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Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that those issues are under continuing review, discussion and debate. He will know from his many years of experience in the effective use of the procedures of the House that debates on foreign affairs on the Floor of the House tend to range over a much greater expanse than one area of the world, let alone one country. One of the many reasons why the Modernisation Committee recommended that extra time should be made available in the procedures of Westminster Hall was to allow for debates of that kind. I believe that some such debates have already taken place, and have been found both constructive and genuinely useful by those who took part in them. Perhaps I could recommend that course to my hon. Friend.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): The right hon. Lady will recall that, in two successive sets of business questions last year, I felt impelled to pursue her in seeking a debate on the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998 on our legislation and regulations. Re-reading her last oral answer to me, she rather pooh-poohed the importance of that. Will she look at the matter again? I could give her instances in which the Act will have a profound effect on parts of the town and country planning system other than the appeal system, which is the subject of an appeal to the House of Lords. For example, since I
Mrs. Beckett: I cannot undertake to have a debate on the matter on the Floor of the House although, again, I would certainly recommend to the hon. Gentleman the greater opportunities available in Westminster Hall. Of course, I take his point and I apologise if I appeared to pooh-pooh it, as I did not intend to do so in any way. I simply took, and continue to take, the view that it is perhaps a little early to assess the impact of the changes. Many concerns which, I accept, are perfectly legitimate and reasonable, are as yet somewhat theoretical. I shall obviously keep the matter under review and consideration. However, at this moment in time, I am not sure that we are likely to find time for an early debate on the Floor of the House.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): May I tell my right hon. Friend about a recent incident in my constituency, involving the vicious racist murder of a local taxi driver, Mr. Tariq Javed? Would she join me in sending condolences to Mr. Javed's family and in expressing thanks to the local police for their efficient conduct of the investigation into the incident? Does she agree that there appears to be a rise across the country in racist incidents of this kind, and that those politicians who choose to use intolerance and xenophobia for their own political purposes have a special responsibility for creating the climate in which the growth in racist incidents takes place? Will she find time in the near future to arrange for a full and frank debate on racist incidents in the United Kingdom?
Mrs. Beckett: I am sure that the whole House sends its condolences to the family of my hon. Friend's constituent. It is always appalling when somebody's life is taken in such a manner. The House will also want to join him in appreciating the efficient and speedy way in which the police conducted the investigation. Many hon. Members will share his understandable concern that none of us should do or say anything that fosters a climate in which it appears that racist attacks are acceptable. I am not aware of a growing trend such as that to which he referred. Every such event is particularly shocking. I shall draw his remarks and observations about the trend to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in case there is evidence or opinion that backs them up, but I fear that I cannot find time for an early debate on the matter in the near future. Perhaps I can recommend to him also the additional opportunities for debate elsewhere.
Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): The Leader of the House has my greatest respect for her abilities in her office. I do not, however, understand why somebody with those qualities can suggest to the House that she is the sole arbiter of what is important and what should be given time in Parliament. In any democracy, it is the right of the Opposition to decide what is important and what should be given parliamentary time. When she expresses such
Mrs. Beckett: I say with respect--I have respect for the hon. Gentleman--that I share many of his views about the importance of the use of time in the House. I am not clear, however, about where he believes that I suggested that I should be the sole arbiter of what is important. In fact, that is the opposite of what I have repeatedly pointed out: we have offered the Opposition the chance to decide how time should be used. As for the specific date when legislation leaves the Committee stage, that has always been in the purview of the Government; it is merely that nobody used to say anything about it.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the possibility of allowing a debate on the middle east? An Adjournment debate occurred in Westminster Hall in October, but far more hon. Members wanted to participate than could be accommodated. When I think back to crises in Kosovo and Bosnia, I remember frequent ministerial statements and debates in the House. Since September and October last year, when violence erupted in the occupied territories, in the west bank and Gaza, we have not heard a statement from a Minister or been given an opportunity for debate. In the light of the current serious circumstances, the middle east, like Iraq and the change of presidency in America, deserves the attention of the whole House.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is right that the middle east peace process raises issues that are of concern among hon. Members of all parties. I understand fully that there is rarely enough time to discuss all the issues that hon. Members rightly feel to be important and of pressing concern. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on the Floor of the House. As my hon. Friend knows, there are other opportunities for raising the matter, not least Foreign Office questions on 23 January.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If indeed there is a vacant day on Tuesday 23, may I urge the right hon. Lady, in the strongest terms, to use that time for a debate on Lord Phillips's report on BSE? It will be almost exactly three months since that report was published. In Germany, two Ministers have resigned after a handful of cases. In Britain, the previous Government presided over events that led to the tragic deaths of many people, caused businesses throughout the agricultural world to go to the wall and resulted in an estimated cost of almost £5 billion to the United Kingdom. Is it not time the House had a chance to debate those matters properly?
Mrs. Beckett: I am afraid that there is no such thing as a vacant day in this life, but discussion is taking place about how to make most effective use of time on that day. I fear that we will not be able as speedily as that to have a debate on the Phillips report on the BSE crisis. The hon. Gentleman will recall that it was something like
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Has my right hon. Friend noticed that Education and Employment questions are dominated by education questions? In the Question Time that we have just had, only two of the 11 questions that were dealt with were employment questions. Out of the 36 on the Order Paper, only six were employment questions. Many of us want to raise issues at Employment questions, such as the problem that I keep pursuing--Biwater at Clay Cross, where 700 jobs have now gone and there are serious problems of regeneration. Should we not have separate Question Times for education and employment?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend uses all the opportunities available to him properly to raise the concerns of his constituents. The number of questions on education as opposed to employment depends on the draw, which is done randomly. I understand the wish to have further question sessions and to split the two subjects, but I fear that I cannot undertake to my hon. Friend that such a step is likely to be taken in the near future. There is always more demand for the opportunity to raise issues than any use of time could possibly supply, but my hon. Friend is a clear example and standard of how, no matter what the fundamental provision is and what the rules are about the way this place works, people manage to raise their points when they wish to do so.