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Commons Chamber

Volume 300: debated on Thursday 13 November 1997

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House Of Commons

Thursday 13 November 1997

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Standing Orders (Private Business)

Ordered,

That the Amendments to the Standing Orders relating to Private Business set out in the Schedule be made.

Standing Order 27

Line 73, at end, insert Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 27A

Line 24, leave out 'three' and insert 'four'.
Line 25, after 'Environment', insert Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 29

Line 8, leave out 'Transport' and insert 'the Environment, Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 30

Line 6, leave out 'Energy' and insert 'Trade and Industry'.

Standing Order 30A

Line 5, after 'Environment', insert Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 31

Line 6, leave out 'Transport' and insert 'the Environment, Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 32

Line 13, leave out 'National Rivers Authority' and insert 'Environment Agency'.

Standing Order 33

Line 10, leave out 'National Rivers Authority' and insert 'Environment Agency'.

Standing Order 34

Line 10, leave out 'Transport' and insert 'the Environment, Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 37

Line 10, at end, insert Transport and the Regions'.
Line 17, at end, insert Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 39

Line 3, after 'bill', insert 'four at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions'.
Line 3, leave out 'at the Department of the Environment and'.
Line 10, leave out 'of National Heritage' and insert 'for Culture, Media and Sport'.
Line 10. leave out 'the Department of Transport'.
Line 36, leave out 'Great George Street' and insert 'Whitehall'.

Standing Order 42

Line 7, leave out 'National Rivers Authority' and insert 'Environment Agency'.

Standing Order 43

Line 8, leave out 'National Rivers Authority' and insert 'Environment Agency'.

Standing Order 45

Line 20, leave out 'Transport' and insert 'the Environment, Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 47

Line 11, after 'Environment', insert Transport and the Regions'.

Standing Order 154

Line 12, leave out 'Transport' and insert 'the Environment, Transport and the Regions'.
Line 27, leave out 'Transport' and insert 'the Environment, Transport and the Regions'.—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Oral Answers To Questions

Education And Employment

The Secretary of State was asked

Voluntary Work

1.

What plans he has to encourage and support voluntary work in the community. [14320]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

We believe strongly in the value of voluntary work. For this reason, we have recently launched a consultation document on millennium volunteers, and we have been working closely with a wide range of voluntary groups to encourage their participation in the new deal for young unemployed people.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, which I am sure will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. How does he propose to link the opportunities to be made available under the new deal and the millennium project with the social exclusion unit and the many young people who have become alienated and disaffected over the past 18 years?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which she put her question. There is an enormous problem with the exclusion of young people who have become disaffected and alienated from much of the mainstream of our society. We believe strongly in voluntary work as the most valuable means of strengthening the bonds of our society and creating a society in which all can contribute and all are valued. The voluntary sector option of the new deal and millennium volunteers are distinct programmes, as my hon. Friend knows. Both of them will be of considerable interest to others in the Government who, through the work of the social exclusion unit, will be monitoring and promoting the ways in which we address the problem.

Higher Education Funding

2.

If he will make a statement on his proposals to increase funding for higher education. [14321]

In my statement in September, I outlined how we had identified £165 million for investment in opening up access to higher education, doubling the access funding and providing money to sustain the universities and to ensure that young people have the opportunity of taking up higher education in years to come. Yesterday, I was able to make a similar statement relating to further education.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply and for the funds that he announced for the further education sector yesterday. Does he agree that those funds will send an important signal to the students and staff of further education colleges across the country that their work is valuable—as valuable as that of the universities?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The £83 million that we have identified for direct investment, and the minimum contribution of at least £100 million from the new deal for the under-25s—which will go into further education through the full-time and part-time options for education and training—will make an enormous difference in opening up potential for more than 70,000 additional students next year. The funds will help to protect the colleges, as we did the universities, from the draconian cuts imposed by the previous Government, who paid lip service to expansion while undermining the quality and standard of education.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the various comments made by spokesmen for Scottish universities on the likely impact of the decision by the Government that English, Northern Ireland and Welsh students will have to pay the full £4,000 tuition fees, while students from other European member states and Scotland will not. Is he aware that in last week's debate on higher education funding, the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office dismissed the statements that had been made by the Scottish universities on the issue? Who is presenting the correct picture—the Minister or the universities?

We are of course talking about the £1,000 towards the tuition fee for the final and fourth year for those in the higher income bracket. There is no evidence yet on what the impact might be on English students, because applications have not yet closed in Scotland. One thing is certain: the more fear that is put in students' minds about what they can expect to find and when, the more likely it is that they will not apply. I am confident, as are my right hon. and hon. Friends in Scotland, that the quality of education at universities in Scotland is such that those who are privileged enough to have earnings that will oblige them to pay the full £1,000 fee will feel that it is worth the investment.

I know that further education colleges in my constituency will warmly welcome the announcement made by my right hon. Friend yesterday. Does he agree that it is an important part of the package to convince young people that further and higher education are worthwhile investments, and that those who take a degree are far more likely to have higher earnings, certainly by their mid-30s and for the rest of their lives, than non-graduates of the same ability?

I agree entirely. It is statistically proven that what my hon. Friend says is correct. We announced yesterday an expansion for further education, and the fact that adult students in further education already contribute towards their fees and feel that it is worth while to do so will be an encouragement to those who go on to higher education: they will see that the higher return on the investment made will be a tremendous financial as well as an educational and employment gain.

The Secretary of State's announcement of additional funding for further and higher education is welcomed in all regions of the United Kingdom, but we in Northern Ireland are concerned at speculation about the creation of an additional higher education centre in west Belfast, in which £65 million of public money could be invested. Will he consult the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), and advise him that it is our view that investment in that project is not justified and that moneys available would be better spent on the many existing further and higher education campuses in Northern Ireland?

I shall be happy to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and her colleagues about how to provide greater access to education for all members of the community in Northern Ireland.

I recognise the problem that my right hon. Friend faces in financing higher and further education, but does he not agree that if the Government's proposals on student funding lead to a dramatic fall in student numbers, that will create an even greater crisis in the sector's finances next year? How does he intend to cope with that potential crisis?

If there is a drop in the number of students, it will be a tragedy for those who have been discouraged from taking up their places by misleading and scurrilous propaganda: propaganda that suggests that the means-tested family contribution is to rise, when it is not; scurrilous misinformation that suggests to poorer students that they will have to find the £1,000 fee, when they will not; and scurrilous misinformation that deceives them into thinking that the grant is to disappear in one year, when in fact it is being phased out.

There will not be a financial crisis if there is a drop in the number of students, because we are funding those students through the fee process, funding the residual grant and funding the loan. The tragedy would be if those young and mature students were denied the opportunity of better employment prospects and higher earnings from their investment in their own education.

Will the Secretary of State explain in as much detail as possible the connection between the decision to require students to contribute towards their fee, and the additional resources for higher education? Does he intend to ensure that the additional resources from the fee are ring-fenced for higher education, and how permanent will that connection be?

By 2005–06, on current accounting procedures, an additional £800 million would be available for the further and higher education sector from the introduction of our proposals. That sum would rise substantially under alternative resource accounting processes. That money will be available for lifelong learning. I have made it clear here and in the Select Committee that that is why we are introducing the scheme. We believe that it is an important investment which will open access to the tens of thousands of students who would otherwise be denied it.

May I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his ingenuity and skill in finding an additional £83 million to invest in further education? Does he agree that the needs of the 2.6 million students in further education are as important as the needs of the 1.8 million students in higher education? Does he further agree that the false divide in the tertiary sector between further and higher does nothing to help the opportunities for all our young people to fulfil their potential?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I entirely agree. Conservative Members might stop laughing if they realised that in our sixth months in office, my Department has identified within our existing resources, which we inherited, more than £250 million for further and higher education. That is £250 million that the Conservatives failed to identify and did not know was available. Their handling of their responsibilities was grossly incompetent.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the effect of his proposals is to raise the cost of a three-year degree course outside London for a typical middle-class student by £3,000, and that the cost of the same degree to a student from a low-income background will rise as a result of his proposals by £5,265? Why are the Government abolishing the means-tested maintenance grant when Dearing recommended that it should be sustained and when the effect of their policy is to deliver such discrimination against low-income students?

We did not accept the Dearing proposition that the imposition of a contribution to fees should not be means tested; in other words, that all students should be expected to find the contribution towards fees. A party that cut the maintenance grant year after year, introduced the current unfair mortgage-type loan scheme, resisted our requests for an income-related scheme, stood on an election platform that did not say whether it favoured maintaining the grant or introducing fees, and has done a double somersault on its previous policies has no right to question us on this issue.

Training And Enterprise Councils

3.

What steps the Government are taking to prevent fraud against training and enterprise councils. [14322]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Dr. Kim Howells)

The principal responsibility lies with the training and enterprise councils themselves. The Department operates a number of controls to check against uncertain, incorrect or improper payments. My hon. Friend may be assured that we operate those controls with energy and determination.

Does my hon. Friend agree that national vocational qualifications form the cornerstone of essential policies such as welfare to work, the new deal and lifelong learning and that those are the policies that will appeal to and give hope and opportunities to so many people denied chances under the previous Government? Will he assure me that he will look into recent fraud cases relating to training providers offering NVQs, and ensure that people who have had qualifications withdrawn are given the opportunity to retake tests and gain the appropriate qualifications?

I assure my hon. Friend that we will do just that. National vocational qualifications are a tremendous boon to our education system. I believe in them; they have opened up possibilities for learning and entering higher education for a great many people. I have seen it wherever I have gone. Yesterday in a steel plant, I saw a rediscovered joy in learning. The men and women working there were involved in national vocational qualifications and were extremely keen to go on learning. We must ensure that there is no fraud in the system and that no nods arid winks are operated by any agency that receives money from the Government. The question of national vocational qualifications must remain completely unbesmirched by backhanders or sleaze.

Higher Education (Enrolment)

4.

By how much he estimates that enrolment in 1998 in higher education will change, relative to the average levels of the previous three years. [14323]

It is too early to estimate higher education enrolment levels in 1998. Applicant numbers are currently slightly down compared with last year.

Does the Minister not recognise that the Government's plans will have an impact on young people, particularly from low-income families? Given the Prime Minister's famous words, "Education, education, education," will the Minister take this opportunity now to apologise for the Government's attack on equal access to higher education?

I do not know the hon. Gentleman's educational background, but let me tell him this: when I discovered the percentages of young people from different socio-economic groups who go to university and receive higher education—

If the hon. Gentleman will wrap up for a moment, I shall answer the main question. Four out of five young people from families of senior managers and professionals go on to university, whereas fewer than one in 10 from unskilled families go to university. We are going to do something about that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our starting point on this issue is that we recognise that the current system of student support patently does not work? It is also unfair, as it requires part-time and mature students to pay fees. Does he also agree that the Government's proposals—provided that students from low-income families are protected, as they will be—are the best means of ensuring fairer access to, and better funding for, higher education?

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. We shall ensure that every student, regardless of background, has access to sufficient money now to get him or her through university degrees. We shall ensure that, when it comes to paying that money back, students will be able to afford to do so. That does not happen now. We shall institute a much better system that will allow it to happen.

Unemployment (Rural Areas)

5.

What proportion of the young unemployed in rural areas cite lack of available transport as a barrier to employment opportunities. [14324]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights
(Mr. Andrew Smith)

As I expect the hon. Gentleman is aware, a recent survey by the Somerset employment service showed that some 40 per cent. of unemployed young people reported transport to be just such a problem.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. When he evaluates the new deal pilot areas, will he pay particular attention to the pilot scheme in Cornwall? Will he look at the barriers to young people in rural areas, and the barriers that prevent small businesses in rural areas from providing opportunities? Will he ensure that the new deal is a genuine new deal for young people in Somerset villages just as much as it is for young people in cities?

