HC Deb 03 May 2001 vol 367 cc990-1002

1.2 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 is as follows.

MONDAY 7 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

TUESDAY 8 MAY—Motion to approve Ways and Means Resolution on the Finance Bill.

Remaining stages of the Private Security Industry Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 9 MAY—Remaining stages of the International Criminal Court Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 10 MAY—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 11 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 14 MAY—Remaining stages of the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill.

TUESDAY 15 MAY—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 16 MAY—Debate on Defence on a motion for Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 17 MAY—The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 4 o'clock.

FRIDAY 18 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing what will clearly be a fun-packed week—possibly the last week of the current Parliament. It has been a fun Parliament for some. The Government began, four years ago, with a party in Downing street, and proceeded to that great party down at the dome at the change of the century; but, as with all parties, they have left behind a lot of debris. I wonder whether some of that debris can be cleared up in the coming week's business.

One important fact is that the Government have yet to devote any Government time to a full debate on foot and mouth on the Floor of the House. There have been statements and one is to follow but, surely, given the nature of the crisis and the fact that the Prime Minister has taken personal control of it, one could have at least expected the Government to allocate time to discuss foot and mouth next week.

There are other matters of great importance that I hope the Leader of the House will consider fitting in before the end of next week. The Government have made statements and indeed have set up a taskforce to help to support businesses not directly involved in agriculture, but there is a growing problem for all the businesses that have appealed for a temporary reduction in their rating assessments.

On 6 April, the Paymaster General informed the House in a written answer that there were no fewer than 23,000 new applications as at 6 April. It does not seem that those are being processed; indeed, the Treasury has been unable to give up-to-date figures. I hope that the Leader of the House will find time for the Paymaster General to answer questions in the House on how those applications are to be expedited.

We have still not had an annual debate on small business, which the Government promised when they came to glorious victory in 1997. Nor have there been any statements on the Floor of the House on, for example, many matters to do with procedure. The fact that we have just had a private notice question based on what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister's questions yesterday and what was said in contradiction subsequently by his press officer surely merits some debate before the end of the Parliament; and what about a statement from the Government about their so-called modernisation programme, which has been inflicted on the House during the Parliament?

The Government have failed to reintroduce the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No.2) Bill despite its being a high priority for them and being announced in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech last December. Has that Bill now been taken off the party invitation list? The Government have only published a draft transport Bill, even though they promised to develop a fully integrated public transport system. I wonder whether the Leader of the House could tell us exactly what the intention is so that the House can question Transport Ministers on that subject.

There has been no legislation to enforce the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention on bribery, which makes it a criminal offence for a United Kingdom national to bribe a foreign public official. On that subject, not much time appears to have been allocated for the House to discuss very important matters that have been considered by Select Committees in respect of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), for whom the party has been so exciting that he has had to go home and spend a bit of time getting over it. It is important that such matters be discussed on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Leader of the House will assure us that those important matters will be tidied up before the party is over at the end of next week because, clearly, for the Government, the party will be well and truly over.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Lady complains that there has been no debate in Government time on the foot and mouth outbreak, which, if I recall correctly, first came to light in February, so we are talking about a comparatively short period, during which there have been, as she rightly acknowledged, extensive statements. I remind her that we went through at least two years, if not three or four, when the Conservative party was in government without any debate in Government time on health, which is an on-going issue and which was in crisis at the time. It is not unusual for there to be pressure on Government time, but, by contrast with the Conservative party, we have made extensive statements covering those issues.

The hon. Lady raises a valid point about the handling of applications with regard to rate relief. I believe that we have Treasury questions next Thursday, but in any case I will draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I had not heard the concerns that the hon. Lady expressed, but clearly it is a matter of some interest. We already have in mind the issue of a small business debate.

As for the hon. Lady's remarks on procedure, I am not quite sure to what she is referring, although she complains about the handling of statements. It is a matter of record that, in this Parliament, on average, the Government have made a statement every two sitting days. We have certainly made substantially more statements—just as we have taken substantially more questions at Prime Minister's Question Time—than the previous, Conservative Government made. I therefore do not think that it lies in the mouths of Conservative Members to complain about that matter.

