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Mrs. Beckett: I know that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was in her place yesterday, so she has no excuse for pretending that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that the Government propose to scrap the pound. She is intelligent and, as far as I am aware, she is not deaf, so she must know what my right hon. Friend said. He was asked when early in a Parliament would be, and he answered that that naturally meant during its first half. That is when the Government propose that we should seek to make an
I understand that things must be hard for Opposition Members, as they are desperate to pretend that the Government want to bounce people into a referendum straight after the election. However, we have made it absolutely clear, in the roundest and simplest possible terms, that we have no intention of doing any such thing. The Opposition are struggling, but they nevertheless have no excuse for suggesting that something was said when it was not said.
The hon. Lady asked me about the debate on the Liaison Committee issue. I am sure that she does not expect me to inform the House of the Government's advice to Labour Members on a Conservative party motion that we have not yet even seen, and I have no intention of doing so. She is right that it is perfectly normal for House business to be dealt with on a free vote, but the motion is not House business; it is Opposition business. With all charity to the hon. Lady, who did not have her present responsibilities when the Liaison Committee report was published, I point out that not all her colleagues will enter the Lobby to support the report if they are given a free vote.
As I said, we shall consider the matter when the motion becomes available. We may find that we must seek to amend it, but that remains to be seen. The hon. Lady spoke about a shift in power from Government to the Back Benches in respect of the report. In fact, there would be a shift in power from the Government to three individuals who are the most senior members of the existing Select Committee structure, in the new Parliament or whenever the proposals were introduced. That is not quite the same as a shift in power to Back Benchers, but the House will have its own views on the matter.
The hon. Lady asked about proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. I am not aware of the precise developments to which she referred and I shall certainly make inquiries. However, it is for the Standing Committee that considers that Bill to decide whether it needs more sittings to dispose of its business expeditiously. The handling of programme motions is not in disarray. Given that the technique is new and experimental, I believe that it is working reasonably smoothly. Furthermore, the procedure was not solely my initiative or that of the Government. I remind her that, at the outset of the current Parliament, the then Modernisation Committee recommended that we should use programme motions for all Government Bills. Of course, Opposition Members did not subsequently wish to adopt such an arrangement, for understandable reasons.
The hon. Lady asked for a debate on small business. I shall take that request into account. As she will be aware, every Leader of the House is most wary of promising annual debates, not least because so many such debates are sought with regard to many different issues. But I am of course conscious of the pressure for a debate on small business--and, as the hon. Lady will know, we held such a debate last year.
I am well aware that small businesses are always concerned about over-regulation. I remember them protesting when the Conservatives made them take over the handling of sick pay and maternity pay, and they were most upset when the Conservatives made them act as immigration police. These are not unfamiliar accusations.
The hon. Lady asked for a debate on international development. That is certainly an attractive thought, especially as yesterday I once again heard the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), claim that this was yet another area in which the Conservatives did not propose to make any cuts in the Government's approved budget. They are running out of options--but I fear that that is not a reason for allowing a debate in the near future.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Has my right hon. Friend seen today's reports of an increase of £9 billion--85 per cent.--in Shell's profits? Will a statement be made in the House, and will that statement call on Shell and the other oil companies to reduce the price of petrol in accordance with the Chancellor's announcements in his pre-Budget statement? If the oil companies refuse to do that, will the Chancellor be asked to impose a windfall tax on all of them in his Budget?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I am sure that all members of the public will be concerned if they believe the price of petrol is being held artificially high when it would be possible, as well as desirable, for it to be reduced. I sympathise with my hon. Friend's wish for a statement examining these matters; I fear I cannot undertake to find time for one in the near future, but I am sure that, as always, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will heed my hon. Friend's words.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I think all Members will welcome the news that we now have a full day in which to debate the remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill. I believe that at one point the time was to be more limited.
Does the Leader of the House recall her exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) during last week's business questions, about teachers' pay and conditions? Does she now recall--she confessed then that she was not aware of it--that a written question tabled for answer on Thursday was withdrawn and retabled for answer on Friday, so that those expecting an announcement on Thursday would be caught out? Is she now aware that the announcement was actually made on the "Today" programme on Friday morning, before the publication of the written answer? Is she satisfied that that is the best way for Government policy to be announced; and can she ensure that in the coming weeks we have a better understanding--a proper understanding--of the needs of the House and its business?
As the Leader of the House will recall, the Chancellor indicated in his autumn statement that he intended to renegotiate the level of VAT that his Conservative predecessors had imposed on the repair, maintenance and conservation of churches and chapels. Can she tell us when the Chancellor will be in a position to make a full statement on progress--he has given me an answer which, frankly, suggests that little has been made--and what he
I understand that the Chancellor intends to make some sort of announcement; when will he do so? We need to know the scope of the proposals, how the timetable will fit in with the delay in dealing with VAT and, indeed, whether the funds will be capped.
We agree with the Conservatives that we should have a debate on the timetable for the euro referendum--if only because it would allow their leader to repeat the pledge he gave on BBC South and West television, when he said that he was opposed to any referendum on the euro. He is not prepared to let the British people decide.
Mrs. Beckett: I was not aware of the statement to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred. I shall certainly make inquiries, as it was my impression that at least some of those currently funding the Conservative party were doing so on the basis of their belief that the party would allow a referendum. We knew, of course, that there was unlikely to be one in the next Parliament if the Conservatives were elected, because they have set their face against that, even if it is in Britain's economic interests.
On teachers' pay, I did not follow the precise timing of the way in which the matter was handled. It is always a matter of regret if people feel that others have been informed before the House, even though that may not always have happened. There would never be any question of the timing of a parliamentary question being changed to catch people out. There may be other reasons for a change, such as to ensure that precise information was available or, occasionally, to avoid one answer being swamped by another. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Well, that is an important matter, and the House and the country were interested in the outcome of the review, and in the Government's view on it.
With regard to the renegotiation of VAT, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be in a position to make a statement on his progress on those matters, but I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention.