HC Deb 08 March 2001 vol 364 cc432-46 1.25 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Would the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 12 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget Debate.

TUESDAY 13 MARCH—Conclusion of the Budget Debate.

Motion on the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2001.

WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill.

Motion on the Weights and Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations 2001.

THURSDAY 15 MARCH—Estimates Day [2nd Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on the Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

At 7 o'clock the House will be asked to agree the Spring Supplementary Estimates, Votes on Account, Excess Votes and Defence Votes A.

FRIDAY 16 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 19 MARCH—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No.2) Bill.

Second Reading of Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 20 MARcH—Second Reading of Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 21 MARCH—Opposition day [7th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 22 MARCH—The House will be asked to consider motions arising from the Second Report from the Procedure Committee: Election of a Speaker.

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 4 o'clock.

FRIDAY 23 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Browning

The Leader of the House has just announced that next Wednesday we are to deal with the remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill—which is not the only debate scheduled for that day. For the third time, may I raise with the right hon. Lady the way in which that Bill has been dealt with in Committee?

The new programming rules have meant that the Committee will conclude at 7 o'clock this evening, with much of the Bill still not having been properly scrutinised. After Second Reading, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), announced that there would be about 16 sittings in Committee, despite the fact that the official Opposition asked for 18 as we realised that the Bill was important and dealt with many aspects of criminal justice. When the Minister brought the programme motion to the Programming Sub-Committee, we found that it provided for 14 sittings.

I have raised with the Leader of the House our concern about programming in general and the programme for this Bill in particular. It is now a matter of great concern that the Committee stage will end today and we will deal with remaining stages next week, given that this afternoon the Committee will have to deal with no fewer than 56 clauses, six schedules and 42 amendments.

The matters to be considered this afternoon include the disposal of information held by tax authorities; powers of seizure; safeguards of legal privilege—a matter that has been raised by the Bar Association—police training; and DNA testing and police discipline, about which the Police Federation and the Association of Police Authorities have expressed concern.

It is unacceptable for a Bill of this magnitude, whose content had cross-party support in many areas, to be curtailed in this way. This is the last opportunity that I will have to draw this matter to the right hon. Lady's attention from the Dispatch Box before the business is taken next Wednesday. In Committee, the Minister made it clear that, contrary to what the Advocate-General for Scotland said, the Opposition have not prolonged debates unnecessarily. In fact the Minister said clearly at column 567 of the Official Report of the Standing Committee that the Opposition had not filibustered. They have behaved properly in this matter.

The right hon. Lady's roles are now incompatible: she chairs the Modernisation Committee, yet she is expected to do her duty to the House. For the third time running at business questions, I have drawn her attention to the problems associated with the Bill, and the Home Office Minister, no less, informed the Committee that he had written to the right hon. Lady describing his concerns about the Bill. If all that means nothing, the right hon. Lady should consider her position as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee. Clearly, she cannot discharge her duties to this House regarding Bill Committees while she is Chairman.

We will not take this matter lightly. It is an affront to democracy. Previous Governments have allowed more than 200 hours in Committee for similar Home Office Bills. It is a mockery to call this a justice Bill when it has not been properly scrutinised by the House.

Also—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where's the question?"] I do not think that we need frivolous remarks from below the Gangway. I also ask the Leader of the House—for the second time, as I requested this last week—how the Hammond report is to be conveyed to the House. After all, one can read extracts from it on BBC Online, yet the right hon. Lady has still not identified how the Government intend to convey its contents to the House so that hon. Members on both sides can scrutinise it and ask the Government about it. Will she tell us when, during next week's business, the House will have an opportunity to deal with the Hammond inquiry?

My final request is somewhat small in comparison with the weightier matters to which I hope the Leader of the House will give her attention. Yet again, I ask for the annual small business debate promised by new Labour when they came to office. Such a debate has been promised by successive Ministers, but there is no sign of it.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady says, correctly, that she has previously raised with me the handling of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. However, although she has repeatedly said that she frequently raises the many problems that have arisen as regards programming, she has in fact repeatedly raised the problems that she identifies in respect of that one Bill. She repeatedly makes the same point, as she is, of course, perfectly entitled to do.

