HC Deb 18 December 2003 vol 415 cc1733-51 1.12 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the first week after the Christmas break?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for the week after the Christmas recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 5 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Traffic Management Bill.

TUESDAY 6 JANUARY—Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions and Statutory Payments Bill.

WEDNESDAY 7 JANUARY—Opposition Day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 8 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Bill

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 12 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Housing Bill.

TUESDAY 13 JANUARY—Opposition Day [2nd allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 14 JANUARY—SeCOnd Reading of the Employment Relations Bill.

THURSDAY 15 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Human Tissue Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks following the Christmas recess will be:

THURSDAY 8 JANUARY—Debate on the report from the Public Administration Committee on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions.

THURSDAY 15 JANUARY—Debate on the report from the Health Committee on sexual health.

I should like to wish all hon. Members, and especially the staff of the House, a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Mr. Heald

May I associate myself and my hon. Friends with those remarks? A very merry Christmas to everybody.

Has the Leader of the House seen the important report of the high ranking Privy Councillor Review Committee on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001? That highly critical report calls for a separate and distinct body of terrorism legislation and demands several parliamentary debates separate from the debate that renews the 2001 Act. Given the gravity of those issues, will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that he will consider the way in which the matter will be handled on the Floor of the House and tell us either now or, perhaps more reasonably, after Christmas?

Does the right hon. Gentleman know of the allegation in the Health Service Journal that pressure was put on civil servants to give the Prime Minister's local hospital a three-star rating and an extra £1 million grant when the other local Member of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), was Secretary of State for Health? Surely an independent inquiry should be held into the allegation that health service ratings were manipulated for political purposes. When can we expect a statement on that?

The Leader of the House announced Second Reading of the Human Tissue Bill. Given the ethical and scientific issues that surround it, and the Government's earlier suggestion that it would be suitable for pre-legislative scrutiny, will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether the measure is appropriate for consideration by a Special Standing Committee, in which evidence could be taken on those important aspects?

The Leader of the House will recall that, on 27 November, I raised the sitting hours. Subsequently, more than 230 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 262.

[That this House notes that the revised sitting hours and related arrangements have now been in place for 12 months; believes that there is now sufficient experience of the new arrangements to enable the House to judge what adjustments would be appropriate to enable the business of the House to be conducted more effectively; and calls for an urgent review of the reforms.] In the light of that, and given last week's announcement of a questionnaire by the Procedure Committee, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how he is getting on with setting up a review of the new arrangements?

Will the Leader of House comment on a modernisation measure—an early Christmas present for Conservative Members? Yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister six questions. Of course, he did not get an answer but that did not surprise us. However, the Prime Minister asked my right hon. and learned Friend five questions. Is that not overwhelming evidence of the need for change and the introduction of Leader of the Opposition's Question Time? My right hon. and learned Friend generously said that he would support that and that he might even allow the Prime Minister more than six questions, if the right hon. Gentleman were ever prepared to answer a single question.

Mr. Hain

On the latter point, if the shadow Leader of the House is seriously pressing for a Leader of the Opposition's Question Time, it suggests that the Leader of the Opposition intends to remain in that position for a long time.

Let us consider the more serious points. The Newton committee review was published today and laid before the House with a written ministerial statement from the Home Secretary. We will issue a statement in response to the report and consider the hon. Gentleman's request.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the former Secretary of State for Health. Let me make the procedural point that it would have been odd for him not to be involved in commenting on and raising queries about the formative stages of a brand new system of evaluation, especially since the Department of Health was responsible for producing the star ratings at the time. There is an important distinction between asking a question and issuing an instruction. The former Secretary of State asked a question, as he did about several hospital trusts that were introducing the system. Consequently, there were fluctuations—some ratings went up and others went down. Indeed, he asked a question about the hospital trust in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I am happy to report that the star rating increased there, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be special procedures, perhaps pre-legislative scrutiny, for the Human Tissue Bill. I am happy to consider that. He made an interesting suggestion about the Bill's suitability for consideration by a Special Standing Committee so that evidence could be taken. I shall look into the matter and write to him about it.

I noted the 238 names of hon. Members who signed the early-day motion on the hours of the House. I have consulted widely about the new hours. I have seen in my room more than 100 Members of Parliament from the three major parties. In addition, I have talked to individual Members about these matters in the corridors and the Tea Room. I have listened carefully to what everyone has said, and there are a lot of different views. Obviously, there is a large group of people—as illustrated by the early-day motion—who would like the hours to be changed. I very much doubt from the conversations that I have had that a majority would favour going back to the original hours, but there have been suggestions about how the existing hours could be modified and how some of the anomalies and difficulties could be removed. I shall continue to listen, and consider how to take the matter forward.

