Business of the House (Hansard, 16 January 1997)
HC Deb 16 January 1997 vol 288 cc455-66 3.32 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 20 JANuARY—Remaining stages of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill.

TUESDAY 21 JANUARY—Opposition Day (3rd Allotted Day). There will be a debate on the state of the national health service on an Opposition motion.

Motions relating to the selective cull (Enforcement of Community Compensation Conditions) Regulations and the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Compensation Order.

WEDNESDAY 22 JANUARY—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 23 JANUARY—Until about 7 0' clock, completion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Remaining stages of the Local Government and Rating Bill.

FRIDAY 24 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

I regret that I am not able to be as helpful as I have usually been in recent times about the second week. I can announce only the following:

MONDAY 27 JANUARY—Second reading of the Sex Offenders Bill.

The House will also wish to know that it will be proposed that, on Wednesday 29 January, there will be a debate on artists' resale rights in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 29 January:

European Standing Committee B—European Community document: 7050/96 relating to artists' resale rights; relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC51 -xxiii (1995–96).]

Mr. Rooker

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. We understand, in the present circumstances, the Government's inability to know what they will do with the rest of the legislative programme for the remaining part of this Parliament, so we make no criticism.

Given that tomorrow, 17 January, the consultation finishes that started back in October about proposals to change regulations on early retirement of teachers, could the Secretary of State for Education and Employment make an early statement next week on her intentions? Some urgent issues are involved, as I am sure the Leader of the House appreciates—the supply of teachers, the constant denigration of the profession, and the substantial increase in recent years of early retirement among teachers. The House, of course, has a crucial report from the Public Accounts Committee, but Members are entitled to be able to question the Secretary of State well before the changes take place. The matter is urgent for teachers making their plans and, of course, for children in our schools.

The report of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, requested by the Government, on Nirex science will be available next week. It should be published as early as possible—a view, I might add, shared by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Will the Leader of the House arrange it as quickly as possible through the appropriate Minister?

Could we have a statement next week from either a Foreign Office Minister or a Defence Minister on the confusion that they have caused this week? When a concerned mother travels abroad to assist the Red Cross in its mission of highlighting the brutality of anti-personnel land mines, it is demeaning to this House and the British people for senior members of the House and the Government to claim that the issue is too sophisticated or not straightforward. We need a ministerial statement to make it absolutely clear that the United Kingdom Government are doing everything to prohibit the use of those indiscriminate weapons around the world.

Will the Leader of the House clarify what the chairman of the Conservative party meant recently when he referred to the "normal parliamentary conventions" being used over the moving of the writ for the Wirral, South by-election? Do his comments mean that it will be moved within three months or within four months of the death of our colleague Barry Porter?

Mr. Newton

On the consultation on pension arrangements for teachers, I shall, of course, bring the hon. Gentleman's request to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment—although, in doing so, I should make it clear that I reject any suggestion that there has been persistent denigration of teachers. Indeed, quite the reverse is the case.

As the hon. Gentleman says, there has been a lengthy public inquiry into Nirex's application. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will no doubt be giving all those matters appropriate consideration. I will bring the hon. Gentleman's request to his attention.

I frankly thought that the hon. Gentleman's question on land mines could be described as mischievous. It is absolutely clear that the Government are fully committed to working for a worldwide ban on anti-personnel land mines. Indeed, it appears clear from the comments of the Red Cross and the Princess of Wales that they share the Government's position.

The matter of the writ, of course, is not for me. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt familiar with the conventions set out in a letter following the Speaker's Conference of 1973.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, on Wednesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the go-ahead for the second runway at Manchester International airport. He will also be aware that my constituency resides under the existing flight path of the existing runway, and potentially lies under the new flight paths once a second runway is built. Will he therefore organise a proper debate to allow me, as Member of Parliament for a constituency greatly affected by the matter, to represent my constituents' views? I have been denied the right to put their points on their behalf because the Government announced the decision in a written answer. Surely if the matter had concerned Heathrow, there would have been a full debate. Manchester deserves nothing less.

Mr. Newton

Of course I understand why my hon. Friend has put that point to me, and I will bear his request in mind, but I also wish to make two points. First, there are opportunities on Wednesday mornings for debates on matters of importance to regions and constituencies. Secondly, I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but it seems to me that yesterday's announcement is good news in general for Manchester airport, for the north-west and for civil aviation as a whole.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

The Leader of the House has just referred to good news for the north-west region. Following the devastating blow to the Merseyside economy of the loss of 1,400 jobs at Halewood, will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement, at the minimum, but preferably a debate, in the House at the earliest opportunity—preferably next week?

Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect that the absence of the social chapter in this country, far from making us a honeypot or Mecca for investment, has not stopped the outward investment of those jobs to Germany? Will he also ask his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to have urgent discussions with Ford UK, not only about the retention of the existing jobs, but about taking up its offer—made to Merseyside Members this morning—on the possibility of new jobs and a new model to be built at Halewood if appropriate assistance is given by the Government?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only a short time ago on that matter, and I shall not seek to add to it, except in this respect. It is encouraging that Ford considers that Halewood could become the sole European source for an all-new vehicle at the end of this decade, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will bear that in mind in his discussions with the company.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Since it is clear from Prime Minister's questions that there is much confusion in the Opposition mind about our taxation policy and our achievements—especially as we have reduced taxes more than we have increased them, and we now have a lower level of personal overall taxation and a lower level of business taxation than any of our major competitors in Europe—is it not time we had a debate specifically on taxation, over and above the debate on the Finance Bill?

Mr. Newton

My hon. and learned Friend shot down the answer that I was going to give—that a day and a half of debate on tax matters was provided in the business statement that I have just made. I cannot promise additional time, but I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will make those points in that debate.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

I am sure that the Leader of the House will recognise that Commissioner van Miert's threat to take this country and British Airways to the European Court of Justice is not only a serious threat to an important and prosperous enterprise, but raises questions of the most fundamental constitutional importance. It raises the basic question whether the Commission will override the policies and the decisions of the Government and this Parliament. In those circumstances, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make an early statement?

Mr. Newton

As it happens, the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is due to answer questions on Wednesday next. I cannot make a promise beyond that, but I will bring the right hon. Gentleman's request to his attention.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about recent trends in the way we make legislation? I refer to examples of national tragedies, when emotions can run high and we in this place want to be seen to be doing something quickly. Does he agree that those cases can often result in inadequate legislation?

Will my right hon. Friend, as Leader of the House, introduce a convention under which he could talk to his opposite numbers in the other parties to see whether there should be a one-year cooling-off period, on a case-by-case basis, when such events take place, in the interests only of producing legislation that is workable and for the long-term good of the country?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will be aware that there is much exchange through the usual channels about the handling of legislation, but that always leaves plenty of scope for differences of opinion between the Government and the Opposition and between individuals. There is nothing that I can do to prevent that.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to an early-day motion that has been tabled today which expresses the grave anxiety felt across the whole spectrum of opinion about the provisions of the Police Bill? The Bill would allow the police to enter people's houses—including the houses of doctors, journalists, lawyers and others—and tap their telephones without any prior judicial authority. Those affected would be entirely free from any independent judicial opinion. He will have noticed, I hope, the statements made in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian, and the statements by Lord Callaghan, Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Browne-Wilkinson. Will he give careful consideration to the early-day motion, which has attracted wide support across the spectrum of opinion?

Mr. Newton

I have not yet seen the early-day motion in question, and the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that these matters are currently under consideration in another place. However, intrusive surveillance has been providing crucial intelligence in the fight against organised crime for many years. The Police Bill seeks to place those operations on a statutory footing, which I think people will regard as proper. In addition, a senior judge will be appointed as a commissioner and empowered to investigate complaints about the improper use of the power.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Can my right hon. Friend arrange an urgent early debate on the financial anarchy and mismanagement that currently exist in the Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled Kent county council, given the failure of that council to grasp the real problems of reducing bureaucracy and its scaremongering in threatening to cut essential services, such as the fire service, old people's homes and libraries? This is an absolute nightmare for which there is no justification, given the generous settlement provided by the Government to that wretched, benighted and wholly loathed local authority.

Mr. Newton

I hope that my hon. Friend will find an opportunity to make such points when we debate the revenue support grant orders, which are not now far away.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Will the Leader of the House arrange time for a serious ministerial statement on EU decision 96/239 which gave approval for United Kingdom meat processors to export products that are of non-UK origin? However, the French are preventing the entry of those products into their territory despite the fact that the directive exists and has been reinforced by subsequent amendment. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Minister responsible for agriculture and the Prime Minister try to prevent what is happening, as it is affecting my constituency? Meat processors in my constituency are losing up to 50 per cent. of their revenue and 50 per cent. of their employees as a result of the French Government acting contrary to an EU directive to which they agreed.

