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Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a special debate on that issue, but the hon. Gentleman will recall that Health questions take place on Tuesday, so he might find an opportunity to raise it then. He will know that debate continues on how to handle the availability of places in care homes. In addition, there is extensive discussion about how we can get the balance right between people who need health care and those who can be properly cared for in their own home, which also has an impact on the care homes sector. I cannot arrange a special debate, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find other ways in which to raise the issue.
Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): May we have a debate on the west's treatment of Iraq? The British and American Governments appear to be determined to bomb Iraq back into the stone age, despite the widespread opprobrium with which our policy has been met. The recent bombing appears to have been motivated by the fact that there is a new American president who is viciously right wing and has a peanut for a brain.
Mrs. Beckett: I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on Iraq. My hon. Friend will know that those concerns have been expressed many times in the House in a variety of different ways, and I am sure that he and others will find other ways of making their points. In the near future, it is not likely that we shall have time for the debate that he requests.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): May we have an urgent debate in Government time on sentencing policy? Given that since January 1999 no fewer than 31,000 serious criminals have been released early after serving less than half of their sentences--including people convicted of manslaughter, attempted murder, actual and grievous bodily harm, drug dealing, cruelty to children, sex offences, violent disorder, burglary, robbery and kidnapping, to name but a few--would not an early debate in the House present the public with the clear choice that they will soon have to make on crime between the Government's institutionalised wimpishness and the robust policy of honesty in sentencing that is commended to the country by the Conservatives?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman's point about people being released early from jail has been made frequently by Opposition Members. Although I speak from memory, I understand that we are talking about people being released perhaps a week or so earlier than they otherwise would be released. Under this Government, there has been no vast change in the approach to the handling of sentences or the period that people serve.
As for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about choice, Opposition Members talked a storm about those things in government, while crime doubled. At the weekend, I read the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, in which he said how different things would be if only the shadow Chancellor was at the Treasury, the shadow Foreign Secretary was at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the shadow Home Secretary was at the Home Office. I cast my mind back and thought, "But the shadow Chancellor was at the Treasury, the shadow Foreign Secretary was at the Foreign Office, and the shadow Home Secretary was at the Home Office--and look what happened then."
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): With her long experience, my right hon. Friend will recall that, just before the 1970 election, the late Enoch Powell made a disgusting xenophobic speech, which was dismissed by the then Conservative leader, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). The Conservatives went on to win that election.
Last Sunday, the Leader of the Opposition made a disgusting xenophobic speech, so could we have a debate on the problem of xenophobia in politics, with particular reference to the report in today's edition of Tribune about Lord Pearson of Rannoch being prepared to pay £2 million to bribe members of another political party to stand down to allow more extreme right-wing, anti-European, xenophobic Conservatives to garner more votes? Surely, that financial interference in our electoral system is unacceptable, even at the cost of Tory xenophobia.
Mrs. Beckett: I have not yet seen this week's edition of Tribune, but I am aware of newspaper stories making the suggestion to which my hon. Friend referred with regard to the United Kingdom Independence party. It is certainly interesting to see how assiduously certain members of the Conservative party are working to influence the electorate's decisions.
My hon. Friend made a point about the general content of the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, and there was certainly widespread concern about it. When I read it, what struck me forcefully was the distinct impression that the entire Conservative party had been beamed down from Mars in 1997 and that everything wrong in this country is the result only of the operations of this Government. [Hon. Members: "Quite right."] I hear echoes from Opposition Members; they may think that the world began on 1 May 1997, but the rest of us are conscious of a rather long trail, track record and history.
As my hon. Friend will understand from my remarks, I find attractive his proposition that we should provide an opportunity to air those issues in the House. I fear, however, that the pressures on time are such that it is a pleasure that we shall have to forgo.
Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): I appreciate that we are in the middle of debating the Budget which, as we know, represents a balanced approach, providing both measured and affordable tax cuts and extra investment, but, surely, there must be a way of debating and scrutinising the Opposition's policies, which are so right-wing, barmy and unbalanced that they pose an enormous risk to the country. The more exposure they get, the better.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's concerns. It would be attractive to spend time exposing the Opposition's mistakes, follies and continual U-turns; for example, we never discussed what happened to the tax guarantee, which may be relevant in the context of the Budget debate. I fear however that, no matter how much I might wish to, I cannot undertake to find extra time for such debate.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): The majority of hon. Members would like a general election. May I pick up on the question of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? In reality, it is highly likely that there will be a general election on 3 May--that is agreed ground. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Home Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary introducing a short Bill which would allow free delivery of local election addresses during that period, to match the facility for parliamentary candidates? Will she consider bringing forward the Northern Ireland elections, which are scheduled for mid May, to 3 May if appropriate? Finally, what is the expected date of arrival of the International Criminal Court Bill from another place?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend asks a number of questions. He was right to say that the local elections are scheduled to be held on 3 May, but whatever the assumptions, I am not aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a decision, never mind announced it. We can all be confident that there will be a general election within the next 14 months.
My hon. Friend makes a new proposal about free delivery of local election addresses, which may have wide-ranging implications. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends, but I cannot undertake at this point that we will be able to make the changes that he seeks. As I said, I shall draw the package of concerns that he identified to the attention of my parliamentary and political colleagues.
With regard to the International Criminal Court Bill, I have slightly lost track of its progress in the Lords, but I believe that it is due to finish there today. We hope to make progress with that important and useful measure.
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I return to the need for a debate on modernisation procedures and programme motions. On the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, when the Standing Committee turned its attention to the content of the Bill, the scrutiny--this applies to hon. Members from all parties--was constructive and effective.
When my right hon. Friend considers further representations on the matter, however, particularly in view of the mock, synthetic outrage that we witnessed earlier from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), will my right hon. Friend take time to peruse the Official Report of the Committee? Will she look at the volume of time that was devoted to lengthy and gratuitous insults levelled at members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, deliberate lengthy and misleading misrepresentations of international animal welfare organisations, smug and lengthy eulogies to minor Conservative party researchers, and extraordinarily lengthy comments on the television series "Dangerfield", which might have been more appropriate on the television critics' pages of the Radio Times? Does not that demonstrate that far too much time and attention are devoted to trivia by the Opposition, which is why the Committee is not making progress?