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Sir Patrick Cormack: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business for next week and the provisional business for the week after. I also thank her for telling us the immediate future plans for Westminster Hall. Finally, I thank her on behalf of the staff of the House for announcing the dates of the Christmas recess, although I must express some disappointment on behalf of the staff that the Friday of the preceding week has not been given as the date for the rise of the House.

Can the Government indicate to us their thinking when we debate the royal commission on long-term care next week? My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and I have pressed for such a debate for some months. Following that delay, it would be useful to know the Government's response to that royal commission, as well as hearing the views of the House.

May I also welcome the debate on Thursday 9 December on the World Trade Organisation millennium round? As the right hon. Lady will know, we have much sympathy with the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Perhaps, again, we can have a definitive statement of the Government's position during that debate.

May I ask for an absolute assurance that the Standing Committee and remaining stages of the Representation of the People Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House? This is a constitutional Bill of far-reaching importance. When electoral reform measures were put before the House in 1984 and 1989, they were taken on the Floor of the House, as was a much less significant measure in 1983, for which there was also a joint Select Committee of both Houses. Therefore, we expect this Bill to be taken on the Floor of the House.

Will the right hon. Lady give us some sign of when we will have the autumn expenditure debate for which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire also asked last week? Will she also tell us when we will have the two-day defence debate, which the House has been denied for a long time and which we would expect?

Will the right hon. Lady also promise that on Monday the Prime Minister will give a statement to the House on the summit that is taking place in Downing street? Also, in view of the confusing and ambivalent reports in today's papers, will she give an absolutely clear undertaking on where the Government stand on the beef ban? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could also explain why he has not given Mr. Jospin some excellent British beef for lunch. As the right hon. Lady knows, many people find it utterly incomprehensible that we still have a ban on beef on the bone and, as Christmas is approaching and beef is a traditional Christmas dish, will she give an assurance that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is not a million miles away from her at this moment, will make it clear to the House beyond doubt that we can have beef on the bone for Christmas?

Finally, the right hon. Lady was good enough to tell us the dates for the Christmas recess and we appreciate that. As she will know, the Modernisation Committee, of which she is Chairman, called for a much more structured

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parliamentary year and talked about a constituency week in February. Will she promise to announce before Christmas the remaining dates of this parliamentary year?

Mrs. Beckett: I hope that I will not forget any of that. First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the dates of the Christmas recess. To pick up on his final point, I fear, however, that we have done well to give both the dates of rising and of the return of the House and I am certainly not in a position to give any other dates at this point in the year. While it is highly desirable to have a more structured parliamentary year, and I would like to be able to give firmer dates for the year ahead, that depends--as it is bound to do--on the progress of business. The hon. Gentleman will know that, from time to time, business does not progress as smoothly as we would all wish. The recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, as far as I recall--although I was not then a member of it--were predicated on matters such as programme motions, which might be voluntarily agreed to enable more structured discussion. While we lack more structured discussion, we cannot have a more structured timetable.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the debates on long-term care. If he casts his mind back, he will recall that the pressure for a debate on the royal commission report has always been so that the House could have a chance to express its view and people could air the ideas floated in that report. He is now asking me for a clear indication of Government policy. We undertook to structure a debate so that the House could have a chance to air the issues and give its views and that is the debate that is being provided.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we would use the WTO debate to give a commitment and undertaking about the progress sought by Jubilee 2000. He will know that that is not quite the same as the WTO discussions on a whole new trade round. Indeed, it is not possible to judge that at present, because the Seattle talks have not yet begun. However, I should be surprised if there is not sufficient material in those talks to take up the time for the debate, without being able to go into the issues on Jubilee 2000. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have been working on those issues, but I do not anticipate they will necessarily be covered during that debate.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for an absolute assurance that the whole Committee and Report stages of the Representation of the People Bill would be taken on the Floor of the House. All I can say is that I am prepared to consider that matter and to discuss it. I am a little sceptical about the readiness with which the Opposition identify what they think are constitutional issues--especially the notion that that entire Bill should be taken on the Floor of the House. I am prepared to discuss the matter, but I am certainly not prepared to give such a commitment at present.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we continue to discuss the handling and the timing of the public expenditure debates, and I assure him that we are looking anxiously for an outcome to those discussions.

