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12.14 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I thank right hon. and hon. Members for the kindness with which

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they have welcomed me back to the Dispatch Box in a slightly different capacity. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said, it is one in which I have had experience earlier in my career, albeit in opposition. As a result, I am aware of the value of debates such as this one to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House and I am very conscious of the importance of preserving it, whatever steps may be taken to modernise the House, as has been the pattern of our development down the years.

Like the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, I shall endeavour to touch on the contributions of the 14 right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken, raising a rich variety of subjects. However, if I inadvertently omit something or do not have the time to cover all the points, I shall write to the hon. Members concerned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) raised the important issue of dignity at work and the difficulties that can be involved. He and all hon. Members will know that the Government are determined to encourage the new culture of co-operation and understanding in the workplace that has been developed voluntarily over recent years as many employers realise that it is the way to bring about innovation and to run successful modern companies. I certainly share my hon. Friend's view that we need to spread that culture of co-operation and partnership much more widely. I fear that I would not go so far as to agree with him that abolishing the Whips would contribute to that. Indeed, I do not think that I would dare do that. Perhaps I could gently remind my hon. Friend and the House that, despite what is at times a difficult role, the Whips are very much part of the management of the House and if we were to abolish the present system, I have absolutely no doubt that we should have to find a different way of managing the affairs of so many right hon. and hon. Members with many different concerns, as the debate has shown.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) also said a little about the Modernisation Committee, but mostly spoke about the concerns that he and other Derbyshire Members including my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), have raised before, about the proposed closure of magistrates courts there. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will have taken on board the concerns that have been expressed widely in the locality and in the House. I certainly undertake to draw them to his attention. In particular, I know that he will take on board the observations that the hon. Gentleman made about the concerns of those in rural areas as to whether or not they have what they see as secure access to justice in the locality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) made a most distinguished speech, drawing on his long experience and involvement with the horse-racing industry. He said that his interest was not a pecuniary one. I shall not stray into the comments by my hon. Friends as to whether or not that was because he was not as successful as he might be in the hands of the tipsters, although I am confident that, if he takes the advice of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, he will not go far wrong. Certainly, he will know only too well that, even now, I am unable to comment on issues of merger policy. The House will understand his strong defence of the punter in horse racing and of the work and value of that

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industry, and, indeed, share his view that it is very important that the industry continues to thrive and prosper.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) gave us a flavour of the rich variety of a Member of Parliament's postbag, case load and concerns. I understand, as I am sure does the whole House, the concern of people, particularly of elderly people, who have pets and who value their relationship with them. I shall draw his concerns and his constituent's anxieties to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

The hon. Gentleman raised a separate issue about the potential impact of different methodology on standard spending assessments. I hope that he is aware that such issues are under review; no decisions have been made. It might have been possible from the flavour of his comments to assume that decisions had already been made and announced. That is of course not so. All such issues are under consideration. His comments and the concerns of the different local authorities that he quoted are certainly being taken into account and will be taken into account before any announcements are made.

I have a long-standing relationship with my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), which goes back, if I recall correctly, to our previous occupancy of the Whips' Office when things were a little different, since the Government then had no majority to speak of. It was a close, comradely and successful relationship--because it had to be. I know that he has long taken an interest in Cyprus and has long been a strong and powerful advocate of the people of that divided island. He is entirely right to say that it is very important to pursue an honourable settlement. The Government strongly agree with that. We shall do everything that we can in a variety of ways to assist and promote such a settlement.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) raised a rich variety of issues--I counted seven. I shall touch only very lightly on some of them. He mentioned, for example, balloting on schools--as did other hon. Members--and how those issues are decided. A casual listener might not have understood that consultation is taking place on how such ballots should be carried out. One might also not have entirely understood from his remarks that those who participate in such ballots are not a random selection of people who are entirely unconcerned with the fate of schools, but local parents. I understand his concerns; no doubt they will be taken on board by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The issue is under continuing discussion and we hope and believe that we can get a satisfactory answer.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border also referred to the closure of the Cumbrian gap and the fact that announcements about the roads programme may be made a little later this week. The House will have to debate the issue that he raised concerning the Territorial Army in due course, as it will the wider issue of rural affairs. He will not expect me to comment on the restructuring of Cumbria county council, which is of course a matter for the council. I was certainly glad to hear, as I am sure that the House and country will be, that he believes that a satisfactory outcome to legislation on puppy farming may be within everyone's grasp. I know that there was considerable concern at the loss of the previous legislation.

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I was reading this morning comments about political dynasties, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) referred. I am not sure how he came to be omitted from those comments. He is certainly following in a fine tradition not only as an hon. Member but in pursuing the very interests so frequently pursued by his distinguished father. He drew starkly to our attention the important issues raised, particularly in "Panorama". Material raised in that programme has been passed to the Director General of Fair Trading. My hon. Friend may know that, following an approach by the Government, the European Commission is also investigating price disparities in different European Union markets. He also spoke of the need to save energy and to use less-polluting materials. He will be aware that the Government have done what we can to provide fiscal incentives on the matter, including funding for the Energy Saving Trust's powershift programme, which we shall continue to pursue.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who was courteous enough to let me know that he had a meeting and would not be able to remain in the Chamber for the winding-up speech, raised the very important issue of quarantine laws, which concern many. I must admit that I flinched slightly when he warned me in stentorian tones that 12 million pet owners would be hanging on my every word. I fear that I cannot at this moment give him the answer that he sought, but I assure him that I shall ensure that his concerns are drawn to the attention of the proper authorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) raised the important and interesting issue of the lack of a long service medal for prison officers. Like the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, I believe that those people provide a little-sung and much-needed public service and do not always receive the support and sympathy that they deserve. Let me assure my hon. Friend that there is undoubtedly a growing consensus on the merits of a proposal of the kind that he raised. Consultation is under way. I shall ensure that his concerns are drawn to the attention of my Government colleagues.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) expressed support for modernisation of the House and hope that the slight change that occurs whenever there is a reshuffle will not significantly delay the Modernisation Committee's work. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire for his comments on the point. Of course, there may be some slight delay--I wish more deeply to familiarise myself with the issues in my new capacity--but it will be only small. I look forward to continuing to work with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove and other colleagues on the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House and hope to continue the good work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who previously held my post.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) raised several important issues about child care. I understand the strength of her case, which she expressed so firmly and clearly. I shall certainly ensure that her views and concerns are brought to the attention of the Administration Committee. I was interested to hear that the Department of the Serjeant at Arms will be represented at a meeting in the overspill period. I am confident that that will assist in taking forward the debate in the way that she sought.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) made a most moving and deeply serious speech on the availability of skin. I think that everyone in the House felt deep sympathy for the family whose appalling tragedy led to the foundation of the skin bank to which he referred. I shall draw his views to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. My hon. Friend made an interesting point on record--so that will get wider publicity--about how the statement on the donor card may deter people from donating skin. Everyone will have heard and understood his important points and will, I am sure, take them seriously and take them on board.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) also raised the issue of grammar schools; I have dealt with that. He raised several other points, including the issue of Essex fire service. I am aware that Her Majesty's inspectorate has suggested that the proposals for reform of the Essex fire service have some sound foundation. The inspectorate is also looking at proposals for Surrey. Although it is of course regrettable that a dispute has arisen over the proposals for Essex, I express the hope that it will be readily resolved. He also made comments about teachers taking early retirement and then returning to work, which I shall pass to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, as I shall his remarks about pre-school playgroups. He asked whether teachers are valued in this House. I recall occasions in the previous 18 years when they suffered blows and knocks. However, I can assure him that this Government value their work, as we do the work undertaken on consumer protection--another important issue that he raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) raised a serious case and asked a number of extremely pertinent and detailed questions, which I know he will wish to have brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I undertake to do so. I have little doubt that, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, it is an issue that will be aired in the House again.

A point of order was raised regarding questions to my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). His responsibilities will be set out in detail shortly.

I join the hon. Member for South Staffordshire in his regards to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury, who previously occupied this post. Her service was distinguished and was warmly welcomed and applauded in the House.

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