HC Deb 29 March 2001 vol 365 cc1105-20 12.30 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

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

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

The business for the coming week will be as follows:

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.

Proceedings on the Election Publications Bill [Lords]

Motion on the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2001.

TUESDAY 3 APRIL—Second Reading of the 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 Member's Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include: MONDAY 9 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 10 APRIL —Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment debate

The House will wish to be reminded 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 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).]

The House will wish to know that, subject as ever to the progress of business, I expect that the House will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Tuesday 10 April and return on Monday 23 April.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for all that information. After last week, it is a great relief to know that the Government have not cancelled Easter this year.

As business is clearly moving at a satisfactory pace, may we have a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister early next week about the tube? The public-private partnership completion deadline was March 1999. Today's tube strike, with the resultant gridlock in surface transport, shows clearly the urgent need for the House to be kept informed of the Government's proposals.

Transport for London was set up by the Government. It is not clear what it is meant to do if it is not to run the tube. We have seen the Deputy Prime Minister on the Treasury Bench this week. It would be a courtesy as well as a matter of urgency for him to allow the House to question him on that important subject. On the assumption that the county council elections will proceed, and given the problems around the country with foot and mouth, will the Leader of the House say whether the Government intend to make a statement before the Easter recess about arrangements for the elections? Will there be any consideration of the expenses of candidates who are farmers? I have three county council candidates in my constituency who are farmers restricted to their farms. They will want to contact the electorate by telephone, which will have a read-across into election expenses. Will arrangements be made for electoral returning officers to take it on themselves to distribute postal votes, perhaps even on a parish-by-parish basis? That is a matter of concern for the right of candidates to contact their electorate.

Now that the Leader of the House has kindly outlined when we can expect the Easter recess, will there be a statement on how Members of Parliament can be kept informed and have access to Ministers, especially at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, during the recess? The present national emergency is likely to be still with us during the Easter recess, and it is most important that hon. Members can continue to deal with constituency casework relating to foot and mouth on a day-by-day basis. Proper arrangements need to be made, and they should include officials at MAFF being aware of contact numbers for hon. Members if new outbreaks occur in their constituencies during the recess. That matter should be put in hand, and I hope that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will tell the House early next week about the contingency arrangements that the Government have put in place.

Will the Leader of the House say whether it is the Government's intention to offer a full debate—not a statement—on foot and mouth in Government time before the House rises for the Easter recess? The two debates that have been held in the Chamber have been in Opposition time. We welcome statements from the Minister, but each day new problems and issues arise that hon. Members of all parties want to raise. It would be appropriate if the Government were to find time in their agenda for a much more detailed debate before the House rises for the recess.

Mrs. Beckett

I shall try to remember all of that. First, the hon. Lady asked for a statement on the London underground, and I shall draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. She will know that the Government have been striving heartily to get agreement about the future of the underground, but unfortunately it has not yet proved possible to resolve all the problems. Obviously, however, my right hon. Friend will continue to work on the matter.

The hon. Lady then asked, on the assumption that the county council elections will proceed, about the many arrangements that need to be made. I shall draw her remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers. I hope that she is aware that electoral returning officers already have considerable powers, and that, even before there was any question of a foot and mouth outbreak, they had been advised to draw to people's attention the greater availability of postal voting. They are doing what they can in practical terms to make that option more genuinely available. In that sense. therefore, there is little need for further steps to be taken. I turn now to the general question of how the county council elections should be handled. It seems that the Conservative party has had its own thoughts on that, and made its own arrangements. Although it has called for the cancellation of the county council elections, the Conservative party has called no fewer than three county council by-elections—in Cumbria, Essex and Wiltshire—since the outbreak began.

Mrs. Browning

In the towns.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady screams that the by-elections will be held in the towns, but if I recall correctly the Opposition called for the suspension of all county council elections in Cumbria. They are displaying a somewhat selective memory in that respect, but I simply say that it is clear that Opposition Members will have given thought to the matter when they decided to call those unnecessarily early by-elections.

The hon. Lady asked me about access to Ministers, and about statements and information given to the House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is considering the planning needed to keep hon. Members informed.

