HC Deb 05 April 2001 vol 366 cc501-20 12.30 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please give 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 9 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 10 APRIL—Remaining stages of the International Development Bill.

Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment debate.

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

The provisional business for the week after the Easter recess is as follows:

MONDAY 23 APRIL—Progress on consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 24 APRIL—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Motion on the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001.

WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 26 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 27 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 30 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords].

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 25 April, there will be a debate relating to community immigration policy in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 25 April, there will be a debate relating to the European Aviation Safety Agency in European Standing Committee A.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 2 May, there will be a debate relating to a common asylum procedure and uniform status for persons granted asylum in European Standing Committee B.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Relevant documents:

Wednesday 25 April 2001:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 14329/00, European Aviation Safety Agency. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 28-xi and HC 28-v (2000–01).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document:11529/00, Community immigration policy. Relevant European Scrutiny Reports: HC 28-iii (2000–01).]

Relevant documents:

Wednesday 2 May 2001:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: 13119/00, Towards a common asylum procedure and a uniform status for persons granted asylum. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 28-viii (2000–01).]

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks after the Easter recess will he as follows:

THURSDAY 26 APRIL—Debate on tackling the illegal trade in African "conflict diamonds".

THURSDAY 3 MAY—Debate on the report from the Home Affairs Committee on border controls.

I anticipate announcing further debates after the Easter recess.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for that information.

Will the right hon. Lady ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to come to the House to make a statement about the school achievement awards? Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have been notified this week by the Minister for School Standards that something has gone seriously wrong in the Government's school achievement awards. The Department states: The error arose from a miscalculation of Key Stage 2 test average point scores". As a result, schools that have already been notified that they have won a school achievement award have not actually won it, and must now be written to, to be told that a mistake has been made. Schools that were omitted from the original list are now also to be written to.

We understand that, in order to ensure that there are no tears, the schools will be given the money anyway, whether or not they achieved an award. It is a bit like the Caucus race in "Alice in Wonderland", as everyone gets a prize, except that the schools that genuinely did not achieve an award at all will receive no money, while others that did not achieve an award, but in different circumstances, will get the money. The Secretary of State should make a statement to the House, as it seems that one or two Ministers in the Department for Education and Employment should do a little bit of detention for getting it all so wrong.

I want also to make a helpful suggestion to the right hon. Lady, who will know that, in last week's business questions, she said in response to a question about the deferment of county council elections: Certainly, it has been the Government's view for some time that to suspend the county council elections would give a strong and negative signal."—[Official Report, 29 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 1109.] That remark was made just four days before the Prime Minister changed his mind. Of course, we all saw her holding to that line on television at the weekend and, indeed, on Monday morning. It occurred to me that, when most business meetings reconvene, the agenda usually contains an item called "matters arising". It also occurred to me that I might support such a suggestion from the Modernisation Committee. If, at the end of the business statement, we were able to deal with clear, although not deliberate, inaccuracies arising from the previous week's questions, it might help us to conduct our business in a more business-like manner. I hope that the right hon. Lady will consider that positive suggestion.

Now that we know that Parliament will not be dissolved for a while, the Government should find Government time for a debate on foot and mouth. I know that the Minister of Agriculture has answered questions today, but it was disappointing that he did not make a statement this week. I hope that the right hon. Lady will ensure that, as soon we return from the Easter recess, the Government allow a day's debate on foot and mouth. The Opposition have done that on two occasions.

Will the right hon. Lady explain the procedure on submitting written questions to the Table Office in the possible run-up to a general election? I gave the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) notice that I would use him as an example, but I do not believe that he is the only one. Already, £4,000 of taxpayers' money has been spent on no fewer than 31 questions about other people's constituencies. There are rules about that matter, and I hope that the right hon. Lady will be sufficiently anxious to find time for the House to consider the way in which some hon. Members are suddenly, for some unexpected reason, interesting themselves in other people's business.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady asked first about the school achievement awards. I am sure that she is disappointed that the money is staying with the schools, thus depriving the Opposition of a chance to criticise. She asked about the error and whether Ministers would apologise. I have not asked, but I doubt whether Ministers personally made those calculations. However, it appears that a little more progress on the numeracy hour is needed somewhere in the Department for Education and Employment.

I finally worked out the hon. Lady's question about deferring the local elections. I know that respected national newspapers have a corrections column, but I do not plan a similar feature for this Session. As she knows, I have repeatedly reminded Opposition Members, often to their displeasure, of the strong representations that we have received from the tourism industry, and stressed that they had to be taken into account along with representations from the agriculture sector. In that sense, we said nothing different from what was said previously.

The hon. Lady requested a debate on foot and mouth and expressed regret that there was no statement this week. We have had Agriculture questions today, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture arranged a presentation to keep hon. Members informed. They are therefore up to date.

