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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make a statement in the House, or at least to take part in a debate on answers to written questions? Last week, I asked the right hon. Gentleman two straightforward questions: what sum of money had been set aside by his Department to cover his legal expenses for bringing proceedings against Associated Newspapers and Tom Bower for the publication of extracts of his book; and when did he issue his High Court proceedings for libel? The Secretary of State responded in the Official Report, at column 106W, by referring me to the reply that he gave the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on 2 April at column 7W. I looked at that column, and the answer had absolutely nothing to do with the questions that I had asked. I stress to the right hon. Lady that I have no professional interest in this case but, as a parliamentarian, I have an interest in the proper accountability of Ministers for the spending of public money.
Mrs. Beckett: I wondered whether the hon. and learned Gentleman was looking for trade, and I am relieved by his assurance that he was not--although I am sure that he would perform excellently in that capacity. He is right to say that all hon. Members take an interest in accountability and the use of public money. However, as no public money has yet been expended, I do not think that his point is very strong.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): My right hon. Friend will know that about 20 million people will be hanging on tonight's news about who shot Phil Mitchell, but probably not many fewer people would be willing to do the same job on the Child Support Agency. I have never supported men who do not offer proper support to the children whom they produce, but it is important that the House have a debate on the extent to which we continue to fail miserably the women who get no support from their former partners. Moreover, good fathers are
Mrs. Beckett: I think that all hon. Members have constituents who have had difficulties in their dealings with the CSA. My hon. Friend is entirely right to identify the great and indiscriminate distress and difficulty that is caused, often to both partners. I admit that I think that there has been some improvement in the agency's operation, and I am sure that its staff face a difficult task in dealing with such immensely complex issues.
I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House in the near future, but my hon. Friend might look to take advantage of the increased opportunities offered by Westminster Hall.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): We heard in Agriculture questions that the next seven days will be crucial when it comes to knowing whether there are any grounds for the guarded optimism that has been expressed about foot and mouth disease. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) noted, it is extraordinary that the House should rise next Tuesday without hearing a statement from the Prime Minister about the current situation. Do the Government intend to table Government amendments to the Finance Bill to put into action some of the pledges that have been made to support our rural industries? Finally, will there be an opportunity to have another look at the rural White Paper? Some of its measures would have been extremely helpful to rural industries, especially in the south-west, had they been implemented in this Session.
Mrs. Beckett: There is no case for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to come to the House, although it is certainly true that the House must continue to be informed, and I am confident that that will happen.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I have announced the date of the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, and when progress will be made in Committee on the Floor of the House. It may be that the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise these matters then. I do not think that I should be required to suggest time for special debates when debating opportunities already exist.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): The Opposition have already raised the matter of Virgin Trains raising fares by considerably more than inflation, and Railtrack is getting £1.5 billion in extra public money. In view of those facts, will my right hon. Friend say whether there is any possibility of an early debate on the total failure of the Tory privatisation of the rail industry? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that a possible remedy could be applied in the next Parliament--a remedy that is dear to the hearts of many Labour Members? She will know what I mean.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): As you, Mr. Speaker, can readily confirm, a vast number of right hon. and hon. Members did not get called during this morning's very brief session with the Minister of Agriculture. Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that we will have a statement next week? Will she also convey the news to the Prime Minister that there is a strong feeling throughout the House that, as he has taken personal command of the operation, we expect him to be answerable to the House? The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said sotto voce a few moments ago that the Prime Minister was out driving a JCB. That may or may not be the case, but we expect him to appear at the Dispatch Box to answer our questions and to tell us how he is co-ordinating the campaign.
Mrs. Beckett: I am afraid that for once I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is no strong demand across the House for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to appear at the Dispatch Box; there is merely an attempt at mischief-making by Conservative Members on an issue that is genuinely of great importance and concern.
On the hon. Gentleman's request for a statement from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, I am as reluctant as any Leader of the House to give undertakings about statements, but I can assure him that I take his point seriously and I will certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): May we have an early debate on the impact on tourism of intransigent landlords who refuse to reopen their land to walkers? The McLeod estate on Skye refuses to undertake a risk assessment and is depriving walkers such as myself of access to the Cuillin ridge walk over the Easter break and threatening the livelihood of mountain guides such as Darren McAulay and others who are dependent on tourism and walking.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand the points that my hon. Friend makes very well and forcefully. I also note the strong plug that he gives for the work and activities of people who are doing an excellent job. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House although I recognise the seriousness of the matter. He, too, may like to seek an opportunity to raise it in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): On the principle that the House should be most assiduous in debating matters which Ministers are most reluctant to debate, can time be set aside for a debate on the DTI report into Hollis Industries and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's responsibility for it? The right hon. Gentleman hides behind his claim that he did not receive the report, but refuses to say when he was informed of its contents; he hides behind the threat of legal action but
Mrs. Beckett: It is kind of the right hon. Gentleman to say that it was uncharacteristic, but I did not lose my cool. I was extremely shocked at what I thought was quite appalling and disgraceful behaviour on his part, as a former Secretary of State, when he attempted to accuse my right hon. Friend--he has just repeated that accusation--of hiding behind advice from officials when he must be perfectly well aware that had my right hon. Friend overruled that advice, especially as a newly appointed Minister in the Department, Opposition Members would probably have a great deal more to complain about.
Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): When considering debates on the serious issue of foot and mouth, would my right hon. Friend also consider an early debate on the somewhat strange interpretation of the Government's current regulations by some councils? I refer specifically to South Bedfordshire district council, which is refusing to collect refuse from properties in my constituency, seemingly on the basis that they have the word "farm" in their addresses. In particular, I understand that a fish farm has not had its refuse collected for several weeks nor has Tipple Hill farm, which is not a farm, but a house which has several horses in its grounds. Does she agree that that is a dangerous and somewhat bizarre interpretation of the Government's regulations?