HC Deb 22 March 2001 vol 365 cc481-96 12.31 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Would the Leader of the House please give us the business for the coming 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 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 provisional business for the following week will be: MONDAY 2 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Criminal Defence Service (Advice and Assistance) Bill [Lords].

Consideration in Committee followed by remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

TUESDAY 3 APRIL—Second Reading of International Criminal Court Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 4 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 5 APRIL—Remaining stages of the International Development Bill.

FRIDAY 6 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the beginning of April will be as follows: THURSDAY 5 APRIL—Debate on renewable energy.

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.

On Wednesday 28 March, there will be a debate relating to waste electrical and electronic equipment in European Standing Committee C.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 4 April, there will be a debate relating to community postal services in European Standing Committee C.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report

[Wednesday 28 March: European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 9431/00, Support scheme for olive oil. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 23-xxviii (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).

Wednesday 4 April: European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union document: 10544/00, Community postal services. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 28-iv (2000–01) and HC 23-xxviii (1999–2000).]

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business and congratulate her on retaining her composure, particularly as she read out the latter dates. I want to be helpful to the right hon. Lady today. I am afraid that she has been rather remiss as it is only three weeks until Maundy Thursday. It must either have slipped her mind, or she has been too busy with other matters, but we have not yet had the dates of the Easter recess. I am sure that that is only an oversight. Clearly, hon. Members who have serious matters with which to deal in their constituencies would like to make arrangements for the recess. I would be grateful if the right hon. Lady could give us some indication of its length this year.

In the event—I know that this is hypothetical, but I am trying to help the Leader of the House to foresee the sort of errors and omissions that I have just identified—of a general election [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, perhaps. In the event of an election in the next few weeks, will the right hon. Lady share with the House the Government's preparations for how the foot and mouth crisis will be dealt with at ministerial level during the campaign? She will be aware that there are strict codes of conduct on how Ministers handle matters and make announcements. Have the Government considered how they would make announcements about foot and mouth disease and keep people properly informed of developments during a general election campaign, in particular as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said yesterday that the crisis is likely to continue for several months?

Before the Easter recess, will there be time for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House on Macedonia, which is a matter that concerns many hon. Members? We have not yet heard from him on the subject. In the past two weeks we have seen quite a flurry of Bills scheduled for Second Reading. Can the Leader of the House tell us what has happened to the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill?

Finally, this week the Government announced an important White Paper on learning disability, which I welcome although I have tabled a couple of specific questions on concerns that I have. Interestingly, the White Paper was launched at Fulham football ground, which is owned by Mr. Al Fayed. Is this to be the procedure in future? Clearly, the Government have abandoned making such important announcements on the Floor of the House. Could we have a ballot, so that Members like me with excellent football grounds, such as Ladysmead in Tiverton, without any patronage from anybody whom anyone would have heard of, could host the launch of important papers in our constituency? Perhaps we could have a weekly ballot, so that we could all share in this bonhomie which the Government have introduced.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady was kind enough to say that a reminder might be helpful and I appreciate the courtesy with which she made her point, but, no, the Easter recess had not slipped my mind. In fact, I was discussing it only this morning. I understand her point about the notice that the House likes to have about the length of the recess. All I can say is what I usually say on these matters, which is that it is subject to the progress of business. [Laughter.] When the Government have had a chance further to assess the progress of our legislative programme, I will share our thoughts with the House as soon as I can.

The hon. Lady asked about preparations for the continued handling of the foot and mouth crisis. As she will be aware, if a general election were called, Ministers do not cease to be Ministers. They continue to carry out their duties. She raised the issue of the code of conduct. My recollection is and my impression has always been—although this will be a matter of discussion, should a general election be called—that what is intended is to ensure that the holding of a ministerial post does not lead either to controversial party political decisions being taken which might bind a subsequent Government unfortunately or to exploitation for party political advantage.