As she has done in the past, the hon. Lady refers in particular to the question whether there were 14 or 16 sittings—it is news to me that the Opposition had requested 18 sittings. Perhaps there is a little too much focus on sittings; as the House will readily appreciate, the number of sittings is not the same as the amount of time spent on a Bill. The hon. Lady says that there was no undue delay in scrutinising the Bill in Committee. However, it is my understanding that additional sittings were offered by the Government—and indeed, that longer sittings were offered on some occasions when the Committee was already meeting—in order to meet requests for extra time. Although the number of sittings is 15—in itself more than the number proposed originally—the time spent on the Bill amounts to about 16 sittings' worth—[HON. MEMBERS: "That is not right."] Well, it is a matter of simple arithmetic. I do not suppose for a second that hon. Members know anything about it.

There is certainly a point of view on the way that the Committee is being handled that is different from the one frequently expressed by the hon. Lady. As for how that relates to my responsibilities, that does not strike me as a matter on which the House would necessarily want to spend much debating time—which is what the hon. Lady is asking me for. May I remind her of something that she seems—not for the first time—to have forgotten? There is nothing unprecedented about the Leader of the House chairing a Select Committee: the Leader of the House always used to chair the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, for example. Although I understand that the hon. Lady objects to the position as regards my chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee, such chairmanship is not new—it happens from time to time.

The hon. Lady makes a general point about the amount of time available for the Bill. Although there has been some amendment of content and some addition to the Bill, it is nothing like tie amount that was needed on Bills introduced by the Conservatives in the past. That means that it is possible to scrutinise the measure without taking up the same amount of time as has been needed in the past. Obviously, the handling of the remainder of the Committee stage and Report will be a matter for those concerned.

As the hon. Lady knows, we have briefly discussed such issues in the Modernisation Committee. A matter that the House genuinely has to take seriously and balance in its own mind, and in its workings, is the degree to which we try to structure our time to ensure that we look at all aspects of legislation. There are some Members—as the hon. Lady knows, there are some in her party—who believe strongly that the House should be prepared to exercise a discipline over itself in order to ensure the scrutiny of all parts of legislation; others find the matter of less importance. However, it is one on which the House will, ultimately, have to come—one way or another—to a collective view and approach.

The hon. Lady refers to the Hammond report. She says that its contents can be read on BBC Online, as if to suggest that the Government have in some way withheld them from the House. I take it that what she is referring to is what the BBC said were the contents of the report.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

How did it get there?

Mrs. Beckett

I have no idea, because the Government were not in possession of the report when those documents were published. It is nothing to do with Ministers that some parts of what may ultimately be in the report are actually in the public domain. As for how the matter will be reported to the House, hon. Members will, of course, be kept properly informed by the usual means. I believe that I am right in saying that we expect the Hammond report to be published tomorrow, and it may be for the convenience of the House to know that. Finally, I am conscious of the hon. Lady's reminder about the small business debate, and will remain conscious of it.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend will know that last year we in the United Kingdom imported 12,500 tonnes of fireworks, worth —22 million. Does she share my incredulity that there are no official statistics on the number of commercial fireworks that are imported? They are monster explosives, which can kill and maim. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Lancashire Evening Telegraph has been documenting the havoc caused by those monster explosives in east Lancashire? Phone boxes and two cars have been blown up. Last month, a van was blown up outside the house of an 86-year-old woman. A park pavilion has been blown up. Last October, a man died. May I urge my right hon. Friend to hold an early debate on the importation of commercial fireworks and their end use, because it is clear that those lethal devices are leaching into the market and that many people who buy them use them with scant regard to their impact on the general public?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I admit that I was not familiar with the scale of the events that he describes in his part of the country. I understand his anxiety and concern. Equally, I was not aware—although I can perhaps understand why—that commercial fireworks are not differentiated from others in the statistics. I am not 100 per cent. sure, but from memory, I think that this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I will certainly draw it to the relevant Minister's attention. I fear that I cannot offer to hold a debate on the Floor of the House, but it seems to be exactly the kind of subject that my hon. Friend might raise with profit in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Leader of the House will recall that, last week, I asked her to get a statement to us on the practical implications of the continuing foot and mouth epidemic on the census and the May county council elections. Since then, the media have been briefed extensively on those issues, although the information has been peculiarly confusing. Having been given a week's notice, will she at least give us some guidance? For example, would the postponement of the census require the House to consider any legislative change, or would it simply be an administrative matter? How soon would either of those announcements have to be made? I understand that they would have to be made in the next 10 days or so if a postponement were planned.

