HC Deb 15 March 2001 vol 364 cc1185-98 12.30 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Would 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 for the coming week will be as follows:

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

Second Reading of Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords].

Motion relating to the Common European Security and Defence policy.

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

Motion on the Churchwardens Measure.

WEDNESDAY 21 MARCH—Opposition day [7th Allotted Day]. Until about 10 o'clock, there will be a debate on "The Government's Conduct of Foreign Policy" on an Opposition motion.

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

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 4 o'clock.

FRIDAY 23 MARCH-Private Members' Bills. The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 26 MARCH—Second Reading of the Adoption and Children Bill.

TUESDAY 27 MARCH—Second Reading of Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH—Second Reading of the Private Security Industry Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 29 MARCH—Debate on the Intelligence agencies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 30 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 28 March there will be a debate relating to the support scheme for olive oil in European Standing Committee A.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 28 March there will be a debate relating to waste electrical and electronic equipment in European Standing Committee C. [Relevant documents:

Wednesday 28 March 2001:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 9431/00; Support scheme for olive oil. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee report: HC 23-xxvii (1999–2000).]

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union document: 10802/00; Waste electrical and electronic equipment. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports HC 28-i (2000–01) and HC 23-xxix (1999–2000).

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for those announcements. We very much welcome the fact that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be making a statement to the House following business questions. Events in the foot and mouth outbreak move fast, so may I urge the right hon. Lady to impress on Ministers at MAFF that it would be extremely helpful to hon. Members of all parties if Ministers were able to come to the House with announcements as frequently as possible? The questions and concerns of hon. Members change every day, so I hope that the right hon. Lady will ask her colleague to ensure that Ministers are more available to the House.

In the coming week, is an announcement—or even a debate—planned retarding the Government's proposed cross-party Committee to consider the proceedings of the upper House? The House will be aware that the other place dealt with the Second Reading of the Hunting Bill this week. The Government made an extraordinary proposal: they tabled a procedure motion in the other place to allow only amendments approved by the Government to be debated. That is as great a concern to hon. Members in this Chamber as it is to my noble Friends. Given the precedent that the Government have set, will the right hon. Lady consider sharing with the House what their intentions are for proceedings in another place?

Will the right hon. Lady say whether the Government intend in the coming week's business to allow time for a debate on remaining order No. 50 on the Order Paper, with which she will be familiar? It has been tabled in her name and concerns the reprimand to the Westminster Four. Conservative Members would certainly welcome the opportunity to debate the order—[HON. MEMBERS: "At length."] I agree with my hon. Friends. Extraordinarily, we had anticipated that the debate would take place on Monday because of what was seen to be almost a business announcement by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), on Report on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. He informed my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe): I look forward to seeing her on Monday evening, although, unfortunately, she cannot speak then. I gather that, when it comes to debating her position the Opposition Chief Whip will speak for her."—[Official Report, 14 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 1086.] That was quite an accurate statement, but, again, it was surprising that that was said by a Home Office Minister when the Leader of the House has not confirmed that that debate will take place on Monday.

I wonder whether the right hon. Lady can confirm that the Government intend to provide time, certainly within the next week or two weeks, for the House to debate the conduct of the Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). It is an astonishing situation. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has stated clearly that only half the complaints that were put before her in respect of the hon. Gentleman were dealt with because he has failed or has refused to answer any further questions that the commissioner has put to him. Clearly, the House cannot condone such conduct. I hope that the right hon. Lady will ensure that we get a chance to debate that matter.

We would also like to debate the conduct of the Foreign Secretary and the relationship between him and the media during the period that he had possession of a leaked Select Committee report: he had possession of it before it was made officially available. The subject of that report was Sierra Leone, which is an important matter to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that, in the spirit of the reprimand that the right hon. Lady has tabled in respect of my right hon. and hon. Friends, she will feel that matters appertaining to the Foreign Secretary and to the Minister for Europe are as, if not even more, important in terms of censure.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome for the statement that will be made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She is right to say that it is important for Ministers to come to the House to keep it informed. I recognise fully that hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the situation and about how it changes day to day. I know that she acknowledges that Ministers are doing everything that they can to spread information and to keep hon. Members up to date with the changing situation by placing updated information continually on the Department's website and by placing in the Library the daily briefings that they are giving.

