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Mrs. Beckett: I have great sympathy for my hon. Friend and his constituents. I know that others in industry are similarly affected. The Government are conscious of the importance of gas prices and of the impact of the recent rise, which, I understand, is primarily due to high oil prices. The Government take the view that, if anti-competitive activity is identified in this sector, they will not hesitate to refer the matter to the appropriate competition authorities. My hon. Friend might like to monitor developments with a view to making such information available to my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe if he thinks that that is appropriate.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Will the right hon. Lady reconsider the rather terse reply that she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) about the Liaison Committee report? Will she reconsider what she said on Tuesday, when she made it clear that it was very unlikely that there would be a debate on the report before the end of this Parliament? Does she recognise that, if we do not take a decision in this Parliament and we want to set up the Select Committees quickly in the new Parliament, we will have to use the current system? Although she may be able to persuade the House on a free vote to retain the present system, it is not right for her to stifle both a debate and a vote on this important matter.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the cuts being made by many Tory-controlled councils? In Calderdale, the Tory council proposed massive cuts to social services and education. It is attacking the weak and defenceless, yet it received a reasonable settlement. One of the worst cuts is to the Scope outreach service, which looks after elderly disabled people. The council is also scrapping free school milk, which is particularly mean, and increasing council tax by far more than the party promised in its election manifesto. It is about time that these people were exposed.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point, not least because one of the moves that, in theory, everybody wants to see is towards a better balance between health and social service care, so that we can, in particular, care for the elderly in their own homes, as most of them would wish. She is right to point out that cuts in social services undermine that objective. She is also right to indicate that in the four years since the general election, the Government grant to local government has gone up by 14 per cent. in real terms, compared with a cut of 7 per cent. in the previous four years, so that stability in grant distribution and a substantial increase in investment mean that councils should be able to plan ahead for good services.
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Pursuant to the opening exchanges after the statement by the Leader of the House, can she give an assurance that after three and three quarter years, we shall get a definitive statement on the Government's policy on the tube before the general election, so that we can verify whether their handling of the tube is actively intended to sacrifice Labour seats in London or whether it has some other motivation?
Mrs. Beckett: I think that most Tory Members, and perhaps even the right hon. Gentleman himself, would acknowledge that the underlying problems of London Underground are due to years of neglect and under-investment. Dialogue about the tube's future continues. As for when it can be concluded, obviously we all hope that that will be as soon as possible, but I am afraid that I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a date.
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): The Leader of the House will be as keen as we are that Members are not kept here unnecessarily and that they do not have their time wasted. She will be aware that Hansard shows that three times this week the number of Members opposing a
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which chimes in with the earlier point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Of course, although it is open to any Member--or rather any two Members, since two names are required for the tellers--to call a Division, people have always wondered whether it is wise to call attention to the fact that support for the stance being adopted is as little as two Members. Although our procedures allow for that, I share my hon. Friend's view that it is perhaps a less than constructive use of time, but the Opposition do not seem to be very good at making constructive use of their time.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister from the Northern Ireland Office to explain how equality and law and order issues arising from the Belfast agreement are being dealt with? One person who was out on licence was readmitted to prison because of perceived involvement in activities contrary to that licence. By contrast, another, a murderer, was released and has committed that crime again in murdering Trevor Kells, but he has not been called back under licence, although I understand that some of his republican colleagues have exercised their own summary justice. Surely the law of the land should be maintained.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman expresses. I cannot undertake to ask a Northern Ireland Minister specifically to deal with the issues that he raises in the very near future. He will know, however, that there is shortly to be a meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and he may find the opportunity within the parameters of that meeting to raise these issues.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will my right hon. Friend, after liaising with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, try to bring forward at an early date the student nurse review, especially with regard to bursaries? A group of colleagues and I met some student nurses at the recent south-west conference of Unison, and to a person they were saying, "Can we have the review brought forward and a debate to discuss how nurses can be properly rewarded to ensure that we get the proper number of nurses on our wards?"
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend will know that the Government have already recruited significant extra numbers of nurses, and expanded the number of training places so that more potential nurses are coming forward. I understand his concern and I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I remind my hon. Friend that we hope to take the remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill on 14 February. He may have an opportunity then to air these matters.
Mrs. Beckett: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not follow fully the point that I made earlier, which is that since--[Interruption.] I am mindful that it is for the Chair to determine what is in order. As the report that we would have been discussing, and which we may still have an opportunity to discuss, does not deal with the conduct of Ministers, it is difficult for me to see how that matter could possibly be in order. I do not see where the hon. Gentleman's point about partisan treatment of the Committee arises. I utterly reject his suggestion that the Government are seeking in any way to take, or have taken, action that will inadvertently affect the integrity of the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman's reference to the fact that the Committee has a Labour majority, as do all Select Committees, is somewhat unfortunate. All Select Committees reflect the pattern of the House. His reference to that was particularly unfortunate because he may have noticed that recently there has been a growing tendency in the press to refer to decisions of the Committee as being made by the Labour majority, when the Committee was unanimous. That undermines the integrity of the Committee.