The Modernisation Committee has ownership of this issue in the sense that it drew up the report that led to the motion that came to the House, which led to the vote to change the hours. The Committee will want to consider at what point it will start the review that was promised in the motion that was carried by the House for the hours to remain as they are for the rest of this Parliament. I shall consult all hon. Members and others about how we take the matter forward.

The hon. Gentleman asked for an early Christmas present for the Opposition, and I should be happy to promise him one right now: I wish them every opportunity to spend many long years in opposition. I have already answered his point on whether there should be a Leader of the Opposition's Question Time.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

May I suggest to the Leader of the House that the issue raised by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about the allocation of appropriate Bills to a Special Standing Committee is precisely the kind of issue that ought to be discussed between the parties around the table, as was recommended by the Modernisation Committee and approved by the House? I drew this matter to the attention of the Leader of the House last week.

May we have a statement as early as possible after the recess from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on today's Select Committee report on schools funding? This damning report draws two very important conclusions. It says: It was a serious weakness in the Department's strategy to implement the schools' funding changes without knowing in detail how schools would be affected. It goes on to say: If the Government has a desire for a greater degree of central control over schools funding, about which we would have serious reservations, it should provide itself with an effective means of exercising that control. This report, produced by a Committee with a large Labour majority, makes it quite clear that the schools Minister was guilty of presiding over a complete disaster this year: a £1 billion bungle. He and the Secretary of State blamed local education authorities of all parties—not just Opposition parties—for the way in which they handled the issue, when in fact the blame should have stayed with the Department. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State comes to the House early in the new year, apologises to those local authorities on behalf of his ministerial team and gives us an assurance that this will not happen again in 2004–05?

Mr. Hain

On the question of discussions between the hon. Gentleman, the shadow Leader of the House and me on forthcoming matters, this has not been the practice in the past and I do not see any persuasive case for changing the arrangements. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, I have written to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee about a large number of draft Bills, giving the Chairman and, therefore, all Select Committee Chairmen early notice of the timetable that we envisage for introducing draft Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Chairman of the Liaison Committee very much welcomed that initiative, as did his colleagues on the Committee.

On schools funding, yes, there was a glitch in the system that caused considerable difficulty, but a package has been put in place by the Secretary of State that will ensure adequate resources for local authorities and provide minimum increases in funding for every school. It will also involve making early announcements, reversing cuts in grant and limiting central spending. All those measures will address the problems that were raised by this episode. The Secretary of State also answers questions regularly in the House when these matters have been raised, and that will continue to be possible. I would like to put this in perspective. Despite those unhappy glitches, the Government are introducing record investment into schools, recruiting thousands of extra teachers, and driving up standards in primary and secondary schools, achieving the highest levels of attainment and investment for decades. The difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which were unacceptable, should be set against this impressive record of continued educational investment and spending, and the rising standards that result from that.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the magnificent efforts of our Post Office workers who have delivered record levels of Christmas mail in the last few weeks. He will also be aware that, some months ago, I came to the House and extracted from the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services a guarantee that before any sub-post offices were closed, the local Members of Parliament and local authorities would be consulted. My right hon. Friend will therefore be as alarmed as I was to learn of the announcement this morning of the closure of 11 sub-post offices in my area, without that guarantee having been met. Will he ask his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry to invite the chairman of Royal Mail, Mr. Allan Leighton to explain why he has baulked that guarantee? Perhaps it could be suggested to Mr. Leighton that if he spent as much time saving rural and urban post offices as he spends trying to save Leeds United, he would do a better job.

Mr. Hain

It is probably easier to save local post offices than it is to save Leeds United in the current circumstances. I am disturbed by the account to which my hon. Friend refers. It is imperative that local Members of Parliament and local councils, as well as the local public who will be affected, should be consulted by the Post Office on any planned closures. That is normally what happens, as I know from my own experience. If my hon. Friend has not been consulted, especially given the large number of closures involved, it is totally unacceptable. I am sure that the chairman of the Post Office will note my hon. Friend's anger about this matter. My hon. Friend will have the opportunity to raise the issue again in the debate on this subject planned for 7 January, and I hope that he takes the opportunity to do so.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