The hon. Lady asked about the submission of written questions. I am delighted that she asked me that because it gives me an opportunity to use some information that I have been carrying around for weeks. I am sure that she is keen for her constituents to know that, in her constituency, more than 21,000 pensioners received the winter fuel allowance, more than 8,000 pensioners got the free television licence and more than 2,500 families receive the working families tax credit. I am sure that she is eager for them to know the extent to which they benefit from a Labour Government. I sympathise with Opposition Members about the problems that that causes for them. Day after day, they claim that nothing has changed for the better and that policies are a complete failure, whereas unfortunate figures reveal the opposite.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for statements to be made to the House from every appropriate Department as soon as possible—preferably before the election—setting out in detail what the Labour Government have done for every official Opposition Member and for every Member representing other minority parties on the Opposition Benches? I feel from the comments of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) that they do not want us to know.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is unfortunate for Opposition Members that the facts contradict so many of their arguments. It is especially unfortunate because, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the policies being proposed by the Opposition mean that if they were elected to government, many of the gains would speedily be removed from their constituents. Their position is understandable. I sympathise with my hon. Friend's request. I am not sure whether I can readily arrange for all the information to be made available, but I suppose that it is possible that it may get into the public domain somehow or other.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that, at the end of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food questions a few minutes ago, many Members on both sides of the House had not had their questions answered? May I ask the right hon. Lady to consider carefully what can be done next week to bring more information before the House? On a previous occasion, the Minister of Agriculture took questions after the normal time, which was extremely useful to the House. It was a great deal more useful than debates, because we were able to extract much information from him.

May I suggest to the Leader of the House that, as we have been reminded on a number of occasions now that it is the Prime Minister who has taken charge of the programme of eradicating foot and mouth, the right hon. Gentleman should make a statement and answer questions next week before the Easter recess? As the Minister of Agriculture said a few minutes ago, the next seven days are critical. It is clearly unsatisfactory for us to adjourn for the Easter recess, for quite a substantial time, at the moment when the Minister says that the situation is critical.

We have heard nothing for several days from a number of interdepartmental groups, including the rural taskforce, which apparently is not to meet again, and the Cabinet Committee on rural affairs. Confused messages are being given to the country from different Departments and an evident lack of resources is being made available to deal with the problem. For example, we are apparently recruiting vets from overseas while retired vets over 65 years of age are being turned away, even though they have volunteered their services. Is the Prime Minister prepared to face the questions that we wish to put to him on behalf of our constituents?

Mrs. Beckett

It is my understanding that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture gave a presentation yesterday and it is now 12.42 pm, so the argument that a further statement and update is needed today is not especially well founded, particularly as we have had Agriculture questions. I understand that many Members wished to ask questions and not everyone was able to get in. I sympathise with those who were not. However, that is understandable in the circumstances that now obtain. I do not think that my right hon. Friend can be accused in any way of neglecting his duty to the House or failing to make available to the House as much information as he possibly can.

The notion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should make all the statements on foot and mouth is not well founded. My right hon. Friend is in charge of the entire Government, and remains so. [Interruption.] Indeed, Opposition Members try to blame him for everything; that is perfectly true. The Government are doing as much as anyone could reasonably expect to keep the House informed. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I announced last week when the House would adjourn for the recess, without any comment.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

My right hon. Friend will be aware from the answer that she gave me earlier this week, which unfortunately I was unable to follow up because of traffic on the M4, that, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the hon. Lady put her question.

Fiona Mactaggart

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the Adjournment debate starts about 49 minutes later than it did during the first Session of this Parliament. Does that not reflect on the failure of the process of modernisation? Is it not time for us to stop bringing the House into disrepute by spending more time discussing the processes of how we consider legislation than we spend discussing the content of legislation? Will my right hon. Friend consider the matter in terms of when she timetables programming motions in the Session after the recess?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend was kind enough to send me a note of apology for her absence. That was entirely unnecessary: I knew that some problem must have arisen, because she is most assiduous in her attendance in the Chamber. I recall the figures that her question elicited, and it is certainly the case that a fairly sustained attempt has been made to detain the House later in the evenings than is necessary, by discussion not of the substance of Government business but of the processes. I accept that there is much room for criticism of those proceedings. However, my hon. Friend will find that a short but succinct and relevant new report by the Modernisation Committee has recently been published.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Will the right hon. Lady find time to allow the House to debate and come to decisions on parliamentary pay, pensions and allowances in the first week after the Easter recess? She will know that a tradition has grown up that those matters are reviewed in substance in the lifetime of each Parliament. That has not happened in this Parliament, and many of us think that it should have.

Mrs. Beckett

May I say to the hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "Right hon. Gentleman."] I beg his pardon. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am not sure whether that practice has been around long enough to be called a tradition? I am aware that there is often a recognition that the conduct of business suggests that a review should be carried out during the Parliament. Such a review has recently been carried out, but it was quite recent and I cannot undertake to stage such a debate in the first week back. Obviously, it remains a matter for discussion.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is there a possibility of a debate on foreign affairs, now that we have a little more time? I ask this for two reasons. The first is the developing situation in the Balkans, where British forces are engaged and where there are clearly dangers that could lead to a wider conflict. The second is the developing crisis between the United States and China, which President Bush might use to justify the nuclear missile defence system, in which we would be involved through the use of Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. It would be sensible if the House could have a statement by the Foreign Secretary and an opportunity to contribute our own views.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the important points that my right hon. Friend makes, but I cannot undertake to find time in the very near future for a foreign affairs debate. I recognise the genuine concerns that he raises, but a general foreign affairs debate that ranges across the world is more difficult to find time for on the Floor of the House. However, more specific debates on foreign affairs issues are more readily available in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The right hon. Lady might have noticed, in answers to questions put down by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and me, that the previous Conservative Government put £4.8 billion into mining regions, in a mixture of money including redundancy payments and economic regeneration. The right hon. Lady's own Government have poured just short of half a billion pounds into economic regeneration in coal-mining areas. Will she consider an urgent debate into the circumstances of the west country, which would give the House an opportunity to consider matters such as the plea to the Prime Minister by the people of a region pushed to the brink by foot and mouth, issued recently by a local newspaper? The debate would make the point that if a Conservative Government were capable of pouring in billions of pounds for economic regeneration, even though there were no votes in it, it is absolutely right that this Government should consider economic aid to those affected regions that is vastly greater than anything that they have previously contemplated.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman makes on behalf of his constituents, and his concern for the difficulties that they face. He will know that the Government have made it plain that they take those considerations extremely seriously. Obviously, we shall have to look, over time, at the impact of the crisis that is currently under way. That impact will be varied, and the Government are doing everything that they can to encourage people to recognise that the countryside is not closed, and to ensure that the impact on industries such as tourism is minimised. He and other right hon. and hon. Members will be very conscious that, no matter how generous the sort of loan schemes that people urge on the Government are, it cannot make up for the severe fall-off in business which it is most important to revive.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend referred a few moments ago to the most recent report of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, which was published at the end of last week. It is a brief but important report. Will she try to ensure that the House has the opportunity to discuss that report before the end of this Parliament so that, in the next Parliament, we can take advantage of its recommendations to ensure that the House works in a better way and scrutinises legislation as the report proposes?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to him for the serious, thorough and non-partisan way in which he, like most members of the Modernisation Committee, have always conducted themselves in these discussions. He asks me to arrange a discussion on the report. I cannot necessarily undertake to do that at the present time, but I appreciate the steps that he has taken to draw it to the attention of the House because I think that it will inform our further discussions and debates.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Deputy Prime Minister said that he would knock heads together to get an improvement in the running of our railway system. Judging from the announcement of Virgin Trains that it is to raise fares on the west coast main line service by 10 per cent. following last month's cut in fares by 50 per cent., we seem to be getting into a surreal situation. Will the right hon. Lady ask the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House so that we might probe him on what has gone wrong between Railtrack and Virgin Trains, as it is the innocent passengers using the west coast main line service who have to bear this outrageous increase in rail fares?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend to come specially to the House to deal with this issue, although I completely understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. It is hard to see how that action will help to attract passengers back to the railway. However, he may have overlooked the fact that questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will take place on Tuesday 24 April.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sun on)

My right hon. Friend has already referred to the attention that the Government are giving the tourism industry in these difficult times. Nowhere is that more welcome than in the south-west. Will she consider having an early debate on tourism, so that we can draw attention to the can-do list of things which, in my constituency, where one in 10 people is employed in that industry, is far longer than the cannot-do list? Will she also urge right hon. and hon. Members to sign early-day motion 527?

[That this House calls on all honourable and Right honourable Members to visit Cornwall and Devon this Easter and to encourage their constituents to do the same, to demonstrate that the tourist industry is open for business.] It is tabled in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) and for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and myself, and urges people to visit the south-west during our rather generous Easter recess.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is entirely right about the need to encourage people to recognise how much of an opportunity to sample the delights of tourism in these islands is presently available. She is also right to ask for attention to be drawn to the opportunities that exist. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on tourism on the Floor of the House in the near future. However, she may well find that a debate in Westminster Hall is more easily obtained. Furthermore, she may recall that the BBC regional unit has made it plain that it makes extensive use of those debates. That could bring the matter to the attention of rather more people than a debate on the Floor of the House might do, as the chances of a parliamentary lobby covering such a debate are not terribly high.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make a statement in the House, or at least to take part in a debate on answers to written questions? Last week, I asked the right hon. Gentleman two straightforward questions: what sum of money had been set aside by his Department to cover his legal expenses for bringing proceedings against Associated Newspapers and Tom Bower for the publication of extracts of his book; and when did he issue his High Court proceedings for libel? The Secretary of State responded in the Official Report, at column 106W, by referring me to the reply that he gave the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on 2 April at column 7W. I looked at that column, and the answer had absolutely nothing to do with the questions that I had asked. I stress to the right hon. Lady that I have no professional interest in this case but, as a parliamentarian, I have an interest in the proper accountability of Ministers for the spending of public money.

Mrs. Beckett

I wondered whether the hon. and learned Gentleman was looking for trade, and I am relieved by his assurance that he was not—although I am sure that he would perform excellently in that capacity. He is right to say that all hon. Members take an interest in accountability and the use of public money. However, as no public money has yet been expended, I do not think that his point is very strong.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

My right hon. Friend will know that about 20 million people will be hanging on tonight's news about who shot Phil Mitchell, but probably not many fewer people would be willing to do the same job on the Child Support Agency. I have never supported men who do not offer proper support to the children whom they produce, but it is important that the House have a debate on the extent to which we continue to fail miserably the women who get no support from their former partners. Moreover, good fathers are pursued and persecuted because of cock-ups in the agency. Could the House have a statement or debate on the subject of why there is such an immovable backlog of cases to be examined by the independent case examiner, and about why the CSA appears to be unable to deal with the scale of damage inflicted by cock-ups in its internal operations?

Mrs. Beckett

I think that all hon. Members have constituents who have had difficulties in their dealings with the CSA. My hon. Friend is entirely right to identify the great and indiscriminate distress and difficulty that is caused, often to both partners. I admit that I think that there has been some improvement in the agency's operation, and I am sure that its staff face a difficult task in dealing with such immensely complex issues.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, but my hon. Friend might look to take advantage of the increased opportunities offered by Westminster Hall.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

We heard in Agriculture questions that the next seven days will be crucial when it comes to knowing whether there are any grounds for the guarded optimism that has been expressed about foot and mouth disease. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) noted, it is extraordinary that the House should rise next Tuesday without hearing a statement from the Prime Minister about the current situation. Do the Government intend to table Government amendments to the Finance Bill to put into action some of the pledges that have been made to support our rural industries? Finally, will there be an opportunity to have another look at the rural White Paper? Some of its measures would have been extremely helpful to rural industries, especially in the south-west, had they been implemented in this Session.

Mrs. Beckett

There is no case for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to come to the House, although it is certainly true that the House must continue to be informed, and I am confident that that will happen.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have announced the date of the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, and when progress will be made in Committee on the Floor of the House. It may be that the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise these matters then. I do not think that I should be required to suggest time for special debates when debating opportunities already exist.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The Opposition have already raised the matter of Virgin Trains raising fares by considerably more than inflation, and Railtrack is getting £1.5 billion in extra public money. In view of those facts, will my right hon. Friend say whether there is any possibility of an early debate on the total failure of the Tory privatisation of the rail industry? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that a possible remedy could be applied in the next Parliament—a remedy that is dear to the hearts of many Labour Members? She will know what I mean.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has long and assiduously argued his corner on this matter, as on other issues. He is right to identify the total failure of the policy pursued by the previous Conservative Government, the consequences of which are now known and resented throughout the country. However, for the very reason that the failure is widely known and understood, as well as widely resented, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on issues that are already so well aired.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

As you, Mr. Speaker, can readily confirm, a vast number of right hon. and hon. Members did not get called during this morning's very brief session with the Minister of Agriculture. Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that we will have a statement next week? Will she also convey the news to the Prime Minister that there is a strong feeling throughout the House that, as he has taken personal command of the operation, we expect him to be answerable to the House? The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said sotto voce a few moments ago that the Prime Minister was out driving a JCB. That may or may not be the case, but we expect him to appear at the Dispatch Box to answer our questions and to tell us how he is co-ordinating the campaign.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that for once I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is no strong demand across the House for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to appear at the Dispatch Box; there is merely an attempt at mischief-making by Conservative Members on an issue that is genuinely of great importance and concern.

On the hon. Gentleman's request for a statement from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, I am as reluctant as any Leader of the House to give undertakings about statements, but I can assure him that I take his point seriously and I will certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

May we have an early debate on the impact on tourism of intransigent landlords who refuse to reopen their land to walkers? The McLeod estate on Skye refuses to undertake a risk assessment and is depriving walkers such as myself of access to the Cuillin ridge walk over the Easter break and threatening the livelihood of mountain guides such as Darren McAulay and others who are dependent on tourism and walking.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the points that my hon. Friend makes very well and forcefully. I also note the strong plug that he gives for the work and activities of people who are doing an excellent job. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House although I recognise the seriousness of the matter. He, too, may like to seek an opportunity to raise it in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

On the principle that the House should be most assiduous in debating matters which Ministers are most reluctant to debate, can time be set aside for a debate on the DTI report into Hollis Industries and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry' s responsibility for it? The right hon. Gentleman hides behind his claim that he did not receive the report, but refuses to say when he was informed of its contents; he hides behind the threat of legal action but fails to issue any writ; and hides behind advice from officials, whereas it is he who is responsible for the advice that he takes. The last time I raised this issue, the Leader of the House uncharacteristically lost her cool. Will she now, in more characteristic terms, accept that there is a case for an urgent debate on these matters?

Mrs. Beckett

It is kind of the right hon. Gentleman to say that it was uncharacteristic, but I did not lose my cool. I was extremely shocked at what I thought was quite appalling and disgraceful behaviour on his part, as a former Secretary of State, when he attempted to accuse my right hon. Friend—he has just repeated that accusation—of hiding behind advice from officials when he must be perfectly well aware that had my right hon. Friend overruled that advice, especially as a newly appointed Minister in the Department, Opposition Members would probably have a great deal more to complain about.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

When considering debates on the serious issue of foot and mouth, would my right hon. Friend also consider an early debate on the somewhat strange interpretation of the Government's current regulations by some councils? I refer specifically to South Bedfordshire district council, which is refusing to collect refuse from properties in my constituency, seemingly on the basis that they have the word "farm" in their addresses. In particular, I understand that a fish farm has not had its refuse collected for several weeks nor has Tipple Hill farm, winch is not a farm, but a house which has several horses in its grounds. Does she agree that that is a dangerous and somewhat bizarre interpretation of the Government's regulations?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important and pertinent point, and makes it well. I sympathise with the concerns of her constituents; apart from anything else, they are no doubt concerned about the health hazard of uncollected waste. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor, but I suspect that my hon. Friend may find a sympathetic hearing for a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I support the requests that have been made from both sides of the House for a further debate on foot and mouth in Government time before the Dissolution of Parliament? Members from both sides of the House could then share opinions on the advantages or disadvantages of vaccination and share information as to how this terrible plague was imported to this country. We could discuss how to develop a strategy to prevent the virus from entering the country in future. We could consider certain inadequacies at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food relating to the number of vets available when the plague first broke out. We could also discuss how to protect the pedigree and pure-bred herds and flocks that are so important to the future of agriculture in this country. With the extra time now available, it should be possible to find time for a debate on the Adjournment so that the House can share its views on what is such a serious disaster for the countryside.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. I recognise to the full his concern for his constituents. I am not in a position at present to announce Government time for a debate, although I shall certainly bear it in mind. As a regular attender at business questions, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that no matter how much extra time becomes available, there are always infinitely more demands to fill it than can possibly be accommodated. However, of course, I am very mindful of the need to keep the House informed; the Government look for a variety of opportunities and ways to do that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that at business questions last week, I asked about correspondence that had been unanswered by Ministers because a general election was on the horizon. Although we have a little longer before that event, the problem remains. My right hon. Friend will not be aware that I submitted a question about correspondence affecting a Mr. Nofal, in my constituency. I asked for answers to letters of 13 November, 18 December, 13 February, 20 February and 21 February. The answer was ambiguous; it stated: I shall let my hon. Friend have a reply as soon as possible. I did not know whether that meant a reply to the letters or to my parliamentary question about them. It turns out that it was a holding answer; I still await my reply.

Furthermore, I have been promised a meeting with a Minister from the Department of Health in connection with the matter. It is of tremendous importance that, before we get to a general election, the issue is resolved for my constituent; otherwise, I shall have to employ other methods to raise his case on the Floor.

Mrs. Beckett

I am very aware of how assiduously my hon. Friend works on behalf of his constituency. I understand his concern if questions have not yet been fully answered. He will be aware that questions to the Department of Health are scheduled for 10 April; that may give him an opportunity to raise the matter.

Although I sympathise with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend, his question gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the officials in my own Department, who seem to have succeeded in answering within a short time scale almost 100 per cent. of the letters sent to us. That is a truly remarkable achievement.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

I am sure that the right hon. Lady agrees that it is right that the House's consideration of the serious foot and mouth crisis has concentrated on rural areas and those most directly affected—the farmers and communities therein. However, I hope that she will agree that some foot and mouth related issues touch urban areas. She will be aware that, yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made that very point to the Prime Minister.

For farms in areas designated as urban, such as those in my Cheadle constituency in the Greater Manchester conurbation, and for businesses that supply rural areas, and are based in places such as Cheadle, it is not clear whether they will qualify under the various welcome steps that the Government have taken to help companies in difficulty. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Lady will be able to accede to the many requests that have been made for a debate in Government time, so that those matters at least can be explored.

Mrs. Beckett

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Indeed, I am aware from correspondence from my constituency that people in businesses that might not at first sight seem to be related to the foot and mouth crisis or to tourism have been affected by the change in the business environment. I am conscious that that is one of the matters that hon. Members wish to air. I cannot accede to his request at present, but I do take the issues very seriously.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Last July, there were celebrations for the Australian centenary in this place. On 9 May, it is the 100th anniversary of the state opening of the first Australian federal Parliament. Will the Leader of the House discuss with the Speaker and other House authorities whether there is some way that we could mark that occasion in the House—without any boondoggles, without anyone going there—perhaps by using new technology whereby we could pass a resolution of congratulation? We could use the occasion as a precedent. All too often such matters are left to the early-day motions of Back Benchers, when they merit a greater demonstration by the whole House. Could that matter be examined, as that is an important parliamentary occasion both for the Australians and for us, as well as for other jurisdictions that have flown the nest after seeing the example of Australian independence?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. I must admit that I have not given great consideration to the opportunities that he suggests are available through the use of new technology. I am sure that all those who represent the House authorities have heard his suggestion and will consider it.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House has announced a debate on the Finance Bill after the recess. Will it be possible to have some clarification about the suggestion that VAT will be added to the cost of hearing aids in the near future? That would increase their cost. It might be a stealth tax, which will certainly punish people who require such aids.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure how easy it will be for the hon. Gentleman to raise that matter during the debate on the Finance Bill. That is, of course, a matter for the Chair. I cannot undertake to give him the assurance that he seeks that it will be possible, but I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

May we have an early opportunity to consider the remarks quoted in today's Ilford Recorder by the long-standing Conservative councillor in Redbridge, Asaf Mirza? He says that he is no longer able to apologise for his party's stance on ethnic minorities. He went on to say that the Conservative party is narrow minded, lacking in new ideas and stuck in the past", and that It is rigid and lacking in communication and they refuse to listen because they do not want to improve the situation. In contrast Labour is a modern, progressive and broad party that has demonstrated its ability to govern fairly and effectively for all.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Certainly, it is interesting to hear what is being said in the Ilford Recorder by his constituent. I fear, however, that—[HON. MEMBERS: "He did not ask a question."] My hon. Friend asked that we should debate these issues. I fear, however, that as much of what he says is self-evidently true, there is little to debate.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I wonder whether the Leader of the House could make time for a debate on class sizes. She will know that in many parts of the country secondary school class sizes are at their highest level for 10 years. Indeed, in more than 40 local authorities, the position is worsening sharply or is certainly not improving. The problem is not limited to secondary schools. Upper-age primary schools are also suffering from larger class sizes and a greater proportion of nursery-age children are in classes of more than 30 than there were in 1997. We need to get to the bottom of this matter. Despite the hyperbole before the general election, for the vast majority of children, class sizes are rising rapidly due to the Government's incompetence.

Mrs. Beckett

That is absolute nonsense. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware, secondary class sizes have been increasing gradually but steadily for about 10 years, but there is no doubt that the rate of the increase has slowed as a result of the investment that the Government are making. In fact, in many parts of the country—the vast majority—children in the early years of education are benefiting from much smaller classes as a result of the earlier investment made by the Government. However, there is a further reason why there is no necessity for me to make a special arrangement to discuss those matters: oral questions to the Department for Education and Employment will take place on 26 April.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of yesterday's Law Lords ruling, which stated that, under the current legislation, it is legal for the privatised electricity companies to raid pension fund surpluses to fund redundancies? Does she appreciate—I am sure that she will—that some 200,000 pensioners feel ripped-off because the privatised companies are allowed to do that?

I am sure that she will be aware of the excellent Myners report and that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agreed to implement all of its recommendations. One states that the Law Commission should review the ownership of surpluses. Will she use her good offices to ensure that the review takes place as quickly as possible, because hundreds of thousands of pensioners want pension funds to be paid to the pensioners, who have paid in all their lives? They do not want large companies to be able to take pensions holidays and raid the funds for redundancies.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is clearly supported across the House. I understand that the implications of that case are as he describes, because I believe that the Treasury has expressed some support for the suggestion that the Law Commission should consider those issues. I would only caution my hon. Friend that sometimes those matters are much more complex than he might anticipate, and I am not clear how speedily that action could be taken. I fear that I shall not undertake to hold a debate on the matter in the near future, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate not only on foot and mouth, but its impact on the tourism industry? So far we have heard statements from the Minister for the Environment and from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but we have not had the chance to debate that impact. We are now seeing the reality of some of the measures that those Ministers announced, with a great fanfare, especially that on business rates, which will cost Derbyshire Dales district council more than £300,000 to implement. It was alleged that the Government would write off the cost completely, but a large proportion of it will be required from the district council.

We need to hold a debate not only on foot and mouth, but on the very much wider implications of the outbreak, and perhaps an Environment Minister, or even a Tourism Minister, could make the winding-up speech.

Mrs. Beckett

I am conscious of the interest across the House in the wider implications of the problems that are being experienced, not only in agriculture but in other sectors. The hon. Gentleman will recall that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and other Ministers, have repeatedly said that, of course, any assistance or support that the Government can give will pale into insignificance beside what is really needed—a return of customers to rural businesses. That has to be the chief focus, but I shall bear in mind his request.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

My right hon. Friend may be aware that last week, after a two-year investigation, the Office of Fair Trading imposed a fine of more than £3 million on Napp Pharmaceuticals. The OFT found not only that the company had engaged in anti-competitive business practices by excluding smaller companies from the market, but that, in doing so, it had manipulated prices in the national health service, so that it was giving hospitals a 90 per cent, discount for a drug, but charging 10 times that amount out in the community, which accounts for 80 per cent. of the NHS drugs budget.

The OFT found that that practice, involving that single drug, cost the NHS £2 million a year. Will my right hon. Friend arrange to hold a debate as soon as possible so that we can properly assess the overall cost to the NHS of that practice, which is widespread in the pharmaceutical industry. I estimate that it costs at least £50 million—money which is intended to be used in front-line health care, and not creamed off in excess profits by rapacious drug companies.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that the report of the OFT will have been taken very seriously. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on this matter, but he may have an opportunity to raise the issue in Westminster Hall. I remind him, however, that it is oral questions to the Department of Health on 10 April and he may be able to raise the matter then.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

In the absence—according to the right hon. Lady—of the Prime Minister being willing to come to the House or of a debate in Government time, does she recognise that it is terribly important for all our constituents who are concerned about foot and mouth that we at least have the reassurance that the Minister of Agriculture will definitely be here to make a statement on Monday, before the Easter recess?

Will the right hon. Lady please let us know, or ensure that the Minister lets us know, what precise arrangements have been made for all Members to raise urgent and important issues about foot and mouth and the rural economy during the recess? The MPs' hotline, which has been repeatedly requested, has still not been set up. Surely, it should be well established with sufficient resources before we go into the recess; otherwise, we should be here to ensure that we can represent our constituents' interests.

Mrs. Beckett

As I said earlier, I take seriously the point that has been made. I am as reluctant as any Leader of the House to be absolutely categoric about the statements that might be made, but I have taken on board the hon. Gentleman's observations. I shall draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, and not least the point about the MPs' hotline. It was my understanding that arrangements had been made. [HON. MEMBERS: "It does not work."] If hon. Members are telling me that the arrangements are not sufficiently satisfactory, I will also draw that point to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Following the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that the attempt by the United States to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty will have profound consequences for the foreign policy and the defence policy of this country? Although I accept that she has ruled out the possibility of a wide-ranging debate on foreign affairs in the near future, will she give further consideration to the possibility of a more specific debate on national missile defence?

Mrs. Beckett

All I can say to my hon. Friend is what I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn): there is probably a better chance of securing a debate on such a more restricted subject in Westminster Hall than on the Floor of the House. However, I draw to my hon. Friend's attention the fact that it is Ministry of Defence questions on the Monday after the recess.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I appeal to hon. Members to keep their questions as brief as possible.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for my voice. You told me not to shout the other day, and I cannot do that today.

Will the Leader of the House consider a debate on the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body? She will know that, in a written answer, the Prime Minister promised: This will be a matter for decision by Parliament."—[Official Report, 16 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 753W.] She will know that recommendation 8 of the report asks that the matter be dealt with before a general election. Will she therefore return to the spin doctors in No. 10 and tell them that we need the debate before the general election, so that the Prime Minister does not break his promise and so that Parliament can organise its information technology systems and everything else that is recommended in the report well before the general election?

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that this was matter for the House to decide on at some point. That remains the case, but I do not believe that he gave any undertakings as to precisely when that opportunity might be made available. I recognise the anxiety that the hon. Gentleman expresses and I know that he—along with other members of the Information Committee—has long campaigned for improvements in our information technology arrangements. I am mindful of the review board's recommendation but I am mindful, too, of the fact that, as ever, there are more requests for subjects to be debated than time to debate them.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is there any chance—or am I wasting my time—of having before the general election that required debate on the most recent report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges? If we do not have such a debate, those who are in the next Parliament might well regret it.

Will my right hon. Friend also pencil in in her very fine mind the real necessity for a debate on the effects of foot and mouth on tourism? That is a real problem that will not go away. When Members return after the Easter recess, they will be talking about the problems in their constituencies.

Mrs. Beckett

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point, and I have taken on board his request for a debate on privileges. Although I cannot give him that undertaking, I am aware of the tremendous work that he and others have done on that Committee and of their desire for the issues to be aired in the House.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does the Leader of the House accept that wanting the Prime Minister or the Minister of Agriculture to come to the Dispatch Box to answer questions about the handling of foot and mouth is not mischief-making—rather, it is us doing our job and the Government doing theirs? Foot and mouth has rightly been the lead item on television and radio and in newspapers for the past six weeks. I am in daily contact with farmers and there was an outbreak of foot and mouth in my constituency yesterday. Last Friday, I met 30 business people who are affected by the tourism blight associated with the disease.

In a role reversal, may I draw Westminster Hall to the right hon. Lady's attention? It is not being used on Monday. How about getting the Minister of Agriculture to go there to answer questions in a full debate on the handling of foot and mouth?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I would never suggest that it would be mischief-making to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to answer questions on that subject. Indeed, he just did that. I have taken on board the requests for additional information to be made available and the pressure that there is, naturally, for such issues to be discussed. However, for Conservative Members to pretend that they think that the Prime Minister should come to the Chamber all the time to make such statements is mischief-making.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Can the Leader of the House induce the Deputy Prime Minister to face up to his responsibilities and explain why Mr. Derek Smith, managing director of London Transport Underground, whom he appointed only two years ago, is submitting his resignation? Is he resigning because he has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government's policy on the tube; because of the antics of the Mayor, who undermined the leadership of the tube by siding with the strikers; or because Mr. Kiley wants a judicial review? What is it? The travelling public of London deserve an explanation, and so do we.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot find time for a special debate. I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is extremely conscious of his responsibilities and exercises them with a great thoroughness and determination. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there are questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on Tuesday when we return from the Easter recess.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Last June, the Secretary of State for Health approved a plan of the Surrey and Sussex health care NHS trust to concentrate acute services at the East Surrey hospital in my constituency, largely by moving services from the run-down Crawley hospital. On Tuesday last week, at a meeting with the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), which was attended by local press, the Secretary of State suspended the transfer of those services. Decisions now have to be made about clinical safety and the cost to the trust. It is £10 million in debt and, on the Government's figures, the suspension will cost an additional £600,000 a year. Can we have a debate on the politicisation of the health service because that disgraceful decision was made in the political interest of the Labour party? The people who are served by my health trust should be recompensed for the consequences of that outrageous decision.

