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Angela Smith (Basildon): As we move towards the anniversary of the gunpowder plot on 5 November, it may not surprise hon. Members that many people will be celebrating this weekend. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1088:
At the moment, it does not have many signatures. It may be that hon. Members do not agree with the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), but there is a great deal of concern among our constituents about the nuisance, disruption and injuries caused largely because of the sale of ordinary fireworks to the public. Is it not time to reconsider the option of restricting the sale of fireworks, as many of our constituents are being disturbed and troubled by the illegal use of fireworks?
Mrs. Beckett: I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. There is concern if fireworks are used disruptively, and public safety is always a worry at this time of year. Although of course I share my hon. Friend's sympathy and concern for those who find these things distressing or who are in any way injured, the Government have again looked carefully at a review that was carried out by the previous Government about the possibility of banning the sale of fireworks to the general public. There remains concern that were we to do so, a black market in these goods might develop, or it might lead to some people producing home-made devices, and that would be even worse. We keep the matter under review, but I cannot undertake to act as my hon. Friend wishes at present.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Is the Leader of the House aware of the considerable difficulties that some hon. Members had in reaching the House on Monday? Will she consider carefully what steps are in her power to take, in consultation with you, Mr. Speaker, should the same happen next Monday? To illustrate that, let me draw her attention to the fact that at one stage on Monday my only route to the House appeared to be to fly to London City airport via Jersey, with no guarantee that the second half of the journey would take place. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I managed to make it here.
The Leader of the House will be aware that similar problems involving public transport in general could arise if the statement that the Home Secretary has just given is repeated in future as the result of another fuel blockade? In such circumstances, attendance in the House will be unrepresentative, as it will consist of Members whose constituencies are close to the House, such as London Members. In those circumstances, what powers are available to the Leader of the House, in consultation with you, Mr. Speaker, to change the business of the House at short notice?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I am aware that many colleagues experienced difficulties, although, as he will have observed, many overcame those difficulties. The hon. Gentleman did not put it like this, but I understand that, had he travelled via Jersey, he might have been tempted not to complete the second half of his journey.
Any Government keep those matters under review because, in any winter, there are times when there are problems for Members. Of course, the matter is significantly one for Mr. Speaker, as well as the Government when dealing with the business. We shall keep these matters under review, but the hon. Gentleman will accept that, after last week's experience, Members will be mindful of the need to make satisfactory arrangements to try to attend the House.
I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the case of a 10-year-old constituent of mine, young Owen Roberts of Gibbonsdown in Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan, who broke his arm very badly eight weeks ago. His mum was unable to get medical attention or to get him to hospital for nearly 24 hours as a direct result of the actions of the so-called fuel protesters. In the light of evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry about the high level of threats and intimidation, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate in the House to assess accurately the effects of the protest?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the difficulties that many members of the public experienced, and I trust that the whole House is sorry to hear of the pain and difficulty experienced by a young constituent and the undoubted distress felt by any parent in those circumstances.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the effect of the disruption on people's lives. No matter how hard those engaged in such disruption try to minimise the effects on, for example, essential services, there will always be difficulties that cannot be overcome. I recognise that there were few arrests, as Opposition Members pointed out. It is generally held that much of the action that is now being described took place out of sight of the police, but I hope that even Opposition Members will not challenge the accuracy of statements being made, not by the Government but by oil companies and tanker drivers about the problems that they experienced. I hope that no one in the House supports such action.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): May we have an urgent debate on Monday entitled "The Suffocation of the House of Commons" so that we can highlight the arrogance of the Government and, I regret to say, the Leader of the House in seeking to cut short the debate on the curtailment of debates in the House of Commons in perpetuity? That would also allow us to highlight the fact that the Liaison Committee's report to the Government and the House, which recommends proper accountability of Government, is being hidden away. Indeed, the Government will not even allow it to be voted on.
Those are serious matters and must not be allowed to slip by without the House being given a proper opportunity to discuss in a full day's debate without time limit the fact that we are about to end all possibilities in the House for proper Government accountability and opposition.
Mrs. Beckett: I see no point in having an urgent debate on Monday about something that will be debated on Tuesday. As for the notion that, in some way, it is improper to discuss whether we should programme our business better, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are those on his Benches who have long advocated such moves; that the matter was raised in the Jopling report; that that was also supported in the House; and that, only this week, the Hansard Society has published a report making a number of recommendations, of which the first is that all parliamentary business should be timetabled in precisely the way that the Modernisation Committee has proposed. The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to say that he believes that all those who advocate that view are wrong, but he cannot, in those circumstances, be correct in saying that it is a unique example of the arrogance of the Government and the Government alone.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the Liaison Committee report. Again, that is not being hidden away. It is being debated in accordance with precedent on a motion for the Adjournment. As for whether it will be voted on, Members can vote on a motion for the Adjournment if they choose, and do so from time to time.
Much has been said about the issue of a free vote. On any House matter, there are free votes on the Labour side. It is not clear from what the Leader of the Opposition said about the Liaison Committee report whether there is any intention to have a free vote on that on the Conservative side.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The Leader of the House will be aware that there was a half-hour debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on Saint-Gobain's takeover and proposed closure of Biwaters, which would lead to 700 jobs being lost in the constituency that I represent. She might not be aware that that debate left many questions unanswered and many other issues in dispute.
May we have a wider debate to allow us to discuss the powers of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry under the Fair Trading Act 1973 to refer mergers to the Competition Commission, and to discuss what is considered to be a material fact in that case? We were informed that it was not a material fact that there were proposals to close Biwaters. That seems to a number of us to be incorrect and should be considered by the House. There is an important matter to pursue.
I raised the issue last week and the Leader of the House said that she would have a word with the Prime Minister about the petition that was sent by my constituents to Downing street. I wonder whether anything followed from that.
Mrs. Beckett: To take up my hon. Friend's last point, of course that was drawn to the attention of the relevant authorities. I fear that I have not come armed with the answer. To return to his first and later points, I know that he has on a number of occasions raised the problems being experienced at Biwaters by his constituents and pursued them assiduously through all the channels open to him. He now makes a different, although equally legitimate, point about the role and powers of the Secretary of State. It is an issue that could be separately explored. Again, my hon. Friend might like to use the opportunities that he has already used in raising the specific issue of Biwaters and the problems that have arisen there. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the House on the subject in the near future.