The local transport settlement for 2004–05 was announced in today's Order Paper, which gave notice of a written statement on the matter. Last year, there was an oral statement, which gave hon. Members the opportunity to question the Government on this important matter, particularly given the increased congestion and rail problems in certain areas. May we have a debate early in the new year to enable hon. Members to hold the Government to account on this important issue?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to apply for an early debate, but I believe that at this moment just before the recess it was absolutely proper to have a written ministerial statement setting all these matters out. I am sure that he will also recognise that we have a very impressive record of extra investment in rail services, local transport schemes and extra bus provision, especially in rural areas. As a result of that investment, 1,500 new trains have come into service since we have been in power, and there has been a 20 per cent. rise in rail passenger journeys—[Interruption.] I hear a few scoffs from Conservative Back Benchers, but let us compare this with their Government's record of cuts in rail investment that led to the absolute shambles and danger to passenger safety that we inherited.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a very nice Christmas box for Labour Members and for the majority of people in the country would have been an announcement that the Parliament Acts would be used to ensure that the Hunting Bill became law in the lifetime of this Parliament? Is he aware that the Countryside Alliance has produced playing cards with the 50 most dedicated opponents of fox hunting on them? I am pleased to say that I am on that list, but I would like to be higher up.

Mr. Hain

I am not sure whether I am on that list, but it would be an honour to be so. I have made our position absolutely clear, both at business questions and elsewhere, on how this matter is to be taken forward, and I do not have anything to add to that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con)

The Leader of the House has been pressed on several occasions for a debate on the Procedure Committee report recommending legislation on Parliament square. He has said that that issue needed to be resolved sooner rather than later. That was on 27 November. How late can "soon" be, before "sooner" becomes "later"?

Mr. Hain

A number of different agencies are involved, as the right hon. Gentleman understands, such as the Royal Parks Agency, local authorities and the police, and consultations are taking place. I understand the point that he raises; "soon" means soon. I shall seek to address the matter as soon as I can. Equally, he will understand that the Procedure Committee report, which was strongly argued and persuasive, raised important issues and they need to be considered properly rather than prematurely.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the success of the pension credit in helping some of the poorest pensioners in this country. In my constituency, more than 4,000 pensioners have benefited, but I would like a debate early in the new year to consider specifically how to increase take-up of the pension credit and find more ways to encourage pensioners to get the benefits that they are entitled to.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend raises an important matter. Already, 2.4 million pensioners receive pension credit, which is a big total. I would urge all Members of Parliament to publicise the credit and appeal to local pensioners to contact local pensioner groups to ensure that take-up is even better than it has been, because we need it to be extensive. The credit is a radical improvement in the lives of pensioners who have almost certainly been hard-working for all their working lives, who may have been thrifty and may have a small amount of savings. They have not had support if they received a small widow's pension or a small occupational pension or had modest savings.

The Government are delivering the pension credit as part of the £9 billion more a year we have spent on support for pensioners since we came to power. It is disgraceful that the Opposition plan to axe the pension credit.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

You may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the time available for questioning the Secretary of State for Defence on the publication of the defence White Paper was curtailed because of pressure of business in the House. Will the Leader of the House look again at providing an opportunity for a debate on defence procurement, because the Secretary of State mentioned in the White Paper, among other things, the possibility of reducing the number of aircraft in service or to be procured?

There is great uncertainty among the tens of thousands of aerospace workers in the north-west about that announcement and there is a great need for clarification of Government policy on this area. Would the Leader of the House have a look at the matter, please?

Mr. Hain

I know of the right hon. Gentleman's close constituency interest in the defence industry, and the long and expert interest he has taken in the issue of defence. I am sure that he will be pleased to know that his request will be accepted. The Secretary of State for Defence plans to have a debate on the White Paper as soon as it is possible to do so. [Interruption.] As soon as it is possible.

We agree with the right hon. Gentleman: the Government want strong defence for the country, and we want maximum opportunities for British defence-based industries to take advantage of supplying not only our own needs, but overseas contracts, too.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)

I note that on 14 January the Employment Relations Bill is due to receive its Second Reading. I wonder whether the Leader of the House might arrange for a statement that day from the relevant Minister on the Government's employment strategy. My understanding of the unemployment figures in the paper today is that more people are employed in the United Kingdom than ever before. However, I understand that some people are suggesting that the Government's programmes of new deals for jobs should be scrapped. Can we have a statement to clarify that issue on the day that the Employment Relations Bill has its Second Reading?

Mr. Hain

I will look sympathetically at that, because the employment record of this Government is second to none. There has been a rise in employment of nearly 1.7 million and unemployment has been cut to the lowest for generations. On the question of the new deal, I find it astonishing that the Leader of the Opposition has said: We think the New Deal has been an expensive failure". The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) nods in agreement, as I suppose all Conservative Members alongside him are doing. In the constituency of the Leader of the Opposition, Folkestone and Hythe, an extra 650 young people have got jobs as a result of the new deal, and 1,450 people got jobs as a result of the new deal if we take over-25s into account. The role of the new deal in personal mentoring and individual advice is important.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I think that we are getting a little way away from next week's business.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Whatever happened to pre-legislative scrutiny? The Leader of the House will recall that his predecessor but one produced a lot of high falutin' undertakings about how parliamentary life was going to be transformed by pre-legislative scrutiny. However, partly owing to the cock-up of last year's legislative programme and the late start this year, there is not much sign of any serious "pre-leg" scrutiny. Will the Leader of the House tell us how many of the Government Bills to be brought before the House in this year's programme will be subjected to full-blown, effective, proper pre-legislative scrutiny? Is the undertaking that was given to be honoured?