Formal reports to the House, which allow for questions from hon. Members, are part of that process, but I know that the hon. Lady recognises the importance of Ministers balancing their duties to help to tackle the outbreak with their duties to keep the House informed.

The hon. Lady asked about the handling of debates in the upper House. I have not followed the detail of what has been happening in the upper House. My understanding, however, is that the procedures that were adopted for the Hunting Bill were welcomed and supported by representatives of every part of the upper House—those on the Bishops Bench the Cross Benches and others—with the sad exception of those on the Conservative Front Bench.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

That's all right, then.

Mrs. Beckett

I thought that majorities ruled, even in the upper House. That probably suggests that it was all right, but I emphasise that it is not a matter for me and that the Government are not making proposals for the procedures of another place, which are a matter for that House. That House took the decision, not us. The hon. Lady will also know that the Government do not have a majority in the upper House; indeed, the Government have only one third of the Members of the upper House. Noble Lords took their decision; that is a matter for them.

The hon. Lady asked me about the issue of the conduct of the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)—rather unwisely, I should have thought, but that is a matter for her. She also asked me about the issues that have been raised in relation to the conduct of my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. She has raised issues that are highlighted in the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. What she does not recognise, and what the House must at all times take into account, is that the reports of the Standards and Privileges Committee are unanimous and have always been unanimous, although there have been some—not least in the news media, but, occasionally, also on the Opposition Benches—who try to give a different impression.

The House charges that Committee with a heavy and very difficult responsibility, which is to weigh the evidence that is put before it and to come to its views. As I had no part in deciding the framework within which the Committee works, or any part whatsoever in the appointment of members to that Committee, I feel perfectly free to say that I think that it is both dangerous and unwise for hon. Members on either side of the House to pass judgment and to try to second-guess the members whom we ourselves have appointed to that Committee—for all of whom I have great respect, although I do not always agree with them. The hon. Lady and others should take that into account.

The hon. Lady asked also about a debate on the conduct of the Foreign Secretary. I read four or five times—because I thought that I must be missing something—the stories that appeared over the weekend about his conduct, and what he said and what he answered to the House, without being able to discover within them any contradiction with what actually happened. Of course it is open to hon. Members to seek to pursue opportunities to discuss his conduct, but I suspect that the content of any such debate would be extremely short and that most normal members of the public would find the matter extremely boring.

I should like to say one other thing to the hon. Lady about her suggestion—I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, for this lengthy reply but I think that it is such an important issue for the entire House—that we should have a debate on such matters. Two things, I think, are of great importance to all hon. Members. The first and by every standard the most important is that there should not be corruption in our public life, and that if there is corruption it should be stamped out—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That has to be—[Interruption.] I am glad to know that Opposition Members support that contention, and I say to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that he should be more cautious in what he says.

Secondly, however, while it has to be the prime role of this House to ensure that corruption is identified and removed if it exists, every single hon. Member has an interest in ensuring that frivolous or unsubstantiated allegations are not made or encouraged. I say—I have said it to hon. Friends and I say it publicly as I would say it privately to Opposition Members—that allegations should be neither made nor pursued for what is thought to be either personal or party advantage or vendetta. I think that that is damaging to the House and damaging to hon. Members, and it is something that all hon. Members should bear in mind.

The final issue that the hon. Lady raised was whether we should debate the behaviour of the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I recognise that this is not a Question Time for the hon. Lady, but there is a question for her to consider in her role as shadow Leader of the House. It is the question that I put to her the other evening about whether Conservative Members uphold the authority of the Chair. I remind her and other Opposition Members of the words of Mr. Speaker a few days ago—which were that the right hon. Lady had no business to be in that Committee, and that he disapproved strongly of her being there. That has always been the rule of this House, and it is a rule that all hon. Members would be well advised to bear in mind.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Will the remaining stages of the Bill on the abolition of hunting with hounds will come back to this House before or after 3 May? Is she aware that yesterday the Duke of Devonshire and the Countryside Alliance were clamouring for a postponement of any election until well after 3 May? Can she tell them when the foxhunting Bill might go through its remaining stages so that they can make their mind up about which date they would like the election to be held?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the specific individuals who were calling for the postponement of an election, which, as far as I am aware, has not been called. I understand my hon. Friend's concern. It is clear from the way in which the House voted that a majority of Members take the view that a hunting Bill should reach the statute book, and the House has given its verdict on the form that that legislation should take. It is a matter for Members of the other place how and when they take their decisions, but I am sure that they will be mindful of the views of the elected House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Prime Minister yesterday announced the appointment of a Minister for veterans affairs, which I am sure is widely welcomed on both sides of the House. Will the Leader of the House assure us that information will be made available to all Members on the Minister's role and remit, and, in particular, what additional budget will be made available to him? Will the right hon. Lady also assure us that his attention will be drawn immediately to early-day motion 226 on Gulf veterans:

[That this House notes that, 10 years after the Gulf War, veterans and their families are still awaiting the outcome of research; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to disclose what further consideration they are giving to the needs of those Gulf War veterans with still undiagnosed illnesses and of the dependants of those who have died.]

The Leader of the House will recall that I have asked her on two successive occasions at business questions about contingency plans for the census and the county council elections on 3 May. I am very grateful to her for the reply that I received just as I came into the Chamber, which answers some of the questions that arise. However, since I asked those questions, the Tory tabloids have started a clamour to postpone the elections on 3 May.

Hon. Members

Name them.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Do not shout at the hon. Gentleman. He is entitled to say his piece.

Mr. Tyler

We all know that the situation is extremely serious in many parts of the country as a result of foot and mouth disease. Does the right hon. Lady support the view expressed yesterday by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that the countryside of Britain is not closed? Does she agree that if we suggested that all business in this country, including an election, had to be postponed because of the severity of the situation it would be the worst possible signal to give, particularly to foreign visitors?

Will returning officers be encouraged to issue a postal vote application form with polling cards to all those who may otherwise not be aware of the new facilities, together with an explanation that the means for postal voting are now much more widely available than they were previously? Will she also give an undertaking that the Home Office will reconsider election expenses, which in rural areas such as Cornwall will be much higher if we have to operate at a distance and cannot use volunteers on foot?

Finally, what legislation may be necessary to make any changes to the census date or polling day for any election, be it the county elections or the general election? What is the last available date by which that legislation must be brought before the House?

Mrs. Beckett

On the role of my colleague who has been appointed Minister for veterans affairs, the Ministry of Defence will issue a statement about his role and remit. As for whether that post will have a separate budget, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have already taken steps to deal with the issues of greatest concern that were constantly raised with our predecessors—the treatment of war widows and compensation for former Japanese prisoners of war. Resolution of those issues has been urged on Governments for very many years and it has fallen to this Government to take action, which the previous Government refused to do.

The hon. Gentleman in also referred to Gulf war veterans. The Government's view is that the key components of the issue are dialogue, the provision of medical assistance as required, the pursuit of the right research and its publication.

The hon. Gentleman asked about contingency plans, with regard to the election, and I am grateful to him for his thanks for the information that I have given to him. He raised an important point when he referred to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but it is my understanding that a range of organisations concerned with the tourist industry in particular has begun to express serious alarm at any suggestion that the local elections might be postponed because of the signal that that would send. Along with the concerns of those who, for perfectly understandable and legitimate reasons, argue that the local elections should be postponed, is the different and equally worthy point of view that that would be the wrong signal to give. The Government are taking all those issues into account.

The hon. Gentleman suggested what should be the action of returning officers, and I shall draw his suggestion to the attention of the relevant authorities. It is possible that the money involved would come from local authorities' budgets, so it may be a matter for them; but returning officers must always encourage people to be aware of how they can exercise their votes, and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion is interesting. I shall also pass on his comments about the impact on election expenses, although I offer him no great prospect of change.

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, primary legislation would be required were we to seek to change the date of the local elections. I understand that we would also be required to name a new date: many of those who suggest a postponement do not seem to have taken that into account.

