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Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right that competition in the financial markets is beneficial and that the element that mutuality can provide is worth while. Certainly that is the view of all on this side of the House and, until I heard certain remarks from the Opposition, I had thought that was perhaps even the view of Conservative Members. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend will know that there are now 200 extra opportunities for debates--in Westminster Hall--and I suggest that she should perhaps consider one of those.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): We know that the Government are shirking their responsibility to reply to the Neill report, but so far they have also failed to reply to or to allow a debate on the Fritchie report, which points to deliberate and systematic politicisation of national health service appointments under this Government. Given that the written answers that I have now obtained demonstrate that things have not improved since the report's publication and that, indeed, 30 per cent. of short-listed applicants for appointments as non-executives to the new primary care trusts declare political activity for the Labour party, is it not now essential that the Government make a statement or allow a debate on the matter?

Mrs. Beckett: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government will reply to the Neill report and that we are still within the time that is normally expected for such replies to be made, so the notion that the Government are evading their responsibilities is not in any way borne out. I remind him too, on the issue of the Fritchie report, that the appointments made under this Government have

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resulted in substantially more women and people from minority communities being appointed to such boards than previously. I note that the Conservative party is opposed to that.

When the hon. Gentleman talks about 30 per cent. of recent appointees being from the Labour party, we are talking about the smallest element--the political appointees--of the appointments that are made. Within those, it is perfectly natural that some come from the Labour party, although I recognise that that was not what happened under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I was tempted to ask whether we might have a statement from the Minister responsible for Lord Levy on whether Lord Levy has been given the number of the Inland Revenue's confidential tax helpline to help those in the hidden economy regularise their affairs--but I will resist that temptation. May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on the reason why his office cleared last night's speech by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, outrageously suggesting that a future Labour Government would bring in the alternative vote system for future parliamentary elections? Had it been applied at the last election the Government's disproportionate victory would have been massively increased. Is this not a sign that the Government are beginning to recognise that their only hope for long-term electoral success is to rig the rules, fix the elections and cheat the electorate?

Mrs. Beckett: First, Lord Levy has made it plain that he disagrees with tax avoidance and has never practised it. Unlike many who support the Conservative party, he has paid literally millions of pounds in tax in this country without taking advantage of any of the avoidance devices so familiar to Members opposite. Secondly, I have not seen a report which makes the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman is making about the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The reports that I have seen suggest that my right hon. Friend said that the matter should not be regarded as closed and that people should give serious consideration to it. As for the notion that there are currently any proposals to change the electoral system, the hon. Gentleman will know that there are not.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the right hon. Lady invite her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to make a statement to the House in the next few weeks on the state of negotiations between the United Kingdom and United States Governments on bilateral air service agreements? Will the Secretary of State take that opportunity to give the House an assurance that he will not conclude such negotiations under pressure from the US before elections take place there this year, unless it is in the interests of British airlines--passenger and cargo--to do so? Will he also give the House an assurance that he will conclude any agreement only on the basis of access to US cabotage--with an end to the "fly American" policy and to the stringent ownership and control rights currently enjoyed by the Americans?

Mrs. Beckett: I am not aware in precise detail of where we are on the timing of the negotiations; to my

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knowledge, they have been going on--literally--for years. The reason they have been going on for years is because the Deputy Prime Minister is determined to defend Britain's interests--as the House would expect.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): May we have a debate on the agreement on the civil list reported in today's newspapers? It appears that the royal household has cut its costs enormously and that there will be a real-terms reduction in the amount paid to the civil list. Perhaps it would be useful if someone from the royal household could put a feed into the Government as to how one can cut one's costs these days, especially as the Prime Minister--in setting up his presidential office--seems constantly to be increasing expenditure.

Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate, or indicate that there is likely to be a statement on the matter in the near future.

On costs, the hon. Gentleman should know that the costs of central Government have reduced in real terms since the Labour Government were elected. As for how the royal household managed to make savings, it is my understanding that--perfectly reasonably, as it was a long-term settlement--the royal household assumed, and it was assumed under the previous settlement, that inflation and interest rates would continue at the same disastrous levels as they were under the Conservatives. A successful Government conducting a successful economic policy have turned that around.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): As the right hon. Lady is aware, the Prime Minister chose to alter the structure of Prime Minister's Question Time after the general election. May we have an urgent debate about the new structure that we seem to have? The right hon. Lady will be aware that an analysis of yesterday's Prime Minister's Question Time shows that the Prime Minister spent more than 25 per cent. of his answer time talking about what he perceived to be Conservative party policy. Is it not true that he is not responsible for Conservative party policy? Is it not completely improper that he deliberately sets out to distort policy when he knows that what he is saying is not the truth?

Madam Speaker: Order. I cannot accept that last sentence. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman realised what he was implying. He must apologise and withdraw those remarks.

Mr. Fabricant: I have no hesitation in withdrawing them. I am sure that the Prime Minister does not mean to give a misleading misrepresentation of Conservative party policy.

Mrs. Beckett: I am aware, as we all are, of the changes made by the Prime Minister. That has resulted in his being in attendance at Prime Minister's Question Time more often. He has taken more questions than his predecessor, just as he has made more statements than his predecessor.

I have not calculated--indeed, I should be surprised if anyone could do so--how much time was spent yesterday on remarks on Conservative party policy. However, if it

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was 25 per cent., that too is a significant improvement, as it is well within my memory that my right hon. Friend's predecessor used to spend at least 90 per cent. of his time talking about Labour party policy.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): May we have a debate on postal services? The Postal Services Bill has received its Second Reading. Many of us sat, day after day, in Committee on that Bill and it has been considered on Report and Third Reading--but there was not a word from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about how he would help rural post offices until yesterday's statement. It was only when the Prime Minister got a rollicking from the Women's Institute that the Government made any proposals to help rural post offices. In addition to a debate on rural post offices and the future of the Post Office, will the Leader of the House advise us on how to nominate the WI for a collective DBE for its contribution to the rural economy?

Mrs. Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman took part in the debates on the Postal Services Bill, he must surely have observed the discussions about the possibility of making resources available to keep a good post office network. If he thought that that would exclude rural post offices, I would be very surprised. The statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was welcomed by both sides of the House and it was based on a performance and innovation unit report that has self-evidently been under preparation for a considerable time. The notion that the statement was in some way related to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's speech to the WI has no foundation. On the other issues that surrounded that speech, a small number of those in attendance clearly did not wish to know what the Government are doing for rural post offices, but I imagine that most of the population take a rather different view.

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