The right hon. Lady will be aware from the statements that have been made and the oral answers just given by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that it would seem that we have not yet reached the peak of the current outbreak of foot and mouth. We can therefore expect several weeks yet of restrictions in many rural areas, including mine in Cornwall. In those circumstances, what contingency plan has she in place to deal with the county council elections on 3 May—and any other possible election that may be planned for that day? Will she please ensure that the House is kept fully informed of those arrangements, which are crucial to the practical application of our democratic procedures? Not only should the House be informed, but those who are campaigning on behalf of the various parties should know what the situation is.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I am afraid that I do not have the answers that he seeks. He is right to say that questions concerning the legislative handling of any such decision are strictly factual. One of the reasons why I do not have those details is that no decision of any kind has been made as to whether we need to contemplate such steps. In that light, people have not pursued the detail of how those issues would be handled. If I may, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Although I am not an expert on such matters, my recollection and understanding is that the incubation period for foot and mouth disease is about two weeks, which is why we are not yet clear whether we have reached the peak. It is also not yet clear whether there is any more than one source. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, until now—we must all hope that this continues to be the case—we are talking about one source. Again, that seems potentially to make something of a difference. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and the wish of all hon. Members to know where they stand on campaigning. The Government are not yet taking a view and a position on these matters, but we will keep the House informed.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I know that my right hon. Friend is a great supporter of the Executive providing free and open information to Parliament. I know that she will therefore be prepared to consider holding a debate urgently on whether Members are receiving full information. I tabled a question to every Department about Serco and the contracts that it has won and lost throughout the Government system. I have received full information from all the Departments, except the Ministry of Defence, which has chosen to give me details of the number of individual contracts, with no information about the contracts concerned. I find that worrying.

On a related matter, if the Hammond report is to he released tomorrow, is there to be an inquiry into the source of the many highly specialised and partial leaks of the apparent contents of the report that have appeared in the press over the past week?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend raises the issue of Serco contracts and I am glad to learn that she has had information generally. I was not aware of the particular difficulty that she identifies with the MOD and, of course, I will draw her remarks to the attention of Ministers there. She may like to bear in mind that it is Defence questions on Monday week, when there may be an opportunity to raise the matter. On a cautionary note, since it has recently become apparent that hitherto there has been no central record of the great range of Government procurement, it is always possible that some of these matters are ones of error as much as of design. But, naturally, I entirely take my hon. Friend's point.

My hon. Friend asked whether a further inquiry is intended into the circumstances surrounding the work of Sir Anthony Hammond. Obviously, that is not a matter for me. No doubt someone may give it consideration somewhere. There has been a long history of inquiries into how information is leaked and I am only thankful that on this occasion it was information that was not even in the possession of the Government.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I warmly thank the Leader of the House for arranging a debate on the second report of the Procedure Committee relating to the procedures governing the election of a Speaker, and for tabling the necessary amendments to Standing Orders. In responding as she has, the right hon. Lady has met the wishes of the majority of Members on both sides of the House. Will she join me in thanking the Committee Members for their dedicated hard work in producing the report?

Bearing in mind the visit over the last few days of Mr. Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, to Europe and, in particular, to France, and the fact that he is behaving in the most tyrannical and despotic way in his country and is directly responsible for the deaths of people, will the Leader of the House get the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to make a statement on the apparent red-carpet treatment that the French have meted out to him? We should be giving thought to removing his country from the Commonwealth for the foreseeable future until his behaviour and that of his Government improve.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thanks. I am glad that we have been able to arrange a debate on the Procedure Committee report. I cannot always grant these requests as readily as I have been able to on this occasion. I am pleased to have been able to do so. It is my hope that the motions on the Standing Order changes that will allow the House to reach conclusions on this matter will be on the Order Paper as soon as possible. That is certainly our wish and intention. I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the hard work of the Committee Members. I hope that they will be able to take part in the discussions, although, obviously that is a matter for the Chair.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of Zimbabwe and the concern that exists on both sides of the House about the behaviour of the Government of Zimbabwe. Certainly, anxiety has been expressed about some of the problems that have arisen in that unhappy country. How others deal with the issues is a matter for them, but we all hope that they have raised with President Mugabe the great concern that is felt across the European Union. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary intends to raise the issue at the forthcoming meeting of Commonwealth Ministers.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Will my right hon. Friend consider making time for a debate on United States-United Kingdom relations, with particular reference to the proposal to build a reservoir in Virginia that will result in the destruction of 437 acres of wetlands and the loss of the livelihood and the homeland of the native American Mataponi tribe? Is she aware of the importance of this issue to my constituents in Gravesham, because the Mataponi are the direct descendants of Pocahontas, who died in 1617 off Gravesend and who is at rest in the churchyard of St. George's church?

