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Mrs. Beckett: As I have just reminded the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I made the point at last week's Business questions--I know that the hon. Gentleman was not able to be with us for that--that there would be an Easter recess and that it would begin on 10 April, and no Opposition Member queried that.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): As I recall, the High Hedges Bill--which deals with leylandii, in particular--has been racing against time to reach its completion. It has had strong Government and all-party support until now and addresses a problem that causes serious distress to a great many people. Will the Leader of the House kindly take a close look at the possibility of furthering progress on that Bill in the extra time that is now available?
Mrs. Beckett: I am mindful of the cross-party support for the Bill. My recollection is that it is presently in Committee, but I am afraid that I am not familiar with how close it is to emerging. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but he may find that the answer to his question is on his own party's Benches.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Now that we have some more time, can the Leader of the House bring the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the House to make inside the House the statement that was made in the press over the weekend about the future of the railways? That has major importance, not least in terms of the deferral of the decision on who is to get the franchise for the east coast main line.
Mrs. Beckett: I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered a parliamentary question today. I understand and sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman's request for a statement--Members often want statements on matters of interest--but I am not entirely sure whether he would have welcomed a third statement today.
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): In view of what members of the lobby are saying, will the right hon. Lady confirm that there will be no provision in the Elections Bill for a further deferment from 7 June? If that is so, how will she deal with the matter? At present, foot and mouth is bad enough to justify the suspension of elections, but if it is the same or even worse on 7 June, it appears that those circumstances will not justify a further suspension.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Will the right hon. Lady tell us precisely how long the House will have to debate the Elections Bill on Wednesday? Will she also reconsider the plea from the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and change the business for next Tuesday so that, before we rise for the Easter recess, we have an opportunity to debate these grave matters?
Mrs. Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to debate the Easter Adjournment and I am not able to change that. I have taken seriously the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), but I fear that, at present, I am not in a position to change the business that is before us. I am also not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman the precise answer that he seeks about the time available for the Elections Bill. That matter is still under consideration.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): In view of the statement made by Mr. Gerry Robinson, the chairman of the Arts Council of England, that he proposes to wind up the regional arts boards this month--a statement that was made without consulting the boards--will the right hon. Lady suggest to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that he makes a statement to the House? That would enable us to hear more about how regional accountability is to be retained. It is appropriate that we know soon in view of the statement made by Mr. Robinson.
Mrs. Beckett: My recollection is that that statement was made some little time ago. I cannot promise the right hon. Gentleman a statement, but I shall draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Given that the Prime Minister has said that he is taking personal control of the foot and mouth crisis in an attempt to stop it spiralling further out of control, and given that the current circumstances of the crisis, the epidemiological advice and the prognosis rightly justify in the eyes of my constituents the deferral of the local elections that were due on 3 May, what precise elements of the advice, crisis and prognosis have to be different in a month's time to justify proceeding with elections on 7 June?
Mrs. Beckett: I am being asked the same question repeatedly, as was my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that it has been clear latterly that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister identified last week, the scale of movement of animals before any sign of the disease manifested itself publicly or had been detected was much more than anyone had understood. Consequently, the scale of the difficulties
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman will know that that issue is and has been under active consideration. It is much debated and is very controversial, and he will also know that it does not offer, as media reports sometimes seem to suggest, a simple answer. All that I can say is that that option remains under active consideration and discussion.
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Can the right hon. Lady tell us when the Elections Bill will be available? So that such important matters are adequately discussed, can she assure me that the Government will not shrink from an all-night sitting if necessary?
Mrs. Beckett: I believe that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary hopes to have something for consultation later today. As for how late the House sits, that is a matter for the House as a whole. Although I have long experience of sitting late into the night in the House, I am rarely willing to do so unnecessarily.
Mr. Forth: The Home Secretary's comments make it obvious that the Elections Bill will, of necessity, be large and complex, as it will cover many contingencies and possibilities. It will, therefore, require proper scrutiny. It might even require considerable amendment, given that the Government's track record of getting things right the first time is extremely poor. The Leader of the House has helpfully told us that we might have sight of the Bill later today, which is generous of her, and that the Bill is expected to pass through all its stages on Wednesday. Will she be even more helpful and tell us how it will be possible to table amendments at each stage, given that we have not yet seen the Bill, it is to be before the House the day after tomorrow, and it looks as though the Government will try to shove it through in one sitting?
Mrs. Beckett: It just goes to show how different people's reactions and perceptions differ. The right hon. Gentleman says that he anticipates the Bill being large and complex, but it sounds to me as though it will be a small and simple Bill--clearly, there is a difference in our perceptions. As for the way in which amendments will be tabled, it will be done in accordance with the usual
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): I strongly support the calls for a full debate on foot and mouth disease, but I hope that the Leader of the House will make time available for a MAFF Minister to answer hon. Members' urgent questions. It has come to my notice that consideration is now being given to movement orders to allow livestock to be imported to the Isle of Wight. We are grateful to have been without foot and mouth and we have been careful to maintain disinfectant barriers at all our ferries. It would be wholly disastrous if livestock were allowed to move into an area that is the best protected in England.