Yes, indeed. I shall visit Cornwall on 19 December precisely to examine how the pathfinder proposals are working out there. A number of transport companies already offer discounts for young unemployed people, and those will be part of the new deal. Sheffield supertram operates a reduced fare, and National Express has announced a 50 per cent. discount for those on the new deal and free travel for unemployed people going to interviews. We want to turn that into a national programme and support initiatives with the Rural Development Commission for other ways to include transport in rural areas, such as the project in which the hon. Gentleman was involved in his constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that transport is an especially difficult problem when there are no buses on which to get subsidised fares; and that there is a real need to ensure that opportunities under the new deal are genuinely available in rural constituencies, such as the one I represent, and not simply theoretical possibilities?

Yes and I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend's constituency to see the work that he and the local community are doing to address those transport problems. I emphasise that new initiatives are being developed through new deal partnerships with the Rural Development Commission, TECs and local councils. Those initiatives include, for example, pooled taxi use, car sharing and even the leasing of mopeds, and the Government welcome those local initiatives to address local transport needs.

New Deal

6.

What measures he has taken to ensure that options offered to young people on the new deal are of high quality. [14325]

We count quality as being of paramount importance. That is why in both the gateway and the main programme there will be key elements, such as contacts with a personal adviser for each participant; contract team visits, which will be made from the Employment Service regions; quality inspection visits for both training and further education; and, of course, the supplementary hotline provided for those who have concerns or worries. It is vital that we work with both employers and the voluntary sector to make sure that this is not a make-work scheme, but a programme to be proud of.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer. May I ask that the role of the dedicated advisers be brought to the fore, especially in rural areas where people face difficulties of access and a lack of provision and where those advisers will play an interesting and important role?

My hon. Friend is quite right. In addition to the measures spelt out a moment ago by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights, there will be a discretionary fund, specifically for transport, to assist those who are taking up the full-time education option in further education colleges. We want the advisers to be able to help from the moment young people enter the gateway, with education and social advice to build up their confidence and skills before they enter the main programme and so ensure that they are able to sustain the training and education elements throughout the programme.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that young people, either those in the new deal or those coming into employment generally, will be concerned about the level of the minimum wage. Both the TUC and the trade unions have made representations in respect of the minimum wage. Given the new dispensation, may we have an undertaking from the Government that if, eventually, the minimum wage is set at a level equal to or above what is proposed in those representations, the donations to the Labour party made by the trade unions before the general election will be returned to them?

If the Conservative party had handed back the money every time they gave a contract to or privatised a company that was associated with, or had been in any way involved with, a donation to the party through either an individual or an organisation, they would have handed back more than they have received over the past 20 years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, just as education would help the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), the new deal will provide excellent opportunities to improve the employability of young people, which is an important product of the scheme? Does he also agree that it will be a high-quality scheme and not one designed purely to massage the employment figures, like those of the previous Government?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why every single option under the new deal will include education and training to a recognised qualification, including a year in a full-time education place. That is why the CBI, the chambers of commerce and the representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises are so supportive of the new deal programme. They recognise, as did the CBI earlier this week, that skills for the future are crucial to the competitiveness of our nation as well as to the life chances of the individual and will be a key element in ensuring that we can encourage growth without inflation and enable our economy to succeed in the 21st century.

In view of the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), will he confirm to the House that a contract recently given for the delivery of the new deal in Hackney was given to Reed Personnel Services, that the head of that organisation is Alec Reed, and that that gentleman is alleged to have given £100,000 to the Labour party? Although I have no reason to believe that there was any impropriety whatever in that contract, can the Secretary of State confirm his support for the Prime Minister in acknowledging the urgent need to reform party political funding to remove even the whiff of impropriety in such arrangements?

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman believes that there is not a whiff of impropriety because if he did believe that, he should say it outside the House.

Let us make this absolutely clear. No Ministers were involved with the letting of the contract—that is an absolute, unequivocal statement. There are many people who have given, during the past few years, to all three political parties, who have subsequently, through their organisation or company, bid for Government contracts. There has been nothing wrong, and no one has previously suggested that there was anything improper or lacking in probity in the system that has been operated.

If any Opposition Members have anything to suggest about the way in which the civil service does its job, they should do so and we will examine those suggestions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new deal scheme will work because it is a quality scheme and is widely supported by business, the voluntary sector and participating individuals, unlike the schemes that young people have suffered in the past decade? The youth opportunities programme, youth training, the youth training scheme, training for work: you name it, we have had it.

How does my right hon. Friend intend to ensure that young people—those who will benefit from this high-quality training—are involved in consultation leading up to the start of the new deal and, more important, how will he ensure that quality is maintained throughout its delivery?

Quality, continuity and accountability within the scheme are features which will distinguish the new deal from the programmes and schemes that the Conservatives introduced during their 18 years in office.

It is vital to make it possible for young people to play a part in monitoring and reviewing the programme, to say what they think about the programmes that they are engaged on and, where necessary, to redesign a system that is responsive. It is vital for us to set up outreach facilities so that that can be done. I should like to suggest that young people should be part of the review teams; in that way, we can ensure that their interests and those of their age group can properly be reflected.

Can the Secretary of State confirm a figure researched for me by the House of Commons Library, which tells me that a young person who is unemployed already has an 84 per cent. chance of moving off benefit within a year? How much better than that does he expect to do with his welfare-to-work scheme? Can he also confirm that it was one of his socialist heroes who said that socialism is about priorities? Does he really believe that putting £3.5 billion into a problem that is obviously shrinking is the right ordering of priorities when there are so many other pressures on his budget and elsewhere?

I do not believe that 15,000 to 20,000 youngsters a month reaching the point where they have been unemployed or out of education for more than six months is a minor problem, or something which should not be tackled by a Government who believe in the economic gains that can be made from investing in those young people—which I described a moment ago—and in the critical nature of social cohesion, which means that we must heal our communities instead of dividing them.

I believe that the investment is worth making. If only 10,000 young people were out of work for more than six months—as opposed to the 122,000 young people in that situation at present—it would be worth applying that money to provide life chances and heal the communities in which they live. Our investment will give young people the economic opportunity to earn their own living and pay back the Exchequer, rather than drawing on it through dependence.

7.

How many new deal welfare to-work places he plans to create in (a) Wales and (b) the north-west in the next year; and if he will make a statement. [14326]

We shall offer help to everyone who becomes eligible for the new deal, and sufficient places will be available to meet that commitment. We are making very good progress in Wales, the north-west and elsewhere in planning and implementing the new deal. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights launched the first of the pathfinder areas this morning.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Wales's recovery from the great loss of steel and coal jobs still has a long way to go? This excellent scheme might provide a real lifeline to valleys and towns in Wales. is my hon. Friend aware that in Deeside in my constituency far too many young people have aimless, hopeless lives and have no access to worthwhile work? Is there any way in which my hon. Friend might enlarge the scheme? He knows that we will never heal the wounds of Thatcherism until we give work and hope to our young people.

My hon. Friend speaks from his deep commitment to his constituents, so many of whom have suffered as a result of the processes of industrial change. Shotton is in his constituency and Llanwern is in mine. Although his experience of these issues is much greater than mine, I well understand the trauma and the difficulty faced by steelworkers and their families who have lost their jobs and find it desperately difficult to gain new work opportunities.

Against that background, we attach much importance to the new deal for the long-term unemployed and to ensuring that a new generation of young people does not suffer the same experiences. We are determined to make a great success of our existing commitments under the new deal, and we shall see thereafter what remains to be done.

Does the Minister recall the commitment that Labour gave before the election to help 250,000 long-term unemployed under-25s to receive the new deal? Will he comment on the figures supplied today by the Library which suggest that only 122,000 people qualify—

Order. The question relates to projects in Wales and the north-west. I have warned the House before that supplementary questions must follow the substantive question. I know that Hereford is not far from Wales, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) will be able to get his question in order. If any other hon. Member wishes to speak about Wales or the north-west particularly, I shall call him or her—I thought not.

Higher Education (Scottish Universities)

9.

If he will make a statement on funding problems in respect of students resident in England studying at Scottish universities. [14328]

Many Scottish universities offer students with good A-levels the option of entering the second year of a four-year honours course, so it should be possible for students from England and Wales to get a Scottish degree after paying for the same number of years as they would have taken to graduate at a university elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Those from low-income families will get free tuition in any case.

How will the Minister explain to students in Pontypridd and the Vale of York that they will be disadvantaged by having to pay £1,000 more than Scottish students to do the same course? Will he tell the House how Scottish universities might make up any shortfall if students who wish to do a four-year degree—as I did at the university of Edinburgh—are not in a financial position to do so? Will he invite the Prime Minister to intervene in the dispute between the Department for Education and Employment and the Scottish Office?

Thank you very much.

First, it is not the same course and, secondly, only the wealthiest students will have to pay the £4,000. The hon. Lady asked me what I will tell the students in Pontypridd. She can be sure that I shall not feed them the litany of half-truths and lies that I have heard so often on this subject.

Does the Minister accept that the failure to exempt English, Welsh and Northern Irish students from tuition fees in the final year of a Scots four-year honours course will deter potential students and cause academic and economic damage? Will he follow the good Scottish Office example, provide the funds and end the discrimination against English and other students?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened to the reply that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave on the subject earlier. There are Scottish universities that already accept students with two good A-levels into the second year of four-year honours courses. I hope that they will continue to do so and that many other universities in Scotland will follow their example.

Secondary Schools (Hertfordshire)

10.

What measures he proposes for the improvement of the present admissions procedure to secondary schools in the Hertfordshire area. [14329]

New admissions criteria will provide for a genuine partnership to get schools to work together with their education authority, to ensure that we overcome the scandal of some parents finding that they do not have places for their children in September, because they have had to make multiple applications in a chaotic system, such as my hon. Friend must suffer in parts of Hertfordshire.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his acknowledgement of the problems in Hertfordshire. Is he aware that many parents in my constituency of Watford have serious concerns about the forthcoming round of selections by academic ability, which will result in some children not obtaining a place in any school of their choice, and the subsequent emotional effect on the children? Will he assure me that, in any forthcoming legislation, he will take into account the specific difficulties that face Watford and south-west Hertfordshire in the admissions process for secondary schools?

I will give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that we will do so. Parents and children deserve a system that meets their needs and in which their preference is respected, rather than the school choosing the pupil, and chaotic multiple admissions systems that result in children failing to have a place, and therefore failing to have the opportunity that others take for granted.

Can the Secretary of State clear up a misunderstanding which was raised with me when I was in a Hertfordshire school last week? Does the right hon. Gentleman remember telling the Labour party conference that, under a Labour Government, there would be no return to selection? Will he confirm to the House that his White Paper makes it clear that specialist schools will be able to give priority to children who demonstrate a special aptitude? Can the Secretary of State make it clear to the House and the people of Hertfordshire what made him change his mind, or is there a difference between selection and giving priority to those who demonstrate aptitude?

The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends know perfectly well that recognising an aptitude for music is entirely different from selecting a child by the 11-plus examination. We all know that the commitment that I have given on selection stands. It will stand. The admissions criteria that I will publish, and the Bill that we will pass through Parliament, will ensure that every child has the opportunity to use his or her talents to the full.

Special Needs

11.

What recent representations he has received concerning the special educational needs of children. [14330]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Ms Estelle Morris)

We are beginning to receive responses to the Green Paper "Excellence for all Children", which was published on 22 October. 1 look forward to hearing from a wide range of interests during consultation on the Green Paper.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does she recognise that the policy of integrating children in special schools in mainstream education must have strict limits to it, for there are children whose presence in the classroom would be detrimental to the education of their peers? That point has been regularly impressed upon me by teachers in the 21 schools in the Buckinghamshire constituency that I have visited since 1 May.

Of course I recognise that, and the Green Paper recognises it as well. There are some pupils for whom it is more appropriate, in their interests and in the interests of children who might be educated in the same class, that they go to a special school, perhaps for a short time, and not always for the whole of their career. Throughout the country, there are good examples of schools that include children with disabilities and children with special needs in mainstream classes. We want to encourage that. There are good reasons why, wherever possible, children who are deemed to have special educational needs should be educated with children of their age in mainstream classes. We will encourage that by spreading good practice and by reversing the cut that the Conservative Government made to the money available to schools to make the adaptations necessary for access.

Will the Minister confirm that there needs to be better teacher training so that teachers are able to identify more quickly children who have special needs such as dyslexia and autism? It is important that those children's needs are dealt with earlier.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. It is sad that many children who go through the school system with the designation of SEN would have had different levels of attainment had their special needs been recognised at an early stage. We should be trying to recognise children with special difficulties even before they start school.

That is why in our early years development plans, which we have recently launched, we have insisted that, when local authorities and others plan places for children under five, they listen to those with expertise in SEN so that the identification to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be made early and immediate action taken to support those children. If we get that right, many of the problems that surface later in a school career will not surface.

When the Minister announces the outcomes of the review of special educational needs and whatever changes she decides to make, will she confirm that there will be no diminution in the current protection that the individual child has under the law—I stress "under the law"—and that existing statutes will be maintained?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have not suggested that the rights of a child or a parent will be changed by some of the ideas that we have put forward. The hon. Lady's supplementary question gives me the opportunity to say that parents will retain the right to seek a statement, if that is what they feel that their child needs, and to go before a tribunal.

The hon. Lady must remember, however, that, for every parent who is pushed into having to obtain a statement to get the help that his or her child needs, time and money are involved which could be better used in supporting the child without having to go through the statementing process. If there are any changes to legislation that emerge from our consultations on the Green Paper, we shall make a statement to the House.

Lifelong Learning (Coalfields)

12.

What assessment he has made of the coalfields learning initiative partnership; and if he will make a statement on the long-term financial security of grassroots lifelong learning projects in coalfield areas. [14331]

It is too early to form an assessment of the coalfields learning initiative partnership, but we welcome its provision of adult education learning opportunities in former coalfield areas. Lifelong learning and the creation of a learning society are at the heart of our education and training policies.

Projects within the partnership have been an excellent vehicle for driving forward the Government's commitment to lifelong learning processes and the reduction of unemployment, especially in places such as the Acorn centre in Grimethorpe in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that such schemes are now established as a key component of post-16 education in the coalfield areas? Will he make the Further Education Funding Council aware of their success?

My hon. Friend has drawn the attention of the House to an important project which is operating in a hard-hit area. Indeed, nowhere has been hit harder than Grimethorpe. I know that my hon. Friend is doing an excellent job in representing the interests of his constituents.

I hope that the partnership will look to European structural funds for support and examine every opportunity to use partnership approaches for funding in future when the present arrangements come to an end. I shall certainly bring my hon. Friend's suggestion to the FEFC's attention.

Church Schools

13.

What proposals he has for further support for Church schools; and if he will make a statement. [14333]

Thank you so much. I felt the same myself.

We have had detailed discussions with the Churches about the new school framework. We recently announced developments to that framework to meet representations made by the Churches, with a view to safeguarding the ethos of Church schools within an education service based on partnership and co-operation. I am pleased to say that the Churches have welcomed those developments.

I notice that it has taken until nearly 3.20 pm for the Minister for School Standards to make it to the Dispatch Box.

Will the Minister assure the House that voluntary-controlled schools will be able to opt to become aided schools sooner rather than later, and that if they do so they will not have to pay retrospective compensation to local education authorities?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber at 3.15 pm. I was getting worried that I would not have a single question to answer.

The Government have listened to representations made by the Church authorities, in the light of which the Bill will be revised. The Government are prepared to take on board the views expressed by other parties because we know that any changes that we introduce will mean a better Bill which will serve the interests of the nation's children—unlike the previous Conservative Government whose policies were based on arrogance and dogma, who did not listen and who, as a result, were rejected on 1 May.

New Deal

14.

How he will ensure that small and medium enterprises are able to be involved in the Government's new deal to help young people move from welfare to work. [14334]

Small and medium businesses are crucial to the success of the new deal. We are working hard to secure their involvement by reflecting their views in the design and delivery of the new deal, by helping them through local partnerships and by targeting national promotion to encourage their further involvement.

I welcome that response. Swindon has fewer young unemployed people than many other parts of Britain; nevertheless, they are a priority for the business community and the Employment Service. Swindon is aware of the Government's larger welfare-to-work programme and wants it to succeed, but the current welfare-to-work programme requires each area to go forward at the same rate. Will my hon. Friend consider bringing forward some parts of the scheme so that, from April, which is sooner than currently planned, areas such as Swindon can move forward to help the long-term unemployed and lone parents, particularly the long-term unemployed?

The programme for the long-term unemployed will start in June. I thank my hon. Friend for her constituency work in promoting the new deal. She refers to the particularly acute needs of some of those eligible for the new deal programme in her constituency. In that regard, the gateway provision is crucial, providing personal support, assessment, mentoring and help with basic skills, and it will be brought forward as quickly as possible to help the constituents of my hon. Friend and others.

Given that the Government apparently believe that the job subsidy under the new deal will create more jobs in small and medium enterprises, is it not obvious and unavoidable that the introduction of the minimum wage will cost jobs?

The new deal will result in extra employment opportunities in small and medium enterprises precisely because the prospect of that subsidy and support in obtaining a trained and ready-to-work young person can make a critical difference to whether someone is taken on. The Low Pay Commission will recommend the level of the minimum wage, taking full account of employment needs. Rather than carping about the new deal, the hon. Gentleman, like so many other hon. Members, should get behind it in his constituency to end the scandal of long-term youth unemployment and help business.

Universities (Financial Support)

15.

If he will make a statement on the level of financial support for universities in 1998–99. [14336]

We have taken decisive action to deal with the serious funding problems facing universities. For 1998–99, my right hon. Friend has announced that an extra £165 million will be spent on higher education, including an extra £125 million to enable universities and colleges to maintain and improve quality and standards, and to make a start on the backlog of maintenance and equipment replacement.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. The Secretary of State's announcement of £165 million for higher education is a tremendous support. Will my hon. Friend seriously consider one aspect of the Dearing report which has been overlooked? Universities face a crisis in funding for research, infrastructure and equipment, for which £400 million to £500 million is required. I urge him to reconsider the funding proposals or make additional funding available.

We are examining the issue carefully. We are worried about the fact that some colleges and universities have closed important research sectors in their institutions. We are talking to colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and in other Departments concerned with this issue, and we shall ensure that this country retains an excellent research base.

Will the Minister confirm that he has already taken the decision to withdraw from local education authorities the power to make discretionary awards to students in higher education? Why has he done that without proper consultation? Is he aware that, in taking away those discretionary awards, he is also taking away the student's right to the appeal process? In Surrey county, that process has enabled up to 40 per cent. of students to get at least part of the award for which they had applied.

New Deal

16.

What has been the response of employers to the new deal for young unemployed people. [14337]

Employers across the country are responding positively to the new deal by pledging support, and by following up those pledges with practical action.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply; it will be good news to young, unemployed people in my constituency of Dartford and elsewhere. Does he agree with me that the new deal allows employers to address the skills shortage, which causes so much damage to British competitiveness?

Absolutely. This is the right time to introduce the new deal. It maximises the opportunities for young, unemployed people to obtain work, and it helps business by ensuring that young people are equipped with skills and are prepared for work, so that they can develop their training towards a recognised qualification while in employment. That will benefit my hon. Friend's constituents and thousands of others across the country.

Does the Minister agree that, as a result of the steadily falling unemployment inherited from the previous Government, the proportion of young people who require the scheme and who are very disadvantaged, because of their social background, lack of education or other skill shortages, is growing? None of those people will be attractive to employers. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the time taken to get those young people up to the threshold at which most other young people start such schemes will be extended, so that they are on a level playing field and can benefit from the scheme?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I appreciate the understanding and sensitivity that he shows towards the young unemployed in his constituency, and towards the programme. As the overall numbers fall, those in particular need constitute a greater proportion. That is why the gateway period of up to four months of assessment, counselling and help with basic skills is so important. It also gives people the opportunity to try tasters of the different options available through the new deal.

In response to consultation over the summer, the Government have introduced another opportunity, whereby young people with particularly acute needs can, after the gateway period, have three months' intensive basic education and skills training, before going on to employment.

This is all about enhancing the employability of young people. It is founded on the good and wise principle that those who most need it will receive the greatest help.

Degree Courses

17.

What representations he has received regarding proposals to restrict colleges to offering degree courses by only one validating university. [14338]

We have received a wide range of responses to the recommendation by the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education on the issue. The Government will announce its response to that and other recommendations soon.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply.

My constituency has benefited greatly from Barnsley college's ability to offer degree courses franchised through both Sheffield and Leeds universities. The benefits to my constituency, not only educational but social, have been very welcome. May I therefore ask my hon. Friend to reject the Dearing recommendation, and allow colleges such as mine to continue to franchise degrees through more than one university?

As my hon. Friend probably knows, the majority of the responses received so far to Sir Ron Dearing's proposals have been opposed to multiple franchising, or serial franchising as it is sometimes called, arguing that it should be stopped. They recognise, however, that there might be occasions when, for geographical or subject-related reasons, that would be impossible. I am sure that my colleagues will consider the matter carefully when we formulate our responses to Sir Ron's proposals.

Business Of The House

3.30 pm

May I ask the Leader of the House to give next week's business?

The business for next week will be as follows.

MONDAY 17 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day [4th allotted day] [first part].

Until 7 pm, there will be a debate entitled "Public Services Under Threat" on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Motion to approve the seventh and eighth reports from the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.

TUESDAY 18 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill [first day].

THURSDAY 20 NOVEMBER—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which a Government reply has been given. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 21 NOVEMBER—Debate on the review of civil justice and legal aid on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows.

MONDAY 24 NOVEMBER—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.

TUESDAY 25 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

WEDNESDAY 26 NOVEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until about 7 pm, Third Reading of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission Bill [Lords].

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Plant Varieties Bill.

THURSDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill [first day].

FRIDAY 28 NOVEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 19 November there will be a debate on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies: controls on cattle, sheep and goats, in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on the draft general budget for 1998 in European Standing Committee B, as I announced last week.

The House will also wish to know that it is proposed that on Tuesday 25 November there will be a debate on biotechnological inventions in European Standing Committee B, and on Wednesday 26 November there will be a debate on food law in European Standing Committee A.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

I remind the House that all Members may attend a European Standing Committee, and participate in questions to the Minister and in the debate that follows.

[ Wednesday 19 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 10040/97, TSE: Prohibition of Risk Material. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 15-iii (1997–98) and HC 155-iv (1997–98).

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 10153/97, Draft General Budget 1998; PE 262.699, 1998 Budget. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC 155-iv (1997–98) and HC 155-vi (1997–98).

Tuesday 25 November:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 10510/97, Biotechnological Inventions. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-v (1997–98).

Wednesday 26 November:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community documents: 8150/97, Food Law; 8386/97, Consumer Health and Food Safety. Relevant European Legislation Committee reports: HC I55-ii (1997–98) and HC 155-v (1997–98).

Thursday 20 November:

Debate on a motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee. Relevant reports:

Reports Session 1996–97

Report No:

Title

HC No.

