HC Deb 27 March 2003 vol 402 cc451-64 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Parliamentary Secretary give us the business for next week, please?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 31 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Railways and Transport. Safety Bill.

TUESDAY 1 APRIL—Second Reading of the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill [Lords].

Commons consideration of Lords Amendments.

WEDNESDAY 2 APRIL—Progress on remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 1).

Commons consideration of Lords Amendments.

THURSDAY 3 APRIL—Commons consideration of any further messages from the Lords that may be received.

Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

FRIDAY 4 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be: MONDAY 7 APRIL—Commons consideration of Lords amendments followed by remaining stages of the Industrial Development (Financial Assistance) Bill.

TUESDAY 8 APRIL—Second Reading of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill.

WEDNESDAY 9 APRIL—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

THURSDAY 10 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 11 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

The House will wish to be reminded that consideration of the Budget debate will conclude on Monday 14 April.

Finally, last week I told the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) that there was resistance within his party to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee meeting in Northern Ireland. That is not the case, and, following my letter to him of last Thursday, I would like to take this opportunity to correct the record. In mitigation, I can say that I took dodgy advice from the Front Bench—never a good idea!

Mr. Forth

I welcome not only the business statement, but that revelation, which comes as no news to us.

When will the appointment of a Leader of the House of Commons be announced? If one looks at the official description of the duties of the Leader of the House, one finds that he is not only a member of the House of Commons Commission—an important position in itself, which is vacant—but, even more importantly, as President of the Council, the Leader of the House has responsibility for the work of the Privy Council Office. What is happening in the Privy Council Office, Mr. Deputy Speaker? You, as a distinguished member of the Privy Council, would take an interest in this matter. The Leader of the House is responsible for the arrangement of Government business in the Commons and for planning and supervising the Government's legislative programme. He also has responsibility for the reform of the House of Lords.

Perhaps most crucially, the Leader of the House upholds the rights and privileges of the House. The scandal is that the Prime Minister, with his usual contempt for the House of Commons, is apparently content that there is no one in place to uphold the rights and privileges of the House. When is this important position going to be filled, and what on earth is the Prime Minister doing?

While I am at it, where is the Minister of State in the Home Office, who is responsible for homeland security? Since the principled resignation of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), another vacancy in the Government remains unfilled. What are we supposed to think about homeland security while there is no Minister in post to look after our interests? When is that vacancy to be filled?

Has the Parliamentary Secretary yet had an opportunity to read early-day motion 936? I will give him a chance to have a look at it now to refresh his memory.

[That this House deplores the derogatory comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister in relation to the resignation of Lord Hunt.]

Does the Parliamentary Secretary know who Lord Hunt is?

Mr. Bradshaw

indicated assent.

Mr. Forth

Has the hon. Gentleman told the Deputy Prime Minister who Lord Hunt is? Has the Deputy Prime Minister apologised to Lord Hunt?

There is a huge gap in the Government's ministerial ranks. The national health service will sorely miss the expertise and services of Lord Hunt. When will appointments be made to those crucial vacancies and when will the Prime Minister start to take the House of Commons and, indeed, Parliament more seriously than he obviously does at the moment?

What has happened to the foundation hospitals Bill? It was, I thought, a flagship of the Government's legislative programme. Has it run aground? Is it possible that the reason for the non-appearance of the Bill is that the Government fear yet another huge rebellion in their ranks, so the health service is being denied the claimed benefits of foundation hospitals for grubby political reasons?

You will know. Mr. Deputy Speaker, that on 24 March the Secretary of State for International Development said: The fielding of a Foreign Office Minister was my decision; he had been recently involved in humanitarian issues. I am sorry, as I have said, that the briefing was inadequate and that the House was inadequately answered."—[Official Report, 24 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 40.] Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree with the analysis of the Secretary of State for International Development? Has he spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, his hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien)? [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary is being briefed by the Deputy Chief Whip—no doubt accurately. The Secretary of State having rather conveniently left the country when an urgent question was asked, but with her sidekick present in the Chamber, the hapless Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was put up to try to answer the questions—apparently inadequately, according to the Secretary of State. When will the Government treat the House and its procedures seriously, or will we continue to get that sort of contemptuous approach?

Mr. Bradshaw

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a good and comprehensive statement to the House on Monday on the humanitarian situation in post-Saddam Iraq.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill. It will come in due course and will give us ample opportunity to analyse the difference in policy between the two parties—between Labour, which wants to invest and reform our public services, and the Opposition, who want to cut 20 per cent. of spending on public services.

