§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the coming week?
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)
The business for next week will be as follows:—
MONDAY 12 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day].
Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on "Conditions in Her Majesty's Prisons" followed by a debate entitled "Shifting the Balance". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.
TUESDAY 13 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill.
Remaining stages of the Capital Allowances Bill.
WEDNESDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill.
THURSDAY 15 FEBRUARY—Debate on the report of the BSE inquiry by Lord Phillips on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 16 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.
As I reminded hon. Members last week, we will not sit again thereafter until Monday 26 February.
The provisional business for the day that we return after the constituency week will be:
MONDAY 26 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Criminal Defence Service (Advice and Assistance) Bill [Lords].
The House will wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 28 February, there will be a debate relating to informing and consulting employees in the European Community, in European Standing Committee C.
The House will also wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 14 February, there will be a debate in European Standing Committee A relating to the prevention and control of certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.
[Wednesday 28 February 2001: European Standing Committee C—Celevant European Union document: Unnumbered EM submitted by DTI dated 21 November 2000, informing and consulting employees. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee report: HC 23-xxx (1999–2000).]
§ Mrs. Browning
I am grateful to the Leader of the House.
Now that the Prime Minister has confirmed that, if re-elected, the Government would propose scrapping the pound within the next two years, will the right hon. Lady press the Chancellor to table a debate so that the Government's timetable can be fully discussed by the House? That would also provide an opportunity for hon. Members to contribute to a debate on the Government's intentions with respect to the wording of a referendum question. There appears to be some confusion on the part 1070 of those on the Government Front Bench, not least the Prime Minister. We would welcome an opportunity to hear the Government's intentions.
As the Leader of the House announced, on Monday the second Opposition debate initiated by the Conservatives will give hon. Members of all parties an opportunity, of which they have been deprived by the Government, to vote on "Shifting the Balance"—that is, the shift in the balance of power from the Executive to the Back Benches in respect of Select Committees. Bearing in mind the fact that the Prime Minister has promised a free vote, will the right hon. Lady confirm that Labour Members on both Front and Back Benches will be allowed a free vote on Monday?
Will the Leader of the House give urgent consideration to the proceedings of Bills once they have passed from the Chamber into Committee? In particular, I draw her attention to the proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. The Minister claimed on Second Reading that, under the programme motion, there would be 16 sittings in Committee. However, when the Sub-Committee met, the motion proposed by the Minister was for 14 sittings.
I know that the right hon. Lady has written to Ministers about that, but it is wholly unacceptable that a programme motion that is debated in good faith by the House should be changed when the resolution is put before the Sub-Committee. The programme motions and the entire programming procedure are still in disarray. As that was the Government's initiative, I ask the right hon. Lady to get a grip as soon as possible.
Could we also have the promised annual debate on small firms? I ask that question because of a press release circulated on behalf of the Cabinet Office by its Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Manchester Blackley (Mr. Stringer). In the press release, the hon. Gentleman claims that over-regulation is a myth. Indeed, according to the Government, small firms in the UK have little cause for concern about red tape. It is not only the Opposition who disagree with that view, but organisations such as the Forum of Private Business, which has listed many questions that challenge the Government's assertions. Will the right hon. Lady arrange for a debate on small firms, so that Opposition Members can question the Parliamentary Secretary on behalf of small businesses throughout the country, about his rather exaggerated claim?
Finally, will the Leader of the House consider allowing a debate in Government time on international development? The subject has not been debated since 1 July 1997, but Opposition Members would welcome the opportunity to share with the House many of our policies, especially in relation to helping the third world. We regard such a debate as a high priority and we hope that the Government will share that view.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I know that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was in her place yesterday, so she has no excuse for pretending that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that the Government propose to scrap the pound. She is intelligent and, as far as I am aware, she is not deaf, so she must know what my right hon. Friend said. He was asked when early in a Parliament would be, and he answered that that naturally meant during its first half. That is when the Government propose that we should seek to make an 1071 assessment of the economic impact of joining the euro. That is precisely what my right hon. Friend said—[Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) wittering on. That is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. It has been said repeatedly and it will continue to be said.
I understand that things must be hard for Opposition Members, as they are desperate to pretend that the Government want to bounce people into a referendum straight after the election. However, we have made it absolutely clear, in the roundest and simplest possible terms, that we have no intention of doing any such thing. The Opposition are struggling, but they nevertheless have no excuse for suggesting that something was said when it was not said.
The hon. Lady asked me about the debate on the Liaison Committee issue. I am sure that she does not expect me to inform the House of the Government's advice to Labour Members on a Conservative party motion that we have not yet even seen, and I have no intention of doing so. She is right that it is perfectly normal for House business to be dealt with on a free vote, but the motion is not House business; it is Opposition business. With all charity to the hon. Lady, who did not have her present responsibilities when the Liaison Committee report was published, I point out that not all her colleagues will enter the Lobby to support the report if they are given a free vote.
As I said, we shall consider the matter when the motion becomes available. We may find that we must seek to amend it, but that remains to be seen. The hon. Lady spoke about a shift in power from Government to the Back Benches in respect of the report. In fact, there would be a shift in power from the Government to three individuals who are the most senior members of the existing Select Committee structure, in the new Parliament or whenever the proposals were introduced. That is not quite the same as a shift in power to Back Benchers, but the House will have its own views on the matter.
The hon. Lady asked about proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. I am not aware of the precise developments to which she referred and I shall certainly make inquiries. However, it is for the Standing Committee that considers that Bill to decide whether it needs more sittings to dispose of its business expeditiously. The handling of programme motions is not in disarray. Given that the technique is new and experimental, I believe that it is working reasonably smoothly. Furthermore, the procedure was not solely my initiative or that of the Government. I remind her that, at the outset of the current Parliament, the then Modernisation Committee recommended that we should use programme motions for all Government Bills. Of course, Opposition Members did not subsequently wish to adopt such an arrangement, for understandable reasons.
The hon. Lady asked for a debate on small business. I shall take that request into account. As she will be aware, every Leader of the House is most wary of promising annual debates, not least because so many such debates are sought with regard to many different issues. But I am of course conscious of the pressure for a debate on small business—and, as the hon. Lady will know, we held such a debate last year.
1072 I am well aware that small businesses are always concerned about over-regulation. I remember them protesting when the Conservatives made them take over the handling of sick pay and maternity pay, and they were most upset when the Conservatives made them act as immigration police. These are not unfamiliar accusations.
The hon. Lady asked for a debate on international development. That is certainly an attractive thought, especially as yesterday I once again heard the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), claim that this was yet another area in which the Conservatives did not propose to make any cuts in the Government's approved budget. They are running out of options—but I fear that that is not a reason for allowing a debate in the near future.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Has my right hon. Friend seen today's reports of an increase of £9 billion—85 per cent—in Shell's profits? Will a statement be made in the House, and will that statement call on Shell and the other oil companies to reduce the price of petrol in accordance with the Chancellor's announcements in his pre-Budget statement? If the oil companies refuse to do that, will the Chancellor be asked to impose a windfall tax on all of them in his Budget?
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I am sure that all members of the public will be concerned if they believe the price of petrol is being held artificially high when it would be possible, as well as desirable, for it to be reduced. I sympathise with my hon. Friend's wish for a statement examining these matters; I fear I cannot undertake to find time for one in the near future, but I am sure that, as always, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will heed my hon. Friend's words.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I think all Members will welcome the news that we now have a full day in which to debate the remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill. I believe that at one point the time was to be more limited.
Does the Leader of the House recall her exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) during last week's business questions, about teachers' pay and conditions? Does she now recall—she confessed then that she was not aware of it—that a written question tabled for answer on Thursday was withdrawn and retabled for answer on Friday, so that those expecting an announcement on Thursday would be caught out? Is she now aware that the announcement was actually made on the "Today" programme on Friday morning, before the publication of the written answer? Is she satisfied that that is the best way for Government policy to be announced; and can she ensure that in the coming weeks we have a better understanding—a proper understanding—of the needs of the House and its business?