Mr. Hain

First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back to business questions in a reincarnation of his impressive and energetic parliamentary obstructionism. I think that it adds to the quality of our debates and of the House in general.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a dozen Bills have been announced as draft Bills that will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. That is the largest number ever, and I am sure that he will welcome that for obvious reasons. I wrote to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, as I indicated a few minutes ago, giving the projected timetable so that the Select Committees involved can set up their own programmes of work. They found that very helpful, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would wish to take any opportunity to get involved as well.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is a regular viewer of "EastEnders", or does he feel that being Leader of the House is enough exposure to soaps? May I draw his attention to early-day motion 309 and the case it involves?

[That this House notes that Dalip Tahil who plays Dan Ferreira in Eastenders may face removal from Britain for breach of work permit regulations; further notes press reports that he has received a letter from the Home Office rejecting his application to stay and work here; expresses its concern about these reports; and calls upon the Home Secretary to intervene in this case to ensure that Mr Tahil will be allowed to continue in his role not just because he is an excellent actor, and one of the few actors of Asian origin on national television, but also because the Ferreira family with their trials, tribulations and trysts will he left fatherless at this crucial time in all their lives.]

Dalip Tahil is an internationally renowned actor who faces removal from this country, not in the soap but in real life, because of work permit issues. I raised that matter with the Home Secretary on Tuesday, and he promised that officials would speak to me about it. I have just spoken to Mr. Tahil's solicitor and he has made an application to remain in this country under the highly skilled migrant workers scheme. I do not expect the Leader of the House to give me an answer today, but would he draw the attention of the Home Secretary to the early-day motion so that we can have the meeting that was promised?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Home Secretary will already have noted my hon. Friend's question, and I know of the close, expert interest he takes in such matters. This is a serious case with a lot of complications and he will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases.

My hon. Friend asked me about my television viewing habits. I must confess that I have not had time to see an episode of "EastEnders" for a very long time. I was in the humiliating position of answering a question about which two television programmes I saw more than twice a month. I am afraid that they were "The Premiership" and "Newsnight".

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

Would the right hon. Gentleman please arrange an early debate on the question of detention without trial? That would enable us to press the Government on what they are doing with regard to the nine UK citizens in Guantanamo Bay and enable the Government to make a full statement on the 14 foreign nationals held in the UK under the anti-terrorism legislation. He will know full well that the Newton committee report published today suggests that part 4 of the Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 should be replaced, and expresses grave concern about its powers. In that latter connection, he will remember that he said last week that he would communicate my anxieties to the Home Secretary. Has he done so, and what was the response?

Mr. Hain

I have indeed done so, and as I indicated to the shadow Leader of the House a few moments ago, the Government are studying the Newton report very carefully. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to express concern about the position of the 14 foreign nationals. Equally, he will understand that the security threat to this country from terrorism from foreign sources is the greatest ever. We have never been in this situation before—obviously the IRA experience was in a different category—and, therefore, we have to take such matters seriously. That is why the powers exist under the 2001 Act to allow us to do so.

I am sure that, following the dreadful attack on our Istanbul consulate, and the attacks that are constantly being threatened or carried out on British interests across the world, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would want us to be very careful about how we deal with suspects, or people whom we have arrested, and how we keep them in a position where they cannot mount any terrorist attacks.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a debate as soon as possible on the legacy of pit closures in south Wales in the 1980s? Such a debate is vital, because it has recently been suggested that a favour was done for the people of Wales by the devastation of communities right across the coalfield. That statement was made by none other than the Leader of the Opposition, who—believe it or not—is a Welshman.

Mr. Hain

I will certainly consider my hon. Friend's request for a debate. It would be interesting to have one, precisely for the reasons that he gave. He is able to apply for a debate himself. I was astonished to read in The Western Mail the statement by the Leader of the Opposition that coal communities had revived very considerably under Margaret Thatcher. What planet is he living on? Planet poll tax?

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

Does the Leader of the House recognise the importance of early-day motion 127?