The shadow Leader of the House also asked when there would be a new Leader of the House. There will be a new Leader of the House when there is a reshuffle. [Interruption.] However, it is staggering that the right hon. Gentleman can ask the question, "What is the Prime Minister doing?" The Prime Minister is conducting a war on behalf of this country and has other things on his mind at present. To suggest that the machinery of government suddenly comes to a grinding halt because some people are not in their posts is simply not the case.

I do know Lord Hunt; I worked with him when I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Health. He was an excellent Minister and I very much regret his decision to resign. The Opposition constantly advocate flexibility in the workplace outside Government, so they should be prepared to accept some flexibility within Government.

The right hon. Gentleman talked of what he called the contempt in which the Government hold Parliament. I simply point out that, earlier this week, his good friend, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said on the wireless—[HON. MEMBERS: "Wireless?"] Yes, the wireless. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Government's record in keeping Parliament informed had been "quite good". Praise indeed from the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that there has not been another falling out on the Tory Front Bench.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, perhaps not with the exuberance of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), to convey to the Prime Minister the House's regret that no one has been appointed to replace the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) as Leader of the House? Perhaps it is a matter for political knockabout, but it is also regrettable that the House has no advocate in the Cabinet and that the Government have no established Leader of the House to represent them.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary confirm that the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House on his visit to the United States, and that it will cover not only his discussions with the President but his meeting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations? Will he confirm that the key issues of humanitarian reconstruction and relief will be the subject of those discussions and that they will be reported to the House? Such issues are clearly increasingly important, not only to the Iraqi people and the middle east in general, but to the United Kingdom and its allies.

Mr. Bradshaw

I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to report back to the House at the earliest opportunity on his important discussions with President Bush and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have made more statements per sitting than the previous Government. The Prime Minister, like other Ministers, has been meticulous in reporting back to the House. Indeed, he is the first Prime Minister in history to subject himself to scrutiny by the Liaison Committee. The implied suggestion in his question, which almost repeated the shadow Leader of the House's accusation that the Government were treating Parliament with contempt, does not stand up to scrutiny.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Could the acting Leader of the House let us know when a full debate will take place on Iraq? I appreciate and welcome the regular statements on the military situation, but we need a full day's debate to discuss the 200 Iraqi civilian casualties as well as the massive military casualties on all sides, and especially coalition forces' use of depleted uranium and cluster bombs, which will kill and maim many for decades. Those issues should be debated as well as the pressure from Arab nations to bring about a ceasefire and a peace process that does not mean the further destruction of civilian life in Iraq.

Mr. Bradshaw

My hon. Friend knows that coalition forces go to unprecedented lengths to avoid civilian casualties. I urge all hon. Members to treat with extreme caution the claims of the Iraqi regime about civilian casualties. We know from its record that such information is unreliable.

My hon. Friend mentioned weapons. He knows, because the matter has been discussed in the House often, that the weapons that our armed forces use are legal. The specific weapons to which he referred are used not against civilians but military targets. As he also knows, evidence for a health impact of depleted uranium on civilians does not exist.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

On the accountability of Her Majesty's Government to Parliament on the conduct of the war, they have done well to provide for a series of statements from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence. Since so much of our news comes from front-line television footage, which gives a particular perspective in each instance, will the Minister of State for Defence, who has responsibility for the armed forces, come to Westminster Hall regularly so that hon. Members who are worried about aspects of the conduct of operations can put questions and be brought up to date on the overall position? Hon. Members could subsequently transmit that accurate information to their constituents.

Mr. Bradshaw:

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the difference between this conflict and any previous conflicts, even the last Gulf war or the Kosovo conflict, because of the impact of 24-hour television and the embedded journalists with the coalition forces. I shall take his request on board. I emphasise that the Secretary of State for Defence was here yesterday and that he has made himself available regularly. Defence Ministers are obviously extremely busy, but a written brief is placed in the Library every day. It is a useful method of putting the record straight in the way that the hon. Gentleman would like.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

May I ask for a statement on the targeting strategies in the war on Iraq? Many hon. Members will have been shocked to discover that coalition forces have redesignated Basra as a target area. It is a city of 1 million people, half of whom are children. For it to be so redesignated raises serious questions about who the war is targeted against. I should like the Minister, or a Minister, to be able to say categorically that the UK specifically opposes targeting civilian populations—their marketplaces, and their water and electricity supplies—as well as the intended use of non-lethal biochemical weapons on those communities.

Mr. Bradshaw

There is no targeting of civilians in this conflict. What my hon. Friend says about Basra is absolutely wrong. If he means that Basra is a target for liberation, it is: the most recent news reports that I saw before I came into the Chamber seemed to suggest that some of the civilians used as human shields by Saddam's forces in Basra have escaped the city. We shall have to wait for confirmation of those reports later in the day.

I can only repeat what Ministers at this Dispatch Box have said on a regular basis—that, with lawyers looking over the shoulders of every military commander making a decision, the targeting in this campaign is unprecedented in its care and accuracy.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will understand that the disposal of fallen stock is of great importance for farmers. I understand that the Government will bring forward regulations by the end of April to cover new procedures, but no details have been made available yet to farmers. Before the regulations come to the House, will the Parliamentary Secretary make available full details of the Government's proposals for consultation and discussion with farmers?

Mr. Bradshaw

The right hon. Gentleman raises a matter that I know is of great concern to members of the farming community, not least in parts of the country, such as my constituency, where livestock farming is an important pillar of the economy. I will get in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ensure that the regulations are published in good time.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the blue flag of the UN rather than the stars and stripes will best represent the liberation of the Iraqi people once the war on Iraq is concluded? Although he has said that there will be a statement, will he reconsider the forthcoming business? I believe that we need a full debate in the House on how Iraq will be governed after the conflict.

Mr. Bradshaw

I think that the Iraqi flag would be a better symbol of the liberation of the Iraqi people than any other, but we o f course want the maximum support, internationally and from the UN, when it comes to the post-conflict redevelopment of Iraq. I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss that in the House. At the moment, however, we are still involved in an armed conflict.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Did the Parliamentary Secretary hear this morning's Radio 4 interview with a senior Ba'ath party official? Will he take the matter up with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? Having that sort of Iraqi propaganda on the BBC is very upsetting for the families of service men and women serving in the Gulf at the moment, but it is also extremely inappropriate in a time of war. We would not have allowed Goebbels this opportunity, so why are we changing policy now?

Mr. Bradshaw

In contrast to the Iraqis, we live in a free country. I would not approve of any form of censorship, but broadcasters have the responsibility to use their professionalism and ensure balance. I recognise that there is much concern about some of the media coverage of the current conflict. As a former broadcaster myself, I know that broadcasters take their professionalism extremely seriously. However, the hon. Gentleman may have a point in connection with the outrageous broadcasting by al-Jazeera of pictures of captured and dead British soldiers. That is intolerable, and against all the international broadcasting conventions.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Should we not have a debate on the humanitarian arrangements in Iraq to handle the current crisis? However hon. Members voted in relation to the war, surely we are all deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis that exists in that country at the moment. For instance, Basra is the gateway to Iraq. It has an extensive dock marshalling yard and a railway line to Baghdad, and if it can be used properly for humanitarian provisions, that is all to the good. We should be able to debate those matters on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Bradshaw

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and he is right. I hope that even those Members who opposed the decision to take military action can rally behind the enormous humanitarian effort that will be required to redevelop Iraq after more than 20 years of misrule and dictatorship under Saddam Hussein. My hon. Friend may be pleased to know that in the past 48 hours real progress has been made by the Red Crescent and the Red Cross, which are doing a n incredible job of work in Basra, while the conflict is going on, to reconnect the water and electricity supplies. We are also confident that in the very near future we will be able to use the only deep water port, once the remaining couple of mines and a couple of old rusting hulks have been removed to make that passage safe.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

When senior Members speak from the Dispatch Box it is important that we can believe what they are saying, not think that they are taking part in stunts. Last Thursday, the Deputy Prime Minister said in relation to the fire dispute: I have concluded that the time has come for legislation".—[Official Report, 20 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 1102.] A Bill was published on the following day. The Parliamentary Secretary has given us the business until 28 April, but there is no Second Reading of that Bill, which we were told was important and urgent. Why not?

Mr. Bradshaw

That Second Reading will take place if and when the Government think that it is necessary. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the situation in relation to the fire brigade dispute is fluid. I understand that the union's executive is meeting today. The executive made a recommendation to its membership to accept the pay deal, but it was sadly rejected by the conference. I hope that the executive will endorse an all-member secret ballot so that ordinary members of the fire brigade can settle for a deal that most Members on both sides of the House consider very generous.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

My hon. Friend is aware of the tragic death before Christmas of my constituent, Daniel Hindle, who was aged 17, after having had his lip pierced. Is he aware that body piercing is not regulated outside London? What action do the Government intend to take to introduce legislation as soon as possible to ensure that body piercing is a much safer practice throughout the country?

