HC Deb 16 November 2000 vol 356 cc1069-83 12.31 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the coming week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows.

MONDAY 20 NOVEMBER—Motions relating to Westminster Hall and Thursday sittings.

Motion on the Immigration Appeals (Family Visitor) (No. 2) Regulations 2000.

TUESDAY 21 NOVEMBER—Supplemental allocation of time motion followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Motion relating to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill.

Motion relating to the coal operating aid scheme.

THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER—There will be a debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. That is the pre-Nice debate as you will recall, Mr. Speaker.

FRIDAY 24 NOVEMBER—There will be a debate on the Sixth Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on the Environment Agency on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will include: MONDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business for the remainder of November in Westminster Hall will be: THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER—Debate on the Ninth Report from the International Development Committee on the effectiveness of EU Development Assistance.

THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER—Debate on "Opportunity For All: Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion".

Mrs. Browning

I thank the right hon. Lady for the business for the coming week, but wish to express a little disappointment that she was not able today to announce the date for the rising of the House for the Christmas recess. I mention that for a particular reason—not because Opposition Members are anxious to leave our green Benches, but because we are extremely anxious to receive from the Leader of the House a reassurance that the Prime Minister will come to the Dispatch Box and report on the Nice summit to the House before we go home for Christmas.

This is the third time that I remind the right hon. Lady of the fact that, given the importance of the Biarritz summit which the Prime Minister attended—and where he approved, with other Heads of Government, the EU charter of fundamental rights—but has not yet come to the House to answer questions on, it would be unacceptable for him to dodge giving the House a full report on the Nice summit before the House rises. Given that the Queen's Speech is now the latest that it has been since the 1920s, I hope that the Leader of the House will reassure us that the Prime Minister will find time to come and report on the Nice summit before the rising of the House.

Will the right hon. Lady consider a debate on the NHS national plan? In his statement earlier in the week, the Secretary of State for Health made the most cursory reference to what is supposed to be a major plank of Government health policy, yet Members have yet to have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State in detail about the plan, which we would very much like to do. I hope that that, too, can be fitted in before the House rises for Christmas.

After 6 December, it is likely to be the last Session of this Parliament. There is much unfinished business, so I would be grateful if the Leader of the House would consult with her colleagues across Departments and consider the issues that have been the subject of a great deal of publicity. Sometimes, the Government have announced—with great flourish and not a little spin—from the Dispatch Box that they intend to embark on major consultation about various policies. When those great plans are then consulted on, many receive such a negative response from people who know something about the subject that the plans are kicked into the long grass and the House never hears about them.

Proposals for the reform of alcohol licensing laws were announced on 10 April. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has received several assurances that the responses to the consultation on those proposals would b' laid in the Library. They are not there yet, but we hear that the consultation could be reported on outside the House, in the next few days, by the Minister responsible. I hope that the right hon. Lady will use her good offices to ensure that such consultations are considered and reported back to the House.

At the Department of Trade and Industry, the consultation on the proposal for employment agencies is now 18 months old—and it has caused great uncertainty among employment agencies. However, the House has not yet had a chance to hear the responses from people in that sector.

We are coming to the end of this Parliament and I inform the Leader of the House that I am compiling a list of unfinished business. It covers the great changes that the Government have said, with great flourish, that they would make, but which they kicked into the long grass once they received responses from people outside. The Government hope that such issues will go away. We do not have short memories, and I am compiling a list for the Library. I hope that the Leader of the House will do the same, and that, at next week's business questions, she will tell us how the Government intend to deal with their unfinished business.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not yet able to give the hon. Lady the date for the Christmas recess, but I shall do so as soon as I can. I was a little surprised by her justification for asking about the date. Nothing is more far fetched than the notion that the Prime Minister would not report on the outcome of the Nice summit. He has reported faithfully on every official summit, and there has never been the slightest suggestion that he would do otherwise.

The hon. Lady will recall that she raised the issue of the Biarritz summit, and I became confused between Biarritz and Nice. No Prime Minister has ever reported on the outcome of informal summits, and I see no reason for my right hon. Friend to begin to do so. However, he has always faithfully reported on the outcome of the proper summits. I take slight exception to the hon. Lady seeking to convey the impression that he might in some way try to avoid doing so.

