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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): There are two advantages to be had if the Leader of the House would grant us a debate on the sinister proposals that are now emerging with respect to the Commission seeking to fund the Labour party: first, she would be able to justify in debate her assertion that there is no such proposal, and secondly, were she to seek relief from the scrutiny of the debate, she could interrupt the proceedings at 7 o'clock to move her motion on Friday sittings, which would get the Government out of that difficulty.

Mrs. Beckett: The Government are not in any difficulty. We have been moving the motion regularly and consistently. It is the Opposition who apparently object to it.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the proposals that are being discussed were made under article 191, which states that the provisions

There is no truth in the suggestion that that is particularly advantageous to the Labour party or to any other party in this country. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Front Benchers making noises off. If members of the Conservative party are incapable of reading the proposals accurately, it is their problem, not ours.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Can my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on a matter that concerns many of my constituents--the scaremongering and shroud waving in our local newspapers with regard to the future of King George hospital in my constituency? Will she draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to today's Ilford Recorder, in which the prospective Conservative candidate is described as an "April Fool" for predicting that my hospital is to close in April, when in fact two extra wards have been established in that hospital in the past three months by the Labour Government?

Mrs. Beckett: I share my hon. Friend's concern. It is always harmful to public confidence in the health service, which is so important to the entire country, when scares are raised entirely unjustifiably, as he described. I am pleased to learn that there has been additional investment in his hospital, as in so many other hospitals throughout the land, including those in Opposition Members' constituencies, although one would not think so, to hear them talk.

I fear that, important though the issue is, I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it, but my hon. Friend may find an opportunity to raise the matter in Westminster Hall.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May we have a statement from the Prime Minister explaining his typically gutless decision to refuse to defend the record of his Government in a televised debate with the Leader of the Opposition?

Mrs. Beckett: The Opposition are on a hiding to nothing when they try to pretend that the Prime Minister

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has anything to fear from facing the Leader of the Opposition or anyone else in debate. I cannot help recalling the many occasions on which Opposition Members have claimed that, in some way, under the present Prime Minister, our system of government is becoming presidential rather than parliamentarian, and condemned us on those grounds. We have debates and exchanges in the House every week. That is where the principal focus of debate is and will remain.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Leader of the House will recall that the Deputy Prime Minister said in the House and on television that all the costs to householders of the recent flooding in north Yorkshire and elsewhere will be paid by the Government. Will she, please, arrange for him to come to the Dispatch Box to explain to the House why the Government are not paying that bill?

Mrs. Beckett: I am sorry to say that I do not think that the hon. Lady accurately represents what the Deputy Prime Minister said. What he said was that local authorities, which obviously incurred substantial costs in dealing with flooding, would have those costs reimbursed in full. I do not think that it was ever claimed that every individual would--[Interruption.] That is a different matter. If the hon. Lady cares to write to me, I shall certainly draw her concerns to the attention of the Deputy Prime Minister, but it is important not to give people the wrong impression as to what has been said or what is likely to be done.

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Points of Order

1.25 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As we all know, there have been too many occasions in the past three and a half years when Opposition Members, and many Labour Back Benchers, have had to complain about the Government's dereliction of their fundamental duty of accountability and basic courtesy to the House of Commons.

There was a bad case of that yesterday when the Government held a press conference on British participation in the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the joint strike fighter aircraft, a project of which we are very much in favour in principle. The Government did not make a statement to the House, despite there being no other statement yesterday, so they could easily have done so.

I fear that the Government's excuse will be that they answered a planted written question, and, in so doing, had the hon. Member to whom that answer was addressed been available at 3.30 pm he would have been in the same position as journalists in terms of knowing what was going on. I hope that you will agree that that is a thoroughly unsatisfactory way to behave, and that such minimalist, legalistic and cynical treatment of Parliament should not be encouraged in future.

There is a real practical problem here because there are some major issues in relation to this important project, such as the impact on the defence budget of more than £1 billion being allocated to it; such as the protection available to us if the new American Administration cancel the project; such as the availability of the new technology to British subcontractors and partners; and strategic export controls.

We cannot raise any of those matters and, what is more, many hon. Members on both sides of the House representing seats with aerospace facilities in them are naturally concerned about the implications of this for the future of their constituents and how the matter has been handled by the Government. None of that has been raised and the Government have buried it entirely and simply substituted a press conference.

Is there anything, that you, Mr. Speaker, can do to try to encourage the Government, at this 11th hour in this Parliament, to set slightly higher standards in discharging their responsibilities to Parliament in the future?

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that, on the previous occasion when the Government announced major procurement issues, those matters were to be found on the BBC website before they were discussed in the House? If that could happen, and if the Secretary of State for Defence could attend a press conference yesterday, why was not the right hon. Gentleman at the House last week for the statement on depleted uranium, or for the start of the Armed Forces Bill? Surely he should come to the House more regularly.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) gave me notice of his point of order. It is for Ministers to decide whether to make an oral statement or to give a written answer. There is a

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written answer in today's Official Report. I shall look into the timing of its release and the more general issue that he raised.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to a question that I asked the Home Secretary on 8 January, a leading Liverpool councillor, Richard Kemp, a senior member of the administration in the city, wrote a letter to you dated 10 January. I know this because he also sent it to local journalists in a press release, and I have now had a chance to see it. In that documentation, he accuses me of misleading the House on the basis of something which he alleges that I said here. However, I did not say it in the House. He also complains that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not do something which our procedures would have prevented my right hon. Friend from doing in any event.

I consider it a discourtesy to you, Mr. Speaker, and therefore to the House to use your office as a way of making cheap points. It would have been clear from Hansard that I did not say what I am alleged to have said. A mere smattering of knowledge of our most basic procedures would have indicated to Richard Kemp that his complaints had no substance. Has your office received and dealt with that correspondence, Mr. Speaker? Can you give protection to Members of Parliament who are abused in that way and can you give advice to non-Members about when it is, and is not, appropriate to write to you about Members' conduct?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving notice of her point of order. She has placed her concerns on the record. It would not be appropriate for me to make any further comment on the substance of what she has said. I am, however, sad that a letter to me has been released to the press before I have had an opportunity to reply to it and, indeed, before it has even been received by my office.

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