I understand the hon. Lady's point about casework, and it is right and proper for hon. Members to want to keep informed about problems in their constituencies, and to draw them to the attention of MAFF if they feel that messages are not getting through. However, although it is officials on the ground, such as vets, who primarily need to keep in touch with the situation, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is doing everything that he can to keep hon. Members informed.

I shall consider what the hon. Lady said about a debate on foot and mouth. She will be conscious, as I am, of the regular statements that Ministers have made, but I appreciate her point that debates and statements are not the same. However, the country will expect the Government to keep the House informed and information to flow freely between hon. Members and the Government. The Government are keeping the House informed, and I am not trying to make a party point when I say that I think that people also want Ministers to strike a balance between the proper discharge of their responsibilities to the House and their responsibilities in the country as a whole. We strive to keep those matters in balance.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is not it strange that the Opposition want the Government to plough on, but raise no objection, when told that Parliament is to be away for the lengthy period of 13 days?

My question relates to the possibility of a general election. If one takes place on 3 May, Parliament will be dissolved about this time next week. Many of us have in the pipeline important correspondence with Government Departments that requires a response. If a general election is called, will special action be taken to ensure that we all receive replies by next Thursday, given that after then we shall no longer be Members of Parliament? I thought that, as a bald man with a funny accent, I had better ask a serious question.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot quarrel with my hon. Friend about his hair, but I do not think that there is anything funny about his accent. He is a very serious and effective Member of Parliament, as hon. Members on both sides will confirm.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the length of the recess. One of the reasons that lay behind my response last week to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) about the timing of what was then a potential recess was that the Government had been asked whether the recess and the school holidays would coincide. He might know that, yet again, there is quite a disparity in respect of when school holidays fall in different parts of the country. We came under pressure—not least in the upper House—to start the Easter recess earlier, because otherwise children might be on holiday when the House was sitting. The arrangements, in part, reflect that request.

My hon. Friend asked about correspondence in the pipeline. He has fought many elections successfully and will, no doubt, fight many more with equal success, so he will know that that situation arises whenever a general election is called. There is always correspondence and material in the pipeline and most Departments and Ministers do their best to ensure that Members receive responses, but it is not always possible to provide 100 per cent. of responses.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recall that four weeks ago, I raised questions about the practicality of getting information from candidates to electors in areas such as Cornwall? The correspondence that she has kindly made available to me shows that she has not been able to do anything about the problem facing county council candidates, who, in contrast to general election candidates, do not get free mail to their constituents. Is it still possible to examine that issue?

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider the answer that she gave me last week regarding the statement that was to be made in the other place by the Minister for Transport, Lord Macdonald, on the National Air Traffic Services Ltd. public-private partnerships? I understand that that statement is being made today, but we have had no statement in this House, let alone an opportunity to debate it.

I endorse the request made by the Conservative spokeswoman for a debate on the London underground. I always walk to the House and I am conscious that many other people in London had to do so this morning. A statement would not only be useful, but might provide guidance to some Members of Parliament about the healthiest way in which to get to the House. The right hon. Lady will have noticed that, by an admirable coincidence, a medical research report published this morning suggests that walking to work is much healthier than working out in the gym.

Will the right hon. Lady consider advising her Government colleagues to dispense with their ministerial limousines for the next six weeks or so and walk to work instead? Might that not be a good way to ensure that the Government are healthy? Would she care to make the same suggestion to the Leader of the Opposition, who is also provided with a limousine at public expense?

Mrs. Beckett

On the hon. Gentleman's first question, I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers. Although I understand his point, I am not persuaded that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is likely to think that he can undertake to provide free mail for local elections.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the statement on NATS in the Lords. He will recall that during debates there, an undertaking was given that there would be a further statement in that House, and it is in response to that undertaking that the statement he mentions is being made.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned people walking to work and dispensing with ministerial and other limos. Of course, the leader of the Liberal party is provided with an official car, as I recall.

Mr. Tyler

No. Absolutely not.

