§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
May I ask the right hon. Lady to give us the business for next week?
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)
The business for next week will be as follows.
MONDAY 8 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords].
TUESDAY 9 JUNE—For three hours, conclusion of remaining stages of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill [Lords].
Consideration of supplemental allocation of time motion relating to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.
Consideration of a Lords amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.
WEDNESDAY 10 JUNE—Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill.
THURSDAY 11 JUNE—Debate on the prospects for the Cardiff European Council on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 12 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the following week will be as follows.
MONDAY 15 JUNE—Consideration in Committee of the Human Rights Bill [Lords] (second allotted day).
TUESDAY 16 JUNE—Consideration in Committee of the Human Rights Bill [Lords](third allotted day).
WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE—Until 12.30 pm, debate on the fourth report of the Social Security Committee, on disability living allowance, followed by a debate on the first report of the Defence Committee, on peace support operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They will be followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Opposition Day (13th allotted day)—a day for the official Opposition. The Opposition motion subject will be announced in due course.
THURSDAY 18 JUNE—Opposition day (14th allotted day).
There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the minority parties. Subject to be announced next week.
FRIDAY 19 JUNE—Debate entitled "Enterprising UK—The Small Business Agenda" on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
§ Sir George Young
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the information for next week, and for the indication of business the week after. We very much welcome the debate next Thursday on the prospects for the Cardiff European Council, but that leaves outstanding a more general debate on foreign affairs, for which my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), had been pressing for some time. When might we expect that?
504 We are anxious to have a debate on the national health service, whose 50th anniversary is within the next few weeks. Perhaps the Leader of the House can arrange a debate to coincide with that very important anniversary. There is still no sign of the promised debate on freedom of information. Perhaps we might have some idea of when we shall have that.
The Leader of the House must be aware of mounting interest in the outcome of the Chancellor's comprehensive expenditure review. Can she give us an idea of when we might expect its announcement, and an assurance that it will not be made in the days immediately before the summer recess? As that review is likely to set the financial parameters for the rest of this Parliament, it is clearly a most important statement and document. I am sure that the House expects to debate it in Government time before we rise for the summer recess. The need for a general economic debate is underlined by today's sixth rise in interest rates.
The right hon. Lady will be aware that it is customary to have three successive debates on the armed services. We had the Royal Air Force debate more than a month ago on 23 April, but debates on the other two services appear to have been grounded. Can the right hon. Lady assure the House that we shall debate the Army and the Navy before we rise for the summer recess? On defence-related matters, in his statement on the Madrid summit on 9 July last year, the Prime Minister promised a debate on NATO enlargement. Other countries are in the process of ratifying that document, but, almost a year later, we still have not debated that very important subject. When might we expect that debate?
I return to an issue raised by my predecessor in response to the first special report of the Foreign Affairs Committee and its request seeking the views of the House. I have seen the exchange of correspondence, but I suggest that the right hon. Lady has not addressed that crucial question or recognised the fact that it was a special report. Does the right hon. Lady propose to provide time for the House to give the Committee the guidance that it has specifically requested?
Finally, I have seen reports that, because of problems with the legislative programme that predate the welcome progress in Northern Ireland, the House may have to sit on Saturdays. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that she has no plans for the House to do that?
§ Mrs. Taylor
First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position. We are pleased to see that his deputy, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), remains in his place. I hope that the combination of a new approach and continuity will work well. I am sure that it will.
I shall deal quickly with the right hon. Gentleman's questions, some of which have been raised before. We shall have a debate on Cardiff next week. I told the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor and the House that we would like to find time for a more general debate on foreign affairs, but it is never possible to have all the debates that we would wish in any Session of Parliament. As to the right hon. Gentleman's comments about a debate on the national health service, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) suggested some weeks ago that we should have such a debate around the time of the 50th anniversary. I said then that I was sympathetic to 505 the request, although I could give no guarantees in view of the other requests that have been made and the difficulties we have satisfying them all.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about freedom of information. That legislation will be published first in draft form, and the relevant Select Committee will consider it at that stage. That is one of the procedures recommended by the Modernisation Committee, and I hope that several Bills can be treated in that way.
There will clearly be much interest in the spending review, both inside and outside the House. There will be a statement about that in the House in due course, but I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman when that will be—it will depend on when it is appropriate to debate the statement and other economic matters.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Royal Air Force debate and asked when we shall have the Army and Navy debates. I must admit that I did not notice much enthusiasm from some Opposition Members for that RAF debate. When I announced the debate, I was told by a senior Opposition Member—who is not a million miles away—that he did not demand such a debate. The right hon. Gentleman now asks for the other two service debates, and I shall bear his request in mind. However, as he has said, other matters also require debate and it is never possible to meet all requests.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned NATO enlargement. I have told the House that we shall seek to provide time for a debate on enlargement before ratification, and I hope that that debate can take place before the summer recess. I think that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Foreign Affairs Committee, and indeed that report, have been overtaken by events and by correspondence and discussions between the Foreign Secretary and the Committee.
With regard to sitting on Saturdays, we are certainly not considering that for the normal business of the House.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
There is a drift mine at Moorside at Eckington in my constituency, which is the last pit in Derbyshire. Two men were killed this morning when a roof fell in at a heading—Mr. Hill, the assistant manager, and Mr. Martin. A third man escaped but is naturally somewhat traumatised by the experience. I am sure that the House will want to join me in sending sympathy to the families of the men who were killed and to the work force there, which consists of 20 people and is rather like a small family. To be in order, may I ask for a debate on safety in small mines?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am sure that the whole House will wish to associate itself with my hon. Friend's expression of sympathy to the families of the deceased. It is right that we should all associate ourselves with those remarks. It was a very bad accident and investigations are being carried out by the Health and Safety Executive's mines inspectorate. I understand that there have been no previous fatal accidents at the pit, but that does not ease the situation today. The most appropriate course for my hon. Friend might be to apply for an Adjournment debate on the matter that he raises.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
We associate ourselves with the welcome to the new shadow Leader of the House, but we dissociate ourselves from his apparent 506 distaste for Saturday sittings, in one particular. There is widespread support in the House, as I hope the Leader of the House will accept, for the early ratification of the Ottawa convention on land mines, as is evident from the large number of signatures from all parts of the House on early-day motion 1387.
[That this House congratulates Her Majesty's Government as one of the first signatories of the Ottawa Convention on 3rd December 1997; supports the commitment of the Government to encourage other states to sign and ratify the Convention at the earliest opportunity; applauds the efforts of the Inter- Parliamentary Union to encourage through parliamentary action the early entry into force of the Convention; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to fulfil the stated aim to be one of the first 40 states to ratify the Convention and to make early arrangements for the introduction of the necessary legislation in this House to enable ratification to take place as soon as possible.]
I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that that is urgent and should be in place before the anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. That could be a special case, and if there is difficulty in finding time, many hon. Members would agree that that is a worthy cause.
I do not know whether your morning, Madam Speaker, was brightened by the absence of the "Today" programme and in its place, soothing music. In my case, it was particularly improved by the fact that we did not have a succession of Ministers making statements to the wider world that they were not prepared to make to the House. Why have we had no statement on the group considering pension provision—an extremely important report? The Secretary of State for Social Security said that the statement issued today was clear and authoritative. It suggests that at least six in 10 of those going into retirement will find themselves in poverty under present provision. If that is not important to our fellow citizens, nothing is. Why was there no statement in the House this afternoon? Mr. John Humphrys may not be on duty, but we are.
§ Mrs. Taylor
From the reaction of some Opposition Members, I do not think that there is unanimity about sitting on Saturday for the purpose that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Government are keen to make progress on the land mines issue. We signed the Ottawa convention in December. We have made it clear that we intend to ratify it as soon as parliamentary time allows for the passage of the necessary legislation.
The hon. Gentleman is a regular attender at these sessions and he will have heard me say that on several occasions. It is not just a question of hon. Members' views and it is not quite as simple as sitting on a Saturday. There are other responsibilities and there is other business before this House and before the House of Lords.
With reference to a statement on the pensions report, that report is one part of the information that will serve as background for the Green Paper on pensions that will be published later in the year. I see no reason for a statement every time another piece of information is published.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, despite recent improvements, the scrutiny that the House affords the security services 507 has been grossly inadequate? Are there any plans for the House to hold an annual debate on the security services, in the same way as we have annual debates on the armed forces?
§ Mrs. Taylor
As my hon. Friend knows, I am sympathetic to the idea of debates on the intelligence services. Perhaps we could have regular debates on the subject, although I cannot guarantee that they would be annual. The Intelligence and Security Committee, which, I think, knew that such debates were being suggested, has said that it is not opposed to a debate on its next report. As that report will not be available until the end of July, it may not be possible to have a debate until the spillover period, but I am certainly sympathetic to the idea of regular debates on such topics.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
I had understood that yesterday was the second day of Committee proceedings on the Human Rights Bill. A further second day on 15 June will be an interesting procedural development.
May I raise a more important issue? When the Deputy Prime Minister made his statement about London Underground some months ago, he was good enough to say that he understood why hon. Members would want to debate the detail of developments. Can the Leader of the House tell us when we might have such a debate?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am always open to new ideas and new procedural developments.
I know that there is considerable interest in the proceedings that will take place in London Underground, the agreements that have been reached and the suggestions that have been made, but there is a long list of topics that hon. Members wish to discuss. It is not possible to do everything: we still have a great deal of legislation to get through.
It is always possible for hon. Members to apply for Adjournment debates lasting for an hour and a half, as well as half-hour debates. Many of those debates have provided hon. Members with useful opportunities to raise issues of that kind.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Today is the 50th anniversary of the occasion when the Conservative party voted against bringing the national health service into existence—but let me turn to a different subject. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, go on."] I shall come back to that subject in due course.
Would it not be appropriate to debate the fact that a good part of the earnings of the highest-paid barristers in the country—some earn well over £1 million a year—comes from legal aid fees? At a time when legal aid has been severely restricted for so many of our fellow citizens, is it not shameful, indeed scandalous, that people earning well over £1 million a year should draw some of those earnings from public funds? The sooner that scandal is ended, the better.
§ Mrs. Taylor
My hon. Friend has made his point about the fact that the Conservatives voted against the NHS. If it were possible to have a debate on the subject, he could make it again.
508 As for legal aid earnings, my hon. Friend may know that the House of Lords is to hold a judicial hearing to consider the fees that QCs are charging in a number of instances. The Lord Chancellor's Department has been asked to make representations at that hearing, and will be doing so. At this stage, the matter is judicial, and I do not think that it would be appropriate to comment further now; nor do I see any prospect of an early debate.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)
The right hon. Lady announced that there would be a debate on the Social Security Committee's report on disability. Will she confirm that, when the Minister concerned replies to that debate, he or she will apologise to the Government for the crass way in which the benefit integrity project was introduced by the Government, which has caused enormous distress to disabled people? In particular, will the Minister apologise for the fact that there was apparently such a lack of control in the Department that the responsible Minister only heard about the project a month after it was introduced, by way of a telephone call at Preston railway station?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am always amazed at the selective amnesia suffered by Conservative Members in regard to their own record. It really is a cheek for them to suggest that this issue should be discussed, in view of what happened previously.
One of my right hon. Friends will reply to the debate, and I am sure that that reply will be excellent.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I once said:If I have nightmares, they are about a Pakistani bomb … It is for that reason that I go on and on, at Prime Minister's Question Time, about the Khan incident, the Urenco incident at Almelo."—[Official Report, 24 January 1980; Vol. 977, c. 726.]Briefly, its relevance is this. The leader of the Pakistani team was then a research student at the university of Brussels who systematically stole much vital sensitive information from the Urenco project. At the time, all sorts of undertakings were given, outlined after endless written questions from me and others, about the security of nuclear secrets. Is there not a case for having a serious debate next week or some time, at any rate, before the recess, on the follow-up to Monday's statement? Few subjects are more immediate and more potentially catastrophic than the nuclear difficulties between India and Pakistan, and we have some role in the matter.
§ Mrs. Taylor
Not for the first time, my hon. Friend refers to warnings that he has given about potential catastrophes and dangers that lie ahead, and not for the first time he has been able to show that his warnings were relevant. He is aware of the statement on Monday and of the concern on both sides of the House about developments in Pakistan and India in respect of nuclear weapons. We have to watch the situation very carefully. There is serious concern, but, even with that serious concern, I do not think that it is possible to have an early debate on the matter.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
The Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill raises some fundamental questions with regard to crime and punishment and law and order. We are having the Second Reading debate next week, but, as yet, no provision seems to have been made 509 for the rest of the Bill to be taken on the Floor of the House, which we on Ulster Unionist Benches believe is the proper place for the Committee proceedings to take place, so that everyone may be properly informed as to what is going on in that regard. May we have that assurance and be given dates as to when the Bill will come back to Committee on the Floor of the House, rather than being kicked upstairs to a Committee Room and no one knowing what is going on?
May we also be told when the Second Reading debate on the Northern Ireland constitution Bill will take place? It seems monstrous that we should now be engaged in an election campaign for the Northern Ireland assembly, yet we do not know all that that assembly will be able to do, or the rules under which it will operate.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have announced Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill and nothing further. The business that I have announced for the second week is, of course, provisional. I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that I do think it appropriate that the Committee stage should take place on the Floor of the House. We shall have discussions through the usual channels about arrangements for the handling of that Bill.
The hon. Gentleman asked when the Northern Ireland constitution Bill would have its Second Reading debate. He will understand that drawing up that technical legislation is complex and that it is important that we get it right. At this stage, I cannot give him a date for the introduction of that Bill.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)
Will my right hon. Friend find time for either a statement or a debate about the recent flooding in our constituencies? There are still many problems in regard to benefits, insurance and flood warnings and defences. It has not been possible to raise them properly so far, and they affect more people than could normally be dealt with during an Adjournment debate.
We received the interim report from the independent inquiry just this week, but I think that the final report will come out only in the recess. It is extremely important for those of us who had the worst floods for more than 50 years that we have an opportunity to discuss the wide range of issues on the Floor of the House.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I can well understand why my hon. Friend is concerned about the impact of that flooding on her constituents. As she says, the preliminary independent report has been published. It identifies some lessons that should be learned from that exceptional event. Ministers are considering follow-up action with the Environment Agency for England and Wales. As she says, the review team will produce its final report later in the year, although we do not yet know exactly when.
My hon. Friend says that it might not be possible to deal with all the concerns in a half-hour Adjournment debate because of the seriousness of the matter and because so many hon. Members are interested. It might be possible for her and her colleagues to apply for one of the one-and-a-half-hour debates. That might be the best way in which to proceed.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Health 510 to make a statement about the projected reorganisation of health authorities in England? May I also draw to her attention the grave concern building up in Greater Manchester, particularly in Stockport, where an effective health authority coterminous with the council feels itself to be under threat and morale is dropping rapidly?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I cannot see prospects of an early debate, and am not aware of the specific details in Greater Manchester. However, I shall of course ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's worries about the prospects there.
§ Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)
Will the Leader of the House ask one of the Education Ministers to come to the House to clarify the position of grant-maintained schools? The Labour party has always been a strong opponent of grant-maintained schools, saying that it would return them to council control. However, in a parliamentary answer to me, the Government now deny that that will happen. In the press this week, the Government said that schools would be given more of their own funds to control. Will Ministers explain the exact position, so that schools, parents and the House might be aware of it?
§ Mrs. Taylor
Education and Employment questions will be next Thursday. The proposals are not about allowing schools to opt out of the local education authority sector but about giving schools maximum scope for self-management within that sector. We have consistently said that we see a vital role for local education authorities, but that they should do their job and, as far as possible, allow schools to get on with theirs. Consultation on the matter is under way and will end on 31 July. However, the proposals have been misrepresented by the hon. Gentleman—not least because he has, presumably, been reading press reports. I repeat that the proposals are not about allowing schools to opt out of LEAs.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
Will the Leader of the House find time in the near future for a debate on corruption in local government? Although we have recently heard a great deal about Scotland, I should like to home in rather closer to home—on serious allegations of local government corruption in Kettering, near my constituency. To assist that debate, will she make available not only internal Labour party documents on Scotland—which have been kept secret—but the internal national executive committee inquiry into corruption in Kettering? Before she answers, I hope that—knowing her to be an intelligent lady—she will not start nattering about Westminster, like some Blairite parrot. We are talking about current corruption, not corruption that occurred long before many of us were elected to the House.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am amazed at the cheek of Conservative Members on such issues. Whenever there has been any suggestion of malpractice, the Labour party has acted swiftly and openly—very differently from the way in which the Conservative party has acted. The Conservative party has, of course, not yet even apologised for Westminster.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
Is not a debate overdue on the first early-day motion of this Parliament, early-day motion 1?
[That this House celebrates with joy and hope the election of what will be a great reforming Labour Government; applauds its manifesto declaration that 'all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation'; asserts that this can be achieved for the present generation of pensioners only by restoring the link between basic pensions and average earning; urges an immediate start to the promised manifesto review of 'all aspects of the basic pension and its value, second pensions including SERPS and community care' and a renewal of the commitment to retain SERPS.]
Should not that debate be combined with a discussion of the splendid Ross report—published today—which clearly identifies the 1980 breaking of the link between pensions and earnings as the main cause of pensioner poverty, and states that all basic pensioners are now losing £25 per week because that link was broken? Is it not true that the manifesto on which all Labour Members stood in the general election promised pensioners that Labour would ensure that they shared fairly in the United Kingdom's growing prosperity? Is it not true that, according to Ross and many others, the best way of informing the Government's review of the pensions industry is to ensure that justice is done to pensioners in the fairest and most efficient way—by restoring the link?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I said earlier that the report was a clear and authoritative statement which will provide an important background for the Government's Green Paper on pensions, to be published later this year. That and other information will be taken into account.
§ Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)
Given the enthusiasm in the House and, more importantly, in the country for progress on my namesake's Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill and the Government's understandable reluctance to give additional time from their important legislative programme, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be appropriate, as she does not need Saturdays for Government business, to allow voluntary overtime so that progress can be made on the Saturdays that have been pencilled in?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have said several times that the responsibility for delaying the Bill rests with the Conservative Members who have tried to frustrate the will of the House. However, my hon. Friend's proposal is not the answer.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Will the Leader of the House find time for an early statement on the Government's review of the roads programme? She will be aware that the statement was originally scheduled for spring 1998, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), told me in a written answer on 29 July last year. This is a serious matter. I recognise that a great deal of work has to go into the review, but for my constituents, particularly the long-suffering people of the village of Aston Clinton, who have long championed the cause of a bypass, an early 512 statement would be welcome. This is not a matter of party politics. People of all political affiliations and of none would welcome an early decision and statement.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that a great deal of work has to go into such a complex review. The work is well advanced and I do not think that we shall have to wait too long for further information.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
The Leader of the House will be aware of the thanksgiving service in Lichfield cathedral on Sunday for 50 years of the national health service. May we have a debate on the crisis in the NHS—not only the increasing waiting lists, of which she is only too well aware, but the growing and worrying habit of the positioning of Labour placemen and women in key posts in NHS trusts? Perhaps she will address the House in particular to the problem of Premier Health NHS trust in Lichfield. The tenure of the chairman of the trust was not renewed. She was replaced by a member of the Labour party who has a full-time job, is unable to meet the chief executive of the trust during normal working hours and is available only on Saturdays, some Sundays and occasional evenings.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have already commented on the appropriateness of having a 50th anniversary debate, if possible. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that if the Conservatives were still in power, funding for the national health service would be lower and waiting lists longer. He and his colleagues have quite a nerve complaining about nominees to NHS trusts from this Government.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
Does the right hon. Lady agree that ministerial responsibility is a concept to be prized in the British constitution? Will she call for an early debate on it? Does she agree that it is very important that Ministers extend the courtesy of replying individually to hon. Members' mail rather than having officials sign the mail out, so that we can be convinced that Ministers have at least read our letters? It does not seem an intolerable burden for a Minister to be expected to sign approximately 25 letters a day—I gather that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has up to 6,000 a year.
§ Mrs. Taylor
As you remind us, Madam Speaker, the number is sometimes as much as 500 a day, which is indeed very significant. The issue of Ministers signing letters and the speed of response has been raised before. I have recently described the action that has been taken to try to ensure that the situation is as good as possible. Of course, there will always be some occasions on which Ministers cannot sign letters for reasons of urgency.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
Does the Leader of the House know when World Environment day is? Why are we not having a debate on the environment either on that day or within a reasonable period of it? Has the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions told her what it is doing to mark that day, as it 513 is being marked in more than 100 countries? When my office telephoned the Department last week, people there could not tell us.
§ Mrs. Taylor
Such announcements are made at the discretion of the Department; they will be made when the Department feels it appropriate to do so.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
The right hon. Lady may well be a victim of one of the huge piles of correspondence to which you, Madam Speaker, have just referred. In business questions about 10 weeks ago, I asked the right hon. Lady a question, and she said that she would reply to me by letter. I had to ask her again shortly before the Whitsun recess. I am a very patient and good-natured fellow, but I am still waiting for a reply. I hope that it is not too difficult a question to ask her again.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The specific topic that the hon. and learned Gentleman raises is part of the subject of legislation going through the House. It will be dealt with when we reach the appropriate stage. I am not responsible for such detail in legislation. Until the matter is finally resolved, I cannot give him all the detailed information that he requires.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), may we have an urgent debate on the relationship between the House and the Government, specifically the responsibilities of Ministers to give replies to Members of Parliament, and through them, to the public? Surely it cannot be the case that a Minister would allow, as the Leader of the House implied a moment ago—inadvertently, I trust—letters to leave his or her Department unsigned, except in exceptional circumstances. Nor can a very large quantity of letters going out in a Minister's name—committing the Minister and the Government collectively to the reply—be an excuse or an alibi. Can the matter be clarified, please, and in a proper debate? It is an emerging scandal.
§ Mrs. Taylor
This is not a new issue. When the Conservative party was in government, it was certainly not unusual to receive replies from Ministers signed by someone in the Minister's Department. It was usually said that the Minister had approved the letter. Ministers approve and take responsibility for all letters that go out in their names.
§ Mr. Leigh
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You said a few moments ago, in a sedentary intervention—[Laughter.] I make no criticism of you for doing so. You 514 have said that you conducted some research into the matter that we have just been discussing. You obviously take it very seriously, as we all do. Powers of Members of Parliament are somewhat limited, but we have always been able to ensure that, if our constituents have a grievance, at least they know that a letter about it has landed on a Minister's desk. That is a terribly important part of our constitution and the way in which we conduct politics. As well as doing some research, could you put gentle pressure on the Government, as only you can, to ensure that we maintain the fine and important tradition of Ministers replying to Members of Parliament?
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Would you also be kind enough to look carefully at the relationship between Members of Parliament and several Government agencies? One of the hazards is not that Ministers are not answering letters, but the increasing incidence of letters from hon. Members being diverted to civil service agencies—created by the previous Government—which have astonishing and nebulous lines of accountability. Frankly, such agencies are not fulfilling their tasks properly.
§ Madam Speaker
Let me say at the outset that those are not matters for me; they are matters for Government Departments. None the less, I understand the situation and I want to be helpful not only to Back Benchers but to Ministers. I have carried out some research on the matter, and I gave the House a figure today—something like 500 letters per week, I think. That is an inordinate number of letters, which I know that one particular Department has to send. It is not a matter for me, but I am trying to resolve it, and hon. Members will have to be good tempered and have some patience until the Department concerned can find a method of working the problem out to satisfy Back Benchers. I understand that they want to send their constituents letters signed by a Minister, but it is not the Minister who does the work for the Back Benchers; having had guidance from the Minister, they must do a lot of work themselves, too.