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Mrs. Beckett: Again, Conservative Members' memories are failing them. Crime rose steadily throughout their period in office. We all greatly regret that. I am aware of the Fitzgerald report, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is carefully studying the issues that it raises. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a very early debate on the matter, although I have no doubt that the House will want to return to it and study it carefully.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): The Leader of the House will recall that I asked last week whether she would make available time for the Law Officers to come to the House to make a statement about the legal options open to this country in the light of the continued ban of our beef by France. Nothing has been forthcoming. The possibilities include injunctive relief. Our farmers have suffered another week of their desperate plight and I am looking for a response--please--so that we can tell our farmers what options we have. Forget a year of delivery: a week of delivery would be very nice, thank you.

Mrs. Beckett: I can only tell the hon. Gentleman what I told him last time: there will be oral questions during the first week back, and it is very clear where we stand legally, as the French Government are being taken to court and have been given a tight timetable within which to respond.

Mr. O'Brien: Injunctive relief.

Mrs. Beckett: I am aware that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of an injunction, and I have no doubt that that point has been taken on board. All Governments from time to time deal with issues that come before the European Court. I have not taken the mind of my colleagues on this matter, but it occurs to me that there may be times when the British Government would not want a rush to an injunction, and I can well imagine Conservative Members complaining bitterly if such a step were taken. All the factors must be carefully considered and I have no doubt that the Law Officers are indeed considering them.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): A few moments ago, we had a very serious statement on the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the Thompson and Venables case; but that is not the only ruling issued by the court today. Has the Leader of the House received a request from the Secretary of State for Social Security to make an urgent statement to the House about the

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Government being overruled on the payment of winter fuel benefit to men over 60? That will cost the Government an extra £30 million.

Mr. Forth: The taxpayer, not the Government.

Mr. Fabricant: Indeed, the taxpayer. One and a half million people will benefit, which I suppose is the good news. Far more seriously, it seems that the judgment is part of a major campaign, the ultimate objective of which is equal state pension ages for men and women. If the European Court of Human Rights accepts that, it will cost the Government and the taxpayer billions of pounds. When will a statement be made; and when will the Secretary of State apologise to the House for having passed legislation just 11 months ago that has so quickly been overruled?

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman's point is rather silly, because no Secretary of State can introduce legislation on the assumption that no court will ever make changes in it. However, the hon. Gentleman's initial remarks raised a serious issue. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security had not been aware that the judgment was to be madepublic this morning; otherwise, he would have made arrangements to inform the House. A parliamentary question has now been tabled and will be answered on the next sitting day. My right hon. Friend is considering urgently how he can inform right hon. and hon. Members of the judgment.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Has not one product of the so-called year of delivery been the delivery of a parody of a democratic electoral system for European elections? Out of 89 MEPs elected last June, only 29 were Labour. Within six months, two of them have voluntarily stepped down and there is no prospect of a by-election at which the electorate could punish the Labour party for such irresponsible behaviour. The Leader of the House has already said that the Home Secretary will not make a statement about the disgraceful and undemocratic system that has been imposed, but will the relevant Foreign Office Minister make a statement about what the Labour party is playing at when two of its derisory total of 29 MEPs have stepped down in this opportunistic and dishonourable way?

Mrs. Beckett: I can only conclude that it hurts Conservative Members deeply that the Labour Government are engaged in a year of delivery--that is obviously the line of the week--with the arrival of the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit and the greatest ever increase in child benefit. The Conservatives opposed all those measures and would remove them. It is unwise of the Conservatives to keep reminding the public of those facts, but that is only one of the unwise decisions that they have made.

It was the House's decision to introduce the system for the European elections, and much nonsense was talked about how it was unprecedented for people to have only one group of candidates to choose from. That is precisely the system that we use in our general elections, in which we do not have a range of Conservative candidates--for

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example--to choose from. Indeed, when we do, as in the mayor of London election, the Conservatives make a real mess of it.

Dr. Lewis: By-elections.

Mrs. Beckett: I am coming to that point. I understand the enthusiasm for by-elections among Conservative Members and the news media, but I have never observed that that enthusiasm is shared by the public. In any event, there is no ministerial responsibility for the resignations.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): After the welcome statement from the Prime Minister's spokesman yesterday about a U-turn on the Government's delivery of a fox hunting policy, in that the Bill to be introduced by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was doomed to fail because of lack of parliamentary time, may we have a statement from the Home Secretary? The Leader of the House will remember that we had a written answer on the last day of the previous Session that said that the Government would give time to such a Bill. Given that the millennium dome is now infested with foxes, the Government's U-turn is welcome, but may we have a statement to explain the change of policy?

Mrs. Beckett: Yet again the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. There is no change of policy, and I know that that will be a deep disappointment to him. The Government have undertaken to provide time for a private Member's Bill, but we have made it plain that we wish first to see and digest the report on the impact of hunting from the Burns committee. When that has been received and presented to Parliament, the Government will be prepared to try to find time to assist a private Member's Bill, should a suitable opportunity arise.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): May I offer the Leader of the House the best wishes of the season?

On 21 September 1995, the present Prime Minister said, as reported in the Financial Times, that he had no plans to increase tax. Since then, we have had a deluge of taxes amounting to £40.7 billion, according to the Library, which is an impartial source respected on both sides of the House. Before the Select Committee on the Treasury, the Chancellor admitted that taxes had gone up, and we had a spirited debate at Treasury Question Time in which other Treasury Ministers expressed doubts about the Library's figures. I trust the Library figures.

Will the Leader of the House deliver to the House the present of a full debate on the Government's increases in taxation during this so-called year of delivery?

Mrs. Beckett: I really do not understand why the Conservative party continues to make that claim when it is quite evident that, before, during and since the election, it has done nothing but complain about the windfall tax. Indeed, before the election, it made much--

Mr. Paterson: Table B1!

Mrs. Beckett: It is no good the hon. Gentleman shouting and waving tables. Before the election,

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Conservative Members endlessly referred to the fact that we, as the then Opposition, refused to commit ourselves to anything beyond not raising the rate of income tax for standard rate payers and for higher rate payers. So it is no good their now trying to convince the British people that they were in some way unaware of--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) will behave himself. He has just been called to ask a question, but then he misbehaves. He was not misbehaving before he was called.

Mrs. Beckett: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is a serial misbehaver.

The hon. Gentleman's main point was to ask me to find time for a special debate. I simply draw to his attention something that he may have overlooked; there will be such a debate on Tuesday 21 December.


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