Mrs. Beckett

If I am incorrect, I withdraw the allegation unreservedly and apologise for making it, although it was certainly my impression that a car was somehow provided for the leader of the Liberal party. Perhaps we will not go into that.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the report that suggested that it is healthy for people to walk to work. I observed to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, that while that might in general be good advice, I was not sure that it was in London with all the traffic fumes. That remains my view.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing public concern about deep vein thrombosis and long-haul air travel? She will be aware that next Friday will be the Second Reading of my private Member's Bill, the Air Travellers (Provision of Health Information) Bill. If it should fail at Second Reading, will she ask her right hon. Friends to consider legislation to place a legal requirement on airlines to provide up-to-date information on the risks associated with long-distance flights?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has taken this subject seriously and takes a close and detailed interest in it. Indeed, I believe that he initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on it. I wish him well with his Bill. I undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. However, my hon. Friend will recognise that there are many calls for Government legislation on a range of issues. The public awareness campaign that is being run by people such as him will be just as effective as legislation.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Next week's business does not include any provision for suspending the county council elections. Can we assume, therefore, that it is the Government's view that those elections should go ahead?

Mrs. Beckett

Certainly, it has been the Government's view for some time that to suspend the county council elections would give a strong and negative signal. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, as I have pointed this out to the House before, that the tourism industry—other industries are affected but it is primarily the tourism industry—has expressed strong reservations about that course. Obviously, all those issues remain under consideration.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to make a statement to the House? The continuing uncertainty about the underground is not helpful and people want a clear statement of how it is to proceed. It is important to realise that Bob Kiley is a most talented and remarkable man. His advice should be taken because it is in the interests of the passengers.

On a different subject, could someone urgently consider conference calls for candidates who are excluded from county council elections because they are in exclusion zones? There is no reason why we should not use modern technology to enable candidates who are trapped inside their farms to offer their views to the public. They could do so if they were given the necessary support.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point and I will draw it to the attention of the relevant authorities. While I completely understand that people will wish to take seriously all the precautions that they can, I understand that if people do take those proper precautions they can move from their farms. It is not the case that people ate confined to their farms, although I recognise the strong wish that people will have to avoid doing anything that might exacerbate any difficulties.

My hon. Friend mentioned the London underground and I personally undertake to draw her remarks and those of other hon. Members to the attention of the Secretary of State. However, I assure her that no one is more anxious to draw the issues to a conclusion than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Can the Leader of the House explain why when there is an exhibition in the Upper Gallery of bronzes of long defunct—but all male—servants of this House, we have no comparable memorials in this place to any of the women who have served the House? I acknowledge that one cannot have such a memento until one is past this life. Will she explain two things? What happened to the plaque of Lady Astor, which was commissioned by her family and was originally placed in one of the voting Lobbies? It has disappeared to some obscure place in the House of which I am unaware. Will the Leader of the House, using her influence with the usual channels, seriously contemplate memorials of some kind—this is a non-partisan issue—to those women who served the House and whose very election to the House was a major achievement on their part? When I take my guests around the Commons, I am ashamed to tell them that there is not one comparable memorial in the House to a woman, or even to a suffragette who fought for the enfranchisement of women.

Mrs. Beckett

There is an indirect memorial, at least, to one of the suffragettes in the broken sword in St. Stephen's Hall, which had to be broken in order to remove someone who had chained herself to it. However, I take the hon. Lady's point. I am afraid that I have not the faintest idea what happened to the plaque commemorating, very properly, the election of Lady Astor, or why it was moved. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) suggests that he believes that it is sited near the Admission Order Office, where more visitors might see it than would see it in the Division Lobby, where it was previously. I assure the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) that none of these decisions are matters for me. I certainly understand her remark, and I suspect that part of the reason is that it is over such a comparatively short period that women have been able to be Members of the House. There may also be less inclination to raise resources to fund more permanent memorials to any of the women Members or women who have participated here. I share her view that that is regrettable, but no doubt it will be remedied over time.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

Will my right hon. Friend make time available for a debate on pensioners? Will she join me, as I am sure the whole House will, in sending our best wishes to Baroness Castle, who has been admitted to St. Thomas's hospital after a fall? We need a debate on pensioners so that we can assess the Government's good start, and address pensioners' continuing concerns, especially about ageism in the NHS, transport and crime?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware of the recent publication by the Government and one of the Select Committees on the subject of ageism. I understand his concern that we should have a wide-ranging debate such as he identifies. I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate on the Floor in the near future, but he may like to consider the advantages of Westminster Hall. I share his view and I am sure that the whole House would want to send its strong best wishes and affection to such a distinguished servant of the House as Baroness Castle.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Many haemophiliacs have been infected with hepatitis C as a result of NHS blood products. So far, despite hon. Members on both sides of the House calling for some form of compensation, the Government have rejected that. Earlier this week, there was a case in the High Court in which, on consumer legislation, a number of people won their case. May we have a statement from Health Ministers on the Government's current attitude? Do they intend to appeal that decision or to accept it and perhaps negotiate with others who seek compensation, to make the position of those people and their families far more comfortable as they contend with a very nasty disease?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and he is right that the issue has been raised by hon. Members across the House. He will know that that pressure has hitherto been resisted by Governments of his party as well as of ours. I understand the concern of the individuals and families who have been affected in the way that he describes, although as he Knows, major steps have been taken, particularly since 1991, to test all donations of blood for hepatitis C. To some extent, therefore, we hope that the problem has been stemmed. I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but I cannot give an undertaking that he will wish to make a statement so speedily, although no doubt he is considering the impact of the court case. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is questions to the Department of Health on Tuesday, and he may find an opportunity to raise the matter then.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the current situation were the same as that in March 1979, there would be no Tory call for postponement of the general election, foot and mouth or no foot and mouth? Have not the Opposition completely lost confidence in their ability to win the next election?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend may be right to attribute motives to the observations that are made by the Opposition. The Government are, as ever, seeking to take the right decisions and to balance the many pressures that are being brought to bear and the large amount of advice that we are being given with regard to the timing of the local elections or any general election.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

First, as I am, improbably, going to be in Cuba next week, and as even I realise that this might therefore be my last business questions, may I thank the Leader of the House for her unfailing and well-informed courtesy to me in all such sessions? Secondly, I should like to join the all-party consensus on the London underground. Although I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister is straining every sinew to make a statement, I am concerned that gridlock in government during the past four years is paralleled today by gridlock on the streets of London. Londoners deserve to be informed of the Government's eventual conclusions on the underground before they cast their votes.

Mrs. Beckett

I shall add the right hon. Gentleman's name to the others. I am conscious of the concerns about the London underground, as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has been a most assiduous servant of his constituents in the House, not least by sometimes opposing his own Government. For example, I seem to recall that he and I were on the same side regarding the potential closure of Bart's. For a variety of reasons, I hope that this is not his last business questions and thank him for his courtesy and kind remarks. I am not sure what is going on with regard to his first point, as the other day I heard from one of our most distinguished servants, a senior Clerk, that he will also be in Havana shortly, after which he expects to retire. It appears that some sort of retirement expedition is going on. If that is so, perhaps the rest of us should be informed.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Can my right hon. Friend find time in the next few days for the House to discuss one of this week's most important news items? Tuesday's decision to appoint contractors to build the A650 Bingley relief road is fantastic news for my constituents because it will significantly reduce congestion. The previous Conservative Administration could never get the project off the ground.

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the enormous effort that my hon. Friend has put into lobbying for such improvements in his constituency. I am sure that his constituents will recognise that effort, on which I congratulate him, and be grateful for it. I understand that they might feel that the project is an important issue that should be considered by the House. I fear, however, that it is one of many similar matters that press for time, so I cannot undertake to schedule a debate on it in the near future.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the Leader of the House advise us on whether any arrangements have been made for a statement on—or any move made about—advancing the Northern Ireland local government elections, which are due on 16 May, to bring them into line with the local government elections here? Although many of us will welcome the announcement about the Easter recess, we are not too sure whether we will be able to spend it with our families.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that families will be seeing a little more of each other, whatever the circumstances. I recognise the serious point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I am not aware of any immediate proposals to make a statement, but I recognise that important concerns have been expressed in Northern Ireland and I believe that the matter is being considered.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

As it is obviously business as usual, can I book Monday 23 April for the Standards and Privileges Committee, so that the House can debate our report, which includes our latest recommendations on the code of conduct? Such a debate would give us the opportunity to correct the many misunderstandings in the national media about what happens in the Committee and about the fact that we are bound by rules that are set in resolutions made by the House of Commons.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point, at least on the misunderstanding about, if not misrepresentation of, the work of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I pay tribute to its members for the time and effort they have to put in. However, with all the good will in the world towards my hon. Friend, for whom I have the greatest respect, I fear that I cannot allow any hon. Member to book a day.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the right hon. Lady make time for a debate on the recently published Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, which reveals that the British system of education is the worst in Europe? That is not the fault of our teachers, who do good work every day of the year and deserve our thanks and praise. The OECD makes it clear that a pivotal reason for the decline in teachers' morale is the excessive bureaucracy and red tape that the Government have imposed on them. We need a debate on that to expose the Government's frailties and failures well before a general election.

Mrs. Beckett

Oh dear—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question, but he may not be so glad. The OECD report does not state what he claims. Indeed, the organisation has regretted publicly the distortion of its report.

The hon. Gentleman calls for a debate to expose the Government's frailties and terrible record. I fear that the information in the OECD report was based on a survey that was carried out in 1996, when we were not the Government.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on employment in the United Kingdom? Employment is currently at an all-time high and unemployment has dropped below 1 million. Would not a debate on that be most instructive, to point up the contrast with the previous Administration's record?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right. It is so difficult to get good news into the normal media outlets that it is understandable that hon. Members want to air it here. Although I sympathise with that wish, I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future. However, there will be other opportunities, perhaps in Westminster Hall, to raise the matter.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The right hon. Lady represents a Derbyshire constituency and will therefore know that the Staffordshire county show is one of the biggest in the midlands. However, does she realise that it has been cancelled for the first time in its 200-year existence because of the growing outbreak of foot and mouth in Staffordshire? If Parliament is dissolved, what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that Members of Parliament who seek re-election continue to be informed of outbreaks in their constituencies? The Ministry of Agriculture currently provides such information.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman has fought more than one election, and he knows that if a general election is called, hon. Members become candidates rather than Members of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has insisted throughout that the mechanisms for keeping farmers, vets and others on the ground informed must be most robust. That is extremely important

I am aware that the county show has been cancelled. Such cancellations have happened in several parts of the country as people take precautions. Shows mean a specific concentration of movement in circumstances where precautions are wise

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that hon. Members should encourage their constituents to claim their legal entitlement? Did she hear the Chancellor state earlier that he would encourage hon. Members to work with schools so that families can claim the children's tax credit next month? Will she therefore read early-day motion 473, relating to the action of Plaid Cymru-controlled Caerphilly borough council, which condemned my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for doing precisely that?

[That this House notes that the honourable Member for Islwyn sent a letter on House of Commons notepaper to all the schools in the constituency of Islwyn detailing the Government's planned children's tax credit; further notes with dismay, that such unsolicited letters were accompanied by a request for the same to be copied and distributed to all schoolchildren for delivery to their parents; questions the propriety of this action within close proximity to calling a general election; deprecates such behaviour as using already cash-strapped resources of schools for overtly political ends; and condemns the use of schoolchildren in this way to deliver details of a policy change which had already been in the public domain since last autumn.]

Could we have a debate on the children's tax credit and the other measures that the Government have introduced to help working families?

Mrs. Beckett

I am astonished that anyone should think it wrong of a Member of Parliament to keep constituents informed of matters that are to their advantage. Indeed, we have had an exchange across the Floor of the House about precisely that issue—the need to circulate information that is beneficial to people. I have no doubt, however, that my hon. Friend and others will do what they can to ensure that information is spread through the proper channels.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

May I reinforce the question asked by the shadow Leader of the House, and remind the Leader of the House that so far there have been three debates on foot and mouth disease, all of them instigated by the Opposition? The right hon. Lady continues today to reflect the Government's attitude, which grossly underestimates the grotesque damage being done to the rural economy, beyond farming. It was clear from what was said yesterday, when the Minister for the Environment appeared before the Select Committee on Agriculture, that there had been a huge underestimate of the damage that has been caused—and caused disproportionately in rural areas.

It is good to hear that the Minister of Agriculture will make a statement, but can we have a full day's debate on the damage caused by the foot and mouth crisis to the whole economy?

Mrs. Beckett

There is no truth whatever in the suggestion that the Government underestimate the gravity of the crisis. Of course it is perfectly right and proper for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment to draw attention to the wider implications for the economy as a whole, not least—as I have said—the implications to the tourism industry. The Government must continue to take those issues into account.

We are very conscious of the damage that is being done to the lives and livelihoods of many people in all parts of the country, but we are equally conscious of the fact that two things must be done if we are to begin to stem the worst of that damage. First, we must do all that can be done to tackle the outbreak; secondly, we must do all that we can to support and encourage our tourism industry to prosper where that can happen without any effect on the crisis.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Government give urgent consideration to introducing a one-clause amendment to the Election Publications Bill to provide for delivery of one free election address for each candidate to each household, exclusively for the May local government elections? I thought that the Opposition would ask that question; I am sorry that I have had to do it for them.

Mr. Tyler

I did.

Mr. Mackinlay

I gather that the hon. Gentleman did. Anyway, it is important for all candidates to be able to send one communication to one household. I understand that the cost would be a maximum of £5 million. We do not need this in Tilbury, but it is needed in many parts of the country.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I understand, however, that apart from any other implications that my hon. Friend's proposal may have, it may well be outwith the scope of the Bill that he mentioned, which is very narrowly drawn.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Has the Leader of the House no shame about the fact that during the three months of the foot and mouth crisis, the Government have not found time for a single debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Tyler

Three months?

Mr. McLoughlin

The Leader of the House has announced business to be dealt with until almost the end of April, which will be three months after the beginning of the outbreak. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not understand that.

As the right hon. Lady will know, the Peak district attracts at least 20 million visitors a year, and as she will also know, the consequences of the outbreak are devastating for many businesses in the area. So far, we have heard just one statement in the House about that. Many people whom I meet—including members of the Hartington and Newhaven development association whom I met on Saturday morning—feel that the measures that the Government have announced so far are wholly inadequate. The Minister of Agriculture says that he will make more announcements, but my constituents, and those businesses, desperately need to know when the Government will come up with concrete measures.

Mrs. Beckett

I rather deplore the Conservative party's desperate attempts to create the impression that the Government are at fault, and that we are not doing all we can to tackle the many ramifications of the issues being raised.

I take the point that the debates that have taken place hitherto have been in Opposition time, but we have had those debates, and we have had repeated statements. The Government have fallen over backwards to keep the House informed, not least—as the hon. Gentleman will know—through exceptional measures such as the MPs' hotline and regular updates in the Library.

Let me say, with respect to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, that the best way of bringing about a resurgence in the tourism industry and other aspects of the local economy is to continue to keep the issue under control, while also encouraging people not to stay away from the countryside but to go sensibly into it. That would be far more helpful than any loan scheme, or any of the other ideas that people are proposing to help industries. A revival of custom is what those industries need, and, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, a debate in the House may not always be the best way of achieving that.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Carlisle is at the very centre of the Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway foot and mouth cluster? If anywhere in the country is suffering from the impacts of the disease, it is that area and Carlisle in particular. Is she therefore not a little surprised to discover that the Conservatives have called a local council by-election not for 3 May, but for 19 April? Is not she further surprised that the seat is not Conservative, but Liberal? The Conservatives are so keen to hold a by-election in the centre of the area affected by foot and mouth that they have taken extraordinary steps. Does she agree that what we are smelling from the Opposition is frit?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the right hon. Lady recall the vehemence with which the Prime Minister, during the Ayr by-election for the Scottish Parliament, denounced the practice of homosexual role play in school sex education classes? Hon. Members will be receiving reports from the Christian Institute giving documentary evidence as to how widespread that practice now is. May we have a debate so that the Prime Minister can tell us precisely what he plans to do to deliver his pledge and stamp out that practice, particularly as press reports today suggest that he is making a pitch for the religious vote?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I do not recall the precise exchange to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He knows, however, that how such education is conducted is a matter for school governors. I presume that they will take on board the remarks that are being made.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the figures released last week showing the largest increase in police numbers for a decade, and my area commander has already described how the north Bucks villages in my constituency will get extra resources. She will also be aware of a problem in the south-east with recruiting key public sector workers. May we have time for a debate on that and on police numbers and recruitment in the south-east?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I understand that it is the first time in a decade that police numbers have risen in the Milton Keynes area. That must be a great source of gratification to both my hon. Friends who represent that locality. I understand, of course, both the pressure that he and other colleagues have applied to try to obtain that increase and his concern to have those other issues aired. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for such a debate, but perhaps I may draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that I believe it may be Home Office questions on 9 April. He might find an opportunity to raise those matters then.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

It appears likely that a general election is imminent and every Member of the House standing for re-election may be prepared for it, but can the Leader of the House find time for a debate before any election is announced to discuss why a general election might be called? This Parliament has at least a year to run and my constituents in rural areas are stuck in their farms, in real crisis, and businesses are going bust or are under real threat. My constituents ask me, "Why on earth should we have an election now?" What possible reason is there for holding one, except some perceived advantage to the Government?

Mrs. Beckett

The only scheduled elections that I am aware of are the local elections. As to whether any other election will be called, that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is not a matter for me, nor is it one on which the House desperately needs a debate. I understand his wish to raise those issues, but I can only say that it continues to cultivate the impression that the Conservative party has something to fear.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House look at the business for next week and tell us whether we can have an urgent debate on foot and mouth in Government time, perhaps with the Minister of Agriculture and the rural taskforce Minister—the Minister for the Environment? I spoke to a farmer in my constituency yesterday who has not received any money for five weeks. Had it not been for an agricultural charity giving her some money, she and her family would have had no income whatsoever. Many farmers owe money to small businesses that have also been affected by the rural crisis. If money can be got through to the farmers, they can start to pay bills, which will start to get the rural economy going.

Will the right hon. Lady consider next week's business, because that debate is urgently needed? Those families have no money coming in now. Unless they can get some urgent action from the Government, they will not he able to continue in business.

Mrs. Beckett

I of course understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is a very serious point, and I understand the concerns of his constituents. I shall certainly give consideration to the point, but I cannot undertake necessarily to change the business for next week. However, I can—and will—undertake to draw his remarks urgently to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment.

Mr. Davidson


Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot call the hon. Gentleman again—he was bad enough the first time. I call Mr. Brady.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Can we have an urgent statement or a debate in Government time on the Government's decision to reduce the number of transplant centres in the country? Those proposals will mean the closure of two of the three centres in Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham. I was fortunate to secure a short debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday this week, during which the Minister for Public Health gave out the dreadful news that the decision would be delayed, possibly for several months. That is causing real anxiety in the South Manchester University Hospitals NHS trust and in the other centres. It is essential that we have an answer quickly and the Government must explain when they are going to make a decision, to set minds at rest in all three of those places.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on that issue, especially as the hon. Gentleman has so recently had a debate on it. However, I can certainly undertake to draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. John Beroow (Buckingham)

My knee muscles are getting stronger by the day, Mr. Speaker.

Can we please have an urgent debate on fawning sycophancy, shameful grovelling, unctuous toadying, ritual subservience and the Liberal Democrats? Does the right hon. Lady agree that, in the light of the proportional representation pact and of the overall record of that party, such a debate would allow many right hon. and hon. Members to explain that, in large parts of the country, the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party scavenging for right-wing votes? Does she also agree that people who want to get rid of this ghastly, sickening, depressing, miserable, pitiful failure of a Labour Government should not vote for that bunch of opportunist misfits, but should instead, throughout the country, vote Conservative, Conservative, Conservative?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has not just triggered his election expenses. Given the mixture of what seems to be genuine discontent and, perhaps, a lack of tact—if I remember recent remarks by his hon. Friends—perhaps the Conservatives could do with a bit more fawning sycophancy in their party.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Leader of the House will have been aware for longer than the rest of us of the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body on Members' pay and allowances. Given that many of those recommendations, particularly on allowances for new Members, are predicated on those allowances beginning in a new Parliament, would it not be appropriate for them to be put before the House, to give us the opportunity to debate and vote on them before the general election? Failing that, there will be complete chaos in the Fees Office, given the very large number of new Members that there will be in the House.

Mrs. Beckett

I note the hon. Gentleman's optimism about the large number of new Members—or perhaps it is pessimism? The last time there was a large number of new Members here, they were on this side. Of course, I understand the interest taken by the hon. Gentleman and all Members in the report, which proposes quite substantial changes in the handling of staff terms and conditions, and in the provisions for information technology in the House. The Government are mindful of those issues, but the hon. Gentleman will also know that they raise a number of substantial questions. At some point they will come before the House, but at present I cannot tell him when.