The business for next week will be as follows:
The House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for the announcement of next week's business, and for an indication of business for the week thereafter. Will she ensure that, next week, the Chancellor will do what she and every other Cabinet Minister has done: answer written questions on details of his use of Royal Air Force and chartered aircraft? Does she understand that his continued refusal to do so, far from diminishing embarrassment to the Government, is increasing it—quite apart from any discourtesy to the House?
Will the Government announce next week the members of the royal commission on the House of Lords, which the right hon. Lady first trailed some four months ago? The commission already faces a very tight timetable, and it will be made more difficult if the commissioners cannot start because they have not been appointed. In light of the recognition by the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office that some Members were unable to participate in the Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill earlier this week, may we have a debate in Government time on the broader issues raised by the White Paper?
Against the background of the exchange at Agriculture questions, may we have a debate very soon on the growing confusion in the Government's approach to food safety and consumer protection? On some issues, they overrule the independent advice that they are given, while on others, they say that they must abide by it.
Is the Leader of the House able to shed any light on arrangements for Easter and Whitsun, so that Members and staff of the House can make appropriate plans?
On the issue of the Chancellor answering written questions on travel costs, I must freely admit at once that I am not aware of ever having been asked such questions. Perhaps my memory is at fault. The Chancellor and other Treasury Ministers gave answers to questions on ministerial travel on 27 October 1997, 11 December 1997, 15 January 1998, 11 March 1998, 19 November 1998, 27 November 1998, 18 January 1999 and 26 January 1999—and those are only the answers that we can trace. The suggestion that the Chancellor has been reluctant to give answers does not stand. Despite the fact that the Opposition spent more money in government on perfectly proper ministerial travel than this Government, they are trying to make mischief and waste Ministers' time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Over 18 years."] I am not talking about 18 years; I am talking about two years.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) asked me when we hope to announce the names of members of the royal commission. I hope to do so in the near future, and certainly before the House of Lords Bill goes into Committee. I hope that that will be of assistance to him.
I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the White Paper. We have already had—perfectly properly—two days on the Floor of the House on Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill, and all the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor of the House, too. I hope and expect that every hon. Member who wishes to contribute to the debate on the matter will be able to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on food safety, on the grounds that there is confusion in the Government's stance. I do not accept that. I say to him, with respect, that if the previous Government had taken as robust an attitude to public safety as this Government, we would not now be needing to have exchanges such as those we had a few moments ago.
The right hon. Gentleman asked for a statement on the situation in Northern Ireland. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland keeps matters under review, and such can be raised through the usual channels, if that is thought to be necessary.
The right hon. Gentleman asked finally whether, for the benefit of the House, I can give any indication of the dates of the Easter recess. I cannot give him specific dates, although I anticipate that the Easter recess will include the week commencing Monday 5 April; indeed—as I know that it concerns the efficient handling of Members' affairs—may I say that I also anticipate that the Whitsun recess will include the week commencing Monday 31 May? I hope that that is of assistance to the House.
With great respect to my hon. Friend, I am positive that he alone will make sure that this year's Welsh debate is not our last. I have taken heed of his request.
Will the Leader of the House give urgent consideration to the possibility of a debate in Government time on BSE? I do not know whether the right hon. Lady was in the House a few minutes ago when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made his statement. If she was, she will have noted that that the right hon. Gentleman made a remarkable admission by saying that the chief medical officer is effectively giving credibility to the idea that BSE can be communicated from cow to calf—the so-called maternal transmission theory, which has been discounted in the past.
If that means that cattle born since all infected feed was removed from the food chain in August 1996–30 months ago—could have contracted the disease through maternal transmission, that is a new development of alarming proportions for our agriculture industry, as it brings into question the date-based export scheme, and means that the export ban could remain in place. The Minister's admission is a dramatic development, and it is extremely important that the House is given an opportunity to debate it urgently.
Will the Leader of the House read the report in the Daily Express today, which suggests that in the past BSE information has been shredded in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and that therefore the Phillips inquiry cannot examine all the factors that have been involved?
I did not hear the part of my right hon. Friend's reply to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, although I did hear some of what my right hon. Friend said. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's concerns to his attention. I cannot at this moment undertake to find time for the debate that the hon. Gentleman seeks, but he will no doubt be able to follow up on the issues that he has raised.
The hon. Gentleman further asks me to give attention to the report in the Daily Express. I always give attention to what is reported in the Daily Express and other newspapers. I understand that there is no evidence that any BSE files have been shredded. The Prime Minister has asked that officials provide the inquiry with all assistance, and they are, indeed, doing so.
Has my right hon. Friend read the brilliant but very disturbing article by James Pringle in The Times today about the catastrophe in North Korea? Given the picture that he draws of 3 million out of 20 million people having already died; of children suffering; of mothers offering their babies to people in the forlorn hope that somebody else may look after them; of women refusing to have children because they know that milk and food would not be available; and of stagnant industry, does my right hon. Friend agree that the House would be ready to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development in ensuring that food goes to the stomachs of the children, women and men who are suffering from hunger, and not to the regime or the armed forces? Will she encourage my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to seek any diplomatic initiative that he considers appropriate, particularly with South Korea and China, in order to find a speedy solution to this dreadful problem?
I know of the great interest that my right hon. Friend takes in such matters and the great concern that he has always shown. I am not sure whether the matter was raised during questions to the Secretary of State for International Development yesterday, but I will undertake to draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
I know that the House will share the concern expressed by my right hon. Friend. He will know that it is the Government's aim to make sure that all the assistance and support that we give goes to the people who need it.
As the Member representing Smithfields, may I reinforce the request for a debate on BSE from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), given the consternation that will have been created in the industry by the contrast between privately expressed, highly optimistic departmental spin, and the contrasting disappointing reality today?
I have heard the right hon. Gentleman. I understand the disappointment of hon. Members who are concerned about the matter. I understand that only some 4 per cent. of our consumption in recent times has been of beef on the bone. But, of course, I understand the concern that is expressed at anything that causes continued anxiety. I shall certainly undertake to take the right hon. Gentleman's concerns, too, into account.
Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 102?
[That this House condemns the appalling and deplorable trade practice at establishments which breed cats and kittens for the vivisection industry and sell them to laboratories world-wide; notes that some of these kittens are only six weeks old when they are subjected to horrific experiments; and calls upon the Home Secretary to investigate this cruel trade with a view to banning these barbaric practices which put profit before humanity.]
Many of those animals are subject to horrific experiments. If my right hon. Friend cannot arrange a debate on that, will she now join me in condemning those establishments that put profit before humanity?
There is concern on both sides of the House about the use of animals in experiments and other scientific procedures—a matter on which my hon. Friend has long and staunchly campaigned. Any hon. Member would condemn any suggestion of animals being treated cruelly or inadequately cared for, whether for profit or in any other circumstances. The Government endeavour to ensure that there is stringent inspection of such establishments so that such things do not happen.
May we have an urgent debate on Britain's long-standing traditions of religious tolerance and freedom of speech? Would that not give the House an opportunity to reaffirm the fact that, in Britain, for as long as anyone can remember, people have been free to express their religious views, however eccentric, cranky—or even, occasionally, distasteful—they may appear to the majority of people? May we, therefore, reaffirm the principle that, in Britain, protection is provided from persecution in respect of those things, particularly by the Prime Minister?
I think all hon. Members support religious tolerance and freedom of speech, including the Prime Minister. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman extends his views to the treatment in the press of reports of the schooling of the Prime Minister's daughter, which itself is based on a religious decision.
Will my right hon. Friend allow time during the next two weeks for a debate on domestic violence, an important matter which the British Medical Association estimates affects the lives of one in four women in Britain? In my constituency in Luton tonight, it is estimated that the police will be called out to no fewer than six incidents of domestic violence involving women being beaten. Will she allow time for such an important debate and join me in congratulating Women's Aid on its launch today of a website, as another valuable tool for giving advice to women who are victims of that cruel and cowardly crime?
That is an issue in which my hon. Friend has taken great interest and about which she has shown concern, and I share her welcome for anything that can help to give the right kind of advice and support. I understand that a cross-Government response, drawing in the views of the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Women, has been published this week, and I hope that that, too, will help to inform and support those who might be affected.
In the light of press reports today, may I reinforce the plea by the shadow Leader of the House for a statement on Northern Ireland next week, in particular to discover whether the Secretary of State believes that the Chief Constable is giving evidence when he speaks unequivocally on television, or whether it is just hearsay, and whether the chief medical officer for Northern Ireland has given any guidance about the possibilities of death by lead poisoning or sadistic punishments?
I shall certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's wish for a discussion on those matters. He will know that all hon. Members deplore the continuing level of violence and brutality. I know that he takes these matters seriously, but I should say that I share strongly the view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday that, if the peace process were to come to an end, the result would not be less violence in Northern Ireland.
When can we debate early-day motion 254?
[That this House notes that since 1974, 140 Government posts have been held by unelected members of the House of Lords; and resolves that as part of the wider reform of the House of Lords, such appointments should cease and that the terms of reference of the Royal Commission should be enlarged to enable such a recommendation to be made.]
Although there is a great deal of humbug from the Opposition about the quality of answers to parliamentary questions, and although in their period in office they zealously pursued a denial-of-information policy in respect of this House, there is concern when Ministers who are refusing to answer questions are not available and are not Members of this House. In one particular instance, I have had great difficulty over many months with answers to letters and questions while trying to put into the public domain a matter of some importance: the amount, and details, of medicinal drugs issued to prisoners.
Three deaths have occurred in Brixton prison, which was the subject of a case this week, and last year there were two deaths of women in prison. Strangely, the Minister involved refuses to publish details of how many, and what type, of medicinal drugs are issued in prison, on the extraordinary ground that the information is available locally but would be expensive to collect centrally.
I have obtained the help of a trust, which is offering to put up money to pay for that information to be available, but it is absolutely outrageous that a Minister who is not responsible to this House should deny Members of this House that information.
All Ministers, of course, are responsible on behalf of the Government as a whole and endeavour to give answers that are as full as they can be. I understand and share my hon. Friend's concern that full answers should be given wherever possible. Indeed, he and I well remember when the previous Government began to divert answers to questions away from this House. I have taken on board the point that he makes. It is not always as easy as it sometimes sounds to accumulate information, which may be gathered on a different basis in different localities.
My hon. Friend's observations about the previous Government are entirely right. A lot of the fuss that Conservative Members make—for example, about answers on ministerial travel—would certainly give people the impression, which my hon. Friend knows is entirely incorrect, that the rules have in some way changed. I suppose that, by Conservative Members' standards, they have changed, in that the rules that normally apply now apply to us, because we are Ministers; indeed, that seems to be the basis of their objection.
Will the Leader of the House enable us to debate the £90 tax on food, which will affect about half a million small businesses and voluntary organisations? In the light of what the Prime Minister said yesterday, would not that give an opportunity for Government policy on that issue to be clarified? The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be disowning his own Government's policy, which has been to push ahead with imposing this unpopular tax on people who are in a poor position to pay it.
Let me make these points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, the Conservative party claims that the measure is some kind of poll tax. If the poll tax had been as little as £90, it would not have been nearly as unpopular as it was. Secondly, his request for a debate suggests that he cannot have been paying any attention: if he had, he would realise that what has been announced is that there is a process of examination of the draft Food Standards Agency Bill by a parliamentary Committee set up for that purpose. What my right hon. Friend said yesterday was that the process of that examination and the consultation about the Bill is genuine, and we shall listen to the views expressed. That is not confusion; it is a clear statement that the Government will take heed of concerns that are expressed. If the Conservative party had done that, it might still be in power.
Will my right hon. Friend make time next week for a debate on the betting industry? Ladbroke's, in my constituency, is creating 80 new, very welcome posts to run its expanded call centre. Can I tempt her to take advantage of the new, improved betting service offered by my constituents? She may, for example, like to join intelligent rugby fans nationwide and back Wales to win the five nations championship this year, or she might like to bet on which Conservative Front Benchers will survive the coming, much-needed shake-up in their ranks.
I am only too happy to welcome the creation of new jobs in my hon. Friend's constituency, particularly because they are part of more than 200,000 new vacancies that are being notified to jobcentres every month and part of a picture in which total employment has gone up by more than half a million since the general election.
With regard to my hon. Friend's pressing invitation to join him in a bet, I certainly would not dream of getting involved in predicting the results of rugby matches or Conservative Front-Bench reshuffles. My stance on gambling generally, as someone who has always had a highly marginal seat, is that I gamble only with my entire life and livelihood.
If we follow the logic of the last question, is it not a sure-fire, odds-on certainty that, if the right hon. Lady continues to stonewall on the question of the Chancellor's travel arrangements, the story will become bigger than it is at present? It is of direct interest to the House that the Chancellor is the only Minister in his Department to refuse to give accurate information about the excessive travel arrangements made by him and his colleagues. When will he come clean to the House, and give details of those arrangements? I know that Labour Members think that this is a joke—the Parliamentary Private Secretary certainly appears to—but it involves the Royal Air Force, whose members are currently under great stress and strain, and are about to go into harm's way. They have better things to do than bus around the Chancellor and his cronies.
Ministers in this Government have better things to do than waste their time, and that of their civil servants, answering nitpicking, mischief-making questions that are costly for the taxpayer. When Opposition Members descend to asking about the precise reasons for, and circumstances of, one 10-minute journey, the position is set clearly in context; but let me set it in a slightly wider context.
During the last Government's final three years in office, expenditure on ministerial overseas visits was in the region of between £6.5 million and £8 million a year. Under the present Government, it is running at about £4 million. The rules on travel have not changed in the slightest. During the last Government's final two years, 10 Ministers travelled on scheduled Concorde flights; under the present Government, only eight have done so. All this is rubbish. It is a phoney campaign by Conservative Members whose only aim seems to be to make it more difficult for Ministers to do their job. We shall resist that.
Yesterday morning, I was trapped in a lift here with five Conservative Members. Discussion inevitably turned to my Right to Roam Bill. One Member representing a Derbyshire constituency said that the Conservatives would not be here for the Second Reading debate on 26 March, because my Bill would be scuppered by my own Government. Hon. Members can imagine my shock and disbelief.
As my Bill—of which I am very proud—is to be published next Monday or Tuesday, and given today's newspaper coverage speculating on the Government's position, would it not be a courtesy to the House for the Minister responsible to make a statement here on the Government's approach to the right to roam on open countryside?
I am well aware of my hon. Friend's devotion to the issue. I am afraid that I represent the city of Derby rather than any of the beautiful Derbyshire countryside represented by, for instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but I know that the House will take great interest in the Bill. I can only say gently to my hon. Friend that, because—as he said himself—the Bill will not be published until next week, I feel that it would be premature for the Government to reach a view now, whatever press speculation may suggest.
I had not given much thought to whether a White or Green Paper would be published, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's request to the attention of my right hon. Friends. As for the preparations, the hon. Gentleman probably knows that, shortly after coming to power, the Government set up a joint committee containing representatives of business organisations, initially to prepare for the launch of the euro—a matter much neglected by the last Government, but one that will affect many in the business community, irrespective of whether Britain joins the currency. That is still under discussion; technical and other matters remain to be resolved, and discussions will continue. But I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's request for a Paper of some sort to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In view of the welcome announcement by the Government of their campaign to recruit more nurses and the general interest in that matter, will my right hon. Friend find time for us to discuss nurse recruitment on the Floor of the House?
I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a discussion of nurse recruitment in the near future, although I share my hon. Friend's pleasure at the scale of both the effort that is being made by the Government and the response. He and the House may like to know that, up to now, some 8,000 calls have been made to the NHS hotline as a result of the Government's initiative.
In view of this afternoon's serious and misguided announcement by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, can we have an early debate on the plight of the United Kingdom beef industry? As late as last weekend, the Ministry was spinning the line that the beef ban would be lifted soon, yet today we are told that the ban is not even to be reviewed for six months. Can we have a debate urgently on the UK beef industry, so that we can review that matter, as well as the serious and looming problem of the spread of tuberculosis in the beef industry in the south-west?
I understand that the hon. Gentleman was in the House when that question was discussed for some 20 minutes. He will know that the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food follows the very clear advice of the chief medical officer not to lift the ban. There is understanding of the concern of the industry among hon. Members in all parts of the House, but the hon. Gentleman will surely accept that my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] I see the hon. Gentleman shake his head. I fear that the Government do not share his disregard for advice in those terms from the chief medical officer.
Can we please have a statement next week by the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, to whom I have written on the subject, to clarify his position in respect of the filing of accounts?
The right hon. Lady will be aware that, at Trade and Industry questions a fortnight ago, the Minister declared confidently:
Every company with which I have been associated has filed its returns in compliance with the deadlines set by Companies house."—[Official Report, 21 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 1008.]
As it has since emerged that that is not true-as demonstrated in the media and in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—because Juniper Communications Ltd. filed late on at least three occasions, does the Leader of the House accept that the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry should do the House the courtesy of coming here to make a statement to explain himself and, if necessary, to apologise?
No. That would be a complete waste of the House's time. My hon. Friend the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry wrote to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on 29 January to make it plain that his answer in the House referred to an inaccurate story in The Times diary about Attractions Ltd., about which, as I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman had written to him. The Minister has written to him again today.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is an assiduous attender at Trade and Industry questions, so he will remember that, in his early days in his present post, the right hon. Member for Wokingham informed me that the Conservative party would say nothing about policy in its first two years in opposition. His time is almost up. I suggest that they come in.
If the Leader of the House will not find time for an early personal statement by one Minister who has strayed, perhaps she will consider early-day motion 269?
[That this House notes that the Right honourable Member for Hartlepool has not made a statement to the House following his resignation from the Government; also notes reports that his loan will not be redeemed from the family funds he indicated were due to be remitted to him; and calls upon him to confirm to the House that any profit from the sale of his property will be given to charity and not kept for himself.]
The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) has so far made no personal statement about the circumstances that lie behind his recent retirement, to coin a phrase. Nor has he yet told the House or anyone else what he intends to do with the excessive profits that it looks like he will make out of the sale of his house. Will she find time for him to make such a personal statement?
Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement next week on the royal commission on long-term care? She will recall that, on 4 December 1997, the right hon. Gentleman said that he was confident that it would report in 12 months. It is now two calendar months late—and counting. With the exception of leaks to the press about what the royal commission is to say, we have heard nothing, despite the confidence of the Secretary of State, so will she arrange for a statement?
I cannot undertake to arrange for a statement in the near future, especially as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered Health questions only this week, when the matter could have been raised. I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's concern to the attention of my right hon. Friend. I am confident that it is a concern that he shares.
The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill is currently in Committee. The right hon. Lady said that the Committee stage of clause 1 will be debated on the Floor of the House next Wednesday. Can she confirm that that debate will not be curtailed by a 7 o'clock deadline and that there will be a full debate? Can the right hon. Lady also confirm—it should not be a problem—that there will be a free vote on amendments to clause 1 dealt with on the Floor of the House next Wednesday? Can she further confirm that Labour Members will have a free vote on new clauses which have to be taken upstairs because of the way in which the Bill has been split but which relate to clause 1 issues rather than the abuse of trust? Opposition parties have already agreed that their Members will have a free vote.
I regret that I have not gone into the detail of how all those matters will be handled. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the way in which they are handled and the way in which the selection is made are matters for the Chair. It is the Government's intention to have a free vote on conscience matters. There is no wish to curtail the debate on Wednesday, but it is sometimes for the convenience of the House to have a reasonable time for debate with hon. Members being quite clear about when votes are likely to take place. I should tell the hon. Gentleman, who although being an assiduous Member is still a newish Member, that that is particularly true of a free vote.
Will the right hon. Lady be kind enough to reconsider her answer about a debate on the White Paper on the House of Lords? She will know that there is to be such a debate in the other place. She will know that many of her hon. Friends failed to participate in the debate this week because of a lack of time. She will also know that the Chairman of Ways and Means will have to ensure that every amendment tabled to the Bill is strictly relevant and that it will not therefore be possible to have a wide-ranging debate—quite properly so—in Committee of the whole House. Can the right hon. Lady ensure that we have a proper opportunity to debate the wider issues and the White Paper?
No, I am afraid I cannot undertake to do that. The hon. Gentleman is right that the House of Lords is having another debate on the White Paper. He will also know that it had two days debate on the general issue as long ago as October. It is natural that the House of Lords should wish to spend more time on this matter, but the Government are conscious of the fact that we are providing substantial amounts of time for debate on what is a simple Bill, and that all of it will be on the Floor of the House. We are anxious that the House should not lose sight of what the Bill does—as opposed to discussing at great length all the issues that could conceivably be raised on House of Lords reform as a whole. We have been doing that already for some 88 years, which makes us feel that one more day is not necessary.