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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): May we please have a debate on the 99.6 per cent. of British companies which employ fewer than 100 people, account for approximately 57 per cent. of the private sector work force and generate two fifths of national output? Given that the last such debate was held in Opposition time in March last year and that the Government's record has been consistently denounced by the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Forum of Private Business, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers Federation, to name but a few, is it not essential that we have an urgent debate on the sea of regulation which is now deeper and more hazardous than any with which British companies have ever had to contend?

Mrs. Beckett: First, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that he weakened his argument by referring to unprecedented denunciation being voiced by all those bodies, most of which are highly supportive of much of the Government's programme--although, of course, they express concern about regulation, as they did under the Conservative Government.

I rather think that as we are to have a debate on regulation later today, there is no need to find time for a further debate. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the only debate on the subject having taken place in Opposition time, I recall that, in the last Parliament, there was a period of at least two years--possibly substantially more; it might even have been three or four years--in which there was no debate on health issues in Government time.

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Points of Order

1.36 pm

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether your calling the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) last in business questions reflects your decision to adopt the principle applied by the last three Speakers of the House of Commons, which is that when an Opposition Member who is a Front-Bench spokesman rises on the Back Benches, he is not given precedence but is called last in debate and last in questions? I have always subscribed to that principle and thought it right, because it required hon. Members to make up their minds about what they wanted to do in Parliament--whether they were on the Front Bench or the Back Bench.

Mr. Speaker: The Speaker should never have to reveal what is in his mind. However, let me tell the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that I worry about the Benches themselves. I am very fond of carpentry and feel that the way he jumps up and down might do a bit of damage to the Benches. I do not worry about damage to his joints--just about the Benches.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It has been drawn to my attention that, at Scotland Office questions on Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Scotland made a gratuitous, false and insulting attack on me. She associated my name with her own and those of others who had been employed by Robert Maxwell, whereas in fact I had no dealings with him while he was alive. Then she said that I

but my

In fact, as you will recall, Mr. Speaker, I spent five years clearing up the mess that the right hon. Lady and her former employer left behind after he was found dead in the Atlantic and it was discovered that £400 million was missing from the pension funds of the Maxwell group. I set up the Maxwell Pensioners Trust, as a result of which every Maxwell pensioner and employee, including the right hon. Lady, now stands to receive his or her pension entitlement in full, despite the depredations of Robert Maxwell.

I appreciate that accusations minted by the Secretary of State for Scotland are scarcely legal tender and I am not worried about my own reputation. However, notable public servants such as Lord Cuckney, Jane Newall and others who ran the Maxwell Pensioners Trust brilliantly secured the return of the money and the protection of all those pensioners.

I have written to the Secretary of State and asked her to apologise or to repeat her comments outside the House. My question for you, Mr. Speaker, is what protection do we have in the event of such gratuitous insults, which bear on the honour of Members of Parliament and, more important, on the reputation of public servants outside the House?

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman asks how he can rebut a case that has been made against him, but I

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would say that he has been able to do so today under that point of order. I cannot become involved in disputes between Members. I was present at Scotland Office questions and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State for Scotland was not out of order as far as the rules of the House are concerned. However, the right hon. Gentleman has been able to make his point, and his remarks about himself and others have been put on the record.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With reference to that occasion, is it not undesirable and contrary to the practices of the House that a Minister or anyone else called to answer should make such a point, which was unrelated to the question that was being asked?

Mr. Speaker: I have absolutely nothing to add to what I have already said to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley).

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may recall that at business questions last week, I asked the Leader of the House a question about the OECD report on education, which shows that, in many aspects of education, Britain is at the bottom of the league table of developed countries. The Leader of the House replied that my comments criticising the Government were inappropriate because the report

On reacquainting myself with that OECD report via the Library, I found that its tables on pre-school education, adults involved with education, school access to the internet and levels of attainment in education all refer to 1998, not 1996. Given that inaccuracy, and knowing that you would not want an inaccuracy to remain on the record, if I provide you with information from the House that supports my point, Mr. Speaker, will you make arrangements for that inaccuracy to be corrected?

Mr. Speaker: No.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I refer to written answers at column 186 in today's Hansard. The Minister for School Standards has given me a pursuant reply, in which she says that the tables that she had given me on school achievement awards "contained inaccuracies"; my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) made that point earlier. However, in her reply the Minister does not say that, as a result of those inaccuracies, many of the schools and local education authorities with achievement awards that she lists are not entitled to those awards; we understand that some £2 million was wrongly awarded to local schools. Will you take action, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that the Minister issues a further pursuant reply to correct the information that she has given in today's Hansard?

Mr. Speaker: I am not responsible for Ministers' replies. Those are matters for debate, which the hon. Gentleman can take up with the Minister concerned.

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Business of the House

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I beg to move,

(1) at the sitting on Monday 9th April, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any messages from the Lords shall have been received;
(2) at the sitting on Tuesday 10th April--
(a) the provisions of the Order of 20th November 2000 relating to Thursday sittings and meetings of standing committees shall apply as if that day were a Thursday;
(b) there shall be no sittings in Westminster Hall;
(c) the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any messages from the Lords shall have been received and he shall have notified the Royal Assent to Acts agreed upon by both Houses.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I briefly introduced the motion which, I anticipate, will ensure the orderly conduct of business, and is for the convenience of Members and House staff. If the motion is agreed, on Monday 9 April the House will not adjourn until any messages from the Lords have been received. On Tuesday 10 April, it will amend the House's sitting hours to a Thursday sitting which, I hope, will be for the convenience of Members. The motion also makes provision for the House not to adjourn until Royal Assent to any Acts agreed by both Houses has been reported by the Speaker.

There is nothing new or controversial about the motion. A quick search of the journals of the House will show that many similar motions were made in almost every Session of the last Parliament. If Royal Assent cannot be signified during the House's normal sitting hours, the motion provides that the sitting should be suspended until the appropriate time. I hope that the House will agree to the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

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