As Members on both sides of the House are striving to be responsible about this serious crisis and, although occasionally there have been some differences of view, both the Government and the Opposition take the crisis in the countryside seriously, so that seems to me to be almost the last area in which difficulties of the kind which the hon. Lady identified might be likely to arise. If, however, such a circumstance develops, it will undoubtedly be a matter for discussion and careful consideration in the relevant Departments.

I understand the hon. Lady's remarks about Macedonia. She will know that it is Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday, when it will be possible for Members to raise the issue She asked about the legislative programme in general. Business is coming back from the Lords and returning to the Floor of the House. That is true for all legislation in the pipeline, including the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, and other issues on which the Government have proposals to put before the House.

The hon. Lady lost me on her final point about the learning disability White Paper. I am not sure what the relevance was of her careful point about Mr. Al Fayed. I am sure that there is a delightful football ground in her constituency. Indeed, there is a delightful one in mine—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The Baseball Ground.

Mrs. Beckett

No, not the Baseball Ground. The hon. Gentleman is out of date. We have a brand new football stadium, Pride Park, on which we hope to hold an international later this year, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to see it on television.

Despite the many attractions of different football grounds in different parts of the country, the germ of the hon. Lady's charge was that the White Paper had not been announced to the House. That is incorrect. My right hon. Friend launched it properly through a written statement to the House. The hon. Lady will know that it is not always possible to fit in the many issues on which Members might seek statements, not least because, perfectly rightly, so many statements have been sought on different aspects of the present difficulties in the countryside.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I repeat the request for a debate on Macedonia? My right hon. Friend will be aware of the serious situation that is developing there; the Kosovo Liberation Army is attempting an insurrection from Kosovo. Macedonia has been an oasis of peace in the troubled former Yugoslavia and the, Albanian minority share in government and in all the institutions of state. They are in a terrible position as the militants take over. Greece, Bulgaria and other surrounding countries could be drawn into the conflict unless we act quickly. A debate is long overdue.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters and pursues them with great diligence. The request from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was for a statement; my hon. Friend asks for a debate, but I understand that they both seek to make the same point—the issue should be aired. I understand and sympathise with the points made by my hon. Friend. She will know that the Government unreservedly condemn the violence that has been taking place in Macedonia. We are fully supportive of the Macedonian Government. We recognise and want to support the efforts made in Macedonia to maintain plurality of representation. I can say to my hon. Friend only what I said to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, however: there will be an opportunity to question my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on Tuesday. Obviously, there may be opportunities after that for my hon. Friend to press for a debate, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for one in the near future.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Did the Leader of the House note the apparent suggestion made by the Conservative spokesperson that Easter should be postponed? May I suggest that an authority higher even than the Lord President of the Council would be necessary for that?

The Leader of the House will have noted that the Minister for Transport in the other place, Lord Macdonald, announced that, next Thursday, he would make a statement on the progress of the public-private partnership for the National Air Traffic Services. May we have an explicit reassurance from the right hon. Lady today that we, too, will receive that statement next Thursday, and that there will be an opportunity to debate it?

I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the fact that we have received no statement from the Secretary of State for Social Security about the considerable problems facing families in the areas hardest hit by the foot and mouth crisis. We have had a great deal of sympathy and heard many words from the Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Minister for the Environment, who is responsible for the taskforce. My right hon. and hon. Friends and myself receive many representations—as, I am sure, do Members on both sides of the House—from families who cannot obtain assistance from the Benefits Agency at present, especially if no children are involved. I was in touch with the Benefits Agency earlier; no crisis loans are available in many circumstances for many of the hardest-hit families—be it in agriculture itself or in tourism and ancillary industries. May we have an immediate statement from the Secretary of State for Social Security on the steps to be taken by the Benefits Agency and on the introduction of flexibility in the system to cater for the problem?

I especially draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the fact that at least one regional newspaper, The Western Morning News, today felt it necessary to launch its own special relief fund to assist those families. It is organising "green welly day" on 30 March. Although many of us will support that, it really should not be left to the media to take such steps. Surely the national welfare state system should be providing the safety net for those families.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not entirely sure that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) meant to ask that Easter should be postponed, but I admit that one sometimes receives the distinct impression from the Conservative Benches that the mood is "Stop the world, we want to get off".