[That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet-induced famine and genocide in Ukraine; urges it to recognise officially that in 1932–33 the Soviet regime under Stalin employed genocide to destroy opposition in Ukraine; emphasises that it should acknowledge publicly that some seven million Ukrainians were starved to death as a result of the enforced collectivisation of agriculture in Ukraine; reminds it of its duty to condemn any and all attempts to deny or misrepresent the facts about the Ukrainian famine and genocide; insists that it must admit that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office archives reveal that the United Kingdom Government was aware of the scale of genocide and famine in Ukraine in 1932–33 yet chose to remain silent on the issue; asserts that it should state publicly that information about the Ukrainian famine and genocide of 1932–33 was suppressed, distorted, or wiped out by the Soviet authorities and that fully reliable information has only relatively recently become available in Ukraine itself; presses it to direct a comprehensive review of the UK National Curriculum in schools in all matters concerning the Stalin era, especially with regard to the Ukrainian famine and genocide of 1932–33; and declares that it has a moral duty to support a motion, which is to be proposed at the United Nations in November 2003; seeking international recognition that the forced famine of 1932–33 in Ukraine was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation.

It was signed by 34 hon. Members from both sides of the House, including myself. Those signatures were acquired without canvassing.

Can Her Majesty's Government find time officially to recognise that the famine was deliberately induced by the artificial policy of collectivisation under Stalin? It was a deliberate act of genocide to wipe out opposition in Ukraine. If Her Majesty's Government could do that, it would be a bold step in support of human rights.

Mr. Hain

I respect the hon. Gentleman's reasons for raising this matter, and I pay tribute to him for keeping the issue under public scrutiny. Famine was one of Stalin's most terrible crimes. However, we do not think that the United Nations is the right forum in which to resolve such complex historical issues, even though terrible crimes are involved. I am advised that the Ukrainian Government withdrew a draft United Nations resolution, and instead issued a statement at the United Nations, which was agreed with the Russian Federation among others. We will obviously keep this issue under review.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab)

After years of dissatisfaction, weeks of deliberation and a certain amount of research, I applied earlier this week, through the good offices of the Speaker, for an Adjournment debate on honours lists. This morning, the Table Office informed me that such a debate could not be held, because such questions are usually referred to the Prime Minister, and he does not answer Adjournment debates. If Back Benchers cannot raise an Adjournment debate on the honours list system, will my right hon. Friend find time in the House for one to be held?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me prior notice of his question. I am concerned that he should have the opportunity to apply for a debate on the honours system and issues connected with it. It is a proper matter to discuss in the House. The Table Office quite properly advised him that the Prime Minister does not do Adjournment debates, and there is no procedure for a request for an Adjournment debate to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Heald


Mr. Hain

If the hon. Gentleman can wait for it.

I am sure that there is a way of resolving this problem. I shall discuss with No. 10 whether a Cabinet Office Minister could answer any such debate should my hon. Friend be successful in applying for one.

I take this opportunity to encourage all hon. Members to do what I have written to Welsh Members of all parties encouraging them to do: to put forward names for honours to be considered by the relevant committees. Many people do fantastic voluntary work in our communities. They are the local heroes and heroines of our communities, and they make up the life of our country and contribute such a lot. They should be in pole position for honours. There should be more nominees, and I hope that all Members will put in their nominations.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

May I add my request for a debate on the botched and sham consultation procedures used by the Post Office for their closure programme? Yesterday, I was supposed to receive a special delivery package to inform me about closures in my constituency, but it was lost in the post, as was that of the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey). To lose one special delivery package could be considered a misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness. A copy has turned up today, but the clock is ticking on this consultation, which will end on 27 January. That is not six weeks from today or yesterday.

Given the timing of the start of this exercise over Christmas, will the Leader of the House support my request for an extension to the consultation period in my area, and for proper consideration of the needs of all our local communities based around post offices?

Mr. Hain

Given the number of questions that have been raised with me about post office closures, the Post Office must clearly think carefully about how it proceeds, especially about its consultations with local Members of Parliament. I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) about his situation. It is imperative that Members of Parliament are properly advised and fully involved. I am sure that the chairman of the Post Office will want to consider carefully the points that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend have made.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)

The only day when my constituents can get down from my constituency to London, take the Line of Route tour and enjoy the workings of the House is a Monday. This year for the first time I am unable to book our sixth-form students on to the Line of Route on a Monday, because they will have taken their A-levels by the time a slot is available. My right hon. Friend may be surprised to learn that the Line of Route tour is booked up until late June or early July. Will he ask the House authorities to look into this problem, especially for constituencies further away from London, and to try to resolve the difficulties for Members of Parliament who, like me, have constituencies some distance from London? Our constituents do not believe that we cannot arrange visits to the House.

Mr. Hain

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has raised this matter with me. I, too, have been concerned about this situation. My constituency is almost 200 miles away, and I have had difficulty agreeing dates with local schools and others who want to visit the House and take advantage of the Line of Route tour. I have asked the Serjeant at Arms to look into this problem, because I think that we should have more flexibility and more structuring of the arrangements so that Members from London and nearby are encouraged to come in the earlier part of the day, and to begin Line of Route tours much earlier on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday than they currently do. The staffing and cost implications need to be considered, which is why the Serjeant is looking into the problem at my request. We could consider having extra opportunities on Fridays. I am sure that London Members would be willing to be allocated earlier times, especially on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so that Members such as my hon. Friend and others with constituencies outside London can take advantage of the Line of Route.

This essential service is provided for our constituents to visit the Palace. As we all know, it is very popular, and it helps to keep the House of Commons and Parliament as a whole closely connected to the citizens who put us here. I am involved with fellow members of the Modernisation Committee in considering a range of issues about reconnecting the House of Commons with voters. They include not just the Line of Route but a proper reception centre, so that visitors can be treated properly and admitted with some dignity and with decent security. That is very much on our agenda.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

One of the unintended consequences of the new hours is the loss of our opportunity to bring our constituents here on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The Leader of the House tells us that he is having a "big conversation" with Members about the hours. What we do know is that they simply are not working. We cannot be in two places at once.

I remember how things were when I was elected in 1992. I am not saying that we should return to all-night sittings, which were clearly ridiculous, but the new hours have knocked the stuffing out of this place. I know the Leader of the House likes collecting jobs; well, there is a third job for him, now: to play Santa Claus, and ensure that the Modernisation Committee presents proposals early in January so we can think about the hours that we need to make this a proper working Parliament.

Mr. Hain

I understand and respect the hon. Gentleman's view. As I have discovered, there is an honest difference of opinion between Members of all parties. It is my job to try to find the centre of gravity, and 1 will do that.

There is no prospect of an urgent review by the end of January. The Procedure Committee is sending Members a questionnaire, and I shall be consulting them to try to find a consensus in an attempt to deal with some of the anomalies identified by the hon. Gentleman—but we should not forget what it was like in the past. He mentioned all-night sittings, and I agree with him that we do not want to return to those. Nor do we want to return to many of the other difficulties, inconveniences and anomalies that the old hours involved. We need to take the necessary time to ensure that we act with care and consideration on this.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend began, appropriately, by wishing everyone a happy Christmas and a happy new year. Will he now join me in wishing members of the British Jewish community a happy Chanukah? In that connection, I draw his attention to early-day motion 123,

[That this House condemns the terrorist, anti-Semitic attacks on the two Istanbul synagogues 'Oasis of Peace' and 'Beth Israel' killing 25 people and injuring over 300; also condemns the arson attack which destroyed a Jewish school near Paris on the same morning; notes that these attacks were preceded by deadly anti-Semitic terrorist attacks on synagogues and Jewish community centres in Casablanca and Tunisia; recalls the description of Jews by German MP Martin Hohman as 'guilty people' and a nation of perpetrators': records the anti-Semitic speech of the outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister; recognises that the last three years have seen a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents against the UK Jewish community and the rise in support for the BNP; notes that there is no conflict between Judaism, Islam and Christianity; rejects those who cynically exploit differences of opinion over Israel and Palestine to promote anti-semitism; and calls upon the Government to institute a zero tolerance policy to combat anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism in all its forms by raising the issue at the UN and in Europe and encouraging firm action by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.]

The motion outlines in horrific detail the rapid rise of anti-Semitism and increase in anti-Semitic attacks throughout Europe and beyond, citing the two bombs in Istanbul which killed 25 people and injured 300 more. Early in the new year, may we have a debate on the rise of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and in the United Kingdom in particular, so that all Members can say to the decent, law-abiding Jewish community in this country that anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks are intolerable? In the past they have been allowed to go unchecked, and we know where that has led. A message must be sent to the Jewish community that the Government take this extremely seriously: they must be absolutely confident of that.

Mr. Hain

I am pleased to join my hon. Friend in wishing all members of the Jewish community a happy Chanukah. I am glad that he has given me the opportunity to do so.

Like my hon. Friend and, I am sure, all other Members, I am strongly committed to rooting out and confronting anti-Semitism and racism of all kinds wherever they appear, in this country or in Europe as a whole. It is essential that we confront the problem and do not duck it, whether in pub conversations, in local communities, in schools or in more threatening contexts. The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout European Union countries, including Britain, is extremely disturbing. We have learned the bitter lesson of history that unless we confront anti-Semitism uncompromisingly, we shall reap a bitter harvest.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)

May I return to the subject of our sitting hours? May I make a strong plea for the matter to be considered by Members of this Parliament, who have experience of the workings of the House of Commons? New Members will not have had the benefit of that experience.