The hon. Lady then gave a list of matters that she felt should be debated, including some Select Committee reports. She treated us again to her views on the Modernisation Committee, but I remind the House that a consequence of the work of that Committee is that we now have four to five times as much time for debating Select Committee reports, and more time for Back Benchers than was available under the previous Government.

In her list of matters not covered, the hon. Lady also included a draft transport Bill that she wanted to discuss. I am not quite sure where she was last year, but it is my recollection that we had a Transport Bill which became the Transport Act 2000.

As for the party being over, it sounds very much to me like the hon. Lady's party is definitely over.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

For all those who are genuinely concerned with the national interest, should it not be a matter for congratulation that foot and mouth is now well under control? Everyone involved should be congratulated on what has been done. May I also make what I hope will be seen as a helpful suggestion, relating to what we have just been discussing? Would it not be much better for statements on very serious policy matters to be made by the relevant Minister and not outside the House? Not only would that save a lot of perhaps unnecessary work, but the Opposition would of course have less to exploit.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the whole House should take pleasure—although I am not sure that everyone does—in the very considerable success in handling what has undoubtedly been a very difficult outbreak. I think that most sensible people congratulate all those who have been involved on the enormous work and effort that they have put in—often with a huge amount of second-guessing. Action that was demanded one week was criticised the next, and a great deal of undeserved abuse was heaped on the unfortunate heads of those who were doing most of the work to tackle the impact of the disease. My hon. Friend is entirely right about that.

As for how statements are handled, I hope that my hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Agriculture Minister hopes to make a statement shortly. Additionally, he answered a written parliamentary question on the matter this morning.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House accept that Ministers must be accountable to the House rather than to the media for the actions of Government? Does she accept that, despite what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has just said, there are still very real concerns—in my part of the country, if not in his—about the devastation left by the foot and mouth outbreak? There is therefore absolutely no room for complacency about the outbreak; nor is there any room for complacency about the way in which the Government have handled the whole episode.

May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention specifically to the fact that there are still real problems with co-ordination of the Government's activities in their different forms to deal with the outbreak? That is why, on several previous occasions, I have asked that the Prime Minister—as he has insisted that he had to take personal charge of the whole exercise—should himself come to the House and answer questions on the co-ordination of Government activity to deal with it.

May I particularly draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the problems that obviously will arise if we do not have a swift public inquiry into the matter? I accept that she may well be able to say that the previous Government refused a public inquiry into the BSE scandal, but two wrongs do not make a right, and that is not an excuse for inaction now.

Specifically, we want to know whether the Agriculture Minister was right when, on 27 March, he told the House that entry into this country—presumably through the ports—of the foot and mouth virus had still to be examined and established. Is that true? If it is, why have we had no further statement on the matter?

Moreover, why have the efforts that my colleagues and I have put into trying to see what is happening at our entry ports been blocked at every stage, to the extent that civil servants themselves have told me that we have been given the Whitehall runaround? We have been wanting to go and see what checks are being made at our ports into illegal meat imports, and we have been told by the Association of Port Health Authorities that large quantities of such meat are coming into this country. Why have we been blocked from seeing exactly what is happening, and when will we have the remit for that public inquiry?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman says that matters should be reported to the House. Perhaps he failed to hear me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that a parliamentary question was answered this morning. He will know that successive Speakers have ruled that that is a perfectly acceptable way of making an announcement. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food intends to make a statement later.

I wholeheartedly endorse, as does everyone, the idea that although, to nearly everyone's relief, the disease is apparently on a downward trajectory, there is no cause for complacency. Indeed, nobody feels complacent. The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North were timely, in that a great deal of abuse has been heaped on the heads of those who have been attempting to deal with the outbreak, not least the officials, and it is right for us to place on the record our real gratitude for their efforts.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he frequently asks for the Prime Minister to make a statement on this, that or the other.

The issue of what inquiry should be held, and in what form, will continue to be considered. Perhaps in calling for further statements the hon. Gentleman has overlooked the fact that some of the issues may become a matter for prosecution, which always means that what is said in public must be handled with caution. He will have the opportunity to put many of these questions to my right hon. Friend later.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Can we have a statement next week on the slow progress of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill? It completed its stages in the House of Commons on 13 February, about 11 weeks ago, had its First Reading in the other place the following day and then took some five weeks to get its Second Reading, since when there has been no progress whatever. Along with many of my hon. Friends, I am concerned about the situation. We made a commitment in the Labour party manifesto to ban tobacco advertising. Can we have a statement to find out whether the Bill will make further progress, especially considering the rumours that abound suggesting that we may be embarking on a general election campaign very shortly?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend expresses. He has been a strong and ardent campaigner on the issue for many years. He will know, however, that there is a great deal of business in the other place and that the Government do not control the business there: it is a matter for that House itself to decide what business to take and how long to spend on it. There are always problems and pressures.

My hon. Friend will know that, in the event of any change in business, there are long-established parliamentary conventions on how the issues may be handled. I am not aware of any reason to suppose that those conventions will not be observed.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a debate on the financial situation faced by hospices that care for the dying, of which we have 102 in this country? Information just published shows that, over the past three years, the proportion of hospices' funding that is public has gone down from more than 35 to just under 30 per cent. Will she pay particular attention to the independent report that has just been published showing that half our hospices now face serious financial problems? If we had not raised a great deal of additional money over the past year, Southend, too, could have been in that position. Does she agree that this is an urgent and important matter that deserves parliamentary attention?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, nor do I know whether the change in percentage may not, at least in part, be due to the substantial efforts made to raise funds for hospices from the private sector. The whole House strongly applauds the excellent work done in hospices and would not want it to be undermined in any way. I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on them in the near future.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Those of us who were present in Westminster Hall on 11 July 1996 were afforded the great honour of listening to one of the greatest statesmen of our time address both Houses of Parliament; I refer, of course, to Nelson Mandela. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 643, which seeks to commemorate that event?

[That this House notes the historic importance of the speech delivered to both Houses by President Mandela and of EDM 1155, tabled on 11th July 1996, supported on a cross party basis; and calls upon the House authorities to install a permanent reminder of the occasion by the setting of a brass plaque on the steps of Westminster Hall.]

I realise that the solution to that request is not entirely in the gift of my right hon. Friend, but I would be grateful if she would bring it to the attention of the Lord Chancellor, who is one of the people involved.

I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you will recognise the sentiments expressed in the motion on a cross-party basis, as you are one of those able to take action on the matter.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is partly right in saying that I do not have entire responsibility in the matter, because I do not have any responsibility for what happens in Westminster Hall, which rests with the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker. However, I fully recognise the important point that my hon. Friend makes. The tremendous warmth of the cross-party welcome for Nelson Mandela was evident on the occasion that my hon. Friend mentions, and I am confident that those who have responsibility for the matter will hear his remarks with sympathy.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that there is no great pressure of massively important legislation next week and that therefore—if necessary after 10 o'clock—the Government should bring forward the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body on the new level of salary for Members of Parliament? They will not affect me, but they should not be held back until after the election by people who fear that voting in favour of them might affect their position at the polls. One section of the House will be affected—those who are retiring or who are defeated at the election and have only a low level of pension. That pension is based on Members' final salary when they leave the House, so to hold back a recommendation based on what has been supposedly earned over the past three years is to be unfair to a host of Members of Parliament in terms of their pensions. The Government should have enough strength to overcome any opposition and get on with it.

Mrs. Beckett

Although the right hon. Gentleman says that there is no pressure of legislation next week, the House will in fact discuss some very important legislation. He will know that the issue has been raised with me, and I fear that I cannot undertake to bring the matter forward in the near future. I shall take the opportunity to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is characteristic of his many years of service in the House that he should raise the issue on behalf of other people.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Has the Leader of the House had time to read early-day motion 619?