Publication Date

1The office of Gas Supply: The Regulation of Gas Tariffs (The Gas Cost Index)3714 November
2Progress in Completing the New British Library3820 November
3The Sale of the Mining Operations of the British Coal Corporation6021 November
4The Construction of Quarry House6927 November
5Highways Agency: The Bridge Programme8328 November
6The Audit of European Community Transactions844 December
7The Hospital Information Support Systems Initiative975 December
8Information Technology Services Agency: Outsourcing The Service Delivery Operations9811 December
9Resource Accounting and Proposals for a Resource-based System of Supply16715 January
10Excess Vote NI DHSS19 February
11Excess Votes Classes 1, IV, VII, XIII, XIV, XVII (7&13)29313 February
12ODA: Turkish Universities Equipment Project7027 February
13H M Treasury: The Second Sale of Shares in National Power and PowerGen1516 March

Report No:

Title

HC No.

Publication Date

14Dept for Education & Employment: Financial Control of Payments made under the Training for Work and Youth Training Programmes in England6113 March
15The Award of the First Three Passenger Rail Franchises3913 March
16Office of Electricity Regulation, Office of Gas Supply: The Work of the Directors General of Telecommunications, Gas Supply, Water Services and Electricity Supply8919 March
17Health of the Nation: A Progress Report8520 March
18National Savings: Financial Reporting21425 March
19Former Yorkshire Regional Health Authority43226 March
20Payments to the National Lottery Distribution Fund9927 March
21The Management of Space in Higher Education Institutions in Wales1592 April
22British Rail Maintenance Limited: The Sale of Maintenance Depots1683 April
23Ministry of Defence: The Financial Management of the Military Operation in the Former Yugoslavia2424 April
24Department of Transport: Freight Facilities Grants in England2848 April
25Plymouth Development Corporation: Regularity Propriety and Control of Expenditure4508 April
REPLIES
Treasury Minute on the First to Eighth Reports from the Committee of Public Accounts 1996–97CM 355912 February 1997
Treasury Minute on the Ninth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts 1996–97CM 357712 March 1997
Treasury Minute on the Twelfth to Twenty-Fifth Reports from the Committee of Public Accounts 1996–97CM 371416 July 1997

I thank the right hon. Lady for her reply. It helps the House to be given two weeks' business, and to hear the fuller statements that she is giving.

The right hon. Lady will recall that the Prime Minister said yesterday that he would set out the Government's position on the tobacco sponsorship ban with "enthusiasm and relish". As he apparently omitted some information, which has since emerged overnight, will she arrange an early opportunity for him to set out the Government's position with not only enthusiasm and relish, but completeness?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, if the Secretary of State for Health had bothered to make a statement to the House about Government policy on tobacco sponsorship, as he should have done, instead of announcing it outside, and if the Minister for Public Health had done the House the courtesy of informing it of the Government's change of policy on the matter, as she should have done, instead of announcing it on the "Today" programme, the Government not only might have avoided much of the bother that they have created for themselves over the affair, but would have demonstrated that they have, after all, some regard for parliamentary democracy and convention?

As the right hon. Lady may know, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) said yesterday on the Jimmy Young programme that it is the Minister without Portfolio who is running the Labour party. If she agrees with her hon. Friend, perhaps she could arrange for the Minister to appear at the Dispatch Box slightly more frequently than once every six months and for slightly longer than five minutes. She will know that last Monday's occasion was a terrible disappointment to the House. Given the great role ascribed to the Minister by the hon. Member for Brent, East, surely the House should be given more ample opportunity to question him.

Will the right hon. Lady make a statement to the House to confirm, or otherwise, that a substantial amount of office accommodation in the Cloisters, which was formerly used by hon. Members, has now been allocated to something called the parliamentary Labour party resource centre? If that is so, is not the taxpayer subsidising the Labour party's political activities within the House? Is not the centre taking up much needed office space, which should be for the use of elected Members of Parliament, including Labour Members?

I hope to be able to give two weeks' notice of business quite often. I cannot promise to do it on all occasions, and the second week's business will be provisional, of course, but I undertake to try to give as much notice of business as possible, and I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her comments.

On the Prime Minister's answers yesterday, I do not think that there was a question asked by a Conservative Member that he did not answer fully, completely and enthusiastically. I am not sure which information the right hon. Lady thinks has come to light overnight. Does the Conservative party want to criticise the Labour party for taking an open donation, for giving back a donation and for refusing a donation? Other hon. Members might like a debate on all political funding in the past few years. For Conservative Members to complain about tobacco advertising is a bit of a cheek, as they never lifted a finger to tackle that problem.

On the right hon. Lady's comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), I do not have time to listen to the Jimmy Young programme, so I missed his comments, but if she accurately reported what he said, on this occasion, he is mistaken. We have ample opportunity to question the person who is running the country—the Prime Minister.

The right hon. Lady is right to say that the resource centre is now in office accommodation in the Cloisters, having vacated its previous room to accommodate the needs of an hon. Member.

Will my right hon. Friend take on board the idea of having several debates about political funding because, contrary to the view that is expressed by a few Tories as of now, it would help us considerably to take the lid off all those donations to the Tory party when it was in government? It was not a full statement yesterday by the Opposition because they omitted to mention that they had received £14 million from Bernie Ecclestone and did not give it back. Also, they made no mention of the money that they received from a crook, Asil Nadir, who gave them £440,000 which they did not give back. What is more, it has now come to light that they received more than £1 million from a Hong Kong family dealing in heroin. The money was made out of heroin dealing and was used to help them with their election campaign. It is time to lift the real lid.

My hon. Friend is making a strong case for a debate such as he mentioned; we could make good use of parliamentary time on such issues. My problem is that we have such a crowded programme. However, issues such as this will not go away and will be aired at some time in some place.

Will the Leader of the House switch her attention from contaminated donations to contaminated land? Is she aware that there have been conflicting statements in the past few days from Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said that he still expects to be able to site development to the tune of 50 per cent. on brown land rather than taking green-field sites, whereas the Minister for the Environment said that the work that should be undertaken to decontaminate contaminated land cannot go forward, because the Treasury cannot afford the very small sum—£14 million—that is necessary to progress that programme. May we be assured that there will be a Green Paper, a statement and a debate on the Government's intentions with regard to the development of green-field and brown-field sites in the near future?

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are committed to protecting the countryside and to helping regenerate towns and cities and provide the housing that is required. It is always a difficult balance under any Government. Each case has to be decided on its merits. I know that the specific problem of decontamination is very difficult, because there are often technical as well as financial problems. I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman time for a debate, but I shall bring his concerns to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

May I press my right hon. Friend on the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? May we have a debate on the Ecclestone contributions? We are told that he paid £10 million to the Tories and lent them £4 million. It is either true or not true. If it is true, surely an Opposition Member should come to the Dispatch Box, admit that it is true and tell us what the Opposition did in return for that money. What did they do for the money?

My hon. Friend again tempts me to agree to a debate on the issue that he mentioned. I see the strength of that case, not least because I recall the many occasions on which I and my hon. Friends sat on the Opposition Benches asking that the Nolan committee be allowed to look at those issues before the election. Had that happened, this information would have come to light much earlier.

May I offer the right hon. Lady a constructive suggestion? We should have a rolling debate on political donations, starting with a debate on the moralistic posturings of a political party that makes high-sounding noises about these matters, and going on with a continuing debate so that each time a revelation is dragged out of the Government by the media, we can debate that new fact.

I have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that Members of the previous Parliament of course had opportunities to vote for complete openness on political donations. I cannot remember him joining us in the Lobby.

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the performance of the west coast main line? As she will be aware, I have a special interest in that. I attended the press conference in March, when Virgin was awarded the franchise. Given all the private companies, I welcomed that. We were told that there would be 90 per cent. reliability in a year. This month, we have found out that the line is the worst performing railway in the country.

The journey from London to my constituency takes four hours. Last week, a train took nine hours. Earlier in the week, a train did not start out for Carlisle because the company forgot to roster a driver. The situation is getting worse.

I appreciate that the problems are not all Virgin's—many of them are Railtrack's. Unless the problems are put right, Cumbria will not be able to exist as an economic unit until we have the tilting train and the 140 mph train in seven years' time. We need action now.

My hon. Friend raises a problem which is clearly of great concern to him and his constituents. It must be very depressing to be told that the line is the worst in the country and to endure experiences such as those that he described. I am sure that my hon. Friends in the relevant Department—and, indeed, the Rail Regulator—are aware of the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has made a strong case for highlighting the problem, but I am afraid that I cannot find time for a debate in the near future.

The right hon. Lady will know that, although six months have elapsed since the election, we do not yet have the Register of Members' Interests. May we have a debate to help hon. Members understand the rules? Under current rules, all of us must declare the amount and the donor concerning any outside interest or any funding of our private political offices.

The Leader of the House will know that current advice from the registrar is that blind trusts do not mean that such information need not be put into the public domain. Two right hon. Members, who are now the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, received money in that way. Such information needs to be published to conform with the rules of the House. We need a debate so that matters can be brought out into the open. Otherwise, everyone could claim to have received—or be accused of having received—contributions from blind trusts.

On the last point, I remind the hon. Gentleman that he and his hon. Friends tried to make that point during the previous Parliament, and it was established without doubt that my right hon. Friends obeyed the rules that were in place at that time. It is important that all hon. Members understand the rules. The forms sent out and the advice available are very clear. Of course, we now also have a code of conduct. The register will be published later this month.

May we have an early debate on the hazards of laser pointers? On Friday, the eyes of a young girl in my constituency were damaged in her school playground by a laser used by another pupil. The Trading Standards Authority told me that, of the 49 laser pointers that it has tested, fewer than 5 per cent. were safe. It also told me that some of the type 2 lasers that it had taken were in fact type 3 and hazardous. It is very concerned about that. As the House will understand, I, too, am very concerned about the hazards to children in my constituency.

I sympathise with the experience of my hon. Friend's constituent. To have somebody hurt in such a way in the school playground must be extremely alarming. I know that, in my constituency, a bus driver found himself under threat because of the misuse of laser pointers.

The police already have the power to consider laser pointers as offensive weapons when they are used in such a way. My hon. Friend the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs announced on 28 October that he was urging trading standards departments to use their powers under 1994 regulations to remove dangerous laser pens and pointers from sale. If there is a problem with classification, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) has indicated, I shall ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the potential problem.

In the light of press reports that the Government will appoint a commission to consider proportional representation, may we have a statement so that hon. Members who have experience of the two forms of PR elections held in the United Kingdom may contribute to the debate?

The electoral commission has not yet been appointed; nor have its terms of reference yet been made public or, indeed, completed. I know that some hon. Members have experience of PR, and in the next few months that matter will probably be debated on several occasions.

As a little, bald-headed, man in his sixties, with glasses and false teeth and whose trousers do not match his jacket, I may seem an unlikely moderniser. However, I wish to press my right hon. Friend to consider having a debate on modernisation in Government time—although on a different subject from the debate that we are about to have—to discuss a modern, technologically up-to-date electoral registration system, including rolling registers; access to polling stations for disabled people; the measure that I introduced yesterday to ensure the registration of homeless people; whether expatriates should be excluded from the register; and whether people resident in this country, from outside the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland, should also be on our electoral registers, as they are part of our society and pay their taxes here.

I have no problems in thinking of my hon. Friend as a moderniser, especially on that subject, because he has campaigned for a significant time for changes, with much justification. I am sure that improvements can be made in the system of registration, and a review is currently examining what can be done. My hon. Friend may have heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing say only this week that, together with local authorities, she is now examining the possibility of using different types of buildings, including possibly supermarkets, as centres for voting, to make it easier for people to exercise their democratic rights. I do not know whether that is too modern for my hon. Friend, but I hope that he appreciates that much thought is going into the subject.

The House will have noted the right hon. Lady's reluctance to grant a debate on the funding of political parties and drawn conclusions from that. May I suggest that we might discuss another funding matter—the funding of local authorities? Her colleagues in shire halls and town halls up and down the country are greatly concerned about the likelihood that the funding for local authorities will be infinitely less generous under this Government than under the previous Administration. The title for the debate could be "Rate Capping", given the commitment in the Labour party manifesto to abolish rate capping and the more recent confirmation from the Minister for Local Government and Housing that the Government intend to abolish crude and universal capping. May we have a debate on that subject?

I am not at all reluctant to find time to debate the funding of political parties. The problem is that we have a crowded programme and, although several of my hon. Friends have pointed out why we should be tempted to have such a debate, we have little time to do so.

There will be a statement before Christmas about the funding of local authorities, and the hon. Gentleman may be able to participate in that. Many local authorities are very grateful for the extra money for education that the Government have been able to find.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, giving time to make progress on the measure to restore democratic government to London. She will know that when the Greater London council was abolished, the responsibility for the local authority housing in Thamesmead and for all the development land and other assets was transferred to a private development company. The assurances about community participation in the company given by the Minister at the time—the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young)—have been broken. My right hon. Friend may know that in the past few weeks, directors elected to represent the community have been hounded out of office after being forced to take polygraph tests. Will she find time for a debate on the future of Thamesmead, the restoration of democracy to the democracy-free zone of Thamesmead and the abolition of Thamesmead Town Ltd.?

I am not aware of the details of the situation to which my hon. Friend refers, and I am not sure whether it is within the scope of the measure that I announced we are to debate next week. He may consider such a topic to be suitable for an Adjournment debate.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Scottish Office released the report "Government Expenditure and Revenue for Scotland" this morning and held a private press briefing? That report is not yet available from the Vote Office or the Scottish Office, in spite of repeated requests by hon. Members. Will she ensure that those matters are dealt with in the House and not at private press briefings?

Is there not a case for having an early debate on political party funding? Would it not be useful? Such a debate would show us whether the Conservative Opposition are in favour of disclosing in full all those who donate large sums to political parties, whether they are in favour of a ban on foreign donations and whether they take the view, as we do, that there should be a cap on the amount that can be spent in general elections—just as there is in constituency campaigning, where there is no controversy. Throughout the 18 years when many of us made proposals—through ten-minute Bills and questions—the Conservative Government were totally opposed to any reform of political funding. The Conservatives are about the last people in the world who should give us lectures.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and he is consistent. He was one of those who, in the previous Parliament, on several occasions raised the question whether political funding should be referred to the Nolan committee. Had our frequent requests been granted, the Conservative party's problems with political party funding might not have occurred.

Will the Leader of the House return to a question put by the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)? After questions to the Secretary of State for culture and popular enlightenment on Monday, there was a five-minute slot to discuss the millennium experience and for the Minister without Portfolio to answer questions. We had waited six months, and many hon. Members on both sides wanted to ask legitimate questions. I and many others had never seen the Minister without Portfolio before, and thought that he was a figment of virtual reality—until I realised that I had seen him before. On Wednesday afternoons, he is the chap who plays peekaboo behind the Chair—like Kenneth Williams, frowning at Labour Members and saying, "Ooh, you are awful." This project involves millions of pounds and is supposed to be a national celebration of the millennium. We need the Minister responsible to come here more frequently than once every six months for five minutes.

The special slot for millennium questions was the result of popular demand. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio will be glad to know that he is so popular.

May I welcome the appointment of Chief Constable Keith Hellawell as co-ordinator of the Government's drugs initiatie—an appointment which has been widely welcomed? Many of us wait with anticipation for his work to start, because drugs continue to be a significant problem, affecting many of our young people and associated with high levels of crime. When will my right hon. Friend be in a position to make a statement to the House on the terms of reference of his appointment, and on his immediate and long-term objectives and how he may set about achieving them?

There has been a significant welcome for Keith Hellawell's appointment. Whether we use the term drugs tsar or anti-drugs co-ordinator, it is an important role and his job will be to advise Government on how we can build on the current strategy. Drugs are a significant problem and do indeed wreck many people's lives and cause a great deal of criminal activity.

It is hoped that early in the new year Keith Hellawell will be able to publish more information and present reports to the Government. At present, he is still a chief constable, although he is spending some time on his new post, and certainly in preparation, and I hope that both sides of the House will welcome his appointment and agree that tackling drugs should not be a party political issue.

Does the Leader of the House accept that the whole House should be truly shocked by the levity with which she treated the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) about questions on the millennium dome? Does not she think it incredible that we have not been granted a debate on the Floor of the House to allow us to test and probe the extent and nature of a project that will spend £750 million of taxpayers' money? Is not that completely improper in terms of parliamentary accountability?

We will not take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman, who was a member of a Government who did not believe in accountability at all.

In the light of newspaper reports this morning that Conservative peers are planning to vote against key elements of the programme on which the Government were elected, will my right hon. Friend allow an early debate on the proposed abolition of the hereditary peerage? As there are murmurings that they may vote against a ban on hunting, will she act with some urgency, so that the hunters may feel what it is like to be hunted?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. I am afraid that I cannot find time for such a debate in the near future, but I shall keep it in mind.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement next week to update us on the number of members of the Labour party elected to public office who are currently under suspension, and perhaps let us know what the party's target is for Christmas?

May I renew my call for an early debate on the operation of the law of perjury? Does my right hon. Friend share my disquiet that, in the many months that have passed since Jonathan Aitken discontinued his libel action against The Guardian, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has spent only 35 days—that is one officer working for 35 days—investigating the serious allegations of perjury against that former Cabinet Minister and Conservative Member of Parliament? Is not there a pressing case for an early debate on the matter?

I do not think that I can find time for such a debate, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's comments to the relevant Ministers' attention.

Having listened to hon. Members' views, can the right hon. Lady confirm that the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House next week on the formula one fiasco, so that instead of continuing to pretend that his handling of the matter has been flawless and fooling no one, he can take the opportunity to show a little humility and strength of character by apologising to the House for his errors of judgment on the matter?

I do not think that there is any requirement for any apology for any errors of judgment. The decisions that were taken were the right decisions, taken for the right reasons.

My right hon. Friend may have noticed that at Question Time, many hon. Members expressed their concerns about higher education funding. She will also have noticed that yesterday in another place, there was a debate about preserving the grotesque overfunding of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Could not those matters be usefully brought together in a debate, so that right hon. and hon. Members who represent other universities and colleges of higher education can discuss how to redistribute that money?

As I do not read them out, my hon. Friend may not know that the debates next Wednesday morning include one on Oxford and Cambridge college fees.

I was surprised that the Leader of the House did not respond more favourably to earlier requests for an urgent debate on local government finance in the light of this morning's Audit Commission report, which shows a £1 billion shortfall in the local authority pension fund arising from the number of early retirements. It is projected in a few years to amount to some 12 per cent. of the local government salary bill. The Accounts Commission for Scotland suggests that the Government's changes to advance corporation tax will add 3.5 per cent. of the local authority salary bill to the cost of maintaining pension funds.

The hon. Gentleman is right that an awful lot of money is spent that way, but the liability has not built up since May. Local authority finances are debated in the House from time to time. The next significant discussion of such issues will be on a statement on what used to be the rate support grant settlement, which, as I said earlier, will be later this year.

Bill Presented

Religious Discrimination

Mr. John Austin, supported by Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Simon Hughes, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Terry Rooney and Mr. Marsha Singh, presented a Bill to make discrimination on grounds of religion unlawful; to outlaw incitement to religious hatred; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 30 January, and to be printed [Bill 82].

Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That Mr. John Butterfill, Dr Vincent Cable, Mr. Barry Gardiner, Mr. John MacGregor, Dr Nick Palmer, Dr Howard Stoate, Ms Gisela Stuart and Paddy Tipping be appointed Managing Trustees of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund in pursuance of Section I of the Parliamentary and other Pensions Act 1987.—[Mr. McFall.]

4.6 pm

I wish to refer to the hon. Members who are to be appointed trustees, because it is important that something that has, historically, involved considerable battling over many years should be understood by the new trustees. I think that at least five of the eight came to the House at this year's general election.

I am in a happy position because what I am going to say cannot affect me, though it can affect a host of other Members. You will recall, Madam Speaker, that the Labour party won a famous victory by defeating a motion of the Conservative Government in July 1980. It was decided that the pension accrual rate should not be one sixtieth but one fortieth; in other words, that people who had served 20 years in the House could have half pensions. I am delighted to say that the right hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd) marched arm in arm with me through the Division Lobby. New Members will not have realised that. Only one of the new trustees was here then.

I am glad that the former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) is going to be a member, and I hope that he will chair it.

I could be wrong, but I believe that I am right. The right hon. Gentleman, whom we are pleased to see back in his place, said that the pensions position was 40 per cent., whereas it was reduced to 50 per cent. He said that 20 years' service provides half a pension, but he should have said 25 years' service.

I was trying to make it clear, so that nobody misunderstands, that, at that time, the referral was one sixtieth. We tried to reduce it to one fortieth so that 20 years' service would give a half pension. The Conservative Government refused to accept the motion of the House and came back, in February 1981, with all the Whips on and proceeded to refer back to one sixtieth. In July 1983, that was changed to an accrual of one fiftieth.

I simply remind hon. Members who will serve as trustees of the great and extensive service given by Mr. Morris, who chaired that Committee. He was a most distinguished Labour Member for many years and is now in another place, I am glad to say. His work in defence of hon. Members' pensions was considerable.

Does the right hon. Gentleman know whether the trustees can take evidence? If they can, is he suggesting that he might wish to give evidence?

I have never considered giving evidence to the trustees. They have prepared a whole host of work and it rests very much with the Chairman as to how to proceed. As the at least five of the trustees are new Members, and only one knows of the instances of which I am talking, I thought that the matter was extremely relevant. Sadly, I do not see all the hon. Members in the Chamber, but they should be able to see in Hansard the point that I am making about pensions so that they can bear it in mind in any future action.

I hope that the trustees will be successful, as the Labour party at the time was adamant about moving to one fortieth.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Division Lobby with me. I have the Division list before me—

Order. We shall check up afterwards. It is not relevant to this debate.

Thank you, Madam Speaker. As long as I know that you were with me, that is all that matters.

I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that the trustees understand this matter and can look into it to see whether the present Government will move in the direction that the Labour party urged on the House 17 years ago. Many new Members, who do not necessarily stand a chance of being in the House for more than 10, 15 or 20 years, need to ensure that their pension rights are better protected than at present. It is not exactly the same as in industry because nothing can be quite as problematical for a long stay than being in politics as a Member of Parliament.

It seemed worth while to raise this matter as we appoint hon. Members as trustees because it is imperative that they bear the matter in mind.

4.13 pm

I confess that I am disappointed that, given that this is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate this important matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is the second opportunity."] It is the first opportunity, because the Leader of the House withdrew the motion in a fit of pique the other night and would not let the House debate the matter.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Earlier this week, we debated the motion and the right hon. Gentleman spoke in that debate. I do not know how he can claim that this is the first opportunity to debate it.

Thank you for that clarification, Madam Speaker. The hon. Gentleman should have established his facts before getting to his feet.

As I was saying, this is the first occasion that we have had to debate this important matter, which relates directly to the interests of every Member of the House.

I am doubly disappointed because, so far, the Leader of the House has not sought to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, to explain to the House why the names that have been suggested for the managing trustees are such as they are. The right hon. Lady might have had a hint from the debate—however truncated it was—on Monday night that there was a certain amount of dissatisfaction about the nature of the names being offered, albeit in connection with a different matter.

Any hon. Members who were then present might recall that I expressed the view that, in these matters perhaps more than any other, it was vital that those to whom we give the trusteeship of our pensions or of the Members' fund should represent the widest possible range of Members of Parliament in terms of background, experience, and so on. I should have thought that that proposition was self-evident, but apparently it is not.

However, even now, the Leader of the House has not done us the courtesy of offering an explanation of the reasoning behind the proposed membership of the managing trustees of the parliamentary contributory pension fund. That is not an unreasonable request.

The matter should be uncontroversial. I should have thought that the Leader of the House would come to the House with some confidence and explain briefly the reasoning behind the nature of the appointments. I would hope that we would all then be satisfied and the matter could be dealt with swiftly but properly. None of that has happened. Instead, we had this and the other related matter brought before us late on Monday night, apparently on the assumption that they would slip through quietly on the nod. We did not even have the opportunity to have the full debate allowed on the Order Paper. I am therefore glad to see that now we have up to an hour and a half to debate each of these matters. That reflects the importance that should be attached to them.

In order to establish my point of reference, I obtained from the Vote Office a copy of the "Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund Accounts 1995–96". Helpfully, it states in paragraph 11:
"The Managing Trustees appointed in accordance with Section 1 of the 1972 Act by Resolution of the House of 22 May 1992 are"
and gives the names of the hon. Members in the previous Parliament who were the managing trustees of that important pension fund. Those members included, from the then Opposition, the right hon. Alfred Morris, who was the chairman, the right hon. Gordon Oakes—a senior and highly respected Member of Parliament—and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, but who was at that time a relatively new Member.

The significant point is that the view taken by the then Opposition of the managing trustees was that it was appropriate that there should be a spread of experience, ranging from the hon. Member for Pontypridd to senior Members such as Gordon Oakes and Alfred Morris.

I should mention in passing that the Conservative trustees were none other than Sir Peter Hordern, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), Sir James Spicer and Sir Gerard Vaughan. That gives some idea of the way in which the previous Parliament thought that the managing trustees should have experience, knowledge and wisdom about matters relating to the House, to Members of Parliament and to their pension fund. That is appropriate and I cannot recall anyone having any difficulty accepting that or any protests—everybody seemed to agree that that was the correct balance for that body of people.

One would have expected that in the present Parliament there would be a similar range of experience among Members to be appointed as managing trustees. You can imagine my shock and my disbelief, Madam Speaker, when I read the list of names that was first suggested to us a couple of nights ago. The Government seemed to have decided that Labour trustees would largely be newly elected Members.

How does the right hon. Gentleman know that a number of these people are not experts on pensions? Has he asked them?

The answer is that I do not know any of them because they have not been in this place long enough.

If the hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of allowing me to develop my argument—these are only my opening remarks—he will learn that I do not rest my case on such a matter as knowledge of pensions, important although it may be.

As the hon. Gentleman invites me to, I shall digress a moment—staying in order, I hope.

I readily accept that it is relevant and important that some of the trustees should be Members who know about pensions. If such Members were also newly elected Members, I believe that that would be entirely appropriate, because I do not dispute the fact that a new Member, or even two of them, should serve as trustees to provide that perspective. My difficulty with the proposal is that there are so many of them, to the exclusion of Members with experience and long service in the House.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) obviously knows all those new Members intimately. I respect his judgment in that matter, and if he tells me that one or more of them are pensions experts, I welcome that. I welcome the fact that the trustees include a Member or Members with pension expertise.

The point at issue, however, is whether the trustees have sufficient understanding of the House, of the membership of the House, of the difficulties that may arise as Members serve in the House and, specifically, of the problems that might arise when Members reach pension age and become eligible for the different pension arrangements.

On Monday night, I wondered whether the right hon. Gentleman was simply being obstructive; I now realise that he genuinely wants the matter to be discussed. I shall not think otherwise unless I have reason to do so.

As I know many hon. Members from both sides of the House who served during the previous Parliament, I would be the last to question their integrity. Is there not a case, however, for saying that fresh blood entering the House—Members who are unlikely to receive pensions in the near future, and not just one or two of them—should be able to consider the matter?

If the majority of the Members who serve as trustees are likely to draw their pension in the next five or 10 years—I am not suggesting that that is the reason for their appointment—some people outside the House might take the view that they have a vested interest. I do not share that view, but there is an argument, which obviously the right hon. Gentleman does not accept, for having as trustees new Members who are unlikely to benefit from pension arrangements for many years.

That is a reasonable point of view, which I respect. It was not the view that we took in the previous Parliament or, as those with longer memories may agree, in previous Parliaments that I can recall. That view has not been taken until now. If it were suddenly the view of the House, that would be another matter.

I concede, as I did to the hon. Member for Workington, that there should be a balance of experience of trustees, and the point that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) makes has some validity. I cannot go as far as he wants me to go and say that there should be a majority. I readily concede the principle that he has enunciated—the need to balance possible self-interest in the approach of pension age with distance from pension age.

I am arguing for some balance and breadth of representation among the trustees. From the beginning, I have believed that the names suggested by the Government go too much in one direction. As I have said, I regret that I do not know those individuals personally—I hope to get to know them well in the coming years if I am spared to survive in this place beyond another election or two. I am sure that some of those hon. Members will make a very valuable contribution—in terms of their expertise in pensions, the fresh views that they may bring to these matters or their distance from their pension entitlements. I readily concede those points.

However, the point at issue is whether the trustees should contain a breadth of representation. I hope that it is not too late to ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the matter and provide a better range of representation. I have no wish to obstruct this process: it is very much in my interests, and in the interests of all hon. Members, that the trustees should exist and function properly. That is even more important for the trustees of the Members' fund, which we are to discuss next.

I have no desire to be obstructive, but I have a strong wish to see the trustees constituted properly. I ask the Leader of the House—I hope reasonably—to re-examine the matter very quickly.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. On Tuesday night, I offered him the chance to discuss the matter further. I have received no representations about the issue—although one of his hon. Friends spoke to me about it. As I explained to him, those who serve as trustees are volunteers: we cannot conscript people to do such work. We have selected to serve as trustees people with some relevant experience. My hon. Friends the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) have made significant points in that regard.

When the trustees are appointed, I do not think that there will be any barrier to an expansion in numbers if it is felt that extra experience is needed. The House could ask other hon. Members whether they wished to serve. However, the Government do not conscript people to serve as trustees if they are not willing to do so. I do not think that that would be a useful way of doing things. I believe that the hon. Members chosen to serve have a great deal of experience between them and I have confidence in them. However, if other experience is needed, I do not have a closed mind to suggesting that the membership should be altered in the future.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that response, but I am a little disconcerted—I think that that is the right word. I shall not make any further inquiries about the matter and I accept the right hon. Lady's explanation at face value. However, I am surprised that apparently it was not possible to find, from more than 400 Labour Members of Parliament, hon. Members with more experience to serve as trustees.

How does the right hon. Member know? He does not know what their experience is.

The hon. Gentleman raises the same issue from a sedentary position. I am talking about length of experience in the House, not pension experience. I am very surprised that, from more than 400 Labour Members—I concede that a number are occupied with Government responsibilities—it was apparently difficult to find hon. Members who entered the House in 1992, 1987 or whenever to serve as trustees.

I reinforce the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made. The vast majority of Labour Members with the experience of the kind to which he refers are either members of the Government—it would not be appropriate for Ministers to serve on the body—or fulfilling other very responsible roles on Committees of the House. I think that he would be somewhat disconcerted if we suggested that new Members should assume the chairmanship of Select Committees in order to free more experienced Members for this kind of work.

We cannot force people to do such work; we rely on volunteers. I have said that if other types of experience are considered necessary in the future, we will be happy to consider the proposal, but, at present, there are no hon. Members with the kind of experience that the right hon. Gentleman describes who are willing to serve as trustees.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I am tempted, but I shall resist the temptation, to get into a side debate about whether new Members should be Chairmen of Select Committees. In that case, the freshness of view argument might indeed be relevant. It is an interesting question whether old lags should always be Chairmen of Select Committees. We might return to it on another occasion.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) implied that there was a corollary: that new Members might have experience in pensions? Having just referred to the "Vacher Dod" guide, I see that one of the new Members is an economics lecturer, another is a general practitioner and a third was a translator before coming to the House. They offer nothing to the Committee, other than newness and freshness—no experience in the running of pensions or the organisation of the House. No doubt they will contribute later to the debate on modernisation of the House, and argue how sensible it would be to introduce clapping.

I am confused. I hope that, as a result of my hon. Friend's intervention, the hon. Member for Workington will seek to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, and explain why, with his intimate knowledge of his colleagues, he thinks that they have pensions experience that would be useful to the trustees. He suggested strongly that they had such experience. My hon. Friend suggests, from the information available to him, that that may be in doubt. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will put our minds at rest—

The right hon. Gentleman does not know whether my hon. Friends were trustees. That would not be in the record to which the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) referred. As for the medical practitioner, there is a requirement that a medical practitioner should be a trustee. The fund may have to deal with people like me, who may at some stage want ill-health pensions.

I have no difficulty with any of that. If, as I said at the outset, we had been told briefly but carefully the rationale behind the names proposed, none of this discussion would have been necessary. If, for example, it had been explained that one of the trustees must be a general practitioner, that would have been sufficient. If it had been demonstrated that an hon. Member had relevant pensions experience, that might have been appropriate. If we could have found someone who was a new Member and a GP with pensions experience, we could have had the whole lot rolled into one.

It would have been helpful if, as a matter of public record, the House had been given such an explanation, but that explanation has still not been forthcoming. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the information that it has apparently proved difficult—nay, impossible—to find Labour Members with the range of experience that I suggested was necessary.

I shall reflect on that. It was, and still is, in my mind to seek to divide the House on the matter, such is my strength of feeling about it. I sense that some of my hon. Friends want to make their contribution, and I shall reflect on what the Leader of the House said before making up my mind.

I hope that I have made my views clear, and that I have persuaded hon. Members present that the matter is important. At the very least, we now have a clearer view from the Leader of the House of the background and the possibilities that lie ahead of us.

4.33 pm

I have promised to help to secure the re-election of Gerry Malone as the hon. Member for Winchester and I am already late for that appointment. That being so, I shall not delay the House for long, but an important matter is before us.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) intervened because he recognised, as a Labour Member, that the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on Monday night and by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) tonight show that we, the Opposition, are not seeking to filibuster to delay Government business. After all, the next debate will focus on the modernisation of the House, which is a matter of concern to all hon. Members.

As my right hon. Friends have said, however, we are much concerned about the compositions of Committees. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I felt on Monday, in my anger, that we were faced with another example of the contempt with which the Government regard the House.

I had reason to take that view because I have raised on the Floor of the House the membership of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, of which the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is a distinguished member. I felt it wrong that a Committee dealing with matters relating to past events and going much to the heart of Members' activities should be in the hands of those who had no experience of the House. It was not a particularly partisan point, but I would not claim to be completely green on that issue.

The issue arose to even greater extent when nominations as trustees for the pension fund appeared on the Order Paper to be rushed through on Monday night. Not one Government nominee had served in the House before May. [Interruption.] I am sorry, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) had served for one Parliament. However, none of the Government Members nominated as trustees of the Members' fund has served in a previous Parliament. I realise, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we are debating not the Members' fund but the contributory pension fund. I accept that one Labour nominee has served in a previous Parliament.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for acknowledging that we had a brief conversation yesterday. I am grateful also to her for taking me into her confidence. I have breached that confidence because she raised the matter from the Dispatch Box. She said that those who appoint Members to act as trustees of the funds have had difficulty in persuading Labour Members, especially right hon. Members, to serve.