Mr. Bradshaw

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I congratulate her on her work on the matter following the tragic death of one of her young constituents. We are all aware of the problem from our constituency experience. She may be aware that the Local Government Bill will receive its Second Reading in the other place on 3 April, and she may like to try to arrange for a relevant amendment to be tabled there before then.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

Will the Parliamentary Secretary explore the possibility of a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the situation in Kashmir? In the past week, there was the appalling massacre of 23 Hindu villagers, who were entirely innocent, preceded just a few days earlier by the assassination of the insurgent commander Abdul Majid Dar. The concern is that with the eyes of the world turned elsewhere, there will be increased tension between India and Pakistan, and it is important for the House to know what discussions there might be with those two Governments about the situation there. To declare an interest, I visited Kashmir last October as part of a delegation funded by the Indian Government.

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the situation in Kashmir is extremely worrying, and he puts his finger on an important point: the danger that groups, factions or dictators—in the case of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe—will exploit the fact that the international spotlight is on one particular issue to do things that they would not have got away with otherwise. I am sure that when the Foreign Secretary next comes to this House to make a statement, the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to question him on precisely that issue.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

Will my hon. Friend make some time available for us to debate in the House the future of the steel industry, which is going through a very difficult time? It has been announced that one or two of the three sites could be closed. Certainly, my area of Teesside could face redundancies of 3,000 direct jobs and 7,000 indirect jobs. We discussed manufacturing industry this morning, and it is a very important issue. Given that, will my hon. Friend find some time for us to debate the future of the steel industry?

Mr. Bradshaw

My hon. Friend raises an important point that I know is of great concern to people in his constituency who face the possibility of losing their jobs. I hope that the recent reduction in the strength of the pound will be of some comfort to our manufacturing industry in general and to our steel industry in particular. That said, there are very big difficulties in the steel market within the global economy. I cannot promise that we will be able to find time to have a debate on the steel industry on the Floor of the House, but my hon. Friend may like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

Although last Thursday it seemed churlish and carping of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), to demand, on the day that war had started, that there should be new ministerial appointments, I do not think that any Member of this House, including the Parliamentary Secretary, would have believed that a week later the appointments would still not have been made. I put it to him that it is vitally important that those ministerial positions are filled quickly, otherwise the world will think that there is no needs for those Ministers or will assume that we are waiting for the end of the war and a reshuffle that includes the Secretary of State for International Development.

Mr. Bradshaw

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the machinery of Government and the work that is being done continues. The situation is not unprecedented. Recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) was not in her post at the Department of Health for several months after she had a baby, and that work was taken on by other Ministers. It is perfectly possible for that to be done. We are in a very unusual situation: we have a military conflict going on, and we had a small number of ministerial resignations on the eve of that conflict. I urge the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to have some understanding of the pressure that the Prime Minister is under. He needs to take great care over the way in which he reforms his Government, and at the moment the safety of our forces in Iraq is his primary concern.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If there is very shortly to be another statement on Iraq, would it not be a useful opportunity to remind ourselves that tens of thousands of Iraqis have been murdered over the years, and that what was said earlier should therefore be put into perspective? While this war is being waged against tyranny, and victory must indeed be ours, is it not absolutely necessary, in so far as it is possible, that genuine civilians should be protected? If what occurred yesterday was the result of American bombing, it is to be deplored.

Mr. Bradshaw

What happened yesterday represents a prime example of why we need to be extremely cautious before we jump to conclusions about what might have happened. In a situation like that, where there is claim and counter-claim, what we do know is that coalition forces take unprecedented steps to avoid civilian casualties, whereas Saddam Hussein deliberately locates military infrastructure in the middle of civilian populations, and he uses civilians as human shields—he has done so before, and he is doing so now.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

When the Government initially embarked on their domestic airports consultation, it was on a presumption of suppressed demand in the south-east, with consequences for the other regions. Now that that has been reversed by the High Court, should not the midlands region, for example, be re-consulted on the revised assumptions? Is not the whole process now flawed and open to further challenge, and may we have a debate?

