HC Deb 18 January 2001 vol 361 cc509-25 12.31 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please give the business for the coming week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business of the House for next week is as follows:

MONDAY 22 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill.

TUESDAY 23 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Social Security Contributions (Share Options) Bill.

Motion relating to the establishment of an Inquiry into the deaths of patients of Harold Shipman.

Motion on the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2000.

WEDNESDAY 24 JANUARY—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on "Job Losses in Manufacturing Industry", followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Failure to deliver its Public Health Agenda". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

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

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

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 29 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill.

TUESDAY 30 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Vehicles (Crime) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY—Motion on the Police Grant Report (England and Wales).

Motions on Local Government (Finance) Reports.

THURSDAY 1 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Subject to the approval of the House, Private Members' Bills will be taken on Friday 2 February.

The House will wish to be reminded 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. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

Monday 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 am grateful to the Leader of the House. In the Queen's Speech debate, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition drew to the House's attention the glaring omission from the Speech of a Bill to reform adoption law. In February 2000, No. 10 Downing street said that the Prime Minister had personally taken charge of Government policy on adoption law. As the Leader of the House will be aware, yesterday, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister promised to legislate in this Session to reform the laws on adoption.

Therefore—although I do not wish to put the Leader of the House in a position in which she has to be coy about the general election date—I was rather surprised that she did not say in today's business statement when such a Bill will be presented to Parliament. Given the seriousness of the issue, and the fact that such a Bill would have cross-party support, I hope that the Prime Minister's promise of a Bill was not yet another of his promises; that, yesterday, he was not simply jumping on another bandwagon that he saw rolling; and that we can expect that, however short may be the time between now and the end of the Session, the Prime Minister's word is his bond.

I wonder, too, whether the Leader of the House could throw some light on the Education (School Teachers' Pay and Conditions) (No. 4) Order 2000, which was listed for debate on Tuesday's Order Paper. That debate had only started when, because of time pressure, under Standing Order 17(2), Mr. Speaker decided that further debate on the order should be deferred. The House has waited a long time to debate the order. In a High Court case, the judge, Mr. Justice Jackson found on behalf of the National Union of Teachers against the Department for Education and Employment, and said that the Secretary of State had improperly bypassed Parliament. Therefore, when the opportunity to debate the order last Tuesday night was lost, we expected that the order would have been reinstated pretty rapidly for next week's business. I hope that the Leader of the House will reassure us that there will be a full and proper debate on that very important matter.

The right hon. Lady will know, as will the rest of the House, that hon. Members' postbags are full of constituents' letters about matters appertaining to Equitable Life. This the third week running that I have raised this matter, and the right hon. Lady said last week that she would pass on to her colleagues the grave concern in the House about the advice given by the Treasury to Equitable Life, and about the conduct of the Financial Services Authority. I hope that the right hon. Lady will find Government time for a debate on this important matter.

Finally, will the Leader of the House note that no fewer than 43 MPs representing Scottish constituencies voted in the third Division after the hunting debate last night? The vote was on banning hunting in England and Wales, and 37 of those hon. Members supported that ban. I hope that the right hon. Lady will find Government time to complete the Government's unfinished devolution business. The present situation is clearly unfavourable to England and needs to be sorted out.

Mrs. Beckett

First, the hon. Lady asks about the issue of adoption. She is right to say that the matter was not included in the Queen's Speech. I can assure her that a great deal of serious work is under way to try to prepare fresh legislation on adoption, but the House will recognise that it is extremely important to get the matter right. We will take the time that is needed to prepare that legislation.

The hon. Lady spoke about people jumping on bandwagons. There was a classic example of that yesterday, and I am not sure that she was entirely wise to raise the matter. The Leader of the Opposition yesterday made the generous offer to support a piece of legislation and ease its passage through the House. The same offer must have been made three or four times by the right hon. Gentleman or other Opposition Front Benchers—most recently in respect of the Football (Disorder) Act 2000. I see that the hon. Lady is nodding in agreement.

However, what happens is that the Opposition do not deliver the promised support. Indeed, they spend time filibustering and opposing those Bills, claiming that they have discovered something wrong with them. The precedent is not encouraging, but the reason why the hon. Lady may have been unwise to raise the matter is that, at the moment, we have no time I or private Members' legislation. That is because Opposition Members keep objecting to the motion to provide time for private Members' Bills.

It is hypocrisy for the Leader of the Opposition to offer support to a private Member's Bill—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is out of order for the right hon. Lady to use that word. Perhaps she should withdraw it.

Mrs. Beckett

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. It is not a word that I should have used. However, the House as a whole understands the purport of the Leader of the Opposition's observations.

The hon. Lady asked what would happen with the Education (School Teachers' Pay and Conditions) (No. 4) Order 2000. Yet again, the words that come to mind are "hoist with your own petard". The order was not debated at greater length on Tuesday because Opposition Members took so much time debating other issues. Obviously, it is open to them to make that choice, but the Government are under no compulsion to reintroduce subjects for debate which Opposition Members do not debate because they spend time wasting time.

The hon. Lady asked about Equitable Life. I hope that she is aware that, on 19 December, the Economic Secretary announced that the Financial Services Authority is preparing a report on these matters, which will be published. She should also be aware—although I fully accept that it has not had a great deal of publicity—that the Treasury Committee announced this week that it will hold an inquiry into these matters. Clearly, the matter is under consideration and I fear that I cannot offer time in the immediate future for such a debate.

Finally, the hon. Lady referred to Members of Parliament from Scottish constituencies taking part in the votes yesterday evening. We do not have two-tier membership of the House—we are all full Members here at Westminster. Whenever the hon. Lady or her friends raise the matter, they talk about how wrong it is to have Scottish or Welsh MPs taking part here when we have devolved government in Scotland and Wales, but, remarkably, they never mention Northern Ireland. Not only do we have devolved government there now, but we had devolved government when the votes of Northern Irish MPs brought down the last Labour Government.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

What opportunities will there be next week to raise the very real and serious difficulties in Wales with regard to steel? Does my right hon. Friend know that Corns, Europe's largest steel producer, is proving to be a brutal, cynical and shareholder-orientated company, which has cast a dark cloud over the future of Shotton steelworks in my constituency? Will she tell the chairman of Corns that Shotton steelworks cold strip mill must not close? The 300 jobs there are very valuable. Britain needs a strong steel industry—Corus will destroy it.

Mrs. Beckett

I hope that the fears of my right hon. Friend, who has fought long and hard for the steelworkers in his constituency, will prove to be misplaced. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is following these matters closely and has been engaged in extensive discussions with the company. The company previously highlighted what we understand to be perfectly reasonable concerns about the exchange rate, but now that that has turned its favour, it is discussing restructuring per se.

The Government will continue to monitor these issues and to do everything that we can to persuade Corns to recognise the very effective work that is carried on in the steel industry in this country where, as I understand it, productivity is very high and, in some cases, higher than in the alternative plant elsewhere in the European Union. I know that my right hon. Friend will continue to fight for his constituents.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that Liberal Democrats and, I suspect, Members on both sides of the House as well as the public, are anxious that the reform of the adoption law does not become a matter with which the Front Benches can play games? Just as it is deplorable that babies and young children are being used in a personal tug-of-war, it would be unsatisfactory if the reform became a matter of party conflict.

Will the Leader of the House look very carefully at the timetable for next Tuesday? The Liberal Democrat education motion, which has already been referred to, has been put in the graveyard slot in the middle of the night. It looks very much as if next Tuesday's motion will be put in exactly the same position and that there will not be a proper debate on transparency in local government. [Interruption.] I thought that the Conservatives were interested in that, but apparently not.

When are we to have the long-awaited Government response on the Phillips report on BSE and the debate? Will the Leader be certain to indicate as soon as possible when that will take place? It is an extremely important report that deals not only with the devastation in the livestock industry, but with £4 billion of taxpayers' money. The report makes it quite clear that the recent disclosure of an organophosphates connection—as a result of that report—is important in a number of other respects, while the dismissal of scrapie as a main problem is equally important.

Finally, when does the Leader of the House anticipate that the Government will introduce this year's Finance Bill, and when does she expect to complete it?

