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Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Lady says, correctly, that she has previously raised with me the handling of the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. However, although she has repeatedly said that she frequently raises the many problems that have arisen as regards programming, she has in fact repeatedly raised the problems that she identifies in respect of that one Bill. She repeatedly makes the same point, as she is, of course, perfectly entitled to do.
As she has done in the past, the hon. Lady refers in particular to the question whether there were 14 or 16 sittings--it is news to me that the Opposition had requested 18 sittings. Perhaps there is a little too much focus on sittings; as the House will readily appreciate, the number of sittings is not the same as the amount of time spent on a Bill. The hon. Lady says that there was no undue delay in scrutinising the Bill in Committee. However, it is my understanding that additional sittings were offered by the Government--and indeed, that longer sittings were offered on some occasions when the Committee was already meeting--in order to meet requests for extra time. Although the number of sittings is 15--in itself more than the number proposed originally--the time spent on the Bill amounts to about 16 sittings' worth--[Hon. Members: "That is not right."] Well, it is a matter of simple arithmetic. I do not suppose for a second that hon. Members know anything about it.
There is certainly a point of view on the way that the Committee is being handled that is different from the one frequently expressed by the hon. Lady. As for how that relates to my responsibilities, that does not strike me as a matter on which the House would necessarily want to spend much debating time--which is what the hon. Lady is asking me for. May I remind her of something that she seems--not for the first time--to have forgotten? There is nothing unprecedented about the Leader of the House chairing a Select Committee: the Leader of the House always used to chair the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, for example. Although I understand that the hon. Lady objects to the position as regards my chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee, such chairmanship is not new--it happens from time to time.
The hon. Lady makes a general point about the amount of time available for the Bill. Although there has been some amendment of content and some addition to the Bill, it is nothing like the amount that was needed on Bills introduced by the Conservatives in the past. That means that it is possible to scrutinise the measure without taking up the same amount of time as has been needed in the past. Obviously, the handling of the remainder of the Committee stage and Report will be a matter for those concerned.
As the hon. Lady knows, we have briefly discussed such issues in the Modernisation Committee. A matter that the House genuinely has to take seriously and balance in its own mind, and in its workings, is the degree to which we try to structure our time to ensure that we look at all aspects of legislation. There are some Members--as the hon. Lady knows, there are some in her party--who believe strongly that the House should be prepared to exercise a discipline over itself in order to ensure the scrutiny of all parts of legislation; others find the matter
The hon. Lady refers to the Hammond report. She says that its contents can be read on BBC Online, as if to suggest that the Government have in some way withheld them from the House. I take it that what she is referring to is what the BBC said were the contents of the report.
Mrs. Beckett: I have no idea, because the Government were not in possession of the report when those documents were published. It is nothing to do with Ministers that some parts of what may ultimately be in the report are actually in the public domain. As for how the matter will be reported to the House, hon. Members will, of course, be kept properly informed by the usual means. I believe that I am right in saying that we expect the Hammond report to be published tomorrow, and it may be for the convenience of the House to know that. Finally, I am conscious of the hon. Lady's reminder about the small business debate, and will remain conscious of it.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): My right hon. Friend will know that last year we in the United Kingdom imported 12,500 tonnes of fireworks, worth £22 million. Does she share my incredulity that there are no official statistics on the number of commercial fireworks that are imported? They are monster explosives, which can kill and maim. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Lancashire Evening Telegraph has been documenting the havoc caused by those monster explosives in east Lancashire? Phone boxes and two cars have been blown up. Last month, a van was blown up outside the house of an 86-year-old woman. A park pavilion has been blown up. Last October, a man died. May I urge my right hon. Friend to hold an early debate on the importation of commercial fireworks and their end use, because it is clear that those lethal devices are leaching into the market and that many people who buy them use them with scant regard to their impact on the general public?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I admit that I was not familiar with the scale of the events that he describes in his part of the country. I understand his anxiety and concern. Equally, I was not aware--although I can perhaps understand why--that commercial fireworks are not differentiated from others in the statistics. I am not 100 per cent. sure, but from memory, I think that this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I will certainly draw it to the relevant Minister's attention. I fear that I cannot offer to hold a debate on the Floor of the House, but it seems to be exactly the kind of subject that my hon. Friend might raise with profit in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The Leader of the House will recall that, last week, I asked her to get a statement to us on the practical implications of the continuing foot and mouth epidemic on the census and the May county council elections. Since then, the media have been briefed extensively on those issues, although the information has been peculiarly confusing. Having been given a week's notice, will she at least give us
The right hon. Lady will be aware from the statements that have been made and the oral answers just given by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that it would seem that we have not yet reached the peak of the current outbreak of foot and mouth. We can therefore expect several weeks yet of restrictions in many rural areas, including mine in Cornwall. In those circumstances, what contingency plan has she in place to deal with the county council elections on 3 May--and any other possible election that may be planned for that day? Will she please ensure that the House is kept fully informed of those arrangements, which are crucial to the practical application of our democratic procedures? Not only should the House be informed, but those who are campaigning on behalf of the various parties should know what the situation is.
Mrs. Beckett: First, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I am afraid that I do not have the answers that he seeks. He is right to say that questions concerning the legislative handling of any such decision are strictly factual. One of the reasons why I do not have those details is that no decision of any kind has been made as to whether we need to contemplate such steps. In that light, people have not pursued the detail of how those issues would be handled. If I may, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.
Although I am not an expert on such matters, my recollection and understanding is that the incubation period for foot and mouth disease is about two weeks, which is why we are not yet clear whether we have reached the peak. It is also not yet clear whether there is any more than one source. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, until now--we must all hope that this continues to be the case--we are talking about one source. Again, that seems potentially to make something of a difference. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and the wish of all hon. Members to know where they stand on campaigning. The Government are not yet taking a view and a position on these matters, but we will keep the House informed.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I know that my right hon. Friend is a great supporter of the Executive providing free and open information to Parliament. I know that she will therefore be prepared to consider holding a debate urgently on whether Members are receiving full information. I tabled a question to every Department about Serco and the contracts that it has won and lost throughout the Government system. I have received full information from all the Departments, except the Ministry of Defence, which has chosen to give me details of the number of individual contracts, with no information about the contracts concerned. I find that worrying.
On a related matter, if the Hammond report is to be released tomorrow, is there to be an inquiry into the source of the many highly specialised and partial leaks of the apparent contents of the report that have appeared in the press over the past week?