HC Deb 11 January 2001 vol 360 cc1235-54 12.32 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the forthcoming 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 15 JANUARY—Motions relating to the Capital Allowances Bill.

Second Reading of the Capital Allowances Bill.

Motions relating to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

TUESDAY 16 JANUARY—Motion relating to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.

Second Reading of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.

Motion on the Education (School Teachers' Pay and Conditions)(No.4) Order 2000.

WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY Consideration in Committee of the Hunting Bill.

THURSDAY 18 JANUARY—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day].

Until about 4 o'clock, there will be a debate on "Teacher Supply and Standards in Education", followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Failure to Maintain an adequate Police Force". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

FRIDAY 19 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include: MONDAY 22 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill.

WEDNESDAY 24 JANUARY—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 25 JANuARY—Debate on fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 26 JANUARY—Debate on the rural and urban White Papers on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that on Monday 29 January, there will be a debate relating to Members of the European Parliament and the audit of expenditure by EP political groups in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 17 January, there will be a debate relating to sport in European Standing Committee C.

[Wednesday 17 January 2001:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: (a) COM (99) 644: The Helsinki Report on Sport; (b) COM (99) 643: Doping in Sport; (c) Unnumbered EM dated 23 November 2000: Declaration on Sport; Relevant European Scrutiny committee reports: HC 23-viii, HC 23-xiii and HC 23-xxxi (1999–2000).

Wednesday 29 January 2001:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: (a) 9712/00, Statute for Members of the European Parliament; (b) 9560/00, Audit of expenditure by EP political groups. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports: HC 23-xxvii and HC 23-xxix (1999–2000) and HC 28-ii (2000–01).]

Mrs. Browning

I thank the right hon. Lady for announcing the business, but I regret that the Government have not listened to the Opposition's requests about the Committee stage of the Hunting Bill, the first part of which will be taken on the Floor of the House. That debate will still be restricted to one day, which we consider to be entirely inadequate.

The Leader of the House did not mention Tuesday 23 January. I assume, therefore, that there is a vacant slot, and perhaps she might be receptive to some of our suggestions about the business that may be taken on that day. At the last business questions before the House rose for the Christmas recess, I raised with her the increasing concern, both in the House and outside, about Equitable Life and the role played in the past three years, first by the Treasury and subsequently by the Financial Services Authority. There is a widespread belief that the supervisory role of those authorities was not carried out properly. In the circumstances, we believe that that merits a debate on the Floor of the House so that all hon. Members can make their representations.

Another matter is still pending from the Christmas recess. Members noticed with interest the Deputy Prime Minister's activities during the recess, especially his presence at Leeds station. Leeds station is, of course, a mainline station for this country. At the time, the Deputy Prime Minister was categoric that the problems there would be resolved, but there are still no mainline services from Leeds. Will a debate on that matter be held in Government time, because it obviously affects not only those who live in the Leeds area, but those who wish to use that line, both north and south?

Given the very worrying job losses in manufacturing, especially in Wales, will the Leader of the House ensure that we have the traditional St. David's day debate on the Floor of the House on 1 March? As that happens to be a Thursday, it would not be difficult to accommodate that request if she was minded to do so.

Will the Government also consider holding a debate on early years education? The Leader of the House will be aware that 1,000 playgroups closed last year and that 1,500 pre-schools have closed since new Labour came to office. The Pre-School Learning Alliance anticipates that another 1,700 will close as a result of the Government's policies, so it would be appropriate for the Government to allocate sufficient time for hon. Members to debate that on the Floor of the House.

Will the right hon. Lady consider very carefully the consequences of the way in which business is now taken in respect of programme motions and Programming Sub-Committees? I attended the first Programming Sub-Committee, which met this week to consider the programme for the Vehicles (Crime) Bill. The Chairman suspended the Committee for 15 minutes for the Clerk and others to take advice about the proceedings and how the Committee's business should be conducted. I draw to the right hon. Lady's attention the fact that no minutes are taken of such Committees. If hon. Members refer to what is said in such a Committee at the beginning of the Standing Committee, as happened this week with the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, it is a matter of one Member's word against another as to how that Committee's deliberations proceeded. That is most unsatisfactory. Even worse, a manuscript amendment was tabled in the Sub-Committee and a vote was taken, but there is no record of how that vote was conducted for the House to consider.

During this week's business, Mr Speaker, you ruled that such Committees would be subject to Select Committee rules. Therefore, I ask the Leader of the House to consider seriously the fact that those proceedings are the product of the Modernisation Committee, which she chairs. She will know that those proceedings and the proposal that she brought to House did not have the support of the official Opposition. Those proposals having been introduced by the Leader of the House, who has responsibility for the whole House, I must ask her to sort out the mess that has been created and to return such proceedings to the Floor of the House so that we can all make our views known.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady raised the issue of having only one day to debate hunting. I do not recall being asked for more than one day on the Floor in Committee on the Hunting Bill, nor do I see any great necessity for it. It is a relatively simple issue. Members will have differing views about the options that we should pursue. The whole idea is that a decision in principle will be made as to which option commands the greatest support in the House and that the detail will then be examined in Committee.