As the Leader of the House will recall, the Chancellor indicated in his autumn statement that he intended to renegotiate the level of VAT that his Conservative predecessors had imposed on the repair, maintenance and conservation of churches and chapels. Can she tell us when the Chancellor will be in a position to make a full statement on progress—he has given me an answer which, frankly, suggests that little has been made—and what he 1073 proposes to do about the £38 million of additional funds from hard-pressed congregations that go towards the VAT budget?
I understand that the Chancellor intends to make some sort of announcement; when will he do so? We need to know the scope of the proposals, how the timetable will fit in with the delay in dealing with VAT and, indeed, whether the funds will be capped.
We agree with the Conservatives that we should have a debate on the timetable for the euro referendum—if only because it would allow their leader to repeat the pledge he gave on BBC South and West television, when he said that he was opposed to any referendum on the euro. He is not prepared to let the British people decide.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I was not aware of the statement to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred. I shall certainly make inquiries, as it was my impression that at least some of those currently funding the Conservative party were doing so on the basis of their belief that the party would allow a referendum. We knew, of course, that there was unlikely to be one in the next Parliament if the Conservatives were elected, because they have set their face against that, even if it is in Britain's economic interests.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point; nevertheless, it does not change my view on the likelihood of a debate in the near future on these specific matters, and on the timing.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about the Health and Social Care Bill.
On teachers' pay, I did not follow the precise timing of the way in which the matter was handled. It is always a matter of regret if people feel that others have been informed before the House, even though that may not always have happened. There would never be any question of the timing of a parliamentary question being changed to catch people out. There may be other reasons for a change, such as to ensure that precise information was available or, occasionally, to avoid one answer being swamped by another. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] Well, that is an important matter, and the House and the country were interested in the outcome of the review, and in the Government's view on it.
With regard to the renegotiation of VAT, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be in a position to make a statement on his progress on those matters, but I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention.
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a statement on job losses in the aerospace industry in Lancashire? BAE Systems is wielding an axe over thousands of jobs, but we do not yet know where that axe is going to fall. Some employees are being given no real choice of deployment: the choice between working at Warton, Salmesbury or in Saudi Arabia is not a real choice for people with families. The time has come for a statement to be made.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's concern on behalf of his constituents. I know that he and other colleagues from the north-west have been pressing for more clarity on those issues, in the 1074 House and outside, so that their constituents might know how they are going to be affected. I fear that I cannot undertake to provide a statement in the near future, although I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend will recall that it is Trade and Industry questions on Thursday, and, depending on how the draw has gone, he might find an opportunity to raise the issue then.
§ Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)
Is the Leader of the House aware that the Secretary of State for Health has failed to answer a question from me, on the exclusion of nurses in west Kent from the new cost of living supplement, that I tabled on 20 November? Is she also aware that he has failed to respond to a letter from me dated 24 November? Does she agree that that is unacceptable? What will she do about it?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am not aware of the background to the specific constituency issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Obviously, I understand his concern. If it has not proved possible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to deal with the issue until now, I shall certainly undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's concerns to his attention.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)
May I assure my right hon. Friend that my request for a debate on international debt relief was not at all influenced by the question asked by the shadow Leader of the House? After all, the Opposition had every opportunity to devote one of their Opposition day debates to that subject, but they chose to debate asylum seekers and other subjects.
A recent Oxfam study showed that of 12 countries experiencing debt relief—greatly to the credit of the Department for International Development—three of them nevertheless had to spend more on debt servicing than on health and education. DFID has a good story to tell, and a lot to contribute in terms of providing a strategy for international debt relief and the reduction of poverty. Given that it has such a good story to tell, may I support the calls for such a debate?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I understand and sympathise with both the basic points that he makes. There is a good story to tell on the Government's initiative and success in promoting the cause of debt relief.
My right hon. Friend also referred to the issue of spending on education vis-à-vis debt. We have substantially increased the resources made available, committing more than £400 million since the general election to support primary education in developing countries, as part of the increase in the development budget as a whole by 45 per cent. in real terms. I accept that the Government have a good story to tell, although there remains a great deal to be done, not least in the international arena. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in Government time in the near future, but my right hon. Friend might like to consider the attractions of the time available in Westminster Hall.
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
Will the right hon. Lady express her gratitude to the Opposition for finding time for a debate and a vote on a matter for which the Government should have provided time: the Liaison Committee report "Shifting the Balance"? 1075 Will she reflect on her reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)? The Prime Minister made it clear that there would be a free vote on the report. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that, if the Opposition table a motion in the precise words of the Liaison Committee, there will be a free vote as the Prime Minister promised?
§ Mrs. Beckett
Of course it is for the Opposition to determine topics for debate on Opposition days, and it is for the country to judge whether the Opposition's priorities reflect public concern. However, the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that the Prime Minister said, entirely correctly as always, that there is a free vote on House matters. The Prime Minister has never said, and is never likely to say, that Opposition day debates are a matter for a free vote.
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
May I support the call of the shadow Leader of the House for the Chancellor to come to the House, not to embarrass the Tory party about its single currency policy, but to give the Opposition an opportunity to hear the excellent speech that he made to a private meeting in Westminster Hall yesterday about the Government's plans for full employment in every region and for abolishing child poverty, pensioner poverty and poverty among disabled people?
§ Mrs. Beckett
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case. I am aware of the Chancellor's determination to build on the solid foundations that he has laid for the economy by tackling full employment and child poverty. I understand and sympathise with my right hon. Friend's views. He knows that, despite many opportunities on Opposition days or at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Conservative party prefers dancing around the argument about angels on the head of a pin and discussing whether any aspect of the Government's policy on the euro has changed to dealing with important issues of substance to the British people and to the future of our country. Nevertheless, I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for such a debate, although I am sure that the Chancellor would be delighted to take part in it.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
Does the right hon. Lady know that yesterday, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told the National Farmers Union annual general meeting that he believed it was time for a full debate in Parliament on bovine tuberculosis and the epidemic that has spread throughout the country under the Government? Has the Minister made any request to the right hon. Lady for such a debate? If so, when will it take place?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I would be slightly surprised to learn that my right hon. Friend had couched his remarks in those precise terms. It was not my impression that tuberculosis began to spread on 1 May 1997. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that an important agriculture debate on BSE is scheduled for the near future, and that takes precedence. The Conservative party has called for that important debate for a long time.
§ Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)
The Financial Times reports on 30 January that the Postal Services 1076 Commission, the new regulator for the Post Office, has issued a draft licence for consultation, which will take effect from 26 March. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ensure that the licence is placed in the Library? Can we have a debate on the Floor of the House before the licence becomes operational? I am especially concerned about the three years until the fines are introduced for late delivery. That is a matter of great anxiety to my constituents in Putney.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's anxiety on behalf of his constituents that the licence conditions should be properly aired. There are genuine problems, especially in parts of London. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor in the near future. However, I shall draw my hon. Friend's request for licence papers to be placed in the Library to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I also remind my hon. Friend that Trade and Industry questions are scheduled for next Thursday. He may find an opportunity to raise the matter then.
§ Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)
Why are the Government so frightened of debating the euro? Does not the right hon Lady recognise that, when she says on the "Today" programme that the decision will be taken entirely on the subjective judgment of the Chancellor and on subjective criteria that he has set, she raises the suspicion that it will be based not on what is in the best economic interests of the United Kingdom but on what is perceived by the Government to be in the electoral interests of their party?
