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Business of the House

12.31 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Will the Leader of the House give the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The business of the House is as follows:

Monday 5 February--Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Failure of the Government to Address Social Exclusion, Poverty and Job Losses in Wales" on a motion in the name of Plaid Cymru, followed by a debate on personal care for the elderly on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday 6 February--Second Reading of the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill.

Motion on the Draft Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Disapplication of Part IV for Northern Ireland Parties, etc) Order 2001.

Wednesday 7 February--Remaining stages of the Homes Bill.

Thursday 8 February--Remaining stages of the Social Security Contributions (Share Options) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.

Friday 9 February--Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

Monday 12 February--Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Tuesday 13 February--Remaining stages of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill.

Remaining stages of the Capital Allowances Bill.

Wednesday 14 February--Remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill.

Thursday 15 February--We hope that there will be a debate on the report of the BSE inquiry by Lord Phillips on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 16 February--The House will not be sitting.

The House will wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 14 February, there will be a debate in European Standing Committee A relating to the prevention and control of certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 14 February 2001:

European Standing Committee A--Relevant European Union document: 5196/99, Control of certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports: HC 23-xxxi(1999-2000) and HC 34-xiii (1998-99).]

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Thursdays for the next four weeks will be as follows:

Thursday 8 February--Debate on social security fraud.

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Thursday 15 February--Debate on the reports from the Education and Employment Committee on standards and quality in education and the annual report of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools.

Thursday 22 February--The House will not be sitting.

Thursday 1 March--Debate on the report from the Health Committee on provision of NHS mental health services.

Perhaps I can take this opportunity to remind the House that not only will the House not be sitting on Friday 16 February, but it will not return until Monday 26 February.

Mrs. Browning: I thank the Leader of the House for that information. It comes as something of a surprise to find that after just a week the Government have changed their mind about holding a debate on Thursday 8 February on standards and privileges. That is an important debate which, as the right hon. Lady knows, has the support of those on the Conservative Benches. What has happened in the past week to change her mind about that being an appropriate subject for debate by the House? Is it that standards, as far as Ministers in this Government are concerned, are their own standards, and that privileges mean the exploitation of their office?

During the past week we have seen the Prime Minister dismiss a Cabinet Minister in the morning for not telling the truth, and tell the House in the afternoon, with tears in his eyes, that that is a tragedy, while two days later the Prime Minister's press secretary described that tragic figure as "detached" and "lacking focus". No one could describe the right hon. Lady as detached and lacking focus, so will she explain why we are to be deprived of that very important debate next Thursday?

May I also ask the right hon. Lady to explain why a debate on social security fraud scheduled for next Thursday is to be taken in Westminster Hall and has not been allocated time on the Floor of the House? It is a very important debate, not least because since the Government came to office they have made no fewer than 46 announcements about tackling benefit fraud. It was a major pledge in their election manifesto, yet it is clear from parliamentary answers that social security fraud is out of control. The issue deserves the scrutiny and consideration of the whole House in the Chamber, rather than being kicked into Westminster Hall in the hope that it will not be noticed.

I refer the right hon. Lady to the request that I made on 21 December last year. There is a need for a debate on the intelligence services; she will be aware that members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are very anxious to have such a debate. Last year, the Government were late in holding that debate and promised that it would be held on a more timely occasion in this Session. Will the right hon. Lady look very carefully for a slot for that debate in the near future?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): We can't tell the hon. Lady, it's a secret.

Mrs. Browning: There is another secret in which I am even more interested; perhaps the right hon. Lady can help us with it. Can she prevail upon the Chancellor to disclose publicly the date of the Budget? We are now into February and the date must be in the Chancellor's diary.

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Could I prevail upon her to persuade him to disclose that date so that next week when she comes to the Dispatch Box she can share that information with us?

Finally, will the right hon. Lady arrange for a statement in the House early next week on the public-private partnership that the Government have proposed for the tube? We have recently heard from Mr. Kiley--a man who knows something about these matters--that the Government's proposal is undeliverable. If that is the case, the House would like to discuss the matter in some detail.

Mrs. Beckett: First, the hon. Lady asked me about the provisional business that I had announced. I always make it very plain that provisional business is exactly that.

The hon. Lady is right that we have moved the debate that was originally proposed on standards and privileges. However, she seems to have overlooked something, which I think that the Conservative Members who raised the matter last week also overlooked. When we eventually have that debate, it will be on the recent report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. As I said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who raised the matter last week, I am very mindful of the prerogatives of the Chair to decide what is in order. However, as the report does not deal with the behaviour of Ministers, because that is not a matter for the Register of Members' Interests, and their conduct, it would be hard to argue that it would be in order to raise such matters.

I think that the hon. Lady is clutching at straws, in a desperate attempt to find yet another excuse to raise the events of the past 10 days or so. However, I can tell her of the two other factors that have led the Government to decide to move the debate. First, we are ready to deal with the remaining stages of legislation, which, as she will know, has to be a priority for the Government. Secondly, I understand that the Committee is continuing to take evidence from Conservative Members on the report that it is proposed that we should discuss. The Chair of the Committee let me know that although it was obviously a matter for discussion, there would nevertheless be merit in letting the Committee finish taking evidence before the House discussed the matter. That is the view of the Committee's Chairman, and it is obviously a legitimate point of view.

The hon. Lady asks me why we did not find time on the Floor of the House for the debate on fraud, which will be held in Westminster Hall. As she will remember, the Conservative party did not seek to hold that debate on the Floor of the House. Indeed, if it is such a vital matter and as neglected as she suggests, it is surprising that the Conservative party has not found the time to raise it, given that it has had several Opposition day debates already. Furthermore, she seems to have forgotten that we have introduced a Bill on social security fraud, so the notion that there is a lack of opportunity to discuss that matter seems somewhat flawed, to put it no higher than that.

I accept, of course, the need for a debate on the intelligence and security services, and the Government will seek to find time for one at some point. I cannot enlighten the hon. Lady about the date of the Budget, and I do not think that that is unreasonable.

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The hon. Lady will know that there have been constant statements about the tube from Mr. Kiley and from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and that such matters are under discussion. No doubt when those discussions are at a more refined stage, there may be something to announce to the House.

Mr. Mackinlay: May I take the Leader of the House back to the reply that she gave me a couple of days ago? I reminded her of the Prime Minister's promise to the House on 13 July, that we would have a free vote on the proposals in the Liaison Committee report, "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive". She said:

I was watching her when he made that statement. She grimaced because he was speaking off-message; it was not part of the script. The fact is that the Prime Minister unequivocally gave an undertaking that we would have a free vote on the matter. No other construction can be put on it but that we would have that vote this side of the general election. There would be no purpose in having it after the general election, because the whole idea was to have those measures in place when we return--if we return--after the general election. Will she think about that again?

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