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Mrs. Beckett: I understand the strong feelings that have been expressed by my hon. Friend and others in the House about the developments of recent times. I also understand his anxiety that the substantial investment that is being made available should be well and effectively used. It remains the case that I cannot find time for a special debate on those issues in the near future, but I have no doubt that, over the course of that investment programme, my hon. Friends will find many opportunities to raise them.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Is the right hon. Lady minded to make time available on a Government day for an early debate on the plight of rural post offices? Post offices are writing to me at the rate of one a week to announce the closure or threat of closure of sub-post offices throughout the Vale of York. That is extremely alarming to constituents, who face the prospect of not being able to draw benefits and pensions at those sub-post offices. It has recently emerged that vacancies are being advertised offering less pay per hour than the minimum wage. Is that contributing to the problem? May we have an early debate to discuss that and a pledge of a positive future for post offices in villages?
Mrs. Beckett: Of course I understand the concern that has been expressed by the hon. Lady and I accept that it will be shared by her constituents. She will know that both the Government and the Post Office have expressed concern, although she will be aware that, unfortunately, it is by no means a record: far greater numbers of post
The Government are committed to maintaining a network of post offices and will continue to work with the Post Office at national level in order to do so. Although Department of Trade and Industry questions are next week, when she might find an opportunity to raise the matter, I cannot say that there is likely to be a special debate on the Floor of the House soon.
Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): Will my right hon. Friend give further consideration to finding time to discuss the closure of Leeds city station, given the scale of the inconvenience to people and the fact that Railtrack has described the closure as unacceptable? I recognise that engineers are working around the clock to install the new signalling equipment, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the public are entitled to accurate information from Railtrack about when major projects such as this will be completed? In this case, by contrast, they have been given three successive deadlines for completion of the work.
Mrs. Beckett: I very much sympathise with the concerns that my hon. Friend raises on behalf of his constituents. I share his view that it is unacceptable to give people unsound information. That leads to doubts that those engaged in such works are clear about the scale of their task.
Although I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, I remind my hon. Friend that it is Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions questions on Tuesday. If my hon. Friend succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, he may well have a chance to raise the matter then.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Does the Leader of the House feel proud or embarrassed at the fact that her ministerial colleagues are starting to make her look like a paragon of honesty and openness in government? At business questions on 21 December, I asked her about the Cabinet Committee set up to look at job losses in manufacturing, and she gave me a commendably frank and full response. I subsequently tabled a question to the Department of Trade and Industry, which denied that such a group existed. I raised the same matter at Education and Employment questions with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who would neither confirm nor deny the group's existence.
The Leader of the House is clearly ahead of the field among her colleagues when it comes to offering honest and open replies to questions from hon. Members of all parties. Will she therefore give some guidance to her ministerial colleagues, and will she make time for a statement to the House on the findings of that Cabinet Committee with regard to job losses in manufacturing?
Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks, which I am sure were not intended to do me any harm, but I can undertake only to consider his question. No hon. Member wants there to be job losses, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, under this Government, they
My question concerns the replies that the Leader of the House gave my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), the shadow Leader of the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day). Will she please find time for an urgent statement on flexibility in the total number of hours available for consideration of a Bill in Standing Committee?
The right hon. Lady is usually spectacularly well informed, but is she aware that Conservative members of the Committee considering the Vehicle (Crimes) Bill have been complimented already--by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill)--on our constructive use of the available time? The problem is that there is too little such time.
Will the right hon. Lady explain why our request for a further nine hours' debate on the 45 clauses of the Bill--to which 33 amendments have been tabled so far--was summarily rejected on the basis of a Government vote in the Programming Sub-Committee? Will she concede that there is a powerful case for the establishment of a formal procedure under which members of the Standing Committee who are not members of the Programming Sub-Committee could put forward their own proposals and draft resolutions regarding the order of consideration of a Bill's clauses?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and worthwhile point and I undertake to consider it and to discuss it with my right hon. and hon. Friends. I would be reluctant--I accept that this is not what he is suggesting--to see us adopting a procedure whereby people are encouraged to spend time discussing how long they ought to spend discussing the legislation, as opposed to discussing the legislation itself. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that. Also, to assume at the beginning of discussions on legislation that more time is likely to be needed will not always encourage the best use of the time available. He will know, I hope, that under the Modernisation Committee's proposals there is room for manoeuvre if it becomes clear that, for whatever reason, time has been inadequate. Obviously, the Government would be prepared constructively to consider that.
We would be reluctant to see this as the thin end of the wedge--always demanding more time regardless of whether it is necessary. I undertake to consider the hon. Gentleman's points and to discuss them with my right hon. and hon. Friends.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to take up an issue raised yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). When the proceedings of today's sitting are printed, would you cause a study to be made of the amount of the 55 minutes of Education and Employment Question Time that was taken up by ministerial answers? My layman's research found that on at least six occasions, questions that could have been answered in a quarter of a minute took upwards of one and a half minutes. If I were of a more cynical disposition, I would say--and you might agree, Mr. Speaker--that Question Time is being used not to answer questions but to peddle petty party political propaganda. More importantly for the rights of the House and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, because Question Time is limited, you will know, Mr. Speaker, that the greater the time used on ministerial answers, the more it infringes the rights of Back Benchers. Will you look into that please, Mr. Speaker?
Mr. Speaker: I certainly do not intend to become involved in the content of ministerial replies at Question Time, but I am deeply concerned that Back Benchers are not being given an opportunity to ask their questions and that we are not dealing with enough questions because ministerial replies are far too long.
I call on Ministers to bear in mind what I have to say. I want to be able to call Back Benchers, particularly those who have tabled questions. The questions from Opposition Front Benchers could also be a bit sharper. I hope that both parties will consider this matter.