One reason why I think the hours should be reformed is timetabling. Let me say, at the risk of boring the House, that I played a part in the progress of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. It took a whole year to complete the passage of a major section of that Bill, dealing with important infrastructure projects such as terminal 5. It was not discussed in the House at all, and will have to be discussed in another place.

If our sittings ended at 9 pm every night, we would have an extra five hours. I believe that that would result in much less timetabling. It is a good example of the way in which the House ought to work. I urge the Leader of the House to consider the matter sooner rather than later.

Mr. Hain

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is a bad example of good programming and good timetabling, and lessons have been learned from it. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is virtually alone in that respect. There are many good examples, such as the Communications Bill and the Hunting Bill, which were mentioned only recently in the Modernisation Committee's report on programming. After a debate on the Floor of the House following the publication of that report, the House agreed to the arrangements for timetabling.

The hon. Gentleman cannot blame the sitting hours for the difficulties with the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which were caused by the way in which the Standing Committee operated. I hope they will not be repeated. He pulled a 9 o'clock finish out of the hat, as it were. Having had detailed discussions with scores of Members in all parties, I can tell him that just about everyone has his or her own suggestion of a starting or finishing time for the House and for Committees. It is because I want to find a consensus that the Modernisation Committee will, in due course, wish to consider the matter. I will make an announcement to the House next year, when I am in a position to do so.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

Can the Leader of the House give us an idea of when the Second Reading of the Pensions Bill is likely to take place? It contains worthwhile proposals to guarantee that when firms become insolvent, their employees will keep their pensions.

Many people will not have a particularly happy time this Christmas. UEF in Sheffield and Hydrotools have already gone into liquidation, and employees' pension prospects have been substantially worsened as a result. Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister who presents the Pensions Bill to pay particular attention to early-day motion 200, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan)?

[That this House acknowledges the plight of workers who have lost their final salary occupation pensions schemes through company insolvency despite being promised by firms and successive governments that their pensions were guaranteed and in many cases having been compelled to join their scheme as a condition of employment; further believes that the Government has a moral and possibly legal obligation to help these workers who have been stripped of their pensions through no fault of their own; and further calls upon the Government to introduce legislation to compensate victims of this singular injustice.]

The motion seeks to extend pension protection to workers whose firms have gone into liquidation in the past, as well as those who will have unhappy experiences in the future.

Mr. Hain

I well understand why my hon. Friend has drawn my attention to that important motion, signed by many Members. If I were a Back Bencher, I would have been inclined to sign it myself. I believe that some 44,000 workers—including employees of ASW in Cardiff, with which I have dealt as Secretary of State for Wales—have received disgraceful and scandalous treatment. Some have given 30 years' service and, having built up their pensions, have been robbed of them. That is why we are introducing legislation providing a pensions protection fund to prevent this from ever happening again. Discussions are being held with the Minister for Pensions to establish whether any assistance can be given to workers in this desperate predicament.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)

Even at this late hour, may I assure my right hon. Friend that the only direction in which Leeds United is going is up?

Did my right hon. Friend see last week's CBI figures, which showed that capital intensity in each hour worked in the United Kingdom economy is 60 per cent. less than in the United States, 32 per cent. less than in Germany and 25 per cent. less than in France? Does that not tell us that the real British disease in UK productivity is the short-termism and conservatism of British capital, and the attitude to British industry? May we have a debate on UK productivity, so that we can expose the problem we have had to experience for so long?

Mr. Hain

After last night's defeat of Chelsea, my football club, I will not trade rival greetings with my hon. Friend. As for productivity rates, if he looks at the evidence in the Red Book and at the wider picture, he will see that the gap between British and German and French manufacturing, in particular, is closing rapidly. We still have a long way to go to catch up with the United States, but there have been improvements, and all our measures are designed to produce further improvements. The picture is not as bleak as he paints it; it is getting better, and I would expect him to welcome that.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate as soon as we return from the Christmas recess on the suggestion made by the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs that further reform of the House of Lords, incorporating an elected element, may now be on the agenda? Does my right hon. Friend agree that an early debate on this possibility may well shed light on forthcoming legislation on the removal of hereditary peers and inform the associated discussion? An early debate could be very useful in the context of that legislation.