[That this House believes that the Halifax, Yorkshire's biggest financial company, must keep its headquarters in Halifax, the town whose name it takes; does not accept that all major financial centres in the UK should be located only in capital cities; notes that Leeds is a growing centre of financial excellence and that if the headquarters are moved to Edinburgh this would be a major blow to the Yorkshire Region as a place in which to invest and locate.]

It has been signed by 87 Members and opposes the relocation to Scotland of the headquarters of the Halifax bank, in the event of a merger between it and the Bank of Scotland. Feelings are running so high in my constituency against such a relocation that the Halifax Evening Courier produced a special edition to oppose it. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Government for a statement on the issue, which is vital to investment in Halifax and the wider Yorkshire region?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's clearly expressed concern and the Evening Courier deserves praise for ensuring that an issue of such importance to the local community is raised in that way. My hon. Friend and others also deserve praise for the way in which they have raised the issue. We are keen for organisations to take factors such as the impact on local communities into account when they make their decisions. I fear, however, that those decisions are ultimately a commercial matter for the company, although I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of any of my right hon. Friends who have any standing on the issue.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Historically, the Government have purported to support the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, but Government Whips last night were actively discouraging Ministers from voting for further progress on the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

If only that were true.

Mr. Brooke

Effectively, that prevented the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), who heard the debate, from stating the Government's current position with regard to the Bill. In the circumstances, may we have a statement on the Government's position?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know has long campaigned on this matter on behalf of his constituents, he will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) say, "If only that were true."

Mr. Mackinlay

In the period of quarantine that will prevail during the general election and until the following Queen's Speech, will it be possible for the Government to reflect on the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill and decide that it should not be resuscitated? If a motion on that matter is put to the House, should not it be subject to a free vote? There is no majority in the House in favour of this squalid little Bill, and the sooner it is consigned to the dustbin, the better.

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to my hon. Friend, the Bill is private business. Its resuscitation is therefore not a matter for the Government. It has always been subject to a free vote, precisely because it is private business. That will no doubt remain the case if it is reintroduced.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a debate on the extraordinary actions of Barnet council, which is under joint Labour and Liberal Democrat control? Last year, it targeted the half of the borough in which it thought that its greatest support lay, and sent a letter encouraging postal voting to every householder. At the beginning of the year, it promised to do the same for the other half of the borough. It printed the letters, but then took the political decision not to take any further action. Will the right hon. Lady at least condemn what is political gerrymandering of the worst type?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not precisely familiar with the situation in Barnet to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but, in the light of what he has said, I wonder whether there was a great deal of criticism of the council for taking the steps that it did, and whether that has anything to do with his question.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

Bearing in mind the expeditious way in which the House has dealt with business this week, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate next week on today's announcement by Corus, which makes it clear that the company never had any intention of changing its plans to sack 6,000 workers in the United Kingdom? Such a debate would give us the opportunity to show that Plaid Cymru was more concerned to back Corus in this matter than to support the Government's attempts to get the company back on track and keep workers in jobs. It would also give the House a chance to show how effectively the Government have responded to the Corus debacle—for example, they have provided some £66 million in Wales to try to ensure that steelworkers receive adequate compensation and the opportunity for new jobs.

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's view that it would be desirable to find time for such a debate, as it would make plain how much the Government have done to try to help people in that difficult situation. It would also expose those more concerned with scoring political points. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate next week.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

The right hon. Lady is assiduous is carrying out her duties as Leader of the House, and enjoys the respect of hon. Members. However, I hope she will agree that it is wrong that major policy announcements should be made by the Prime Minister's press secretary when, 10 minutes before that announcement, the Prime Minister had steadfastly refused to do make the same announcement in the House. The same is true of announcements by any press secretary and any Minister. The right hon. Lady has always stood up for the House's rights; will she do so on this occasion by agreeing with me?

Mrs. Beckett

That is a good try, but no such major announcement of a change in policy was made. That has already been made plain, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that the issue was aired earlier today.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on asylum? That would give the House an opportunity to discuss the success of the Government's Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, particularly the success of the civil penalties, which have had a dramatic effect on the numbers of illegal immigrants coming into the port of Dover, and of the accelerated process, which means that the backlog of unheard cases is at a 10-year low? In addition, the success of the dispersal system has meant that since last April hardly a single new asylum seeker has been placed in the port of Dover.

Is my right hon. Friend encouraged by the comments of the Conservative leader of Kent county council, who told Radio 5 just last week: I think the dispersal system is working well"?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is quite correct. I am encouraged to learn that the leader of Kent county council is, at least on this occasion, more in touch with the real world than those who represent his party in this House. My hon. Friend is entirely right to identify that there is merit in paying attention to the accelerated process in dealing with the backlog. I find it hard to keep a straight face when I hear Conservative Members talk about their record on asylum, when people waited years and years, not least in my constituency, without any decision being taken. My hon. Friend is also quite correct to identify this as an area in which Government policy has tackled a problem of enormous consequences that we inherited. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it next week.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Is it not time that we had a proper debate in the House about the real role of Alastair Campbell in the Government? Yesterday, the Prime Minister waffled about missile defence. Just after that, we are told, Mr. Campbell gave a clear statement on the Government's policy on missile defence. Today, we have had the unedifying spectacle of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs being not quite unable to deny what Alastair Campbell had said but trying to waltz around it in his gnomic way. Can we please have a debate in which it will be made clear beyond all doubt what the role of this man, Alastair Campbell, is in Government? Is he running the Government, does he speak for the Government, does he decide policy? Why is a Secretary of State unable to deny to the House what Alastair Campbell is reported as having said the previous day?

Mrs. Beckett

All I can say is that it is a clear indication of the priorities of Conservative Members that they spend so much time on this kind of nit-picking point and are not the slightest bit interested in debating issues of major importance such as the economy, on which they have nothing at all to say.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on speech therapy? This is, to some extent, a local problem. I discovered three or four years ago that there was a shortage of speech therapists in my borough, and despite the best efforts of the local community health trust, that shortage has not been addressed. I suspect, from speaking to other right hon. and hon. Members, that it is a national shortage which needs addressing at a national level, which is why we need a debate or a statement on it.

Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), I should like to emphasise that it is the view of probably the majority of right hon. and hon. Members, if there were a completely free vote, that the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill is an attack on democracy and on representative democracy. It is the first extension of the business vote since 1832. Can we just kick it out after we win the election?

Mrs. Beckett

First, my hon. Friend is right to say that although there may be a particular local problem with regard to the availability of speech therapy, there is a general problem and has been for quite some time. That is due not least to the previous Government's record of administration in running the health service, when many of these specialties and valuable contributors to health care were neglected and actively undermined.

With regard to my hon. Friend's remarks about the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, I have nothing to add to what I said before.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

As these may be the last business questions of this Parliament, and as I am one of the regular attenders, may I say on behalf of several of my right hon. and hon. Friends how much we have appreciated the way the Leader of the House has discharged her duties, typified by the courtesy with which she responded to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) only a few moments ago?

Now back to business. I have repeatedly raised the point that, a year and a half ago, the President of the European Commission described the Commissioners as the Government of Europe, and this has been repeatedly disregarded by Ministers, including the Prime Minister, whenever it has been raised in the House. Now that the Chancellor of Germany has made the same statement—proposing to formalise the European Commission as the Government of Europe—and has been backed, according to press reports today, by the Belgian Prime Minister, will the right hon. Lady find time for a statement by an appropriate Minister on the serious constitutional question whether this country will continue governing itself, or will indeed become part of a European superstate? The Prime Minister's counterparts in other countries clearly wish that to happen.

Mrs. Beckett

My understanding is that the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers is a draft policy paper that is under discussion in Germany and raises issues as to what the respective powers of the EU and member states should be, and notes that there should be clarity about them. That is very much an issue that the Prime Minister has addressed. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that he has on several occasions raised remarks made by the President of the European Commission: one of the reasons that no one talks much about that is that those remarks are not taken all that seriously.

Finally, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courteous remarks.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

May I tell my right hon. Friend about the case of six of my constituents who were arrested by the Greater Manchester police early last summer? In the autumn, their case was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, where it remains. By a remarkable coincidence, all six were members of the Bury, North Conservative party—two of them were elected members of the local authority. They stand accused of election fraud, following last year's municipal elections; specifically, they are accused of tampering with postal votes in private residential homes.

In view of the likely—welcome—increase in postal voting in the forthcoming general election, will my right hon. Friend discuss that general issue with her Home Office colleagues to ensure that adequate guidelines are given to local authorities so that the risk of fraud in postal voting is reduced to a minimum? Will it be possible to find time, during next week's business, for a debate on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the particular case to which my hon. Friend refers. I am aware, however, that cases of such fraud have occurred in the past—the one that comes to my mind was also in connection with a residential home. That suggests a particular and clear vulnerability in handling postal votes in respect of such places. It is the responsibility of the electoral registration officer to check that someone is a properly registered elector and that electoral fraud of that kind is not being undertaken. Obviously, guidance has gone out to electoral registration officers stating that they should take such matters seriously in view of the sensible and welcome easing of the availability of postal voting. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time during the coming week for a debate of the kind to which my hon. Friend alludes.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), the right hon. Lady was unable to give an assurance that important policy statements from the Government would be made in the House. Perhaps we could approach the matter in another way. Would it be possible to find an opportunity for Members of the House to attend the Lobby briefing, so that we could end the constitutional anomaly that arose yesterday whereby members of the Lobby were able to question the organ grinder, whereas Members of the House had to put up with the monkey?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I made it extremely clear to his hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) that the Government make very many statements—and all statements of importance—in the House.

On Lobby briefings, first, as someone who attends them, I can tell the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that he would not find them nearly as illuminating as he thinks. Secondly, if he does have an interest in them, they are of course available on the No. 10 website.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is my right hon. Friend at all surprised by the huge amount of support received for my early-day motion 572 on the business affairs of working members of the royal family?

[That this House applauds the decision of Buckingham Palace to consider issuing guidance on how the business affairs of working members of the Royal Family might be conducted in future; believes a register of royal interests, along the lines of the House of Commons Register of Members' Interests, should be considered; hopes the Palace will invite the views of Right honourable and honourable Members on any draft guidance; and invites the Select Committee on Public Administration to review current practice and offer suggestions for change where it considers appropriate.]

The motion was signed by 108 Members. Will my right hon. Friend put out feelers to the Palace and use her good offices to set up a meeting between the Lord Chamberlain—Lord Luce—myself and other Members who expressed an interest in the matter by tabling the early-day motion? Is it not the case—indeed, I know that my right hon. Friend will agree with me because I know the kind of person she is—that, if guidelines emerge and are secret, they are no use at all?

Mrs. Beckett

I take my hon. Friend's point; it is helpful if guidelines generally are understood. As for his early-day motion, I understand that those matters are under consideration by those who are properly charged with such responsibilities, who will, no doubt, issue any statement that they have to make in due course.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we please have a debate on the proposed national works council directive, which would, in this country hit more than 36,000 companies with more than 50 employees? Given that the European Union Employment and Social Affairs Council's meeting on that matter has been conveniently postponed from 7 May to 11 June this year; that Germany's opposition to the directive is said to be weakening; and that, as the right hon. Lady is well aware from painful experience, the matter is ultimately determined by majority voting under the European social chapter because of this Government's crass stupidity, why does not she just admit that, as we have long suspected, the Government have in mind a craven capitulation on the subject to the advocates of European corporatism in the EU?

Mrs. Beckett

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman attaches any great significance to the postponement of further discussion on that issue. To hear his remarks, anyone would think that the matter had suddenly arisen out of the blue and was for urgent discussion, whereas it has been discussed since at least 1997; it has been discussed and argued about for years. As for the notion that, in some way, it is a consequence of actions taken by this Government, it is in fact a consequence of the discussions that were under way before we came to power. However, I assure him that the Government will continue to fight the case that we believe to be right with the utmost vigour and, if I may say so, with rather more success than the party that he supports when it was in government.