Mr. Bradshaw

We are committed to regional airports, and the High Court decision related only to Gatwick, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The consultation process is still going on, and I am sure that if he has not already done so—I suspect that he has—he will give his opinions and feed them into that process.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

Will my hon. Friend find time for a debate on better regulation to outlaw sharp practice by solicitors and estate agents in order to protect people such as my constituent, Mr. Cant, who has been the victim of a series of extremely threatening letters in an attempt to bully him into selling his home for a price that is some £60,000 less than its market value?

Mr. Bradshaw

My hon. Friend raises a point that I am sure that many of us have come across in our constituency casework. I am also sure that she will be aware that measures have been undertaken to improve the working of the Law Society, which is the organisation that polices the profession of solicitors. She has made her point, and I hope that the firm in question has heard it. Again, she may wish to apply for a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I sympathise with the difficulties of the Government in conducting a full-scale reshuffle of Cabinet and other ministerial posts while a war is going on, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that one post that is directly relevant to the war, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House pointed out, is that of Minister with responsibility for homeland security. The Opposition wanted a separate Department for homeland security, as this country is at risk of terrorism. Surely that appointment can be made now, without waiting for a full-scale reshuffle, even if one accepts the reasoning that the acting Leader of the House has put forward.

Mr. Bradshaw

The Home Secretary is in overall charge of homeland security and is doing an excellent job. The responsibilities that were in the portfolio of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) have been passed to his colleagues in the Home Office, so my right hon. Friend's resignation does not mean that the job is not being done. Rather than carping about that we should congratulate our police and security forces on the work that they have done to ensure the safety of our citizens post-11 September and on what they have done to avert some serious incidents.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Will my hon. Friend find time for a debate on the impact of the council tax on people on fixed incomes? I am thinking particularly about pensioners. The formula and the workings of the council tax have been reviewed and have been changed to some extent, but that is a fairly superficial examination. The fundamentals of the present council tax have not been dealt with, and they owe far too much to its predecessor, the hated poll tax. That is why it is probably the most iniquitous tax that Britain has ever had. May we have a debate to examine those fundamentals?

Mr. Bradshaw

I am well aware of the problems faced by people on fixed low incomes, and particularly the elderly, when enormous council tax demands come through their letterboxes. We have had debates on the council tax, and it is Deputy Prime Minister's questions next Wednesday, when my hon. Friend may wish to raise that matter. As he is well aware, this Government have given local authorities a 25 per cent. real terms increase in grants since we came to power, compared with the 6 per cent. cut under the previous Conservative Government.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

May I refer the Parliamentary Secretary to the code of conduct issued for civil servants for the duration of the elections to the devolved Administrations? In particular, section 8 states: Announcements on non devolved matters could have a bearing on the devolved elections. Ministers will be aware of the potential sensitivities in this regard and might decide, on advice, to postpone making controversial announcements until after the elections. Government announcements do not come any more controversial than the Budget statement. Therefore, by having that statement smack bang in the middle of the Scottish elections, the Government are breaking their own code of conduct for the elections. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Budget statement should be put back until well after the Scottish and Welsh elections?

Mr. Bradshaw

No, I do not think that many people would support that. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, this is an inevitable consequence of devolution. The comprehensive spending review sets the amount of money going to Scotland and Wales, and they both got a massive increase, as did most parts of the rest of the United Kingdom. It is not the Budget that sets those levels. We are aware of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and we are sensitive to such concerns. We have instructed our civil servants to exercise particular care in relation to any announcement.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

One of the great achievements of my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) when he was Leader of the House was the way in which he steered through the reforms of the House, particularly modernisation. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that time is needed for those reforms to bed down. I hope that the resolution that was passed by the House, which said that the reforms should remain in place until the end of this Parliament, will not be reviewed at an early date.

Mr. Bradshaw

I quite agree with my hon. Friend. It will be a lasting legacy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston to this place that he was a great reformer. He got through a package of modernisation of the House of Commons that will last the test of time.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Will the Parliamentary Secretary consider finding time for a debate prior to the Easter recess on the important subject of civil emergency planning? Responsibility for this matter is fragmented among several Departments, notably the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The House will wish to be assured that all those Departments are properly co-ordinating their activities, and that local activities are properly co-ordinated between local authorities, primary care trusts and schools. It will also wish to be assured that the emergency services themselves are properly co-ordinating their activities, even to the level of sharing oxygen cylinders. Certain problems may arise that need to be considered. Will the Parliamentary Secretary please consider providing time for a debate on that important subject?