Mr. Hain

I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early debate, but he is of course free to apply for one. However, I can confirm that the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs said the following in The Independent of 15 December: I am conveying the message as strongly as I can that the door is open and I'm keen for people to go through it. What that will involve depends upon having a proper discussion about it. In other words, he is open to ideas about a final stage of House of Lords reform. The priority must now be to deal with the anomaly of the 92 hereditaries, and to establish a proper, independent appointments system. He also said the following in The Observer of 7 December: We do not say the changes we make in this House of Lords Bill represent the end of the road. He is clearly indicating that if a consensus can be assembled—he will consult the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform during the passage of the current legislation—we can establish whether the House can reach agreement on a proposal involving at least an elected element. As my hon. Friend knows, I—presumably like him—voted for a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords, and for all the other proposals involving an elected element.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 290?

[That this House congratulates the research team at The Open University led by Professor Colin Pillinger for their outstanding work on the Beagle 2 project which is scheduled to touch down on Mars on Christmas Day; notes that because this work was conducted in an open access institution, the research underpinning this project will bring benefit to far more students from a wider spectrum of backgrounds and in far quicker time than if it was conducted in a traditional selective-entry university; and calls on the Government to ensure that the special nature of The Open University and the unique access to excellence it provides should be recognised when considering research funding allocation in the future.] Will he draw to his colleagues' attention the need to capitalise on this British success story, which is based on academic research and industry working in partnership, and to ensure that we get more science graduates from universities?

Mr. Hain

I am happy to join my hon. Friend—I know that he has a constituency interest in this matter and the whole House in congratulating Professor Pillinger and his team. The Beagle 2 project is very impressive, and the Open university makes a unique contribution to teaching and research. Current Government funding stands at £136 million for teaching and £5.6 million for research—an indication of our confidence in the Open university's role.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

May I say how much I am enjoying the seminars, teach-ins and Powerpoint presentations being laid on by our mutual friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills concerning top-up fees? That is a marvellous innovation, but may I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 322?

[That this House congratulates Paul Martin, the new Prime Minister of Canada, on his decision to make democratic reform of the House of Commons a top priority; notes that the reforms are designed to strengthen the roles of individual parliamentarians and committees with an increased number of free votes; further notes that Ministers will be required actively to seek the support of their colleagues who are to be involved early in the policy development process; contrasts this approach to the way in which key policy initiatives are brought forward at Westminster; and urges the British Prime Minister to visit his counterpart's website http: //wwwl.pm.gc.ca/eng/dens—reform.asp for insights and inspiration.] Really innovative things are happening in our sister Parliament in Ottawa, where Government Back Benchers are being involved in policy development at an early stage, and matters are not being sprung on them. As a result, there will be a greater number of free votes. He should look seriously at what is happening there.

Mr. Hain

I would certainly be happy to look at the Canadian experience. Indeed, the Modernisation Committee's current project, to which I referred earlier, concerns how we are to reconnect Parliament to the people—an issue that should concern us on a cross-party basis.

I hope that the excellent presentations by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills are persuading my hon. Friend of the Government's policy on top-up fees. Of course, a number of free votes are allowed in the House by custom and practice. I am sure that he will also praise the Government for introducing pre-legislative scrutiny; indeed, a dozen Bills in the current Session have been subject to such scrutiny. That is a big advance on the old situation, so doubtless he will welcome it.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

On sitting hours, I should point out to my right hon. Friend that Members of this place have always had to be in two places at once, and that it may just be that the silent majority—which includes me—feel that the current hours are working well. On visits to this House and London Members, his suggestions are very acceptable, but will he investigate the question of the closing of the doors of this Chamber? I brought constituents to the House on Monday evening, but because it got up early the Chamber was closed, even though the refreshment rooms were still open. Does he think that appropriate, or does he agree with me that if London Members are to be helpful in this regard, we should be able to bring our constituents into the Chamber at their convenience, in the evening?

Mr. Hain

I am concerned to hear that that was my hon. Friend's experience on Monday. Several Members have raised this issue with me; indeed, I referred to it recently during business questions. I had thought that, as a result, the authorities had made it common practice to leave the Chamber open in the evening for a time, so that Members representing constituencies throughout the country—not just London ones—could bring in their guests. It is an experience that constituents enjoy.

I welcome what my hon. Friend said about hours. A substantial number of Members are very satisfied with the broad parameters of the current hours settlement, for which I myself voted. There is no clear agreement that I have been able to discern so far; indeed, the early-day motion referred to earlier calls not for a specific alternative, but for a review, which is precisely what the Modernisation Committee will undertake. We would be very unwise to accept any demand simply to rush into a reversion to the old hours. The original hours gave rise to a lot of complaints, and as my hon. Friend says, Members have always had to be in more than one place at one time, given the busy lives that we lead