As for the suggestion that there will be something to conceal from the House because of the major changes that the Prime Minister will make at the summit, I know that the hon. Lady heard him yesterday remind Conservative Members of the 30 occasions on which they gave away the rights to qualified majority voting in the Maastricht negotiations. She said that she has a list, but I have a little list of all the changes that the Conservative party has made to taxation and similar issues since it took us into the European Community. The Government are not attempting to evade their responsibility.

The hon. Lady asked for a debate on the NHS national plan. I am sorry that she did not welcome the outcome of the statement made the other day. Her health authority received an increase in funding of 8.3 per cent., but I understand why the Conservative party wants to draw a veil over such issues—it pretends that nothing is happening.

The hon. Lady referred to unfinished business and said that she was compiling a list. That is fine. She added that Conservative Members did not have short memories, but, I am sorry, I have to take issue with her on that. The Conservative party wants legislation on many issues, such as alcohol licensing, and complains that the Government have not introduced it. Her memory must be extremely short if she has forgotten that the Conservative party has not only complained about every piece of legislation that we have introduced, but said that the legislative programme was far too heavy. However, I should not be surprised by that—the Conservative party says that we are spending too much, but then demands spending increases. After complaining for months that we have introduced too much legislation, she wants us to introduce more.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to an outstanding report on arms licensing, which was produced this Session by four Select Committees, and, in particular, to its chief recommendation that the four Committees be allowed to conduct prior scrutiny in the next Session? Given the timing of that recommendation, the weight that it carries—it has been unanimously approved by four Select Committees—and the importance of the issue, will she give a positive response to that recommendation and provide an opportunity to debate that important report?

Mrs. Beckett

I will certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the relevant Department. I must admit that I have slightly lost track of the timing on that matter. As for having a debate on the report, if the House agrees on Monday—it will, of course, be a free vote because it is a House matter—to the Modernisation Committee's unanimous recommendations on Westminster Hall sittings, there will be even more time to debate Select Committee reports. I think that two thirds, rather than half, of Westminster Hall's time will be available for such debates. That will obviously create more opportunities.

On the issue of prior scrutiny, Departments will have to consider that carefully because of its implications and the time that it would take, but I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I strongly endorse the request of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands).

May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent statement on the potential use of taxpayers' money for party political campaigning by Members of Parliament? There is a need for clarity. I draw her attention, as I did three weeks ago with her Government colleagues, to Fees Office operations directorate factsheet No. 1, which appears dramatically to extend the use of the office costs allowance for Members to the sending of newsletters, factsheets, annual reports to their constituents. The Senior Salaries Review Body, with which I had an interview this morning, is totally unaware of the change in the rules, even though it is undertaking an important re-examination of them. There has been no consultation, as far as I am aware, with any Opposition party. Several hon. Members of all parties have paid for such publications out of their own pockets during this Parliament.

In addition, it is totally inappropriate, at the presumed end of a Parliament, to change the rules in such a way. It looks as though some Labour Back Benchers, who have limited responsibilities in the House and limited staff to undertake those responsibilities, will suddenly receive a taxpayers windfall just before the general election that they can use to campaign. Will the Leader of the House urgently investigate how that rule came to be made and why there was no proper consultation on it? In the meantime, will she have it withdrawn until we have a statement?

Mrs. Beckett

I hope that I can satisfactorily answer the hon. Gentleman's main questions. I am a little surprised that the information has not been conveyed to him. No one consulted Opposition parties, no announcement was made and the SSRB could not be aware of a change in the rules because, as far as I know, there has not been one. If I identify correctly the guidance to which the hon. Gentleman referred, it is issued by the Fees Office, and it is not for me or any Leader of the House to instruct the Fees Office about the administration of expenditure and what is considered proper expenditure of public money. That is the last thing that I could do, and it is for the Fees Office to supervise that matter. My understanding is that it issued guidance to clarify the issue.

It has always been the case that Members have the right, should they wish, to provide information and to circulate newsletters that are paid for by the office costs allowance. I have always understood that some Members do that. Many others do not simply because there is not enough room in their allowance for that. As for the notion either that my hon. Friends are in some way seeking party political advantage or that there is a windfall, I assure the hon. Gentleman that in the Labour party—I do not know what the position is in his party—many people find themselves subsidising the office costs allowance out of their salaries.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion No. 1103 on the future of community health councils?