Mrs. Beckett

I simply say that I do not see the scope or need for a special debate. I remind the hon. Gentleman that oral questions to the Department of Health are on Tuesday 10 April.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I am now getting a large number of inquiries from farmers about foot and mouth and from a huge range of businesses that are also affected by it. Let me give the right hon. Lady an example of the problem: the total aid offered by the statutory instrument on rate relief amounts to £22 million, but the cancellation of the Cheltenham festival cost Gloucestershire £40 million. May I join my 15 colleagues on both sides of the House in appealing to the right hon. Lady to find time for a debate on foot and mouth?

The Minister of Agriculture attended a briefing session yesterday. He stayed for 60 seconds and officials were not able to answer many of the questions put by colleagues. In all sincerity, three quarters of an hour for Agriculture questions this morning is not adequate. A large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House were not able to ask their questions. My constituents expect their representative to question the Minister. Will the right hon. Lady arrange for time to be made available for the Minister to come to the House to make a statement or, even better, to attend a debate before we break for the Easter recess?

Mrs. Beckett

I have, I think, given every indication that I am very conscious of Members' wish to have further information before the House rises for the Easter recess. As to the other, general issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, I am of course extremely conscious, as we all are, of the scale of the difficulties being experienced, including those outside agriculture. However, I repeat to him what I have said to other hon. Members, which is that the key is to try do everything that we can to revive business in those areas, because it will never be possible for any Government to make up all the losses.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

We always have a debate on Welsh issues around St. David's day; why cannot we have a debate on English issues on St. George's day, 23 April? We would be able to discuss the crisis in the English countryside and today's MORI poll, which shows that 71 per cent. of people are in favour of having a referendum on whether we should stay in the EU and 52 per cent. say that they would vote to opt out of the EU, given the chance.

Mrs. Beckett

That is what they laid in 1975, but it did not turn out that way. As for the question whether we need time for a special debate to allow Members to raise English issues, about 80 per cent. of Members in the House represent English constituencies and, perfectly naturally, are raising English issues day in and day out.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The Leader of the House may not be aware that there were a further five cases of foot and mouth disease in my constituency yesterday. Will she join the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), in dissociating herself from the words of a Parliamentary Private Secretary last night? The hon. Gentleman in question said, I would be asking why obsessive media attention has been concentrated in recent weeks on the fact that hundreds of thousands of our cows and sheep have caught a very nasty cold, with foot and mouth ulcers."—[Official Report, 4 April 2001; Vol. 366, c. 432.]

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the quotation to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Members throughout the House are conscious of the concern about the disease and the fact that it is affecting not only the rural economy and agriculture but other industries.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Given that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment held a leaving party at his Department last week, at which he reportedly told officials that the time had come for him to move on, could he be brought to the House to share with Members the secret of whether a reshuffle has already taken place without our being informed, or whether he is anticipating leaving office for some other reason?

Mrs. Beckett

We all read these things in the papers from time to time, and I advise the hon. Gentleman not to take them too seriously. If he wants to ask my right hon. Friend about that, he can do so at oral questions on 26 April.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the right hon. Lady assist me in investigating the alarming length of time that Ministers are taking to respond to constituency cases? Constituents write to us and use us as a conduit to get a reply from Ministers. I have trawled through my mail and found that I have not received replies from the Secretaries of State for Health and for Social Security since December and January. That is not only a gross discourtesy to the House, but obviously sends the wrong message to constituents about whether Parliament is open for business.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Lady's concern and I will pass on her remarks to my right hon. Friends. I can only say that having for a relatively brief halcyon period shadowed the work of the Department of Health, I am extremely mindful of the vast amount of correspondence that any Health Secretary and, indeed, his shadow receive, and I am conscious that the Department has greater difficulties in that respect than most, not least because the issues raised are of such delicacy that the correspondence is horrendously hard to deal with.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we please have a debate on the 99.6 per cent. of British companies which employ fewer than 100 people, account for approximately 57 per cent. of the private sector work force and generate two fifths of national output? Given that the last such debate was held in Opposition time in March last year and that the Government's record has been consistently denounced by the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Forum of Private Business, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers Federation, to name but a few, is it not essential that we have an urgent debate on the sea of regulation which is now deeper and more hazardous than any with which British companies have ever had to contend?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that he weakened his argument by referring to unprecedented denunciation being voiced by all those bodies, most of which are highly supportive of much of the Government's programme—although, of course, they express concern about regulation, as they did under the Conservative Government.

I rather think that as we are to have a debate on regulation later today, there is no need to find time for a further debate. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the only debate on the subject having taken place in Opposition time, I recall that, in the last Parliament, there was a period of at least two years—possibly substantially more; it might even have been three or four years—in which there was no debate on health issues in Government time.