HC Deb 23 November 2000 vol 357 cc435-51 12.30 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please tell us 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 27 NOVEMBER—Consideration of a timetable motion relating to the Freedom of Information Bill and the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill.

TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill.

WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER—Consideration of a timetable motion relating to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill and the Disqualifications Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill.

THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Disqualifications Bill.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords amendments which may be received.

If no further messages are expected, the House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

FRIDAY 1 DECEMBER—The House will consider any Lords amendments which may be received if further messages are still expected.

The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

The House may also be asked at any time during the week to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

The House will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas recess at the end of business on Thursday 21 December, and return on Monday 8 January.

Mrs. Browning

I assume that we shall hear a further announcement, as next week will obviously be declared national guillotine week.

The Leader of the House must realise the importance of the three major Bills that will be returning from another place next week. The Government, however, seek to curtail proper scrutiny and debate. For instance, on the Freedom of Information Bill—much trumpeted by the Government before they came to office—they have totally capitulated, aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats. What we shall receive in the House next week has less strength than the much-criticised 1994 code of practice introduced by the Conservative Government. It is outrageous that such a Bill should be guillotined on the Floor of the House.

The same applies to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, a third of which was changed in the House of Lords. The House of Commons has not even considered a third of that Bill, yet debate and scrutiny is again to be curtailed. This is not democracy by anyone's standards.

Let me tell the Leader of the House that, having imposed on the House the necessity, following the Queen's Speech, for yet more programming of all Government legislation, the Government will have to do a lot better than this if they are to persuade the official Opposition that their new proposals for timetabling and programming of Bills have anything to do with the word "democracy".

Last week I asked the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate on the NHS national plan. That too is something that the Government have paraded publicly, but not on the Floor of the House. The right hon. Lady responded by suggesting that I should have mentioned the additional funds being made available to my health authority.

If the right hon. Lady allocates time for a debate on health expenditure in the south-west, I for one shall be very pleased to participate. We now have no neurosurgery beds in the south-west, and the state of cardiac care at Derriford hospital is such that people with life-threatening cardiac conditions are dying rather than being treated. Moreover—for the first time in my experience as a Member of Parliament—my office has been telephoned by a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, but who, after a month, has still not been given a date for an operation.

If the right hon. Lady wants to discuss that, we will be pleased to do so, but, again, given the fact that the British Medical Association this week said that the NHS national plan is unworkable because there are simply not enough general practitioners, and given the constituency postbags, which have been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House, about the abolition of community health councils, I hope that she will find time for the House to debate not just yet more recycling of Government expenditure plans, but what is happening to people out there waiting for urgent treatment.

When will the Commons debate the age of consent legislation? Can the right hon. Lady confirm that the Government do not intend to use the Parliament Acts before the remaining stages have been completed either in another place or in the Commons?

On some unfinished business from last week, I told the right hon. Lady how concerned we were about the many consultations that the Government have started but failed to respond to. She replied that she thought I was asking for more legislation; I am not. When the Government start a consultation and people from all corners of the country with a special interest in that consultation take the time to respond, the least that they can expect is for the Government to make those findings known, or to respond formally to the consultation.

So far, we have outstanding the reply on the Mental Health Act 1983 consultation, begun in November 1999—replies were required by 31 March. Consultation finished on directors pay in July 1999, but there has been no reply from the Government. Nor have the Government responded to UK Sport's paper on nandrolone in athletics; to the consultation on mergers, which finished on 6 August 1999; to the employment agencies consultation, which finished in September 1999; to the public sector ombudsman consultation, for which replies were required by 29 September 2000; to the voluntary aided schools consultation, which finished on 15 September 2000; to the modern apprenticeships consultation; or to the report on the universal bank. Interestingly, the closing date for a Cabinet Office consultation on the procedure for Government in conducting written consultations was July 2000 and we still have not had a reply on that. That is just a sample; there is more to come.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady made much of the outrage about the undemocratic approach of the Government in seeking to guillotine two Bills at once. She will recall, I am sure, that guillotining is not unprecedented. In fact, she must recall that because, on 14 December 1993, she voted for the Statutory Sick Pay Bill and the Social Security (Contributions) Bill to be guillotined together, as did the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), all of whom I see in the Chamber.

