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Mrs. Beckett: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. When Lord Biffen was Leader of the House, he said that business questions is when Members deliver themselves of the point or speech that they have been nurturing in their bosom undelivered all week. I know that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) was present throughout my right hon. Friend's statement and subsequent questions, and was not successful in being called. He can congratulate himself on the fact that his constituents' concerns are on the record.
The hon. Gentleman will know that one of his hon. Friend's suggestions in business questions last week led to the specific arrangement that allowed the Minister to answer questions today. I am not sure that we need to make a formal decision about what particular mechanism is adopted, but I can assure him that my right hon. Friend has every intention of keeping the House informed. The hon. Gentleman will know, and no doubt has benefited from, the arrangements that my right hon. Friend and his Department have established to make information available to MPs, which I also mentioned last week.
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): The centre for the deaf at Bristol university has recently pioneered a video link system for the deaf, which uses British sign language to enable them to communicate via screen. Will my right hon. Friend consider how the system might be used to enhance the involvement of the deaf in parliamentary democracy, perhaps by using an interpreter to ensure that their questions reach Members and/or enabling them to see an edited version of what happens in the House, possibly similar to "Yesterday in Parliament", again via screen?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an extremely interesting point. I was not aware of that work and I join her in paying tribute to her constituents and those who are engaged in such matters. My initial thought is that she should consider taking the issue up with the Information Committee. The nature of electronic communication in the House is, at least in part, a matter for it. She might also like to write to the Speaker and the Clerk of the House. However, I suspect that it will be difficult to resolve how we can make use of such facilities, but it should certainly be considered.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Can the Leader of the House be a bit more helpful about the Hammond report? She has been very coy about it so far. Does she accept that we need to know whether what the BBC is reporting is accurate--in the cause strictly of open government and transparency, which the Government of course espouse? Can she guarantee that the report will be properly presented to the House so that we are able to ask questions about it, not least about the role of the shadowy figure of Alastair Campbell, who, unless the report corrects the record, apparently runs the Government, sacks Cabinet Ministers and unapologetically seeks to sidestep the whole issue?
Can the Leader of the House give a specific undertaking that everything will be done to tell us whether what the BBC is saying is accurate and, more important, that the House will have a proper opportunity to hear all about the report and ask lots of questions about it?
Mrs. Beckett: I am not being coy. I think that the report was received only this morning. I believe that it is the intention that it will be published tomorrow, so I am not in a position to say anything more to the right hon. Gentleman. I am certainly not in a position to tell him whether what the BBC says is accurate. When the report is published--probably tomorrow--
Mrs. Beckett: Very much, "Not me, guv." I have already said that the matter will of course be properly reported to the House. As for the notion that Mr. Campbell is a shadowy figure, I would have thought that that was a less-than-apt description. He is certainly an effective servant of the Government and of the public service, and that is very much to be welcomed.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is perhaps slightly losing sight of the fact that, if I recall correctly--indeed, I must check for myself--Sir Anthony Hammond was looking into whether there was any impropriety in the award of a passport.
Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): In the light of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) yesterday about local government finance, will the Leader of the House consider again the need for a debate on that subject? I say that in the light of the numerous responses to the Green Paper, to which the Prime Minister referred, and the short amount of time that hon. Members were given to debate this year's rate support grant. It was the subject of a truncated debate, and many hon. Members who wished to contribute were not able to do so. I also say that in the light of the experience in my local authority, which has raised a series of issues that we have not had the opportunity to debate on the Floor of the House. It would be good to have a debate so that the Government can consider the views of all hon. Members before the White Paper is drafted.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concern and his dismay that we did not have as extensive a debate as usual on the local government settlement. He may recall that at that time the Opposition were going through one of their phases of objecting to everything, and one of the things to which they objected was an extended debate. Whether they imagined that the Government would keep hon. Members here late at night to discuss whether we should extend the debate, I do not know. The Government simply accepted their decision.
I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a specialist debate on local government finance. My hon. Friend can perhaps look for a general debate on the issue in Westminster Hall. It sounds to me like a good subject for an extended debate there, but I am sure that there will be other opportunities for my hon. Friend and others who are anxious to discuss it.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): In response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the Leader of the House confirmed that the Hammond report would be reported to the House in the usual way. Given that most of us have read its contents in the newspapers or seen them on the broadcast media already, we could be forgiven for thinking that it had already been reported to us. In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the right hon. Lady confirmed that the matter would be reported to the House properly. Given that the report is apparently to be published tomorrow, will there be a statement in the House tomorrow, or will it be next week?
Mrs. Beckett: As the report has only just been received, it is yet to be decided how it will be properly reported to the House. The hon. Gentleman will be perfectly well aware, and successive occupants of the Speaker's Chair have confirmed, that there is a variety of ways in which information can properly be laid before the House. A written question is one of them.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): My right hon. Friend will know that the final decision on Corus jobs has not yet been made. Is it not important that we have a debate before it is made, so that we can discuss that foolish proposal, which will lead to the closure of some of the most efficient steel plants in the world? Corus has confirmed that the works in Newport that the company plans to close down are far more productive and efficient than its plants in the Netherlands and other countries. Can we not emphasise that the reasons behind the decision are in part to do with differences in payments for redundancies in the different countries, with Dutch steel workers getting up to five times the redundancy payments that British workers receive; and with the parity of currencies, which means that the price on the continent of production from Llanwern is artificially high, whereas imports from the continent are artificially cheap here? Is not Newport's plight a case of "euro, or your job"?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. I think that I am right in saying that he has some years' direct experience of the steel industry. He knows that we have discussed that issue in the House and that further discussions are continuing. He will also be aware that, fortunately, owing to pressure from the Government and others, Corus is now discussing its proposals and plans with the trade unions. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a further special debate on the issue, but my hon. Friend, too, might consider the advantages of Westminster Hall. In addition, he will know that today's Budget debate is likely to concentrate on industrial matters, so he might find an opportunity to raise the matter during that debate.