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Mrs. Beckett: I am indeed aware of the approach of Ramadan, as my constituency celebrates everything from Diwali to Ramadan and, indeed, Vaisakhi. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I am not in a position to say whether it would be right or necessary for the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary to make a statement before the House rises. We all hope that the pressure on the Iraqi Government will cause them to rethink. I can say, however, that the Government have, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman accepts, taken pains to try to keep the House informed throughout, and will continue to do so.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): May we have an early debate on press freedom and the availability of media in our regions? The Lord President may be aware that the Rotherham Star, the local evening paper that serves some quarter of a million people in and around my constituency, faces closure because of a decision by Regional Independent Media, a Leeds-based company that publishes the Yorkshire Evening Post and a number of evening papers in Yorkshire and the north-west of England.

The managing director of that organisation, or chief executive as such people are now called, has issued dismissal notices to up to 350 employees, despite the fact that the paper is bringing in record profits and advertising revenue for the group, and plans to invest £6.5 million next year. If the Rotherham Star, my local evening paper, is closed, there will be no local evening daily for a quarter of a million people. That is bad for democracy and for local politics.

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that such action comes close to contempt for the House of Commons--

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. MacShane: I am coming to a close, I promise.

In a memorandum dated 19 August 1998, the chief executive warned that these mass redundancies were designed to avoid legislation that was in the pipeline. That should concern us all. Three hundred and fifty people will lose their jobs, and their families will have a miserable Christmas because of legislation passed by representatives of the people of this country, but this is also an important issue in terms of media democracy in our regions and the contempt shown for the democratic process of the House of Commons.

Mrs. Beckett: I am certainly sorry to learn that my hon. Friend's constituents are in danger of losing access to a local paper and, like the whole House, I am also sorry to learn that many people are about to lose their employment. This is a particularly sensitive time of year for people to find themselves in such circumstances.

I have slightly mixed feelings about the second part of the concerns aired by my hon. Friend. I certainly share his view that it is right and proper for the House to consider and, if it wishes to do so, to pass legislation that we believe will improve the governance and condition of

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our country, and that it is wrong for people to attempt to evade such democratically arrived at decisions. Equally, however, I feel a certain cynicism when I hear people claim that solely as a result of something that any Government--but especially this one--have done, they have been obliged to lay off considerable numbers of people.

I have never forgotten that, shortly before the 1992 general election, an announcement was made by a fairly major employer that, should a Labour Government be elected and introduce a national minimum wage, it would be forced to make several hundred of its employees redundant. We were not elected and there was no minimum wage, but that employer made 2,000 people redundant about three weeks after the election.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-daymotion 59?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Income Support (General) (Standard Interest Rate Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 1998(S.I., 1998 No. 2878), dated 23rd November 1998, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th November, be annulled.]

Will the right hon. Lady find time for a debate in the appropriate Committee on this very important statutory instrument, to allow investigation of the anomalies and difficulties that are raised by social security regulations in the support and help of those who are on low incomes and live in owner-occupied residences? The problems for those with mortgages and mortgage interest rate payments, which they have to face, are baffling and bewildering even to the experts, never mind those who are subject to them. Will the right hon. Lady find time for the statutory instrument to be debated, in accordance with the wishes of many hon. Members?

Mrs. Beckett: I sympathise with those who find social security issues, and regulations especially, arcane and difficult. I was fortunate enough, if I can put it like that, to spend five years shadowing Social Security Ministers, so I am under no illusions about the complexity and opaqueness of such matters. I am conscious that very often what happens is the net knock-on effect of a range of different decisions, which people find difficult to assess and understand.

I sympathise with the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman and by those who have signed his early-day motion. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to provide time for a specialist debate. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there will be a debate on the Christmas Adjournment. For those who are fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, any such issue can be raised.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): My right hon. Friend will know that there remain real concerns about progress on the third-country trial of those responsible for the Lockerbie air disaster. Is there to be any statement or further information on the progress that is being made this side of the Christmas recess? Are there any plans for senior Ministers to meet families of the Lockerbie victims to discuss that progress?

Mrs. Beckett: As far as I am aware, there are no particular plans, although the Government continue to

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discuss and express concern about these matters, for a statement in the House. However, I can say to my hon. Friend--I hope that this will be welcome to him and other hon. Members who have taken a great interest in these matters--that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is meeting this afternoon, or has met, the families of some of the Lockerbie victims. I think that I am correct in saying that he is the first Prime Minister to do so. It is a deliberate signal, and an indication of the Government's concern and of our determination to do everything that we can to bring those who may be thought to be responsible to trial so that these matters can be assessed.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): In welcoming the promise of a statement on the outcome of the Vienna Council, may I bring the Leader of the House back to the assurance that she thought she had given last week, but had not because it was given on the wrong premise? Will she consider a debate in Government time on common foreign and security policy? Will she urge the Prime Minister to contribute to that debate? We did not have statements following Portschach and St. Malo. The Prime Minister has been saying some interesting things about the development of common foreign and security policy and the only people who have not had a chance to debate it are Members of this place. Will the right hon. Lady find time for us to do so?

Mrs. Beckett: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is not entirely accurate. It is only quite recently that we had a full day's debate on foreign and defence affairs, in the debate on the Gracious Speech.

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Everything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been saying and the point of view that he has been expressing in the discussions to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are very much in line with the views that he has expressed and made plain in the House. I therefore cannot promise to find time for another debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, although the hon. Gentleman may seek to raise the matter, should he catch your eye, Madam Speaker, during the debate on the Christmas Adjournment.

May I add that the Government have recently accepted the report of the Select Committee on Modernisation with regard to scrutiny of European Union legislation, so that all the issues that come under those pillars of policy making can be much more fully scrutinised in the House than used to be the case.


Tax Credits

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported byMr. Secretary Darling, Mr. Stephen Byers, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Dawn Primarolo and Ms Patricia Hewitt, presented a Bill to provide for family credit and disability working allowance to be known, respectively, as working families tax credit and disabled person's tax credit; and to make further provision with respect to those credits, including provision for the transfer of functions relating to them: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 9].

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[1st Allotted Day]


Class IV, Vote 1

Prison Sentences

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee of Session 1997-98, on Alternatives to Prison Sentences, HC486, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4174; and the Home Office Departmental Annual Report 1998, Cm 3908.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

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