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Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): The Leader of the House announced the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill as private business for 7 pm next Monday. Traditionally, the House has a free vote on private Bills. What will be the position of the payroll vote?
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Yesterday, the Audit Commission published a report on care charges for home care. It found wide, unacceptable variations in the charges levied by local authorities and revealed that one in three councils were charging a sum that drove pensioners below the poverty line. Will the Secretary of State for Health give us an early statement, setting out when the Government will take the necessary legislative powers to direct local authorities to change their charging policies so that they are fair and promote dignity and independence in old age?
Mrs. Beckett: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have accepted that the system has an unacceptable scale of variation. We are grateful for the Audit Commission investigation, which gives us the facts, as opposed to anecdotal evidence. However, I understand that it suggests that Liberal Democrat
Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) about tomorrow's announcement by Ford, no one is in any doubt that Ford will announce the end of car production in Dagenham. That will be a blow of regional and national significance and a kick in the teeth for a loyal, skilled work force who, only four years ago, were told by Ford's world president that they were among the best in Europe. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that an urgent statement on Ford will be made if our worst fears are realised?
Mrs. Beckett: May I first say, as I did earlier, that I am aware of the importance attached to Ford's operations in that part of the south-east? My hon. Friend says that there are widespread reports of Ford's intention to make announcements over the next couple of days. He will know, as I do, that for 18 months to two years, Ford's chief executives have been making plain the need to restructure their operations across the whole of Europe. Indeed, substantial discussions have taken place over a long period. Of course, I accept that the matter is especially sensitive in my hon. Friend's part of the country. I cannot give any undertakings as to the precise form of any response, but I shall certainly take on board his expressed wish that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry keep the House informed. My hon. Friend will have noted that there is an Opposition half-day debate next Tuesday, which might provide a vehicle for discussion of the subject. None the less, I shall certainly draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Following the resounding success of the Conservative party in local elections last week, I am sure that the whole House is greatly interested in when we shall have a debate on the health of democratic participation in this country, the effect on turnout and other matters of various voting systems, and, not least, the question of protecting from widespread electoral fraud the postal ballot system in the event of its being extended significantly.
Mrs. Beckett: I certainly take the hon. Gentleman's point. In the aftermath of the elections, we shall evaluate carefully the pilot schemes, although it is my understanding that most, including those involving postal voting, led to increased turnout. I am not aware of any evidence that there was increased fraud, but I am sure that that is an issue that people will raise. Although I am sure that the Conservatives were relieved to have hung on--albeit not especially substantially--to the hon. Gentleman's constituency in the by-election, they would be unwise to ignore both the turnout and the result in Romsey.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the outcome of the non-proliferation treaty review conference that is taking place in New York and concludes next week will have enormous implications for global security in terms of avoiding a new arms race?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a strong point and I am grateful to him for, rightly, identifying the wide range and broad sweep of foreign affairs issues, which are a proper matter for discussion by the House. I shall certainly bear his remarks in mind.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): How does the Leader of the House reconcile the answer she has just given her hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) with the fact that the most important debate of the year--the armed forces, defence and the world debate--was this year scheduled to coincide with local elections and the Romsey by-election, and last year scheduled to coincide with European elections? Is it not about time that the Government listened to representations of the all-party Select Committee on Defence, of which I am privileged to be a member, which asked for that important debate to be held on a date that allowed Members of Parliament to attend in significant numbers? Will she undertake that such cavalier treatment of the most important defence debate of the year will not occur three times in a row?
Mrs. Beckett: Of course I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but, as a member of the Defence Committee, he will know that the Government try to accommodate the pressures on hon. Members--especially those who are members of Select Committees--their other concerns, their travel arrangements, and so on. He will also recognise that, although he regards the defence and the world debate as the most important defence debate of the year, we--quite rightly--have a fairly large number of defence debates to fit into the schedule each year. We always try to take account of the concerns of members of the Select Committee and other right hon. and hon. Members, but it is not always possible to balance them in a way that suits everyone. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point that this year was the second time that the defence and the world debate coincided with local elections.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Last week, I drew to my right hon. Friend's attention the issue of compensation for distant water trawlermen. A report is being prepared and I am told that it will be available shortly. My right hon. Friend assured me that she would raise with the appropriate Ministers my concerns about the fact that the case has been going on for some time. Has she done so? If she has not, may I point out that our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is now sitting at the end of the Treasury Bench? She can nab him on the way out; I have already done so today.
Mrs. Beckett: I assure my hon. Friend that I have indeed raised her concerns with the relevant Department. I am very mindful of her anxiety to get a response and the fact that she has raised those concerns continually for some time.
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Given the number of roles that British forces might have to play in Sierra Leone, why, in her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip- Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), did the Leader of the House take the view that the House of Commons could make no contribution to the Government's decision?
Mrs. Beckett: I am sorry. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, because if that was the impression that I conveyed, it was certainly not what I intended. I simply meant to say to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who tends to raise issues in a rather negative style, that although I recognise the proper concern and anxiety of the House both for the welfare of British troops and for the role that they may play in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I doubt that it will make a material difference to their individual safety at this precise moment whether we are able to discuss the issue in the immediate future or a little later on, when the position is a little clearer.
Of course I accept that it is absolutely right and proper for the House to keep these matters under review, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for enabling me to set the record straight if there was any doubt about it.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My right hon. Friend will be aware that while we are on our Whitsun recess we will pass the 10th anniversary of the election of the National League for Democracy in Burma. That democratically elected group has yet to take office, because of the murderous regime that has taken power. An all-party early-day motion will be tabled to commemorate the event, but I hope that an early date can be found to have a debate on the matter, because it is important that we send a very clear message to that regime.