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Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman was not here last week when some of those issues were raised. I can only repeat what I said on that occasion. It is extremely important that the House has proper systems to ensure that there is no corruption, or that if there is, it is discovered and stamped out. However, it is also important to remember that every Member of Parliament is vulnerable to frivolous accusations, whether made for reasons of personal spite or political advantage. The House should treat such matters with great seriousness and care.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): May I welcome the debate that we are to have on Monday on the Adoption and Children Bill? The measure will command support throughout the House. Why have the Government changed their mind? I understood that the Bill was to have been produced in draft form for pre-legislative scrutiny. What has led to the change in the Government's plan?
Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome for the Bill. I do not think that there was any recent decision to publish the Bill specifically in draft. As I have said before, the Government are mindful of the fact that this area of legislation is complex and in need of thorough overhaul, and that it involves difficult and sensitive issues on which there is no right answer, so the balance of decisions and the handling of legislation will always be important. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there has been a recent change of approach to the matter.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Is the right hon. Lady aware that the fourth anniversary, more or less, of the publication of the Labour party's manifesto to modernise the London underground by means of a public-private partnership is to be celebrated by a strike, which will cause still further inconvenience to many long-suffering users of the service? Is she further aware that on 1 February she promised that she would make it
Serious and detailed negotiations are continuing between the Government, Mr. Kiley and the mayor. I understand that the mayor has said recently that he is optimistic about progress. The Government are more than keen to see a resolution of the matter.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The right hon. Lady will have heard the Prime Minister say yesterday that he is willing to consider representations on the propriety of holding local and other elections on 3 May. Would it not be a good way to inform the Prime Minister to have a debate on the subject next week? It would enable us to express our anxieties about, for example, farmers who are candidates or who wish to work in support of individual candidates, but are either confined to their farms or are in exclusion zones, and will thus be denied the opportunity to participate? All those affected should have the right to receive an application for a postal vote, so that they will not be deprived of the franchise?
Mrs. Beckett: Under legislation that the Government recently put on the statute book, everyone has the right to a postal vote. Although that is not why the change was made, undoubtedly the right to such a vote is beneficial in present circumstances. I can only repeat what I said earlier. Of course my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is considering extremely carefully the representations that he is receiving on this matter.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the advice to the farming community, as I understand it, is that provided proper and sensible precautions are taken, people are free to move from their farms. I remind him that the Government are receiving substantial and concerned representations, not least from the tourist industry and other businesses about the impact that the handling of the issue is already having on the economy as a whole. There is great concern in that industry and other businesses that the Government should not postpone local elections. There are weighty arguments on both sides.
Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): The right hon. Lady may be aware that my constituency resides under the approach flight path of Manchester airport. The airport is a great asset to the area, but many of my constituents suffer from aircraft noise, especially when planes stray from the designated flight path.
The right hon. Lady may also be aware that I have raised this matter throughout this Parliament, in the knowledge that Ministers, in letters to me, have made it clear that they would favour the introduction of regulations to allow airports such as Manchester to have the statutory power to fine airlines whose aircraft stray.
Mrs. Beckett: I am not armed with an off-the-cuff response. I think that the entire House understands the position facing the public and Members such as the hon. Gentleman whose constituencies contain airports. He will know that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has introduced a substantial amount of business during this Parliament. His proposal might not have found its way to the top of the Department's agenda, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Conservative Members know that the nation is over-taxed. It is sad, therefore, that in the next two weeks of business, the Leader of the House has not been able to announce the Second Reading of a Finance Bill. Has she considered the fact that the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968, which enables the Government to raise revenue, is time-limited? If we do not have a Finance Bill soon, the Government will lose their power to raise a large amount of wholly unnecessary tax on the nation.
Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are well aware of the need to introduce the Finance Bill; no doubt, the Treasury will announce when it hopes to be able do so in due course. The right hon. Gentleman may claim that the country is over-taxed, but, within the memory of ever Member, the Government have lowered rates for personal taxation and business taxation.
I understand that the shadow Chancellor made some proposals today whereby, if for some extraordinary reason the Conservatives were elected, they propose to do what they never managed to do during their last period in government--change the way in which the top rate of tax bites. I am also aware that the shadow Chancellor is quoted as having said that he did not choose to specialise in maths at school, and that it was not one of his favourite subjects. All that I can say is that it shows.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The Leader of the House said that Bills are already coming back from the other place. We have one of the lightest legislative programmes in recent history and Bills have been rigidly timetabled. Assuming for a moment that the Government do not hold an election because of the foot and mouth crisis, will the Leader of the House share with us her plans for the Session until next October? The Government are concerned primarily with the good workings of Parliament, not general elections, popularity and things like that. I know that the Leader of the House will have a wallchart in her office showing how Bills will progress through Parliament in the coming months. Will she assure the House that there is work for us to do until next October?
Mrs. Beckett: I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that with absolute confidence. I try very hard to educate Opposition Members to check their statistics before they repeatedly make assertions. In the previous Session, they asserted that the legislative programme was the heaviest in history, which was rubbish. Now the tune seems to
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Do the Government intend to introduce a Bill before Easter to amend the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, thus legitimising millions of pounds worth of Labour election literature that is currently illegal because it has an illegal imprint?
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): It has been estimated that the foot and mouth crisis will cost the economy more than £9 billion in the coming year. That loss will fall disproportionately on rural businesses and country towns. Following yesterday's debate on the disease, it is obvious that things are going to get worse. Businesses involved in activities outside agriculture such as haulage, equestrianism and consultancy are now experiencing a catastrophic drop in turnover. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition proposed an imaginative scheme for loans of £10,000 to afflicted businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has kindly been granted a one-and-a-half hour debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday. Could that be upgraded to a full day's debate so that we can discuss the national crisis properly?