The hon. Gentleman asks about a statement to be made by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Macdonald. I was not aware of the announcement that had been made in the other Chamber, but I think that the statement will be made in fulfilment of an undertaking given by Lord Macdonald during debates in that House. Of course, we have held many extensive, thorough and well-attended debates on the matter in this place.

The hon. Gentleman asks about social security payments, especially with regard to the problems faced by families as a result of the impact of the foot and mouth crisis. Obviously, I take on board his remarks and will certainly draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, although I do not promise at present that my right hon. Friend will make a statement. However, if I heard the hon. Gentleman's final remarks correctly, he said that support for the families, and so on, should not be left to the media—and, of course, it is not. As I am sure that he and the House acknowledges, the Government are already making available hundreds of millions of pounds in a variety of ways, and we have said that we will continue to do what we can to tackle the impact of the crisis.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to discuss the Senior Salaries Review Body report on the office costs allowance? She will know that Members on both sides of the House and their staff have been waiting anxiously for that report. It is a very good one and goes some way to redress some of the difficulties that many hon. Members—and, more importantly, our staff, who are very loyal and dedicated—have with resources and the way in which we can finance them. Will some time be made available in the next couple of weeks to debate that very important issue?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the review body's report, but I would slightly take issue with him because he suggests that all hon. Members are aware of it. Not all hon. Members have followed such matters with the assiduity of my hon. Friend, who has long been a very effective campaigner on behalf of Members' staff. As the report was published less than a week ago, many Members may well not yet have had time to study and assimilate its contents, but, of course, I understand, and take very seriously, the point that he makes. The way in which the staff of the House and Members' staff work is what makes the House work, and most hon. Members recognise the debt that they owe to their staff, but I am not sure that they are yet ready to debate an issue that has been on the table for only a few days.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Will the Leader of the House find time very soon for an urgent debate on the behaviour of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in relation to the report on Hollis Industries and the former Paymaster General, in view of the fact that the Secretary of State has claimed that he was not legally able to publish the contents of the report, because it was carried out under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985? Section 449, however, explicitly states that he may publish the information with the company's permission and that, even without that permission, he may publish it if doing so helps a public authority, designed by him, to fulfil its obligations. So what possible grounds are there for the Secretary of State to sue people who are making it clear that he held back that report and did not ask the former Paymaster General to come to the House to put the record right about the payment that he had received from Robert Maxwell? If he did not read the report and handed over the decisions to officials, what on earth is he there for?

Mrs. Beckett

That is a disgraceful remark from the right hon. Gentleman. I have not had the chance to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the matter, but I understand that he was advised, by the permanent secretary at the Department, that it should be dealt with by others, not by himself. Under those circumstances, it is quite disgraceful for the right hon. Gentleman to say that my right hon. Friend should have insisted on dealing with the matter himself. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman would have had much more to say about it, and done so much more fervently, if my right hon. Friend had insisted on overruling the advice of his permanent secretary.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend will know that the Standards and Privileges Committee will publish its report on amendments to the code of conduct tomorrow. Will she make time for a debate on those very important matters before the Easter recess, when many Opposition Members will be able to go on indefinite holiday, because there is a lot of misrepresentation in the press about the rules—indeed, there is some confusion in the House about them?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware that the Committee intended to publish its report tomorrow, and the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. Obviously, I shall. as always, take the report very seriously. I agree with my hon Friend's observations about the importance of the House carefully considering those matters, and I take heed of his request, but I cannot undertake to find time to debate the report in the next two weeks. However, if the report appears tomorrow, it will form part of the portfolio of matters that the House is being asked to consider.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Many Members wish to ask a question of the Leader of the House and only a limited amount of time is available in view of other business. Too much argument is creeping into the questions, so I ask hon. Members to be as brief as possible.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Is the Leader of the House aware that more than 170 Members have signed early-day motion 3 in my name?

[That this House welcomes the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology's report on complementary and alternative medicine; notes the widespread and increasing use of complementary and alternative medicine in the UK; supports improved regulatory structures and the development of single voluntary regulatory bodies for complementary and alternative medicine professions; encourages conventional healthcare professions to develop clear guidelines on competence and training in complementary and alternative medicine disciplines; welcomes the recommendation that the NHS Research and Development Directorate and the Medical Research Council should allocate research funding to develop centres of excellence for conducting complementary and alternative medicine research; supports the provision of better information for the public on what works and what is safe; and urges complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, GPs and other health care professionals to exchange information and work together to provide an integrated system of healthcare which puts patients' needs first.]

It broadly supports the Lords report on complementary and alternative medicine. Will the right hon. Lady confirm or deny the rumours that the Government are about to publish their response to that report tomorrow or perhaps on Monday? Does she recognise the urgency of that response given that the recommendations on research—particularly that into homeopathy—have a bearing on the foot and mouth crisis? There is very strong anecdotal evidence that a remedy called borax can stop animals getting the disease. It is urgent that research is commissioned.

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the great and serious interest that the hon. Gentleman takes in these matters. Again, I am not aware of the imminent publication to which he refers, but the recommendations that have been made are being considered carefully. I believe that a response is likely, but I am not aware of the precise time scale. I understand his point and will add it to the list of requests, but I cannot undertake to grant his request at the moment.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

May I refer to early-day motion 231, which stands in my name?

[That this House is extremely concerned to learn that thousands of asbestos related disease sufferers and other industrial injury victims may be unable to claim compensation because the Iron Trades Insurers hived off the company's pre-1990 liabilities into a separate company registered as Chester Street Insurance Holdings Ltd that recently went into voluntary liquidation, suggesting that it may well have been launched with inadequate resources; and calls on the insurance industry to give an undertaking that it will settle all current claims not covered by the company's asses as well as those which arise in the future.]

That motion and early-day motions 355 and 450, which also stand in my name, draw attention to the Iron Trades Holdings insurance scandal in which that company dumped its liabilities in Chester Street Holdings, leaving it with insufficient assets. In fact, the liquidator's initial report is that the assets represent only 5 per cent. of liabilities. If my right hon. Friend cannot provide me with a date for a debate on the insurance industry, will she draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer the need for the insurance industry to provide the certainty that all the victims of Iron Trades Holdings will receive their compensation in full? There is also a need for an independent inquiry into the scandal.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the campaign that my hon. Friend and others have run on this matter. I understand and share their concerns that victims of such serious diseases should receive the compensation that is their due fairly and speedily. I will certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, because my hon. Friend is right to suspect that I cannot find time for a debate on the subject in the near future. It is my understanding that the Policyholders Protection Board will deal with and meet the claims for compensation, but I will draw all my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Chancellor.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister said that he would give serious consideration to the case for postponing the local elections. As the Leader of the House has announced no such legislation, would the House be right to conclude that the local elections will go ahead as planned?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I announced the business for the coming week and the provisional business for the following week. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said entirely properly that we are listening to the important representations that the Government are receiving on the matter. The right hon. Gentleman will know that those representations are not all one way and that the tourism industry has expressed increasingly strong concerns. The Government will have to consider the matter seriously, but the right hon. Gentleman will recall that, in peacetime, no Government have suspended local elections except for what some might regard as the unfortunate precedent when the noble Lady Thatcher suspended local elections when she intended to abolish the authority in question.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the educational implications of the case of Marjorie Evans, my constituent who was suspended as a head teacher for 18 months and has now returned to school with no evidence having been found against her? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the case raises a number of issues that relate to the way in which teachers deal with disruptive pupils and the way in which head teachers and teachers are disciplined?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point that raises concerns that are shared across the House. Although, like the whole House, I am aware of the case, I admit that it had not struck me that it had dragged on for 18 months. I strongly share my hon. Friend's view that that can only be damaging to all concerned. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, but he might consider the opportunities offered by Westminster Hall. However, I certainly undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be useful to let the House know that the Modernisation Committee, which she chairs and on which I serve, is concerned about programming? Without breaching any confidentiality, can she confirm that the Committee is considering that issue?