As my right hon. Friend will know, the borough of Gravesham is rich in history and heritage, of which Pocahontas is an important part. My constituents would like to show their support for her descendants, the Mataponi, so will my right hon. Friend give us an opportunity to consider this matter in the House?

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House is clearly lost in admiration at the creativity of that link. It is certainly a different concern from those that are usually raised at business questions. The whole House endorses my hon. Friend's remarks about the importance of Gravesham and acknowledges the concern that he has expressed on behalf of his constituents. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time on the Floor of the House for the debate that he seeks, but Westminster Hall might relish it.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Last month, the Government signed the treaty of Nice. Have the parliamentary draftsmen completed the necessary work for the ratification Bill to be presented to the House? When it is presented to the House, can we be assured that there will be no guillotine attached to it, since it is a constitutional measure that must receive very full consideration?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot, off hand, recall the answer to the hon. Gentlemans questions. He is right: the treaty of Nice has now been signed. On the questions of when and how it might come before the House, I shall, of course, bear his remarks in mind.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order that is to be the subject of a debate under the affirmative resolution procedure next Tuesday evening? I am sure that she will recall that I raised this question with her last Thursday and asked her to consider how sensible it was to put such an order through in a one-and-a-half-hour debate under the affirmative resolution procedure, with no opportunity for amendment.

Twenty-one organisations are due to be banned from operating in this country, causing a great deal of disquiet in the Islamic, Turkish and Tamil communities. That is not because people support terrorism, but because they want to encourage a peace process. They recognise that some of the organisations are currently engaged in ceasefires in their own countries, and are actively engaged in the search for long-lasting peace that will bring about the resolution to conflicts. Does my right hon. Friend not accept that a one-and-a-half-hour debate, with no possibility of amendment, is not a sensible way to deal with such a serious issue?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but he will know that this order represents the inauguration of the process. If the list were to be amended in the future, that might be done on a one-off basis to add or to remove organisations from it. A number of organisations are covered, but my hon. Friend will also know that there has long been discussion about many of them, so the issues that will be aired in the debate are not, in that sense, completely new.

My hon. Friend will also know that statutory instruments are not amendable; that is not the way in which the House proceeds. I understand his concern, and I assure him that the issue has been given careful consideration. However, it remains the case that the Government are giving the order the, normal amount of time for debate.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The right hon. Lady will remember that the Broadcasting Committee's report was published several months ago and that before Christmas I raised on the Floor of the House the possibility of debating it. I understand that the appointment of a new contractor for broadcasting the House of Commons is imminent. Will she assure us that the report will be debated before the contract is signed?

Mrs. Beckett

I recall the hon. Gentleman raising that report. I fear that I cannot give him the undertaking that he wants, but I will bear his point it mind.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Surprisingly, the Opposition have not pressed my right hon. Friend on the election. Does she agree that when there is election fever and a great deal of speculation, there is much to be said, as there was in the 1980s, for getting it over and done with? [Interruption.]

Mrs. Beckett

I note with some amusement—as, I am sure, does my hon. Friend—that Opposition Members refer to panic. There is no sign of panic on the part of the Government, but I thought that those Members were a bit gloomy yesterday.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The consequences of foot and mouth disease are often unpredictable and widespread, as was made clear earlier this afternoon. For example, the people of Chippenham and Malmesbury are disappointed by Her Majesty the Queen's correct decision to cancel the visit to my constituency a week on Friday. None the less, that highlights the, necessity for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come to the House as often as he can to answer questions on what is a difficult issue. Of his two most recent appearances, one was for an Opposition debate and the other was today in response to a written question tabled by a Conservative Member of Parliament. Is it not time to put a procedure in place so that the right hon. Gentleman comes to the House—perhaps once a week—to update Members on the epidemic?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. When Lord Biffen was Leader of the House, he said that business questions is when Members deliver themselves of the point or speech that they have been nurturing in their bosom undelivered all week. I know that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) was present throughout my right hon. Friend's statement and subsequent questions, and was not successful in being called. He can congratulate himself on the fact that his constituents' concerns are on the record.

The hon. Gentleman will know that one of his hon. Friend's suggestions in business questions last week led to the specific arrangement that allowed the Minister to answer questions today. I am not sure that we need to make a formal decision about what particular mechanism is adopted, but I can assure him that my right hon. Friend has every intention of keeping the House informed. The hon. Gentleman will know, and no doubt has benefited from, the arrangements that my right hon. Friend and his Department have established to make information available to MPs, which I also mentioned last week.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

The centre for the deaf at Bristol university has recently pioneered a video link system for the deaf, which uses British sign language to enable them to communicate via screen. Will my right hon. Friend consider how the system might be used to enhance the involvement of the deaf in parliamentary democracy, perhaps by using an interpreter to ensure that their questions reach Members and/or enabling them to see an edited version of what happens in the House, possibly similar to "Yesterday in Parliament", again via screen?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an extremely interesting point. I was not aware of that work and I join her in paying tribute to her constituents and those who are engaged in such matters. My initial thought is that she should consider taking the issue up with the Information Committee. The nature of electronic communication in the House is, at least in part, a matter for it. She might also like to write to the Speaker and the Clerk of the House. However, I suspect that it will be difficult to resolve how we can make use of such facilities, but it should certainly be considered.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Can the Leader of the House be a bit more helpful about the Hammond report? She has been very coy about it so far. Does she accept that we need to know whether what the BBC is reporting is accurate—in the cause strictly of open government and transparency, which the Government of course espouse? Can she guarantee that the report will be properly presented to the House so that we are able to ask questions about it, not least about the role of the shadowy figure of Alastair Campbell, who, unless the report corrects the record, apparently runs the Government, sacks Cabinet Ministers and unapologetically seeks to sidestep the whole issue?

Can the Leader of the House give a specific undertaking that everything will be done to tell us whether what the BBC is saying is accurate and, more important, that the House will have a proper opportunity to hear all about the report and ask lots of questions about it?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not being coy. I think that the report was received only this morning. I believe that it is the intention that it will be published tomorrow, so I am not in a position to say anything more to the right hon. Gentleman. I am certainly not in a position to tell him whether what the BBC says is accurate. When the report is published—probably tomorrow—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

What about the leaks?

Mrs. Beckett

That is a very good question. Do not ask me. They are nothing to do with me.

Mr. Bercow

Not me, guv.

Mrs. Beckett

Very much, "Not me, guy." I have already said that the matter will of course be properly reported to the House. As for the notion that Mr. Campbell is a shadowy figure, I would have thought that that was a less-than-apt description. He is certainly an effective servant of the Government and of the public service, and that is very much to be welcomed.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is perhaps slightly losing sight of the fact that, if I recall correctly—indeed, I must check for myself—Sir Anthony Hammond was looking into whether there was any impropriety in the award of a passport.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

In the light of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) yesterday about local government finance, will the Leader of the House consider again the need for a debate on that subject? I say that in the light of the numerous responses to the Green Paper, to which the Prime Minister referred, and the short amount of time that hon. Members were given to debate this year's rate support grant. It was the subject of a truncated debate, and many hon. Members who wished to contribute were not able to do so. I also say that in the light of the experience in my local authority, which has raised a series of issues that we have not had the opportunity to debate on the Floor of the House. It would be good to have a debate so that the Government can consider the views of all hon. Members before the White Paper is drafted.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern and his dismay that we did not have as extensive a debate as usual on the local government settlement. He may recall that at that time the Opposition were going through one of their phases of objecting to everything, and one of the things to which they objected was an extended debate. Whether they imagined that the Government would keep hon. Members here late at night to discuss whether we should extend the debate, I do not know. The Government simply accepted their decision.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a specialist debate on local government finance. My hon. Friend can perhaps look for a general debate on the issue in Westminster Hall. It sounds to me like a good subject for an extended debate there, but I am sure that there will be other opportunities for my hon. Friend and others who are anxious to discuss it.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

In response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the Leader of the House confirmed that the Hammond report would be reported to the House in the usual way. Given that most of us have read its contents in the newspapers or seen them on the broadcast media already, we could be forgiven for thinking that it had already been reported to us. In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the right hon. Lady confirmed that the matter would be reported to the House properly. Given that the report is apparently to be published tomorrow, will there be a statement in the House tomorrow, or will it be next week?

Mrs. Beckett

As the report has only just been received, it is yet to be decided how it will be properly reported to the House. The hon. Gentleman will be perfectly well aware, and successive occupants of the Speaker's Chair have confirmed, that there is a variety of ways in which information can properly be laid before the House. A written question is one of them.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

My right hon. Friend will know that the final decision on Corns jobs has not yet been made. Is it not important that we have a debate before it is made, so that we can discuss that foolish proposal, which will lead to the closure of some of the most efficient steel plants in the world? Corus has confirmed that the works in Newport that the company plans to close down are far more productive and efficient than its plants in the Netherlands and other countries. Can we not emphasise that the reasons behind the decision are in part to do with differences in payments for redundancies in the different countries, with Dutch steel workers getting up to five times the redundancy payments that British workers receive; and with the parity of currencies, which means that the price on the continent of production from Llanwern is artificially high, whereas imports from the continent are artificially cheap here? Is not Newport's plight a case of "euro, or your job"?

Mrs. Beckett

hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. I think that I am right in saying that he has some years' direct experience of the steel industry. He knows that we h we discussed that issue in the House and that further discussions are continuing. He will also be aware that, fortunately, owing to pressure from the Government and others, Corus is now discussing its proposals and plans with the trade unions. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a further special debate on the issue, but my hon. Friend, too, might consider the advantages of Westminster Hall. In addition, he will know that today's Budget debate is likely to concentrate on industrial matters, so he might find an opportunity to raise the matter during that debate.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The Government's published standards on care homes are vastly more prescriptive than those produced by the National Assembly for Wales, despite the fact that both arise from the same piece of legislation. May we have a debate on the Government's standards'? Many of us believe that they will have a perverse effect, deny many elderly residents the en-suite facilities that they currently enjoy and, more important, deny many elderly and vulnerable people a place in a residential care home, as developers all over the south queue up to build new houses on the sites of care homes that have gone out of business.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on that issue, but the hon. Gentleman will recall that Health questions take place on Tuesday, so he might find an opportunity to raise it then. He will know that debate continues on how to handle the availability of places in care homes. In addition, there is extensive discussion about how we can get the balance right between people who need health care and those who can be properly cared for in their own home, which also has an impact on the care homes sector. I cannot arrange a special debate, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find other ways in which to raise the issue.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May we have a debate on the west's treatment of Iraq? The British and American Governments appear to be determined to bomb Iraq back into the stone age, despite the widespread opprobrium with which our policy has been met. The recent bombing appears to have been motivated by the fact that there is a new American president who is viciously right wing and has a peanut for a brain.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on Iraq. My hon. Friend will know that those concerns have been expressed many times in the House in a variety of different ways, and I am sure that he and others will find other In ways of making their points. In the near future, it is not likely that we shall have time for the debate that he requests.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have an urgent debate in Government time on sentencing policy? Given that since January 1999 no fewer than 31,000 serious criminals have been released early after serving less than half of their sentences—including people convicted of manslaughter, attempted murder, actual and grievous bodily harm, drug dealing, cruelty to children, sex offences, violent disorder, burglary, robbery and kidnapping, to name but a few—would not an early debate in the House present the public with the clear choice that they will soon have to make on crime between the Government's institutionalised wimpishness and the robust policy of honesty in sentencing that is commended to the country by the Conservatives?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman's point about people being released early from jail has been made frequently by Opposition Members. Although I speak from memory, I understand that we are talking about people being released perhaps a week or so earlier than they otherwise would be released. Under this Government, there has been no vast change in the approach to the handling of sentences or the period that people serve.

As for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about choice, Opposition Members talked a storm about those things in government, while crime doubled. At the weekend, I read the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, in which he said how different things would be if only the shadow Chancellor was at the Treasury, the shadow Foreign Secretary was at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the shadow Home Secretary was at the Home Office. I cast my mind back and thought, "But the shadow Chancellor was at the Treasury, the shadow Foreign Secretary was at the Foreign Office, and the shadow Home Secretary was at the Home Office—and look what happened then."

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

With her long experience, my right hon. Friend will recall that, just before the 1970 election, the late Enoch Powell made a disgusting xenophobic speech, which was dismissed by the then Conservative leader, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). The Conservatives went on to win that election.