§ Mrs. Beckett
There is no question of Labour Members being afraid of debating the euro; we are just deeply bored with the endless round-the-houses pursuit by Conservative Members attempting to find something different in what Ministers are saying. The hon. Gentleman claimed that we are worried about debating the euro because a decision might be taken not in the best economic interests of the country but in the political interests of the Government. There is only one party in the House that is determined that such a decision should be based not on the country's economic interests but on its own political stance, and that is the Conservative party.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
My right hon. Friend will recall that last week I asked for an urgent debate on the cuts in vital social services being made by Tory councillors in Calderdale. Those councillors are now proposing even more damaging cuts, this time in a health and social services initiative that has just been given beacon status because it is so highly thought of. Will my right hon. Friend please make time for a debate, not just on the cuts in Tory-controlled Calderdale but on the cuts being made by Tory-controlled councils across the country?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I understand my hon. Friend's concern, particularly since the cuts that caused her concern last week are now being exacerbated in a way that might damage the delivery of health and social care. She will recall that those of us who campaigned in local elections during this Parliament warned people who want to see improvements in health and social care about the inconsistency inherent in local authorities pursuing 1077 policies different from those of the Government. If they are happy to see such provisions cut, they are entirely right to vote for the Conservative party, because that is its policy.
I understand my hon. Friend's concern but fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House in the near future. However, it is Environment questions next Tuesday and she might find an opportunity to raise the matter then.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
Will the right hon. Lady note in her busy diary the forthcoming exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall, commencing on 26 February, in which we hope to demonstrate our vision for a future Northern Ireland by exhibiting what is best? Will she recommend to colleagues and staff in both Houses that they seek to visit the exhibition and become better informed about what is best in Northern Ireland, so that they can fully participate in future debates?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in his plug for that exhibition. I share his view that it is good for people to be aware of positive developments in Northern Ireland, not least because it is important to project a positive view and to see the Province move towards greater prosperity and success in the future.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the request by the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on international development, so that we can focus on the UN target of 0.7 per cent. of GNP, a commitment from which the Tory Government resiled during their 18 years in office, with the result that we inherited a figure of 0.2 per cent? It is important for us to increase that figure. A debate would also give us an opportunity to discuss problems such as AIDS in Africa, which is claiming 500,000 children's lives and 2.5 million adult lives.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I understand my hon. Friend's point. He is entirely right that, as far as I can recall, throughout the 18 years of Tory Government there was a sustained reduction in the resources made available to help developing countries. Although I sympathise with his concern and with his anxiety to highlight the Government's progress in the right direction—a direction to which the previous Tory Government were committed in theory, although they went in the wrong direction—I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
As the right hon. Lady is the custodian of the House's duty to hold Ministers to account, can she guarantee that if the former Treasury Solicitor, Mr. Hammond, presents a report to the Prime Minister on the conduct of Ministers, that report will be published verbatim and not bowdlerised, and that the Prime Minister will come to the House to make a statement upon which he can be questioned?
§ Mrs. Beckett
My right hon. Friend immediately volunteered to establish the inquiry—which I believe is being conducted by Sir Anthony Hammond—and it has been made clear that Sir Anthony's views and conclusions 1078 will be made public. It is a matter for him now—we hope speedily—to conduct that inquiry. The Government have no concern about putting the report in the public domain. It is we who established the inquiry so that its outcome can be in the public domain.
§ Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)
The Leader of the House will know that, at business questions and on other occasions in the House, I have raised the issue of volunteers and the Criminal Records Bureau. She will also know that, this week, in a written parliamentary answer, the Government announced that they would not be charging voluntary organisations for checks to screen out those who are unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults. Could a Minister be asked to make that announcement in the House, so that all hon. Members can congratulate the Government on it? Does she agree that such an announcement would provide hon. Members with an excellent opportunity to discuss the contrast between the Government's support for voluntary organisations and vulnerable people in our communities and the support being given them by Conservative Members?
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend is entirely right. She is only one of many hon. Members to raise the issue—although she has been most assiduous in raising it in the House—of the charge. The Government have always said that the matter was under review, and that is proven by the fact that the review has come up with a set of proposals different from those that were first advanced. She is right also to say that that is only one example of the ways in which the Government have massively increased support for voluntary organisations. I know that organisations such as the scouts and the guides, which in many ways led that campaign among voluntary organisations, will particularly welcome the announcement.