Mrs. Beckett

The House might like to know that. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Committee shares some of the concerns identified. We recognise that there have been some successes, but also some problems. The Committee is considering that. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should not prejudge those discussions.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on television programme funding? Channel 4 recently broadcast a programme called "Seven Days that Shook Britain". Although it was good, there were sinister and worrying undertones about the way in which it was produced. Cameras were placed in the homes of the main operators of the dispute before and during it and bugged telephone conversations were broadcast. I am concerned that funding might be received from companies to promote a dispute purely for the benefit of television.

Mrs. Beckett

I could not see that programme, but I heard that it was going to be shown. I was not aware that those who were engaged in the filming were party to the likelihood of a dispute before it occurred. I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on the matter. Perhaps he will find an opportunity to raise it in questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on Monday.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Further to the right hon. Lady's response to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), will she reconsider the SSRB report, which specifically states that the recommendation on computers and staff should be implemented before the next general election? Some 600 people might be employed by new Members and computer equipment worth hundreds of thousands of pounds—perhaps even £1 million—might legitimately be bought under the old system and transferred to them. However, we are planning to provide that equipment directly and centrally from public funds. Even if the right hon. Lady does not deal with the salary increases of Members, which is always controversial, I urge her to table a motion for debate next week or the week after so that the necessary arrangement is in place in case the Prime Minister decides to go to the country.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and important point. He has long taken a great interest in the work of the Information Committee, which has given evidence several times to the review body. I must admit that I had forgotten that important aspect of the report. The body suggested, for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gives, that the decisions should, if possible, be taken before a general election. He is right to make it public that hon. Members should take account of the possibility that there might be some changes in the structure of IT provision. I cannot undertake to do what he asks, but I shall consider his request. In general, I am reluctant to separate aspects of a review body report, but he makes an important point.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that residents in tower blocks, such as my constituents in Little London, who regularly find drug dealers in the doorways and strangers on the stairwells, feel insecure in their homes? Will it be possible to find time for a debate en ways in which targeted help from Government might support local residents, housing managers, local authorities and the police in trying to tackle that serious problem?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I think that we are all conscious of the difficulties faced by people in the circumstances that he describes, and concern for those who find themselves so placed is widely shared throughout the House. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue in the near future, but I certainly undertake to draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who, as he will know, is doing what he can with Ministers in other Departments to promote imaginative and cross-departmental programmes to produce exactly the kind of practical help to which he refers.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

The right hon. Lady may be aware that some three weeks ago I was fortunate enough to obtain an Adjournment debate on the state of the national health service in east Kent, to which the Minister concerned gave a characteristically complacent reply. Yesterday, it became known that East Kent Hospitals NHS trust had commissioned its own report, which concluded, in respect of accident and emergency facilities: It is remarkable that no major clinical catastrophe has occurred in recent times arising directly out of the clinical environment within which staff are operating. In view of that direct rebuttal of the Minister's response, will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House and make a statement on the current state of crisis in east Kent's hospitals?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concern on behalf of his constituents. I was not aware of the report to which he referred, but clearly it makes serious points. I am aware that there is long-standing concern about hospital provision in east Kent because I used to get letters about it before the general' election. I fear that I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House to make a statement or to find time for a debate in the near future, but I certainly undertake to draw the report to his attention.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The Leader of the House has already been asked twice about the need for the Government to make an early response to the Senior Salaries Review Body, but I want to press her on the matter. Apart from anything else, arranging for the House of Commons to put in place new systems during a dissolution would be a massive advantage, enabling the new Parliament to start in an efficient, professional and organised way. Will the Government be able to make a public response to the package of measures in the near future, and how long does the right hon. Lady think it will be before they decide whether to bring those measures to the House before the election?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot add anything further to what I have already said about timing, but I certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman's point. From my understanding of the report, I do not think that we should nurture the illusion that implementing the proposals would be easy and speedy, and that if there were a general election the whole IT system in the House would be transformed during the dissolution. The SSRB makes the point that there is a lot of work to be done and a new framework to be established, but of course I accept the point that Members elected to a new Parliament would need to know that a new system might be introduced.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we please have an urgent debate in Government time. on the conditions at Winson Green jail in Birmingham, which have been described by the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, as some of the worst that he has ever seen? Given that the inspection of the prison found soiled mattresses, unemptied buckets and prisoners who were allowed out on association for only five hours a week, does the right hon. Lady agree that the fact of a £860,000 budget cut at the prison and no fewer than 300 recommendations for urgent reform makes it essential that we should have a proper debate on conditions that by any standard should be regarded as totally unacceptable in a civilised society?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the serious point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I am aware of the chief inspector's report, although from memory I believe that changes were made to the demands that were initially made of the prison for reductions in the budget. I seem to recall having seen a response from the Director-General of the Prison Service that made points about the way in which resources could be better used at the prison. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue in the near future, but I undertake to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the fact that concern about the matter has been expressed in the House.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Mac clesfield)