The hon. Lady asked me about the business for Tuesday 23 January. I said that some matters were still under discussion and gave a broad pattern for the business for the week after next. She will know that the usual channels are discussing those matters and that there is good reason for that.

The hon. Lady raised the matter of Equitable Life. That is under discussion and it will no doubt be examined in the course of the normal business of the House. At the moment I do not envisage finding time for a special debate, but I will keep the issue under review and draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends who deal with these matters.

I am aware that some safety work is continuing at Leeds station. The hon. Lady will be aware that questions to the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department will be taken on Tuesday and no doubt an opportunity may arise to raise the matter then.

Obviously, I will consider through the usual channels the potential for a St. David's day debate.

I was a little surprised at the hon. Lady's remarks about the closure of pre-schools and playgroups as a result of Government policies. I take it that she means the enormous expansion of nursery education that the Government have undertaken.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

My hon. Friend did not mean that.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady did not mean that, according to her right hon. Friend. Nevertheless, she must surely be aware of that investment and of the resulting far greater opportunities available to our young children. She should also know that the Government have put extra resources into playgroups precisely to help them deal with the knock-on effects of this different range of opportunities available to the youngest children.

The hon. Lady asked me to look at the management of Programming Sub-Committees. She will be aware that it was always envisaged that they would work by informal arrangement—[HON. MEMBERS:"By whom?"] If hon. Gentlemen will allow me, I will finish the sentence—along the lines of those undertaken successfully, for example, in the Greater London Authority Standing Committee. It was always envisaged that they would work along the lines of previously existing Business Sub-Committees. [Interruption.] As for the issue—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mrs. Beckett

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. If this is not to be a dialogue, we will have to proceed differently.

As for whether or not minutes should be taken and what reference should be made to the discussions and so on, those issues are in part at least, Mr. Speaker, for you and the Vote Office. Of course I undertake to consider these matters, but I cannot undertake to bring back to the Floor of the House for discussion a procedure which the House has begun on an experimental basis, simply because one Committee has met and the hon. Lady is unhappy with its proceedings.

The House as a whole has decided to adopt this new set of procedures, albeit not with the consent of all Opposition Members. It follows recommendations by successive Committees of this House for at least 10 years and it offers the Opposition an opportunity, should they wish to take it, to make constructive use of time for debate and to make sure that all legislation is properly debated. [Interruption.] Let me make it clear from the Dispatch Box that there is absolutely no compulsion on the Opposition to use this time intelligently—and there is no evidence to suggest that they intend to do so.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

In considering her future programme, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the clear will of this House in the debate on the last Modernisation Committee report that we should end the nonsense of legislating in the early hours of the morning and that we should reassure the British people that we are not time wasting in debates on the Floor of the House or in Committee, but giving detailed scrutiny to legislation passing through the House? That was the desire and aim of the House. It is what British people want. It is what the Conservative party and others who are opposed to the modernisation of this place have been trying to stop. If that is the case, will my right hon. Friend ensure that further measures are introduced to ensure that legislation is properly scrutinised, even if the Opposition are unable or unwilling to engage in that process?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely correct in saying that the purpose of the changes proposed by the Modernisation Committee is to ensure that we make better and more effective use of the time available to the House, and that we use that time a little earlier in the evening than has sometimes been the case. That is principally because successive generations of hon. Members of all parties have observed that people are not at their best in the early hours of the morning—they only think they are.

My hon. Friend also made an important point about scrutiny, which reminded me that, in many ways, there is no advantage to the Government in proceeding in the way that we have identified. It is open to any Government to guillotine and to curtail discussion on any legislation. In so doing, they can, if they wish, ensure that it is impossible for the House to have time to examine parts of legislation, detailed debate on which the Government—any Government—might find embarrassing.

A mechanism is now potentially available to the House whereby the Opposition can decide how to use the time available and decide on which items in the legislation they wish to focus the debate. However, I repeat that there can be no compulsion on them to do so. If the Opposition wish to continue to waste time rather than to use it valuably, there is nothing that we can do to make them change.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can we have an urgent and early debate on the issue of the health hazards for our service personnel from depleted uranium? Is the Leader of the House aware of the report that was revealed this morning, apparently prepared by an official, which suggests that this hazard was identified no less than four years ago? Can we be told urgently—even before such a debate takes place—whether that advice was available to Ministers or their immediate advisers, and when it was available? Was it before or after the previous general election?

Reverting to the issue of scrutiny raised by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), I endorse his request that we reconsider that matter. Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government's management of their business this week has degenerated into a ghastly shambles that is certainly undermining the whole case for the modernisation agenda?

I particularly ask the right hon. Lady to consider whether we need to take the programme motion immediately after the Second Reading debate. Such a practice means that we cannot consider any of the issues that arose in the debate. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have already made the point that it is extremely difficult. I have re-read the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, which the right hon. Lady chairs and on which I sit, but I found no reference to the programme motion having immediately to follow the Second Reading debate. There seems to be no technical reason why it should, and not doing so would remove one of the objections that both Opposition parties rightly share to the way in which the business of the House has been handled this week.

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the basic requirement of the Modernisation Committee recommendations, which was that there should be informal discussions about the whole of the Government's business? I appreciate that this year might not be a useful one from the point of view of avoiding oppositionitis on the Conservative Benches, but even so, no attempt has been made to discuss the handling of the Government's business on an all-party basis. That is why chaos has ensued this week.

