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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): One understands the reasons for delays in a statement, but could the Leader of the House tell us whether the de Chastelain report will be published shortly so that people can see what he said? In the light of the Prime Minister's statement yesterday, there is deep concern that he stand by his position that no one can be in executive government without decommissioning. Mr. Ahern has said the same thing. However, because the First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), has taken a firm line, he has been criticised for trying to sabotage the agreement. Surely the House stands by democratic process.

Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the information that he seeks now, but I shall of course ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of the questions that he has asked so that he can consider whether he is able to answer them in the statement he expects to make later today. The hon. Gentleman will know that both my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister have been very clear and firm about what is required, and that they--like all hon. Members, I hope--are very anxious to see the peace process continue and strengthen.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): With more than 22,000 pensioners in my constituency, I am well aware that the Government have made a good start on helping pensioners, and particularly on dealing with poverty, which is all too common in the pensioner age group. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that the needs of elderly people are varied and that not all of those needs can be met by fiscal measures? Does she agree that there are leisure, education and health issues to be addressed in provision for elderly people? Does she accept that this would be a good time to have a full day's debate, in Government time, on the needs of the elderly, so that not only those issues, but financial ones, can be debated?

Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on the needs of the elderly, although I entirely share my hon. Friend's view--I think that the whole House will--that those needs are varied and are not solely financial. He will know how much the Government are doing, both for the health service and in education, to widen opportunities, not least for the elderly. However, I think that my hon. Friend will know that there are other opportunities which he and other hon. Members can seek, perhaps in Westminster Hall, to find time for those issues. I fear that, at present, I cannot offer him a Government day.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): How generous a mesh does the

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Government Whips Office use if 16 Parliamentary Private Secretaries could slip through the net last night? In anticipation of our debate next Tuesday on the Armed Forces (Discipline) Bill, how do the Government currently enforce collective responsibility?

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that, although the Government prefer people to understand and recognise when collective responsibility applies, the issue that some hon. Members were discussing late last night was a matter for the House. We are all Members of the House.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): Will my right hon. Friend find time in the near future for a debate on low pay, particularly given the recent conversion of the Conservative party to the national minimum wage?

Mrs. Beckett: That conversion is so recent that I have not had an opportunity to explore its strength and depth. I understand from hearsay that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) has said that the Conservatives no longer propose to repeal the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. That is welcome news, although it is slightly surprising to those of us who have long observed their hostility on the matter. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has told the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does the right hon. Lady agree that we should have an early opportunity to debate the Cabinet Office paper on sharing nature's prosperity? Is she aware that between the summer of 1995 and the end of 1999, 81 per cent. of those prescribed interferon in the Lincolnshire health authority area did not receive treatment? Is she also aware that during the first two years of this Government, the number of policemen in the county of Lincolnshire fell by 49? Are not those good examples of Lincolnshire not sharing in the prosperity of Britain?

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. and learned Gentleman may not realise that he slightly confused me by appearing to talk about sharing nature's prosperity.

Mr. Hogg: The nation's.

Mrs. Beckett: I realise that now, but he confused me for a second. He has made some serious comments about concerns in Lincolnshire relating to the health authority and the police. I am aware that Lincolnshire has not always enjoyed the prosperity evident in other parts of the country. There is a great deal of work to be done there. Having been a Member of Parliament for that part of the world, I am well aware of the enormous contribution made to the difficulties of Lincolnshire by the Government of whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a member.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Is my right hon. Friend aware that last night's decision was not merely a rejection by some of us of the judgment of Her Majesty's Opposition in nominating the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to the House of Commons Commission, but an expression of concern

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about the way such appointments are made? Will she find time to debate that serious issue, which was prefigured in our discussion on the Braithwaite report?

Mrs. Beckett: I do not wish or intend to be drawn in depth into the subject that was discussed yesterday. My hon. Friend is right--the Braithwaite report raises issues relating to how members of the House of Commons Commission are appointed, as well as how its responsibilities are exercised. However, I am ever mindful that the House, like any other place of business or community, works best when there is mutual tolerance.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Following the right hon. Lady's refusal to grant the debate requested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), does she accept that there is an important issue of accountability at stake? The Foreign Secretary should be sent to the Commons to explain how and why Her Majesty's Government, at the behest of the presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Union, propose to interfere in the internal democratic affairs of Austria while welcoming into government apologists for terrorism--namely Sinn Fein-IRA.

Mrs. Beckett: I do not propose to follow the hon. Gentleman down either of the two paths that he has raised. I am confident that he would not wish to be thought to be saying anything that in any way confers respectability on a party that has said things which I would hope all hon. Members would find unacceptable and intolerable. Also, I would hope that even Opposition Members would have no wish to do or say anything at this point which will in any way hinder or jeopardise the peace process.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Will the right hon. Lady find Government time for a debate on the tragic plight--now nearly 40 years old--of the nuclear test veterans and their families, and couple that with a statement on the latest situation with regard to the Government's response to military and civilian veterans of the Gulf? That should take place in the near future. If she cannot provide a debate on that, could she ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement to the House about resourcing those two groups, so that they can get further clarification and put their cases through the courts in this country and in Europe?

Mrs. Beckett: I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on these matters in the near future. However, the Government have doubled expenditure on research into the illnesses experienced by Gulf war veterans. Also, these issues can be raised in the context of the defence White Paper. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have a commitment to hold a debate as soon as we are reasonably able to do so and after the Select Committee on Defence has looked at the White Paper. He will find that there is time to raise these issues without a specialist debate in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Bearing in mind the astonishing remarks made by the Prime Minister at the National Farmers Union conference--to the effect that there was no crisis in the countryside and that any trifling problems that farmers had could be dealt with by

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embracing the internet--could I ask the right hon. Lady to consider again the many requests that she has had for a debate on rural areas? Would not that give us the opportunity to consider the fate of sub-post offices, such as that in Liverton in my constituency run by Kay Cooper, who runs a successful enterprise, but finds that some 50 per cent. of the turnover of the shop is attributable, directly or indirectly, to the distribution of state benefits? Surely the House ought to have an opportunity to understand the devastating effect on the rural community if the Government's clandestine policy of forcing people to do their transactions through banks comes about. Bearing in mind the requests that she has had today, will the right hon. Lady consider that application for a debate?


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