I fear nevertheless that I cannot undertake to offer to find time for a special debate on the issue—not least because, sadly, there are so many occasions when the House should be able to congratulate Ministers on taking action for which the House had called yet which turn out to be about something else entirely.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)
It is now clear that, shortly after the general election, the Government will announce their intention to ditch the pound. Does the right hon. Lady understand that most of us believe that the economic criteria are largely subjective and that the conclusions will be whatever the Chancellor wants them to be? Does she also understand that many of us believe that the constitutional and political criteria are yet more important? Consequently, should we not have before the general election early and frequent debates so that the electorate can have exposed to them exactly where the Government stand on those issues?
§ Mrs. Beckett
If I may take issue with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as the Prime Minister and I have repeatedly made clear, it is absolute rubbish to pretend—as Conservative Members are clearly desperate to do—that the Government are committed, as he puts it, to "ditching the pound" straight after the general election. What the Government are committed to doing is ensuring that there is an assessment of the economic position and of whether we feel that the economic tests are met. If, 1079 and only if, it is judged that those tests are met, the Government might make a recommendation that would be put to the decision of the British people in a referendum.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made a separate point about the constitution and political criteria, which met with loud approval on the Opposition Benches. He is entirely right that these are different issues and that they are of considerable importance. The Government have never disputed that. We have simply made it plain that, having given careful and mature consideration to those constitutional and political issues, we do not take the view that they are of sufficient weight to prevent Britain from joining the euro should we conclude that that is to our economic advantage.
I see no great need for frequent and early debates to explore these issues, as the position has always been absolutely clear. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) is rightly pointing out that it was the Conservatives who signed the Maastricht treaty. One must be cautious with information that comes from press reports, but I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has said that Conservative Members will be free, in their personal general election manifestos, to say that they want never to join the euro, even if it is in Britain's economic interest, or even to go so far as to say that we should leave the European Union. That is an interesting debate which is clearly being held sub rosa in the Conservative party. I wonder why it does not want to share it with the rest of us.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
We had a useful Adjournment debate on Monday about unsolicited mail. A load of scams are being operated to wheedle money out of people, some of whom become addicted to the methods being used against them. As every Member of Parliament has constituents who are badly affected by such operations—and the Royal Mail does not play a very honourable role in this regard—can we have a debate on the matter in Government time? We might then end up with some red tape around the necks of the people involved, which we could tighten.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend sounds uncharacteristically bloodthirsty, but hon. Members of all parties will share his irritation about unsolicited mail—and indeed unsolicited faxes and all the other paraphernalia. I fear that although I sympathise with the anxieties that are caused, I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the near future, but I will undertake to remind my ministerial colleagues of the importance that my hon. Friend and others attach to it.
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
I must repeat the call for a debate on the subject of Britain joining the euro, because the Leader of the House did not answer the question fully. The only thing that the Prime Minister was clear about yesterday was that the pound is on death row. It has a two-year stay of execution and the only chance of a reprieve is the intervention of an incoming Conservative Government. Will the right hon. Lady make absolutely clear what the question would be in such a referendum? We failed to get an answer to that from the Prime Minister yesterday. The House and the British people want a debate on the subject, so that they 1080 will have a fair and reasonable chance, when the referendum comes, to exercise their judgment and protect the interests of this country by keeping the pound.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I fear that there is remarkably little to add to what has already been said ad nauseam on the issue. I know why the Conservatives repeatedly ask what the question would be in a referendum: they want to bolster their contention that we will hold a referendum immediately after winning the general election. That is not true. We have made it absolutely clear that we have no intention of bouncing people into a referendum straight after the election. It is also absolutely clear that, if the Conservative party were to be elected, there would be no referendum. As to what is on death row, it is perfectly clear that that position is occupied by the policy programme of the Conservative party.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
May I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who called in business questions last week for an early debate on the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee? Has there been any progress?
§ Mrs. Beckett
As my hon. Friend says, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), not for the first time, asked about scheduling such a debate. I am aware of the Committee's concern that it should be held as early as possible. Debates that require the presence of two senior Cabinet Ministers, one of whom is frequently charged with being out of the country, are not always easy to schedule. I can give an assurance, however, that such issues are under active consideration. All that I can undertake is that we will do our best.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
The Leader of the House has agreed that the Prime Minister meant what he said when he responded on 13 July to a question about the report from the Liaison Committee entitled "Shifting the Balance" by saying that there would be a free vote on the matter. That is encouraging, but last week the right hon. Lady made it clear to me, as she had done previously to other hon. Members of all parties, that she was going to do her best to prevent that free vote from taking place. There is the opportunity for that free vote to take place in Opposition time on Monday—and we shall leave to one side what conclusion the electorate should draw about which party stands up for the independence of Members of Parliament and their ability to hold the Executive to account. If the terms of the motion under debate are to be precisely those adopted by the Liaison Committee, will the right hon. Lady say whether Labour Members will have a free vote?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I have never made the remarks to which the hon. Gentleman alludes. I have simply answered the questions posed repeatedly by Opposition Members by saying that matters to do with the House are decided on a free vote. I have also said that we will of course look with care at any motion that the Opposition table, although we may wish to amend it. However, it has never been the case that Opposition business is the subject of a free vote.
§ Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a debate on the future of public services, 1081 especially education and health, might be possible at some time? I am surprised that the Opposition did not pick that as the subject for one of their supply days. That is especially interesting, given last week's speech by the Leader of the Opposition on the future of public services: it seems that Opposition Members want to talk about such things outside the Chamber but not inside it. I should be especially interested to hear the Opposition's policies with regard to the two-tier education system that they want to introduce, and on the future of private health care.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend makes a strong point but he will know that, although the Leader of the Opposition refers occasionally to such policy areas outside the House he never manages—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out at last week's Question Time—to get around to asking questions about them in the House. My hon. Friend is also right to identify the great interest, time and thought being devoted by the Government to the future of our public services. He may know that the Prime Minister will very shortly—very shortly indeed, in fact—make a speech setting out the framework within which we hope to take forward our policies on education, crime and other areas. Further announcements will be made on the policy debates that we hope to take forward in the coming weeks.
I know that my hon. Friend and others will study my right hon. Friend's speech with great interest. However, although I understand my hon. Friend's wish to have a debate focusing on how we want to improve standards in public services and on how the Opposition would—given the chance—undermine and destroy them yet again, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for that debate in the near future.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
May I ask the Leader of the House yet again to reconsider a debate on the abolition of the pound, to which the Government are so committed? Is it not fair to say that the manifesto on which the Labour party fought the last election committed us to a referendum in this Parliament? That manifesto went on to state:In any event, there are three pre-conditions which would have to be satisfied before Britain could join during the next Parliament: first, the Cabinet would have to agree; then Parliament; and finally the people would have to say 'Yes'".Why were there three preconditions before the last election, whereas now there are five? Is it because the Cabinet cannot agree?
§ Mrs. Beckett
Dear, oh dear! The hon. Gentleman can surely do better than that. It remains the case that, before any referendum of the British people, an assessment must be carried out. The Cabinet would then have to come collectively to the view that that assessment meant that the tests set by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the full agreement of the whole Government, had been satisfied. The Cabinet would have to be confident—as far as that is possible in this world—that it would be in Britain's economic interests to join the euro. If the Cabinet so concluded, the decision would be put to the House and then, ultimately, to the British people.
1082 The Opposition are trying to exert general pressure in relation to this matter. I may be in error, but I think that almost every Opposition Member who has raised the matter with me and expressed such great concern for the potential loss of the pound in fact voted for the Maastricht treaty.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the anxieties felt in all steel communities throughout the United Kingdom as a consequence of Corus's announcement. I am sure that she will also accept that many Members of Parliament who represent steel areas are furious at the response of Sir Brian Moffat, who, having offered us the opportunity to speak with him today, has cancelled the meeting. We see this, once more, as a sign that he is contemptuous of Members of Parliament and of this House.
Some 22,000 people in the industry are directly employed by Corus. That figure can be multiplied by five, taking into account others who are employed as a consequence. Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on steel?
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend has taken every opportunity to raise this matter, as have other Members representing constituencies strongly affected by the moves proposed by Corns. I think that Members across the House will share her concern if there are difficulties, when constituents' interests are so much at stake, in making contact with those who have the authority to make the decisions.