Also, that in itself was not unprecedented. Two Bills were guillotined on 26 October 1989, on 8 November 1989 and on 11 November 1989. I will not bore the House with any more lists. I simply make the point that the Opposition object to our doing that. It is perfectly reasonable that they should do so, but unfortunately they set the precedent and they cannot really object to our using it.

I refer to the words of one of my distinguished predecessors, now Lord Howe, who said: I shall, therefore, leave it to the Opposition to use dramatic and bloody metaphors about guillotines and slaughter. I shall continue to refer to this elegant motion correctly, as a timetable motion, which is absolutely necessary to dispose of the remaining business in a reasonable way.—[Official Report, 8 November 1989; Vol. 159, c. 1003.] That deals with the matter of guillotines. The hon. Lady said that we will have to do a lot better than this, but they will have to do a lot better than that if they are to convince me that we should not continue with a procedure that they invented.

The hon. Lady also asked for a debate on the health service national plan. I did not suggest that such a debate was not desirable or, indeed, that one might not be held. She said that she would be delighted by such a debate because of all the beds that are not available in her area. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health might well argue that he, too, would be delighted by a debate, which would give him an opportunity to remind her of the 40,000 acute beds that were closed by the Conservative Government. We are still dealing with the consequences of that action—[Interruption.] Yes, I am coming on to the issue of whether there are enough general practitioners to make the national plan workable.

Under the previous Government, we saw cuts in the number of training places for nurses, doctors and all the other health professionals. This Government are determined to provide sufficient general practitioners so that the reasonable standards of service which are set out in the national plan and which patients should be able to expect can be delivered.

If, however, there are difficulties in delivering those standards and there are not enough GPs, it does not lie in the mouths of Conservative Members to start laying the blame with the Government. It is perfectly clear, given the fact that it takes seven years to train a doctor, that the fault lies with them and not with us.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of the age of consent. I am sure that she has not forgotten that it has already been debated in this place on three occasions. I cannot give her the confirmation that she seeks. Indeed, it would be wrong of me to do so. First, it is a matter for Mr. Speaker to certify when or if it is considered that legislation has been rejected in the House of Lords. Secondly, of course, what we cannot have in this country is a repeat of something that we see occasionally elsewhere, which is that simply by not discussing legislation it can be withheld. So, it has to be within our power to make decisions.

The hon. Lady then gave a long list of consultations to which she sought replies. I think that last week she referred to the consultation on licensing. She will know, I hope, that there are 1,200 responses to that consultation, and it is not only natural but highly desirable that the Government take adequate time to consider them. I anticipate a Government reply to that consultation soon.

As for the other issues that the hon. Lady raised, some of them are under discussion and consideration. Many such consultations lead directly into policy, and occasionally into legislation, as opposed only to a formal reply. Nevertheless, I take on board the point that she makes. I should have thought, however, that she would welcome the fact that the Government consult and pay heed to the responses to consultation. If the Government whom she served had done that more often, they might not have ended up in the mess that they did.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Following publication last week of the urban White Paper, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on regeneration moneys, particularly to highlight the fact that much of the regeneration money is targeted on inner cities and that, sometimes, areas such as mine in suburbia, which contain small pockets of deprivation, miss out? We need an important debate to ensure that, like inner-city areas, those areas receive the money that they need to regenerate themselves.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, and I know that it is an issue on which he has campaigned, not least for the area of Netherfield in his Gedling constituency. However, although he makes a very strong point about the need to explore how that money can best be used to regenerate areas that still have considerable difficulties, I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on it in the near future. May I, however, recommend Westminster Hall to him?

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House accept that guillotines, particularly four guillotines in one week, are effectively a confession of failure? Will she say whether any attempt was made to seek the agreement of the Opposition parties to a programme motion for any of those four Bills? Will she say when she expects business to be completed on those nights next week? Will it simply be 10 o'clock, or will she be prepared to go further? Will she also say whether she really believes that it is necessary for guillotines to be so unspecific and therefore so ineffective in giving Opposition Members proper time to test the Government's intention?

What are the Leader of the House's intentions for the next Session? Will she say whether it is her intention, after the Queen's Speech, to implement the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee for an informal mechanism so that the Opposition can be fully involved in discussing the priorities and programming for legislation beyond the Queen's Speech? Will she say why rumours are already circulating in the House of Lords that it will have various Second Readings, and why that has not been the subject of consultation with the Opposition?

Will the mechanism that the Leader of the House intends to establish, and to which she referred in the debate on 7 November, involve Members of both Houses, so that we can ensure that the best route is used for each House, and that next year we do not have this ludicrous legislative logjam?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I do not accept that guillotines are uniquely a confession of failure. They are simply a mechanism that successive Governments have found it necessary to use, especially at the end of a parliamentary session, to ensure timely consideration of matters that remain outstanding.

I am not sure to what the hon. Gentleman was referring when he said that he wished we could be more specific. We have specifically indicated which Bills will be taken on which day. On the question of timing, we shall seek to provide sufficient time, and that matter is still under discussion through the usual channels. I can confirm that the Government have every intention of implementing the informal consultation to which the Modernisation Committee set its hand, after the Queen's Speech. I can assure him that any rumours that he may have heard from the House of Lords are ill-founded. Final decisions have not been made about which legislation will start in which House.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Can we find time in the near future for a debate on the appalling proposal for a landfill site at Buck Park quarry in Denholme in my constituency? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite the planning application being refused, the local Conservative council let down residents extremely badly by failing to defend that rejection at the public inquiry?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I understand the concern felt by his constituents and others in the locality if they feel that the Conservative council is not reflecting the wishes of local people. I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate in the House on the matter, but I am confident that my hon. Friend will find ways of pursuing it.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The Leader of the House announced Commons consideration of Lords amendments on the first three days of next week. Will she tell the House whether, before we begin to consider those Bills, there are likely to be Government statements on The Hague summit on climate change and on the rural White Paper? Will she confirm that there are likely to be 118 Lords amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill, 280 amendments to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, and 700 amendments to the casually drafted Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill? Will she assure the House that we shall have the opportunity to discharge our responsibilities of scrutiny, and that there will be adequate opportunity to consider all those amendments?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman will know that it is not usual to give clear confirmation about what statements there may be. The Government are certainly mindful of the impact of statements on other business, but I cannot at this moment say with any certainty what statements will be made.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that a substantial number of amendments have been tabled to the Bills.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

How many?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot immediately say precisely how many. I shall, however, refer again to the words of my noble and distinguished predecessor, Lord Howe, who said: Of course, there have been a large number of amendments to the Bill. That is not surprising: it is a major piece of legislation.—[Official Report, 8 November 1989; Vol. 159, c. 1004.] I fear that, yet again, the Opposition are complaining about something that they instituted.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Can we have a debate on the high cost of public transport for young people under 18? Many of us welcome the Government's proposal in the Transport Bill to give elderly people a free bus pass for half-price travel. However, many young people in my constituency, through our youth forum and through questionnaires that they have returned to me, have highlighted the fact that such concessions are not available to young people. Is it not time that we debated this important issue?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has been campaigning in her locality on this subject, and I can understand her concern. It is my understanding that local authorities have some discretion in this matter, although I recognise that authorities have discretions that they do not always find room to operate. Although my hon. Friend makes a strong point, I must recommend to her the usual mechanisms, such as Westminster Hall, as I fear that I cannot offer to find time for such a debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

On the Bill dealing with the age of consent, do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is a bit rich of the Leader of the House to try to pass the buck to you by saying that the matter resides with you? Given that more than 70 per cent. of electors in the Prime Minister's own constituency oppose the measure, would it not be a constitutional outrage to seek to use the Parliament Acts on a matter of conscience when a revised upper House has passed a number of amendments to the Bill? I understand that the Government are not even going to pursue those amendments in the upper House, let alone give this House an opportunity to consider them. Would it not be a complete contempt of Parliament if amendments passed in the other place were not to be considered in this House before the Parliament Acts were invoked?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not passing the buck at all. I was simply making it clear that I am not attempting to prejudge a decision that is not for me, and I think that the House would accept that.

As for the claim that it would be outrageous and unprecedented to use the Parliament Acts on a matter of conscience that had been the subject of a free vote, I remind the hon. Gentleman—because Opposition Members' memories are so defective—of the War Crimes Bill

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that recent research from Canada shows that the effect of parenting style and the quality of parenting on children's behaviour and their academic success at school in later years is more major even than that of income? In the light of that research, will she find time for an early debate on expanding measures to help and support parents? Such measures include the sure start initiative that works with disadvantaged parents in my constituency, and the new parent education guidance for schools, which will introduce parent education for every pupil in the school curriculum.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Like him, I am fortunate enough to have one of the sure start pilots in my constituency, and I strongly welcome it. For various reasons, a few years ago I had cause to study issues to do with child abuse. I am therefore very mindful indeed of how inadequate some people's parenting skills are and of how little opportunity there is to produce good parenting education.

I strongly sympathise with the concern identified by my hon. Friend, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House. However, I think that Westminster Hall is perhaps the natural forum for such a debate.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

I return to the matter raised last week by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). Is the right hon. Lady aware that it was the unanimous recommendation of the four Select Committees of this House that make up the quadripartite Committee that there should be a new system of parliamentary scrutiny of arms export licence applications, and that it should begin at the start of the next Session? Does the right hon. Lady agree that if the four Secretaries of State involved fail to make a response to the quadripartite Committee's report by the time the House prorogues at the end of next week, they will be in serious breach of their obligations to Select Committees?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I do not accept that at all. That the four Select Committees should have made such a recommendation is one important matter, but also important is the fact that the recommendation itself is very serious and far reaching. The House would be right to expect the Government to take that recommendation seriously and to give it full and serious consideration.

However, Select Committees recommend many things, and this one is not the easiest to implement. The right hon. Gentleman asks that a response be made to the recommendation that procedures be established to allow prior scrutiny of arms export licence applications before the next Session of Parliament begins. However, the next Session begins in only 10 days' time, and my memory tells me that something like 6,000 export licence applications are involved. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would be unfair if he were to suggest that the Government were not taking the matter seriously. We are, and I am sure that a proper response will be made when the issue has been considered fully.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

Will my right hon. Friend make some time available for a debate on the manufacturing industry? About 800 jobs have been lost on Teesside, and the steel industry is a fundamental requirement for our manufacturing base. I have raised this matter with her a few times before, so will she give it some serious thought?

Mrs. Beckett

I certainly will. I recognise, as does my hon. Friend, that although the number of manufacturing jobs being lost pales into insignificance beside the number lost under the Conservative party, that is no consolation to those whose jobs are at risk; nor is it any consolation to know that there is restructuring in the steel industry across Europe. Although I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on manufacturing industry at this time, I remind my hon. Friend that we have Trade and Industry Question Time on 30 November.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Shortly before the summer recess, the Select Committee on Broadcasting published its report on the future televising of the House of Commons. The House authorities are shortly to go out to tender for a new contract to operate the televising of the House. We have discussed much of the future modernisation of the House, yet most of the British people still cannot see the House of Commons on terrestrial television, and virtually none of the work of Standing Committees is available either on television or on the internet. Before we go out to tender, could we please have time allotted on the Floor of the House—not in Westminster Hall—so that the whole House can discuss the report and decide what it wants to do about this extension of democracy?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I accept. However, he will recognise that were this to be debated in Westminster Hall, any Member could attend, so a debate there would not confine attendance or participation. It is never easy to find time at this end of the parliamentary year and I cannot give him an assurance that I will find time for the debate that he seeks, but I take his point on board and will give it further thought.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that a few weeks ago I called for an investigation into the Short money and the fact that the Tories had received more than £3 million from the taxpayer as a result of the Government's generosity? That is public money. Newspaper reports in the past three or four weeks have suggested that instead of being used for parliamentary Tory party purposes in this building, the money is being transferred to Conservative central office. There was a report in the press last week suggesting that the Tories were so embarrassed that they would send the money back to the taxpayer. Has the money been received? If not, there is a need for an investigation and a statement on how the Tories are fiddling more than £3 million of public money.

Mrs. Beckett

Well, my hon. Friend makes a point about issues that emerged from an examination by one of the Select Committees. I find myself in some difficulty—[Interruption.] Not in as much difficulty as Conservative Members—I should not laugh too soon if I were them. I take the view that the Select Committees of this House are appointed to scrutinise the work of Government. I am reluctant to become drawn into anything that impinges on the work of the Opposition. Equally, I understand my hon. Friend's concern if it is suggested that in some way the money that is made available from the taxpayer is being misused.

I feel quite confident in saying that no money has been returned; and considering that the Conservative party has never sent back the money that it had from Asil Nadir, I should not expect it if I were my hon. Friend.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Can the right hon. Lady find time for a debate on the NHS plan to explore why the Government have rejected the royal commission's proposals that personal care should be free? As a result, dementia sufferers and many other people with chronic illnesses will continue to be pursued by debt collectors and forced to sell their homes—something that the Prime Minister assured us would never happen under a Labour Government.

Mrs. Beckett

What the Prime Minister assured the hon. Gentleman and his constituents was that a Labour Government would find ways of putting in place the support systems needed to assist people in those difficult circumstances. I did not say that there would not be a debate on the NHS plan, merely that I am not in a position to find time for one at present.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will know of the increased protection for wetlands and sites of special scientific interest announced recently by our right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. That issue is extremely relevant to my constituency, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has just saved Rainham marsh from development for future generations. May we have a debate on environmental protection in the near future?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the result to which my hon. Friend refers; it is yet another example of the good work carried out by the RSPB and others. I am sure that his constituents will welcome both it and the role that he played in the campaign. I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on the matter, but my hon. Friend may be able to find time to contribute to tomorrow's debate on the Environment Agency.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

About three weeks ago, the right hon. Lady informed me that the number of amendments moved by the Government in the House of Lords during this Session was more than 3,800.

Since then it appears that the number will probably rise to 5,000. That is a remarkable statement of incompetence in the drafting of Government legislation. Before the right hon. Lady seeks refuge in a quotation from 17 years ago, will she confirm that she is actually telling the House that, no matter how incompetently she and her predecessors may have behaved, there is absolutely no hope of improvement? Will she make a statement that in the next Session the Government might do a little better?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the figure that the hon. Gentleman quotes, nor indeed am I going back 17 years—but a mere 11. I have not checked the record, but, I suspect that if I were to do so, I should find that the hon. Gentleman, too, voted for all the guillotines that he and others now condemn.

As for there being no hope of improvement, I certainly accept that, in the 1970s, it was unusual for there to be large numbers of Government amendments, although, obviously, all Governments amend legislation in response to representations made to them during the passage of Bills—that is why the House scrutinises legislation. We did get into a way of working that meant large numbers of Government amendments. It happened under Lady Thatcher and has always been a cause of some concern to me. As to whether there is hope for improvement, I am not a believer in empty words; I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, "Wait and see."

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is it not utterly disgraceful that, at this very moment, machinery is being crated up at Biwater at Clay Cross to be sent out to India so that the whole plant can be transferred there? Not only is that causing the loss of 700 jobs at Clay Cross, but in time it will affect Stanton near Ilkeston and the foundry at Staveley in my constituency. Surely, the House of Commons should not stand idly by while that is taking place, but should hold a debate on early-day motion 1084.

[That this House finds it to be totally unacceptable that the French-based multi-national company Saint-Gobain should have acquired the shares of Biwater (Clay Cross) Ltd for the immediate purpose of closing the plant; is deeply concerned that this will lead to the loss of 700 jobs and the devastation of the local community; is aware that Saint-Gobain's objectives in moving to close the plant are (a) to destroy the pipe manufacturing capacity of a key rival, especially in international markets, (b) to capture Biwater's extensive and growing order book, essentially for transfer to overseas companies and (c) to transfer and asset strip the plant's machinery; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to prevent the closure by making full and effective use of powers available to him under the Fair Trading Act 1973, which includes the possibility of setting up an immediate inquiry into the take-over by the Competition Commission and halting all moves to close the plant while the Commission undertakes an in-depth investigation which it is believed will lead to the saving of the plant and the condemnation of Saint-Gobain's actions.]

In addition, we should discuss what is happening in relation to India.

Mrs. Beckett

I and the whole House recognise the long and vigorous campaign that my hon. Friend has waged on behalf of his constituents. In that sense, I do not think that the House can be accused of standing idly by—my hon. Friend has made extensive use of the opportunities available to Back Benchers to make his concerns known on behalf of his constituents.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have not stood idly by either. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has taken his representations very seriously and has explored the matter thoroughly. My hon. Friend will also be aware, however, that the Director General of Fair Trading advised my right hon. Friend that he—the director general—was not in a position to refer the merger. Following my hon. Friend's representations, the matter was re-examined, but the advice was that even the fresh information that had been made available did not justify reopening the case or changing the previous advice. My hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend has agreed to abide by the director general's advice—there are many precedents for that.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Has the irony struck the Leader of the House that the as yet only partially reformed ancien regime in the other House is allowed infinite time to generate 1,000 amendments on three Bills, while this lower, elected Chamber is subjected to the privations of Robespierre when we come to discuss those same 1,000 amendments?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure that irony is the word. The right hon. Gentleman's question perhaps casts light on the different management of affairs in the House of Lords, but it has always been the practice in this country that the Government expect to get their legislation—as we do—and it has increasingly been the practice that we seek to manage our business in this Chamber more effectively. Whether those in another Chamber seek to do so is a matter for them.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Do the Government accept that if they are to deliver the urban regeneration referred to in the White Paper, they will have to address—probably by legislation—the balance of power that exists between developers and the communities for whom they are developing? I raise that issue because of the intense anger and frustration in my constituency at the latest breakdown between the lead developer, Threadneedle, and the third party involved. That follows years of delays in rebuilding the shopping centre that needs to be rebuilt for my constituents, yet Threadneedle can exclude the borough council that represents them from what is going on with the third parties involved. Is there not a real need for the community to have a greater say in what is happening to its shopping centre in King's Lynn? No doubt that is happening elsewhere. Will the Government consider whether we need to change the law to ensure responsible behaviour and more openness from developers?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the balance of power. He will know that the purpose of the urban White Paper is to try to place people at the centre of such decisions. Although I understand the importance of the case that he is making, I shall, for once, take the advice of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and recommend that he seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I again draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 850, which calls on the Government to reduce VAT on incontinence products, and to the fact that 128 right hon. and hon. Members support it.

[That this House welcomes the proposal announced in the Budget to lower VAT on women's sanitary products to 5 per cent. from 1st January 2001; agrees that women's sanitary products are not luxury consumer products; notes that continence products also classify as sanitary products and are not luxury consumer products; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to ensure that their definition of sanitary products will allow for the lowering of VAT to 5 per cent. on continence products, which are required, according to Government estimates in Good Practice in Continence Services, by up to 20 per cent. of the female population aged under 65 years, 40 per cent. of women aged over 65 years and between 7 to 10 per cent. of men aged over 65 years.]

The Leader of the House will be aware that a Standing Committee is meeting today to approve a reduction in the VAT on women's sanitary products to 5 per cent., but the order that will implement that measure does not provide for a similar reduction in VAT on incontinence pads. Although there is provision for the users of incontinence pads to reclaim the 17.5 per cent. VAT, they find that difficult and end up paying 17.5 per cent. more than they should. Will the right hon. Lady find time to debate that matter further so that VAT on incontinence pads will either be zero-rated or reduced to 5 per cent.—the rate imposed on women's sanitary products?

Mrs. Beckett

I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that incontinence products purchased through the NHS, or by people living in their own homes, are zero-rated. I take his point entirely: it is difficult for people to reclaim that VAT, which is why he requests a zero rate. Nevertheless, I hope he will be aware that it is not now open to the Government to zero-rate a product that is already subject to a positive VAT rate. Of course it is sometimes possible to alter the rate, but the mechanism to which he refers and the difficulty that people have in reclaiming such payments would still exist. I will certainly draw his remarks about the different rates of VAT to my right hon. Friend's attention, but I fear that, as a result of an agreement made by the previous Government, it is not open to this Government to zero-rate those products.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Can we have a debate on the disastrous operations of Railtrack? If my right hon. Friend is able to oblige, will she write to the Leader of the Opposition and ask him to field in the debate the Conservative party's chief spokesman on transport and the regions, who happens to have been a director of Railtrack during the years when it failed to invest in Britain's rail network, and who is in many ways culpable for the disaster?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He is right to say that it would be right and proper for the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) to take part in such a debate. Although I understand the indignation of my hon. Friend and of all our constituents about the current operation of Railtrack, I fear that I cannot undertake to find special time for a debate. Westminster Hall is available, but he may find that other opportunities will arise, and I am sure that he will take them.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

May we have an early statement or debate on this Government's decision to close more than 500 acute hospital beds over the past year and to preside over the closure of more than 15,000 nursing home places? As we did not have enough beds last winter, why have the Government taken the callous decision to close more? I do not want a history lesson; I want to know about this Government and why they are making the problem worse.

Mrs. Beckett

I might have tried to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's question more seriously, but he has told me that he does not want a history lesson, so all I can tell him is that because, in 1997, we were still hearing about the record of the previous Labour Government in 1974, he cannot expect to be let off the hook for another 20 years at least.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

May I press the Leader of the House on when we will have a statement on the publication of the rural White Paper? Last week, when the Deputy Prime Minister was sitting next to her, she assured us that he had always intended the urban and rural White Papers to be published separately. However, on 19 April he gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. The Chairman asked: You will be looking to publish the two at the same time? The Deputy Prime Minister replied: Yes, I think it would be unfortunate and misinterpreted if you produced one and not the other. People would say you were giving preference to one rather than the other. Many Members representing both urban and rural constituencies are concerned that the Government appear to be informed only by an urban agenda.

Mrs. Beckett

Perhaps there has been a slight misunderstanding between the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend. Whatever the exact words that my right hon. Friend used, he always envisaged that the two White Papers would be published at about the same time—I do not think he ever seriously envisaged that they would be published on the same day, because then one would clearly not be able to examine both.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, my right hon. Friend was here last week, when he told me that it was never the intention to publish the White Papers on the same day. However, it is his intention to publish the rural White Paper soon.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Given the unprecedented regularity with which the Government introduce guillotines; given the fact that the Prime Minister's initiative on a European army was never brought before the House; and given the fact that Ministers regularly brief the press before they brief the House, would it not save the taxpayer an awful lot of money if the right hon. Lady were to go into town to buy a sign to hang on the door that simply said "Closed"?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman has a list of givens, but, unfortunately, none of them are given. It is nonsense to suggest that the proposals that were discussed yesterday were not brought before the House. They have been brought before the House repeatedly, not least originally by Lady Thatcher and then by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, it is also nonsense to talk about the unprecedented use of guillotines by this Government. I know that it is uncomfortable for Conservative Members—

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

It is not.

Mrs. Beckett

I am delighted to hear that. The hon. Lady will therefore welcome the news that under the Government whom she supported in the 1987 Parliament, we had the maximum number of guillotines ever seen. Twenty-seven Bills were guillotined; we have not reached that number yet.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Lady will know that a commitment has been made of United Kingdom troops to the European rapid reaction force without the Government having obtained or, indeed, sought the consent of the House. Surely, in a democracy, the consent of Parliament should be secured for such a major strategic decision. Should not the right hon. Lady reorganise the business for next week, so that the House can be given the opportunity on a substantive motion to consider the commitment of British troops to the European rapid reaction force and so that we can give our consent or withhold it?

