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Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw): Will the remaining stages of the Bill on the abolition of hunting with hounds will come back to this House before or after 3 May? Is she aware that yesterday the Duke of Devonshire and the

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Countryside Alliance were clamouring for a postponement of any election until well after 3 May? Can she tell them when the foxhunting Bill might go through its remaining stages so that they can make their mind up about which date they would like the election to be held?

Mrs. Beckett: I was not aware of the specific individuals who were calling for the postponement of an election, which, as far as I am aware, has not been called. I understand my hon. Friend's concern. It is clear from the way in which the House voted that a majority of Members take the view that a hunting Bill should reach the statute book, and the House has given its verdict on the form that that legislation should take. It is a matter for Members of the other place how and when they take their decisions, but I am sure that they will be mindful of the views of the elected House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The Prime Minister yesterday announced the appointment of a Minister for veterans affairs, which I am sure is widely welcomed on both sides of the House. Will the Leader of the House assure us that information will be made available to all Members on the Minister's role and remit, and, in particular, what additional budget will be made available to him? Will the right hon. Lady also assure us that his attention will be drawn immediately to early-day motion 226 on Gulf veterans:

[That this House notes that, 10 years after the Gulf War, veterans and their families are still awaiting the outcome of research; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to disclose what further consideration they are giving to the needs of those Gulf War veterans with still undiagnosed illnesses and of the dependants of those who have died.]

The Leader of the House will recall that I have asked her on two successive occasions at business questions about contingency plans for the census and the county council elections on 3 May. I am very grateful to her for the reply that I received just as I came into the Chamber, which answers some of the questions that arise. However, since I asked those questions, the Tory tabloids have started a clamour to postpone the elections on 3 May.

Hon. Members: Name them.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Do not shout at the hon. Gentleman. He is entitled to say his piece.

Mr. Tyler: We all know that the situation is extremely serious in many parts of the country as a result of foot and mouth disease. Does the right hon. Lady support the view expressed yesterday by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that the countryside of Britain is not closed? Does she agree that if we suggested that all business in this country, including an election, had to be postponed because of the severity of the situation it would be the worst possible signal to give, particularly to foreign visitors?

Will returning officers be encouraged to issue a postal vote application form with polling cards to all those who may otherwise not be aware of the new facilities, together with an explanation that the means for postal voting are

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now much more widely available than they were previously? Will she also give an undertaking that the Home Office will reconsider election expenses, which in rural areas such as Cornwall will be much higher if we have to operate at a distance and cannot use volunteers on foot?

Finally, what legislation may be necessary to make any changes to the census date or polling day for any election, be it the county elections or the general election? What is the last available date by which that legislation must be brought before the House?

Mrs. Beckett: On the role of my colleague who has been appointed Minister for veterans affairs, the Ministry of Defence will issue a statement about his role and remit. As for whether that post will have a separate budget, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have already taken steps to deal with the issues of greatest concern that were constantly raised with our predecessors--the treatment of war widows and compensation for former Japanese prisoners of war. Resolution of those issues has been urged on Governments for very many years and it has fallen to this Government to take action, which the previous Government refused to do.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to Gulf war veterans. The Government's view is that the key components of the issue are dialogue, the provision of medical assistance as required, the pursuit of the right research and its publication.

The hon. Gentleman asked about contingency plans with regard to the election, and I am grateful to him for his thanks for the information that I have given to him. He raised an important point when he referred to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but it is my understanding that a range of organisations concerned with the tourist industry in particular has begun to express serious alarm at any suggestion that the local elections might be postponed because of the signal that that would send. Along with the concerns of those who, for perfectly understandable and legitimate reasons, argue that the local elections should be postponed, is the different and equally worthy point of view that that would be the wrong signal to give. The Government are taking all those issues into account.

The hon. Gentleman suggested what should be the action of returning officers, and I shall draw his suggestion to the attention of the relevant authorities. It is possible that the money involved would come from local authorities' budgets, so it may be a matter for them; but returning officers must always encourage people to be aware of how they can exercise their votes, and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion is interesting. I shall also pass on his comments about the impact on election expenses, although I offer him no great prospect of change.

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, primary legislation would be required were we to seek to change the date of the local elections. I understand that we would also be required to name a new date: many of those who suggest a postponement do not seem to have taken that into account.

According to my recollection, the date of the census was set by order, so the position may be simpler. However, the hon. Gentleman will know from the answer

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I have given him in writing that those who conduct the census are considering the timing of information and how it is collected, to establish whether there are changes they could helpfully make that would mean things could proceed with the same effectiveness, if not in precisely the same way.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a broad smile on the face of Tyneside this morning, following the excellent news that AMEC and Shell have clinched the largest-ever overseas offshore contract? It will bring 4,000 jobs to the country--1,000 on Tyneside, 1,000 in the rest of the north-east, and 2,000 throughout the remainder of the country.

May we congratulate the workers and management of those companies, and--given that the news comes on the back of major investment announcements by Nissan, Toyota, Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen, Jaguar and Ford--may we have a debate on why Britain is a good country in which to do business?

Mrs. Beckett: I sympathise with my right hon. Friend's wish for such a debate. It is clear from the decisions and, indeed, the comments of these many internationally mobile inward investors that they share the view expressed by organisations as disparate as the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that, under this Government, Britain is a very good place in which to do business. I also understand my right hon. Friend's welcome for the extra employment--on behalf of his constituents and others--which I am sure is shared by Members throughout the House, and echo his congratulations to management and work force.

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor of the House, but my right hon. Friend might consider Westminster Hall.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): Would the Leader of the House be kind enough to tell us when we can expect a statement from her about future sittings? She will know that, under a completely new and revolutionary procedure, the Committee considering the Criminal Justice and Police Bill was deemed to have finished its work when it manifestly had not. Can we expect the right hon. Lady to announce at next week's business questions that we are to debate a motion stating that Parliament is deemed to have completed all outstanding business, and is therefore to be dissolved?

Mrs. Beckett: I do not think the hon. Gentleman can expect that, although it is a tempting thought sometimes.

On occasion, there is some inaccuracy in Opposition Members' description of these events. The House decided merely to deem that the Bill had been reported. It would have been a case of the Committee's considering a single issue--a single motion that it would certainly have considered, and presumably passed, had there been an opportunity to put the question.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the words of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). When a Back Bencher used such tactics on a previous occasion, he said that if tactics are used artificially to disrupt the

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proceedings of a Committee, the Government and the House must find a remedy for it. It is not to be tolerated that such a procedure should be used without remedy.

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