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Business of the House

12.53 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 8 February--Second Reading of the Social Security Contributions (Transfer of Functions, etc) Bill.[Lords].

Tuesday 9 February--Second Reading of the Employment Relations Bill.

Wednesday 10 February--Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until about 7 o'clock, consideration in Committee of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Water Industry Bill.

Thursday 11 February--Until 4 o'clock, motions on the Welsh Revenue Support Grant Reports.

Motions on the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order and the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order.

Motions on the Scotland Act 1998 (Transitional and Transitory Provisions) (Finance) Order and the Scotland Act 1998 (Transitional and Transitory Provisions) (Appropriations) Order.

Friday 12 February--The House will not be sitting. The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

Monday 15 February--Consideration in Committee of the House of Lords Bill [1st Allotted Day].

Tuesday 16 February--Consideration in Committee of the House of Lords Bill [2nd Allotted Day].

Madam Speaker, the House will wish to be reminded that, subject to the progress of business, it is proposed that the House will rise on Tuesday 16 February at the close of business until Monday 22 February. The business for that week will be announced in my next business statement but will include:

Monday 22 February--Second Reading of a Government Bill.

Sir George Young: The House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for the announcement of next week's business, and for an indication of business for the week thereafter. Will she ensure that, next week, the Chancellor will do what she and every other Cabinet Minister has done: answer written questions on details of his use of Royal Air Force and chartered aircraft? Does she understand that his continued refusal to do so, far from diminishing embarrassment to the Government, is increasing it--quite apart from any discourtesy to the House?

Will the Government announce next week the members of the royal commission on the House of Lords, which the right hon. Lady first trailed some four months ago? The commission already faces a very tight timetable, and it will be made more difficult if the commissioners cannot start because they have not been appointed. In light of the recognition by the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office that some Members were unable to participate in

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the Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill earlier this week, may we have a debate in Government time on the broader issues raised by the White Paper?

Against the background of the exchange at Agriculture questions, may we have a debate very soon on the growing confusion in the Government's approach to food safety and consumer protection? On some issues, they overrule the independent advice that they are given, while on others, they say that they must abide by it.

In the light of the deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland, could we have a statement next week by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?

Is the Leader of the House able to shed any light on arrangements for Easter and Whitsun, so that Members and staff of the House can make appropriate plans?

Mrs. Beckett: On the issue of the Chancellor answering written questions on travel costs, I must freely admit at once that I am not aware of ever having been asked such questions. Perhaps my memory is at fault. The Chancellor and other Treasury Ministers gave answers to questions on ministerial travel on 27 October 1997, 11 December 1997, 15 January 1998, 11 March 1998, 19 November 1998, 27 November 1998, 18 January 1999 and 26 January 1999--and those are only the answers that we can trace. The suggestion that the Chancellor has been reluctant to give answers does not stand. Despite the fact that the Opposition spent more money in government on perfectly proper ministerial travel than this Government, they are trying to make mischief and waste Ministers' time. [Hon. Members: "Over 18 years."] I am not talking about 18 years; I am talking about two years.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire(Sir G. Young) asked me when we hope to announce the names of members of the royal commission. I hope to do so in the near future, and certainly before the House of Lords Bill goes into Committee. I hope that that will be of assistance to him.

I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the White Paper. We have already had--perfectly properly--two days on the Floor of the House on Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill, and all the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor of the House, too. I hope and expect that every hon. Member who wishes to contribute to the debate on the matter will be able to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on food safety, on the grounds that there is confusion in the Government's stance. I do not accept that. I say to him, with respect, that if the previous Government had taken as robust an attitude to public safety as this Government, we would not now be needing to have exchanges such as those we had a few moments ago.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a statement on the situation in Northern Ireland. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland keeps matters under review, and such can be raised through the usual channels, if that is thought to be necessary.

The right hon. Gentleman asked finally whether, for the benefit of the House, I can give any indication of the dates of the Easter recess. I cannot give him specific dates, although I anticipate that the Easter recess will include the week commencing Monday 5 April; indeed--as I know that it concerns the efficient handling of Members'

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affairs--may I say that I also anticipate that the Whitsun recess will include the week commencing Monday 31 May? I hope that that is of assistance to the House.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): Will my right hon. Friend assure us that we will have our traditional annual Welsh day debate this month? It could be our last one.

Mrs. Beckett: With great respect to my hon. Friend, I am positive that he alone will make sure that this year's Welsh debate is not our last. I have taken heed of his request.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Leader of the House give urgent consideration to the possibility of a debate in Government time on BSE? I do not know whether the right hon. Lady was in the House a few minutes ago when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made his statement. If she was, she will have noted that that the right hon. Gentleman made a remarkable admission by saying that the chief medical officer is effectively giving credibility to the idea that BSE can be communicated from cow to calf--the so-called maternal transmission theory, which has been discounted in the past.

If that means that cattle born since all infected feed was removed from the food chain in August 1996--30 months ago--could have contracted the disease through maternal transmission, that is a new development of alarming proportions for our agriculture industry, as it brings into question the date-based export scheme, and means that the export ban could remain in place. The Minister's admission is a dramatic development, and it is extremely important that the House is given an opportunity to debate it urgently.

Will the Leader of the House read the report in the Daily Express today, which suggests that in the past BSE information has been shredded in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and that therefore the Phillips inquiry cannot examine all the factors that have been involved?

Mrs. Beckett: I did not hear the part of my right hon. Friend's reply to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, although I did hear some of what my right hon. Friend said. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's concerns to his attention. I cannot at this moment undertake to find time for the debate that the hon. Gentleman seeks, but he will no doubt be able to follow up on the issues that he has raised.

The hon. Gentleman further asks me to give attention to the report in the Daily Express. I always give attention to what is reported in the Daily Express and other newspapers. I understand that there is no evidence that any BSE files have been shredded. The Prime Minister has asked that officials provide the inquiry with all assistance, and they are, indeed, doing so.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Has my right hon. Friend read the brilliant but very disturbing article by James Pringle in The Times today about the catastrophe in North Korea? Given the picture that he

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draws of 3 million out of 20 million people having already died; of children suffering; of mothers offering their babies to people in the forlorn hope that somebody else may look after them; of women refusing to have children because they know that milk and food would not be available; and of stagnant industry, does my right hon. Friend agree that the House would be ready to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development in ensuring that food goes to the stomachs of the children, women and men who are suffering from hunger, and not to the regime or the armed forces? Will she encourage my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to seek any diplomatic initiative that he considers appropriate, particularly with South Korea and China, in order to find a speedy solution to this dreadful problem?

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