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's view that adoption is not a matter on which there are party political differences—I hope that the whole House shares that view. There will, no doubt, be differences within, as well as between, the parties about the precise nature of proposals that may be made, because these are difficult and complex issues. I say that with some feeling. As someone who once whipped through Parliament a change in the law on adoption, I am conscious that it is extremely important to get the legal proposals right. We all want to proceed with the matter as soon as possible, but getting the proposals as right as we can is more important than the precise time, although the Government will move as speedily as possible.

I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses about Tuesday's business, but there is no reason whatever why the business scheduled for that day should not be dealt with expeditiously as well as thoroughly and within a reasonable amount of time. Of course, nothing that we can do will make Members deal with business expeditiously; if they choose, as a tactic, to waste time, time will be wasted. The Government have provided a proper amount of time.

I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we have every intention of initiating a debate on the Phillips report on BSE as early as we can. Work is continuing. Last week, he may have heard me remind the House that the Phillips report comprised 16 volumes. He will recall that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made it absolutely plain that he wanted to take sufficient time to consider the report. However, we have no hesitation in saying that, once the report has been fully considered, there will indeed be a debate as soon as we can reasonably arrange it.

Finally, I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a date for the Finance Bill. I assure him, however, that it will be completed.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend may know that I have been submitting lists of the names of men in the United Kingdom who have either been charged with, or charged with and imprisoned for, rapes when, subsequently, women have changed their story and told the truth. It is a major problem that innocent men are going to prison for rape. May we have a debate on that as a matter of urgency?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is always extremely harmful in a society when people are charged—let alone imprisoned—for a crime of which they are not guilty. Mistakes are bound to occur from time to time, but that must always be harmful to our justice system and to the country as a whole. I understand the concern my hon. Friend expresses. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House in the near future; he may, however, find an opportunity for the debate in Westminster Hall.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

In next week's business, the right hon. Lady announced the Second Reading of a number of Government Bills. One of the reasons behind the extremely controversial changes introduced to our procedure by the Government—the programming of all Bills—was to inject some certainty into the legislative programme. Will she, therefore, tell the House which of the Bills that have received Second Reading she expects to complete their stages through Parliament by the end of March?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not at all sure that I can give the right hon. Gentleman, a list to the end of March. I can certainly tell him that, up to the present, 18 Bills have been introduced—eight in the Lords and 10 in the Commons—and that one has already received Royal Assent. It is already c clear both that the Government have a full and measured programme and that it is being well delivered by an efficiently running Administration.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion No. 162 on food safety? [That this House endorses the view of Judge Peter Heppell QC who reportedly told the Crown Court in Hull in December 2000 that a review of the penalties for contravening the Food Safety Act should be put in train; considers the sentences available to the Court in cases where adulterated and rotten meat destined for the petfood market ends up in food for humans, are totally inadequate; and calls on the Government to act swiftly to increase the powers available to the courts, and to restore public confidence in the food industry.] It was prompted by the horrendous case, which came to trial in Hull in December, of the rotten, contaminated poultrymeat scam. Five individuals were sent to prison, having made a £2 million profit from that dreadful business. The ringleader got seven years, and Judge Peter Heppel said that, although he was minded to pass a double-digit sentence, he was unable to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend urge the Home Secretary, or perhaps the Secretary of State for Health, to make a statement to the House on the penalties that would be appropriate in such food safety cases? Is it not astonishing that, under the Food Safety Act 1990, only two individuals have been sent to prison—one for four months and one for three months? In the Hull case, the prosecution had to rely on conspiracy to defraud, which is not necessarily the most appropriate charge. I very much hope that either the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Health can tell us the Government's intentions on that matter.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I believe that the whole House shares his horror at the case to which he refers. The descriptions were so revolting as to almost put one off eating, never mind eating the substances in question.

I believe that this would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. My hon. Friend knows that we have now introduced much greater safeguards for the food industry, and that the meat sector is already one of the most strictly regulated. This is now very much a matter for the Food Standards Agency, which has the power to recommend changes in the law and, I believe, would not hesitate to do so should it consider that they were necessary. However, my hon. Friend might like to take up the matter with the Food Standards Agency, and I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Pursuant to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) about the West Lothian question, the Leader of the House, in her reply, introduced the killer fact of Northern Ireland votes in 1979. Would she, on reflection, agree that devolution at Stormont finished in 1972, and that the only relevance of Northern Ireland votes to the fall of Lord Callaghan's Administration was the decision of the then Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone to come and abstain in person?

Mrs. Beckett

No; I would not accept that. I would simply make the point again. What the right hon. Gentleman says does not conflict with the basic point that I am making, which is that it has very often been a matter of great satisfaction to the Conservative party to be able to have, and to rely on, the votes of Northern Ireland Members, when there was devolution and when there was not devolution. Throughout the course of the Government led first by the late Lord Wilson and then by Lord Callaghan, the Conservative party relied very frequently indeed on Northern Ireland Members' votes.

I simply remind the right hon. Gentleman and his party that it has never been the policy of the Conservative party, during the years when it supported devolution, to call for two-tier membership of the House, and that it has shown considerable inconsistency on that issue, both in that matter and in its approach to the actions of Northern Ireland Members. I wonder when the Conservatives will tell Members of the Ulster Unionist party and other parties that they do not intend to allow them to play a full part in the House, either.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 204?

[That this House is appalled at the shocking revelations of child abuse throughout Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales; condemns the professional people entrusted with the care and wellbeing of the most vulnerable children in society, who have failed to assure their safety, need and protection; and recommends that there be a public inquiry throughout the United Kingdom, the setting up of a commission in every region throughout the United Kingdom similar to the one set up in Ireland to counsel and advise abused victims and that the victims be granted legal aid in order to bring abusers to justice.]

As a Member of Parliament, I feel horrified and ashamed that we allow child abuse to continue for years. Thousands of children have been abused and a lot of the abuse has gone undetected. It is time that the House and the Government apologised, especially for some of the Government-run homes where children are being abused. It is time that we held a national public inquiry. It is time that we took a leaf out of the book of southern Ireland Members of Parliament: they set up commissions.

I hope that the Leader of the House will allow time to debate child abuse fully, in order to bring these perverts and paedophiles to justice. We owe it to our children. Talk is no use; we need action. Every national and international newspaper is crying out for vengeance, in order to rid the country of this filth.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the whole House shares my hon. Friend's abhorrence of the events that, tragically, have yet again been reported, in which a child undergoes terrible suffering. He knows that it is a matter of constant discussion. Indeed, I believe that an inquiry into that particular case is being pursued, to determine what we can do to impede the actions of those who pose such a threat to children.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, but it strikes me that this is exactly the type of issue, which commands support across the parties, on which my hon. Friend or others of his view might seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The first Bill that the Government introduced in this Session was the Hunting Bill. The Leader of the House has said that the Government have introduced 18 Bills. When can we expect the adoption Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is wrong. [Interruption.] The first Bill debated was the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, which is proceeding very well through its stages in the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's question does not represent the start of a pretence by the Conservative party that, in some way, there is a party political difference on adoption—or, indeed, on child welfare. There is none and, frankly, it would be shabby and damaging to adoption if the Conservative party intended to continue with that tactic.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

As a member of one of the wealth-generating professions—engineering—may I ask when we shall have an opportunity to discuss the manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom and its relationship to the ever-growing university budgets, developing research to underpin that manufacturing?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is a qualified engineer. Indeed, she repaired one of the lifts in Norman Shaw recently. Of course it is very important that we continue to give the right attention to the manufacturing industry. She is right to draw attention to the additional support that is being made available, as a result of the investment forthcoming under the Government, to underpin the research and development that that industry needs. I fear that I cannot undertake to hold such a debate in Government time in the near future, but I draw to her attention the fact that the Opposition have chosen, perhaps unwisely, to debate such issues next week, and she might like to take part in that debate.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

On the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), which related to the order on teachers' so-called performance-related pay, I am obliged to remind the Leader of the House of the relevant Standing Order No. 17(2), which states that if the Speaker, in his wisdom, determines that there has been insufficient debate and defers the matter, the business and the debate shall stand adjourned till the next sitting. Is the Leader of the House unfamiliar with that Standing Order, or do the Government simply not want to debate teachers' performance-related pay, because it has been a fiasco from beginning to end and stands out even among the litany of conspiracies and cock-ups that characterise the Government? The order will affect 200,000 people, and the House should have time to debate it fully and properly.

Mrs. Beckett

I agree that the House should debate that important issue, and I am only sorry that Opposition Members chose not to do so when the opportunity arose.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that a betting firm is telling callers that under no circumstances can it envisage the Tories winning the next election and that the head of that betting firm has made, or is about to make, a very large donation to the Tories? Perhaps that could be described as a loss leader. Given that I suggested that individual donations should be capped when a large donation was about to be made to the Labour party 10 days ago—at least I am consistent—is there not a case for capping individual donations during the next stage of political party finance reform?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; he is showing complete consistency and makes an important and serious point. As he knows, the capping of donations is raised from time to time, but that will be a matter for the Electoral Commission in future, because of the way in which the Labour party has strengthened the controls on party funding, which the Conservative party refused to discuss when in power for reasons that are daily becoming all too apparent.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Given the fact that, inexplicably, the right hon. Lady seems to think that the Government's failure to introduce an adoption Bill was the Opposition's fault, can she tell the House what the Government's attitude will be to the Adoption Bill—a private Member's Bill, sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I cannot. I am not familiar with the text and content of the Bill. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for promoting further discussion of such an important and serious issue, but the Government will obviously have to consider her Bill if the House decides to debate it.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

It is on the Order Paper.

Mrs. Beckett

If we do not pass the motion that provides time to debate private Member's Bills, it can be on the Order Paper, but it will not be debated.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that service men and women who have been killed in the line of duty have made a supreme sacrifice for their country? Can we have a debate based on the proposal of Rita Restorick, whose son was killed by the Provisional IRA while serving in the forces, that a posthumous medal should be issued in such circumstances? If the Americans can award the purple heart posthumously, surely the House can consider taking similar action?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not especially familiar with the rationale behind the rules that govern such a proposal, but I think that the whole House would share his attitude towards those people who have been honourable enough to give their lives to defend their country. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

With the approach of the general election, the electorate will clearly wish to form a view on the value of assurances given by the Prime Minister. That being so, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to make a statement next week on his previous comments on foxhunting? The House would like to ask him why he has often said in public that the previous Bill was stopped in the other place, when the rest of us know that that was not the case.

Mrs. Beckett

I have always assumed that everyone knew perfectly well that that private Member's Bill was stopped because of the clear statements from the House of Lords that, were the Government to allow it to continue or be discussed in any way, not only would it never reach the statute book, but the other place would wreck the rest of the Government's legislative programme. As that included the national minimum wage, which the Conservatives now pretend to support, the Government were not prepared to allow that risk to be taken.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the current legal processes in Chile to bring General Pinochet to justice. Will she find time in the near future to have a debate on the Floor of the House about the situation with regard to William Beaosire and Father Michael Woodward, who were British nationals who died under Pinochet's regime? Will she also urge the Foreign Office and its Ministers to release all documents on Britain's relations with Chile between 1973 and 1990, and those that relate to Operation Condor, which was the terror regime that Pinochet instigated throughout southern Cone? The release of those documents will undoubtedly assist the cause of those people who seek to restore democracy and human rights to Chile.

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House was shocked and appalled at the treat vent of those nationals, as well as of many other people in Chile under the rule of General Pinochet. I understand my hon. Friend's desire to have that matter further examined now, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it in the near future. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, but my first reaction is that all the papers that he wants released are from the previous Administration's time in government and we have only limited access to them.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The Leader of the House will know that, next week, 30 hon. Members—20 of whom are, on a proportional basis, Labour Members—are required by Parliament to attend the Council of Europe Assembly in Strasbourg and will therefore be unable to vote in the new-fangled deferred voting system on Wednesday. As that has constitutional implications, can she arrange for a debate—obviously not next week, but perhaps the week after—for that matter to be examined? If she says that that has always been the case in relation to votes, it is in fact a different constitutional matter with regard to deferred voting.

Mrs. Beckett

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who is a serious Member of the House, but on a first examination of his remarks, I do not perceive the constitutional difference that he detects arising as a result of deferred voting. I undertake to consider his remarks, but I fear that I do not detect the great concern that he has identified.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, yesterday in Prime Minister's Question Time, my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and I asked about compensation for miners? We received a decent answer from the Prime Minister, but unfortunately miners are still not being paid. Will she ask the Department of Trade and Industry to hold an inquiry into what has gone wrong with the compensation payments, so that we can find out why miners are not being paid and who is to blame? It seems that one person blames another. A good inquiry and a statement to the House would be not go amiss with many hon. Members.

Mrs. Beckett

The whole Government understand the concern that my hon. Friend and other Labour Members have frequently expressed. Indeed, he will know that action has been taken to try to speed up the payment of the claims. I fear, however, that much of the answer to his question probably lies in the fact that this is the largest body of personal injury litigation in the history of the United Kingdom. No matter how great the pressure that we exert on those responsible, it will take time to deal with the issues. Although I cannot find time for a further debate on the matter in the near future, I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to keep up the pressure.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

On 19 December the House accepted a regulation to allow the extension of embryo research, which is usually to be done by therapeutic cloning. That decision was made on the basis of an assurance given by the Minister for Public Health that reproductive cloning would remain illegal. I understand that that statement is to be challenged in the courts. It is an extremely important matter, especially as the House of Lords will consider it next week. Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister to come to the House in the week beginning 29 January to make a statement on the outcome of the court case?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and important point. He was right to say that it was made clear in the debate that we do not allow reproductive cloning in this country. There is serious concern about the issues raised by the court case, but it is always difficult—and perhaps risky—to prejudge the outcome of any such case. However, I assure him that the Government will keep the matter under review. Should the outcome of the case in any way call the matter into question, the Government will be prepared to take steps, because we remain strongly of the view that human reproductive cloning should not be allowed. It will not be permitted.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will my right hon. Friend undertake to review the recent changes made by the House to the Standing Orders for the programming and timetabling of Bills, to see whether the changes are working as intended? Has she had time to consider the implications of the objection that was made last night to the motion on the change in membership of the Administration Committee? Does she consider, as I do, that it is another devious way of disrupting business, which the Opposition should not be allowed to get away with?

Mr. Day

Should we all just go home?

Mrs. Beckett

Actually, we would all be very grateful if some of them were to go home. Of course, I undertake to review the way in which the experiment is working. Indeed, I know that my hon. Friend will recall—unlike some of those present, she paid close attention to the debates on these matters—that the procedures were made experimental precisely so that we could see how they worked in practice and assess whether further refinements and changes needed to be made. Should that prove to be the case, we shall propose such changes to the House.

The implications of the unusual rejection of the proposal for changing the membership of the Administration Committee will have to be considered. Given the emotion that was clearly felt by some hon. Members about the issue that we debated yesterday, I am not sure whether that rejection was a cunning plan or simply a knee-jerk reaction by people in a bad temper late at night, but no doubt time will tell.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the Leader of the House consider a debate, if not next week then certainly in the near future, on the fate of the Kingskerswell bypass? She will recall that I have mentioned the matter before. With a view to trying to secure a debate and to find out what was happening, I raised it in the House on 21 December, when the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office said at column 677 that he could promise a letter from the relevant Minister straight away, but not the bypass. I commend him for being so straightforward.

I do not chide the Minister for not promising the bypass, but he rightly gave an assurance that I would receive a letter, and I have heard nothing. I understand that Christmas has intervened, but it is vital that my constituents know what the Government's attitude to the bypass is, and if the relevant Minister will not write the letter that he should have written, I hope that the Leader of the House will want to arrange a debate so that he can come here and justify himself.

Mrs. Beckett

I do indeed recall the hon. Gentleman's raising that issue, and I can perfectly understand his concern on behalf of his constituents, because if I remember correctly, he said that it has been a matter of contention for several years. I am extremely sorry to learn that he has not received the correspondence that he sought. I assure him that I will pursue the matter in the hope that I can get him a reply. Who knows? If a Labour Government are returned to office and investment continues, perhaps he will even get his bypass.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am conscious of the fact that this is an Opposition day, but I want to take the question of every Member who has risen, so I ask for hon. Members' co-operation in ensuring that all questions are brief.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I hope to set a good example. May I redouble the request for a debate on manufacturing industry, not about the scandal of the job losses between 1979 and 1997, but about the possible asset stripping by Corns of high-quality, high-productivity jobs at Llanwern?

