Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important and pertinent point, and makes it well. I sympathise with the concerns of her constituents; apart from anything else, they are no doubt concerned about the health hazard of uncollected waste. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the Floor, but I suspect that my hon. Friend may find a sympathetic hearing for a debate in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): May I support the requests that have been made from both sides of the House for a further debate on foot and mouth in Government time before the Dissolution of Parliament? Members from both sides of the House could then share opinions on the advantages or disadvantages of vaccination and share information as to how this terrible plague was imported to this country. We could discuss how to develop a strategy to prevent the virus from entering the country in future. We could consider certain inadequacies at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food relating to the number of vets available when the plague first broke out. We could also discuss how to protect the pedigree and pure-bred herds and flocks that are so important to the future of agriculture in this country. With the extra time now available, it should be possible to find time for a debate on the Adjournment so that the House can share its views on what is such a serious disaster for the countryside.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): My right hon. Friend will be aware that at business questions last week, I asked about correspondence that had been unanswered by Ministers because a general election was on the horizon. Although we have a little longer before that event, the problem remains. My right hon. Friend will not be aware that I submitted a question about correspondence affecting a Mr. Nofal, in my constituency. I asked for answers to letters of 13 November, 18 December, 13 February, 20 February and 21 February. The answer was ambiguous; it stated:
Furthermore, I have been promised a meeting with a Minister from the Department of Health in connection with the matter. It is of tremendous importance that, before we get to a general election, the issue is resolved for my constituent; otherwise, I shall have to employ other methods to raise his case on the Floor.
Mrs. Beckett: I am very aware of how assiduously my hon. Friend works on behalf of his constituency. I understand his concern if questions have not yet been fully answered. He will be aware that questions to the Department of Health are scheduled for 10 April; that may give him an opportunity to raise the matter.
Although I sympathise with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend, his question gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the officials in my own Department, who seem to have succeeded in answering within a short time scale almost 100 per cent. of the letters sent to us. That is a truly remarkable achievement.
Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): I am sure that the right hon. Lady agrees that it is right that the House's consideration of the serious foot and mouth crisis has concentrated on rural areas and those most directly affected--the farmers and communities therein. However, I hope that she will agree that some foot and mouth related issues touch urban areas. She will be aware that, yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made that very point to the Prime Minister.
For farms in areas designated as urban, such as those in my Cheadle constituency in the Greater Manchester conurbation, and for businesses that supply rural areas, and are based in places such as Cheadle, it is not clear whether they will qualify under the various welcome steps that the Government have taken to help companies in difficulty. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Lady will be able to accede to the many requests that have been made for a debate in Government time, so that those matters at least can be explored.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Last July, there were celebrations for the Australian centenary in this place. On 9 May, it is the 100th anniversary of the state opening of the first Australian federal Parliament. Will the Leader of the House discuss with the Speaker and other House authorities whether there is some way that we could mark that occasion in the House--without any boondoggles, without anyone going there--perhaps by using new technology whereby we could pass a resolution of congratulation? We could use the occasion as a precedent. All too often such matters are left to the early-day motions of Back Benchers, when they merit a greater demonstration by the whole House. Could that matter be examined, as that is an important parliamentary occasion both for the Australians and for us, as well as for other jurisdictions that have flown the nest after seeing the example of Australian independence?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. I must admit that I have not given great consideration to the opportunities that he suggests are available through the use of new technology. I am sure that all those who represent the House authorities have heard his suggestion and will consider it.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Leader of the House has announced a debate on the Finance Bill after the recess. Will it be possible to have some clarification about the suggestion that VAT will be added to the cost of hearing aids in the near future? That would increase their cost. It might be a stealth tax, which will certainly punish people who require such aids.
Mrs. Beckett: I am not sure how easy it will be for the hon. Gentleman to raise that matter during the debate on the Finance Bill. That is, of course, a matter for the Chair. I cannot undertake to give him the assurance that he seeks that it will be possible, but I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): May we have an early opportunity to consider the remarks quoted in today's Ilford Recorder by the long-standing Conservative councillor in Redbridge, Asaf Mirza? He says that he is
In contrast Labour is a modern, progressive and broad party that has demonstrated its ability to govern fairly and effectively for all."
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I wonder whether the Leader of the House could make time for a debate on class sizes. She will know that in many parts of the country secondary school class sizes are at their highest level for 10 years. Indeed, in more than 40 local authorities the position is worsening sharply or is certainly not improving. The problem is not limited to secondary schools. Upper-age primary schools are also suffering from larger class sizes and a greater proportion of nursery-age children are in classes of more than 30 than there were in 1997. We need to get to the bottom of this matter. Despite the hyperbole before the general election, for the vast majority of children, class sizes are rising rapidly due to the Government's incompetence.
Mrs. Beckett: That is absolute nonsense. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware, secondary class sizes have been increasing gradually but steadily for about 10 years, but there is no doubt that the rate of the increase has slowed as a result of the investment that the Government are making. In fact, in many parts of the country--the vast majority--children in the early years of education are benefiting from much smaller classes as a result of the earlier investment made by the Government. However, there is a further reason why there is no necessity for me to make a special arrangement to discuss those matters: oral questions to the Department for Education and Employment will take place on 26 April.