As my hon. Friend knows, there was a recent debate in Westminster Hall about this matter, and I am confident that it will continue to be aired. I fear that I cannot undertake at present to find time for a further special debate in the near future. However, my hon. Friend will know that it is Department of Trade and Industry questions next week and the issue may well come up then.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Can we please have an urgent debate on the increasing but understandable propensity of the Scottish Parliament to vote increased benefits to the Scottish people at the expense of the English taxpayer? Is it not about time that we had a full explanation of why it is considered proper for the taxpayer to spend 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. more on Scottish people in terms of health and education, while English taxpayers—long-suffering and patient though they are—are expected to put up with this state of affairs indefinitely? Please can we have a debate so that we can clarify the matter and put an end to it?.[Interruption.]
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington reminds me of something that I was about to mention. The right hon. Gentleman speaks very forcefully on behalf of his constituents, although the decisions to which he refers were made long ago and are constantly aired in the House. May I say—with deep respect to you, Mr. Speaker—that it is a little surprising that the right hon. Gentleman, as a good Scot, appears to be so anxious about the Scottish Parliament?
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) in asking for a debate on the need to introduce new law to deal with scams—postal scams in my hon. Friend's case and fax scams in mine?
1083 My sister and her husband have a hotel in Lincolnshire, and she has sent me a huge pile of telephone scams received over the past three years. They are all false bookings for the hotel, sent out by companies that have been set up with the specific objective of conning hoteliers in the United Kingdom. The scam is talked about in hotel industry magazines to alert hoteliers, but it is going on in other businesses all over the country. We need new law to stop these scams.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and powerful point. I was not aware of the episode to which he alludes, although I am aware that, unfortunately, the fraudulent and criminal mind is always good at devising new means of taking money off people. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the issue in the very near future.
I confess that I was not aware of the point that my hon. Friend was about to raise when he first spoke about outlawing scams—I thought that he was talking about what the Financial Times said about the Conservative party's policy on student loans.
§ Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)
Last night, the Select Committee on Education and Employment—or, at least, the Labour members of the Committee—released a report on access to higher education. We look forward to an early debate, before the election, on the Government's response to what was in the report, as well as on tackling student hardship and debt aversion, which were not in the report.
It can be seen from the proceedings that at the very last meeting of the Select Committee, the mild criticism of the Chancellor over the Laura Spence affair, previously agreed by all members, was deleted by the Labour majority. There were rumours that there was Cabinet pressure to remove such criticism which, in turn, implies unauthorised knowledge of the content of private proceedings. Can the right hon. Lady reassure the House that she and—as far as she can say—her Cabinet colleagues did not receive premature or unauthorised information about what was in the report, or about the private proceedings of the Committee?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I received no such information, nor indeed am I aware of the slightest evidence that any member of the Government did so. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman makes such an allegation. I am aware that some concern was expressed in the Committee about the unauthorised release of information—but not by Labour Members. The issue should be handled with more caution. The Government will, of course, respond in the fulness of time to the Select Committee report, which has only just appeared. It remains to be seen whether the issue as a whole will be dealt with accurately. On the "Today" programme this morning, I heard the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) make the astonishing assertion that the Labour party brought in the student loan system. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman was 10 years ago, when the Conservatives introduced that scheme, but if we cannot have higher standards of accuracy than that, our debates will certainly be carried out with increasing difficulty.
§ Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)
My right hon. Friend is of course aware of the remarks made nearly two weeks ago by the father of Damilola Taylor—that this country needs to address an agenda of moral regeneration. Does she agree that the House should take that matter seriously and that, because of those events, it is incumbent on the Government to find time to consider ways that we can respond constructively to that viewpoint?
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I know that the whole House was impressed by Mr. Taylor's anxieties and concerns and sympathises with him in his sorrow. I do not anticipate being able to find time for a debate on that specific matter in the near future. However, perhaps during the days and weeks ahead, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary turns his attention to the outlook and to the changes that we propose to roll forward in our agenda for handling crime and offences—not least among the young—some opportunity will arise to focus on the issues raised by my hon. Friend.