HC Deb 25 January 2001 vol 361 cc1077-91 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 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]. Until about 4 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "The Government's Failure to Run an Efficient and Humane Asylum System". That will be followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Neglect of the Crisis in Agriculture". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

FRIDAY 2 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows: MONDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on a motion in the name of Plaid Cymru and a debate in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subjects to be announced.

TUESDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Homes Bill.

THURSDAY 8 FEBRUARY—Debate on Standards and Privileges on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 9 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business for Westminster Hall next Thursday will be: THURSDAY 1 FEBRUARY—Debate on the Tenth Report from the Trade and Industry Committee on Space Policy.

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. Earlier this week, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), stated that he had contacted the Home Office on behalf of Mr. Hinduja about a change in the rules governing passport applications. However, there has been no debate in the House about any change in Government policy on that. Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate next week on the Government's current policy on granting citizenship? It is a matter of urgency because other hon. Members have constituency case work that could be influenced by any change that the Government have introduced but of which the House is perhaps unaware.

The right hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I am worried about other aspects of this week's events, notably the role of the Home Office in processing the application. It is typical of the Government that the only statement by any Home Office Minister was a media interview yesterday with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). Will the right hon. Lady ensure that the House is treated with the same courtesy as the media on such an important matter, and that Home Office Ministers attend our proceedings next week to share with hon. Members information that they are prepared to share with the media?

Will the Leader of he House also ensure that the Prime Minister's announcement yesterday of an inquiry will not be used to cover up or delay information that hon. Members seek? That is especially important because Home Office questions will not be held until 5 February, and many questions will need answering before that date.

Turning to a matter that I raised last week, when does the right hon. Lady expect the Government to find time to debate the Education (School Teachers' Pay and Conditions) (No. 4) Order 2000? In her reply to me last week, she was extremely dismissive, but I remind her that the Government were criticised by a High Court judge for not consulting Members of the House on this matter. Whatever the right hon. Lady's views are on the time that has or has not been allowed, it is imperative that the Government present the order to the House, especially as there was a judgment against them when the National Union of Teachers took them to court over the matter.

I must raise another matter that I raised last week. I am surprised that the right hon. Lady has not announced today that the Government will find Government time to introduce a Bill on adoption. I mentioned the fact last week that, at Prime Minister's questions on 17 January, the Prime Minister told the House that the Government would legislate on the matter in this Session. The right hon. Lady's response to me last week suggested that that would be done by means of a private Member's Bill—

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning

This is why I am seeking clarification. In response to my request about the Prime Minister's pledge, the right hon. Lady said that the problem was due to a lack of time for private Members' Bills. The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will know that on Tuesday night—when I was present on the Opposition Front Bench—my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), whose private Member's Bill on adoption is in sixth place on the list, offered to make her Bill available to the Government if they wished to introduce adoption legislation through the vehicle of a private Member's Bill. My hon. Friend made her offer in response to what the right hon. Lady had told me at last week's business questions.

There is clearly confusion on this matter. Will the right hon. Lady clarify whether, when the Prime Minister said that the Government would legislate in this Session, he meant this Session or this year? There is clearly a difference. Will she also clarify whether the Government intend to introduce that legislation, either in a Government Bill or a private Member's Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

First, the hon. Lady asked about a change in the rules governing passport applications, but then properly identified that that was as a question for the Home Office. There will be a half-day debate next week on Home Office business, so it is slightly surprising that the Opposition have not chosen to pursue the matter then, if they think that it is of such significance.

The hon. Lady made a spirited attempt to make something out of a matter that has already been put to rest. The Prime Minister made it perfectly plain yesterday—as the hon. Lady is well aware; indeed, she mentioned it herself—that he has asked for an investigation into the circumstances of the granting of nationality in this case. He also made it plain that the outcome of that investigation would be made public—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] I thought that it was singularly stupid that, the second the Prime Minister said that yesterday, Opposition Members all started shouting, "When?" It will be published when it is finished. Considering that the investigation was announced only yesterday, and that the individual involved has probably hardly started work yet, this attempt at phoney outrage is even less convincing than usual.

The hon. Lady asked about the education prayer. I understand her concern. I accept tint it would have been useful if we had had the opportunity to debate the prayer at greater length, as we might have discovered whether the Conservative party was in favour of performance-related pay. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) says that it might be. The implication of his remark is that it is very hard to find out where the Conservative party stands on any policy matter.

Nevertheless, this is an issue of what, these days, are increasingly called rights and responsibilities. The Opposition have the right to use time as they choose; they have the right to waste time. However, they also have the responsibility to consider that, if they waste time and talk out a prayer such as the one to which the hon. Lady referred, it might prove difficult to find time for it next week.

Finally, the hon. Lady asked me about the issue of adoption. I think that there was a misunderstanding about what I said last week. I must confess that I have not checked Hansard, but there was no intention to suggest that the Government intend to proceed by way of a private Member's Bill. What my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said very clearly was that there will be a Government Bill, and that the hope and the intention is to introduce it in this Session.

The hon. Lady will also recall that what I said to her was that adoption is such an important, sensitive and complex issue that it is extremely important to get it right. [Interruption.] That will be a prime concern for the Government, although—

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

Four years.

Mrs. Beckett

I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you, like me, find the volume of noise from Conservative Members a little tedious. May I just tell the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) that she is rather wasting her time making all that noise? I know from previous experience that the volume on the Opposition side of the House is turned down and the volume on this side is turned up, so she is wasting her time if she is trying to impress the public.

I repeat to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) that adoption is a very important and serious issue, and it should be considered only in legislation that is very fully thought through and properly introduced. However, there is no doubt that, as the Prime Minister made plain to the House, he is extremely keen and determined to make legislative progress on the issue as soon as possible. He is very much pushing for legislation to be well prepared as early as possible.

There was no suggestion at all that we intended to proceed by way of a private Member's Bill. The reference that I made last week was to the offer made by the Leader of the Opposition—that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) might make her private Member's Bill available—at a time when Conservative Members were blocking having any private Members' Bills at all.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Mr. Speaker, may I begin by wishing you as a fellow Scot a very happy Burns day, and invite you to participate in a wee dram later if your schedule allows?

If I might turn to the terpsichorean ability of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I would ask her whether she is familiar with a dance called the hokey cokey that many children perform. Does she agree that the saga of Wembley stadium—where the athletics track has been in and then out, and then in and then out again; and the £20 million has been in and then out, and in and then out again—needs resolution by someone getting it by the scruff of the neck and shaking it all about? Will she please indicate to the House whether it is possible to make time in the near future for such a debate, or at least a statement, on the future of Wembley stadium?

Mrs. Beckett

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity. Unfortunately, his description of the process is all too accurate. He will know that the Government have no direct responsibility for the Wembley stadium project. However, I hope that he and the House are also aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is taking a keen interest in the issue and is very keen indeed to see a positive outcome to it. He believes that the project is very important, not only to my hon. Friend's constituents but to the country as a whole. I think the whole House will agree with him. I therefore have a great deal of sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend is making. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a debate on the Floor of the House, but I can recommend to him the attractions of Westminster Hall.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I remind the Leader of the House that at least some of the current concerns about adoption law could be met if there were full implementation of the legislation introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten)? I ask the right hon. Lady particularly to consider that point.

May I revert to the very useful support given by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) to the Liberal Democrat Members' motion on the Education (School Teachers' Pay and Conditions) (No. 4) Order 2000? Will she please consider very seriously the need for a full debate on the matter as soon as possible so that it can be concluded?

Last week, the Leader of the House told some hon. Members that she was hopeful that we would soon have the Government's response to the Phillips report on BSE. May I draw her attention to the fact that next week's debate on the crisis in agriculture will undoubtedly be less valuable precisely because we have not yet had the report from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? As I think everyone recognises, it is an extremely important report. Will the right hon. Lady tell us whether it will be February, March or April before we have the Government's response to it? She will be well aware that the livestock sector has been knocked for six over the last five years by the inadequate attention paid by the last Government to major problems, and that £4 billion of taxpayers' money has been spent. The report raises huge questions about the scientific basis on which Government policy is developed, in relation to both the scrapie issue and the use of organophosphates, which may have contributed to the spread of the disease.

This morning, some young constituents of mine from St. Columb Minor asked me why the Leader of the House could not arrange for less time wasting in the House—she referred to that a few moments ago—and for more attention to be given to the provision of recreational facilities for young people, particularly in Cornwall.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the full implementation of an earlier private Member's Bill, and I take his point; but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may have indicated in response to earlier approaches, the Government feel that comprehensive changes to adoption law are necessary. While there is no hostility to the ideas contained in that private Member's Bill, and while we will view the hon. Member for Meriden's Bill with good will when it is presented, we think both Bills are unlikely to be comprehensive enough to deal with the range of issues we feel must be dealt with. That is partly why we are committed to Government legislation as early as is practicable.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Opposition prayer, and I understand his concern. He then asked about BSE. When he asked whether a debate would take place in February, March or April, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office was heard to say, "One of those." I can only say that I hope the debate will take place in the not too distant future. It is unlikely to take place in the next couple of weeks, but I hope that it will not be delayed much beyond that. I know the hon. Gentleman would be the last to expect my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to do a less than thorough job in responding to the report, and that, obviously, is what my right hon. Friend seeks to do.

I am afraid that my powers to deal with how time is handled in the House are more limited than people sometimes assume. I accept that that is not always a bad thing.

The hon. Gentleman asked about support for young people's recreational facilities. As he will know, the Government are providing substantial investment in recreational activity, both directly through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and in the form of investment in education. That investment would, of course, be put in jeopardy only if the result of the next election were different from that of the last.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Can the Leader of the House arrange for a statement by the Prime Minister next week on exactly what are the limits on the role of his press secretary? She will know that the issue has been considered by the Select Committee on Public Administration and also by Sir Richard Wilson. It was decided that, while the press secretary—paid for with public funds—is entitled to defend Government policy, he is not entitled to attack Conservative policies in a specific and personal manner.

Will the Leader of the House ensure—this is not what is currently understood—that when the Prime Minister's press secretary starts to campaign for the Labour party, he will leave No. 10 and become an employee of the Labour party for the period of the campaign? It is clear from recent comments by the press secretary that it is high time the line was drawn.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid I am not inclined to invite the Prime Minister to make a statement in the near future, not because the right hon Gentleman has not made some perfectly proper points but because, as he is well aware—and as he suggested himself, to an extent—the issues have been aired many times in the past, and will no doubt be aired many times in the future.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend will know that the Conservative party plans to scrap the winter fuel allowance, and also the free television licence for those aged 75 and over. She may not know, however, that I agree with a number of pensioners in my constituency that we should do the opposite in regard to the TV licence, and extend it to more pensioners. We should encourage pensioners to take up the benefit, especially when they are facing what I expect to be the extra costs involved in the move to a digital system.

Would it be appropriate for us to debate the differences in approaches to help for pensioners ahead of the Budget, so that we could not only influence the Chancellor but let the public know the differences between the policies of the two parties?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. It is certainly the case that a clear and stark difference emerges when one discusses pensions policy issues: the Government have given pensioners substantial extra financial resources and the Conservatives, were they to be re-elected, would put those at risk in the way they did in the past. However attractive from that point of view such a discussion might be, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House in the near future.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Leaving aside the Conservatives' pleasure at yesterday's events, may I make a suggestion to my right hon. Friend? Without exception, should not any Member—Minister, Back Bencher or shadow Minister—who makes a representation to a Department about an individual when no constituency interest is involved notify the Parliamentary Commissioner's office? I have also suggested that tax returns should be notified to the Parliamentary Commissioner's office. Is not it important that everything should be above board in all such matters? We on this side of the House have nothing to fear.

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's view that most Members—perhaps those on this side of the House in particular—have nothing to fear from such a regime. He has expressed that opinion before, so he will know that this is, I fear, one of the rare occasions on which he and I do not see wholly eye to eye. Although I understand why he makes his suggestion, it would be incredibly onerous for Members. He makes a point about non-constituents, but all Members, particularly those who represent cities with more than one constituency, have to consider issues that are germane to their areas, but which do not arise directly within them. Although I understand my hon. Friend's underlying point, the House unfortunately might find his remedy unattractive.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Am I right to think that the 8 February debate on standards will not relate to the standards applied to Ministers? May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 234, on the conduct of the Prime Minister?

[That this House criticises the Prime Minister for answering the request for a list of the occasions when he said in public that the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill introduced in Session 1997–98 had been blocked in the House of Lords with his reference to the reply he gave on 17th January, Official Report, columns 344–5, in which the information was not included; and asks the Prime Minister to treat the House and its honourable Members with greater respect by giving straight answers to questions, even if that exposes weaknesses in previous statements he has made.]

The early-day motion criticises the Prime Minister's answer to a written question from me about when he made mis-statements on foxhunting legislation being blocked in the other place. We need a debate because that answer referred to his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), which did not give the information. If we can have a debate, the Prime Minister can say clearly whether he intends to obstruct the flow of information or whether nobody around him told him, on each of the four occasions, that what he said was not totally adjacent to the facts.

Mrs. Beckett

No, the debate on standards and privileges will be about the recent report by the Standards and Privileges Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a distinguished member. He has every right to make such a party point at business questions, but I very much hope that Members will take the debate seriously and use it to discuss an important and far-reaching report that has implications for all Members of the House. We can consider how we handle such issues and whether the way in which we handle them fulfils the function, which the House has always had in mind, of setting and observing high standards of probity. The changes that have been made and those proposed in the report are ones on which the House should have the freedom to comment, so I hope that the debate will be on the report and not the ministerial code or the behaviour of Ministers.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I refer my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 250.

[That this House shares the growing international concern that the use of depleted uranium munitions causes cancers and other serious and long-term injuries to health; welcomes the decision by Her Majesty's Government to screen British troops for depleted uranium poisoning; believes that alternative munitions should be employed in future; calls for Her Majesty's Government to impose a moratorium on the use of depleted uranium munitions by British forces and declare a commitment to cleaning up the environmental contamination caused by their use in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and sites in Britain where testing and manufacture of depleted uranium weapons take place; and notes that the US Navy is banning the use of depleted uranium ammunition.]

It is in my name and calls for a moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons. My right hon. Friend will know that there is growing international concern that the use of such weapons can cause cancers and other serious long-term damage to the health of troops. Troops are being screened, but civilian populations possibly at risk are not. Given that the US navy is banning the use of those weapons, should not we debate the legitimacy of their use? Will she find time for an urgent debate on the matter?

Mrs. Beckett

I have seen my hon. Friend's early-day motion, and I think that I recently heard her raise elsewhere her concerns about the use of such materials in the context of civilian as well as military personnel. I seem to recall having seen reference to some studies that have been carried out, which suggested that the scientific examination of the matter does not indicate that the concern expressed by my hon. Friend is altogether necessary.

However, I draw to the attention of my hon. Friend and of the House the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, or one of his ministerial colleagues, has today answered a question announcing that all the background papers on the issue of depleted uranium had been placed in the Library. That shows that the Ministry of Defence is pursuing the policy of openness, and it will give hon. Members a chance to look at some of the background material, which may be helpful and illuminating.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an urgent debate on the matter in the near future, but my hon. Friend may like to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by Westminster Hall when she has had a chance to look at the evidence in the Library, and at other evidence that no doubt will become available.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I am sure that the whole House will welcome the right hon. Lady's announcement of a timely debate in a fortnight's time on standards and privileges. However, further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), does she recognise that there is a relationship between standards and privileges as they affect hon. Members, and the ministerial code as it impacts on Ministers? Can she confirm that it would be appropriate to refer in that debate to the sixth report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and to press the Government for the reasons they rejected the recommendation that the ministerial code should be altered to clarify the role of the Prime Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

What is in order in that debate is a matter for Mr. Speaker, not for me. He may judge that references to the sixth report will be in order. I simply repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley): I hope that the House will pursue the issues contained in the report before us, as not to do so would be a wasted opportunity.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the UK's business relationship with Gibraltar? I raise the matter as I am very worried about the sharp practices that go on there. Recently, Carlisle United, my local football club, was bought by a Gibraltar-based company called Mamcarr. The problem is that we do not know who the directors of that company are. Gibraltarian law says that they do not have to be identified and it is possible that they have been disqualified from being directors in the UK. My local club is therefore owned by anonymous people. They could be legitimate business men or criminals.

Many of my constituents believe that the club's real owner is still Michael Knighton, the disgraced former director and disqualified director of the club. I do not know whether that is true, but the murky operations of the business in Gibraltar are creating great concern in my constituency and in the football league. If my right hon. Friend cannot find time for a debate, will she pass my remarks on to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, so that he can take the matter up with the Government of Gibraltar?

Mrs. Beckett

I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern, and am aware that in many parts of the country, not least his, there is always great feeling for the local football team, which is a matter of great importance for many constituents.

I fear that my hon. Friend is right in suspecting that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future, although he, like others, might like to think about Westminster Hall. I certainly undertake to draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. In raising a matter that touches on football, my hon. Friend is talking of something that is near to many people's hearts, but there will be other occasions on which issues of this kind may arise, and I will make that point to my right hon. Friend.

As I say, I fear that I cannot undertake to do more to help my hon. Friend, although I am prepared to wish his football team good results, and rather better than mine.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Can the Leader of the House say when there might be time for a debate on food labelling? Is she aware that a company in France is manufacturing corned beef, described as "Hereford" corned beef? Not only that, but the can carries a photograph of a white-faced Hereford bull. Close inspection of the can reveals that the meat is, in fact, processed and packed in France, and is simply described as "Hereford brand meat", whatever that might be. Given that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is a well-known supporter of Hereford beef, when will we have a debate on this and discuss why the French can stop us producing champagne but we apparently cannot stop them producing Hereford corned beef?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I understand his concern, although I suppose that it could been regarded as a back-handed compliment. I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate, but he will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has heard his concerns. The hon. Gentleman will also know that it is Agriculture questions next week, and he might try and find a way to ask his question then.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on employment protection for British Merchant Navy officers who have offshore contracts? I refer in particular to those officers serving on the associated bulk carriers fleet which is being sold on by the P & O group. Their contracts are being suddenly terminated, they are being asked to leave their ship at the next port and they have no recourse to employment law. These officers include my constituent, Captain Christopher Davies, from Heath, Cardiff.

Mrs. Beckett

I can well understand my hon. Friend's concern on behalf of her constituent and others who are likely to be similarly affected. It is always a matter of anxiety to the House when people are disadvantaged without recourse to any of the remedies that the House normally provides. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House, but my hon. Friend will know how many more opportunities there are now to raise such issues in Westminster Hall, and she might try there.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The right hon. Lady will know that the two forced resignations of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) will have netted him £48,443 in ministerial resettlement grants. Does she believe that he deserves it? If not, will she urge him not to take it? [Interruption.] Yes, the figures are correct. Can we have a debate next week on the operation of the Ministerial and Other Salaries Order 1999 so that we can explore the issues at greater length?

Mrs. Beckett

If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he must be as good at his numbers as the shadow Chancellor. I should be very surprised if my right hon. Friend will benefit from anything like the amount that the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, I see no need to debate this matter now since there has been no change in the regulations. They were introduced by the Conservative party, which has made extensive use of them in the past. The procedures are exactly the same as they have been for some considerable time.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

My right hon. Friend may have seen an exchange that I had yesterday with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry and also early-day motion 249, tabled by a number of people with responsibilities in areas where General Motors operates.

[That this House deplores the decision taken by General Motors to close the plant in Luton; notes that the most recent profit figure for Vauxhall is £127.7 million in 1999, and that it holds the second largest share of the UK car market; notes that the UK will become a net importer of Vauxhall cars if the Luton plant closes, importing an extra 160,000 vehicles every year, worsening balance of payments by £1 billion; notes that Vauxhall received millions of pounds of British Government grant aid and employees accepted reduced wages and holidays in a successful effort to reduce costs since 1998 in return for job security; notes that Vauxhall has broken its agreements to both employees and the British Government and therefore rejects the company's decision to close Vauxhall at Luton; believes that the Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, Mr. Wagoner, should be called before the Trade and Industry Select Committee to give evidence; and calls on the company to retain production at Luton and deliver the new replacement model for the Astra to Ellesmere Port.]

This is an extremely serious matter and I am pleased that the Secretary of State expresses his anger, along with that of many right hon. and hon. Members.

Will the Leader of the House find time in the very near future for a debate on employment relations, with particular reference to the activities of multinational companies? We welcome their investment—the motor vehicle industry is critical to us—but we must get the balance right, and we cannot allow such activities to continue.

Mrs. Beckett

I have a great deal of sympathy with the constituents of my hon. Friend, and with those of other hon. Friends who represent Luton, in these difficult circumstances. I fully understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend. He will be aware that the Government have long had a good and constructive relationship with the company, during which we have tried to ensure that employment can be maintained and opportunities fully pursued in this country. I fear I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on employment relations—even in the context of Vauxhall—but I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is experienced and skilled at raising the affairs of his constituents, will find other ways to pursue the matter.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Commenting on the radio on yesterday's events concerning the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), the noble Lord Goodhart said that the Government were at their most vulnerable when large amounts of sponsorship were involved. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the dome and its sponsorship, especially during the period when the right hon. Gentleman was responsible for it, so that we can examine in detail the use of such sponsorship and any further promises or other such things given to sponsors, and so that we can investigate the muddied waters around the disposal of that national asset which has already cost us far too much money?

Mrs. Beckett

I always think that it is a bit dodgy when Conservative Members raise issues on funding; the words "pots" and "kettles" certainly come to mind. There is extensive inquiry and discussion about the history and future of the dome—no doubt there will be many opportunities to discuss that further—but I fear that I cannot find time for another special debate on the matter at present.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a transport debate? I ask that in the light of comments, reported yesterday in The Sun, by the Tory Transport spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). He said: If an inspector catches you without a ticket, he issues a penalty fare. We say that if he catches you without a seat, he issues you with a voucher. If you pay for a seat you should get one. If you are forced to stand you should get something back. A debate would give us the opportunity to examine yet another ridiculous scheme proposed by the Conservatives. It would also give us the opportunity to discuss whether the principle of standing and losing a seat and getting their money back will apply to Conservative parliamentary candidates at the next general election.

Mrs. Beckett

Without getting drawn into the issue of what will happen to Conservative candidates at the next election, I understand my hon. Friend's request for a debate on what, as he says, seems to be yet another somewhat ludicrous idea from the Opposition. For once, however, I am in minuscule agreement with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in so far as I wholeheartedly agree that when one pays for a seat, one should get a seat; I think that the whole House agrees. As for whether people would be pleased to be given a voucher so that they could travel without a seat on another occasion—that is rather doubtful.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I do not think it good enough for the Leader of the House to brush aside the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) when he said that we need a statement from the Prime Minister on the performance and behaviour of the Prime Minister's chief press spokesman. The Prime Minister's spokesman is in breach of the guidelines, clearly laid down for him by the Cabinet Secretary in evidence given to the Select Committee on Public Administration on which I serve. It was made clear that he had no authority to attack the Conservative party. It is clear to anyone who read The Daily Telegraph yesterday that he attacked Conservative spending plans. May we please have a statement from the Prime Minister? Only the Prime Minister can answer on this matter. The line of responsibility runs directly to the Prime Minister; no one else can answer.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I did not brush aside the right hon. Gentleman's question; I would not dream of doing so. I always treat him with great respect—he is a very senior Member of the House. I simply pointed out to him that the matter had been aired many times before and no doubt would be aired many times again. I do not intend to advise my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he should come to the House to make an urgent statement. Nor, I fear, have I had time to peruse The Daily Telegraph in as much detail as the hon. Gentleman has. However, if he is referring to the fact that the Government have published some information about the Conservative party's costings and proposals, he will know that that was done ad nauseam by the Government whom he supported when they were in office.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 220?

[That this House deplores the comment by Corus Chairman, Brian Moffat, that his company is 'in business to make money not steel'; notes that the first act of the Board of Directors of Corus after it was formed was to pay out £694 million to its shareholders; notes that Corus also appropriated unilaterally £863 million from a surplus in the British Steel Pension Fund and provided massive remuneration increases to former Dutch senior management, providing pay-offs of between £1 and £2 million to chief executives who were dismissed; further regrets that Corus, through acquisitions and mergers that can be identified from published sources, has spent £137.4 million abroad compared with capital investment in the United Kingdom, which can be identified from published sources of £3.6 million; and therefore rejects Corus' business strategy and calls upon the company to retain the current configuration of the steel industry and to prioritise investment in steel making.]

The motion refers to Corus plc, which includes the old British Steel. The chairman, Brian Moffat, has said that his company is in business to make money not steel. Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at his comment?

A number of my constituents work at the massive Llanwern steelworks just outside Newport. Many of my constituents are British Steel pensioners. The surplus of their pension fund has been pinched to the extent of £863 million. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the best efforts of the Government, the company has treated its work force appallingly?

Mrs. Beckett

I can certainly understand the concern that my hon. Friend expresses on behalf of its constituents. The whole House understands, and sometimes with reluctance accepts, that no company can continue in business if it is wholly unprofitable or very badly managed, but we seem to have in Corus a company with considerable industrial and commercial success, to which the work force have contributed massively with high productivity and efficiency. It is a well-run company producing high-quality materials.

Although I understand my hon. Friend's regret and concern, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter in the near future, but I am confident that he and others will continue to air their concerns.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

May we have an urgent debate on freedom of speech in this country?

Was the Leader of the House as alarmed as I was to hear that the German ambassador had been given Foreign Office instructions that Mr. Joschka Fischer should not be allowed to mention the "F" word on his visit to the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of it, and I am not aware of it now.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on tackling anti-social behaviour and how we can encourage more local authorities to use powers available to them under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998? Will she note that my Tory-controlled local authority, Gedling borough council, despite my urgings, has so far failed to issue one anti-social behaviour order and is widely perceived to be weak when it comes to anti-social tenants? We need to see how we can encourage local authorities to use the powers that we have given them.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. His local authority is controlled by the Conservative party, which always claims to be sound on law and order and very against anti-social behaviour of all kinds, although the behaviour of its members does not always suggest that that is the case—I concede that that is in the House, not outside. I am sure that my hon. Friend feels the contrast sharply because he is geographically close to Labour-controlled Nottingham, which has made extensive use of anti-social behaviour orders, to the benefit of its local community. The lesson for his constituents is that they have a Member of Parliament who is concerned about anti-social behaviour, and a council which is perhaps less concerned, and they should look to see whether their council can more closely reflect the political complexion of their Member of Parliament.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Will the Leader of the House do my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) the courtesy of replying to her reasonable question? If the events surrounding yesterday's resignation are as simple as they are made out to be—namely, a two-minute telephone conversation—why cannot an inquiry be conducted in short order? Why cannot a date be set within three months—certainly by Easter? If no date is set, the suspicion will grow that the fox had to be shot yesterday because there were going to be further damaging revelations. Either way, if a cloud is allowed to continue to hang over the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), it will be unfair on him. Can we please have an end date for the inquiry?

Mrs. Beckett

I did respond to the hon. Lady's question. I made it plain that the inquiry will be held as expeditiously as possible and that the results will be published. As for Conservative Members' obsession, I know that they are all hoping like mad that something else really interesting will come up. I suspect that that hope will be misplaced, but we shall see. It is a matter for the gentleman who has just been asked to undertake the inquiry, and I am sure that he does not wish to spend any more time on it than is necessary. I am not willing to suggest that we should put him under pressure.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Although I welcome the fact that the House will debate various matters relating to law and order next week, there is not a sufficient slot to debate robbery, specifically Tory plans to rob more than £1 billion from lone parents. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate that issue so that we can expose the Conservative party's con-artist policies in respect of lone parents?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I understand her wish to spend more time exploring the folly and inadequacy of the Conservatives' policy proposals, not least of which are the extraordinary supposed costings of their plans. Although I sympathise with her desire, it is not something for which I am likely be able to find special time in the near future, but I will certainly bear in mind her request.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Is it not now embarrassingly obvious that the ministerial code is completely inadequate for its originally intended purpose? Is it not now approaching a scandal that the Prime Minister alone is the custodian of the ministerial code? Do not this week's events illustrate beyond all doubt that the Prime Minister cannot be trusted to police the integrity of his own Government, and that we must therefore have an urgent debate to establish how to guarantee the integrity of Ministers in the same way that the code of conduct seeks to guarantee the conduct of Members of Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that anyone—except those on the Opposition Benches—will believe that this week's events show any such thing; nor do I think that they demonstrate any need for a change in the ministerial code. I simply tell the right hon. Gentleman that the tone of many Conservative Members' comments increasingly suggests that they expect never to be in government again, and I sincerely hope that they are right.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on, but I have taken note of those who have not been called. The House will realise that there is a time limit on the speeches of Back-Bench Members in the next debate, and it is important to move on to that debate.