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Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend raises an interesting and important point. He is right to say that the House has, historically, found ways to enable people to be at ease with their conscience and to operate properly as Members of Parliament. I am not entirely sure who the issue that he has raised would be a matter for, but I will draw it to the attention of my relevant right hon. and hon. Friends. However, I share his view that, before the matter could even be considered, there would have to be a genuine wish to operate properly as Members of Parliament and in the context of the development of peace.
Mrs. Beckett: It is important that we are to have a debate on the Freedom of Information Bill, which will, for the first time, give a statutory right of freedom to receive information. I take no responsibility for the other debate to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. It is the choice of his right hon. and hon. Friends.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I am grateful that the Leader of the House has found time for us to debate aviation safety, which is essential, particularly in the run-up to the millennium. Will she also find time to debate the role of Railtrack--a company at the centre of the railway system? A report issued today shows that changes in the management and the culture of the company are long overdue. It might be a good idea to look carefully at the role of a private company at the centre of one of our most essential services.
Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for the debate on aviation safety. I understand her interest in, and concern about, the role of Railtrack. The Transport Sub-Committee, which she chairs, has done a great deal of worthwhile work on those issues. I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate just on Railtrack, but she will know that the Transport Bill has been published and will offer opportunities for such concerns to be raised. I shall bear her further remarks in mind.
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): The right hon. Lady has had on her desk since she took office the fourth report of the Select Committee on Procedure about delegated legislation, which was published three years ago. As the present Procedure Committee is also considering the issue, would it not be helpful if the Government were to respond to the report, or at least arrange a debate on it, so that the current Committee can have the views of the House as it proceeds? We are debating modernisation. With more than 1,700 pieces of legislation going forward every year, often unconsidered by the House, it is an essential matter for debate.
Mrs. Beckett: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have found time to debate a number of Procedure Committee reports of late. He says that at least we should have a debate on the report that he referred to, but as he was, if I recall correctly, one of the principal movers behind the establishment of the sittings in Westminster Hall, he is as aware as anybody of how tight time is for debates. I shall bear his remarks in mind, but, given that discussions are in train, I am not sure whether I fully accept his view that now, rather than when the discussions are further advanced, is the time for us to have a debate.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Given the welcome developments in Northern Ireland, what does my right hon. Friend see as the scope of Northern Ireland business in the House in future? We have the Northern
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. There may be issues in the aftermath of developments in the peace process that the House will need to discuss, although I cannot anticipate what they will be. I have not had any indication of what changes are intended for the membership of the various bodies, perhaps because people have been more engaged in dealing with the aftermath of the re-establishment at Stormont. I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but I fear that I cannot give him the information that he seeks today.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Leader of the House knows that there have been some unfounded concerns about aviation with the millennium coming on. Would it be possible to have a debate when we come back--if we cannot have it before then--on the open skies policy? The Government might be impeding some of our people from reducing transatlantic fares and allowing people to travel with more speed and freedom.
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and I am grateful to him for saying that some of the stories that have appeared have been unfounded. I recognise his ingenuity in linking that to the open skies policy. However, I fear that, at this stage of the Session and with legislation to get under way, I see little prospect of finding time for a specific debate on the open skies policy, although I recognise its importance.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Will my right hon. Friend make time available for an early debate on housing? The House will be aware of the developing housing and homelessness crisis in Greater London, where more than 38,000 people are now in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation and considerable numbers are sleeping rough on the streets. The problems and concerns in other parts of the country are more about declining estates and empty properties. The Conservative party has expressed collective nimbyism about the building of new homes in the south-east, where there is a great demand and need for affordable accommodation, and those issues should be aired. We are to have a Green Paper in the next few months, and Parliament should express some views before then.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concerns about the continued aftermath of the difficulties and deficiencies in housing policy that we inherited from the Conservative party. He will know that the Government are seeking to turn that around. However, he will know also that the provision of sound housing takes time. Previous Governments of all political shades have sometimes regretted a great rush to throw up housing in the short term. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue in the near future, but my hon. Friend may like to bear in mind the opportunities that arise in Westminster Hall, and seek a debate in that forum.
Mrs. Beckett: It is unusual for someone to want a statement even before a debate, and I fear that I cannot satisfy the hon. Gentleman in that regard. He talked about the withdrawal of a role for Railtrack. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister has announced that Railtrack will not be charged with sole responsibility because it has been unable to confirm that it could do so on the basis of an integrated system. My right hon. Friend has made it plain that that was the basis of any possibility of Railtrack being given the sole role. That was announced in June. In consequence, I see no need for a statement to confirm what my right hon. Friend said was the framework of the negotiations then.
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the extreme frustration of many of my constituents in Norfolk about the fact that they are having to watch Yorkshire and north English television regionally. Last week, the Minister responsible for broadcasting came to Norfolk. Although supportive of the need to address the problem, she had to relaythe information that the next major legislation on broadcasting is not likely to be until the next Parliament. In those circumstances, and given the good will expressed by Ministers--and the fact that I must be one of 30 or 40 hon. Members with constituents in this position--is there any chance that the Government will be willing to give a fair wind and some time to a private Member's Bill specifically addressing this issue?
Mrs. Beckett: I have great sympathy with the concern that my hon. Friend expresses, and I know that it is a cause of great resentment in the areas the he and other hon. Members represent that that choice is denied. However, I am not sure that I share my hon. Friend's confidence that legislation would be the best way to tackle the problem, still less that the best solution would be a private Member's Bill. However, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will exercise his persuasive powers on those hon. Members who won a place in the ballot for private Member's Bills. I wish him well with his efforts, but I cannot undertake to provide the support that he seeks.