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Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Lady screams that the by-elections will be held in the towns, but if I recall correctly the Opposition called for the suspension of all county council elections in Cumbria. They are displaying a somewhat selective memory in that respect, but I simply say that it is clear that Opposition Members will have given thought to the matter when they decided to call those unnecessarily early by-elections.
The hon. Lady asked me about access to Ministers, and about statements and information given to the House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is considering the planning needed to keep hon. Members informed.
I understand the hon. Lady's point about casework, and it is right and proper for hon. Members to want to keep informed about problems in their constituencies, and to draw them to the attention of MAFF if they feel that messages are not getting through. However, although it is officials on the ground, such as vets, who primarily need to keep in touch with the situation, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is doing everything that he can to keep hon. Members informed.
I shall consider what the hon. Lady said about a debate on foot and mouth. She will be conscious, as I am, of the regular statements that Ministers have made, but I appreciate her point that debates and statements are not the same. However, the country will expect the Government to keep the House informed and information to flow freely between hon. Members and the Government. The Government are keeping the House informed, and I am not trying to make a party point when I say that I think that people also want Ministers to strike a balance between the proper discharge of their responsibilities to the House and their responsibilities in the country as a whole. We strive to keep those matters in balance.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Is not it strange that the Opposition want the Government to plough on, but raise no objection when told that Parliament is to be away for the lengthy period of 13 days?
My question relates to the possibility of a general election. If one takes place on 3 May, Parliament will be dissolved about this time next week. Many of us have in the pipeline important correspondence with Government Departments that requires a response. If a general election is called, will special action be taken to ensure that we all receive replies by next Thursday, given that after then we shall no longer be Members of Parliament? I thought that, as a bald man with a funny accent, I had better ask a serious question.
My hon. Friend drew attention to the length of the recess. One of the reasons that lay behind my response last week to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) about the timing of what was then a potential recess was that the Government had been asked whether the recess and the school holidays would coincide. He might know that, yet again, there is quite a disparity in respect of when school holidays fall in different parts of the country. We came under pressure--not least in the upper House--to start the Easter recess earlier, because otherwise children might be on holiday when the House was sitting. The arrangements, in part, reflect that request.
My hon. Friend asked about correspondence in the pipeline. He has fought many elections successfully and will, no doubt, fight many more with equal success, so he will know that that situation arises whenever a general election is called. There is always correspondence and material in the pipeline and most Departments and Ministers do their best to ensure that Members receive responses, but it is not always possible to provide 100 per cent. of responses.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does the Leader of the House recall that four weeks ago, I raised questions about the practicality of getting information from candidates to electors in areas such as Cornwall? The correspondence that she has kindly made available to me shows that she has not been able to do anything about the problem facing county council candidates, who, in contrast to general election candidates, do not get free mail to their constituents. Is it still possible to examine that issue?
Will the right hon. Lady reconsider the answer that she gave me last week regarding the statement that was to be made in the other place by the Minister for Transport, Lord Macdonald, on the National Air Traffic Services Ltd. public-private partnerships? I understand that that statement is being made today, but we have had no statement in this House, let alone an opportunity to debate it.
I endorse the request made by the Conservative spokeswoman for a debate on the London underground. I always walk to the House and I am conscious that many other people in London had to do so this morning. A statement would not only be useful, but might provide guidance to some Members of Parliament about the healthiest way in which to get to the House. The right hon. Lady will have noticed that, by an admirable coincidence, a medical research report published this morning suggests that walking to work is much healthier than working out in the gym.
Will the right hon. Lady consider advising her Government colleagues to dispense with their ministerial limousines for the next six weeks or so and walk to work instead? Might that not be a good way to ensure that the Government are healthy? Would she care to make the same suggestion to the Leader of the Opposition, who is also provided with a limousine at public expense?
The hon. Gentleman asks about the statement on NATS in the Lords. He will recall that during debates there, an undertaking was given that there would be a further statement in that House, and it is in response to that undertaking that the statement he mentions is being made.
Mrs. Beckett: If I am incorrect, I withdraw the allegation unreservedly and apologise for making it, although it was certainly my impression that a car was somehow provided for the leader of the Liberal party. Perhaps we will not go into that.
The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the report that suggested that it is healthy for people to walk to work. I observed to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, that while that might in general be good advice, I was not sure that it was in London with all the traffic fumes. That remains my view.
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing public concern about deep vein thrombosis and long-haul air travel? She will be aware that next Friday will be the Second Reading of my private Member's Bill, the Air Travellers (Provision of Health Information) Bill. If it should fail at Second Reading, will she ask her right hon. Friends to consider legislation to place a legal requirement on airlines to provide up-to-date information on the risks associated with long-distance flights?
Mrs. Beckett: I know that my hon. Friend has taken this subject seriously and takes a close and detailed interest in it. Indeed, I believe that he initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on it. I wish him well with his Bill. I undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. However, my hon. Friend will recognise that there are many calls for Government legislation on a range of issues. The public awareness campaign that is being run by people such as him will be just as effective as legislation.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Next week's business does not include any provision for suspending the county council elections. Can we assume, therefore, that it is the Government's view that those elections should go ahead?
Mrs. Beckett: Certainly, it has been the Government's view for some time that to suspend the county council elections would give a strong and negative signal. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, as I have pointed this out to the House before, that the tourism industry--other industries are affected but it is primarily the tourism
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to make a statement to the House? The continuing uncertainty about the underground is not helpful and people want a clear statement of how it is to proceed. It is important to realise that Bob Kiley is a most talented and remarkable man. His advice should be taken because it is in the interests of the passengers.
On a different subject, could someone urgently consider conference calls for candidates who are excluded from county council elections because they are in exclusion zones? There is no reason why we should not use modern technology to enable candidates who are trapped inside their farms to offer their views to the public. They could do so if they were given the necessary support.