Mrs. Beckett

I am conscious that jobs at Llanwern are indeed of high quality, as is the successful enterprise there, so I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I fear, however, that I cannot add anything to what I said earlier about a debate.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I shall try to follow your instruction, Mr. Speaker. Could we have an urgent statement in Government time on what I might describe as the proposed funds for federalism provided for by the treaty of Nice as it relates to the funding of political parties? Does the Leader of the House accept that, as far as many hon. Members are concerned, such proposals would constitute an unwarranted intrusion into the conduct of domestic political affairs? Does she accept also that, although many hon. Members acknowledge that there may be a case—and a weak one at that—for state funding of political parties, they can see no case whatever for super-state funding of political parties?

Mrs. Beckett

Having heard the statement by the Commission spokesman, and having read a clear statement by the Commission, I believe that Conservative Members have misread the rules to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, and that no such provision exists. There is no suggestion that any party will be or could be debarred from receiving funding.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on the operation of the insurance industry, particularly in the light of the astonishing decision by Norwich Union to deny mortgage protection insurance to MG Rover workers on the grounds that it does not consider the company's future to be sufficiently secure? Does she agree that that is wrong, not only because MG Rover is on course to achieve its business plan, but because insurance companies should not cherry-pick customers as they have done both in this case and during the recent flooding incidents?

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's concern. We all recognise that the insurance industry sometimes has difficult judgments to make, but it seems extraordinary, if these reports are true, that the company in this case is making such a misjudgment and that it has adopted such a policy. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate, but I remind him that Treasury questions are next week and he may have a chance to raise the matter then.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

As teachers north of the border are to receive a pay increase of no less than 21.5 per cent. over three years, and as student fees at universities north of the border were abolished not so long ago, could the Leader of the House persuade that great parliamentary escapologist the Prime Minister to come to the House to make a statement about the constitutional implications? My constituents in London are paying subsidies to free riders north of the border while they are seeing an ever declining number of teachers in their schools. This is an outstandingly unjust state of affairs.

Mrs. Beckett

First, the hon. Gentleman's constituents are not seeing an ever declining number of teachers in their schools, or at least they will not now. That was the position that we inherited from the Conservative Government, but thanks to the investment that has been put in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the encouragement of recruitment into teacher training, the situation is starting to turn around.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asks for a special debate on these matters. We are talking about the consequence of devolution, which we debated extensively and at length for some months in the early years of this Parliament.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Can my right hon. Friend find tine for a debate on the American national missile defence programme? It would give the Government and the majority of hon. Members the opportunity of saying that we have no intention of following George W. Bush and the Leader of the Opposition in any "Dumb and Dumber" combination in reckless pursuit of the armageddon vote.

Mrs. Beckett

Although I understand my hon. Friend's interest in the matter, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on a proposal that has not yet even been formulated.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Can the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on small businesses? I declare an interest, in that I own one. A debate would enable us to expose the enormous amount of extra rules and regulations with which small businesses have to contend, and to get to grips with whether the Government are serious about persecuting greengrocers throughout the country because they are complying with consumers' wishes and selling fruit and veg in pounds and ounces. I wondered why the Government were so keen to clear prisons of thousands of convicted criminals. It appears now that they are creating space so that greengrocers can fill them over the forthcoming months.

Mrs. Beckett

Oh dear. It is most unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman should choose to chide the Government for the implementation of a directive that was agreed by the previous Government in 1989. They implemented it in 1994, without any steps being taken to obtain any derogation of any sort. In 1999, when it came time for the directive that the Conservative Government had agreed to be implemented, the present Government negotiated a derogation so that its full application would not take effect until 2009. If the position had been left as agreed by the Conservative Government, the greengrocer in question would be committing an offence if he even displayed prices per pound, never mind charging on that basis.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

To be brief, I associate myself with the question of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), in that we need an urgent debate on the Phillips report, not least because a major and serious international issue has ensued and because the Food Standards Agency has issued its own report, and is looking to change the regulations. A debate cannot come a moment too soon. Would my right hon. Friend like to comment?

Mrs. Beckett

I think that the entire House shares my hon. Friend's concern and his desire that the matter should be fully aired as soon as possible. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is just as keen as he is to pursue the issue and to have a debate. He will tell the House as soon as he can when we are in a position to have the debate properly and fully conducted.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector? Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made an important announcement to a group of people at No. 11. If he had made the announcement to the House, we would have been able to show how laughable was one of his statements. He said that the role of Government would shift even more from the old "directing and controlling" to enabling and empowering voluntary action. That statement is entirely inconsistent with the Government's ruling that those who wish to gain access to criminal records will get it free if they are in the state sector, while those in the voluntary sector will have to pay £10 each.

Mrs. Beckett

The charges remain under discussion. I remind the hon. Gentleman that only a few moments ago, the issue of child protection was raised. It was raised by a Labour Member, but I know that his view is shared throughout the House. The hon. Gentleman refers to an important aspect of child protection. The statement made by the Chancellor was announced is the House through the perfectly proper medium of a written answer. I fear that I cannot find time for an early debate on these matters, but no doubt there will be opportunities to raise them.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

I reinforce the earlier request from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) and my right hon Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) for a full debate on manufacturing. I am keen to hear the response of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to such a debate, as he has refused to meet me to discuss 3,000 job losses at Ford Dagenham, and has done nothing to call into question the betrayal of Ford workers by the management, apart from trotting out the Tory line that that is a decision for the company in the light of its commercial responsibilities. He should come to the House and answer questions.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to learn that my hon. Friend has been unsuccessful in obtaining the meeting that he sought. He says that Secretaries of State should come to the House and answer, and of course they do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was in the House today answering questions, and Ministers from his Department will take part in the debate next week.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

There are two advantages to be had if the Leader of the House would grant us a debate on the sinister proposals that are now emerging with respect to the Commission seeking to fund the Labour party: first, she would be able to justify in debate her assertion that there is no such proposal, and secondly, were she to seek relief from the scrutiny of the debate, she could interrupt the proceedings at 7 o'clock to move her motion on Friday sittings, which would get the Government out of that difficulty.

Mrs. Beckett

The Government are not in any difficulty. We have been moving the motion regularly and consistently. It is the Opposition who apparently object to it.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the proposals that are being discussed were made under article 191, which states that the provisions shall apply on the same basis to all the political forces represented in the European Parliament. There is no truth in the suggestion that that is particularly advantageous to the Labour party or to any other party in this country. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Front Benchers making noises off. If members of the Conservative party are incapable of reading the proposals accurately, it is their problem, not ours.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Can my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on a matter that concerns many of my constituents—the scaremongering and shroud waving in our local newspapers with regard to the future of King George hospital in my constituency? Will she draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to today's Ilford Recorder, in which the prospective Conservative candidate is described as an "April Fool" for predicting that my hospital is to close in April, when in fact two extra wards have been established in that hospital in the past three months by the Labour Government?

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's concern. It is always harmful to public confidence in the health service, which is so important to the entire country, when scares are raised entirely unjustifiably, as he described. I am pleased to learn that there has been additional investment in his hospital, as in so many other hospitals throughout the land, including those in Opposition Members' constituencies, although one would not think so, to hear them talk.

I fear that, important though the issue is, I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it, but my hon. Friend may find an opportunity to raise the matter in Westminster Hall.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Prime Minister explaining his typically gutless decision to refuse to defend the record of his Government in a televised debate with the Leader of the Opposition?

Mrs. Beckett

The Opposition are on a hiding to nothing when they try to pretend that the Prime Minister has anything to fear from facing the Leader of the Opposition or anyone else in debate. I cannot help recalling the many occasions on which Opposition Members have claimed that, in some way, under the present Prime Minister, our system of government is becoming presidential rather than parliamentarian, and condemned us on those grounds. We have debates and exchanges in the House every week. That is where the principal focus of debate is and will remain.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Leader of the House will recall that the Deputy Prime Minister said in the House and on television that all the costs to householders of the recent flooding in north Yorkshire and elsewhere will be paid by the Government. Will she, please, arrange for him to come to the Dispatch Box to explain to the House why the Government are not paying that bill?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to say that I do not think that the hon. Lady accurately represents what the Deputy Prime Minister said. What he said was that local authorities, which obviously incurred substantial costs in dealing with flooding, would have those costs reimbursed in full. I do not think that it was ever claimed that every individual would—[Interruption.] That is a different matter. If the hon. Lady cares to write to me, I shall certainly draw her concerns to the attention of the Deputy Prime Minister, but it is important not to give people the wrong impression as to what has been said or what is likely to be done.