The hon. Gentleman said that the House had been denied the debate on the defence report. That is a little unfair. We made it plain that the defence White Paper

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would need substantial rewriting and updating, following defence developments during the year--especially over the summer--but that we would present it to the House as soon as we could, and that we anticipated holding a debate on it as soon as possible, given that we should need to take into account the report of the Select Committee on Defence on the matter before we put it to the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a statement on the Anglo-French summit. As he will be aware, the precedent is that the Prime Minister comes to the House to make a statement after formal European summits. There is no precedent for a demand for a statement after every informal summit--indeed, that would hardly be practical.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a string of questions about beef. I say simply that, of course, those are issues of importance and concern--the whole House realises that. However, in calling for them to be aired so thoroughly immediately after Agriculture questions, perhaps his timing was a little off.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to a debate on early-day motion 1?

[That this House welcomes the Government's decision to raise income support for pensioners annually in line with average earnings, but regrets the widening gap between the basic pension and income support; notes the Treasury's estimate that by April 2002 the National Insurance Fund's balance will be £8.43 billion above the minimum recommended by the Government Actuary; and urges that part of that surplus should be used to restore the link between the basic pension and average earnings for the remaining years of this Parliament, thus ensuring that all pensioners share in the nation's increasing prosperity and preventing a further increase in the number receiving income support.]

Yesterday, 1,000 pensioners came to Parliament to campaign and to lobby the House for the restoration of the link between average earnings and the basic pension. Pensioners, rightly, feel insulted by this year's award of 75p. They correctly point out that the basic pension is not welfare--not a gift from a generous Government--but an entitlement for which they have paid throughout their working lives. They feel rightly contemptuous of some of the Government's other attempts to give them money in the form of a demeaning handout. [Interruption.]

The pensioners came here yesterday in great numbers, but I have not seen a syllable of report about their demonstration in this morning's newspapers. This morning, one of them asked me, "Must we behave as certain other groups do, and demonstrate more violently before the Government hear our just demand?" There is a surplus of £8 billion in the national insurance fund; there was £3 billion when we came into office and £5.9 billion last year. In 2002, there will still be £8 billion. The money is there. Why do not we honour the promise that we have made to the pensioners over the past 20 years to restore the link?

Mrs. Beckett: With respect to my hon. Friend, that was not the promise that we made over the past 20 years. Of course, I understand that pensioners are dismayed. He will realise--as perhaps they are, perfectly understandably, less willing to do--that the scale of the proposed increase is linked to the rate of inflation. It is a consequence of the

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low rate of inflation that that figure translates into about 75p. He talks--[Interruption.] Opposition Members are muttering about grinding the pensioners down. When my hon. Friend referred to pensioners' entitlement and said that pensioners regarded the award as contemptuous, Opposition Members cheered. I want to hear no more on that matter from Opposition Members. The Conservatives broke the link between pensions and earnings and took many other steps to erode the income of pensioners. It was a Mr. Michael Portillo--when he was a Member of this House--who said that the policy of the Conservative party would, over time, render the basic state pension nugatory. In consequence, he recommended that people should make private pension provision. The Government are starting to repair the damage done by the Conservative party, and Conservative Members have no right whatever to say anything, except to apologise.

I simply say to my hon. Friend that I do, of course, understand to the full pensioners' concern that they have paid their contributions and that they feel entitled to a decent pension, but he knows that the scheme is not funded--it is a pay-as-you-go scheme--and that the Government of the day have to find the resources.

The Government have chosen to give priority to the oldest pensioners, who, as my hon. Friend knows, are, for a variety of reasons, the poorest. We are doing as much as we can to help all pensioners, but giving priority to those who are least well off. I doubt that my hon. Friend will disapprove of that, although I know that he will continue to campaign for a greater increase for pensioners.


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