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Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on speech therapy? This is, to some extent, a local problem. I discovered three or four years ago that there was a shortage of speech therapists in my borough, and despite the best efforts of the local community health trust, that shortage has not been addressed. I suspect, from speaking to other right hon. and hon. Members, that it is a national shortage which needs addressing at a national level, which is why we need a debate or a statement on it.
Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), I should like to emphasise that it is the view of probably the majority of right hon. and hon. Members, if there were a completely free vote, that the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill is an attack on democracy and on representative democracy. It is the first extension of the business vote since 1832. Can we just kick it out after we win the election?
Mrs. Beckett: First, my hon. Friend is right to say that although there may be a particular local problem with regard to the availability of speech therapy, there is a general problem and has been for quite some time. That is due not least to the previous Government's record of administration in running the health service, when many of these specialties and valuable contributors to health care were neglected and actively undermined.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): As these may be the last business questions of this Parliament, and as I am one of the regular attenders, may I say on behalf of several of my right hon. and hon. Friends how much we have appreciated the way the Leader of the House has discharged her duties, typified by the courtesy with which she responded to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) only a few moments ago?
Now back to business. I have repeatedly raised the point that, a year and a half ago, the President of the European Commission described the Commissioners as the Government of Europe, and this has been repeatedly disregarded by Ministers, including the Prime Minister, whenever it has been raised in the House. Now that the Chancellor of Germany has made the same statement--proposing to formalise the European Commission as the Government of Europe--and has been backed, according to press reports today, by the Belgian Prime Minister, will the right hon. Lady find time for a statement by an appropriate Minister on the serious constitutional question whether this country will continue governing itself, or will indeed become part of a European superstate? The Prime Minister's counterparts in other countries clearly wish that to happen.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): May I tell my right hon. Friend about the case of six of my constituents who were arrested by the Greater Manchester police early last summer? In the autumn, their case was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, where it remains. By a remarkable coincidence, all six were members of the Bury, North Conservative party--two of them were elected members of the local authority. They stand accused of election fraud, following last year's municipal elections; specifically, they are accused of tampering with postal votes in private residential homes.
In view of the likely--welcome--increase in postal voting in the forthcoming general election, will my right hon. Friend discuss that general issue with her Home Office colleagues to ensure that adequate guidelines are given to local authorities so that the risk of fraud in postal voting is reduced to a minimum? Will it be possible to find time, during next week's business, for a debate on the Floor of the House?
Mrs. Beckett: I was not aware of the particular case to which my hon. Friend refers. I am aware, however, that cases of such fraud have occurred in the past--the one that comes to my mind was also in connection with a residential home. That suggests a particular and clear vulnerability in handling postal votes in respect of such places. It is the responsibility of the electoral registration officer to check that someone is a properly registered elector and that electoral fraud of that kind is not being undertaken. Obviously, guidance has gone out to electoral registration officers stating that they should take such matters seriously in view of the sensible and welcome easing of the availability of postal voting. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time during the coming week for a debate of the kind to which my hon. Friend alludes.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), the right hon. Lady was unable to give an assurance that important policy statements from the Government would be made in the House. Perhaps we could approach the matter in another way. Would it be possible to find an opportunity for Members of the House to attend the Lobby briefing, so that we could end the constitutional anomaly that arose yesterday whereby members of the Lobby were able to question the organ grinder, whereas Members of the House had to put up with the monkey?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I made it extremely clear to his hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) that the Government make very many statements--and all statements of importance--in the House.
On Lobby briefings, first, as someone who attends them, I can tell the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that he would not find them nearly as illuminating as he thinks. Secondly, if he does have an interest in them, they are of course available on the No. 10 website.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Is my right hon. Friend at all surprised by the huge amount of support received for my early-day motion 572 on the business affairs of working members of the royal family?
[That this House applauds the decision of Buckingham Palace to consider issuing guidance on how the business affairs of working members of the Royal Family might be conducted in future; believes a register of royal interests, along the lines of the House of Commons Register of Members' Interests, should be considered; hopes the Palace will invite the views of Right honourable and honourable Members on any draft guidance; and invites the Select Committee on Public Administration to review current practice and offer suggestions for change where it considers appropriate.]
The motion was signed by 108 Members. Will my right hon. Friend put out feelers to the Palace and use her good offices to set up a meeting between the Lord Chamberlain--Lord Luce--myself and other Members who expressed an interest in the matter by tabling the early-day motion? Is it not the case--indeed, I know that my right hon. Friend will agree with me because I know the kind of person she is--that, if guidelines emerge and are secret, they are no use at all?
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): May we please have a debate on the proposed national works council directive, which would, in this country hit more than 36,000 companies with more than 50 employees? Given that the European Union Employment and Social Affairs Council's meeting on that matter has been conveniently postponed from 7 May to 11 June this year; that Germany's opposition to the directive is said to be weakening; and that, as the right hon. Lady is well aware from painful experience, the matter is ultimately determined by majority voting under the European social chapter because of this Government's crass stupidity, why does not she just admit that, as we have long suspected, the Government have in mind a craven capitulation on the subject to the advocates of European corporatism in the EU?
Mrs. Beckett: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman attaches any great significance to the postponement of further discussion on that issue. To hear his remarks, anyone would think that the matter had suddenly arisen out of the blue and was for urgent discussion, whereas it has been discussed since at least 1997; it has been discussed and argued about for years. As for the notion that, in some way, it is a consequence of actions taken by this Government, it is in fact a consequence of the discussions that were under way before we came to power. However, I assure him that the Government will continue to fight the case that we believe to be right with the utmost vigour and, if I may say so, with rather more success than the party that he supports when it was in government.