Mr. Newton

I am afraid that I cannot undertake to provide time for a debate, but I undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

This House is the basis of our democratic situation. May I ask my right hon. Friend a difficult question? Will he provide time for a two-day wide-ranging economic debate, so that all matters relating to taxation can be discussed? Such a debate would give the Opposition an opportunity to explain to the people of this country how they will pay for their £30 billion-worth of promises, so that when we move to an election, the people of this country can make an honest judgment of right hon. and hon. Members in this place, what they stand for and what their parties stand for.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend described his question as a difficult one, but I do not think that it is difficult at all. His idea was a very good one, and I shall consider it.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May I remind the Leader of the House that today the Government received the report on the ethics of xeno-transplantation? Can we have a debate on that crucial issue? Many moral and ethical questions are raised by the report, and the House should have an opportunity to debate it. At the same time, we could debate the distribution of organ donor cards, which all hon. Members should carry, because in the unhappy event that any of us should meet an untimely fate, our organs could be donated, saving the animals from having their organs taken from them—although in the case of Conservative Members, looking for their hearts could pose some problems.

Mr. Newton

The kindest thing that I can do to the hon. Gentleman is to ignore the latter part of his remarks. On the first part, he is right to say that the report has been published today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been pleased to accept most of its recommendations. The pressures on parliamentary time should be obvious from my previous announcements, but I shall bear in mind the request for a debate.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I, too, call for a debate on the proposals for the early retirement of teachers? That would enable the House to consider both the proposals and the fact that no Labour authority has given the teachers any assurance that it would take a position any different from the Government's, although, as can be seen from the business question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), the Labour party is posturing and pretending that it would support the teachers in that respect, when we know perfectly well that it would not. Teachers will not be conned by that.

Mr. Newton

That is another request that I shall bear in mind.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House refer back to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) in relation to the Wirral, South by-election? Does he recall that just before Christmas we lost another of our colleagues, Terry Patchett, and that within a short space of time the Labour party moved the writ and we had the by-election? It seems, according to his reply to my hon. Friend, that he is not prepared to answer the precise question whether the by-election will be held within three or four months, according to past convention.

I have tried this business of moving writs before, and I am only too ready, eager and willing to do it, if the Leader of the House will not tell us whether the Government are prepared to go ahead and hold the by-election, so that the people in Wirral, South can have someone here to represent them.

Mr. Newton

My right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio has made it clear that the intention is to hold the by-election. It is not a matter for me to determine the date, and I am not in a position to add to what I have said.

Sir Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam)

Can we have an urgent debate on education policy, so that we can discuss proposals such as that of Sheffield city council to abolish sixth form colleges in the event of a Labour Government? Can we also discuss the fact that the majority of local education authorities are already controlled by the Labour party and have the power to set homework in schools?

Mr. Newton

One of the Bills to which I hope that the House will be able to return in the not too distant future is the current Education Bill, and I hope that that may provide opportunities to discuss those points.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Will the Leader of the House recognise the despair on Merseyside at the announcement of 1,300 job losses, the profound worries about the future of the Ford Halewood plant, and the possible knock-on effects on the economy of the disastrous announcement this morning? Will he provide time next week to debate those issues in the House, so that the economy of an entire region, which is already depressed and has unemployment at double the national average, can be properly considered and debated?

Instead of abusing Opposition Members who express some pessimism about the ability of those who will be sacked in the next few months to find alternative work in what is already an extremely depressed region, as the Prime Minister did, perhaps the Government could offer us something positive to give the people of Merseyside hope, rather than merely reinforcing their despair.

Mr. Newton

I did not detect any cynicism in what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said; I detected a clear expression of understanding of the concern that the hon. Lady reasonably expressed on behalf of her constituents. It should be acknowledged that the Government have an impressive record of attracting new investment to this country and creating new jobs—to the point where, as we learned yesterday, unemployment fell last month by 40,000.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May I support the call for a debate on that shocking example of Labour in government, the shambles that has been made of the finances of Kent county council by the alliance of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties? Such a debate could highlight the fact that the Government have given an extra 3.6 per cent. for our schools while the Lib-Lab pact proposes to cut the budgets of those schools by 3 per cent.

Mr. Newton

I cannot add to what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), but I hope that my hon. Friend will have a chance to make his point when we debate the revenue support grant orders—although I cannot promise that every Kent Member will be able to take part.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The Leader of the House knows that I have raised on four occasions this week in parliamentary proceedings the question of the Go Ahead Group bid for the north-east rail franchise, the insider trading that took place, the public scandal involved and the public concern in the north of England. I have been able to establish today that the average daily share trading volume transacted during the period of the bid was at least 50 per cent. higher than in the previous period of a similar number of days prior to the bid. Does that not show that something was happening? Is there not now more than ever a requirement for Ministers to come to Parliament to answer questions on this highly important case of share speculation in public assets?

Mr. Newton

The bidding process is for the franchising director, as the hon. Gentleman well understands. The Government see no reason to doubt that he is carrying out his duties properly. The stock exchange routinely investigates rises and falls in share prices, but any such inquiry is confidential.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

My right hon. Friend may consider that we should have a debate on the number of Australians entering the country to advise the Labour party on negative campaigning methods. Could we raise in that debate the fact that the evidence of the negative press conference held this morning by Labour on VAT showed that the Australian idea has boomeranged on it?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about negative campaigning. I do not think that I can add to that, although my hon. Friend has made his point in a neat and witty fashion.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I support the plea of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)? The Leader of the House may not have read the recent statement by the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary about the security situation in Northern Ireland. May we have a statement in the near future, preferably next week, by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the deteriorating security situation?

Mr. Newton

I will bring both the hon. Gentleman's support for the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and his remarks about the security situation to the attention of those of my right hon. Friends who are concerned.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

May we have an urgent debate on unemployment, so that I can point out that unemployment in my constituency has fallen from 3,622 in December 1992 to 2,360 in December 1996? Does that not demonstrate the health of the British economy, which compares with rising unemployment in those countries that follow the policies advanced by the Labour party?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is striking not only how much unemployment has fallen in Britain—and not only in the past month—but how strongly the trend in Britain is different from that in our major European Union partner countries.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

In the run-up to a general election, would it not be timely to have a debate on an aspect of the Representation of the People Act? I refer to the position of homeless people.

Homeless people, by definition, cannot get on to the electoral register, or find it very difficult to do so. A person must be a resident to be included in the register, and a resident would be expected to have a residence. Can we discuss the possibility of "care of addresses, care centres and other places that could serve as substitutes for residences? Would that require a change in the law, or would it just be a matter of the Home Office issuing guidance to electoral registration officers? Given that a general election is on the horizon, this would be an appropriate time at which to hold such a debate.

Mr. Newton

I am not in a position to offer the hon. Gentleman instantaneous advice from the Dispatch Box on the technical questions he has asked, but he will no doubt have noted that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is due to answer questions this day week. I shall bring the point to his attention.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that cold weather payments in my constituency are based on temperature measurements taken at Manchester airport, which invariably enjoys temperatures some degrees higher than towns such as Buxton and other communities on top of the Pennines? As a result, my constituents have received only one week's cold weather payments, whereas, if the measurements had been taken at Buxton weather centre, they would have received three. May we have an early debate on the number of weather stations that are used to trigger such payments, and their location, so that the discrepancy that has caused so many problems in my constituency can be brought to an end?

Mr. Newton

As my hon. Friend knows, there is no perfect solution to problems such as that, although the position is a great deal better than it was 10 years ago. I shall, however, ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security pays careful attention to my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

This is not a political question, believe it or not.

In December, the Home Affairs Select Committee reported on a subject that is of interest to the whole electorate: dogs. The report is now in the hands of the Home Office, awaiting reply. Could the Leader of the House persuade his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to give that reply speedily? Perhaps, when it has been delivered, an early debate could be arranged during the current Parliament.

Some members of the Select Committee are leaving the House at the end of this Parliament: some are retiring, for instance. They have great expertise in a subject in which the electorate are very interested. Perhaps I could ask that as my last favour of the present Parliament.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman will know of the conventions relating to the period that is allowed for the Government to reply, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will note his request. As for his other request, for a debate, he will be aware that suggestions about debates on Select Committee reports and the time made available for them are generally made by the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, on behalf of that Committee.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

As my right hon. Friend will know, tomorrow we are to debate a private Member's Bill on nightclubs and their policy on drugs. Does he think it appropriate for us to have a general debate on Government policy on drugs, especially in the light of the crass, stupid and highly dangerous remarks made today by Brian Harvey of East 17 about Ecstasy? He said that he thought that taking Ecstasy was fine, and that it could even make someone a better person.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Brian Harvey and East 17 are idolised by many thousands of youngsters, some as young as 12. All the campaigning that has been done by voluntary bodies and others may now be jeopardised by the fact that Brian Harvey has come up with those stupid remarks.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will have heard what was said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when a related question was asked during Prime Minister's questions. I certainly associate myself with what my right hon. Friend said. As for a day's debate on drugs, we had one not long ago—as I well know, as chairman of the ministerial committee on drug misuse. I cannot promise another early debate, but I will bear it in mind. This is an important subject.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

May I ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement next week about the organisation of the visa section in the British high commission in Islamabad? That will enable me to draw attention to the breathtaking incompetence shown by that department towards my constituent, Mr. Ghazahfer Ali, who was released on bail at the end of November after seven years of imprisonment without trial in Azad Kashmir.

Mr. Ghazahfer applied for a visitor's visa so as to see his wife and family in my constituency, with whom he has had no contact for those seven years. He is still awaiting a decision on his application, despite my request to the Prime Minister, who was in Islamabad earlier this week, to intervene and offer him a seat home on his aeroplane. Will the Leader of the House make urgent inquiries into the matter and get a decision made on Mr. Ali's application as soon as possible?

Mr. Newton

Clearly, I am not in a position to comment on a particular case, but I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has made representations—indeed, he said that he has done so—to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others. I am sure that those representations will be carefully considered.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Does the Leader of the House realise that there will be deep dissatisfaction in Merseyside, Chester and the Wirral with the unsatisfactory answers given to questions this afternoon about the future of the Ford plant at Halewood? Does he realise that we on Merseyside will expect a Minister—preferably the President of the Board of Trade and preferably after he has had discussions with the management of Ford—to come to the House as soon as possible to explain how he squares the Government's claim that Britain is the enterprise centre of Europe with the failure to maintain jobs at Halewood?

Mr. Newton

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's reasons for returning to this matter. He will appreciate that I can add little to what I said earlier, but I understand that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will have discussions with the Ford management and I am sure that he will report in any way that he feels is appropriate, whether to the House or otherwise.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the widespread concern about the number of deaths in prison custody and about the number of people in prison who ought, more appropriately, to be cared for in psychiatric hospitals. I refer him to early-day motion 404, referring to the death of my constituent, Kenneth Severin, on whom an open verdict was recorded recently.

[That this House believes that it is in the interests of justice for all parties to go into an inquest hearing with the same amount of information; notes that there is no formal procedure for disclosure in inquest cases; draws attention to the Annual Report of the Police Complaints Authority 1995–96 which expressed concern that at some inquests those representing the police may have material not available to the representatives of other interested parties, particularly the family of the deceased, thus giving a strong impression of injustice; notes that the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Tumim has made similar comments expressing the view that it is in the interests of justice for all parties to go into an inquest hearing with the same amount of information; draws attention to the difficulties faced by the family and representatives of Kenneth Severin who died in suspicious circumstances in HM Prison Belmarsh; and calls upon the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor to review the rights of the deceased person's family in such cases and to institute rights of disclosure as recommended by the Police Complaints Authority.]

The early-day motion highlights the difficulties that Kenneth Severin's family face and the difficulties that are faced by the families and representatives of the deceased in many inquests. These matters have been drawn to the Government's attention by Judge Tumim, the former chief inspector of prisons, and by the Police Complaints Authority. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a early debate on the issue of inquest procedure, so that both the Home Secretary and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department can come to the House to answer questions on this serious matter?

Mr. Newton

I cannot promise a debate, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking that his concerns should be given careful consideration by the Ministers involved. I shall certainly bring his concerns to their attention.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I know that you, Madam Speaker, are aware that both my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and I have been approached by the family and friends of Paul Wells in the hope that, following the Prime Minister's discussions with the Governments of India and Pakistan, he might be tempted to say something about the progress he was able to make in respect of determining either the current state of health of Paul Wells, Keith Mangan and the other hostages or what negotiations are taking place for their safe release.

In the event of the Prime Minister not commenting on those matters, would it be possible to arrange for a statement to be made to the House about the current state of knowledge about the well-being and whereabouts of the hostages and about any progress—however tentative—in negotiations for their release? Could that be backed up by a letter from the Prime Minister to the families, setting out what limited knowledge we have about the hostages' present safety and well-being?

Mr. Newton

That is a number of requests to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. I will ensure that those requests are conveyed.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When may we have a debate on genetically modified food and the unique and worrying position that we are in, where such food has been imported to this country and in most outlets cannot be differentiated from other food? The problem with that genetically modified food is that those who take it might not be harmed in any way immediately, but it might in time render certain antibiotics ineffective on people.

I wrote to all supermarkets before Christmas, and the replies that I have so far received show that only one chain of supermarkets, Waitrose, will effectively allow its customers to differentiate between the genetically modified food and other food. That is unsatisfactory and deeply worrying.

Today the Government wisely came out against organ transplants from animals because of the risk. Here we have another experiment which benefits only one company commercially—and that a foreign company. Why on earth should we allow that dangerous experiment with human health?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman knows that those matters have been given very careful consideration on the basis of considerable scientific advice. However, I am sure that his concern will be examined very carefully by my right hon. Friends.

GLOBAL ISLES COURT OF RECORD