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Mrs. Shephard: I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and for continuing, so far as she can, to give the House the business for two weeks at a time. It continues to be helpful to the House and I know that it is as a result of her enthusiasm that the House is given as much advance notice as possible of the business that it can expect.

May I ask the right hon. Lady when we may expect a debate on the national health service? She will know that we have not had such a debate since before the summer recess and that, when we did, it was the Opposition who called one. We have now had a number of statements and a White Paper on health matters, and it is time that the Government provided the House with an opportunity to debate them.

I should be grateful if the right hon. Lady would convey to the Prime Minister the concern felt in many parts of the House at his increasingly arrogant disregard for Parliament. He continues to refuse to answer the simplest of questions at Prime Minister's Question Time. It is one

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thing to halve at a stroke the number of times a week that the Prime Minister consents to appear in the House. [Interruption.] It is quite another to make a habit of bluster, waffle and obfuscation in answer to questions to which the people have a right to hear a straight response.

Can the right hon. Lady arrange for an early debate on women's issues so that the House may hear from the Minister for Women why, since her appointment, she has answered only one question in the House, initiated no debates, made no statement and not commented on cuts in benefit for single mothers? After all the Government's electoral promises, is not her appointment a big disappointment to women and to the many newly elected women on the Labour Back Benches? Is it not a waste of money to taxpayers, who are funding her office to the tune of £119,000 a year--rather a lot for rather little?

May we have an early debate on planning issues so that the Deputy Prime Minister can expand his recent statement to the effect that the green belt is a Labour achievement and he intends to build on it?

Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the appropriate Minister to come to the House to clarify, for the enlightenment of taxpayers funding ministerial trips abroad, whether the term "partner" appears in the ministerial code of conduct or whether the term "spouse" is used throughout? Are any changes planned, or have changes already been made, to the code, and have those been reported to the House? What is the definition for those purposes of "partner", and for how long must a relationship have lasted for a partner to qualify for a free trip abroad at taxpayers' expense? Who makes that judgment? I hope it is not the Prime Minister's press secretary.

Mrs. Taylor: The right hon. Lady asked several questions. First, she asked about a debate on the national health service. Important statements have been made to the House, and a Green Paper will be published shortly. I shall consider what she said, but, as she knows, the programme up to Easter is extremely crowded so I cannot guarantee to find time for that debate, much though we should like to be able to boast about our achievements and the money that the Government are putting into health.

I reject the right hon. Lady's comments about the Prime Minister's answers at Question Time. As one of my hon. Friends said, there is no diminution in the total time available. Indeed, the figures show that more questions get asked and more answers are given. [Interruption.] I accept that Conservative Members may not like the answers they are given; that is because the answers do not accord with their views of the ways of the world. They should be grown up enough to know that they will not always like the answers they are given.

In respect of the right hon. Lady's questions about a debate on women's issues, the Minister for Women has requested time for a debate on the Floor of the House on those specific matters. So far, it has not been possible to provide time for that. I notice that when the Opposition selected the topic for discussion on their Opposition day next week, they did not choose to discuss women's issues--perhaps because there are so few women Conservative Members.

It is well known that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister intends to make a statement on planning issues soon. The Government are committed to protecting

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the countryside and to regenerating towns and cities. Meanwhile, we are sticking to the previous Administration's target of 50 per cent. of new houses to be built on previously developed land.

There have been no changes to the code in respect of ministerial trips and those who accompany Ministers on such trips.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): My right hon. Friend will be aware that pensioners have traditionally looked forward to their winter fuel bills with fear and trepidation. Will she join me in congratulating the Government on their prompt action? Will she arrange for a statement to be made explaining the actions that the Government have taken to alleviate the problem? Their response contrasts with the record of the Conservative party, which treated pensioners with more vindictiveness and disdain than any Government since pensions were founded in 1911.

Mrs. Taylor: I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government took prompt action so that pensioners would not have to face another winter fearful of whether they could turn up the heating and afford the coming fuel bill. The Government have allocated extra help of more than £400 million for this winter and the next. Payments to those who need that help most will be made later this month. We have reduced VAT on fuel, whereas the previous Government introduced it and intended to double it, and we have reduced the gas levy. We have shown that helping pensioners with their winter fuel bills is a priority of the Government.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Leader of the House give us an early debate on the role and responsibility of local education authorities? Will she confirm that a meeting took place last week between the Prime Minister, the Minister for School Standards and the chief inspector of schools, Mr. Christopher Woodhead, at which the future of LEAs was discussed in some detail? Will she confirm that the Government have specific plans significantly to amend and alter the roles and responsibilities of local education authorities? That is an important issue for hon. Members and for members of those authorities. Will she ensure that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment makes an early statement on the matter?

Mrs. Taylor: I cannot confirm any specific meeting. The hon. Gentleman did not warn me that he intended to ask that question, and I do not know what meetings every Minister has had. The Government believe that local education authorities have a very important role to play, and he will realise that if he examines the School Standards and Framework Bill, which is being considered in Committee.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): In recognition of the progress that the Government have made on the scandal of pensions mis-selling, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the issue? Pensions mis-selling was a direct result of the policies of the Conservative party when in government. Does she agree with me that, given the demographic profile, the progress that the Government have made in that area has been of particular help to women?

Mrs. Taylor: I agree with my hon. Friend. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has taken a

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particular interest in the matter, has made serious progress in trying to ensure that the problem is resolved. She has established clear deadlines for all firms, large and small, and has made it absolutely clear that they must be observed. It is important that we tackle this problem, which was created and then ignored by the Conservative party. The Ministers involved will continue to pursue the matter, but I cannot find time for a specific debate on it in the very near future.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): In thanking the right hon. Lady again for her great courtesy in doing her best to keep us informed of business two weeks ahead, may I ask her to arrange for the Prime Minister to give a clear answer next week to the question whether it is tolerable and tenable for the Paymaster General, who is the chief tax gatherer in the land, to be subject to an investigation by the Inland Revenue and retain his position at the Treasury? Is it not an affront to the House and the people of this country that the hon. Gentleman retains his position at the Treasury at the same time as he is allegedly the subject of a special investigation? To clear the matter up, will the right hon. Lady give us a answer, yes or no, to the question whether he is subject to such an investigation?

Mrs. Taylor: I think that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. He knows that, as the Prime Minister explained yesterday, neither the Inland Revenue nor any other regulatory board can comment on investigations or, indeed, on whether or not an investigation is taking place. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was told that yesterday, and I think that he should remember it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 666?

[That this House calls for the immediate opening of serious negotiations with the Iraqi Government with a view to ending sanctions and seeking a solution to outstanding problems; and would deplore any military action by the United States which is opposed by three permanent members of the Security Council.]

The motion, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and me, expresses a minority view on relations with Iraq.

May we have a statement next week making clear the precise objectives of any Anglo-American military action, in the absence of massive ground forces, with a view to the use of chemical or biological weapons? Before British service men are committed to military action, should not the House at least have an opportunity to express an opinion?


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