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Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Lady raised the issue of having only one day to debate hunting. I do not recall being asked for more than one day on the Floor in Committee on the Hunting Bill, nor do I see any great necessity for it. It is a relatively simple issue. Members will have differing views about the options that we should pursue. The whole idea is that a decision in principle will be made as to which option commands the greatest support in the House and that the detail will then be examined in Committee.
The hon. Lady asked me about the business for Tuesday 23 January. I said that some matters were still under discussion and gave a broad pattern for the business for the week after next. She will know that the usual channels are discussing those matters and that there is good reason for that.
The hon. Lady raised the matter of Equitable Life. That is under discussion and it will no doubt be examined in the course of the normal business of the House. At the moment I do not envisage finding time for a special debate, but I will keep the issue under review and draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends who deal with these matters.
I am aware that some safety work is continuing at Leeds station. The hon. Lady will be aware that questions to the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department will be taken on Tuesday and no doubt an opportunity may arise to raise the matter then.
I was a little surprised at the hon. Lady's remarks about the closure of pre-schools and playgroups as a result of Government policies. I take it that she means the enormous expansion of nursery education that the Government have undertaken.
The hon. Lady asked me to look at the management of Programming Sub-Committees. She will be aware that it was always envisaged that they would work by informal arrangement--[Hon. Members:"By whom?"] If hon. Gentlemen will allow me, I will finish the sentence--along the lines of those undertaken successfully, for example, in the Greater London Authority Standing Committee. It was always envisaged that they would work along the lines of previously existing Business Sub-Committees. [Interruption.] As for the issue--[Interruption.]
As for whether or not minutes should be taken and what reference should be made to the discussions and so on, those issues are in part at least, Mr. Speaker, for you and the Vote Office. Of course I undertake to consider these matters, but I cannot undertake to bring back to the Floor of the House for discussion a procedure which the House has begun on an experimental basis, simply because one Committee has met and the hon. Lady is unhappy with its proceedings.
The House as a whole has decided to adopt this new set of procedures, albeit not with the consent of all Opposition Members. It follows recommendations by successive Committees of this House for at least 10 years and it offers the Opposition an opportunity, should they wish to take it, to make constructive use of time for debate and to make sure that all legislation is properly debated. [Interruption.] Let me make it clear from the Dispatch Box that there is absolutely no compulsion on the Opposition to use this time intelligently--and there is no evidence to suggest that they intend to do so.
Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): In considering her future programme, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the clear will of this House in the debate on the last Modernisation Committee report that we should end the nonsense of legislating in the early hours of the morning and that we should reassure the British people that we are not time wasting in debates on the Floor of the House or in Committee, but giving detailed scrutiny to legislation passing through the House? That was the desire and aim of the House. It is what British people want. It is what the Conservative party and others who are opposed to the modernisation of this place have been trying to stop. If that is the case, will my right hon. Friend ensure that further measures are introduced to ensure that legislation is properly scrutinised, even if the Opposition are unable or unwilling to engage in that process?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely correct in saying that the purpose of the changes proposed by the Modernisation Committee is to ensure that we make better and more effective use of the time available to the House, and that we use that time a little earlier in the evening than
My hon. Friend also made an important point about scrutiny, which reminded me that, in many ways, there is no advantage to the Government in proceeding in the way that we have identified. It is open to any Government to guillotine and to curtail discussion on any legislation. In so doing, they can, if they wish, ensure that it is impossible for the House to have time to examine parts of legislation, detailed debate on which the Government--any Government--might find embarrassing.
A mechanism is now potentially available to the House whereby the Opposition can decide how to use the time available and decide on which items in the legislation they wish to focus the debate. However, I repeat that there can be no compulsion on them to do so. If the Opposition wish to continue to waste time rather than to use it valuably, there is nothing that we can do to make them change.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Can we have an urgent and early debate on the issue of the health hazards for our service personnel from depleted uranium? Is the Leader of the House aware of the report that was revealed this morning, apparently prepared by an official, which suggests that this hazard was identified no less than four years ago? Can we be told urgently--even before such a debate takes place--whether that advice was available to Ministers or their immediate advisers, and when it was available? Was it before or after the previous general election?
Reverting to the issue of scrutiny raised by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), I endorse his request that we reconsider that matter. Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government's management of their business this week has degenerated into a ghastly shambles that is certainly undermining the whole case for the modernisation agenda?
I particularly ask the right hon. Lady to consider whether we need to take the programme motion immediately after the Second Reading debate. Such a practice means that we cannot consider any of the issues that arose in the debate. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have already made the point that it is extremely difficult. I have re-read the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, which the right hon. Lady chairs and on which I sit, but I found no reference to the programme motion having immediately to follow the Second Reading debate. There seems to be no technical reason why it should, and not doing so would remove one of the objections that both Opposition parties rightly share to the way in which the business of the House has been handled this week.
Will the Leader of the House reconsider the basic requirement of the Modernisation Committee recommendations, which was that there should be informal discussions about the whole of the Government's business? I appreciate that this year might not be a useful one from the point of view of avoiding oppositionitis on the Conservative Benches, but even so, no attempt has
Mrs. Beckett: My understanding is that the document about depleted uranium to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which appeared in the press this week, relates to an incomplete draft paper that was produced as long ago as 1993. Much of its content is said to be scientifically incorrect or misleading. Consequently, there is nothing to add to the statement that was made about the issue earlier this week.
Regarding the matters that the hon. Gentleman raised on the handling of Programming Sub-Committees and programme motions, his recollection and mine differ somewhat. He may recall that we discussed whether the vote should be taken as a package, recognising that that would entail a number of votes after 10 o'clock. It was always my understanding that the Government's proposal for the programme motion would be taken as package on Second Reading.
As for the general discussion on business, we may be speaking at cross-purposes. The intention, which I understand has been carried out, was that there should be informal discussions on initial reactions to the Queen's Speech. There were proposals for a more formal process, but they were not accepted. Instead, we agreed that the discussions should be informal and informative, at least in part, so that we did not tie the hands of the Opposition by making them commit to decisions early on in the life of a Parliament before more information became available.