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The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked--


46. Angela Smith (Basildon): If the Commission will make additional facilities available to visitors to the House for the current year. [126382]

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): Additional attractions and facilities for visitors this year include the reopening of the Line of Route, on a trial basis, for pre-booked guided tours on Mondays to Saturdays from 7 August to 16 September, as well as free admission to the "Voters of the Future" exhibition in Westminster Hall during the same period. A souvenir shop offering merchandise from both Houses and temporary lavatories are also being provided. In 2001, work should begin on establishing the new Westminster Hall visitors centre.

Angela Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply, but is he not aware that it is difficult for visitors to the House of Commons to go to the toilet or even get a cup of tea? I welcome the fact that the tours were advertised in the national press this weekend and this week, but will not visitors be disappointed with the facilities that we provide for them? Cannot we do better than temporary toilets?

Mr. Kirkwood: The point is well made. The Commission is well aware of the inadequacy of the current facilities, and they will change next year when the Westminster Hall cafeteria and visitors centre are properly developed. There may be difficulties, but the House took the view that the new trial basis of taking tours on the Line of Route and into Westminster Hall, giving people access to the "Voters of the Future" exhibition, which is part of the "String of Pearls" millennium festival across

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London, was the sensible thing to do. Later in the year, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association will use Westminster Hall, immediately after the exhibition ends.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): May I suggest that one of the aspects that is a disgrace in the House is that the only place we can meet our constituents is either in a corridor or at a table outside a Committee Room? There should be proper facilities in this place where one can have a confidential meeting with one's constituents. I hope that the House of Commons Commission will be able to consider that.

Mr. Kirkwood: Strictly speaking, any new facilities with a catering or refreshment aspect are technically the responsibility of the Catering Committee, so I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner). However, when Portcullis house comes on stream, Members will see a noticeable difference. They will be able to take people into some parts of Portcullis house. When the new Westminster Hall visitors centre opens--I hope as soon as possible after the work starts in 2001--I think that Members and visitors will be better provided for.

The President of the Council was asked--

"Shifting the Balance"

47. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent representations she has received on the first report from the Liaison Committee, "Shifting the Balance" (HC300); and if she will make a statement. [126383]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): A number of Members have made informal representations to me, or raised the issue at Question Time. The Government response to the report was published on 18 May.

Miss McIntosh: Will the President of the Council and Leader of the House allow a debate in Government time on the issues raised in the report, which concern many of us who are members of important Select Committees such as that led by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody): the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs? Will it be possible to have such a debate before the end of term, so that we can consider a structure alternative to the present one and give the Select Committees the real teeth that many of us believe they should have?

Mrs. Beckett: Of course that is a matter that should be discussed by the House. The hon. Lady may know that the Liaison Committee has invited me to give evidence to it, which I am very prepared to do. I had assumed that the Committee would prefer its debate to take place after that date. I cannot undertake to be confident of finding time

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before the summer recess--if that is what she means--but I anticipate and hope that the matter will be discussed before the current Session ends.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) rose--

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Mrs. Dunwoody: As if I do not have enough trouble.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the report is the distillation of a lot of experience of all the Select Committee Chairmen. It is a serious report; I know that she accepts that. I hope that the House will have the chance to look at it because, if we are looking at modernisation, that is the way to go. We can produce some real scrutiny of legislation. It is something that should be supported by every Member.

Mrs. Beckett: I share my hon. Friend's view that the report is weighty and has considerable implications for every Member. I also share her view that it should therefore be taken seriously by the House. I hope that that will happen in and before the debate to which she refers.


48. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): If she will make a statement on her future proposals for the modernisation of the House. [126384]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons is examining some further proposals whose consideration flows directly from recommendations and experiments resulting from our earlier reports.

Tony Wright: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that two important questions to

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ask about the modernising programme are: has it strengthened Parliament in relation to the Executive; and has it done something to sort out the ludicrous hours when the House is expected to transact business? Has not progress on both those issues been disappointingly meagre so far; and will not the extent to which the current Parliament comes to be seen as a modernising Parliament be decided by the actions that the Government and the House take over the period ahead?

Mrs. Beckett: I know that, sadly, my hon. Friend was not able to be with us when we discussed the two principal experiments that have flowed from earlier reports of the Select Committee--the experiments with regard to hours and, to some extent, with regard to greater scrutiny. I am referring to the changed sitting hours with which we are experimenting on Thursdays and to the setting up of the parallel Chamber in Westminster Hall, which has provided 200 extra opportunities to scrutinise the Executive, including examination of Select Committee reports. I am sorry to hear him say that he thinks that that is meagre. It is, after all, more than most Governments have ever done.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): In answer to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies), the right hon. Lady said that she had received a number of representations from her hon. Friends that we should adopt holidays similar to those of schools. I wonder whether any of those representations also concerned hours and suggested that perhaps we should only sit from 9 am till 3.30 pm.

Mrs. Beckett: I have received no representations suggesting those hours. However, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken in the notion that all representations about the pattern of holidays and whether they should reflect school holidays come from this side of the House. They come from Opposition Members too.

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Vaccine Damage Payments

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission Madam Speaker, I would like to make a short statement on benefits payable under the vaccine damage payment scheme.

The Vaccine Damage Payment Act was introduced by the last Labour Government in 1979 in response to the Pearson commission on civil liability and compensation for personal injury.

The purpose of the vaccine damage payment scheme is to provide a single tax-free payment for people who, on the balance of probabilities, have suffered severe mental or physical disablement of 80 per cent. or more as a result of vaccination against specified diseases.

The scheme aims to ease the present and future burdens of those suffering from vaccine damage and their families. It is designed to recognise the extra costs falling on the families concerned.

Under the scheme, claims have to be made within six years of the date of vaccination or of a child reaching two years of age, whichever is later. Payment was initially made at a rate of £10,000. It was subsequently raised to £20,000 in 1985 and to £30,000 in 1991. In 1998, the present Government decided to raise it further to £40,000 for claims made on or after 1 July of that year. Also in 1998, my right hon. Friend Baroness Hollis announced in another place that a review of the scheme would be undertaken. Today I am announcing the outcome of that review.

First, I have decided that the six-year limit for making claims is too short in respect of young children, who account for the vast majority of claims. I propose to change this limit in line with Law Commission proposals which would have the effect of enabling claims to be made at any time up to age 21.

Secondly, I have decided that the disability threshold, which at present is 80 per cent. is too high. I therefore propose to reduce it to 60 per cent. The changes both to the time limit and to the threshold require primary legislation. We shall legislate at the earliest available opportunity. I have also reviewed how vaccine damage victims should be supported through the social security system.

People disabled from an early age at present qualify for severe disablement allowance. This will, of course, include recipients of vaccine damage payments. From next April, as a result of measures introduced in last year's Welfare Reform and Pensions Act, younger disabled people will be able to claim incapacity benefit without having to satisfy the normal national insurance contribution conditions. That will mean that they will be able to claim up to an extra £26.70 a week.

People with severe mobility difficulties or care needs also qualify for disability living allowance. From next year the Government have also extended help to disabled three and four-year-olds with higher-rate mobility needs. That will again include young children receiving vaccine damage payments. They will be able to claim £37 a week.

I have also considered the lump sum which is payable under the scheme. The Government recognise that caring for people who have suffered damage puts a considerable

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burden on their families and carers. In 1998, the Government raised the sum from £30,000 to £40,000. That sum is too low, so I propose that the sum payable to each individual should be raised to £100,000 for all new cases.

However, we must also recognise the situation of families who received lump-sum payments in the past who have not benefited from any of the previous increases. So I can announce that those who have already received lump sums will get top-up payments so that they are put on an equal footing in real terms with new claimants. These payments for the 900 existing recipients will range from £58,000 to £67,000. We will introduce regulations to make these payments as soon as possible. The cost of my proposals is around £60 million.

Nothing can make up for what has happened to these children, but we have a clear duty to support them and their families. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome the changes.

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