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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), is my right hon. Friend aware that I have been in correspondence with the trustees of the pension fund on several occasions regarding the need to deal with the financial position of Members of or near retirement age who retired mainly in 1987 and before? Because of their salary at the time they almost certainly receive a pittance of a pension. As there is a substantial surplus in the pension fund, would it not be right for us to look carefully at what can be done to assist Members who, through no fault of their own, retired on such a small pension?

Mrs. Beckett: I understand the point made by my hon. Friend. Indeed, when I recently made inquiries, I was astonished to discover that only 8 per cent. of retired Members who now draw pensions from the parliamentary pension fund are entitled to the full retirement pension, whatever its level. However, I fear that my hon. Friend is wrong to believe that there is a surplus in the pension fund; there was a fairly substantial surplus but decisions taken by the Opposition when in government resulted in that surplus disappearing. Indeed, according to the Government Actuary, there is a potential for the fund to go into deficit.

I therefore fear that I cannot undertake to do as my hon. Friend suggests, but I acknowledge the point that he made. This is a matter for the House and if it decides to set up a voluntary organisation for Members who have retired from the House, voluntarily or otherwise, I hope that it will be handled more expeditiously in future.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to examine documents from the

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Foreign and Commonwealth Office that were released on 19 April under the 30-year rule? In one of those documents, the British ambassador to Ireland, Mr. John Peck, wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home on 16 December and commented on the aftermath of the 1970 arms trial in the Republic. He said:

Today's edition of the Irish Independent reports:

Will the Leader of the House agree to provide time for a debate on the content of those FCO documents and any additional information that is made available by the Irish Republic, bearing in mind the strong suspicion in Northern Ireland that some Ministers in the Irish Government at that time played a big part in assisting in the creation of the Provisional IRA, which then gave us 30 years of murder and terror in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Leader of the House will be able to reply.

Mrs. Beckett: I was not aware of the issue in the 30-year-old documents to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I have no doubt that those documents will be the subject of much analysis and discussion. Although he raised substantial and weighty issues, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future. I believe that Northern Ireland questions will be held the week after next, and he may find an opportunity to raise the matter then. I suspect, however, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will decline to take responsibility for something that happened 30 years ago.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that people suffering from multiple sclerosis are concerned about the non-availability of the drug beta interferon for certain forms of the illness. I have a number of constituents who are anxiously awaiting the decision of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Can my right hon. Friend suggest anything that would cause NICE to make an early decision, as my constituents and many other MS sufferers and their families are awaiting that decision with anxiety and are currently in limbo?

Mrs. Beckett: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I, too, have constituents who are concerned about the matter, as I expect most hon. Members do. I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We all understand the anxiety of those who hope and believe that they might benefit from the availability of such treatment. One of the reasons that it is being considered by NICE is that not everyone does benefit, although obviously people hope that they will benefit. Everyone wants the consideration by NICE to be thorough and scientifically sound.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): As the right hon. Lady knows, Sunday 29 April is census day. Will she join me in thanking the teams of volunteers who have been

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delivering forms throughout the country? Can she assure the House that every precaution has been taken in the delivery and collection of forms to ensure that there will be no threat of the spread of foot and mouth disease? Can she also give me an assurance that every property that is occupied has been registered on the electoral roll for census purposes and will receive a form, so that we can have a full census of rural as well as urban areas?

Mrs. Beckett: As far as I am aware, it is believed that every property has been included, but I shall draw the hon. Lady's remarks to the attention of my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. A great deal of thought and discussion has gone into the handling of the census, in order to make sure that nothing is done that might exacerbate matters related to foot and mouth disease. The hon. Lady may recall that some time ago, the person who is the overall head of the census operation made it plain that careful thought had been given to that, and that every effort would be made to ensure that there were no problems.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that while it has been a pretty good day for Lady Quango and the other 14 people's peers, it has also been a relatively good day for 1,500 women canteen workers who have been battling for 18 years to get equal pay? Will there be a statement about the fact that now, a meeting with some unreconstructed socialists like myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and other members of the miners group has finally resulted in a meeting with the brand-new Minister for Energy? The issue has been resolved and the canteen women will get an average of £10,000 apiece. Some of them will receive up to £40,000. They have struggled for 18 years, and have been bailed out by a combination of Labour Members and a Minister in the new Labour team.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a very welcome decision. I congratulate both of my hon. Friends, who have campaigned over a long period and assisted in putting the case, and my hon. Friend the Minister, who made the relevant decision.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I endorse entirely the comments of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), and I am delighted that the debate is taking place.

My question relates indirectly to foot and mouth disease and the measures introduced by the Government to give business rate relief to certain rural areas affected by the outbreak. I have had some support and I have had the ear of the Minister for the Environment, who heads the rural taskforce. It is extraordinary that Macclesfield, which has a huge, sparsely populated rural area in which livestock is the major agricultural occupation, is not eligible for assistance under the scheme. My constituency is not the only area affected. Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Minister to make a statement on the issue, so that he can explain what action he is taking to include within the scheme Macclesfield and other areas that are currently omitted?

Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend to come to the House again in the very

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near future, but I can certainly draw to his attention the hon. Gentleman's perfectly proper concerns. I am confident that he will want to inform the hon. Gentleman about the discussions that have been taking place on the issue that he raises.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Now that British Steel has admitted that it lied to the work force of H. H. Robertson for business reasons, I have written to all of the 28 other hon. Members whose constituents are affected by the closure. In view of the very important issue that the decision raises and the fact that it could bring into disrepute the actions of many honourable company directors throughout the country, will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the subject, so that the same outrage cannot happen again?

Mrs. Beckett: I know that my hon. Friend's concern will be shared by the other hon. Members whose constituents are affected, although I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate or statement on the matter in the near future. I remind him of next week's DTI questions, as he might find an opportunity to raise the matter then.

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