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Business of the House

12.32 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Will the Leader of the House please give the business for the coming week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The business for the week after the forthcoming constituency week is as follows:

Monday 26 February--Second Reading of the Criminal Defence Service (Advice and Assistance) Bill [Lords].

Motion to approve the Administration Committee report on the trial summer reopening of the line of route.

Tuesday 27 February--Remaining stages of the Hunting Bill.

Wednesday 28 February--Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 1 March--Consideration in Committee followed by remaining stages of the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill.

Friday 2 March--The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after will be:

Monday 5 March--Debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Tuesday 6 March--Second Reading of the International Development Bill.

Wednesday 7 March--My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 8 March--Continuation of the Budget debate.

Friday 9 March--Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 28 February, there will be a debate relating to the protection of the European Communities' financial interests and to the Court of Auditors' annual report for 1999 in European Standing Committee B.

On Wednesday 28 February there will also be a debate relating to informing and consulting employees in the European Community in European Standing Committee C.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 7 March there will be a debate relating to motor vehicle distribution and servicing agreements in the European Community in European Standing Committee C.

Additionally on Wednesday 7 March, there will be a debate relating to health requirements for animal by-products in European Standing Committee A.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

The business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of March will be as follows:

Thursday 8 March--Debate on public funding of civil legal services.

Thursday 15 March--Debate on the Social Security Committee report on housing benefit.

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Thursday 22 March--Debate on the Scottish Affairs Committee report on poverty in Scotland.

Thursday 29 March--Debate on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland.

[Wednesday 28 February 2001:

European Standing Committee C--Relevant European Union document: Unnumbered EM submitted by DTI dated 21 November 2000, informing and consulting employees. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee report: HC 23-xxx(1999-2000).]

European Standing Committee B--Relevant European Union document: (a) 13572/00, European Community Finance; (b) Unnumbered EM submitted by HM Treasury dated 20 December 2000, European Community Finance. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report HC 28-v (2001).

Wednesday 7 March 2001:

European Standing Committee C--Relevant European Union document: 13889/00, Competition in Motor Vehicle Distribution and Servicing. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 28-iii(2000-01).]

Mrs. Browning: I am grateful to the Leader of the House, although I suspect that her attractive red outfit may be matched by some red herrings in what she has announced. I am sure that it will be comforting to hon. Members of all parties to know that the House will be sitting throughout the month of March.

The House rises today and does not return until Monday 26 February. Under normal circumstances, we would have expected ministerial statements on two pressing matters. The first is the millennium dome, and today's report that there will be a handback clause in the sale agreement--

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): A handbag?

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman did not hear me, so I shall repeat that it is reported that there will be a handback clause in the sale agreement. There is great concern about that, and I am sure that the House would want to hear about the details of the agreement for the disposal of the dome site from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The dome has been a terrible drain on lottery resources, and it is very worrying to think that it will continue to be a drain on taxpayer resources. Will the Leader of the House explain how the Government intend to inform hon. Members about the detail of the agreement, given that the House will be in recess?

The second matter on which we would have expected a statement is the complete failure, announced today, of the Home Office computer system to process asylum applications. For the past four years, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has been challenging Government policy on the matter, often in Opposition time. The Government continued to claim that they were increasing the rate at which decisions were processed, and made no reference to any technical problems with the computer. The Home Office now says that the problems are due to the computer. The Government seem to be falling back on those old chestnuts when a problem arises--it is the

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fault either of the previous Tory Government, or of the computer. Those excuses are beginning to have about as much credibility as the promise that the cheque is in the post.

Will the Leader of the House say when we can expect a White Paper outlining the consideration given by the Government to the constitutional consequences of scrapping the pound? The matter is especially pertinent, as we heard only this week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been rebuked by the European Union for spending too much public money. That is our money, and it has been spent in our country. Will the right hon. Lady ensure that for the first time the Chancellor shares with the House how he and the Government came to the decision that there are no constitutional consequences to the policy? Otherwise, we fear that the Chancellor's EU masters will continue to wish to control UK public expenditure, regardless of whether we join the euro.

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Lady asked about statements on the dome. To the best of my recollection, the fact that discussions on the handling of the dome are continuing is in the public domain. She referred to stories about a handback clause, but I am afraid that I have not seen them. I am sorry to learn that they are causing great concern, but I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is taking such matters into account.

The hon. Lady then moved on to the issue of the Home Office computer system. I know that it is very awkward for Opposition Members that almost all the present computer systems were commissioned by the previous Government, who tied us in to irrevocable contracts. Those contracts had very severe penalties, and we could not abrogate them. I recognise that that is a real source of difficulty, especially on matters such as asylum, out of which the Conservative party is trying to make some mileage.

I heard the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) this morning trying to pretend that no one had ever mentioned problems with the system in the past. I do not know where the right hon. Lady has been, but I remember copious references to the problems. If I heard her correctly, she also alleged this morning that no one had ever said that the system had been commissioned by the Conservative party. I have heard that repeatedly over the past few years--in despairing tones, from ministerial colleagues. As I am feeling charitable today, I will say that the right hon. Lady was uncharacteristically inaccurate.

On the question of a White Paper on the constitutional consequences of the euro, as you will be sadly aware, Mr. Speaker, we have been over this territory many times. The Conservative party is completely familiar with the Government's position on the constitutional issues--we do not believe that there is a bar--the moves towards the euro and the five economic tests. There is nothing to add to what has been said so often before.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): The Leader of the House will be aware that the International Criminal Court Bill is progressing through the House of Lords. However, I am disappointed that she has not given a date by which it will be debated in the Commons. Could she now do that so that the Bill can get here rapidly? Clearly,

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the Bill will be an important step forward in dealing with the prosecution of international war criminals and dictators in the future.

Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's great interest in the Bill, of which he has long been a supporter and advocate. I say to him, gently, that the Bill has not had its Report stage in the House of Lords.

Mr. Corbyn: I said that it was progressing.

Mrs. Beckett: I know, but it has not yet completed its progress. No matter how great the concern, we do not set timetables for debates in this House when the other House is still dealing with a matter. We do not presume to know the judgment of another House until a Bill arrives here.

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