According to my recollection, the date of the census was set by order, so the position may be simpler. However, the hon. Gentleman will know from the answer I have given him in writing that those who conduct the census are considering the timing of information and how it is collected, to establish whether there are changes they could helpfully make that would mean things could proceed with the same effectiveness, if not in precisely the same way.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a broad smile on the face of Tyneside this morning, following the excellent news that AMEC and Shell have clinched the largest-ever overseas offshore contract? It will bring 4,000 jobs to the country—1,000 on Tyneside, 1,000 in the rest of the north-east, and 2,000 throughout the remainder of the country.

May we congratulate the workers and management of those companies, and—given that the news comes on the back of major investment announcements by Nissan, Toyota, Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen, Jaguar and Ford—may we have a debate on why Britain is a good country in which to do business?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with my right hon. Friend's wish for such a debate. It is clear from the decisions and, indeed, the comments of these many internationally mobile inward investors that they share the view expressed by organisations as disparate as the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that, under this Government, Britain is a very good place in which to do business. I also understand my right hon. Friend's welcome for the extra employment—on behalf of his constituents and others—which I am sure is shared by Members throughout the House, and echo his congratulations to management and work force.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, but my right hon. Friend might consider Westminster Hall.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Would the Leader of the House be kind enough to tell us when we can expect a statement from her about future sittings? She will know that, under a completely new and revolutionary procedure, the Committee considering the Criminal Justice and Police Bill was deemed to have finished its work when it manifestly had not. Can we expect the right hon. Lady to announce at next week's business questions that we are to debate a motion stating that Parliament is deemed to have completed all outstanding business, and is therefore to be dissolved?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think the hon. Gentleman can expect that, although it is a tempting thought sometimes.

On occasion, there is some inaccuracy in Opposition Members' description of these events. The House decided merely to deem that the Bill had been reported. It would have been a case of the Committee's considering a single issue—a single motion that it would certainly have considered, and presumably passed had there been an opportunity to put the question.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the words of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). When a Back Bencher used such tactics on a previous occasion, he said that if tactics are used artificially to disrupt the proceedings of a Committee, the Government and the House must find a remedy for it. It is not to be tolerated that such a procedure should be used without remedy.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I am not used to receiving unqualified support from Prime Ministers, especially Conservative ex-Prime Ministers. My right hon. Friend may have noticed that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) has signed my early-day motion 257

[That this House warmly supports the proposal put forward by Rita Restorick, and others such as the Royal British Legion, the Gulf Veterans, the Falklands Families and the South Atlantic Medal Association, that a posthumous medal, similar to the US Purple Heart, be presented to the next of kin of troops killed in action so that it can be worn with pride on Remembrance Day; accepts that suitable criteria for such a medal need he carefully defined and that this is best done by the Ministry of Defence in consultation with the Royal British Legion and forces' associations; but believes that servicemen and women who are killed in the line of duty have made the supreme sacrifice and deserve recognition for this in the form of a medal, as well as the Government's proposed memorial in central London.]

It calls for posthumous medals to be issued to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice as troops in the forces for Britain. The campaign is run by Rita Restorick, whose son was the last person to be murdered on duty by the IRA in south Armagh. As it now has such prestigious support, may we have a debate about it on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's point. He knows that the House has the greatest respect for Rita Restorick. We sympathise with her loss, admire her courage and recognise the concerns of the wider community with which she bore that loss. My hon. Friend will know, however, that the granting of medals can be contentious. There is not a tradition of awarding a medal because an individual has died, however tragic the circumstances of that death. The Government keep these issues under review. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is so grateful to the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). I am sure that such support lends lustre to his early-day motion. Although I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I fear that that support may not be the clinching factor that swings the decision one way or the other.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

Has the Leader of the House seen the draft statutory instrument, Postal Services Act 2000 (Consequential Modifications No. 1) Order 2001? Is she aware that this Bill—Freudian slip—or rather, statutory instrument appeared yesterday and is down to be debated at 4.30 pm on Monday? Is she aware that it is 144 articles long and longer than the original Postal Services Act 2000 that appeared on 27 January 2000? Is she aware that the other place was due to consider it with six other statutory instruments tomorrow but, following representations, it has been withdrawn? This is either carelessness or an abuse of power. Will the Leader of the House ensure that its consideration is postponed and that either it is split into six or seven manageable statutory instruments or we have a three-hour debate on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

As the House will recognise, if we were always to judge the time we spend on a matter by its length, it would not be wise. I was not aware of the issues that the hon. Gentleman identified. I cannot undertake to make changes on the hoof, so to speak. I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends who have responsibility for this matter. No doubt they will take heed of his remarks.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

May I first thank my right hon. Friend for her welcome visit to King Richard school in my constituency to underline its anti-drug culture?

May we have time for a debate on fairness at work? I ask because of revelations in a newspaper on Sunday that the Leader of the Opposition has sent a threatening letter to Sir Ken Jackson, the leader of my union, promising that if the Opposition came to power they would revoke all legislation on recognition for trade unions. Does not that underline the Opposition's wish to exploit people, whereas the Labour Government are protecting them all the time?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his courtesy; I very much enjoyed my visit to an excellent school in his constituency, which is doing a tremendous job. I was much impressed by the talent of the young people taking part in the anti-drugs campaign—as any Member of the House would have been.

My hon. Friend asks for a debate on fairness at work, and raises the correspondence between Sir Ken Jackson and the Leader of the Opposition. I have, of course, taken on board the policy observations that were made. I understand my hon. Friend's concern; as he recognises, the Labour Government have long taken the view that it is a gross economic error to try to compete in today's economies on the basis of sweatshop conditions or of aiming for ever-lower pay and costs. Investment in quality and value must be the only sound long-term basis for the United Kingdom. It is clear that that view is shared across the economy—not least by the great bulk of private sector employers. Many people will share some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time on the Floor for a debate on the matter, but I am sure that he will find other opportunities to raise it.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the latest report of the Select Committee on Liaison, "Shifting the Balance: Unfinished Business"? Does she recall that the previous occasion on which the House debated such matters was due to the generosity of the Opposition, who found time for the debate? It is up to the Government to find time for such important issues.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Committee concludes unanimously: It is clear that the system for nominating members of select committees must be changed."? If that change is to be implemented in time for the new Parliament, the Government will have to activate the machinery quite soon. Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate and the necessary votes?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the latest report from the Liaison Committee, which was, I understand, published at one minute past midnight today, when I had other concerns. Of course, I shall study the report with great interest. On two previous occasions, we have debated and discussed the recommendations of the Committee; I shall read the report's recommendations with great care and attention.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the Leader of the House recognise the misgivings in many parts of the House about the report published on the Minister for Europe? Although my right hon. Friend is right to reject the exaggerated claims made for party political reasons by the Opposition, the report gives evidence of inadequacies in our procedures and of the need for a debate on future reforms.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend may or may not be aware that the Standards and Privileges Committee published a report some little time ago, stating that we should look again at our procedures. The Committee is now taking evidence—several hon. Members have given written or oral evidence—and I have little doubt that a time will come when the House will look again at the framework within which we make judgments on those matters. However, I doubt that it is likely to be in the near future. When and if we discuss those issues, I hope that the House will look more widely at the framework—the structure—for how we make such judgments, rather than relying on individual reports, because there are different views and concerns throughout the House.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

In my constituency, dozens of four-year-old children face the prospect of being bussed five miles or more to their first school in September. That is due to the abject failure of the Conservative-controlled local education authority to provide sufficient school places for those children in their catchment area. Will the Leader of the House ask her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to make a statement to the House, setting out the duty of local education authorities to provide school places for local children, and to tell the House what measures he can take to ensure that education authorities subscribe to their duties?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the position described by the hon. Gentleman. I am certainly sorry to learn of another example of lack of investment resulting in inadequate opportunities—especially for young people. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the issue, but I certainly undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that if there is a debate on the reform of the Register of Members' Interests, full account should be taken of the fact that since it was set up in the mid-1970s it has never had the full authority of all Members of the House? At the beginning, at least two Members would not comply with it at all. Latterly, we made a suggestion, which we thought would apply, that every Member with outside interests—the moonlighters, many of them on the Tory Benches—would have to put down all their outside earnings within specific brackets. Some of those who sit on the Opposition Front Bench—the Tory shadow Ministers—refused to put down their earnings, so the whole purpose of the register has been violated for several years. We should have full authority to reform the register, and when we have that debate, let us make sure that all those Tory MPs, the moonlighters, who refuse to put down their earnings have to declare them before they are allowed to speak.

Mrs. Beckett

I recall the very early days of the register and those Members who, as my hon. Friend rightly said, refused to comply with it. If I remember correctly, there was one on either side of the House. Of course I understand the point that he makes. There will come a time when the House will have to take a fresh look at how we handle those issues and what is the right framework in which to ensure that the information that should be known is on the record. We have to decide whether Members should declare what is relevant to their performance as Members, or whether everything with regard to Members' financial affairs should be fully disclosed. My hon. Friend will know that some of my hon. Friends and I have different views on that matter, and there are different views about it on either side of the House.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will right hon. Lady agree to have words with the Prime Minister before next Wednesday's business, to point out the massive concern in the west country, especially in Devon, about the affect of the foot and mouth epidemic and the feeling that it would be quite impossible to run a proper general election during this period? [Interruption.] It may be funny to some hon. Members, but in my constituency and throughout the west country, it is a very serious matter indeed. Perhaps the right hon. Lady would point out to her colleague, the Prime Minister, that, although he is making great play of the fact that there is a great deal that the Labour party yet has to accomplish, he still has 20 per cent. of this Parliament in which to do so, if he would get on with it. That would be much more satisfactory to my constituents, and perhaps even to me, but we shall leave that out.

Mrs. Beckett

We are scheduled to hold local elections on 3 May, as the right hon. Gentleman will know. Of course I understand and sympathise, as does the House, with his constituents' concerns, not least because they live in perhaps the second most severely affected part of the United Kingdom until now. Obviously, although the media have been talking about a general election on 3 May for more than a year, no general election has been called. However, the Government keep the position under review. At present, we are primarily concerned with handling the foot and mouth outbreak, which is obviously at the top of everyone's agenda.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Pursuant to the questions asked by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), may I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the fact that the last dedicated, full day's debate on veterans' affairs was held on the anniversary of the battle of the Somme—1 July 1994—when I was fortunate enough to table a Back-Bench motion. Unfortunately, such motions have disappeared under the Jopling changes. On that occasion, the House unanimously passed a resolution that there should be a dedicated veterans Minister. My right hon. Friend will understand my joy—and, more importantly, that of the 1.75 million members of the Royal British Legion—that, yesterday, the Prime Minister fulfilled the resolution that was passed in the previous Parliament.

Logically, if we have a veterans Minister, we also need an annual, full-day debate along the lines of the debate on the Metropolitan police that takes place every October. Will she build such a debate into the parliamentary timetable after the next general election?

Finally—[Interruption.] The House might not like it, but the issue is important. In the debate in 1994, the then Conservative Minister of State for Defence Procurement, Jonathan Aitken, said: My answer to the thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Thurrock is that, at first glance, it sounds attractive and interesting, but the attraction of establishing a single focal point with responsibility for all the needs of ex-service personnel is superficial."—[Official Report, 1 July 1994; Vol. 245, c. 1104.] They denied it; we have delivered it.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has long been a very vigorous campaigner on this issue.

Mr. Skinner

I think that he should get the job.

Mrs. Beckett

Without any personal interest in the outcome, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has long been a vigorous campaigner for such a post to be created. He deserves the congratulations of both sides of the House on the fact that the campaign has been successful. As he rightly said, it has long been a campaign of the Royal British Legion, and I know that it will welcome the creation of the post.

As my hon. Friend knows, any Leader of the House receives many—they are almost all extremely worthwhile—requests on a whole range of issues for a commitment to a day's debate on the Floor of the House. I therefore cannot give him such a commitment, but I shall certainly bear his observations in mind.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The Leader of the House will know that I have previously called for a debate in the Chamber on early-years education. Such a debate might focus on the fact the pre-schools and playgroups have closed at a rate of knots under this Government or on the fact that the number of children educated in nursery classes with more than 30 children is greater than it was under the previous Conservative Government. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment about this matter, and he told me that he was in liaison with the Leader of the House. What are the results of those discussions? May we have a debate in the Chamber about how the Government are failing our youngest children?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman raises an entirely reasonable and legitimate concern, but I rather suspect that the chief reason why pre-school groups and playgroups are finding it difficult to continue to make headway is that the Government have made available opportunities for universal nursery education on a scale that has never been seen before. Therefore, the outcome is a consequence of success rather than of failure.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has repeatedly stressed how much he values that range of provision. The Government have done a great deal to try to work with, support and assist such voluntary groups, and we shall continue to do so. My right hon. Friend is aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the near future.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and ask for an early debate on the suggested postponement of the local elections due to be held on 3 May? My right hon. Friend will have heard that The Wall Street Journal has the mistaken view that Britain is under quarantine, and that causes great concern in Chester, which is important to my constituency. I heard today on Radio 5 Live that the deputy leader of Cumbria county council, which covers a rural area, has expressed her concern about such comments. It would cause immense damage to tourism if a similar message were to go out from this House. We must have an early debate.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. He will know that the taskforce that was set up this week is trying to clarify the position in rural areas. It is clear that many people who were thinking of taking a holiday break in parts of the country that might be unaffected thought that they might be helping the general position of the agriculture industry by changing their minds and cancelling their arrangements. That is obviously causing great concern to the tourist industry.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to identify the fact that we must make it plain that Britain is not in a state of quarantine. Firm action is being taken and it is incumbent on us all to try to identify what can safely be done and what should be avoided so that we ensure that we do not do anything that would add to the spread of the disease. I understand his concerns. He will know that we have made regular statements to the House and will continue to do so, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate soon.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I know that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is here to make a statement and answer questions on foot and mouth, but I want to raise a related matter that concerns the Leader of the House. What mechanisms are in place for Members of Parliament to bring foot and mouth problems to the Minister's attention? The right hon. Lady will be aware that I mentioned this in a point of order on Monday, in which I explained that there is no dedicated officer in the Ministry with whom we can raise our concerns. When I rang the Minister's private office on Monday, one of his officials told me that I should call a local animal health office. I said, "Come on. I am a Member of Parliament. I want a dedicated officer." He promised to get back to me, but still no one has contacted me. I rang the foot and mouth helpline, which said that it could not help because the information was three days out of date. That is not good enough.

Will the Leader of the House urgently investigate whether we can have a dedicated officer to whom we can rapidly bring problems? It was suggested that the hon. Member for Bolton. West (Ms Kelly), the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, would be that contact. I handed to her last Thursday an urgent constituency case, but I have heard nothing from either the Minister or anyone in his office. I do not know what has happened to that case—perhaps it has been lost. Will the Leader of the House urgently investigate the problem and see what can be done?

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. Friend is here and will, no doubt, take heed of what he says. I have pages of listed contacts that different hon. Members have rightly and legitimately made with the Ministry to pass on information and concerns, which may be of help to it. My right hon. Friend is doing everything he can in difficult circumstances to keep the House informed, which I am sure he will continue to do. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's wish to have a dedicated officer. Although the Government take fully into account the concerns of the House and hon. Members, he will know that the Ministry's primary task is not merely to keep the House informed, but to perform its role of dealing with the outbreak. All its offices are doing their best to balance those heavy responsibilities.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

As a member of the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, may I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider the scope of, and time allocated to, the motion that we will discuss on the behaviour of those Members who disrupted our proceedings? It was obvious to many of us on the Committee that there was concerted effort to engineer a crisis. Conservative members of the Committee wasted the equivalent of one full sitting on bogus points of order. After the disreputable behaviour of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), she confirmed in the newspapers that their action was part of an organised campaign by Opposition Whips. We now learn that their Chief Whip will defend her and her colleagues in the debate on that motion, but perhaps he should be in the dock with her.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes important points and those matters might be aired in the House. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have to consider carefully their responsibilities to the House as a whole and, not least, to the Chair, whoever that may be. I am concerned, as is Mr. Speaker, about the difficult position in which the Standing Committee Chairman was placed. Members who perform that onerous role undertake great responsibilities on behalf of the House. They spend many long hours and are not remunerated. The least we owe them is to treat them with respect.

Back to