HC Deb 26 October 2000 vol 355 cc400-10 1.34 pm
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 30 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Children (Leaving Care) Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER—Debate on Defence and the Armed Forces on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER—Continuation of debate on Defence and the Armed Forces on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 3 NOVEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 6 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day [19th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 1 November there will be a debate on European Document No:9964/00: Social Policy Agenda, in European Standing Committee C. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 1 November 2000:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union Document: 9964/00, Social Policy Agenda; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23-xxvi (1999-2000).]

The House may also wish to know that the new Session will be opened on Wednesday 6 December.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week. Before asking for details, I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who discharged his duties as shadow Leader of the House with grace and charm. He had a constructive working relationship with the Government, which helped to enhance the way in which the House is run.

The right hon. Lady kindly gave us a date for the Queen's Speech, but will she tell us when it was last held in December? She will be aware that its lateness is a reflection of the backlog from this Session. Many of us are concerned about the way in which the House's business is being discharged during the final weeks of this Session.

Does the Leader of the House plan to have a debate on the economy after the autumn statement? Hon. Members want the matter to be fully debated.

In next week's business, the Leader of the House announced a two-day debate on defence. Will she confirm that that still leaves one further Adjournment debate on defence for this Session? She will know that it is customary to have three defence debates on motions for the Adjournment of the House.

Will the right hon. Lady tell us whether the House will have an opportunity to reconsider the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which is currently in another place? That is particularly significant, because more than 125 pages of amendments have been added to it since it arrived there. The Bill that will return to the Commons is likely to be very different from that which left us, and hon. Members have not had an opportunity to scrutinise or comment on the revised Bill. Does the right hon. Lady agree with the Home Office Minister in another place, Lord Bassam, who said that the Bill was cumbersome and bureaucratic? It certainly is since another 125 pages were added to it.

Will the Leader of the House advise us whether there will be statements in the near future on the situation of Israel and Palestine, particularly as it arose during the recess and we have not yet heard from the Foreign Secretary? Will she also tell us whether a statement on the EU summit in Biarritz is anticipated? She will be aware that the previous three informal summits were the subject of statements in the House and were acclaimed as great victories by the Government. We hope that they will shortly have something positive to report on the Biarritz summit.

Finally, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), yesterday told the "Today" programme, in a debate with Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, that the Prime Minister wanted to have a debate on the euro. Yesterday the Prime Minister put great emphasis on the Government's five economic tests, but we know from evidence given by Treasury Ministers to the Select Committee on the Treasury before the summer recess that the Government are not measuring progress on those five tests, and do not intend to produce any written evidence about how close we are to, or how far we are from, meeting those tests. In a spirit of co-operation, I urge the right hon. Lady to allow a debate on the Floor of the House about the single currency. We all want to join the Prime Minister in a debate on the euro.

Mrs. Beckett

I welcome the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) to her new responsibilities and join her in paying tribute to her predecessor, who was indeed an excellent shadow Leader of the House and discharged his duties with elegance and wit.

The hon. Lady asked when the Queen's Speech was last held in December. From memory I am not sure, but it has not happened for many years, probably not since the second world war. [Laughter.] Hon. Members have been attending these sessions for a long time, and I advise them not to laugh too soon. The hon. Lady asked whether the lateness was a reflection of the backlog. It certainly reflects the remarks of Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Tory party in the other place, who recently said that the Lords would wish to take a full amount of time—all the time they wanted—to debate Bills, and added: And if that means that the Queen has to come to Parliament a little bit later than she normally does then I think that's a price worth paying. Clearly that was the intention, and that has been the effect of the decisions taken in the Lords, where the Government do not control the timetable or the agenda.

As for the time being taken, the hon. Lady will recall that we have made two late additions to the Government's programme. One is the Football (Disorder) Bill, on which the Tory party called for legislation—and offered co-operation, although most of us would not think that that had been forthcoming. The other addition covers the Northern Ireland Bills resulting from the peace process. I do not know whether that is the cause of the lateness, but in two of the Sessions equivalent to this one in the previous three Parliaments under the Tory Government, both the Commons and the Lords sat for more days, and, indeed, passed more Bills, than we will have done this Session. We hope that a maximum of 42 Bills will be completed this Session, whereas during the equivalent Session in the 1981-82 Parliament there were 46 Bills, and during the 1985-86 Session there were 49 Bills. There is nothing unprecedented about the size of the Government's programme. It is simply that Members have wished to consider it adequately, and it has taken the Lords rather longer than it usually does to consider that number of Bills.