May I support the comments made by the hon. Member for Barnsley. West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) about Iron Trades Holdings Ltd. and Chester Street Holdings Ltd.? I have a constituent, Mr. Donald McCreery, who is dying of asbestos-induced lung cancer: his prognosis is desperate—he will be dead within a very few months. He was awarded more than £100,000 in court as a result of contracting his illness following his employment, yet those two organisations have behaved in what I would describe as a fraudulent, dishonest and disgraceful fashion—maladministration is an understatement. Could the appropriate Minister come to the House to make a statement about what action the House can take in respect of the insurance industry, which is suffering as a result of that dreadful case, and what it can do to help those who deserve compensation?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case. The whole House will sympathise with his constituent and the concern the hon. Gentleman expresses on his constituent's behalf. He asks what the House can do to draw attention to the issue, but, in a sense, he has already done that by raising it with me. I certainly undertake to draw it to the attention of the relevant Ministers, who I am sure are as anxious as he is to bring such matters to a speedy resolution.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an urgent debate on the quality of the advice available to the Prime Minister? I saw the Prime Minister on television yesterday saying that his hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) had been "cleared" by the Standards and Privileges Committee in the matter of the complaints made against the hon. Gentleman, yet my reading of the report tells me that while eight complaints were indeed "Not upheld", eight were "Not completed" and one was "Upheld." The report also states: we have not found answers to all outstanding questions It strikes me that, for the right hon. Gentleman to say that his hon. Friend had been cleared, either he is receiving extremely poor advice from people who have read the report, or he somehow failed to understand the report himself. One way or another, we need a debate to winkle out whether the Prime Minister is badly advised or dyslexic.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman was not here last week when some of those issues were raised. I can only repeat what I said on that occasion. It is extremely important that the House has proper systems to ensure that there is no corruption, or that if there is, it is discovered and stamped out. However, it is also important to remember that every Member of Parliament is vulnerable to frivolous accusations, whether made for reasons of personal spite or political advantage. The House should treat such matters with great seriousness and care.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

May I welcome the debate that we are to have on Monday on the Adoption and Children Bill? The measure will command support throughout the House. Why have the Government changed their mind? I understood that the Bill was to have been produced in draft form for pre-legislative scrutiny. What has led to the change in the Government's plan?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome for the Bill. I do not think that there was any recent decision to publish the Bill specifically in draft. As I have said before, the Government are mindful of the fact that this area of legislation is complex and in need of thorough overhaul, and that it involves difficult and sensitive issues on which there is no right answer, so the balance of decisions and the handling of legislation will always be important. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there has been a recent change of approach to the matter.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the fourth anniversary, more or less, of the publication of the Labour party's manifesto to modernise the London underground by means of a public-private partnership is to be celebrated by a strike, which will cause still further inconvenience to many long-suffering users of the service? Is she further aware that on 1 February she promised that she would make it known as soon as a constructive end had been reached to the dialogue on the public-private partnership? What has gone wrong? Was the pledge fraudulent, or was there a glitch between the mayoralty, the Government and Mr. Kiley? The travelling public need to know.

