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Mrs. Beckett: With great respect to my hon. Friend, when he has already raised a matter some half a dozen times with me, there is no need to ask me to think about it again. I have thought about it repeatedly. He knows what my view is; I have expressed it, I hope, with clarity as well as with courtesy. I simply say that the position remains as I have told him on many occasions.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Did the Leader of the House notice that Conservative Members did not welcome the BSE debate? We on the Liberal Democrat Benches warmly welcome that debate, which is on an issue of huge importance to the countryside and particularly to the much damaged livestock industry. However, will a statement be made well in advance of that debate about the Government's response on BSE and to the Phillips report? Obviously, that it is extremely important.
Will a statement be made, and can we have a debate on the politicisation of the civil service, not just in relation to the role of Mr. Alastair Campbell, but more generally? Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Cabinet Office and the Treasury have now admitted that civil servants have been used to calculate the cost of various Opposition policies, yet the House has not been given access to that information? Civil servants are doing a job at taxpayers' expense, yet we, who represent taxpayers, cannot question Ministers on the work being undertaken.
Given that the right hon. Lady is reviewing various matters in her role as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, will she review the arrangements for recording abstentions? She will be aware that, especially since the Queen's Speech, those on the Conservative Front Bench have been recommending abstentions so
Mrs. Beckett: I really must take the hon. Gentleman to task for that foul slur. Given the massive number of occasions on which those on the Opposition Benches call for us to sit ever longer days and ever longer hours, it surely cannot be that they have gone home--even if they are not registering their numbers in vast quantities in the Division Lobby.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about the BSE debate. I recognise that Liberal Democrat Members, at least, have raised that matter repeatedly. That is why I was anxious to give an indication as to when the Government hope to be able to schedule the debate. Of course, I understand the wish to see the Government's response in a timely period before that debate; that is partly why I stressed that the date I mentioned was when we hoped to hold the debate. The Government are anxious to put before the House the right combination of information, and, of course, to hold a debate on it.
The hon. Gentleman also asks about the politicisation of the civil service. On that, I have to take issue with him. The Prime Minister's official spokesman is on a special adviser contract and his role is in accordance with that contract. There is no suggestion of it being politicised or in any way outwith the rules.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the use of the Treasury to cost policies, but nothing whatever is new or untoward about that--it has happened since time immemorial. In consequence, it does not seem to me that the matter requires any special statement.
As for recording abstentions, I have already dealt with that issue. From my observations, the hon. Gentleman may be entirely right; a large number of Tory Members are not always here for the long hours that they claim to be in this place, but that--I am happy to say--is a matter for them.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): May I again draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the terrible earthquake in India, and also in the south and south-east of Pakistan? Does she recall that, following similar earthquakes in Turkey, the relationship between Greece and Turkey improved considerably? Does she agree that a debate in the House might encourage India and Pakistan to work not only on their recovery programme, but on wider issues to their mutual advantage? That would have the support of the whole Commonwealth and, indeed, of the wider international community.
Mrs. Beckett: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. It has often been said that the aftermath of the tragic events in Greece and Turkey was to encourage recognition of the degree to which they benefited from assisting each another. I entirely take his point that the same argument has validity in the case of India and Pakistan. At present, the great concentration of concern in both countries must be to deal with the aftermath of that appalling event. I hope, however, that in the long term, it will indeed have the effect suggested by my right hon. Friend, although I fear that I cannot find time for a debate on the matter at present.
Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot find time for an early debate on AIDS, although as we are hoping to take the remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill on Wednesday 14 February, the right hon. Gentleman may find an opportunity to air the subject during debate on the issues raised in that Bill. I take his point that it is a matter of great concern in Africa. I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate, but I recommend to him the attractions of Westminster Hall.
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Could the Leader of the House arrange a debate on admission policies to primary schools? That is a problem for many local education authorities at present--including mine in Durham. Four and five-year-old children living in Coxhoe in my constituency--a village that has expanded over the years--cannot obtain places at the local school because the maximum class size is 30. The children have to attend local schools two or three miles away where there are many empty places. It is not acceptable for four and five-year-olds to have to travel such distances in bad weather because they cannot get a place in a local school; there are sound educational reasons why they should not. I fully support the Government's policy of having a maximum of 30 children in a class, but can we have a debate on the issue to see whether a solution can be found?
Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents who face those difficult circumstances. I recall that, in my city of Derby, a fast-developing new estate caused the same type of difficulties because sufficient provision for children had not been planned under the Conservative party.
My hon. Friend will know how much work the Government are doing to try to improve the position in education. For example, we have the highest number of teachers employed for more than a decade--7,000 more than there were in January 1998. He will also know of the substantial programme of capital investment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced recently.
I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the particular problems that my hon. Friend has identified in his constituency. However, I remind him that oral questions to the Department for Education and Employment will be held on Thursday next.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): When the Leader of the House replied to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) about the Prime Minister's promise of a free vote on the Liaison Committee report, "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive", might she not, for the sake of clarity and courtesy, have added the word "contempt"? There has been contempt for members of the Liaison Committee and contempt for the
[That this House notes the near doubling in the price of industrial gas over the last 12 months and the detrimental effect this increase is having on energy intensive sectors of manufacturing industry; expresses concern about the operation of the gas supply interconnector between Bacton in East Anglia and Zeebrugge in Belgium, which links a de-regulated market in Britain with a continental market where the price of gas is still linked to the price of oil; views with alarm allegations of collusion between the gas supply companies; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ask the Office of Fair Trading to carry out a full scale investigation into the wholesale gas market.]
The price rise has been the last straw for a factory in my constituency that makes paper. It employs 170 people but, this week, it has announced its closure. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe makes a statement about that, so that hon. Members can fully understand the complex reasons for that huge hike in industrial gas prices?