[That this House notes that the National Health Service Plan proposes the abolition of the community health councils and the redistribution of their functions between the Patient Advisory and Liaison Service, patients' forums, advisory citizens' panels, local council all-party scrutiny committees and the Commission for Health Improvement; and calls for the Government to engage in a robust national debate and consultation on how to deliver effective patient empowerment by adding to the best of community health councils and particularly by addressing the need for independence, integration locally and nationally, appropriate statutory powers and access to information and support mechanisms to identify and promote best practice.]

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that there is considerable interest in these matters both within and outside the House, particularly with regard to independence, local co-ordination and integration? Will she seek to make time for a debate on these matters as soon as possible?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are strong views on the matter on both sides of the House—there is some concern and some support. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future, especially as, if I recall correctly, the paper is still out for consultation. My hon. Friend can, of course, seek the extra opportunities that will be provided should the House agree on Monday to the report on Westminster Hall for Back Benchers as well as for Select Committees.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the right hon. Lady consider reorganising the business next week so that on Monday we can discuss the EU proposal that 48 countries under the EBA—everything but arms—initiative should be able to import into the EU sugar on a tariff-free, quota-free basis? Does she understand that that poses a grave threat to the UK sugar industry? Does she also understand that many feel that it would be entirely destructive? British agriculture is not in a position to withstand any further economic knocks.

I know that there is to be a debate on these matters in Westminster Hall—it is listed for Tuesday. However, there is a real risk that they will considered by the General Affairs Council on Monday or early on Tuesday. That being so, the House should debate the issue urgently.

Mrs. Beckett

If the GAC is discussing the matter on Monday, a debate in the House on Monday could have little influence on the GAC debate. A debate on European affairs is scheduled for Thursday, and I do not feel able to bring it forward.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the excellent GCSE results that were announced today? They are a great tribute to teachers throughout the country, including those in my constituency in Nottingham. Such a debate would enable us to highlight the achievements of pupils gaining five A to C higher grades, and to highlight the real achievements of many schools that are working in exceptionally difficult circumstances with pupils of low ability. They have been able to move such pupils from a G to an F grade, and have ensured that pupils take one or more GCSEs.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am only too happy to welcome the excellent results in his constituency, where I know he takes a great interest in education matters.

I entirely take my hon. Friend's point. I remember many years ago hearing William van Straubenzee, a Conservative Member, trying to educate some of his colleagues in the understanding that sometimes to raise the achievements of those whose abilities are somewhat limited is even more demanding, but equally worth while, than to raise the achievements of those who are of higher ability. I am conscious that a range of achievement is needed. My hon. Friend is right to identify that at least in part as a result of the Government putting money into education, and also as a result of our encouragement and desire to raise standards, achievements are higher across the board.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I know that the right hon. Lady takes seriously the historic responsibilities that she has as a defender of all Members, and particularly of the minority. Usually, a Minister who winds up a debate attempts to answer questions that have been raised in the debate. I ask her to refer to recent debates and, if I may be personal, speeches that I made in the defence debate and the procedure debate. By arrangement with the Front Benches, a Minister has only 15 minutes to answer questions, which means that he or she has an even greater excuse not to respond to them. Will the right hon. Lady use her influence—she has no control—through the usual channels to ensure that Ministers winding up a debate have long enough in which to answer the questions put during the debate?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important and interesting point, which illustrates the fact that we need to give more thorough and careful consideration to how we handle such issues. All too often, hon. Members make assertions—the press are sometimes even worse—that people should do this or they should do that. However, as I know the right hon. Gentleman fully appreciates, Front Benchers respond to requests that they curtail the time they take to allow more Back Benchers to contribute in the debate. None the less, I take the point that the greater the degree to which that is done, the greater the difficulty in responding to issues raised in the debate. The point is an important one; I cannot undertake to find an answer to it now, but it is a matter to which the House should give careful consideration.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the health consequences for pensioners of scrapping the £200 winter fuel allowance, as advocated by the Tories, which would have a devastating effect on 18,000 pensioners in my constituency and on pensioners throughout the country?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will recall that the policy to which he refers is not unprecedented: when they were last in government, the Conservatives scrapped the heating allowance that then existed, so we have seen it all before. I share my hon. Friend's view that, in the light of long understanding of the incidence of hyperthermia and excess winter deaths in this country, one of the most important steps taken for many years was the introduction of the heating allowance. I am astonished that the Conservatives appear not to have realised in time that when pensioners, understandably, talked about wanting an increase as of right, they did not mean people taking away what had already been given by the Labour Government.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I am sure that the Leader of the House shares the Liberal Democrats' disappointment at the actions of the House of Lords in making, in effect, a wrecking amendment to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill. Will she make clear the Government's intentions in that respect? Report and Third Reading will take place in the Lords and the Bill, as amended, will return to the Commons, which is likely to insist on its way; if the Lords reject it again, the Parliament Acts will be used to make sure that the will of the elected House, expressed on a free vote, prevails. Will the right hon. Lady also make it clear that if the Lords make reasonable amendments with which the Commons might agree, they will be given fair wind in this House?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman the information he seeks, because the way in which the agenda in the other place will be settled is not clear—it never is. The agenda in the other place is matter for the Lords; the Government have no control over it and no majority through which to press their will. The Bill remains with the other place, and I cannot clarify its intentions or the likely consequences for this House. All I can tell him is that the Government intend to make progress, one way or another.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

With regard to the pre-Nice debate next Thursday, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the draft treaty of Nice will be available in the Vote Office well in advance of the debate, so that it can be examined and considered? Will she also try to ensure that the draft treaty, which is, in effect, a legislative document—the Nice summit will be legislating—is available outside the House, so that our constituents and the public can see it?

Mrs. Beckett

I freely confess that I am not sure whether it is possible to do that, but I shall draw my right hon. Friend's request to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who, I am sure, will take it extremely seriously.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Will the right hon. Lady schedule an urgent debate on the cover-up being conducted by Government in respect of the exorbitant cost of preparations to join the euro? She will be aware that those costs are now estimated to be heading towards £38 billion, and that Ministers and Departments, especially the Department of Health, have instructed national health trusts throughout the country to refuse to answer legitimate questions put by Members of Parliament about the disgraceful costs being incurred by the trusts, which are directing vital money away from patient care. Does the right hon. Lady agree that that is an urgent matter for an early debate?

Mrs. Beckett

No. It is absolute rubbish to suggest that money is being diverted away from patient care, just as it is rubbish to suggest that there are vast hidden costs.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to access www.thisisgrimsby.co.uk? [Interruption.] if hon. Members like it, they can try the sister site, www.thisisscunthorpe.co.uk, the equally excellent site of my local newspapers. If my right hon. Friend has accessed the site, she will have noticed in Friday's edition that the first cheques for trawlermen's compensation have now gone out to those who fought for 25 years to win justice in that case.

In addition, my right hon. Friend will have noticed in Monday's edition pensioners warmly welcoming the winter fuel allowance and their free television licences; in Tuesday's edition that the Government have given consent for a new power station—that is 500 jobs; and in yesterday's edition £18.5 million extra for my local health authority. I leave the choice up to my right hon. Friend, but can she organise a debate on one of those issues, so that my residents know exactly what the Government have done for them and what the Tories would take away?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks, and I warmly congratulate her on the zeal with which she has pursued the issue of trawlermen's compensation ever since she has been in the House, not least at business questions. She makes a valid point, offers us a range of items from which to choose, and identifies the fact that it took the return of a Labour Government for the trawlermen to get the compensation for which they have been fighting for so many years. I add to that my own list, which includes the far east prisoners of war who suffered, sadly, at the hands of the Japanese; the families with vaccine damage—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear any of this. Those people asked them for money for 18 years and got no answer except no. Deeply though I am tempted by my hon. Friend's list of excellent items to debate, I fear that I cannot offer to find special time, unless she tries Westminster Hall.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I think and certainly hope that the Leader of the House knows how much I genuinely respect her leadership of the House. Last Thursday, at column 534 of Hansard, I sought to summarise her views on free votes on the Liaison Committee report, with which her Parliamentary Secretary, winding up 10 minutes later, did not choose to find fault. If, as the Prime Minister intimated yesterday, I did misrepresent the right hon. Lady's views, I apologise to her. In a constructive vein, can she say how the matter will be taken forward in future?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He is always courteous, not merely to me but to everybody in the House, and is recognised for that. I took no offence, and I do not immediately recall the precise words of his summary. I simply say to him that my view has always been that whenever a matter is put for decision before the House, it is always on a free vote if it is a House matter. That is a simple statement of the position as it has been and remains. As to the issue of how we will take forward the proposals of the Liaison Committee, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government consider them to be of major importance and believe that they should be given more mature consideration. I cannot, I fear, tell him at present when we are likely to be able to take those proposals forward.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

In view of the recent revelations that Ministers in the former Tory Government never had any intention of holding a proper competition for the site of the millennium exhibition, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a little like buying a lottery ticket and discovering that the organisers did not hold a draw? That disgraceful behaviour cost the people of Birmingham £500,000, and has also cost money for people in Derby, Stratford and elsewhere. If a local council behaved in such a way, we would surcharge the guilty councillors. In my view, we should surcharge the guilty Conservative Members. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need an early opportunity to debate the matter and get to the bottom of what happened?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right to suggest that Derby, as well as Birmingham, will respond somewhat sorely to the information that is currently being published. If what is reported is true, it unfortunately tends to confirm the anxieties of most people in this country who live outside the metropolis. They believe that too many events are London centred, which causes resentment and suspicion on all occasions when there are such competitions. It is usually unfair to assume that there is not a free competition and that London is bound to win, but such stories raise people's anxieties. I fear that I cannot give my hon. Friend an undertaking to find an opportunity for a debate on the matter in the near future. However, as I said to other hon. Members, there will be extra opportunities for debate in Westminster Hall, if the House decides that on Monday, and I have little doubt that the matter will be raised again there or elsewhere.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the situation of a constituent of mine, who has twice been called to have a flu vaccination, but twice had that appointment cancelled. Is the right hon. Lady aware of the grave shortage of flu vaccine in many parts of the country, including Stockport, and will she ask the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House to make a statement on that severe crisis, which is hitting patients and costing lives?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that there have been problems with the availability of flu vaccine and that Ministers in the Department of Health have applied considerable pressure to ensure that those problems will be resolved. I was not aware that a particular difficulty had arisen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an urgent debate on the new Criminal Records Bureau? The Government rightly said that voluntary organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults should be able to check on volunteers. However, I am concerned about the proposal to charge voluntary organisations for such checks. I am not sure that that is consistent with the Government's effort to encourage volunteering, reduce bureaucracy and ensure consistency across Departments. Can we have an urgent debate on that issue before the bureau's details are finalised?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point about an issue on which she has been campaigning. I am also aware that many hon. Members across the House are anxious for the system to work effectively and efficiently for the public's protection. I fear that I cannot offer her special time for an urgent debate, but I recommend to her, too, the availability of debating time in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Will the right hon. Lady be kind enough to explain to the House why she and the Government find it necessary to apply a timetable motion to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill? Many colleagues in the House want to express their grave dismay and concern at the effective destruction of one of the finest police forces that the United Kingdom has ever had. Will she explain why the Bill's title has not been altered more accurately to reflect its practical outcome? She might consider calling it "Betrayal of the RUC Bill".

Mrs. Beckett

First, I remind the hon. Gentleman that a supplemental allocation of time motion is involved—in other words, the House has already discussed and decided to have an allocation of time motion for that Bill. Secondly, he will be as aware as anyone that the Patten report is part of the peace process and part of the response to it. Everyone recognises what is in many ways the very fine record of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but most people, at least, believe that if the peace process is to continue, to be established and to succeed, we also need a new approach to the police force in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is as horrified as the rest of us at the situation in Palestine, where more than 200 Palestinians, including many children, have been killed by Israeli security forces. This is clearly the most unequal of struggles: there are stones and a few guns on one side and guns, helicopter gunships and an army on the other.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary for an urgent debate so that the House can express its concerns about events and we can hear the Government's position on a situation that some of us believe is escalating into a major tragedy? I say that as a friend and not an enemy of the state of Israel, which I have always supported.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes some very important and serious points, and she is right to remind the House that she does so as someone who has been a supporter of the state of Israel but is concerned at the deterioration of the position there. She will know that the Government have always played an active role in trying to promote the cause of peace in the middle east, and we tried to encourage the two sides to come together. She will know, too, that we voted in favour of Security Council resolution 1322, which condemned the excessive use of force against Palestinians.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will do everything we can to continue to promote the cause of peace. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future. Perhaps I could recommend the opportunities in Westminster Hall to her, as well.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Will the Leader of the House seek, wherever possible, to give the House an indication of the statements due in the subsequent fortnight? We are about to have an urban White Paper, and every quango dealing with regeneration and every non-governmental organisation has had this date in its diary for at least a fortnight. It is humiliating to be telephoned by people who are not hon. Members and told the business that will take place in my own House, not having been told of it myself in this Chamber.

Will the Leader of the House say when the statement on the rural White Paper will be made? It was due to be made consecutively with the urban White Paper, but that will not now happen. It was pulled last Tuesday, when the Government seemed to think that they would be besieged by lorry drivers. Furthermore, are we to have a statement on the climate change conference, which the Deputy Prime Minister will be attending next week in The Hague?

Of course, there are statements that cannot be foreseen, but there are many issues on which the Government have long intended to make statements and that flow from Green or White Papers. There is no reason at all why we cannot be given proper notice of those statements.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman was a senior Minister in the previous Government, and he will know as well as anyone else why Governments are always cautious about giving notice of particular statements. Events can change, and it can become necessary to delay some matters because it is necessary to deal with other matters earlier. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was always intended to take the rural and the urban White Papers together, but he is mistaken.

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

I said that they are separate.

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend assures both me and the House that it was always intended that they would be dealt with separately.

I fear that I cannot give an indication of what statements are likely to be taken in the next couple of weeks. Although the Government have some issues in mind that we may wish to report to the House, we always have to reflect on the ebb and flow of business and determine what business the House can take. The main consideration is that we ensure that matters are properly reported to the House, and we endeavour to do that. I also remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Government have made substantially more statements to the House than our predecessors did.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the 18 years during which the Tories were in power, there was never a time when they gave advance notice of White Papers, statements or anything else? The answer to people like those toffee-nosed Tories is that they should come to work every day. If they would just come to work, they would find out.

Now that we have heard the welcome news about the trawlermen's compensation, the Japanese prisoners of war compensation and this month's winter heating payments—which the Tories would get rid of if they got half a chance—will my right hon. Friend tell the Department of Trade and Industry to get to grips with the compensation payments for miners who are suffering from chronic bronchitis, emphysema and vibration white finger? If my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe can deal with that and knock together the heads of those 230 solicitors who are holding up the money, she will not even have to make a statement.

Mrs. Beckett

I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks. He will know that no one is more conscious of the urgency of the case that he makes, or more concerned about the delays that have been occurring, than Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry. He is right, too, to identify that there was no progress on any of those issues while the previous Government were in office. I can assure him that I shall again draw his remarks to the attention of my right. hon. and hon. Friends at the DTI. However, I know that they share his anxieties.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

In the light of the decline in gross domestic product in the regions of England and its severe decline in Wales during the past three years under this Government, will the Leader of the House tell us when we might have an opportunity to debate the Government's regional policies and particularly the use of the regional fiscal instruments?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's premise stands. My understanding is that GDP has grown under this Government—it must have done so, otherwise we would have a recession. Although a recession was much predicted by the Opposition, who were definitely disappointed that it did not arrive, we have not had one. However, I certainly understand his wish to debate issues of concern to his constituents. I recommend to him, too, the opportunities that arise—and may be increased—in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the arrival of a unique, entirely unexpected phenomenon in Wales, which would not have happened under the previous Government? What has happened has no name as yet, but it could be described as nano-unemployment. An independent observer has said that we talked about full employment in the 1950s and 1960s, but now in Wales the level of employment is even higher because of the stable economy that the Government have created and the introduction of the minimum wage. Does not that provide a great opportunity for the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and all other Opposition Members to recover from the terrible affliction that they suffer from whenever they talk about Wales—repetitive whingeing syndrome?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case. I am tempted to grant his request, especially as he is right to say that not only in Wales, but across the United Kingdom we are seeing a return to levels of employment—and, indeed, to low levels of unemployment—of a kind that has not been seen in this country for 20 years or more. That is an achievement of which we can all be rightly proud. I fear, however, that he will not be surprised to learn that I cannot find time for an extra debate, but I know that he will take every opportunity to make his points in other ways.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The Leader of the House will recall that at business questions on 21 March, I asked her about the cut-off time for tabling oral questions, as a result of which the Procedure Committee produced a report. Paragraph 17 of its summary states: Taking these various factors into account, we have concluded that the deadline for tabling questions for oral answer should be moved from 5 pm to 6.30 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We recommend that the Speaker should authorise such a change. Will the right hon. Lady represent Back Benchers and find time for a debate, with a substantive vote, so that those changes can be put into effect? If she cannot find time for such a debate, will she have a private discussion with the Speaker, as I understand that implementation of the proposal requires no change to Standing Orders?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that that does not require a debate and vote. He will know how reluctant any Leader of the House is to try to find time for a debate that is unnecessary, given that we are unable to find time for so many necessary debates. Mr. Speaker will certainly have heard the hon. Gentleman's words, as I have, and I assure him that the matter will be considered.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Referring to a point raised earlier, we should have a full debate after the Nice summit because many of the proposals are causing widespread concern. Indeed, there should be a full debate on all the European treaties, as that would allow us to ask why the Tories gave up sovereignty in 1985, why they signed up to the single currency in 1992, and why, shortly afterwards, they followed that with the stability pact. I look forward to the contribution of the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), because I am aching to know why he signed the Maastricht treaty in 1992.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. We know that Conservative Members introduced VAT because they took us into the European Union, but such a debate would give us an opportunity to find out why they almost doubled VAT, why they increased it again to 17.5 per cent., and why they put VAT on fuel, although they now complain about the taxes on fuel. I share my hon. Friend's wish to air all those fascinating matters thoroughly in the Chamber, but I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate to do so.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the Leader of the House provide time to debate the implications for land use, planning and public services of the latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics, which show that, in the last three years, there was net inward migration of 451,000 people—equivalent to the size of Portsmouth and Southampton combined and to more than half the population of Dorset? Major implications flow from that. The rate is twice the rate that prevailed over the past six years. Does the right hon. Lady agree that this is a serious issue that demands the House's attention?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that during the period to which he refers, there have been, for example, substantial upheavals in eastern Europe, the Baltic states and elsewhere, which have led to pressure on migration across the world. I am not aware of the figures that he gives. It was my understanding that, until relatively recently, there had been a net outflow, so it may be simply that we are seeing something of a redress of the balance. Of course these issues are taken into account by Governments of every shade as we see the ebb and flow of travel to and from particular countries.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that yesterday the EU gave approval for the Government to go ahead with its aid package to the deep coal mining industry—an industry that was so disastrously treated by the Conservative Government. That aid package is welcome in mining communities, but there are concerns about the early lifting of the gas consents and the need for investment in new clean coal technology. Will she find time for a full debate so that those issues can be aired when the regulation is debated?

Mrs. Beckett

I join my hon. Friend in his welcome for the agreement for the package of support. I understand that there will be concerns about the lifting of the gas consents—although my hon. Friend will know that these have been maintained now for a considerable time—and I recognise his concerns about the development of clean coal technology. I fear that I cannot find time for an additional debate on these matters, but I am confident that if my hon. Friend is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will be able to air some of the issues when we debate the scheme itself.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

The Leader of the House will recall that yesterday I asked the Prime Minister about community health councils. I am delighted to find that one of her colleagues has already asked a question about that matter. In contrast to yesterday, however, Members on this side of the House are not stumped for a further question.

I met the health trusts in my constituency, which led me to want to campaign for community health councils. There is bitter opposition to their scrapping. They said that the costs that they were incurring to change over to the euro—without any decision being made in this country—had already outstripped the amount stated to me in an answer during the previous Department of Trade and Industry questions, when four of my colleagues asked questions and received inadequate answers. Should not the Leader of the House make time in this House for a complete answer from the Government, taking into account all the various departmental budgets for the cost of the changeover to the euro? Would it not be appropriate for either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor to give answers to those questions?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not share the exaggerated claims for the costs of handling the euro which, after all, will be in circulation in this country—as it will be in the rest of Europe—whether Britain joins or not. In consequence, all sorts of organisations must prepare to deal with it. The notion that that will in some way impinge on health service provision in the hon. Gentleman's locality when his health authority received an increase of 8.4 per cent. in the announcements made the other day—I am surprised that he did not welcome that—cannot be borne out, even on the back of an argument about CHCs.

The hon. Gentleman said that he would ask his question even though somebody else has already asked it. I realise that I am risking the wrath of about 90 per cent. of the House in saying this, but women tend not to repeat something that has already been said; men never shirk from doing so.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

In view of today's report from Professor Colin Talbot—which says that the Welsh economy is now better than it has been since the 1950s and 1960s, with zero unemployment in certain parts—could we have a debate on the Welsh economy? Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate would be of particular interest to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), Lord Hunt, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Walker, who could all hear just how much better the Welsh economy is doing now that none of them is Secretary of State for Wales?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I have seen reports of the work of Professor Talbot, and the picture is certainly encouraging. I share my hon. Friend's view that there are important lessons, not least for the right hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to whom he referred. Great though the temptation is, I fear that I cannot find time for such a debate, especially at this time of year. However, may I warmly recommend Westminster Hall to my hon. Friend?