Mrs. Beckett

I wish that Members would be more cautious about the way in which they fling around words such as "fraudulent".

Serious and detailed negotiations are continuing between the Government, Mr. Kiley and the mayor. I understand that the mayor has said recently that he is optimistic about progress. The Government are more than keen to see a resolution of the matter.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Lady will have heard the Prime Minister say yesterday that he is willing to consider representations on the propriety of holding local and other elections on 3 May. Would it not be a good way to inform the Prime Minister to have a debate on the subject next week? It would enable us to express our anxieties about, for example, farmers who are candidates or who wish to work in support of individual candidates, but are either confined to their farms or are in exclusion zones, and will thus be denied the opportunity to participate? All those affected should have the right to receive an application for a postal vote, so that they will not be deprived of the franchise?

Mrs. Beckett

Under legislation that the Government recently put on the statute book, everyone has the right to a postal vote. Although that is not why the change was made, undoubtedly the right to such a vote is beneficial in present circumstances. I can only repeat what I said earlier. Of course my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is considering extremely carefully the representations that he is receiving on this matter.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the advice to the farming community, as I understand it, is that provided proper and sensible precautions are taken, people are free to move from their farms. I remind him that the Government are receiving substantial and concerned representations, not least from the tourist industry and other businesses about the impact that the handling of the issue is already having on the economy as a whole. There is great concern in that industry and other businesses that the Government should not postpone local elections. There are weighty arguments on both sides.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

The right hon. Lady may be aware that my constituency resides under the approach flight path of Manchester airport. The airport is a great asset to the area, but many of my constituents suffer from aircraft noise, especially when planes stray from the designated flight path.

The right hon. Lady may also be aware that I have raised this matter throughout this Parliament, in the knowledge that Ministers, in letters to me, have made it clear that they would favour the introduction of regulations to allow airports such as Manchester to have the statutory power to fine airlines whose aircraft stray.

Will she explain why the matter has not been brought before the House during this Parliament, despite Government support for the idea?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not armed with an off-the-cuff response. I think that the entire House understands the position facing the public and Members such as the hon. Gentleman whose constituencies contain airports. He will know that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has introduced a substantial amount of business during this Parliament. His proposal might not have found its way to the top of the Department's agenda, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Conservative Members know that the nation, is over-taxed. It is sad, therefore, that in the next two weeks of business, the Leader of the House has not been able to announce the Second Reading of a Finance Bill. Has she considered the fact that the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968, which enables the Government to raise revenue, is time-limited? If we do not have a Finance Bill soon, the Government will lose their power to raise a large amount of wholly unnecessary tax on the nation.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are well aware of the need to introduce the Finance Bill; no doubt, the Treasury will announce when it hopes to be able do so in due course. The right hon. Gentleman may claim that the country is over-taxed, but, within the memory of ever Member, the Government have lowered rates for personal taxation and business taxation.

I understand that the shadow Chancellor made some proposals today whereby, if for some extraordinary reason the Conservatives were elected, they propose to do what they never managed to do during their last period in government—change the way in which the top rate of tax bites. I am also aware that the shadow Chancellor is quoted as having said that he did not choose to specialise in maths at school, and that it was not one of his favourite subjects. All that I can say is that it shows.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The Leader of the House said that Bills are already coming back from the other place. We have one of the lightest legislative programmes in recent history and Bills have been rigidly timetabled. Assuming for a moment that the Government do not hold an election because of the foot and mouth crisis, will the Leader of the House share with us her plans for the Session until next October? The Government are concerned primarily with the good workings of Parliament, not general elections, popularity and things like that. I know that the Leader of the House will have a wallchart in her office showing how Bills will progress through Parliament in the coming months. Will she assure the House that there is work for us to do until next October?