Last Sunday, the Leader of the Opposition made a disgusting xenophobic speech, so could we have a debate on the problem of xenophobia in politics, with particular reference to the report in today's edition of Tribune about Lord Pearson of Rannoch being prepared to pay —2 million to bribe members of another political party to stand down to allow more extreme right-wing, anti-European, xenophobic Conservatives to garner more votes? Surely, that financial interference in our electoral system is unacceptable, even at the cost of Tory xenophobia.

Mrs. Beckett

I have not yet seen this week's edition of Tribune, but I am aware of newspaper stories making the suggestion to which my hon. Friend referred with regard to the United Kingdom Independence party. It is certainly interesting to see how assiduously certain members of the Conservative party are working to influence the electorate's decisions.

My hon. Friend made a point about the general content of the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, and there was certainly widespread concern about it. When I read it, what struck me forcefully was the distinct impression that the entire Conservative party had been beamed down from Mars in 1997 and that everything wrong in this country is the result only of the operations of this Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Quite right."] I hear echoes from Opposition Members; they may think that the world began on 1 May 1997, but the rest of us are conscious of a rather long trail, track record and history.

As my hon. Friend will understand from my remarks, I find attractive his proposition that we should provide an opportunity to air those issues in the House. I fear, however, that the pressures on time are such that it is a pleasure that we shall have to forgo.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

I appreciate that we are in the middle of debating the Budget which, as we know, represents a balanced approach, providing both measured and affordable tax cuts and extra investment, but, surely, there must be a way of debating and scrutinising the Opposition's policies, which are so right-wing, barmy and unbalanced that they pose an enormous risk to the country. The more exposure they get, the better.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's concerns. It would be attractive to spend time exposing the Opposition's mistakes, follies and continual U-turns; for example, we never discussed what happened to the tax guarantee, which may be relevant in the context of the Budget debate. I fear however that, no matter how much I might wish to, I cannot undertake to find extra time for such debate.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The majority of hon. Members would like a general election. May I pick up on the question of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? In reality, it is highly likely that there will be a general election on 3 May—that is agreed ground. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Home Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary introducing a short Bill which would allow free delivery of local election addresses during that period, to match the facility for parliamentary candidates? Will she consider bringing forward the Northern Ireland elections, which are scheduled for mid May, to 3 May if appropriate? Finally, what is the expected date of arrival of the International Criminal Court Bill from another place?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend asks a number of questions. He was right to say that the local elections are scheduled to be held on 3 May, but whatever the assumptions, I am not aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a decision, never mind announced it. We can all be confident that there will be a general election within the next 14 months.

My hon. Friend makes a new proposal about free delivery of local election addresses, which may have wide-ranging implications. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends, but I cannot undertake at this point that we will be able to make the changes that he seeks. As I said, I shall draw the package of concerns that he identified to the attention of my parliamentary and political colleagues.

With regard to the International Criminal Court Bill, I have slightly lost track of its progress in the Lords, but I believe that it is due to finish there today. We hope to make progress with that important and useful measure.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I return to the need for a debate on modernisation procedures and programme motions. On the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, when the Standing Committee turned its attention to the content of the Bill, the scrutiny—this applies to hon. Members from all parties—was constructive and effective.

When my right hon. Friend considers further representations on the matter, however, particularly in view of the mock, synthetic outrage that we witnessed earlier from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), will my right hon. Friend take time to peruse the Official Report of the Committee? Will she look at the volume of time that was devoted to lengthy and gratuitous insults levelled at members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, deliberate lengthy and misleading misrepresentations of international animal welfare organisations, smug and lengthy eulogies to minor Conservative party researchers, and extraordinarily lengthy comments on the television series "Dangerfield", which might have been more appropriate on the television critics' pages of the Radio Times? Does not that demonstrate that far too much time and attention are devoted to trivia by the Opposition, which is why the Committee is not making progress?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and powerful point. I hope that it has been heard and taken on board by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). My hon. Friend's underlying point is extremely important and we make it repeatedly in the House. The question is not just how much time is available for discussion, but whether that time is used constructively. It has often been a delusion of Oppositions, and we in the Labour party can plead guilty to this in the past, that people admire skill in wasting time. My understanding is that members of the public think that they send us to this place to use our time constructively, and rather despise us if they think that we do not.