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Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): May we have an urgent debate on freedom of speech in this country?

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Was the Leader of the House as alarmed as I was to hear that the German ambassador had been given Foreign Office instructions that Mr. Joschka Fischer should not be allowed to mention the "F" word on his visit to the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett: I was not aware of it, and I am not aware of it now.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on tackling anti-social behaviour and how we can encourage more local authorities to use powers available to them under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998? Will she note that my Tory-controlled local authority, Gedling borough council, despite my urgings, has so far failed to issue one anti-social behaviour order and is widely perceived to be weak when it comes to anti-social tenants? We need to see how we can encourage local authorities to use the powers that we have given them.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point. His local authority is controlled by the Conservative party, which always claims to be sound on law and order and very against anti-social behaviour of all kinds, although the behaviour of its members does not always suggest that that is the case--I concede that that is in the House, not outside. I am sure that my hon. Friend feels the contrast sharply because he is geographically close to Labour-controlled Nottingham, which has made extensive use of anti-social behaviour orders, to the benefit of its local community. The lesson for his constituents is that they have a Member of Parliament who is concerned about anti-social behaviour, and a council which is perhaps less concerned, and they should look to see whether their council can more closely reflect the political complexion of their Member of Parliament.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Will the Leader of the House do my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) the courtesy of replying to her reasonable question? If the events surrounding yesterday's resignation are as simple as they are made out to be--namely, a two-minute telephone conversation--why cannot an inquiry be conducted in short order? Why cannot a date be set within three months--certainly by Easter? If no date is set, the suspicion will grow that the fox had to be shot yesterday because there were going to be further damaging revelations. Either way, if a cloud is allowed to continue to hang over the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), it will be unfair on him. Can we please have an end date for the inquiry?

Mrs. Beckett: I did respond to the hon. Lady's question. I made it plain that the inquiry will be held as expeditiously as possible and that the results will be published. As for Conservative Members' obsession, I know that they are all hoping like mad that something else really interesting will come up. I suspect that that hope will be misplaced, but we shall see. It is a matter for the gentleman who has just been asked to undertake the inquiry, and I am sure that he does not wish to spend any more time on it than is necessary. I am not willing to suggest that we should put him under pressure.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Although I welcome the fact that the House will debate various matters relating to

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law and order next week, there is not a sufficient slot to debate robbery, specifically Tory plans to rob more than £1 billion from lone parents. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate that issue so that we can expose the Conservative party's con-artist policies in respect of lone parents?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I understand her wish to spend more time exploring the folly and inadequacy of the Conservatives' policy proposals, not least of which are the extraordinary supposed costings of their plans. Although I sympathise with her desire, it is not something for which I am likely be able to find special time in the near future, but I will certainly bear in mind her request.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Is it not now embarrassingly obvious that the ministerial code is completely inadequate for its originally intended purpose? Is it not now approaching a scandal that the Prime Minister alone is the custodian of the ministerial code? Do not this week's events illustrate beyond all doubt that the Prime Minister cannot be trusted to police the integrity of his own Government, and that we must therefore have an urgent debate to establish how to guarantee the integrity of Ministers in the same way that the code of conduct seeks to guarantee the conduct of Members of Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett: I do not think that anyone--except those on the Opposition Benches--will believe that this week's events show any such thing; nor do I think that they demonstrate any need for a change in the ministerial code. I simply tell the right hon. Gentleman that the tone of many Conservative Members' comments increasingly suggests that they expect never to be in government again, and I sincerely hope that they are right.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on, but I have taken note of those who have not been called. The House will realise that there is a time limit on the speeches of Back-Bench Members in the next debate, and it is important to move on to that debate.

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Points of Order

1.17 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received a request from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to make a statement in the House on the announcement sneaked out only yesterday evening that £100 million is being diverted from the neighbourhood renewal fund into an emergency package to hold down council tax in marginal labour areas because increases of three times the rate of inflation are threatening dozens of Labour-held constituencies?

Mr. Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman will have heard the Leader of the House say, there will be a debate on local government finance next Wednesday, when those issues can be raised.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many of the questions asked during today's Treasury questions were about not Government policy but Opposition policy. I believe that Back Benchers' questions to Ministers are supposed to be about Government policy. I should be grateful for your guidance on the matter, especially as such guidance will be needed after the general election, when Conservative Members will be sitting on the Government Benches.

Mr. Speaker: It is not for me to comment on that matter, but the hon. Gentleman will have heard me make it clear that Ministers are not responsible for Conservative party policy. I have also made statements on that matter.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You had cause to intervene on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to draw his attention to that fact, but I am afraid to say that your intervention had little effect on him and the rest of his team. May I ask you to intervene rather more promptly when Ministers go out of order in their answers in future?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will not tell me how to do my job.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 3 December 1998, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) answered a question that I had tabled. He said:

The Mirror today contains a statement by Darin Jewell, who says:

If he is correct, the right hon. Gentleman must have lied to me in his answer. How can we get to the truth?

Mr. Speaker: I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that no hon. Member would lie. He knows that. I am not responsible for statements that Ministers or, indeed, hon. Members make.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to the points of order, Mr. Speaker, that were raised by my hon. Friends

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the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). Although everyone recognises and respects that your judgment is paramount in the Chamber, my hon. Friends made salient points. Will you confirm that if the Chancellor were again to burble inanely about matters for which he is not responsible--or, indeed, if any other Minister were to do so--you would consider your power to issue a red card and immediately to dismiss that Minister from the Chamber?

Mr. Speaker: In the words of the old song, I want to take one day at a time.


House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification)

Mr. Secretary Straw, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Secretary Byers, Mr. Secretary Reid, Mr. Secretary Murphy and Mr. Mike O'Brien, presented a Bill to remove any disqualification from membership of the House of Commons that arises by reason of a person having been ordained or being a minister of a religious denomination and to continue the disqualification of Lords Spiritual from such membership: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 34].

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