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Mrs. Browning: What about the joint Committee?

Mrs. Beckett: I beg her pardon; I must have lost that question in my notes. Yes, the Government intend to pursue joint discussions about how we handle the future development of the upper House. I recognise, and am pleased that the hon. Lady has placed it on the record, that the Conservative party is not unwilling to take part in such discussions. We shall certainly bear that in mind and we hope that we shall be able, over time, to get some agreement on how the further reform of the upper House should work.

The final issue that the hon. Lady raised with me was that of Government advertising, and she suggested in particular that Ministers from the Department of Social Security should be discussing the issue of DSS advertising. I thought that she gave the impression that she believed that this was misplaced spending on the Government's part. It may be slightly unfortunate for the hon. Lady that it is the case, as I am sure that she must now be aware, that, in real terms, the expenditure on Government advertising in this year is very close to the expenditure undertaken by the Government of her party in 1987. Of course, what is particularly unfortunate is that the hon. Lady chose the example of social security, because if the previous Conservative Government had been prepared to spend a little more on advertising the consequences of their policies in 1987, perhaps many people would have understood that they were taking away their rights to widows' pensions.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw): May I thank my right hon. Friend and you, too, Mr. Speaker, for the motion which is on the Order Paper for next Wednesday to set up a working group on the problems of ex-MPs--a proposal that is long overdue? It is not intended to provide any financial assistance and it will not cost the taxpayer any money.

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In the past, no inquiry has been held into what happens when MPs lose their seats or when they retire.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Declare your interest.

Mr. Ashton: The right hon. Gentleman can jeer as much as he likes, but this is a serious business. More than 600 MPs have left the House--half of them have retired--since about 1987. No one knows what has happened to them, about their jobs or their problems, or about what advice they might need.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): We all know where Jonathan Aitken has been.

Mr. Ashton: Well, we expect silly jokes from people who have a good job, and who will have a good job after the election, but the fact is that after the previous election many people lost their jobs, including friends of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

The Data Protection Act 1998 has made it virtually impossible to find out such information on a voluntary basis because it is not possible to gain the relevant names and addresses. Those are the things that we should debate seriously next Wednesday.

I am sure that the motion has the support of the Chief Whips of every party. You have done a great deal of work on the issue, Mr. Speaker, so has the Leader of the House, and I should like to thank you both for that.

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He makes a very important point: there is cross-party support for a discussion to find out whether a voluntary organisation could be set up. He also makes the important point, which I certainly had not properly taken on board in the past and which may not be familiar to all Members, that partly because of the Data Protection Act 1998, there is no record of what has happened to former MPs or, indeed, to their spouses, or widows or widowers. It is extremely difficult for people to make contact.

Of course people are occasionally in touch with the welfare organisations, but there are many more with whom no one is in touch, some of whom are in considerable difficulties. My hon. Friend and others--literally, on all sides of the House--are interested in finding out whether it is possible to form some sort of voluntary organisation of former Members, which can keep in touch so that people can gain advice and support from others in similar circumstances.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Presumably, Phoenix the calf cannot now qualify to be a people's peer, but will the Leader of the House assure us that that great national asset can be used in future Government advertising? Clearly, that would be a great deal more effective than some recent Government advertising.

May we have a statement on the role of the Electoral Commission? Clearly, the commission has a very important responsibility, and perhaps it should be involved in assessing the role of Government advertising in the 12 months before a general election. That is but one of the many questions now being asked about the forthcoming election. Many other important issues do not seem to have been properly tackled by the commission.

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Before any possible date for Dissolution, can we have a report on the commission's role in adjudicating on such matters? Obviously, some regulation is required if only because the taxpayer is getting very bad value for money in relation to Government advertising.

The right hon. Lady has referred to the 1987 advertising expenditure of more than £104 million by the then Thatcher Government, most of which was spent on selling privatisation. The public are concerned not just in case there is an attempt to skew the electoral process, but because such advertising represents very bad value for money. May I also draw her attention to the obvious necessity to review the fact that we should have fixed-term Parliaments? Several of her colleagues believe that greater attention should be given to that proposal. Fixed terms would enable the Electoral Commission to adjudicate more effectively on such matters as advertising.

Mrs. Beckett: To answer the hon. Gentleman's main point about Government advertising, I point out that it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission. However, the issue is already under scrutiny by the National Audit Office, which always monitors the effectiveness and value of any Central Office of Information advertising campaign.

As for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that, in some way, the advertising is unsuitable, unnecessary and totally ineffective, I point out that much of the advertising has been on police recruitment, and he may have noticed that there has been a substantial increase in recruits. Advertising has also led to an increase in teacher recruitment, and it has also encouraged people to join or to return to the health service, and there has been a huge take-up on that.

There has been advertising on issues--such as the working families tax credit, the national minimum wage, the children's tax credit and the minimum income guarantee--in which we think it is important for people to claim their entitlements. Sadly--to some extent, I suppose it is inevitable--if we wait for the news media to communicate to people that there is a new entitlement to, say, the children's tax credit that will start at the beginning of April, we would have to wait a very long time. The only way to ensure that people are aware of their entitlements is through Government advertising.

As for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about Phoenix the calf, at least the one thing that we can be fairly confident about is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will not be photographed sitting in a field cuddling it.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend shared my misfortune last week. Although I know that she was in this country, I was in Turkey where I turned on the television and watched CNN. I had the misfortune of viewing the shadow Secretary of State for Defence talking about foot and mouth in the United Kingdom. Members on both sides are rightly concerned about its impact on the tourism industry, but they would have heard him saying that foot and mouth was out of control. He referred to funeral pyres and to all the matters that have turned tourists off coming

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to this country. Will my right hon. Friend advise the House as to what we should do with the Tories who continually talk Britain down?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I was not able to watch CNN, so I did not see the interview to which she refers. Given that I understand that we are all anxious about the impact on tourism and the economy generally of the knock-on effects of the crisis, it is most unfortunate if any hon. Member, in whatever position or circumstance, acts in a way that causes greater alarm and despondency to be spread in what is an important market. I wish that I could say that it was uncharacteristic behaviour on the part of the hon. Gentleman to whom my hon. Friend referred, but I fear that I cannot.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Does the Leader of the House recall that at the last business questions she said, following my encouragement, that she would consider scheduling a debate on the decisions concerning parliamentary pay and other associated matters? She has not done so, but I would be grateful if she would explain why. Does she not recall that, in the final weeks of the previous Parliament, she and her colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench were extremely keen that the then Government should table such matters for decision on the basis that existing Members would be better able to judge needs and that those who were leaving the House--either voluntarily or involuntarily--would receive pension help as a consequence? In the light of that and her own past behaviour, will she reflect further and schedule such a debate for next week?

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