Mrs. Beckett

My understanding is that the document about depleted uranium to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which appeared in the press this week, relates to an incomplete draft paper that was produced as long ago as 1993. Much of its content is said to be scientifically incorrect or misleading. Consequently, there is nothing to add to the statement that was made about the issue earlier this week.

Regarding the matters that the hon. Gentleman raised on the handling of Programming Sub-Committees and programme motions, his recollection and mine differ somewhat. He may recall that we discussed whether the vote should be taken as a package, recognising that that would entail a number of votes after 10 o'clock. It was always my understanding that the Government's proposal for the programme motion would be taken as package on Second Reading.

As for the general discussion on business, we may be speaking at cross-purposes. The intention, which I understand has been carried out, was that there should be informal discussions on initial reactions to the Queen's Speech. There were proposals for a more formal process, but they were not accepted. Instead, we agreed that the discussions should be informal and informative, at least in part, so that we did not tie the hands of the Opposition by making them commit to decisions early on in the life of a Parliament before more information became available.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Will my right hon. Friend look at early-day motion 175, which I have tabled?

[That this House expresses its disgust with, and condemnation of, Colley Civil Engineering of 76 Meagill Rise, Otley, West Yorshire, for persisting in failing to pay their former employee, Mr. Mark Aspray of Gorton, Manchester, £280 due to him in wages since April 2000 and for deliberately refusing to respond to correspondence sent on behalf of Mr. Aspray by his Member of Parliament, the Right honourable Member for Manchester, Gorton; warns other potential employees to steer clear of these disgraceful employers; and calls on potential customers and clients of Colley Engineering to have nothing to do with an organisation which cheats those who work for it.]

It relates to the swindling of my constituent, Mr. Mark Aspray, of pay due to him from Colley Civil Engineering of Otley. Will she also look at early-day motion 176, which relates to the swindling of Mr. John Carroll in my constituency of pay due to him by Ideal Cleaning Contractors of Farnworth?

Will my right hon. Friend consider providing time for the House to debate those motions so that I am able to draw attention to the way in which those companies not only swindled their employees, but will, no doubt, swindle their customers? It is intolerable that they should behave in such a manner and not respond to demands for the money to be paid.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my right hon. Friend's anger on behalf of his constituents and, indeed, his concern, as I understand it from his early-day motions, that approaches to the companies have produced no response. All hon. Members would deplore that. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time to explore the issues in detail. We have provided substantially more time for debate and scrutiny in Westminster Hall, and he might like to consider raising the matter there.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

As this is the first time that the Leader of the House has been at the Dispatch Box this year, may I wish her a happy new year? I hope that she enjoyed her visit to New York. Her absence would explain why she has not entirely understood some of this week's nonsense regarding the programming procedures of Committees. Does she accept that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to ensure that we can debate in Committee all aspects of legislation? That was the intention of the recommendations of the Programming Sub-Committee. I am afraid that the Government did not make it clear from the Dispatch Box during the debates that that was the intention.

The idea was that the Government would attempt to meet, with all reasonableness, the Opposition's demands for the debates upstairs in Committee to be properly planned and programmed, which should be to the advantage of the Opposition. Will the right hon. Lady make it absolutely clear that the Government share that intention? That would defuse some of the feelings that are boiling up, as illustrated by the hon. Member for Hammersmith—or is it Shepherd's Bush? [HON. MEMBERS: "Shepherd's pie."] The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) has a difficult enough job; we do not have to add to it.

If the right hon. Lady makes it clear that that is the Government's intention, the experiment might have a chance of working.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and I return new year good wishes to the whole House.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to reaffirm that it was absolutely the intention of the Modernisation Committee's proposals, which were carried by the House on a free vote, to make public what all Members of any experience in the House know to be the case, namely, the date where the Government anticipate and want a Bill to leave Committee. The aim is to provide transparency in the management of discussions on legislation and, in particular, to ensure that if the Opposition want proper scrutiny and discussion of a Bill, that scrutiny and discussion can focus on the issues that members of the Committee, especially Opposition Members, believe to be of the most importance and weight.