Mrs. Beckett

I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that with absolute confidence. I try very hard to educate Opposition Members to check their statistics before they repeatedly make assertions. In the previous Session, they asserted that the legislative programme was the heaviest in history, which was rubbish. Now the tune seems to have changed and we have the lightest legislative programme in history, which is also rubbish. We have a perfectly normal and adequate legislative programme, which we believe can be well managed in the House. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have plenty of business to keep us going until next au[...]umn.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Do the Government intend to introduce a Bill before Easter to amend the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, thus legitimising millions of pounds worth of Labour election literature that is currently illegal because it has an illegal imprint?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that concerns have been expressed, although my impression is that those who would have the biggest bill if that goes wrong would be the Conservatives.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

No, it would be you.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is being optimistic. I am aware that concerns have been expressed and the Government are looking at the matter to see what, if anything, needs to be done.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

It has been estimated that the foot and mouth crisis will cost the economy more than £9 billion in the coming year. That loss will fall disproportionately on rural businesses and country towns. Following yesterday's debate on the disease, it is obvious that things are ping to get worse. Businesses involved in activities outside agriculture such as haulage, equestrianism and consultancy are now experiencing a catastrophic drop in t turnover. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition proposed an imaginative scheme for loans of £10,000 to afflicted businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has kindly been granted a one-and-a-half hour debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday. Could that be upgraded to a full day's debate so that we can discuss the national crisis properly?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that anyone could argue that the House has not discussed the issue properly. We are discussing it repeatedly and at length, and it is right and proper that we should. The hon. Gentleman made a point with which no Member would quarrel: the impact of the crisis will be substantial and expensive. However, he may be slightly in error. I understand why he thinks that, initially, the effect on rural businesses may be disproportionate, but as he may have heard in the House yesterday—I understand that it continues to be the case—there is already a substantial impact in areas where there is no cause whatever for it. I believe that the city of Bath was mentioned; in London, I understand that takings are substantially down at the London Eye, Madame Tussaud's and other such attractions. Although rural businesses are bound to be affected and everyone is conscious of that, the crisis is having an effect on the whole economy.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated to the Leader of the Opposition that we would look at any proposals that are submitted. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) will know that issues are being considered along the lines of the Conservative proposals which we hope will be even more effective. The Government have already spent substantial sums—millions of pounds—and continue to expect to do so.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Twelve months after the Government were condemned by the Commissioner for Public Appointments for their systematic politicisation of the national health service, the commissioner has now felt it necessary to bring in independent auditors to investigate the fact that that practice has continued unchanged in appointments to primary care trusts. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the Government's failure to observe the Nolan rules on public appointments in the national health service?

Mrs. Beckett

The Government have not failed to follow the rules. We follow the Nolan procedures implemented by the Conservative party. It is a source of slight regret to me that the hon. Gentleman continues to condemn procedures that have ensured the appointment to health boards of far more women and people from minority communities.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

This week, the Environment Sub-Committee published its report on sustainable waste management. In view of the Government's gyrations in their policy on incinerators, which have caused a spate of speculative applications and have been a source of disquiet in many communities, including that in Guildford, may we have an urgent debate on incineration policy? Will the Government consider the Conservative proposal for a moratorium to ensure that the many questions about incinerators can be sorted out?

Mrs. Beckett

Yet again, the Opposition react opportunistically by proposing steps that they would never have thought of taking when they were in government. I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special extra debate on the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I do not accept his animadversions on the Government's approach. I announced a Westminster Hall debate on renewable energy. With a little ingenuity—which has occasionally been demonstrated by Opposition Members—the hon. Gentleman might manage to work his concerns into that debate.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the right hon. Lady make time next week for a debate to discuss compensation for the consequential loss suffered by farmers who are caught by form D and exclusion zones? As such farmers are unable to move any of their animals, they have not had any income for almost six weeks and are living hand to mouth. With the greatest respect, I do not think that the package that the Government have so far proposed does anything like enough to keep those people in business.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for a further special debate on that issue, although I recognise the gravity of case that the hon. Lady makes. However, I can undertake to draw her specific point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture.