Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): May we have an urgent debate next week on the Government's failure to respond to Members' correspondence? I am sure that the Leader of the House knows, because she keeps an eye on such things, that the Cabinet Office produced a report the day after the European elections, when everyone had their eye off the ball, showing how appallingly the Government were doing.

The right hon. Lady will know that there is an annual report, and that the figures for 1997 were by common consent appalling. The figures for 1998 are even worse. She will also know that in 1997 only three Departments met the Cabinet Office's target of dealing with 90 per cent. of correspondence within three weeks--which is an appalling target anyway. In 1998 only one Department reached that target--the Cabinet Office, the Department that is doing the measuring--and two Departments, including her own, failed to achieve what they had achieved in 1997. When are we going to see some action, instead of excuses?

Mrs. Beckett: I have not seen the recent figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I am not quarrelling with his interpretation of them. If anyone was going to do that, it would no doubt be my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, when he takes questions next Wednesday. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to ask him about the figures then.

15 Jul 1999 : Column 584

Of course we recognise that it is important to try to improve the record on answering MPs' correspondence, and everyone greatly regrets the fact that no improvement is yet taking place. The amount of correspondence sent to several Departments is increasing sharply, which does not help. However, I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, and the Government will continue working on the matter.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Before we return to Westminster in October the Serbian winter will have set in, so might there be an opportunity for a debate on the Red Cross's warning about Serb starvation? The president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Dr. Astrid Heiberg, has warned that many people in Serbia are on the verge of starvation because of the effects of the recent NATO air raids and the international sanctions. Dr. Heiberg told the BBC that not only Serb refugees from Kosovo, but many elderly people on fixed incomes, were suffering. She appealed to the international community to provide humanitarian aid to Serbia without conditions. Should not the topic at least be debated, before it is too late to do anything about it?

Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate for my hon. Friend before the House rises for the summer, but there are, of course, the pre-recess debates, as he knows. I am not aware of any Red Cross reports predicting mass starvation or stating that people are on the verge of starvation, although I know that the Red Cross is concerned about the prospects for the winter.

Certainly, humanitarian assistance is on offer. There are difficulties in Serbia because there is only limited independent access, but the Government would be prepared to consider any request for assistance through international humanitarian organisations. The European Community Humanitarian Office--ECHO--has allocated 26.5 million euros for humanitarian assistance to Serbia, and the UK's share of that will be some 2.5 million, so I can assure my hon. Friend that some action is being taken and that we will continue to keep the situation under review.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): May we please have a debate on the relationship between the Government, the Labour party, outside single-interest groups, large sums of money and legislation? There have been a number of stories recently, of which the President of the Council is no doubt aware, that there may be some connection between the appearance of legislative proposals and the passage of large sums of money, possibly with threats attached, and between outside interests and the Labour party. I am sure that the President of the Council would want to take an early opportunity either categorically to deny such accusations or, perhaps, to introduce proposals that draft Bills would routinely contain an itemisation of the sums of money that had changed hands in order to get them to the stage of a Government proposal.

Mrs. Beckett: I cannot offer to find time for such a debate, but I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to refute utterly the ridiculous allegations that have been made, and to point out that what was said by the Leader of the

15 Jul 1999 : Column 585

Opposition this morning on the "Today" programme was straightforwardly untrue. There is no truth in the suggestion that the Labour party changed policy on any issue after being given a donation by anyone.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Formula one.

Mrs. Beckett: Formula one is the classic example where we did not change policy. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so ill informed. As I was the shadow Minister in charge of the policy at the time, I am perfectly well aware of the position. [Interruption.]

We were never committed to abolishing funding for sponsorship from tobacco companies. Indeed, I had many conversations with people in the medical profession when they told me how much they welcomed our decision to ban tobacco advertising and how much they regretted that we would not extend it to banning sponsorship of sports, but how fully they understood that that was very much more difficult and that it was a step too far. They did not expect us to ban sponsorship in sports. We were not committed to doing so, and we did not change policy. Anyone who suggests that we did, I am afraid, is telling an untruth.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): My right hon. Friend knows of the excellent work that the Government are doing to combat domestic violence. I do not know whether she had the opportunity to watch the "Newsnight" programme the other evening about the problems of domestic violence that are developing in marriages between British citizens and foreign nationals. The issue is causing great concern, and I have a case in my constituency. I will not name the people involved, but an individual is using every opportunity to prevent the proper rules from being applied, and his partner lives in constant fear of domestic violence. Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the subject at some time in the future?

Mrs. Beckett: I did not see the "Newsnight" programme to which my hon. Friend refers, but hon. Members across the House recognise that domestic violence is a difficult and sensitive subject. He will know that a statement about domestic violence was published recently and that the Government, including my right hon. Friends the Lord Privy Seal and the Home Secretary, who jointly published the major statement, are continuing to work on the matter. I recognise that there are circumstances in which what is always an appalling situation is exacerbated by other factors, and I understand the sensitivities to which my hon. Friend refers. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the subject in the near future, but he also might like to bear in mind the pre-recess debates.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Is there no possibility that we could substitute Monday's debate on Second Reading of the Railways Bill for a debate on the BBC and, in particular, its plans to spend £100 million on landmark programming to celebrate the millennium, which will include a 27-hour live breakfast broadcast that is unlikely to include the proceedings of the House? Many Members of the House, including some on the Labour

15 Jul 1999 : Column 586

Benches, would no doubt like to express the view that that money would be better spent on concessionary licence fees for pensioners.

Mrs. Beckett: No matter how much the BBC is planning to spend on that programme, I rather doubt that the amount would stretch to a budget that could fund concessionary television licences for all pensioners. I was not aware of the proposals to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on the BBC in the near future. Indeed, I would be a little wary of setting a precedent whereby we in the House start to second-guess the television programmers. I think that we second-guess quite enough people as it is.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): My right hon. Friend will be aware from the Secretary of State for Scotland of the excellent news from the Kvaerner shipyards in Govan in Glasgow. She will also be aware that this is a perfect example of a Labour Government helping a labour force to protect and enhance their jobs and their futures. I believe that the action taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, his ministerial colleagues and the trade unions at Kvaerner will save up to 1,200 jobs. I know that the legislative agenda is packed, but can she arrange for an early statement or debate on the detail of the deal? That would not only bring to the fore more information about what the Government have achieved, but provide an opportunity to emphasise to the whole House--including Conservative Members who, we should remember, represent a minority of the English vote--the importance of the continuing role played by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in the Cabinet and in the United Kingdom Parliament.


Next Section

IndexHome Page