I am slightly surprised to learn that the right hon. Gentleman feels that there is any dubiety about that. However, I undertake to write to all my ministerial colleagues reminding them of our purpose and making it clear that the Government hope that discussions will proceed in that way and believe that the arrangements will make a contribution to the scrutiny of legislation which will be to the advantage of the whole House.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Department of Health is today chairing an important seminar on organ retention? That follows the disclosure that organs of children who died at Alder Hey hospital and elsewhere were removed without informed consent. When the report on Alder Hey has been published, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the major, sensitive issues involved are properly debated in the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of today's discussions, which are of great interest and will arouse great concern throughout the House. On the assumption that there are weighty issues involved that will benefit from further scrutiny in the House, I shall certainly bear my hon. Friend's request in mind and continue to discuss the matter, not least through the usual channels.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the Government's announcement last July about resurfacing concrete roads? Is she aware that there is great disappointment in Doveridge that according to the Highways Agency's announcement on 29 December—a day on which there was a great deal of media interest—the A50 is not to be included in the programme for 2001?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that there are improvements that many of us want, not least because of the considerable under-investment over many years. I cannot undertake to find time for a specific debate on the A50 in Doveridge, but I can again recommend the virtues of the extra time available in Westminster Hall.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As someone who has not always been in favour of programming business for various reasons, which I shall not go into now, may I ask my right hon. Friend to accept that the experiment will be judged largely on how far the Opposition of the day are able to discuss in Committee all the controversial matters that they want to discuss? If that happens, there will undoubtedly be a case for the experiment to be taken seriously, and not in the frivolous way in which the Opposition are conducting matters.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes the powerful, entirely correct point that in a rational world the experiment should be judged on whether it provides the opportunity for adequate scrutiny. He also makes the valid point that it is always open to any Opposition simply to waste whatever time is available—and if the Conservative party ultimately decides to do that, the changes will not benefit the scrutiny of legislation for which the Government wish and the House decided to provide. If it becomes apparent that time is being wasted, that will affect how people judge the experiment because, however much Members of all parties kid themselves, time wasting always brings the House into disrepute. The public do not understand when we waste time; they understand when we use it well.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

The Leader of the House will recall the commitment that she gave me at business questions on 16 November about the Government's continuing consideration of the Liaison Committee proposals on parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive. Did the substance of Tuesday night's debate on setting up the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee, both as to the proportion and the relevant backgrounds of Back Benchers proposed for membership, reinforce or diminish the arguments that she deployed on behalf of the Executive in the 9 November debate on the Liaison Committee proposals?

Mrs. Beckett

Although I shall certainly do so, I am afraid that I have not had an opportunity to study in depth the link between the debate that I know was held on that issue earlier this week and the Liaison Committee report. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that at this moment it is hard to envisage that it would be likely to change the views that I expressed then.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 179—a very good motion that refers to taking back the track?

[That this House congratulates the railway unions on the launch of their campaign 'Take Back the Track' in the face of Railtrack PLC's failure to meet its obligation to provide a safe and efficient rail network; further considers that the current structure is insufficient to restore public confidence and attract people back to rail travel; and consequently calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation at the earliest possible opportunity to return Railtrack PLC to an appropriate form of public ownership.]

As a Member of Parliament for a railway town, my right hon. Friend will understand the virtues of such a motion. Will she find time for a debate on it? If not, will she bear it in mind that railway privatisation was one of the craziest things that the Tories did in 18 years, and that it was done with the purpose of lining the pockets of their friends? It will be necessary, because the subject will not go away, to take the track back into public ownership. If we cannot have a debate, will she join me in ensuring that that becomes part and parcel of the next Labour manifesto? It will be a sure-fire winner.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is continuing concern about the operation of rail, but I fear that there are no plans to do as the early-day motion suggests and return Railtrack to public ownership, although he will know that we are reviewing whether there are any impediments in the current arrangement to the provision of a safe and efficient rail service. He will also be well aware of the enormous increase in resources that the Government intend to make available to rectify the problems that have arisen as a result of decades of under-investment.

Mr. Skinner

I am not suggesting paying for it.

Mrs. Beckett

No, and I am well aware that my hon. Friend would be the last to suggest that moneys should be expended on compensation. Although his suggestion is interesting and we all share his wish to make improvements in rail transport provision, that specific path is not one that, at present, the Government are contemplating.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Hon. Members on both sides of the House from fishing constituencies will acknowledge and appreciate the fact that Government time has been found on 25 January to discuss important issues facing the industry. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Fisheries Minister will be able to react during that Adjournment debate to the important consultations in Brussels next week on the ludicrous and counterproductive European Commission proposals for prosecution in respect of cod fishery in the North sea in the ensuing six months? If he is able to do so, it would also be helpful if he could say a word about any progress being made to get the Commission to abandon its equally counterproductive and damaging proposals to cut the prawn quota for next year.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. He was one of those Members who pressed for the fishing debate and he understood why we were unable to hold it earlier. Whether it will be possible for the Fisheries Minister to give such a reaction will depend a little on how the European Union discussions go and whether there is something constructive that he can report. However, I undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Fisheries Minister, who will, I know, take them seriously and give the House as much information as he can.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

My right hon. Friend may not have had the opportunity to read this week's Basildon Evening Echo. Had she done so, she would have read of the tragic death of a brave young woman of 18 who died after waiting two years for a suitable donor for a transplant operation. On looking further into the matter, it was discovered that in 1994 the rules were changed so that kidney and organ donor cards were not sent automatically to chemist shops and GPs, who have to apply for and order them. As a result, there is a great shortage of them and people across the country no longer have the choice to take up a donor card and donate an organ after their death if they want to.

Can we have a debate on the subject to draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health? We must reverse the rules introduced in 1994 and send cards automatically to all chemists and GPs.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important and serious issue. The House no doubt wishes to convey its condolences to her constituent's family, especially in the difficult circumstances that my hon. Friend describes. I readily admit that I was not aware that the rules had been changed in 1994 in the way that she identifies. I have carried a donor card for more years than I care to remember, and share her view that it is important that as many people as possible who would be willing to be organ donors are able to do so. The most important thing is for people to make sure not only that they carry a card, but that they make their family and friends aware of their wishes in that respect. I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health who, I know, will take them seriously.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Perhaps because of my characteristic generosity, I assume that the Leader of the House innocently misunderstood the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) for a debate on early years education. The right hon. Lady should know that the Select Committee report published today calls for diversity of provision in early years, yet since 1997 we have 30,000 fewer places in pre-schools and playgroups, and we have a fall of 20,000 in the number of providers. That includes a sharp fall in the number of child minders. There is a crisis across the sector. We need an urgent debate, and I repeat the call made earlier by my hon. Friend for such a debate.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the wish for diversity. No one on either side of the House would deny that diversity in provision is welcome, and it would be wrong for the impression to be created that there has been some deliberate plan to reduce diversity in provision. To some extent, a re-balancing of provision is taking place as a result of the far greater opportunities for nursery education opened up under the Government. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate on the matter. We have just had Education questions, but the hon. Gentleman knows that among the other virtues of Westminster Hall is the fact that there is infinitely more time—four times as much—for discussion of Select Committee reports. He may want to press, through the Liaison Committee, for the report to be one of those debated there.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on aviation policy? The long-awaited consultation paper, "The Future of Aviation", was issued on 12 December. There was no Government statement or debate at that time, nor has there been since, so I urge that upon my right hon. Friend. Will she pass on to her colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions my thanks for their decision shortly before the recess that almost halved the number of night flights going over Putney? I hope that that will lead to a total ban on night flights.

My constituents have expressed concern that the consultation paper clearly states that the White Paper will be tabled only after a decision is taken on terminal 5 at Heathrow. It is extremely important that my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate covering aviation policy as a whole, but which particularly takes soundings of the views of the House on terminal 5, which I hotly oppose, as did some 99 per cent. of the people who appeared at the public inquiry.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for the discussions that are under way, and for the changes that have already been undertaken to try to achieve a fairer approach to aircraft noise. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, but I can recommend to him, too, the advantages of a debate in Westminster Hall. I also remind him that it is questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on Tuesday, and he may find an opportunity then to raise the issue.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I thought that the question asked by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) was revealing. Will the Leader of the House acknowledge that the Opposition have played entirely by the rules this week—her rules—and that it would be monstrous and tyrannical if the Government, at the urging of their Back Benchers, tried to change the rules? The only weapon available to any Opposition, which she would have used—and, indeed did use—when she was in opposition, is time. Are the right hon. Lady and her colleagues beginning to realise that the old system based on consent was better? It may have resulted in people getting home to bed earlier. The right hon. Lady can go on changing the rules again and again, but we shall go on fighting the Government and ensuring that this is a proper Parliament with a proper debate on scrutiny.

Mrs. Beckett

The basic premise of the hon. Gentleman's question is misplaced. In all my years in the House, I have never ever wasted time on fruitless discussion of pointless and trivial matters. I have always planned any Committee stage of which I was part, and have always planned and programmed discussion to make sure that all matters could be aired, so that, in particular, most time is given to the most important matters. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's basic premise is mistaken. I am not saying that there have never been Members who use time in the way that he describes, but I have never found that attractive and have never thought that it appeals to public or those who wish us to scrutinise legislation properly.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say, however, that, as with any other place of work, this place works best, most efficiently and most effectively when there is broad consent and understanding of what we are trying to do. We are supposed to be trying to scrutinise legislation, not engaging in self-indulgent time wasting.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend will know that, with the change in the American Administration and the Bush takeover, there will be a welcome change in foreign policy on Iraq. Some of us would welcome taking a more aggressive position. Could my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on Iraq, so that Members' varying and changing views could be well understood by the Government, as we ourselves begin to reform our foreign policy on Iraq?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that those issues are under continuing review, discussion and debate. He will know from his many years of experience in the effective use of the procedures of the House that debates on foreign affairs on the Floor of the House tend to range over a much greater expanse than one area of the world, let alone one country. One of the many reasons why the Modernisation Committee recommended that extra time should be made available in the procedures of Westminster Hall was to allow for debates of that kind. I believe that some such debates have already taken place, and have been found both constructive and genuinely useful by those who took part in them. Perhaps I could recommend that course to my hon. Friend.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The right hon. Lady will recall that, in two successive sets of business questions last year, I felt impelled to pursue her in seeking a debate on the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998 on our legislation and regulations. Re-reading her last oral answer to me, she rather pooh-poohed the importance of that. Will she look at the matter again? I could give her instances in which the Act will have a profound effect on parts of the town and country planning system other than the appeal system, which is the subject of an appeal to the House of Lords. For example, since I asked those questions, Members on both sides of the House have recognised the fundamental importance of the issue in arbitration in the construction industry. If we cannot have a debate on the Floor of the House next week, will the right hon. Lady kindly look at having it before Easter?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to have a debate on the matter on the Floor of the House although, again, I would certainly recommend to the hon. Gentleman the greater opportunities available in Westminster Hall. Of course, I take his point and I apologise if I appeared to pooh-pooh it, as I did not intend to do so in any way. I simply took, and continue to take, the view that it is perhaps a little early to assess the impact of the changes. Many concerns which, I accept, are perfectly legitimate and reasonable, are as yet somewhat theoretical. I shall obviously keep the matter under review and consideration. However, at this moment in time, I am not sure that we are likely to find time for an early debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

May I tell my right hon. Friend about a recent incident in my constituency, involving the vicious racist murder of a local taxi driver, Mr. Tariq Javed? Would she join me in sending condolences to Mr. Javed's family and in expressing thanks to the local police for their efficient conduct of the investigation into the incident? Does she agree that there appears to be a rise across the country in racist incidents of this kind, and that those politicians who choose to use intolerance and xenophobia for their own political purposes have a special responsibility for creating the climate in which the growth in racist incidents takes place? Will she find time in the near future to arrange for a full and frank debate on racist incidents in the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that the whole House sends its condolences to the family of my hon. Friend's constituent. It is always appalling when somebody's life is taken in such a manner. The House will also want to join him in appreciating the efficient and speedy way in which the police conducted the investigation. Many hon. Members will share his understandable concern that none of us should do or say anything that fosters a climate in which it appears that racist attacks are acceptable. I am not aware of a growing trend such as that to which he referred. Every such event is particularly shocking. I shall draw his remarks and observations about the trend to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in case there is evidence or opinion that backs them up, but I fear that I cannot find time for an early debate on the matter in the near future. Perhaps I can recommend to him also the additional opportunities for debate elsewhere.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

The Leader of the House has my greatest respect for her abilities in her office. I do not, however, understand why somebody with those qualities can suggest to the House that she is the sole arbiter of what is important and what should be given time in Parliament. In any democracy, it is the right of the Opposition to decide what is important and what should be given parliamentary time. When she expresses such views and tries to impose on the House what shall be dealt with and in what time, she is patronising the Opposition; she offers us patronage that we then refuse. The Liberal Democrats might be bought off with such patronage, but they should be on the Labour side of the House anyway. Opposition Members will not be bought off, as we put parliamentary democracy and its effectiveness above all else.

Mrs. Beckett

I say with respect—I have respect for the hon. Gentleman—that I share many of his views about the importance of the use of time in the House. I am not clear, however, about where he believes that I suggested that I should be the sole arbiter of what is important. In fact, that is the opposite of what I have repeatedly pointed out: we have offered the Opposition the chance to decide how time should be used. As for the specific date when legislation leaves the Committee stage, that has always been in the purview of the Government; it is merely that nobody used to say anything about it.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the possibility of allowing a debate on the middle east? An Adjournment debate occurred in Westminster Hall in October, but far more hon. Members wanted to participate than could be accommodated. When I think back to crises, in Kosovo and Bosnia, I remember frequent ministerial statements and debates in the House. Since September and October last year, when violence erupted in the occupied territories, in the west bank and Gaza, we have not heard a statement from a Minister or been given an opportunity for debate. In the light of the current serious circumstances, the middle east, like Iraq and the change of presidency in America, deserves the attention of the whole House.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right that the middle east peace process raises issues that are of concern among hon. Members of all parties. I understand fully that there is rarely enough time to discuss all the issues that hon. Members rightly feel to be important and of pressing concern. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on the Floor of the House. As my hon. Friend knows, there are other opportunities for raising the matter, not least Foreign Office questions on 23 January.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

If indeed there is a vacant day on Tuesday 23, may I urge the right hon. Lady, in the strongest terms, to use that time for a debate on Lord Phillips's report on BSE? It will be almost exactly three months since that report was published. In Germany, two Ministers have resigned after a handful of cases. In Britain, the previous Government presided over events that led to the tragic deaths of many people, caused businesses throughout the agricultural world to go to the wall and resulted in an estimated cost of almost £5 billion to the United Kingdom. Is it not time the House had a chance to debate those matters properly?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that there is no such thing as a vacant day in this life, but discussion is taking place about how to make most effective use of time on that day. I fear that we will not be able as speedily as that to have a debate on the Phillips report on the BSE crisis. The hon. Gentleman will recall that it was something like a 16-volume report, and when it was first published my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture said that he wanted to give it the full consideration and weight that the work involved demanded, and that he hoped others would do the same. I anticipate that there will be a debate on that report, but perhaps not quite as speedily as the hon. Gentleman would like.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that Education and Employment questions are dominated by education questions? In the Question Time that we have just had, only two of the 11 questions that were dealt with were employment questions. Out of the 36 on the Order Paper, only six were employment questions. Many of us want to raise issues at Employment questions, such as the problem that I keep pursuing—Biwater at Clay Cross, where 700 jobs have now gone and there are serious problems of regeneration. Should we not have separate Question Times for education and employment?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend uses all the opportunities available to him properly to raise the concerns of his constituents. The number of questions on education as opposed to employment depends on the draw, which is done randomly. I understand the wish to have further question sessions and to split the two subjects, but I fear that I cannot undertake to my hon. Friend that such a step is likely to be taken in the near future. There is always more demand for the opportunity to raise issues than any use of time could possibly supply, but my hon. Friend is a clear example and standard of how, no matter what the fundamental provision is and what the rules are about the way this place works, people manage to raise their points when they wish to do so.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What steps will the right hon. Lady take to protect the business of the House next week from the shambles that befell it on Monday night this week, when the House was without a quorum? Will she seek to maintain a quorum on the Government Benches next week? Will that quorum accord with the aspirations of major Labour party backers, in that it should not be hideously white, grotesquely male or of sadly uniform sexual proclivity?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not quite sure how a representative sample of the House would fit that definition. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the Government will manage their part in the public's business and the House's business effectively and efficiently. I wish I could see evidence that the same was true of the Opposition.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we discuss early-day motion 2217, tabled on 24 June 1993? It said that the House condemned the Government's failure to respond positively to hon. Members' concern on the dangers of depleted uranium weapons, and called for an investigation into the health consequences for British troops. That was one of many concerns expressed from 1991 to 1993 about uranium depleted weapons. The leaked letter today, although imperfect, reveals that the Ministry of Defence was genuinely concerned and knew about the likely consequences of depleted uranium in creating cancers among our soldiers. The story of the previous Government's policy—the denial of information and the neurotically secretive answers from the MOD—should be exposed to the House.

