To ask the Lord President of the Council what percentage of parliamentary lime has been spent on debating the problem of the national and global environment in each of the Sessions of the current Parliament; and if he will make a statement.
It is not possible to estimate the amount of time spent on environmental matters in the House because of the variety of opportunities for debate. The House is already clear about the priority which the Government are giving to such matters.
That is a very convenient cop-out of an answer, if I may say so. The reality is that the Department of the Environment spent most of its time ensuring that the House debated poll tax, son of poll tax or grandchild of poll tax. As a result, little Government time was spent on environmental issues. Will the Leader of the House accept that as a fact? Will he consider seriously allowing the House to establish the precedent of an annual debate, as part of the routine of the House, on the state of the global, continental and national environment?
Attention to local government finance has not been confined to the Government side of the Chamber. Both sides of the House have focused their attention on it and the issue has been raised outside Government time. I accept, however, that the matter has been raised rather more extensively than others. I hope that we shall now see a greater concentration on other issues. The Government's proposals on local government finance have received a warm welcome from many quarters.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the extensive White Paper that the Government produced on environmental matters. We have already taken up almost 100 of the initiatives set out in it. That is a clear sign of the priority that we give to such matters and the way in which we act on them. We must be cautious about the number of commitments that we give to annual debates on various subjects. I should be happy, however, to see further debates on environmental matters when they can be fitted into the time table.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Select Committee on the Environment has been extremely busy over some years trying to bring to the attention of the House, and to a wider audience, the problems that will be generated by global warming? Some months ago the Committee placed before the House a good report on the problems that will arise from the decline of the jungles, but the House has not had an opportunity to debate it and does not seem likely to have one, unless someone gets a move on. The greatest threat that faces mankind is its destruction of its natural environment and the House should have an opportunity to debate it.
Let me assure my hon. Friend that we take all international environmental matters extremely seriously, as can be seen from the many initiatives that the Government have taken. Many matters have had to be dealt with during the Session, not least the Gulf war. It is not possible to have general debates on every subject, but many opportunities are available to hon. Members to raise matters of concern.
Will the Leader of the House reflect on what was an unsatisfactory answer? Surely he cannot claim any longer that there is a shortage of parliamentary time. It is crystal clear to us all that the Government are having enormous difficulty filling up the time that is available during the run-in to the general election. If, as increasingly seems likely, there will be an extremely long run-in, with the Government running away, would not it be a good idea to have some set-piece televised debates on the environment, on unemployment, on the poll tax, on hospital trusts and on other issues that will confront the nation during the next general election?
Once again, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We are carrying through a larger legislative programme this Session than last, with more Bills coming before the House. As he will have seen from the timetable in recent weeks—he will certainly see it in weeks to come—there is a great deal to do on the legislative front and that work will take a great deal of parliamentary time.