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Mrs. Beckett: I recall the very early days of the register and those Members who, as my hon. Friend rightly said, refused to comply with it. If I remember correctly, there was one on either side of the House. Of course I understand the point that he makes. There will come a time when the House will have to take a fresh look at how we handle those issues and what is the right framework in which to ensure that the information that should be known is on the record. We have to decide whether Members should declare what is relevant to their performance as Members, or whether everything with regard to Members' financial affairs should be fully disclosed. My hon. Friend will know that some of my hon. Friends and I have different views on that matter, and there are different views about it on either side of the House.
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Will right hon. Lady agree to have words with the Prime Minister before next Wednesday's business, to point out the massive concern in the west country, especially in Devon, about the affect of the foot and mouth epidemic and the feeling that it would be quite impossible to run a proper general election during this period? [Interruption.] It may be funny to some hon. Members, but in my constituency and throughout the west country, it is a very serious matter indeed. Perhaps the right hon. Lady would point out to her colleague, the Prime Minister, that, although he is making great play of the fact that there is a great deal that the Labour party yet has to accomplish, he still has 20 per cent. of this Parliament in which to do so, if he would get on with it. That would be much more satisfactory to my constituents, and perhaps even to me, but we shall leave that out.
Mrs. Beckett: We are scheduled to hold local elections on 3 May, as the right hon. Gentleman will know. Of course I understand and sympathise, as does the House, with his constituents' concerns, not least because they live in perhaps the second most severely affected part of the United Kingdom until now. Obviously, although the media have been talking about a general election on 3 May for more than a year, no general election has been called. However, the Government keep the position under review. At present, we are primarily concerned with handling the foot and mouth outbreak, which is obviously at the top of everyone's agenda.
Logically, if we have a veterans Minister, we also need an annual, full-day debate along the lines of the debate on the Metropolitan police that takes place every October. Will she build such a debate into the parliamentary timetable after the next general election?
Mrs. Beckett: Without any personal interest in the outcome, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has long been a vigorous campaigner for such a post to be created. He deserves the congratulations of both sides of the House on the fact that the campaign has been successful. As he rightly said, it has long been a campaign of the Royal British Legion, and I know that it will welcome the creation of the post.
As my hon. Friend knows, any Leader of the House receives many--they are almost all extremely worthwhile--requests on a whole range of issues for a commitment to a day's debate on the Floor of the House. I therefore cannot give him such a commitment, but I shall certainly bear his observations in mind.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The Leader of the House will know that I have previously called for a debate in the Chamber on early-years education. Such a debate might focus on the fact the pre-schools and playgroups have closed at a rate of knots under this Government or on the fact that the number of children educated in nursery classes with more than 30 children is greater than it was under the previous Conservative Government. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment about this matter, and he told me that he was in liaison with the Leader of the House. What are the results of those discussions? May we have a debate in the Chamber about how the Government are failing our youngest children?
The hon. Gentleman will also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has repeatedly stressed how much he values that range of provision. The Government have done a great deal to try to work with, support and assist such voluntary groups, and we shall continue to do so. My right hon. Friend is aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the near future.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and ask for an early debate on the suggested postponement of the local elections due to be held on 3 May? My right hon. Friend will have heard that The Wall Street Journal has the mistaken view that Britain is under quarantine, and that causes great concern in Chester, which is important to my constituency. I heard today on Radio 5 Live that the deputy leader of Cumbria county council, which covers a rural area, has expressed her concern about such comments. It would cause immense damage to tourism if a similar message were to go out from this House. We must have an early debate.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concern. He will know that the taskforce that was set up this week is trying to clarify the position in rural areas. It is clear that many people who were thinking of taking a holiday break in parts of the country that might be unaffected thought that they might be helping the general position of the agriculture industry by changing their minds and cancelling their arrangements. That is obviously causing great concern to the tourist industry.
My hon. Friend is entirely right to identify the fact that we must make it plain that Britain is not in a state of quarantine. Firm action is being taken and it is incumbent on us all to try to identify what can safely be done and what should be avoided so that we ensure that we do not do anything that would add to the spread of the disease. I understand his concerns. He will know that we have made regular statements to the House and will continue to do so, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate soon.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I know that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is here to make a statement and answer questions on foot and mouth, but I want to raise a related matter that concerns the Leader of the House. What mechanisms are in place for Members of Parliament to bring foot and mouth problems to the Minister's attention? The right hon. Lady will be aware that I mentioned this in a point of order on Monday, in which I explained that there is no dedicated officer in the Ministry with whom we can raise our concerns. When I rang the Minister's private office on
Will the Leader of the House urgently investigate whether we can have a dedicated officer to whom we can rapidly bring problems? It was suggested that the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly), the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, would be that contact. I handed to her last Thursday an urgent constituency case, but I have heard nothing from either the Minister or anyone in his office. I do not know what has happened to that case--perhaps it has been lost. Will the Leader of the House urgently investigate the problem and see what can be done?