We should have a proper debate on this issue. The inquiry into the effects of these weapons should not be taking place now: it should have taken place 10 years ago.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. Some of the concerns being discussed today have been discussed for seven or more years—certainly during the Conservative party's time in office.

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and others will continue to raise these issues, and to hear them aired and debated properly in the House. All I can tell him now, however, is that—he probably knows this—there is still a dispute about the nature of the scientific evidence relating to the impact of such material. No doubt that question, like others, will continue to be discussed, as is perfectly proper; but I fear that I cannot find the time for a debate on the Floor of the House of the kind that my hon. Friend wants in the near future. In any event, it is clear from what he himself said that such an occasion would not provide the only opportunity for Members to give their views. The debate on this issue has been raging, and will continue to rage, for many years.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the Leader of the House afford us time at an early date to discuss transport in and for London? Is she aware that London Underground's rail unions are balloting their members today on industrial action—in effect, politically motivated industrial action against her party's proposals for modernisation of the tube? Is she also aware that the Mayor, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), is egging the unions on, at a time when Londoners are paying even higher tube fares and receiving ever worse service? Is this not an intolerable state of affairs, and should it not be addressed by the whole House?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that questions to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will take place next week. He will also know that there has been continuing discussion for some time about how we can best inject into London Underground—and other parts of our transport system—investment that London Underground has needed for decades, and did not receive under a Conservative Government.

These will continue to be matters for discussion, but I fear I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on them in the near future.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on town and country planning issues? Only this morning, Conservative-controlled Bradford city council's planning committee decided to approve a development brief for new housing on the Baildon bank reservoir site, off West lane in Baildon. I am appalled that the threat of development should hang over that greenfield site, given all the consequences—not least the traffic that such development would generate.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, expressed on behalf of his constituents, about the impact of the proposed decision. I fear I cannot undertake to find the time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, but I remind him, as I reminded the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), that questions to the Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will take place on Tuesday.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Defence following yesterday's announcement of significant job losses at BAE Systems, formerly British Aerospace?

My constituency contains a plant in Samlesbury, and another nearby in Warton. We understand from the unions that there may be up to 2,000 job losses, and that they will fall significantly on the military side. Moreover, they will disproportionately affect a number of smaller businesses that rely on a healthy BAE Systems in the north-west. We have enormous skills there, and if we lose those jobs now it is unlikely that we shall ever regain them. If the Government are serious about having a strategic military defence capability, we must be more intelligent about the way in which we procure our defence.

Mrs. Beckett

I am of course aware of the announcements made by BAE Systems, and, as I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are liaising closely with the company with regard to the implications of those announcements. He will also know that we have repeatedly demonstrated our commitment both to the aerospace industry as a whole and to BAE Systems, through launch investment and other supportive action. We shall continue to work with the company to identify any further steps that can be taken.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the House, but perhaps I can recommend the virtues of Westminster Hall.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

May I repeat the calls for an urgent statement and debate on the risk assessment process in relation to depleted uranium? The most disturbing part of the news today is that United Kingdom service personnel were apparently given the all-clear by the MOD screening process, but were discovered to have high levels of depleted uranium in their system when they put their samples through the Canadian scrutiny process. Can the House have an opportunity to discuss the urgent need, not for a voluntary system of screening, but for a universal and inclusive system that is administered by the Department of Health, not at the convenience of the MOD?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and perhaps slightly different point about the way in which any screening procedure should be carried out. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue on the Floor of the House in the near future, but I certainly undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Health.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House a happy new year. Having got that cordiality out of the way, in view of the Prime Minister's failure to give an adequate answer in Prime Minister's questions yesterday to the serious problem of recruitment and retention of special constables, will she make a request to the Home Secretary so that we could question him on that subject, which is particularly important in view of the national fall in police numbers and the closure of three rural police stations in my constituency recently?