The hon. Lady asked for a debate on the economy. Obviously, we will consider that through the usual channels after the pre-Budget statement. I think that the Lady is mistaken in thinking that there is a defence day outstanding, but I will check that. She also asked about the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which has indeed been substantially redrafted. That, as she will know, followed representations from many who studied the Bill, not least Tory Members.

I will draw the hon. Lady's remarks about a statement on the middle east to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. She will know that oral questions to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be taken on 7 November, and I expect that there will be a statement following the Biarritz summit. As for a debate on the euro and the five tests, it has occurred to me once or twice lately that if there is one absolutely outstanding reason for Britain to join the euro, it is so that we can get away from this perpetual nit-picking about whether what some Minister has said is different from what was said a week before.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I appeal for brief questions. This will assist every hon. Member present.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

When will there be a debate on the Liaison Committee's report, on which it is said there will be a free vote? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the debate will take place on a substantive motion?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot tell my right hon. Friend now when there will be a debate on the Liaison Committee report. To quote a previous leader of our party, "not next week". There will be a debate, and as my right hon. Friend knows, whenever there is a vote on such matters, it is a free vote—at least on this side. It is possible that Tory Members have been committed by their leader as to how they will vote.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I endorse what has been said about the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). We will miss him, not least his constructive attitude in the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons.

Was the right hon. Lady surprised that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) did not include in her requests an urgent debate on some important issues arising from the statement that we have just had from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Perhaps, with her usual modesty, the hon. Lady felt that as a former Agriculture Minister she might feature too strongly in such a debate.

Will the Leader of the House consider now some issues that cannot wait for the Government to investigate fully in all Departments all the implications of an extremely comprehensive report? I am particularly concerned about matters relating to secrecy, accountability and trust. The right hon. Lady will have noted the comment of Lord Phillips and his team that Ministers sought to sedate the public. Even the summary of the report stated that The Government was preoccupied with preventing an alarmist over-reaction to BSE because it believed that the risk was remote. It is now clear that this campaign of reassurance was a mistake. Does the Leader of the House recognise that the issue does not merely affect the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department of Health, but goes right across government? It is, of course, especially relevant to Parliament's current consideration of freedom of information legislation. We need a statement from the Government on whether they recognise the important implications of the Phillips report for that legislation.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, the predecessor of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton as shadow Leader of the House.

I am sure that the whole House accepts that the report on which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has just made a statement will have substantial implications across government. Of course I will convey to my right hon. Friend the tenor of the remarks made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about an early discussion of various aspects of the report. I simply point out to him that as the report includes 16 volumes and contains 167 recommendations, it is more likely than not that, although people may pick some of the issues that it raises for individual debates, a more substantive debate can be held only at some little time in the future. From conversations that I have held with my right hon. Friend, I am aware that he is adamant—as he was at the Dispatch Box today—that it is essential to look at the report in the round, and that he wants the House and the public to do that.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall makes important points about the implications for freedom of information legislation. The Government believe that the regime that we are establishing is a substantial improvement on the previous one—but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are other opportunities to discuss those matters.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

May I also emphasise the need for an early debate on the BSE crisis? My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement, but he is a very kind man, and it all boils down to the fact that for the best part of 18 years, a Tory Government and their Ministers were more concerned about saving their own skins than about the victims of CJD. The brutality was re-emphasised by the fact that they did not even have the decency to set up a compensation fund for the victims of CJD. That had to be done by the Labour Government. If the Ministers who were guilty had been in local government, they would have been surcharged and kicked out of office.