Mrs. Beckett

I have seldom heard such rubbish. I am becoming singularly tired of right hon. Members, in particular, in the Conservative party denouncing as a constitutional outrage this Government's exercising of the powers that every previous Government have had.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The right hon. Lady will recall that it is more than a year since the European Commission, no less, produced a report expressing its concerns that much of French meat production was contaminated by human sewage. Bearing in mind that the case for a ban on French meat was compelling then and that it is even more compelling now, would it not be a good idea to have a debate so that we could examine why Ministers are much harsher on British farmers than they have been on French farmers? It would also enable us to explore why the Government think that they are discharging their duties by fawning on our so-called partners in Europe at the expense of public safety at home.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is ill-founded. The Government have stringent provisions to ensure the safety of British beef. We are not responsible for the administration of the French beef regime, although we continue to press the French Government to give us full information. The Food Standards Agency has demanded to know details of procedures adopted in France. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman what I would to any other hon. Member who raised such a matter: in Britain, we have the most stringent and sound protection of health, and if people want to eat beef, they should eat British beef.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Just under a year ago, early-day motion 175 was tabled. It calls for a national framework for services for disabled people and has now been signed by 195 Members.

[That this House is concerned by the inconsistencies in the provision of equipment to disabled people; notes the positive work done by the disability charity consortium emPOWER in highlighting the importance and needs of users; also notes the Equipped for Equality report which revealed that 76 per cent. of disabled users surveyed experienced problems with equipment, that one in two had problems with the assessment process, and yet 39 per cent. could not manage without their equipment; welcomes the Government's commitment to introduce one new national service framework each year; and calls upon the Government to develop a national service framework for disablement services to set national standards and define service models for equipment for disabled people.]

I welcome the steps that have been taken to help folk with disabilities, but could we have an early debate so that the Government might set forth their plan for such a national service?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's long concern about and interest in the matter. He will know that a rolling programme along those lines was launched in April 1998. The Government continue to work on those issues. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue in the near future, but recommend to him use of debates in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Leader of the House has announced the suffocation of debate in the House of Commons next week through four guillotines in order to protect the Government's programme from the shambles into which it has fallen. I am not asking her to tell us exactly how many amendments will be tabled next week, but could she estimate the order of magnitude—to the nearest 500, let us say? Could she then estimate the amount of time that the suffocating guillotines will allow the House of Commons to consider those amendments? Could she divide one by the other and give us some idea of how much time the Government think the House of Commons should have properly to consider each amendment from another place?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the suffocation of debate. He will know that none of this is unprecedented. I have a list here of the many different guillotines for which the right hon. Gentleman voted.

Indeed, during consideration of the Education (Schools) Act 1992, he, as Education Minister, moved the guillotine motion. I know that he perfectly properly takes the view that, as he said earlier, that was then and this is now, and that he feels that he has every ground, in opposition, to apply different standards, but I am afraid that the Government will apply the same standards.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that there was no opportunity to highlight the matter during this morning's Education and Employment questions, will the right hon. Lady please find time for an early debate in Government time on the quality of teacher training? Does she agree that that would provide an admirable opportunity for the House to pronounce its verdict on the views of Kimberley, Meek and Miller, three of this country's prominent teacher training academics who specialise in the teaching of reading? They are recently on the record as saying: Within the psycho-semiotic framework, the shared reading lesson is viewed as an ideological construct where events are played out and children must therefore learn to position themselves in three interlocking contexts. Is it not precisely such egalitarian drivel that has so much damaged the educational opportunities of a generation of children?

Mrs. Beckett

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having not only learned but remembered that complicated description. As he knows, the Government take great interest in improvements in teacher training. We are certainly endeavouring to facilitate that. We are also very much encouraged by the greater number of people who are undertaking teacher training, and will continue to try to raise standards in that arena of education, as we are already in our schools.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the devastation caused by the continuing flooding in Vale of York. When the Deputy Prime Minister returns from Holland and his tour of the Dutch dykes, will the right hon. Lady allow time for a full debate, in Government time, on the recommendations of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on planning policy guidance 25? That says that local authorities do not have to follow the Environment Agency's recommendations, and we must ensure that those recommendations are binding.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to offer the hon. Lady time for the special debate that she seeks, although I entirely accept her important point. Apart from the number of places where people are distressed about having been flooded, a noticeable feature of much of the reporting on the floods was the number of places where floodworks have been held up or rejected because of objections of local residents. There is a debate on the Environment Agency tomorrow, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will find an opportunity to raise the issues then or on another occasion.