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Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the deferred voting system that we have used for the past two weeks has been a great success? Its operation has been straightforward, and it has produced clear-cut results. It is a very simple system, which I am sure appeals to Members on both sides of the House. However, does not the fact that only a handful of Members have voted against some motions suggest that the House's time has been abused in the past by small numbers of mavericks who have forced unnecessary votes in the early hours?
Mrs. Beckett: I know that the deferred voting system is a source of disagreement in various parts of the House, but I agree that it has already proved its worth. On the second of the two occasions on which we have used it, voting could have taken three hours on the Floor of the House, without a minute of debate.
All Members are well aware that many issues on which votes could take place are not contentious across the House. As my hon. Friend says, on a number of such issues only a handful of Members wish to express a view. I think the House will, in time, accept that, while it is of course right for Members to have an opportunity to debate issues, it is not practical to keep tens, if not hundreds, of others hanging around just to exploit the use of time.
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Last week, the Leader of the House said in answer to a question from me that there were no present ambiguities in the European defence imbroglio. Was that a subjective statement on her part, or an objective statement on behalf of the Government?
Mrs. Beckett: I think that most of my statements, and indeed most statements made in the House, are subjective. I am aware that there are those who claim to be objective human beings, but I cannot say I have ever met one.
Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): Will there be a chance to debate today's award of a contract to BAE Systems to build type 45 destroyers? We need a debate because it seems that Vosper Thornycroft has been excluded from participating in the contract, which comes
Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but I am not aware of the particular arrangements that he is describing. I also understand his wish on behalf of his constituents--no doubt other hon. Members will join him--to have the issue aired, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a debate on the issue on the Floor of the House. However, the far greater opportunities available in Westminster Hall may be attractive to him. Furthermore--depending, of course, on Mr. Speaker's view--my hon. Friend might find an opportunity to raise the issue in the debate on the Armed Forces Bill, on Tuesday.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): May I introduce an unseasonal note? Could the Foreign Secretary be asked, over Christmas and new year, to prepare to come to the House to make a statement on the case of the British citizen, Krishna Maharaj, who was sentenced to death 13 years ago, on a seven to five verdict, and whose appeal has been turned down by the Florida supreme court? The Foreign Secretary will have received a letter from Clive Stafford-Smith, of the Justice Centre, who says that Krishna Maharaj is the most likely of the 300 cases taken up by the centre to be innocent. It is not an issue that can be debated now, as I cannot apply for an urgent debate. However, the work is urgent.
The alternatives are to ask the Florida supreme court to waive the death penalty, repatriation or to allow a 62-year-old man to go through another 13 years of appeals at the federal level. As the trial judge was taken away in shackles after being accused of taking bribes in another case, there is significant doubt not only about the process, but about Krishna Maharaj's guilt.
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, and it clearly is a case of some concern. I have no doubt that he has already written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who, I am sure, will take the matter very seriously. However, I do not feel that it would be right, at this moment--when my right hon. Friend might only just have received the hon. Gentleman's letter--to suggest that he make a statement to the House on the case. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find other ways of raising the issue.
Angela Smith (Basildon): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 61, which deals with working on Christmas day? It states:
[That this House cherishes Christmas Day as a special day, particularly for families and children, and welcomes the campaign by USDAW, the shopworkers' union, on behalf of the 2.6 million shopworkers of United Kingdom; regrets that many shops remain open on Christmas Day because employers put undue pressure on shop workers to abandon their family responsibilities on this important religious and public holiday; notes that the vast majority of shop workers are parents who should be able to spend Christmas with their children; notes that current law offers no protection to such workers when Christmas Day does not fall on a Sunday; further notes that Christmas is an extremely busy and stressful period for shop workers
May I also draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the petition introduced earlier this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), and the petition that I shall introduce later today? Is she aware that many people working in shops in Britain have no legal protection against having to work on Christmas day unless it falls on a Sunday? Is it not time that we had a debate in Government time on the issue? We have a whole year before next Christmas to ensure that people are not forced to work on Christmas day and that they can spend time with their families.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand, of course, the concerns expressed both by my hon. Friend and by other hon. Members, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), who, as she said, has tabled the early-day motion. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House understand those concerns and might wish to air the issue. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in Government time. May I, once again, recommend to her the attractions of Westminster Hall?
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): The right hon. Lady will recall my raising, last week, the High Court decision on the planning powers of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I understand that the Government have appealed against the decision, so there the matter must rest for the time being. However, I believe that the issue is part of a wider problem. Will the Leader of the House find time reasonably quickly in the new year to have a debate in the House on the effects of the Human Rights Act 1998, which certainly seems to have the effect of requiring the courts to move in mysterious ways?
Mrs. Beckett: From memory--I hope that the House will bear with me, because I am speaking only from memory--I did not think that the decision had very much to do with the Human Rights Act. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: as I suspected last week, the Government have decided to appeal, which means that it is a matter for the courts. As things settle down and time passes, it is likely that fewer stories will be linked to the Human Rights Act when there is only a tenuous or disputed connection.
I well remember hearing a report the other day--I do not recall the precise case--in which it was claimed that there was a dispute with the Human Rights Act. I heard a very cross interviewer continuing to ask the interviewee, "Isn't this because it has fallen foul of the Human Rights Act", to which the answer was, "No." When things settle down and there is a little less hysteria about the Act, we will know better where we stand.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of Labour Members would like to debate the fact that the facilities of the House of Commons are being used to host gatherings of a right-wing grouping that publishes racist and anti-semitic material in its magazine, "Right Now"? Is she also aware that speakers at the meetings have included the shadow Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for
In the absence of any attempt to cleanse the Conservative party of racism, what procedural advice can my right hon. Friend offer hon. Members who do not believe that racism should be given house room in this, the mother of Parliaments?
Mrs. Beckett: I was not aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend has identified, nor of the organisation to which he refers and which he describes. However, I can tell him that any hon. Member who comes across evidence indicating a misuse of the House's facilities should convey that information to the House authorities. They will then look into the matter.