HC Deb 26 April 2001 vol 367 cc443-55 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)

MONDAY 30 APRIL—Second Reading of the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill.

TUESDAY 1 MAY—Remaining stages of the Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 2 MAY—Motion to approve standing orders relating to the Regulatory Reform Act 2001.

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

Motion relating to the establishment of a working group on provision for former Members.

THURSDAY 3 MAY—Debate on the International Development White Paper—"Making Globalisation Work for the Poor" on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 4 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 7 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

TUESDAY 8 MAY—Remaining stages of the Private Security Industry Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 9 MAY—Remaining stages of the International Criminal Court Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 10 MAY—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 11 MAY—Private Member's Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks after the May day bank holiday will be as follows:

THURSDAY 10 MAY—Debate on "Creative Industries".

THURSDAY 17 MAY—Debate on employment zones.

The House will 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.

[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 (2000–1).]

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. Will she give the House some indication as to when we might expect the dates for the Whit recess to be announced? I am sure that Members on both sides will be interested in receiving those.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the next Treasury questions, scheduled for Thursday 10 May, will actually take place? The reason I ask is that if there is any question that that session will not take place on 10 May, the House will be looking for an opportunity next week for the Chancellor to come here to share with us the concerns that he shared with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In his speech to that bank, he clearly expressed anxiety about the way in which the British economy might be affected by the fall-out from the American downturn. That is of particular interest to the House, because during the past four years we understood that the Chancellor had abolished the economic cycle. However, clearly, the economic cycle is back and the Dispatch Box would be the appropriate place for the Chancellor to explain why, having abolished it, it is back.

We also note that next week, on 1 May, the House will consider the remaining stages of the Social Security Fraud Bill. Will the Leader of the House identify whether there will be time for the House to look at another matter regarding social security? I realise the constraints and the narrowness of the debate on remaining stages, but as the appropriate Ministers will be on the Treasury Bench that day, I am sure that the House would like the opportunity to question them about the £3.5 million the Government have spent on advertising benefit fraud, especially when it turns out that the advertising merely resulted in a distance learning package for those who want to learn how to do it.

Finally, we note today, from our monitors, that the announcement has been made of the 15 so-called people's peers. The right hon. Lady is deeply involved in this procedure and will be aware that when the Government axed the hereditary peers, they promised that, during this Parliament, they would set up a cross-party Committee of both Houses to address future reforms of another place. Despite our pressing them to do so, and our willingness to serve on it, they have not done so, but have announced the people's peers. Surprisingly, we note that the 15, chosen from 3,000 applicants, include three professors and seven knights—people who I am sure will make a valuable contribution, but who would otherwise have been obvious candidates under the normal procedures. I wonder whether the right hon. Lady could tell us what exactly the Government's definition of the people is these days.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady asked me for an indication of the dates of the Whitsun recess, which slightly surprises me as I have observed during the time that I have been in this post that every time that we announce the dates of a recess, someone on the Conservative Benches complains that we have only just come back from one. As we have only just come back from the Easter recess, I will bear the hon. Lady's observations in mind, but I am not in a position to give her the dates today.

The hon. Lady asked me about the Chancellor finding an opportunity to come to the House. I was really quite surprised by her remarks because my right hon. Friend has never ever suggested that the Government had abolished the business cycle. Indeed, it is precisely because we know mat the business cycle continues to exist, and will always continue to exist, that he has placed such emphasis on so managing the economy that we can have economic stability and stable economic policy, even as the business cycle proceeds. So, far from ever having suggested that there was no such thing as the economic or business cycle, my right hon. Friend has clearly always understood the opposite, but understood also that it is the duty of Government to try to mitigate the ups and downs of the business cycle. The Conservative party signally failed to do that in all the years in which it was in power.

The hon. Lady asked me about the new list of peers—of course those appointments were made by the Appointments Commission—and she appeared to suggest that in some way the current procedures are defective. I have not had much time to scrutinise the list, but I understand that significantly more women and more people from the ethnic minorities have been appointed than was the case under the previous system. That seems to me to he evidence of good judgment on the commission's part. However, the principal difference is that this procedure is open and transparent, and that it is not a matter of peers being appointed simply on the decision and the judgment of the Prime Minister, which had always been the case under previous Prime Ministers. It is time that the Conservative party gave my right hon. Friend credit for being the first Prime Minister ever to give away patronage.

The hon. Lady then asked me about the issue of social security advertising—

Mrs. Browning

What about the joint Committee?