Mr. Bradshaw

I cannot promise that we will have time before Easter for such a debate but the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, of which the Government are well aware: the need for us radically to modernise our civil contingency planning, which, as he rightly says, goes back to an era in which the sort of civil contingencies that we might have faced then were rather different from the ones that we face today.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Our Government, in their first six years, have introduced a good number of initiatives and improvements in the parliamentary process, not least the multi-Department Question Times in Westminster Hall—recently, on younger people, and, today, on older people. Are further such sessions planned? Will the Parliamentary Secretary consider including in the parliamentary timetable one on the illegal occupation of land? Communities such as those in north-west Leicestershire, which are close to the motorway network, have to endure frequent difficulties caused by members of the travelling community who are sometimes involved in antisocial behaviour, criminality, and illegal tipping of prohibited materials.

Will my hon. Friend consider a cross-departmental session in Westminster Hall with representatives of the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and other relevant Departments? It is a very important issue to the people of Castle Donnington and the many villages in the vicinity.

Mr. Bradshaw

I am not convinced that such a narrow issue would be appropriate for the kind of cross-cutting question time in Westminster Hall that my hon. Friend suggests. I am sure, however, that he will have an opportunity, when the Anti-social Behaviour Bill is introduced, to repeat those points. I am glad that he recognises, as do Members on both sides of the House, how successful the cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall have been.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

May I join other Members in calling for a debate on the humanitarian situation in Iraq? I do not know whether the acting Leader of the House heard the Secretary of State for International Development say yesterday that if we do not get a UN mandate, British troops will represent an occupying force, without the authority to reorganise institutions or establish a new Government."—[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 277.] Does that not strike him as rather different in tone from what other Ministers are saying, and as a tone that might be upsetting to our armed forces who are doing such a great job in Iraq? Is it not necessary to plan for every eventuality to rebuild the democratic and civilian Iraq, even if we cannot secure the UN mandate that, of course, we all want?

Mr. Bradshaw

My right hon. Friend made it quite clear that there are two distinct phases. In the military phase, under The Hague and Geneva conventions, our armed forces or those in the field are responsible for the well-being of civilians and the humanitarian situation. When that military phase is over, we will need the maximum international support for the redevelopment of Iraq. For that to happen, it would be extremely helpful to have explicit United Nations support, which we all want to see, including the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who said as much yesterday.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

I draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to early-day motion 963.

[That this House is appalled at the decision by some local authorities in the United Kingdom to ban hot cross buns from schools; believes the hot cross bun to be a splendid Easter tradition that represents the Christian heritage of Britain; and encourages all schools in the United Kingdom to ignore such politically correct advice from local authorities and continue to serve hot cross buns.]

It relates to the absurd and ridiculous banning of the hot cross bun by Labour and Liberal-controlled councils. Will he make time for a debate on the damaging and divisive effects of that sort of political correctness?

Mr. Bradshaw

I must say that I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. Hot cross buns are a delicious and traditional part of our pre-Good Friday cuisine. I hope that people up and down the country will enjoy a great many of them in the run-up to Good Friday.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the line of questioning pursued by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), can we please have an urgent debate in Government time on the security of tenure of the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee? Given that, as I understand it, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) remains a member of that important Committee, would not a debate on the Floor of the House give us the chance to discover whether he wants to remain Chairman, whether the Government want him to do so and whether they will undertake not to seek to remove him from that post if the House judges that he has the intellect, skill and respect required to continue in it?

Mr. Bradshaw

I think that we have got rather more important things to debate over the next few days and weeks. As I said last week, the chairmanship of that Committee is a matter for the Committee itself.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

May I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his letter and the generous correction that he made earlier?

At this time, our thoughts and prayers are naturally with our armed forces, the families of coalition service men and women who have been bereaved and those injured in the campaign to bring freedom to the people of Iraq from the brutality of the Saddam Hussein Ba'ath regime. Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that we must never forget those who still suffer the trauma of 30 years of vicious bombing and murder directed by Sinn Fein-IRA and some loyalist terrorist groups? Can time be provided so that we might debate those unsolved bombings and murders and what might still be done to identify and locate missing persons, and perhaps make suggestions to bring closure on the tragedies of the past 30 years for those who are still suffering?

Mr. Bradshaw

All Members of the House would want to join the hon. Gentleman in expressing our sympathy and condolences for everyone not only in Northern Ireland, but Iraq and other countries, who have suffered the ravages of terrorism or dictatorship. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, who is sitting next to me on the Front Bench, will bear in mind what he has said.

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