Mrs. Beckett

There will in due course be a debate on these matters, and my hon. Friend and those who share his view will have the opportunity to make their points. He is right to highlight the fact that—for whatever reason—the previous Government took the decision that there should not be a compensation scheme. I was pleased to hear Members on both sides of the House welcome the fact that the Labour Government have chosen to reverse that decision.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that over the past six months the value of the pound has depreciated by 13.5 per cent. against the United States dollar. They might realise that, in order to join the euro, it would be necessary to devalue our currency by a further 20 per cent. against the US dollar. May we have an early debate, in which we could discuss the Government's policy on the effect of massive devaluations of our currency against the US dollar, both on price stability in this country and on the economic prospects for the whole United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

There are many opportunities to raise such issues. I remind the hon. Gentleman, with great respect, that Conservative Members often express concern about the value of the pound and complain about the damage being caused by its high level, especially to manufacturing industry. If we held such a debate, we might explore the contradictions in the attitudes of Conservative Members. One day they call for devaluation, yet another day they are—apparently—calling for an increase in the exchange rate.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. As I have not had an opportunity to do so before, may I add my congratulations to those that you have already received on your election?

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be aware of the intense pride that many in the House take in the fact that our Government played such an important part in securing international support for the Rome statute on the International Criminal Court in 1998. Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to consider the terms of the consultation document and draft Bill that were published in August? As the draft Bill was published in August and the consultation period expired during the recess, will my right hon. Friend find us an early opportunity to discuss that important document in this place?

The ratification of the statute will make a significant contribution to human rights throughout the world. An informed and intense debate on the legislation is going on outside the House and I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that it is important that the House has an opportunity to contribute to it.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but despite the careful and, if I may say so, elegant way in which he put his request, I suspect that he is inviting me to speculate on the contents of the Queen's Speech. He will know that I do not do that.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Could we not at least have a debate on the implications of the continuing collapse of the euro, which is a time bomb for the rest of Europe? Also, could the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made next week to give guidance to Members of Parliament on whether it is right and proper to place bets on the result before registering their votes on important issues?

Mrs. Beckett

First, as I said in response to an earlier question, there are many such opportunities. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will know that Treasury questions are being tabled today, which provides opportunities to raise issues about the euro. As for the hon. Gentleman's final remark, I am pleased to say that that is not a matter for me.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

In recent correspondence with me, the planning inspectorate admitted that one of its inspectors misdirected himself in ruling on an appeal from my constituents, the Dale family, in relation to building a bungalow. However, the only redress that the inspectorate is offering my constituents is judicial review, the cost of which is beyond the reasonable means of any person or family. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to look at the state of our planning laws? Will she ensure that the House has an opportunity to discuss those laws in an Adjournment debate before the Queen's Speech?

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House will understand and sympathise with the position in which my hon. Friend's constituents find themselves. Indeed, I accept completely my hon. Friend's point about judicial review being the only channel open to them. A review of planning legislation is currently being undertaken, and my hon. Friend may well wish to draw the attention of Ministers in the Department of the Environment. Transport and the Regions to the issue that he has raised. I shall certainly draw his remarks to their attention. As for the request for a debate, however, I fear that all that I can offer my hon. Friend is Environment questions next week.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Will the Leader of the House find time to make an early statement on the reference to the Review Body on Senior Salaries of costs allowances and related matters which was recently announced in a written answer in the other place? Am I right that the Government's decision to make the reference merely implements a decision taken by the previous Government? If the right hon. Lady does not have time to make a statement, will she make it clear how hon. Members can best make representations and submissions? What is the time scale for the report and what is the scope of the current review?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and it is partly for that reason that a formal statement has not been made. The previous Government accepted the SSRB's recommendation that, instead of a one-off apocalyptic review from time to time, there should be a regular review and updating every two or three years. That is the source of the review that is now under way.

I hope that Members will contribute to that review. I believe that we have asked the SSRB for a letter to be sent to Members drawing their attention to the scope of its inquiries and inviting them to submit evidence, should they wish to do so. If there has been a hiccup, I undertake to look into the matter and ensure that that is done.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of a campaign in connection with the attempts by pirate salvagers to raise HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, two warships sunk during the war with great loss of life? The attempts to raise the ships have caused great distress to many people, and many Members of Parliament have been contacted by their local royal naval associations. I have been working with the Basildon branch, where people are very distressed about the matter. The British Government have made it clear that they regard the ships as war graves, and they should be treated as such. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that some international regulations or laws are needed to protect such war graves properly. May we have an urgent debate on the matter, and on the need to make representations to international bodies and other countries about it?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that she is one of those who has campaigned with her local royal naval association. As was evident from the reaction across the House to her remarks, the whole House shares her view that those vessels are important war graves, and not something to be plundered. I undertake to draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early debate, but I can make sure that her request for international action is conveyed to the proper quarters.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House try to arrange for the Home Secretary to come to the Chamber next week to make a statement on the Criminal Cases Review Commission? Is she aware that there is growing concern about the delay in the commission's deliberations on the case of Stephen Downing? She will no doubt have seen much publicity about the case during the summer months. Stephen Downing has now been in prison for a considerable time, and his case has been with the CCRC since its inception.