I find it extraordinary that a party that enjoys the largest representation in the House since the second world war cannot find within its ranks senior Members who have the time that is necessary to devote to such important work.

We are talking about what used to be called House of Commons matters in the old days, not party political matters. These are matters that unite Members across the board, and they relate to the difficulties of leading the life of a Member, which involves balancing constituency obligations with House obligations and balancing commitments to the political process with the need to devote time to the family. These matters serve to bring Members together rather than to divide them. There is a need also to deal with financial matters.

Since I have been in this place, it has seemed to me that it has been agreed policy that matters such as those before us would be dealt with by the great and the good. I fear that there is now an absence of the great when we read the list of Labour nominees. I make no judgment on whether the new Members are good—those who are appearing for the first time—but they are not great, because they have not served in the House previously.

I recall hearing these arguments before. They are arguments that the previous Government used against the then Opposition Front Bench. They said that because Labour had not been in government for nearly 18 years we did not have the experience to go into government. There is a fine team of Ministers on the Treasury Bench that is competently running the affairs of the United Kingdom, and most of its members have had no previous ministerial responsibility. They have acquired their competence in a matter of months. What is the hon. Gentleman going on about? I think that he completely misunderstands what the debate is about.

That is unbelievably rich coming from the hon. Gentleman. Surely he has been reading the papers lately. He must have seen the Government's catalogue of incompetence, which reached a pinnacle this week—I am sure that there will be many more pinnacles to conquer in the coming weeks—with the nonsense about sponsorship by tobacco companies. I shall not pursue that matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or you will stop me.

The Conservatives' argument in government that there was a lack of experience in the Labour party has, sadly, been fully confirmed since the new Government assumed office. The hon. Gentleman invites me to take a partisan approach when I was trying to be as non-partisan as possible. He always tries to tempt me, whether in the Chamber or the Tea Room, but he should resist or we shall stray from what I hope is common ground.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, it is not that we believe that Labour nominees lack the competence to deal with pension matters, but they have no range of experience. They may provide fresh blood, but, apart from the hon. Member for Sherwood, who has served one term, there is no one such as the hon. Member for Workington, who has served for a number of terms and understands how the House works.

On a House of Commons matter, it is important to understand how the House works, and one way in which Members understand how the House works and the pressure faced by them is by virtue by their length of service. Therefore, I do not cast aspersions on those hon. Members who have been appointed.

However, I return to my astonishment that, within the ranks of the 400 Labour Members, neither the hon. Member for Workington nor the hon. Member for Walsall, North could be persuaded to serve as trustees. The hon. Member for Walsall, North does sterling service with me on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, but I dare say that he could still find a slot in his diary to help out as a trustee.

I am not volunteering. The hon. Gentleman refers to Labour Back Benchers with many years of experience. Leaving my position aside, is it not of interest that all those Labour Members have various positions of responsibility, including—I do not wish to embarrass him—my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who is chairing an important Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is a member of that Committee and of another Committee which carries some responsibility.

Unfortunately, I was not in the Chamber when the hon. Gentleman started his speech, but I know that he understands some of my arguments. Unless he can show that those senior Labour Members to whom he refers are not pulling their weight in Committee and in the Chamber—we know the work undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—he is weakening his case.

I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman should consider me qualified to appoint senior Labour Members of the great and the good. That is not my duty and I think that he would regard it as presumptuous of me were I so to do. However, the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) is in his place. I am sure that he has time to spare. He joined the House at the same time as I did in 1983. He and I find time to share holy communion from time to time and I am sure that he could be persuaded to serve on behalf of the House.

I was a trustee of two pension funds before I became a Member of the House. I have every confidence in those Labour Members who have been appointed to represent us. I am serving on the Modernisation Committee and the Ecclesiastical Committee, and I shall serve on the Select Committee on Deregulation, probably as Chairman. Therefore, I have plenty of work to do without being trustee of the fund.

As those with plenty to do always have time to do a little more, I think that we have a nomination from the hon. Member for Burnley. Given his qualification as a previous trustee of two pension funds, he is ideally qualified. We are making progress.

In contrast with the situation in which the Labour party finds itself, apparently having too many Members committed in other places, the Conservative party has 165 hon. Members, the lowest number for many a long year, but, despite my right hon. and hon. Friends' responsibilities in the House as her Majesty's loyal Opposition, we have nominated my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who has a distinguished record of service in government and as Leader of the House and understands how the House works—a volunteer, not a press-ganged man—and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), who is not in the Chamber today but is also a Conservative appointee, willingly serving.

My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend have appropriate experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West is the adviser to the British Insurance and Investment Brokers' Association, and so has relevant experience, and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, is a non-executive director of London and Manchester, dealing with pensions.

The Opposition have discharged their responsibility to the House to nominate as trustees those with relevant experience who can bring something to the corporate body of hon. Members who need to ensure that their pension fund is in safe hands.

I do not cast aspersions on Labour Members, but we do not know them.

The hon. Gentleman said that this is a non-partisan issue, without party divisions, but has he not argued that there will be Conservative Members on it with satisfactory credentials? When the matter was debated on Monday, aspersions were clearly cast on the nomination of the Liberal Democrats, who is an hon. Member with wide industrial and commercial experience who is entirely suited to the membership of the body. The trustees represent a variety of ages, politics and experiences who, taken together, form a sound body. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree?

Frankly, that is garbage. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. That is simply not true. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) was chief economist at Shell. I do not dispute that he has something to offer from outside, but he has no knowledge of the workings of the House. He has six months' experience of being a Member, so he has no breadth of experience of the difficulties that hon. Members face.

I shall give way provided that the hon. Lady does not accuse me of prolonging the debate.

If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the proceedings of the House, would it not be better if we could make some progress and get on to the debate on how we run the place?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I promised that I would not speak for too long, so I shall begin to wind up my remarks because the next debate is on an important matter.

I hope that my right hon. Friends and I have made the point. We do not wish to attack the external credentials of the Labour nominees, but it is a mistake for the House to appoint as trustees too many hon. Members who do not have the relevant experience of this place. That is the issue about which we feel strongly. We shall have to decide whether to divide the House.

4.49 pm

I have been in the House longer than anyone who has spoken in the debate, with the exception of the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who has taken a keen interest in this matter for a long time. He implied that previous committees of the great and the good had perhaps not done as good a job as some of those who advocate that more of the great and the good should be trustees might think.

On Monday night, I offered to listen to suggestions from any hon. Member who was concerned about this issue, but only one raised the matter with me. After listening to contributions from Conservative Members, I think that we will have an experienced group of trustees. It will comprise Opposition Members, some new blood and at least one hon. Member with experience of one Parliament. Overall, it will be a pretty balanced group in which we can have confidence.

Conservative Members have not quite decided whether they are or are not attacking the individuals who have been nominated. They have not made their case by arguing that some of the Labour nominees are too inexperienced. By definition, this is not a party political activity. If the trustees include new Members, Members with some experience, Members with great experience, people with knowledge of the pensions industry and GPS with useful experience, we will have a group in which I have more confidence than perhaps I would have had, if we had not had the debate. We have considered the many aspects that the trustees will have to cover and the qualities that they should have.

I have no concerns about the make-up of the trustees. Hon. Members who want to serve are doing us all a service. Instead of their being pilloried, the House should be grateful that they are willing to serve on our behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr. John Butterfill, Dr Vincent Cable, Mr. Barry Gardiner, Mr. John MacGregor, Dr Nick Palmer, Dr Howard Stoate, Ms Gisela Stuart and Paddy Tipping be appointed Managing Trustees of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund in pursuance of Section 1 of the Parliamentary and other Pensions Act 1987.

House Of Commons Members' Fund

Ordered,

That Mr. John Butterfill, Dr. Vincent Cable, Mr. Barry Gardiner, Dr. Nick Palmer, Dr. Howard Stoate and Ms Gisela Stuart be appointed Managing Trustees of the House of Commons Members' Fund in pursuance of Section 2 of the House of Commons Members' Fund Act 1939.—[Mr. McFall.]

Modernisation Of The House

4.52 pm

I beg to move,

That this House approves the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons: The Legislative Process (HC 190).

I am pleased that we have now come to the debate on this important topic. Many hon. Members are pleased that the Select Committee on Modernisation has produced a report so quickly. Soon after the general election, in the debates on the Gracious Speech and in subsequent debates, hon. Members showed that there is a great desire for modernisation. What struck many of us was that not just new Members are interested in changing our procedures, but many experienced hon. Members who have been in the House for some time want better procedures so that their time can be put to better use.

It becomes obvious to hon. Members who have been in the House for some time that some debates are not as fruitful, productive and enlightening as they could be, although I draw no conclusions from the previous debate. Some hon. Members may feel that that hour could have been better spent, and that one of the lessons to be learned is that if all hon. Members did their homework before they came into the Chamber, the debates would be of a better quality, although that aspect is not yet being considered by the Committee.

At the general election, the Labour party promised to put the issue of the modernisation of the House of Commons on the agenda, and to establish a Select Committee to examine the topic. We are discussing the Committee's first report and its progress to date. I hope that the debate and the responses of hon. Members by letter or through discussions will enable the Committee to set priorities for its future work. We intend to consider the parliamentary year and the parliamentary week, the conduct of debate in the Chamber and the scrutiny of European legislation.

I shall begin by referring to the report and its specific recommendations. I hope that our proposals and the reasons for them are clear from the report, which was agreed unanimously. When the Committee was first established and the names of its members were published, there was some doubt as to whether it could proceed on the basis of unanimity, but we worked extremely well as a Committee. I pay tribute to members of the Committee for their appreciation of the mood for change that has been evident in the House.

To some people, any discussion of the procedures of the House may seem dry and boring. Perhaps that is inevitable. If the changes that the Committee has suggested could be made to work—which could happen only with the good will of all hon. Members—we would make better use of parliamentary time, and the scrutiny of Bills would be more appropriate. The procedure would be more flexible, so that the treatment of each Bill would depend on what was appropriate for that legislation.

The Committee is grateful for the comments of the Chairmen's Panel. We appreciate the fact that it considered the report quickly, and its response has been very positive. The points that it has raised and the items that it wants us to examine in further detail can usefully be discussed. We are grateful for its constructive comments.

The Committee dealt with a range of issues. We discussed the possibility of programming certain Bills to make better use of the time available, and to ensure that the different parts of a Bill are discussed appropriately. We have come up with suggestions for greater flexibility, particularly in Standing Committees. For example, the new clause procedure could be used when discussing every part of the Bill. Instead of discussing all the amendments and then having a clause stand part of the debate at the end, we could, in Committee, have a clause stand part debate at the beginning, and then move on to consider amendments once the Committee had decided to accept the principle of the clause. That would allow members of the Committee to discuss the clause, and amendments to it, more constructively, which would benefit everyone.

According to paragraph 16 of the Chairmen's Panel report on the Modernisation Committee's proposals concerning the legislative process, the panel's members

"see some difficulty in adapting to this method of proceeding."
We would be wise to consider that with some care. I do not want to raise hopes that we are going to do something until we are certain about it.

I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of Ways and Means. I understand that the Chairmen's Panel would like an experiment to be carried out—not just in one or two Standing Committees; a more widespread experiment. That would allow the changes to be experienced in different sets of circumstances. Perhaps we were not being adventurous enough for the Chairmen's Panel. There is, however, a constructive point to be made: if we are to conduct experiments, they must be sufficiently extensive for us to learn something from them. 1 do not think that I am breaking any confidences when I say that, when I spoke to the Chairman of Ways and Means, I undertook to consider that recommendation and to discuss it further, bearing the Panel's views in mind. I thought that those views showed a constructive approach to our suggestions.

Much of what the Modernisation Committee says suggests that we should use the existing procedures of the House in a more imaginative way than we sometimes do. I think that many hon. Members—including, perhaps, some members of the Committee—were struck by the flexibility that already exists in our proceedings. We often do not take advantage of that flexibility, using routine procedures as a matter of course. The diagram at the back of the Committee's report is very illuminating. There is much that we can do to improve the position if there is good will throughout the House. When we want change, we should make that change on an experimental basis. We should not rush to presume that the Committee has uncovered every detail of the change that is required—and, certainly, the Committee did not approach its work in that way. For the Government's part, I submitted a memorandum to the Committee, which has been published. We welcomed the report, and will of course co-operate in trying to ensure that the proposed changes work in practice.

The section on draft Bills, which was in the memorandum, has found general favour. We have also said that we will introduce—this year, I hope—seven draft Bills, and I hope that it will be possible for at least some of them to be considered by the departmental Select Committees with the aim of improving decision making and giving Back Benchers a more constructive role. I am pleased to say that the Select Committee on Social Security—which is chaired by a Liberal Democrat—has already agreed that, when the draft Bill on pension sharing is ready, it will conduct an investigation, and try to ensure that the Bill's proposals are workable. I believe that, had we adopted a similar approach when, for example, the Child Support Agency was introduced, we would not have our present problems.

Draft Bills can be used to deal with other problems that arise from time to time. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will shortly publish a draft Bill dealing with rapid-draw lotteries, which are causing concern to many people but on which it will take time to legislate. A draft Bill will enable others to see what proposals are ready, and we can legislate when we find a slot. Draft legislation can play a constructive role, and, when it deals with significant issues such as pension sharing, it will benefit everyone if a Select Committee is involved. There is agreement on that now.

It is possible that not all the Committee's recommendations can be tried out this year. It may not be possible to try out enough of them to conduct a proper experiment. For instance, I cannot at this stage mention a suitable Bill for a rollover experiment. Perhaps, over the next few months, an issue will emerge to which the Government will want to respond—or will be under pressure from the Opposition to respond—and legislation will be required, to be dealt with by a Special Standing Committee. On that basis, we might want to recommend such a Bill for rollover: I do not rule that out. The Government, however, will not manufacture such a Bill simply to test the procedure. We should keep an open mind, and use the suggestions in the Committee's report as appropriate.

This is an unusual year. It is the first year of a new Parliament, and the first year of any new Parliament generally involves a heavy legislative programme. That was the case under earlier Conservative Governments, and the legislative programme of a new Government who have been out of office for 18 years is particularly heavy in the first year. It may not be possible to assess the full impact of the proposed changes, because they cannot be assessed against the background of the weight of business in a normal year. I hope, however, that we can test as many of the new proposals as possible, and that most of them—perhaps with minor modifications—will prove useful to the House.

Some of the changes recommended by the Modernisation Committee have already been implemented. Let me give some examples, which may seem minor to those outside the House but have, I think, been helpful to Members of Parliament. One of the first pressures that we experienced came from new Members who were appalled at the congestion in the Lobbies. We examined the problem urgently, and suggested that a third desk should be used. That alleviated—but did not solve—the problem of congestion at voting times. After the Committee made that recommendation, the House implemented it swiftly; we were grateful for that.

The Committee will consider other possible changes in voting procedure in the new Session, and will take evidence about the possibility of electronic voting. It has not been decided to adopt such a system yet. I think that one point on which all members of the Committee are agreed is that, whatever changes are made, voting should take place either in the Chamber or in the Lobbies—in the vicinity of the Chamber, rather than remote from it. The Committee is still considering the matter, however, and is seeking extra evidence.

We also—you, Madam Speaker, are aware of this as much as anyone—made recommendations on changing the Order Paper, and you authorised the introduction of the new Order Paper after the summer recess. The response was much more significant than I had thought it would be—Members seemed really to welcome the change. Members of the press in particular were somewhat puzzled by the fact that they could now understand what was going to happen later in the day.

It may be possible to make even more improvements to the Order Paper and to build on what we have done so far. One or two suggestions have been made and if hon. Members have any other ideas we will, of course, consider them. One that has been mentioned to me is to incorporate into the Order Paper once a week the times and nature of Select Committee sittings when evidence is being taken, so that Members have further warning of what is happening. Sometimes, they do not realise until the morning that such a sitting is taking place and, by that time, they have other commitments.

Another matter that may seem technical and dry, but which is important, is the explanatory memorandum. Some legislation has already gone through the House and new Members in particular may have been somewhat puzzled by some of the information that accompanies a Bill. The so-called explanatory material is often as difficult to comprehend as the Bill. It can often be extremely technical and it does not always give a full picture of exactly what the Bill does. Often it uses the same technical language as the Bill. That problem has caused concern for many years. Committee members shared my concern about that, as did the Parliamentary Counsel Office, which is responsible for the drafting of Bills and of explanatory memorandums.

Ministers have often provided at least notes on clauses. Sometimes, those are informative; sometimes they too simply echo the clauses to Committees. That does not seem to take us much further forward. What is required is one document that sets out in non-technical terms the key points that are needed to grasp what a Bill does and how it will do it. We suggest that there should be changes on the part of Government when a Bill is presented. The First Parliamentary Counsel has been working to provide a new document, which might be called "The Explanatory Notes to a Bill", and would replace the existing explanatory memorandum and notes on clauses. To have such a document published for the assistance of Members would be a significant step forward and, of course, it could be made more widely available—including, I would hope, on the internet.

The only sensible way in which to judge the value of this proposal is to consider examples, so I am going to write to each member of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, setting out some of the detailed proposals, including an example or two of what a new set of explanatory notes could look like. I shall ensure that those examples are placed in the Library, so that other Members can see them and comment. Then the Committee might wish to discuss what advice it wants to give to the Government in terms of proceeding along those lines. It would be helpful if we informed Members in a better way exactly what the purpose and contents of Bills are.

All those things are not exactly earth shattering. Some people would say that we would not have had any changes had they been so, but they mark real progress and there is certainly much more to do. Some people said a few months ago, "When will you modernise Parliament?", as if modernisation were one event. None of us on the Committee thought of modernisation as one event. It is a process and we have started well on it, but there is much more work to come.

May I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention how pleased I am with the progress in respect of legislation? That is absolutely crucial, but a further aspect concerns me as well, which I hope the Committee will have an opportunity to move on to because it is important, too. It is how Parliament has proper scrutiny through Select Committees of what the Government are doing. May I bring to her attention the work and recommendations of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which I am a current member and on which I have sat previously? Recommendations in its report relate to the Crown jewels procedure and to whether we should have a procedure for parliamentary investigations instigated by the House or by Select Committees. In certain circumstances, such a parliamentary investigation could perhaps have more resources than Select Committees currently have for particular inquiries. I urge her to consider that issue, too, when we have got through this legislative programme for improving our procedures.

I know that my hon. Friend has done much work on Select Committees and I value her expertise. I cannot promise that we will recommend the changes that she suggests, but we will certainly come on to the work of Select Committees. All Members at that stage will have an opportunity to feed in their ideas and she will be able to expand on hers at that time.

On the future work of the Select Committee, let me remind Members of the work that we are doing immediately and in the near future. We are doing further work on the feasibility and desirability of electronic voting, and we are considering the way in which the parliamentary year, parliamentary week and parliamentary day are scheduled. We have had a couple of interesting and open discussions, although no conclusions have been drawn. We are going to consider the conduct of debate in the House and the scrutiny of European legislation. All are areas of concern to many Members. We received many representations on them when the Committee was first established.

I should be happy to hear more from Members this evening about what their priorities are, but I know that there are conflicts in the views of different Members from different parts of the country or in different groups. All Members should appreciate that there are no easy solutions to these problems.

Following the Jopling changes, surveys were done and the information that we have already from Members shows us that, in some respects, there is an agreed pattern of what a parliamentary week should be. Most Members believe that Parliament should sit from Monday lunch time to Thursday tea time. Many think that there should be no very late nights, although London Members would define late nights differently from Select Committee members, as would northern Members.

There is concern about the fact that Parliament sits so much when schools are on holiday and it is half term. There are demands for constituency weeks, for early notices of the recess, for no diminution in the power of Back Benchers and for the Government not to use guillotines, yet there is also a requirement for Government to get their legislation through. It is clear that all those objectives are not compatible. Different Members legitimately have different priorities. For some Members, the priority is to be in this Chamber. For others, it is to serve on a Select Committee. Some will specialise in European legislation or regional advocacy and others will want to spend a lot of time representing the interests of their constituents, perhaps at constituency level.

It is impossible to please everyone, but we are trying to devise a system that will allow all 659 Members to undertake their jobs in their individual way—in the way that they think is most appropriate to their constituents. That is the difficulty with which we wrestle. Every hon. Member carries out their job in a different way, according to what they think is appropriate for their constituency. We have to provide a framework to enable them to do that.

The right hon. Lady was describing the different ways in which Members of Parliament approach their job. Will she accept that, in the circumstances that she has described, it would be impossible to lay out a job description for Members of Parliament? Will she resist the calls that I understand are being made to produce such a document?

I think that our constituents would be surprised to learn that there is no job description for Members of Parliament. The problem is that one runs into significant difficulties as soon as one attempts to write such a document. That is why I acknowledge that all Members of Parliament do their considerable job in very different ways. The priorities I have expressed, such as the Chamber, Select Committees and constituency work, are all legitimate priorities. I suspect that all hon. Members would, or at least should, acknowledge that they have to cover all those points at some stage during their parliamentary life.

We need a framework to allow Members of Parliament to do their job in the way that they each think fit. At the same time, we have to deliver good government, and that is a tall order. We have to ensure that we satisfy everybody and that everybody can undertake their work as they wish.

From the responses we have had it is easy to see how different the priorities are. Some people ask for more time for Adjournment debates, some are demanding more morning sittings and some object to any morning sittings at all because they want to get on with their constituency work. We have had demands for early evening finishes or for Committees to sit in the evening. We have had objections to such proposals from Members with constituencies in different parts of the country; they take a different view. The Committee will have to take on board all those different views.

The Committee is aware that there is consensus for change, but we also know that there is not yet consensus about what that change should be. It is important that the Committee should formulate ideas in the context of keeping in touch with hon. Members. That is why we will continue to encourage hon. Members to feed in information and to keep in touch with members of the Committee.

We have had many suggestions about the Chamber that I know will interest you, Madam Speaker, and your Deputy Speakers and Chairmen. There have been suggestions that Question Time should be in the morning rather than the afternoon and that the House should rise at 7 o'clock—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] There have been suggestions that the House should never sit on Fridays and that we should use Tuesday and Thursday mornings for Committees of the whole House.

All those suggestions have some logic and my hon. Friends are saying "Hear, hear." to some of them. If we did all of them, we would get no business through at all, especially if we had constituency weeks as well. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) approves of the idea of us getting no business through. He has already proved today that he is not a moderniser so I would expect nothing less from him.

I am glad to have that confirmed.

During the next few weeks, we will be discussing the conduct of debates in the House. That is necessary because there have been so many changes in attitude to debate over the years and because some of the normal courtesies of the House seem to have gone out of the window. We saw that yesterday during the introduction of the new Member with some of the most appalling scenes I have seen in the House for some time.

When the new Members first arrived in the House they looked for quick solutions such as suggesting that every speech should be limited to 10 minutes. There have been suggestions that Privy Counsellors should not be given precedence in debate. There have been discussions about wigs, top hats and about referring to Members by name rather than by constituency. We have reached no decisions on those matters and our main concern will be to ensure that the House functions properly and that good use is made of the time of hon. Members.

The Select Committee has made a good start on the process of change, but it is a process. I hope that the House will support the report and assist the Committee in its future work.

5.24 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard