for that important debate to be held on a date that allowed Members of Parliament to attend in significant numbers? Will she undertake that such cavalier treatment of the most important defence debate of the year will not occur three times in a row?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but, as a member of the Defence Committee, he will know that the Government try to accommodate the pressures on hon. Members—especially those who are members of Select Committees—their other concerns, their travel arrangements, and so on. He will also recognise that, although he regards the defence and the world debate as the most important defence debate of the year, we—quite rightly—have a fairly large number of defence debates to fit into the schedule each year. We always try to take account of the concerns of members of the Select Committee and other right hon. and hon. Members, but it is not always possible to balance them in a way that suits everyone. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point that this year was the second time that the defence and the world debate coincided with local elections.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Last week, I drew to my right hon. Friend's attention the issue of compensation for distant water trawlermen. A report is being prepared and I am told that it will be available shortly. My right hon. Friend assured me that she would raise with the appropriate Ministers my concerns about the fact that the case has been going on for some time. Has she done so? If she has not, may I point out that our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is now sitting at the end of the Treasury Bench? She can nab him on the way out; I have already done so today.

Mrs. Beckett

I assure my hon. Friend that I have indeed raised her concerns with the relevant Department. I am very mindful of her anxiety to get a response and the fact that she has raised those concerns continually for some time.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Given the number of roles that British forces might have to play in Sierra Leone, why, in her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), did the Leader of the House take the view that the House of Commons could make no contribution to the Government's decision?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, because if that was the impression that I conveyed, it was certainly not what I intended. I simply meant to say to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who tends to raise issues in a rather negative style, that although I recognise the proper concern and anxiety of the House both for the welfare of British troops and for the role that they may play in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I doubt that it will make a material difference to their individual safety at this precise moment whether we are able to discuss the issue in the immediate future or a little later on, when the position is a little clearer.

Of course I accept that it is absolutely right and proper for the House to keep these matters under review, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for enabling me to set the record straight if there was any doubt about it.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that while we are on our Whitsun recess we will pass the 10th anniversary of the election of the National League for Democracy in Burma. That democratically elected group has yet to take office, because of the murderous regime that has taken power. An all-party early-day motion will be tabled to commemorate the event, but I hope that an early date can be found to have a debate on the matter, because it is important that we send a very clear message to that regime.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand that my hon. Friend was asking for a debate specifically on what is happening in that part of the world, but he will recognise that, from my point of view, that somewhat strengthens the argument for a general foreign affairs debate. Equally, I am sure that he has not overlooked the fact that we have Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday. I am afraid that I do not recall what is on the Order Paper, but I am sure that he will find an opportunity to raise these issues then.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I add my voice to the call by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for an early statement on mobile phones and their safety, which would give us an opportunity to clear up some of the allegations made in the Financial Times yesterday, that the report was selectively leaked in order to give the impression that mobile phones would get an entirely clean bill of health during the auction for the third generation licences, and that Ministers were deliberately kept in the dark until after the auction. It would also give the Government an opportunity to say whether the fact that they are the licensing authority for mobile phones might lead to their having some legal liability should serious medical harm be found at some date in the future.

Mrs. Beckett

I undertake to convey the hon. Gentleman's concerns to the relevant Department. I did not see the Financial Times article to which he refers, and I am always a little wary of articles alleging that there is a deep-laid plot. I know that it happens sometimes, but experience suggests to me that it is more often a cock-up than a conspiracy.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

If the Leader of the House cannot find time for a debate on Sierra Leone in the coming week, can she ensure that we at least have a statement, and possibly a statement from the Ministry of Defence? I am sure that the House will want to know that HMS Ocean was about to go on exercise with the strike force south, with both NATO and French forces. It seems somewhat strange, considering the overstretch in our armed forces, that it is only British ships, the British Royal Marines and the British Fleet Air Arm that have gone to help, especially considering that all those other forces are sitting there waiting for an exercise and could immediately deploy to the area. When we are working with our allies in this way, we want to know why our allies are not supporting the action that we are taking.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. It is something of a compliment to the British armed forces that they are asked to participate, but it is sometimes a double-edged compliment. I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. Although, as I pointed out, it is Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next week, the hon. Gentleman is asking specifically about the defence implications. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will do what he can to keep the House informed if there are developments.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I return to the Liaison Committee report, which was described by my right hon. Friend earlier as weighty and far-reaching? It is only 23 pages long and was published two months ago, but it is indeed far-reaching, as it would fundamentally alter the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. She is aware that early-day motion 476, which I tabled, has attracted no fewer than 203 signatures.

[That this House warmly welcomes the first report of the Liaison Committee, published on 2nd March, which observes that the membership of select committees is effectively under the control of the Whips and that this has led on occasion to long delays in setting up committees at the start of a parliament and in replacing members thereafter and that members have been kept off committees because of their views; agrees that this is wrong in principle; and believes the implementation of the report's recommendations would strengthen parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive to the positive benefit of both.]

I invite her to be a little more precise about when we can expect the Government's response to that hugely significant, unanimously agreed Select Committee report.

Mrs. Beckett

The report may be only 23 pages long, but any report that calls for substantial changes in the relationship not just between Government and Executive, as my hon. Friend rightly says, but between one hon. Member and another, as well as having substantial implications for the ordering of our debates and for the use of funds in the House, I regard as weighty, however short it is. I accept that it is serious. I am gratified that so many hon. Members have taken a close interest in the contents of the Liaison Committee report. I cannot tell my hon. Friend exactly when we will find time for a debate on the matter. As for when the Government hope to respond to it—soon.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is there any prospect of a debate on participation in the political process, given the worrying reports in this morning's papers that Labour party membership in the Prime Minister's constituency, Sedgefield, has fallen by half since the general election? Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity of such a debate to announce whether there will be an allocation of Short money for what the Deputy Prime Minister on Tuesday night called the real Opposition on the Benches behind him?

Mrs. Beckett

It should be a matter of concern to hon. Members in all parts of the House that there is such a low level of participation and interest in the political process. With regard to levels of party membership, the words "motes" and "beams" come to mind. On the link that people make or do not make between what happens in the political process and what happens in their daily lives, I have long taken the view that it is a great weakness of our democracy that people do not more readily make that connection.

The hon. Gentleman will have observed that one of the things that the Government are endeavouring to do is to make sure that information about the steps that the Government are taking gets across more fully and in a more understandable form than in the past. I understand that the Opposition regard that as re-announcing, double counting, spinning and many other things, which I sometimes fear are designed to obscure from the British people the facts about the difference that a Labour Government are making to their lives.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The exceptional medicines fund initiative announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) this morning would end the cruel practice of postcode lottery medicine, whereby beta interferon is denied to my constituents Julia Eckersley, Kate Sweetman and Sue Brierley. Will the Leader of the House find time for a full debate on the subject of postcode lottery funding and finding a way to end a practice that is condemned across the nation as cruel and heartless?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the concern that is felt at differences that grew up under the previous Government, and which were to a large extent encouraged by the previous Government, in the way that the national health service operates in different parts of the country. I am glad that the Conservative party is thinking seriously about such matters.

However, I hope that anyone who looks closely at the Opposition's policy and takes on board the exceptional medicines fund will also take on board the fact that they are proposing what I would call a two-tier national health service, except that it is not a national health service at all. For common ailments, including particularly those experienced by the elderly, people would be driven into the private sector. The Conservative policy should be taken in the round, and I should be glad to think that people are taking it seriously, but I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on it in Government time, although the Opposition may like to find time for one, and we would welcome it.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

On 2 May, in a statement about the demonstration in London, the Home Secretary said that English Heritage, which was responsible for the Cenotaph, had decided not to board it off. Shortly after that I visited the Cenotaph, and had discussions with a senior director of English Heritage.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me, and the rest of the House, in congratulating English Heritage and its contractors on the splendid and skilful way in which they have restored the Cenotaph, but, at best, a genuine misunderstanding has occurred. The agents of English Heritage left a meeting with the Metropolitan police on 20 April with the clear impression that the police had told them not to board up the Cenotaph. Alarmingly, during his statement the Home Secretary said: I was not aware that those decisions were made.—[Official Report, 2 May 2000; Vol. 349, c. 25.]

Given that the Cenotaph is a piece of architecture of sublime quality and historical significance to the British nation—indeed, it is a national icon—it is not good enough for the Home Secretary not to have known what was going on. I understand that discussions are in progress with the Met. Could the Home Secretary please come to the House, make a clear statement of what happened during the meetings leading up to his statement of 2 May and, more important, tell us what the policy is for the future, to ensure that a monument such as the Cenotaph is never again desecrated in such a manner?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course everyone in the House and, indeed, the country, condemns the defacing of the Cenotaph—there is no doubt about that—and of course careful consideration is being given to the incident. Both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have made plain how seriously they take it.

I have no doubt that those who make the day-to-day operational decisions will consider how they reached their decision in this instance, and also consider its outcome. I doubt, however, that there is any need for the Home Secretary to make a further statement to the House about that particular inquest, or that there is any point in his doing so. I am certain that the lessons have been learned, and will be taken on board.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Would it be possible to have a debate on policing? Many Members on both sides of the House were very angry about the antics of the mindless thugs who vandalised the Cenotaph and Churchill's statue. May I say how satisfied I am that one of those vandals is now serving a prison sentence?

Many annual events, and one special celebration, will take place this summer. I understand that the anarchists aim to target those events as well. A debate on policing would allow us to support the police, thus ensuring that the families with children, and elderly people, who will turn out in their thousands for, in particular, that special celebratory event, will not have their special day tarnished.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about threats to future events—especially threats to peaceful celebrations by ordinary citizens—and of course I accept that it is right for the House to keep matters of policy under review. I think, however, that our best way of expressing support for the police is often to convey that general support and concern, and to encourage the police to take such matters seriously—as they do—while trying to avoid second-guessing the difficult decisions that must be made by those on the front line.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have an urgent statement or debate on the alarming admission this week by the Home Office that no fewer than 11 prisoners have been accidentally released into the community without having served the minimum sentence required by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998? Is the right hon. Lady aware that those 11 include people convicted of robbery, drug dealing, drug trafficking and sex with a minor? The latter offender was sentenced to six months, and served only five weeks. Is this not a national scandal, which sends an appalling signal to worried law-abiding folk the length and breadth of the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect, no. It is not a national scandal; it is a very unfortunate administrative problem. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, recall that there has been a series of difficulties in that area of prison administration. Some people served longer than they were supposed to, and it would appear from the reports to which he drew attention that others have been released a little earlier than they should have been.

The Home Secretary is taking the issue seriously, and is engaged in discussions with the Prison Service to try to ensure that such incidents are not repeated. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention, but I do not think anyone can doubt that he is as determined as anyone else to ensure that offenders are where they properly should be.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider her refusal to allow the House to debate foreign affairs in general and Sierra Leone in particular in the next fortnight? There is widespread anxiety about Sierra Leone. The Government have swamped the House with legislation and have thus created an imbalance. Parliament cannot debate subjects that the public expect us to discuss. It is ridiculous to pretend that some of the legislation that we shall debate in the next fortnight is more important than the actions of our troops in Sierra Leone.

Mrs. Beckett

First, let me clear up a misunderstanding. The hon. Gentleman is right that I have not been able to announce time for a foreign affairs debate in the next two weeks, although I have taken on board the request for such a debate. He will know that I have announced an Opposition day in the next two weeks, although it is perfectly natural that he should seek a debate in Government time.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that our programme was exceptionally heavy. During this morning's exchange, we have discussed the Liaison Committee report. The table in the report lists the number of Bills and the size of legislative programmes since 1979. If he examines it, he will realise that the Government's legislative programme this year is smaller than those under Governments that he supported.

I have sympathy for one of the hon. Gentleman's points. The Government have had to schedule and provide time for some matters in the legislative programme that are arguably minor and uncontroversial and have enjoyed the support of Conservative Members in the past. He knows that the Government had to do that because of Conservative Members' activities.