Mrs. Beckett

I will certainly undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks and the concern that lies behind them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I cannot undertake to suggest that there will be a statement on the matter in the near future, but obviously when my right hon. Friend has had a chance to consider his remarks, he will take them into account.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that next Wednesday in Westminster Hall I have a debate on Saint-Gobain's takeover and threatened closure of Biwater at Clay Cross, which would mean the loss of 700 jobs. Early-day motion 1084 also refers to the matter.

[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.]

My right hon. Friend may not be aware that a mass petition from my constituents was handed in today at No. 10 Downing street in connection with the matter. May we have a wider debate? It has transpired that the Secretary of State has been misled by the Office of Fair Trading, which did not inform him that when it was producing a report, it knew that the closure plans existed. The role of the OFT, the Secretary of State's position in relation to the Fair Trading Act 1973, and whether matters should go to the Competition Commission could be discussed—a debate that is probably relevant to many other cases. If my right hon. Friend cannot manage to provide such a debate, will she at least ensure that the Prime Minister responds to the petition given to him at Downing street today?

Mrs. Beckett

I am very conscious of the campaign that my hon. Friend and other colleagues have conducted on the matter, and I saw the demonstrators at Downing street this morning. My hon. Friend rightly says that he has already secured a debate on the issue in Westminster Hall. He will have the opportunity to raise those points then. I will certainly draw his remarks about the petition to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I cannot undertake to find time for a further debate. In the debate that he has secured, my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to make his points to Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry, and I shall make sure that they are given notice of the concerns that he intends to raise.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

In view of the Prime Minister's admission yesterday that Britain's joining the euro would have constitutional implications, will time be made available for Ministers to come to the House and announce whether they will publish a White Paper on the subject? In view of the Treasury's admission to the Select Committee, it is clear that the Government's five economic tests are no basis whatever for a judgment on whether Britain should join. The Prime Minister desperately is seeking to avoid the critical area in which there is a decision to be taken in principle—the matter of the constitution—despite being forced to admit yesterday that there were implications.

Mrs. Beckett

The House will recall from the words that the Prime Minister used, not just yesterday—he has used them on many occasions—that there is no secret. There is no admission to be made. It is clear that there are constitutional implications in joining the euro; the Government have never resiled from that. Nevertheless, we have always said that we do not believe that—when the economic case is made—those implications outweigh the potential advantages. I see no need for another White Paper to say what everyone already knows and is discussing at length all the time.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

In 1998, the now retired chief scientific officer put into the public domain our policy for dealing with cross-departmental scientific policy issues. In the light of the obvious reference to that matter in the earlier statement on BSE, and because the subject covers a much broader consideration of science and hazard assessment, will my right hon. Friend consider holding a separate debate in the near future on the whole issue of cross-departmental policy development on hazard assessment, and the improvement of public understanding of that? That will allow us to ensure that in future, the public are given confidence that matters such as the BSE tragedy will be dealt with more transparently?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future. However, my hon. Friend raises a valid issue that deserves serious consideration. I understand that one outcome of the Westminster Hall experiment is that many hon. Members find it a suitable venue for such serious and thoughtful debates, and I believe and hope that someone will take the opportunity to raise this matter there.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was wrong to say that pensioners should be rebranded because to be old was not cool? Perhaps at the same time she could also reject the remarks of her hon. Friend, one of the Ealing Members, who said that we should not worry about pensioners because they are all Conservative and racist? Does she agree that there is a good opportunity to have a debate next week on the proposition that we should establish a ministry for the third age, so that all the issues relating to the care of older people, such as their employment prospects, health care and pension plans, are considered in their entirety? If not next week, does she not agree that such a debate should be held in the near future?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the words that the hon. Gentleman attributed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. They do not sound like my right hon. Friend's words. I am well aware that the words he attributed to my hon. Friend the Ealing Member—we all know who he means—are not accurate. My hon. Friend did not say them, as he has repeatedly made clear, and is distressed by the imputation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to lay those words unfairly at my hon. Friend's door.