Mrs. Beckett

I beg her pardon; I must have lost that question in my notes. Yes, the Government intend to pursue joint discussions about how we handle the future development of the upper House. I recognise, and am pleased that the hon. Lady has placed it on the record, that the Conservative party is not unwilling to take part in such discussions. We shall certainly bear that in mind and we hope that we shall be able, over time, to get some agreement on how the further reform of the upper House should work.

The final issue that the hon. Lady raised with me was that of Government advertising, and she suggested in particular that Ministers from the Department of Social Security should be discussing the issue of DSS advertising. I thought that she gave the impression that she believed that this was misplaced spending on the Government's part. It may be slightly unfortunate for the hon. Lady that it is the case, as I am sure that she must now be aware, that, in real terms, the expenditure on Government advertising in this year is very close to the expenditure undertaken by the Government of her party in 1987. Of course, what is particularly unfortunate is that the hon. Lady chose the example of social security, because if the previous Conservative Government had been prepared to spend a little more on advertising the consequences of their policies in 1987, perhaps many people would have understood that they were taking away their rights to widows' pensions.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

May I thank my right hon. Friend and you, too, Mr. Speaker, for the motion which is on the Order Paper for next Wednesday to set up a working group on the problems of ex-MPs—a proposal that is long overdue? It is not intended to provide any financial assistance and it will not cost the taxpayer any money. In the past, no inquiry has been held into what happens when MPs lose their seats or when they retire.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Declare your interest.

Mr. Ashton

The right hon. Gentleman can jeer as much as he likes, but this is a serious business. More than 600 MPs have left the House—half of them have retired—since about 1987. No one knows what has happened to them, about their jobs or their problems, or about what advice they might need.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

We all know where Jonathan Aitken has been.

Mr. Ashton

Well, we expect silly jokes from people who have a good job, and who will have a good job after the election, but the fact is that after the previous election many people lost their jobs, including friends of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

The Data Protection Act 1998 has made it virtually impossible to find out such information on a voluntary basis because it is not possible to gain the relevant names and addresses. Those are the things that we should debate seriously next Wednesday.

I am sure that the motion has the support of the Chief Whips of every party. You have done a great deal of work on the issue, Mr. Speaker, so has the Leader of the House, and I should like to thank you both for that.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He makes a very important point: there is cross-party support for a discussion to find out whether a voluntary organisation could be set up. He also makes the important point, which I certainly had not properly taken on board in the past and which may not be familiar to all Members, that partly because of the Data Protection Act 1998, there is no record of what has happened to former MPs or, indeed, to their spouses, or widows or widowers. It is extremely difficult for people to make contact.

Of course people are occasionally in touch with the welfare organisations, but there are many more with whom no one is in touch, some of whom are in considerable difficulties. My hon. Friend and others—literally, on all sides of the House—are interested in finding out whether it is possible to form some sort of voluntary organisation of former Members, which can keep in touch so that people can gain advice and support from others in similar circumstances.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Presumably, Phoenix the calf cannot now qualify to be a people's peer, but will the Leader of the House assure us that that great national asset can be used in future Government advertising? Clearly, that would be a great deal more effective than some recent Government advertising.

May we have a statement on the role of the Electoral Commission? Clearly, the commission has a very important responsibility, and perhaps it should be involved in assessing the role of Government advertising in the 12 months before a general election. That is but one of the many questions now being asked about the forthcoming election. Many other important issues do not seem to have been properly tackled by the commission. Before any possible date for Dissolution, can we have a report on the commission's role in adjudicating on such matters? Obviously, some regulation is required if only because the taxpayer is getting very bad value for money in relation to Government advertising.

The right hon. Lady has referred to the 1987 advertising expenditure of more than £104 million by the then Thatcher Government, most of which was spent on selling privatisation. The public are concerned not just in case there is an attempt to skew the electoral process, but because such advertising represents very bad value for money. May I also draw her attention to the obvious necessity to review the fact that we should have fixed-term Parliaments? Several of her colleagues believe that greater attention should be given to that proposal. Fixed terms would enable the Electoral Commission to adjudicate more effectively on such matters as advertising.

Mrs. Beckett

To answer the hon. Gentleman's main point about Government advertising, I point out that it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission. However, the issue is already under scrutiny by the National Audit Office, which always monitors the effectiveness and value of any Central Office of Information advertising campaign.

As for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that, in some way, the advertising is unsuitable, unnecessary and totally ineffective, I point out that much of the advertising has been on police recruitment, and he may have noticed that there has been a substantial increase in recruits. Advertising has also led to an increase in teacher recruitment, and it has also encouraged people to join or to return to the health service, and there has been a huge take-up on that.

There has been advertising on issues—such as the working families tax credit, the national minimum wage, the children's tax credit and the minimum income guarantee—in which we think it is important for people to claim their entitlements. Sadly—to some extent, I suppose it is inevitable—if we wait for the news media to communicate to people that there is a new entitlement to, say, the children's tax credit that will start at the beginning of April, we would have to wait a very long time. The only way to ensure that people are aware of their entitlements is through Government advertising.

As for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about Phoenix the calf, at least the one thing that we can be fairly confident about is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will not be photographed sitting in a field cuddling it.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend shared my misfortune last week. Although I know that she was in this country, I was in Turkey where I turned on the television and watched CNN. I had the misfortune of viewing the shadow Secretary of State for Defence talking about foot and mouth in the United Kingdom. Members on both sides are rightly concerned about its impact on the tourism industry, but they would have heard him saying that foot and mouth was out of control. He referred to funeral pyres and to all the matters that have turned tourists off coming to this country. Will my right hon. Friend advise the House as to what we should do with the Tories who continually talk Britain down?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I was not able to watch CNN, so I did not see the interview to which she refers. Given that I understand that we are all anxious about the impact on tourism and the economy generally of the knock-on effects of the crisis, it is most unfortunate if any hon. Member, in whatever position or circumstance, acts in a way that causes greater alarm and despondency to be spread in what is an important market. I wish that I could say that it was uncharacteristic behaviour on the part of the hon. Gentleman to whom my hon. Friend referred, but I fear that I cannot.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Does the Leader of the House recall that at the last business questions she said, following my encouragement, that she would consider scheduling a debate on the decisions concerning parliamentary pay and other associated matters? She has not done so, but I would be grateful if she would explain why. Does she not recall that, in the final weeks of the previous Parliament, she and her colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench were extremely keen that the then Government should table such matters for decision on the basis that existing Members would be better able to judge needs and that those who were leaving the House—either voluntarily or involuntarily—would receive pension help as a consequence? In the light of that and her own past behaviour, will she reflect further and schedule such a debate for next week?

Mrs. Beckett

As the right hon. Gentleman said, I heard the point that he made and I have given the matter consideration. He attends business questions, so he will be aware of the enormous pressure and the requests for many issues to be debated. It has not been possible to find time for this issue to be aired at this time.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the preparations in South Africa for the Rio plus 10 conference in September next year to mark the 10th anniversary of the 1992 Earth summit, set up to establish greater international co-operation on environmental policy? In view of the crisis in international environmental policy caused by the decision of the United States Government to oppose the Kyoto protocol, will she find time in the near future for a debate so that we can consider the response of all relevant Departments to that conference?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He takes a keen interest in the issue, which he assiduously pursues. However, I cannot find time to have such a debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, although he might consider the opportunities offered by Westminster Hall. It strikes me that although the debate on the international development White Paper will focus on globalisation and its impact on the poor, other aspects of world development also impinge on the poor, and the environment is one of them. Far be it from me to impinge on the prerogatives of the Chair, but my hon. Friend might try to fit the matter into the context of that debate.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

The whole House will have been disappointed with the right hon. Lady's response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) about the Senior Salaries Review Board report, especially as it relates to information technology. She has announced a debate on former Members, but seems to have ignored the SSRB's recommendation that future Members need the relevant decision to be made before the general election. Most decisions on information technology in this place occur without a debate on the Floor of the House, but will she at least table a motion—perhaps also for debate on Wednesday—to set up a group to ensure that all Members of Parliament are entitled to a supplied computer when they arrive? They would receive such equipment in any other job. That would save hundreds of thousands of pounds that will be wasted if the decision to supply that equipment is not taken before the election.

Mrs. Beckett

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I am aware that he has a keen interest in such issues and is a campaigning member of the Information Committee. However, I must explain two things. First, it is clear from the SSRB report and many other discussions that a considerable amount of work and planning needs to be done before the new systems are fully operational. I understand his anxiety about newly elected Members and about making decisions in a changing context. However, I am not clear that hon. Members will be satisfied with the service available to them if the kit from central supply is provided in the immediate aftermath of the election, as he suggests. The SSRB report makes it clear that a substantial transitional period is needed.

Secondly, next week, the Modernisation Committee is taking evidence from hon. Friends who have been involved in such matters. That is, in part, because of concern expressed about the adequacy of IT support and how it will need to be developed substantially to implement the SSRB report recommendations.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government's commitment to allow MPs a free vote on hunting and that that will be held in Government time?

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend knows, the Hunting Bill is in the upper House. The Government's approach has always been to allow a free vote on it. I have no reason to suppose that that stance is likely to change.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Will the Leader of the House comment on the state of the approach roads to the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday, especially as those people who intend to protest in my constituency on that day have not sought the approval of the Metropolitan police for that line of route?

Mrs. Beckett

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, although I am not sure that the protesters have a line of route. He will appreciate that it is not wholly a matter for me. However, I am aware that the House authorities have been in discussion with the Metropolitan police who are mindful of their responsibilities to the citizens of London and the House.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The Government have made many good efforts to help tourism over the past few weeks, and my right hon. Friend will be aware that Calderdale has a thriving tourism industry. However, is she aware that Tory-controlled Calderdale council, in a cost-cutting exercise, has closed almost all the public toilets in Calderdale, thus sending a message that if people come to Halifax and the Calder valley, they cannot spend a penny? Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the effects that that is having on tourism and, obviously, on public hygiene?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I was not aware of the serious impact of that decision, and I can perfectly understand her concern on behalf of her constituents, let alone potential visitors to her constituency. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House, but it sounds to me like a classic for Westminster Hall.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

It is disappointing that even in what appear to be the dying days of this Parliament the Government have not introduced a debate in their time on the national drugs strategy. Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the impact and seriousness of the problem facing the country, the effect on crime figures and on expense on education, health and social services, and the fact that in the past four years there has been only one debate on the subject in Government time, and introduce a debate as soon as she can?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I take the hon. Lady's point that those are important issues, but as she, too, regularly attends business questions she will be aware that it is only one of many subjects of substance which the House likes to debate from time to time, and it is not always easy to find time for debates on the Floor. However, I recommend to her, as I have done to others, the attractions of the extra debating time available in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the problem of term-time workers? Thousands of workers, mainly women, in educational establishments throughout the country, particularly universities, are laid off during the holidays. They receive no pay and are denied benefits during that time, so for about 20 weeks of the year they have absolutely nothing to live on. Many women took the job on the basis that they were told by the Benefits Agency that they would qualify for benefits, and those benefits have now been stopped. During the time that they are off work, they receive no national insurance contributions, which will obviously have a detrimental effect on their pensions.

The problem has gone on for nearly five years and is being considered by the Law Lords in the other place. Will my right hon. Friend provide for a statement to be made to the House on how long it will take for a judgment to be made, bearing it in mind that many of these women basically have nothing to live on?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As far as I can recall, this is a problem of considerable standing. I seem to remember it being raised some 15 or more years ago. He is right to express concern about the possibility that people have been given advice that has turned out not to be accurate. I fear that I cannot assure him that there will be a statement on the matter because the court case will continue in the near future, but I can certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in case there is any information that he can give him.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The Leader of the House has not announced time in the next two weeks for consideration of Commons amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill, leaving it inevitably vulnerable to an early Dissolution of the House. She will know that the Bill contains a measure that has all-party support, namely the introduction of free nursing care in nursing homes. She will also have heard the Prime Minister yesterday commit the Government to overturning a decision on the future of community health councils. Are the Government seriously considering holding up a measure that is popular so that they can proceed with a measure that is unpopular?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect, there is no question of the Government holding that up. The right hon. Gentleman will find that the Bill is still in the House of Lords and, indeed, that the Lords have not yet finished their consideration. He makes an important point about the further consideration needed in this House at some stage, but it is not usual to schedule that before the Bill has finished its proceedings in another place, as he will appreciate.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), is my right hon. Friend aware that I have been in correspondence with the trustees of the pension fund on several occasions regarding the need to deal with the financial position of Members of or near retirement age who retired mainly in 1987 and before? Because of their salary at the time they almost certainly receive a pittance of a pension. As there is a substantial surplus in the pension fund, would it not be right for us to look carefully at what can be done to assist Members who, through no fault of their own, retired on such a small pension?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the point made by my hon. Friend. Indeed, when I recently made inquiries, I was astonished to discover that only 8 per cent. of retired Members who now draw pensions from the parliamentary pension fund are entitled to the full retirement pension, whatever its level. However, I fear that my hon. Friend is wrong to believe that there is a surplus in the pension fund; there was a fairly substantial surplus but decisions taken by the Opposition when in government resulted in that surplus disappearing. Indeed, according to the Government Actuary, there is a potential for the fund to go into deficit.