Mrs. Beckett

Part of the underlying premise of the hon. Gentleman's question is in error, as it is my understanding that we are beginning, although slowly, to turn the corner on police numbers, no doubt partly as a result of the enormous investment that the Government have been prepared to put into the police service. He makes a separate and different point about the special constables. I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May I press my right hon. Friend further on the question of a debate on early-day motion 179, which was raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? She referred, rightly, to the Government's increased investment in the railways, but inevitably a lot of that investment will end up in the pockets of shareholders and directors, which is precisely what privatisation was designed to do—shift public funds into private pockets. The vast majority of the public are sick and tired of seeing the spivs and cowboys running the railways and they want us to take it back tomorrow.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the strong feelings that have been expressed by my hon. Friend and others in the House about the developments of recent times. I also understand his anxiety that the substantial investment that is being made available should be well and effectively used. It remains the case that I cannot find time for a special debate on those issues in the near future, but I have no doubt that, over the course of that investment programme, my hon. Friends will find many opportunities to raise them.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is the right hon. Lady minded to make time available on a Government day for an early debate on the plight of rural post offices? Post offices are writing to me at the rate of one a week to announce the closure or threat of closure of sub-post offices throughout the Vale of York. That is extremely alarming to constituents, who face the prospect of not being able to draw benefits and pensions at those sub-post offices. It has recently emerged that vacancies are being advertised offering less pay per hour than the minimum wage. Is that contributing to the problem? May we have an early debate to discuss that and a pledge of a positive future for post offices in villages?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the concern that has been expressed by the hon. Lady and I accept that it will be shared by her constituents. She will know that both the Government and the Post Office have expressed concern, although she will be aware that, unfortunately, it is by no means a record: far greater numbers of post offices have closed in the past. Nevertheless, we continue to express concern at the rate of closures. Further analysis of what is happening is being undertaken. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is right to say that, in many cases, such post offices are reopening.

The. Government are committed to maintaining a network of post offices and will continue to work with the Post Office at national level in order to do so. Although Department of Trade and Industry questions are next week, when she might find an opportunity to raise the matter, I cannot say that there is likely to be a special debate on the Floor of the House soon.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend give further consideration to finding time to discuss the closure of Leeds city station, given the scale of the inconvenience to people and the fact that Railtrack has described the closure as unacceptable? I recognise that engineers are working around the clock to install the new signalling equipment, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the public are entitled to accurate information from Railtrack about when major projects such as this will be completed? In this case, by contrast, they have been given three successive deadlines for completion of the work.

Mrs. Beckett

I very much sympathise with the concerns that my hon. Friend raises on behalf of his constituents. I share his view that it is unacceptable to give people unsound information. That leads to doubts that those engaged in such works are clear about the scale of their task.

Although I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, I remind my hon. Friend that it is Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions questions on Tuesday. If my hon. Friend succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, he may well have a chance to raise the matter then.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Does the Leader of the House feel proud or embarrassed at the fact that her ministerial colleagues are starting to make her look like a paragon of honesty and openness in government? At business questions on 21 December, I asked her about the Cabinet Committee set up to look at job losses in manufacturing, and she gave me a commendably frank and full response. I subsequently tabled a question to the Department of Trade and Industry, which denied that such a group existed. I raised the same matter at Education and Employment questions with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who would neither confirm nor deny the group's existence.

The Leader of the House is clearly ahead of the field among her colleagues when it comes to offering honest and open replies to questions from hon. Members of all parties. Will she therefore give some guidance to her ministerial colleagues, and will she make time for a statement to the House on the findings of that Cabinet Committee with regard to job losses in manufacturing?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks, which I am sure were not intended to do me any harm, but I can undertake only to consider his question. No hon. Member wants there to be job losses, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, under this Government, they are on nothing like the scale experienced under the Government that he supported. The Government continue to work with manufacturing industry to try and help to resolve the difficulties that it faces.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my ministerial colleagues always endeavour to give full information to the House, and that they will continue to do so.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. The exercise involved in trying to catch your eye has been most useful.

My question concerns the replies that the Leader of the House gave my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), the shadow Leader of the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day). Will she please find time for an urgent statement on flexibility in the total number of hours available for consideration of a Bill in Standing Committee?

The right hon. Lady is usually spectacularly well informed, but is she aware that Conservative members of the Committee considering the Vehicle (Crimes) Bill have been complimented already—by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill)—on our constructive use of the available time? The problem is that there is too little such time.

Will the right hon. Lady explain why our request for a further nine hours' debate on the 45 clauses of the Bill—to which 33 amendments have been tabled so far—was summarily rejected on the basis of a Government vote in the Programming Sub-Committee? Will she concede that there is a powerful case for the establishment of a formal procedure under which members of the Standing Committee who are not members of the Programming Sub-Committee could put forward their own proposals and draft resolutions regarding the order of consideration of a Bill's clauses?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and worthwhile point and I undertake to consider it and to discuss it with my right hon. and hon. Friends. I would be reluctant—I accept that this is not what he is suggesting—to see us adopting a procedure whereby people are encouraged to spend time discussing how long they ought to spend discussing the legislation, as opposed to discussing the legislation itself. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that. Also, to assume at the beginning of discussions on legislation that more time is likely to be needed will not always encourage the best use of the time available. He will know, I hope, that under the Modernisation Committee's proposals there is room for manoeuvre if it becomes clear that, for whatever reason, time has been inadequate. Obviously, the Government would be prepared constructively to consider that.

We would be reluctant to see this as the thin end of the wedge—always demanding more time regardless of whether it is necessary. I undertake to consider the hon. Gentleman's points and to discuss them with my right hon. and hon. Friends.