There are many issues to discuss concerning policy for the elderly, not least—many Labour Members would like to hear this discussed—the implications of the Conservative party's new pension policy to abolish the extra money provided by the Labour Government and to make the sums involved taxable, thereby almost certainly making a large number of pensioners worse off. Although I understand the attractions of such a debate, I fear that it will not happen next week.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

May we have a debate on early-day motion 1069, which was tabled in response to the report of the Competition Commission on supermarket practices?

[That this House notes the findings of the recent Competition Commission inquiry that some major supermarkets 'distorted competition in the supply of groceries' with the effect of helping to kill off competition from smaller shops; welcomes the conclusion that this 'operates against the public interest', but deplores the perverse decision that no action should be taken in this regard; and therefore calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ask the Director General of Fair Trading to advise on steps to be taken to protect the owners of small businesses from unfair competition aimed at destroying their livelihoods.]

There is considerable concern among the farming community in my constituency about some supermarket practices, which the report identified as against the public interest. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome such a debate.

Mrs. Beckett

Again, I understand the pressure for such a debate, which I am sure would be interesting. However, Westminster Hall would also be a suitable venue for it. Sadly, it would not be easy to find time to discuss such issues on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Over the past few weeks, several thousand jobs have been shed in south Wales by Japanese high-tech companies. There is a continuing and deepening crisis. Has the Secretary of State for Wales suggested that he intends to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on that important matter? If not, will the right hon. Lady make time available to debate the deepening crisis?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the concerns that I know there are in Wales following some of the announcements that have been made. I know that that is a matter of anxiety to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. The hon. Gentleman will know of all the pressure on time in the House, but although I cannot promise him a debate, I certainly undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future of the Ford plant in Dagenham, flowing from the decision by the Ford motor company to end car assembly there? Despite a recent decision to improve investment in diesel engines at the plant, there is still widespread concern in the community at large about the area's future. It would be appropriate to debate other issues concerning the Thames gateway at the same time.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the concerns in Dagenham. I recognise that, as my hon. Friend has said, those concerns have not all been eased by the announcement of further investment by Ford, very welcome though that is. Although that it is one of the worthy subjects to be debated, I fear that I cannot find time for a debate in the near future. However, my hon. Friend will know that there are Trade and Industry questions next week.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that the Prime Minister failed again yesterday to say what he thinks are the constitutional issues surrounding the euro, why does not the right hon. Lady arrange for an early debate in Government time on the subject of the single European currency, which the Prime Minister could open, explaining once and for all to the House whether he shares the verdict of the former Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, who supports the euro but says that entry represents the greatest abandonment of sovereignty since the foundation of the European Community?

Mrs. Beckett

I should first remind the hon. Gentleman that, if the Conservative party thinks that the matter should be very urgently debated, it could have debated it during yesterday's Opposition day, during which it chose to debate two other subjects. He says that there are important constitutional issues; that is undoubtedly true. It is also true that the Government are promising the British people a referendum on any decision. That is the time at which all those constitutional issues can and no doubt will be aired.

I say again to the hon. Gentleman, who I am sure is very conscious of the fact, that there are two totally different positions that make sense. One is to say that the constitutional position is so grave that we should never join, and the other is to join if it is in Britain's interests to do so. It makes no sense to say, "Not for five years," which is his party's policy.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker, and congratulations.

May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on the national plan for the national health service, which was released some weeks ago? Generally, the plan is very welcome, but the proposal to abolish community health councils has caused much concern. I have received representations from my CHC in Havering on the issue, and it would seem that there has been little or no consultation of the councils themselves. There is a fear that the powers of CHCs will be dissipated over such a wide area that they will become pretty ineffective. Could we have a debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the concerns felt and the fact that people wish to discuss the proposals on community health councils. I believe that I am right in saying that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), is conducting consultations, and she would no doubt welcome views. I fear that I cannot promise an early debate on the matter, but such is the importance of the national plan that I am confident that there will be occasions on which it will be debated in the House.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move to the main business of the day.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it a convention of the House that those who have attended a statement throughout and have stood each time since it was made may be allowed to pose a question?

Mr. Speaker

No. It is entirely at my discretion who is called.