I therefore fear that I cannot undertake to do as my hon. Friend suggests, but I acknowledge the point that he made. This is a matter for the House and if it decides to set up a voluntary organisation for Members who have retired from the House, voluntarily or otherwise, I hope that it will be handled more expeditiously in future.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to examine documents from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that were released on 19 April under the 30-year rule? In one of those documents, the British ambassador to Ireland, Mr. John Peck, wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home on 16 December and commented on the aftermath of the 1970 arms trial in the Republic. He said: whatever the verdict, if Mr. Haughey was not part of a conspiracy, he was at any rate up to the neck in a scheme to import arms illegally. Today's edition of the Irish Independent reports: Senior Garda officers reported on a meeting between Charles Haughey and a senior IRA man months before the arms crisis rocked the Government, according to documents held in the Dail. Will the Leader of the House agree to provide time for a debate on the content of those FCO documents and any additional information that is made available by the Irish Republic, bearing in mind the strong suspicion in Northern Ireland that some Ministers in the Irish Government at that time played a big part in assisting in the creation of the Provisional IRA, which then gave us 30 years of murder and terror in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Leader of the House will be able to reply.

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the issue in the 30-year-old documents to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I have no doubt that those documents will be the subject of much analysis and discussion. Although he raised substantial and weighty issues, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future. I believe that Northern Ireland questions will be held the week after next, and he may find an opportunity to raise the matter then. I suspect, however, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will decline to take responsibility for something that happened 30 years ago.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that people suffering from multiple sclerosis are concerned about the non-availability of the drug beta interferon for certain forms of the illness. I have a number of constituents who are anxiously awaiting the decision of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Can my right hon. Friend suggest anything that would cause NICE to make an early decision, as my constituents and many other MS sufferers and their families are awaiting that decision with anxiety and are currently in limbo?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I too, have constituents who are concerned about the matter, as I expect most hon. Members do. I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We all understand the anxiety of those who hope and believe that they might benefit from the availability of such treatment. One of the reasons that it is being considered by NICE is that not everyone does benefit, although of obviously people hope that they will benefit. Everyone wants the consideration by NICE to be thorough and scientifically sound.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

As the right hon. Lady knows, Sunday 29 April is census day. Will she join me in thanking the teams of volunteers who have been delivering forms throughout the country? Can she assure the House that every precaution has been taken in the delivery and collection of forms to ensure that there will be no threat of the spread of foot and mouth disease? Can she also give me an assurance that every property that is occupied has been registered on the electoral roll for census purposes and will receive a form, so that we can have a full census of rural as well as urban areas?

Mrs. Beckett

As far as I am aware, it is believed that every property has been included, but I shall draw the hon. Lady's remarks to the attention of my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. A great deal of thought and discussion has gone into the handling of the census, in order to make sure that nothing is done that might exacerbate matters related to foot and mouth disease. The hon. Lady may recall that some time ago, the person who is the overall head of the census operation made it plain that careful thought had been given to that, and that every effort would be made to ensure that there were no problems.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while it has been a pretty good day for Lady Quango and the other 14 people's peers, it has also been a relatively good day for 1,500 women canteen workers who have been battling for 18 years to get equal pay? Will there be a statement about the fact that now, a meeting with some unreconstructed socialists like myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and other members of the miners group has finally resulted in a meeting with the brand-new Minister for Energy? The issue has been resolved and the canteen women will get an average of £10,000 apiece. Some of them will receive up to £40,000. They have struggled for 18 years, and have been bailed out by a combination of Labour Members and a Minister in the new Labour team.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a very welcome decision. I congratulate both of my hon. Friends, who have campaigned over a long period and assisted in putting the case, and my hon. Friend the Minister, who made the relevant decision.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I endorse entirely the comments of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), and I am delighted that the debate is taking place.

My question relates indirectly to foot and mouth disease and the measures introduced by the Government to give business rate relief to certain rural areas affected by the outbreak. I have had some support and I have had the ear of the Minister for the Environment, who heads the rural taskforce. It is extraordinary that Macclesfield, which has a huge, sparsely populated rural area in which livestock is the major agricultural occupation, is not eligible for assistance under the scheme. My constituency is not the only area affected. Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Minister to make a statement on the issue, so that he can explain what action he is taking to include within the scheme Macclesfield and other areas that are currently omitted?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend to come to the House again in the very near future, but I can certainly draw to his attention the hon. Gentleman's perfectly proper concerns. I am confident that he will want to inform the hon. Gentleman about the discussions that have been taking place on the issue that he raises.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Now that British Steel has admitted that it lied to the work force of H. H. Robertson for business reasons, I have written to all of the 28 other hon. Members whose constituents are affected by the closure. In view of the very important issue that the decision raises and the fact that it could bring into disrepute the actions of many honourable company directors throughout the country, will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the subject, so that the same outrage cannot happen again?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend's concern will be shared by the other hon. Members whose constituents are affected, although I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate or statement on the matter in the near future. I remind him of next week's DTI questions, as he might find an opportunity to raise the matter then.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Leader of the House should be aware that we are now halfway through the Committee stage of the International Criminal Court Bill, which she has listed for completion on 9 May. The Committee is considering an 80-something clause Bill, but we are now debating clause 2 stand part. Before she says that our progress is the result of an Opposition filibuster, I point out that we are discussing immensely important matters. I made a speech during which 41 interventions were made, mostly by Labour Members. We were discussing the operation of the statute of Rome and its important consequences. We must have further debates about universal jurisdiction and diplomatic immunity, and provide an opportunity for the Government to explain to Amnesty International and others why there is no such provision. It is immensely important that the crucial issues that are involved continue to be fully and properly debated. Will she reconsider the timetabling of the final stages of the Bill for 9 May, so that we can extend the Committee stage and have a proper debate on them? That may also create an opportunity to discuss the office costs allowance and other matters.

Mrs. Beckett

I have not been following closely the progress of the Bill in Committee, but I shall make some inquiries about the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Sadly, there is often difference of opinion among hon. Members about the time that is required to consider different aspects of proposed legislation, and I cannot undertake to take the decision that he suggests. Indeed, the House is bound by the programme motion that it carried. I shall, however, draw his remarks to the attention of the Minister who is in charge of the Bill.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Saturday 28 April is workers' memorial day, which draws attention to the fact that 335,000 workers worldwide lose their lives each year as a result of their work. Will she give some thought to the possibility of erecting a plaque to commemorate the workers in British industry who have lost their lives? I think that that would focus wonderfully the attention of this place on the need for appropriate health and safety legislation.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the lives that are lost every year as a result of accidents and errors in the workplace. It is not for me to decide whether the House considers erecting a plaque, but he is right to draw our attention to the extent to which the issue should be of concern to hon. Members from all parties, as I am sure that it is.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Will the right hon. Lady consider with her ministerial colleagues the problem of unannounced visits by Ministers to other hon. Members' constituencies, which I fear might be a growing practice? She will remember our correspondence on the fact that she found herself at the canal museum in my constituency just before Easter without having let me know of her visit. I am sure that she inadvertently failed to do so, and when I remonstrated with her about the visit, I received a full and sufficient apology. Of course, I am not trying to pursue that. However, the incident gave rise to concern because the press and local councillors knew of the visit, but the Member of Parliament did not. My secretary tells me that it is possible for hon. Members to find out the postcode of any place on the parliamentary database in seconds or minutes. It is essential that Ministers take the point seriously.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is right, and Ministers take the point seriously. He said that he was sure that I visited his constituency without notifying him inadvertently. He knows that that is the case because that formed part of the explanation that I sent him. Unfortunately, my office, which is most assiduous and conscientious about such matters, was misinformed.

However, I fear that the hon. Gentleman's secretary is not wholly correct. I know from experience—not of the visit that we are considering—correspondence and advice given to constituents by advice bureaux that the postcode is not always an adequate identifier of constituencies. All Ministers' private offices always take steps to ensure that local Members of Parliament are notified of visits. I hope that the offices of Opposition Front-Bench Members take the same steps; I am not sure whether that is always the case. We shall continue to pursue the policy.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

I ask my right hon. Friend to seek assurances from Opposition Members about holding sensible debate on asylum issues, including during a pending general election campaign. In a council by-election that took place in my constituency last week, we retained a seat on a 4 per cent. swing to us. The Conservative candidate, whose name is Richard, but he likes to be called Dick, put out literature, which states: Elderly people are blocking vital beds in our hospitals because of the closure of local homes for them to be transferred to. Yet people who come to this country and have paid nothing get put up at the best hotels for free". Can we have an assurance from Opposition Members that they will not use gutter politics when debating such a sensitive issue?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a matter for the Leader of the House.