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Mrs. Beckett: I am aware of the concern felt by my hon. Friend and, indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House. I fear that I cannot provide time for a special debate on the time scale that he suggests, but he may have an opportunity to alert hon. Members to the meeting during questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions next week.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's successful speech to the National Farmers Union this week, does the Leader of the House think that she could persuade him to make a speech to the House about the countryside? The Prime Minister does not seem to understand that, without a prosperous farming and agriculture industry, we shall not have the beauty and attractiveness of the British countryside.

Mrs. Beckett: I thought it was clear from what my right hon. Friend said yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time that he is well aware of the problems that have arisen in the countryside, and is also well aware that they did not all start in May 1997.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Can the Leader of the House tell us when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will tell the House about his proposals for the BBC's digital licence fee? As she will know, the front page of today's edition of The Sun suggests that the licence fee will be increased by £15 for all subscribers, but the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has said that there should be no increase. I am sure most hon. Members agree that it is unacceptable for the BBC licence fee to increase by £15. She might also be aware of all the concerns of our constituents. Those who are aged between 60 and 74, who do not benefit from the free licence fee that the Government have announced recently, would find it a complete insult if their licence fee went up by £15.

Mrs. Beckett: I have already said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State anticipates making an announcement about the Davies report; he will make it when he is able to do so. The hon. Lady referred to the claims in The Sun today, which are, I understand, wrong. She drew attention to the concerns of those who are not eligible for the Government's concession on television licences for the over-75s, on which I have yet to hear any Conservative Member congratulate the Government.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on employment among older workers, which just happens to be the title of early-day motion 341, which was tabled yesterday in my name? It has the support of 49 hon. Members from the three main parties:

[That this House observes with regret the lower earnings of workers over the age of 50 and the smaller proportion of workers over the age of 50 who are in

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employment, both in comparison with other age groups and historically; notes that the proportion of employees aged over 50 is lowest amongst large public and private sector employers; recognises that many people in their late middle years wish to be usefully employed but are not; welcomes measures taken by Governments in recent years, including the New Deal for 50 plus, and acknowledges that these measures have not had time to yield results; and calls upon the Government and other employers to put more resources into the encouragement and career development of their older employees rather than into enhancements of early retirement benefits as an addition to an active strategy to discourage discrimination against older workers.]

Simply to demonstrate a point, many of the signatories are from the older end and are hard-working, capable and valued Members of the House. It is a great pity that older workers are not so valued in other sectors of employment, particularly many Government Departments.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend will, I am sure, be aware that last June the Government launched a code of practice on age diversity in employment and are actively promoting the principles of the code in government. A further large-scale promotion will be launched shortly. The code's impact so far will be evaluated to find out whether further steps need to be taken to tackle age discrimination. Of course, I recognise and endorse her view that, within the great range of Members who are represented in the House, there are many whose years and experience lend weight and value to their contributions.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House--either in a debate, or to make a statement--to confirm a report in the press that, yesterday, he confirmed plans for a new class of after-care wards for elderly patients in an effort to free badly needed acute beds? My constituents cannot understand such sentiments coming from a Secretary of State who has closed a hospital in the constituency of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) and in that of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), and who has closed even more beds in Abingdon. The Government profess to want more beds for elderly care, but they are closing community hospitals.

Mrs. Beckett: Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State continues to make a number of proposals and announcements to modernise and reform the health service so that it delivers a better standard of care. I do not think there is a community in the country that is not attached to its local hospital--whatever its provision and the pattern of that provision--and does not always feel regret and concern when any proposals are made for change. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Secretary of State makes or approves proposals with the wish to see a strong, healthy national health service that survives for the future and to improve that service, contrary to proposals that might come from the Conservative party.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): Will my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate on the protection of public open spaces? May I tell her by way of example of the need for such a debate that the granting

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of metropolitan open land status for Field End recreation ground, Roxbourne park and Roxbourne rough is, rightly, of considerable importance to my constituents in South Harrow and Rayners Lane? I therefore ask her to put some pressure on colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to agree to such a debate.

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he has been running a strong local campaign on the issue and that there is much interest among his constituents. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for another debate in the Chamber on the matter in the near future, but he may be aware that on, I believe, 2 March there will be a debate in Westminster Hall, where there may be scope for such issues to be aired.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): May I reinforce what other hon. Members have said by asking the Leader of the House whether she can find time for a debate on rural affairs, so that the Prime Minister could explain to the House what he explained to the NFU annual general meeting, and particularly so that he could explain to my constituent pig farmers--who at this very moment are holding a vigil outside this place--why he is effectively sentencing them to bankruptcy by imposing charges that our European counterparts who import meat into this country do not have to face?

Mrs. Beckett: I was pleased to see in the Leader of the Opposition's remarks to the NFU annual conference an admission that I have not yet heard across the Floor of the Chamber--that agriculture's problems did not start on 1 May 1997. That is certainly true, and it is particularly true for pig farmers. Many of the regulations that they are having to meet--which we know are causing them difficulties, and on which we have given a great deal of assistance and support--were introduced by the previous Government, which the hon. Gentleman supported.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 347, on the completion of the biosafety protocol at Montreal:

[That this House welcomes the agreement reached in Montreal last week in respect of the Biosafety Protocol; congratulates the Minister for the Environment on his role in securing the support of European and non-aligned nations for the protocol; and recognises the overriding importance of the precautionary principle and environmental sustainability in all discussions relating to international trade and development.]

Many of the non-governmental organisations returning to the United Kingdom have spoken in glowing terms about the role played by the Minister for the Environment in achieving a remarkable agreement that, for the first time, puts the precautionary principle in human and environmental health alongside trade considerations in international affairs. Could we have a statement on those discussions so that the House may pay its own tributes to the Minister? Could a copy of the protocol also be placed in the Library to support the statement?

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the

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Environment had a considerable triumph at the Montreal conference, and I think that the whole House will welcome the fact that we have the first proper substantial international agreement on a biosafety protocol. Although I cannot find time in the near future to discuss the matter again, I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend, who I know will be grateful and will seek to inform the House, as my hon. Friend has requested.


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