HC Deb 08 May 2003 vol 404 cc837-53 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Dr. John Reid)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 12 MAY—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill.

TUESDAY 13 MAY—Progress on consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 14 MAY—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

THURSDAY 15 MAY—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day] [First Part]. There will be a debate entitled "Schools Funding Crisis and Teacher Redundancies" on an Opposition motion, followed by a debate on developing a national skills strategy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

FRIDAY 16 MAY—Private Members Bills.

The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to any Act.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 19 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 2).

TUESDAY 20 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 3).

WEDNESDAY 21 MAY—Second Reading of the European Union (Accessions) Bill.

THURSDAY 22 MAY—Motion on General Synod Measure, followed by motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The House may also wish to be reminded that, subject to the progress of business, we will rise for the Whitsun recess on Thursday 22 May and return on Tuesday 3 June.

Mr. Forth

In thanking the Leader of the House for giving us the business, may I wish him a very happy birthday today? It is a particular pleasure to have his youthful exuberance at the Dispatch Box. We all find it invigorating, and I will try to match it as best I can in my advancing years.

The Prime Minister, as we know, supports our membership of the euro: he supports it with enthusiasm and in principle. We can conclude from that that he trusts implicitly the judgment of the European Central Bank, which, of course, were we ever to join the euro, would have complete control over our economy. Given that, and given that the European Central Bank has said that our joining the euro would undermine if not destroy the national health service, can the Leader of the House afford the Prime Minister the opportunity next week to tell us whether he trusts the European Central Bank and wants us to join the euro or wants the national health service to survive, because he cannot have both? An answer to that would be most welcome and would help us all.

It is becoming obvious that the new system for postal ballots is a threat to democracy. In centuries past, the peasantry used to gather in the village square and the town hall and be leaned on by the local squire, who sought to influence them in how they cast votes. The modern equivalent would appear to be that Secretaries of State and Labour officials demand to see the ballot papers that the peasantry are considering and seek to influence the voters in how they will vote. In other words, the secret ballot is effectively disappearing before our very eyes, and I hope that the Leader of the House accepts that we must have an urgent debate on the matter. Perhaps one or two Secretaries of State might wish to attend that debate to explain their role in influencing voters now that the secret ballot is diminishing under the Government's scrutiny.

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills made a huge song and dance of his claims that £500 million of funding is being withheld by local education authorities rather than being passed on to schools, but it has recently emerged that £1 billion of funding is being withheld by his own Department. We need him to come here promptly so that he can tell us where his missing £1 billion is and when it will be passed on to schools—never mind his allegations that LEAs are holding back half that amount. An urgent statement from the Secretary of State would be welcome.

The Government were effectively bailed out yesterday by Scottish Labour Members voting on an English matter: nothing less than the future of the English national health service. Why do those of us in England who effectively pay for the Scottish health service have to sit here and watch Scottish Members voting on the future of our health service although we have no say in what goes on north of the border? Is that devolution and new Labour justice? I think we need to know more about it.

Dr. Reid

I am deeply touched and moved by the congratulations on my birthday. I shall try to learn from the example of my older colleagues in the House about how to conduct myself when dealing with the grave issues that come before us.

The right hon. Gentleman's last point was about Scottish Members. It is part of my job, as Leader of the House, to ensure that every hon. Member has the same rights. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman misunderstands if he thinks that he has more or fewer rights than me because I have no more right to vote on the Scottish Parliament's decisions on Scottish education than he has. The last thing that we want is the creation of three or four categories of Members with different rights according to the level of devolution that has been given to their areas. The level of devolution given to Scotland is different from that given to Wales, which is different from that given to Northern Ireland—when the Assembly is not suspended—which is different from that given to the Greater London Assembly, which might be different from that given to regional assemblies in England. He is going down a very dangerous path if he is asking me to create different classes of MPs, and I shall stand against that as Leader of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the euro. Of course, the whole European dimension is hugely important to this country, both politically and in terms of jobs and employment. We shall debate accession measures to enlarge the European Union next week. On the euro and its supposed relationship with the national health service, the Prime Minister made it plain yesterday that we do not recognise the description of the influence, powers and implications that membership of the euro would have for our national health service. We are committed, in principle, to membership of the eurozone, but nothing has changed with regard to our decision on when that might happen. Our judgment will be based on the tests that we have clearly set out and, as the Chancellor and Prime Minister have said, we shall consider the tests and implications before the first week in June.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

This is a very long speech.

Dr. Reid

I am trying to give as full an answer as possible out of deference to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made the same remark last week—

Mr. Bercow

I was not here.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be quiet. I have told him before that he sometimes gets far too excited.

Dr. Reid

Mr. Speaker, you are far too kind. The hon. Gentleman's silence will contribute greatly to the alacrity with which I can deal with questions.

On postal ballots, any implication that a member of the Government has acted improperly is refuted. Had that been the case, I and everyone else in the House would be greatly worried. As it is, we are concerned about the assertion of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that there is a huge threat to democracy if more people vote. That is certainly not the view of Labour Members. Of course, any system of democracy is potentially open to abuse, but I stress that at this stage there are not even any allegations that someone has acted improperly.

It is not true to claim that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills or his Department is withholding £1 billion from schools. Schools have received a cash increase of £2.7 billion this year, which is one reason why we all look forward to debating education at every opportunity.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I express our good wishes for the Leader of the House's birthday? Did he, over his birthday breakfast table, have time to look at early-day motion 1136 on Gulf war illness victims? Perhaps we could debate that as soon as possible.

[That this House welcomes the adjudication of the War Pensions Appeal Tribunal in the case of ex-Lance Corporal Alex Izett RE; recognises that it provides powerful corroboration for the link between the cocktail of inoculations and long-term serious illness amongst veterans of the 1991 Gulf' War; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Defence to adopt a more sympathetic, generous and grateful attitude to the pleas for justice from those who served their country well.]

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has seen a large report in the Evening Standard with the headline, "New fears over safety of 'toxic' vaccines against germ warfare terror attack". As a Minister who once had responsibility for such matters, does he agree that we owe it to the veterans who have served this country well to treat them at least as responsibly and sympathetically as the US Administration treat their veterans?

Does the Leader of the House recall that his office accepted responsibility for the state funding of Opposition parties in a parliamentary answer to me on 18 March by his colleague the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office? May I support the Opposition spokesman's plea for a debate on state funding of parties? Despite the Conservative party's opposition to such funding in principle, has the Leader of the House noticed that the Conservative party has received in the region of £16 million from the taxpayer since its defeat in 1997, including a sum of £500,000 each year to the office of the Leader of the Opposition?

Will the Leader of the House seek assurances that none of the money has been used to pay off senior executives from that office? Has he noticed that in recent weeks no fewer than four senior executives of the Conservative party have been paid off with apparently very large golden handshakes, including yesterday Mr. Barry Legg, a former Member of the House? Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an absolute assurance that despite the hypocritical attitude of the Conservative party to state funding, no taxpayers' money has been used for that purpose because clearly it would be bad value?

Dr. Reid

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. The expressions of kind sentiment are overwhelming. Before we know it, the Scottish National party will wish me a happy birthday, which would create a precedent.

On early-day motion 1136, I have a knowledge of the issue and am greatly concerned that we treat our servicemen and women properly. I also have some personal experience. I was the first Minister to invite Gulf war veterans in and to institute medical programmes and so on, although to be fair some of those were set up by my predecessor, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). However, we owe it to veterans and medical science to ensure that anything that we are considering as part of the so-called Gulf war syndrome is based on verifiable medical evidence, and thus far there has been no verification that such a disease or illness exists. I am aware that a tribunal last week reached a decision that on the face of it appears to indicate that, in its view, there was such medical evidence, but the Ministry of Defence disagrees. Such decisions can be challenged only on a point of law. There is no point of law on which the MOD can appeal. That is why it is not appealing—it is not because it accepts the medical basis of the decision. We try to provide whatever facilities we can, not only to troops who served in the Gulf war but to all our troops. We are aware of this and continue to search for a possible explanation, but it would be too easy to hold up our hand and say, "In the absence of any evidence we will accept that that is the case."

On state funding of political parties, I heard what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said. I am not sure whether we can make time for such a debate here, but there are other avenues for discussing those matters. We have been generous in providing £16 million to the Opposition which, as we always say of the public services, just shows that throwing money at a problem does not necessarily solve it. I trust that none of that money will be used for fat cat pay-offs to Mr. Legg, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That leads me to something that I should have done earlier: I wish my opposite number, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), a happy day tomorrow when he goes to his party's bonding session. It will be the first occasion on which the whole Tory Front Bench arrives at a function Legg less.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

It would be nice to see the shadow Leader of the House in a jumper in his bonding session. As there is a growing movement for the removal of wigs in court, is there not a case for the Modernisation Committee to consider the removal of all forms of ceremonial dress—gowns, wigs, swords, gaiters and so on—to bring the Chamber up to date? [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] Some people are more conservative than ever, but is it not important to consider that? After all, the devolved institutions and our parliamentary Committees do not associate themselves with court dress. What I have said is no criticism of those officers who have no option but to wear such dress.

Dr. Reid

The Modernisation Committee is continually looking at ways to improve our relationship with the public outside. I do not want to embarrass you in any way, Mr. Speaker, but I believe that you were involved in a radical departure from the dress code when you took up your position. I cannot remember whether it was stockings or another part of the attire that you dropped, but I am sure that you led by example, and I suspect that, following your example, there are few men on this side of the House wearing stockings. However, I welcome the proposed removal of wigs, and we are always willing to contemplate changes that make us more accessible and modern.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

People in Castle Point went to bed last Thursday with a strong Labour council, and woke up on Friday morning with two Labour councillors and 39 Tories. May we have a debate to discuss the local reasons for that extraordinary and tremendous swing to the Conservative party? Perhaps it was the need to tackle issues such as a third road for Canvey Island, air quality and the high council tax for which the Labour Government are responsible.

Dr. Reid

It would be churlish of me not to congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his local Conservative party on having done enough throughout the country to keep the Leader of the Opposition in his present position. I am sure that all my colleagues will agree that there are few occasions on which a result that pleases both sides can be achieved, but I think that that one did.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the Welsh Assembly elections last week, 30 women and 30 men were elected, which means that the Assembly is the only legislature in the world with equal numbers of men and women? That is largely due to the positive action of the Labour party. Will my right hon. Friend draw that to the attention of his colleagues and consider a debate on women's representation to look at the lessons that can be learned?

Dr. Reid

It is not my job as Leader of the House to draw that issue to the attention of the Labour party, but I am sure that 50 per cent. representation will have been noted among the many successes of the Welsh people in the course of the past week. Another success was wisely giving the leader of the Labour party in Wales the opportunity to form his own Administration—an interest that I am sure is also close to my hon. Friend's heart.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on an issue that is of great concern to many of our constituents—the rights of our senior citizens? While many laws are in place that outlaw and banish discrimination against a range of people, many senior citizens still feel a great sense of injustice about discrimination in access to goods, services and facilities, as well as employment. Will he convey to his relevant ministerial colleagues the need for action in this important area?

Dr. Reid

Yes, I certainly shall. That issue grabs the attention of many people in this House, up to and including those in its highest positions as they enter the decade of their lives that qualifies them for membership of Saga, as I think happened to one our colleagues a couple of days ago. I shall certainly consider the issue. Of course, one reason why Westminster Hall has been such a success is that it provides opportunities to discuss a cross-cutting agenda, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is a great deal of speculation that the Government are about to approve an Olympic bid for London. Many of us are concerned that such a decision would have a major effect on areas such as the north-west, which would suffer a massive reduction in funding. Can he find time in the House to discuss the matter and the implications for areas such as the north-west?

Dr. Reid

I can tell my hon. Friend that no decision has been made as yet regarding the Cabinet position on this matter, although it probably would have been discussed if we had not spent a great deal of time in the past few weeks considering matters relating to Iraq. To give all of us a chance to consider its implications not only for London, but for the nation as a whole, we have delayed that decision. I am sure that all members of the Government will take on board his points. I am also sure that, if the decision is taken. there will be an opportunity to discuss it in the Chamber, at which time he can raise the very points that he has raised today.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The Leader of the House may be aware that we had an all-postal ballot in my constituency and that it was initiated by the former Labour controlling group, which was trounced by the Tories; the number of seats that it held fell from 28 to 14. However, there have been many stories about ballot papers going missing and houses receiving more than one ballot paper. In spite of the professionalism of the electoral returning officer, many people complained that the double envelope system should have been used. Surely, such all-postal ballots are a dumbing down of democracy and a compromise of secrecy and we should have a debate about them.

Dr. Reid

I do not know about the specific details in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I hope that I speak for everyone in the House in saying that greater participation in voting is in all our interests. That is a minimal threshold in securing greater participation in politics and wider participation in democracy. I am not saying that postal balloting is a panacea, but it is one of a range of measures that we are considering and I have no doubt that time will be made available to discuss it in due course. We must wait to see the results of the various approaches—weekend voting, text voting, electronic voting, all-postal ballots and so on—but the early evidence seems to suggest that participation is much higher. While we must ensure that there is no misuse of any system, that general point should be welcomed by hon. Members in all parts of the House.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the role and accountability of strategic health authorities and especially the Cheshire and Merseyside strategic health authority? I have had problems in getting a meeting with it to discuss the deficit at my local hospital. I have raised the matter in the House and I know that hon. Friends representing Merseyside constituencies have experienced similar problems in the past. Can we have a debate about how to prevent such health authorities from developing into independent fiefdoms and how to make them more accountable and responsible to the communities that they are supposed to serve?

Dr. Reid

I know that my hon. Friend raised that issue earlier this week in attempting to secure an emergency debate, but she was, unfortunately, unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the application itself made some of the points that she wished to make. I take it that there will be opportunities to raise the matter during discussions about the Health and Social Care (Community Health and. Standards) Bill, which is passing through the House. Some of the elements that she mentioned are meant to be addressed by foundation hospitals, so I have no doubt that she will have the ingenuity to relate some of those issues to in-order subjects that arise in the course of discussions about that Bill.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

On 11 February, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges published its eighth report, which proposes a number of changes in the way in which the House regulates itself. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor indicated that he hoped that we would debate the report before Easter, but the Iraqi war intervened. Mercifully, that is now behind us. When can the Leader of the House offer us a debate on this important report?

Dr. Reid

First, I thank all the members of that Committee for the work that they have done. I have begun to look at the report—I am now catching up with the backlog of work that any new Minister takes on—and I have also discussed it with one or two of my colleagues. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a specific date, but I can tell him that we regard the report as a very important document and that we will turn our minds to it as soon as we possibly can.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Many human rights organisations investigating the situation on the ground in Iraq have now reported that 2,700 civilians have died and that many thousands more have been injured. Today, the World Health Organisation has reported that there are 15 cases of cholera in Basra. Last week, in Fallujah, we saw the United States firing on and killing 15 Iraqis and injuring 50 more for demonstrating about the fact that their school was occupied. Can we have a full debate on post-war Iraq and, more importantly, a statement on our Government's position on the role of the United Nations in rebuilding Iraq?

Dr. Reid

On the recourse to statements and debates in the House, my hon. Friend's position on this matter is well known and she will accept that, whatever her criticisms of the Government, we have tried to make time available, often to the detriment and risk of our previously published programme. We have tried to make time available for statements and debates. I do not know that I can say that we will have yet a further statement on the matter at this stage, but I have no doubt that, from time to time, we will come to the House on the very important issue of reconstruction, redevelopment and humanitarian aid in post-war Iraq.

I should point out that, through the Department for International Development, the Government have committed £115 million to support work by the humanitarian agencies to address some of the problems that my hon. Friend has mentioned. Of course, like every hon. Member, I regret every single death, whatever the figure, and every injury. A further £60 million was set aside by the Chancellor as late as 9 April for Departments to claim from the Treasury for work in Iraq if and when the need arises. I am sure that we will report if and when that happens.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate about the constitutional Convention? He will be aware that both the Conservative and the Labour representative on that committee have called for a referendum on the future of Europe. Perhaps in the course of such a debate, the Government will be able to tell us why the citizens of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal will have the opportunity to vote on the constitution, while the citizens of the United Kingdom are being denied that opportunity.

Dr. Reid

The reason is simple. They have a constitutional system different from Britain's. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that Ireland and all the other countries that he mentions have a better constitutional system than ours, that would be something of a reversal of the Conservative party's position over the decades. Nevertheless, I should like to give the lie to the idea that the discussions in the constitutional convention are a deep threat to the sovereignty of this country. I do not take that view. The Convention on the Future of Europe is publicly debating a draft constitutional treaty for the EU to replace the present constitutional position, which is extremely complex and based on many treaties. The convention does not threaten Britain's independence or identity.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

I refer my right hon. Friend to the exchanges that his predecessor had on progress with legislation on corporate manslaughter. He may be aware that one of the rumours doing the rounds is that the blockage preventing the legislation from being introduced is the fact that permanent secretaries in the various Government Departments are worried that they may end up in jail themselves if they do not adequately look after their employees. I hope that he can scotch that rumour. Can he give any clear indication of progress on that legislation—if not today, perhaps in writing at a later date?

Dr. Reid

I know of no evidence or facts that would give substance to the rumour that my hon. Friend mentions.

Mr. Lloyd

Anything may be true.

Dr. Reid

Well,theoretically anything may be true, but I have never heard anything to suggest to me that the delay is related to what my hon. Friend suggests. It is largely the result of pressure of work in the House. There is always a balance between the ambitions of the Government and the rights of the House to scrutinise legislation. They often come into conflict and it is not possible to introduce every piece of legislation that we think desirable. We believe that legislation on corporate manslaughter is desirable; it has not dropped into some black hole from which it will not re-emerge.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

In the spirit of non-partisanship, may I offer the Leader of the House congratulations on his birthday on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru? When he is considering what he should eat for his evening birthday meal, will he out of solidarity consider eating Scottish fish? After all, the Scottish fishing industry has suffered a double whammy this week. The European Commission confirmed that the industrial fishery will be allowed to continue in the North sea, while Scottish fishermen and fishermen from elsewhere in the UK will see their quotas cut massively. It also announced that €32 million in additional funding would be available for communities such as those that I represent, but I understand that the UK Government do not intend to draw down those funds to help fishing communities. When will the House have time to debate that matter in full? It is of supreme importance to fishing communities around this island.

Dr. Reid

We take the issue very seriously, which is why we had a debate on fisheries policy just before Easter. However, we have to be honest and truthful with people. There is a real problem to do with conservation of stocks. Ultimately, however often we debate the issue, that problem will not be miraculously cured just by wishing that it were not the case. So we have to try to balance the needs of present Scottish fishermen with the needs of those who in the coming decades will want to earn their living from that direction. We always try to make time to debate fishing, but given that we have had a debate recently, perhaps an Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall will be more accessible.

While I would like—and often fantasise about—a good big haddock fish supper, as my wife is paying tonight I think I might go for something more expensive. Aberdeen Angus steak may well be on the menu.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the recently published Treasury Select Committee report on the UK and the euro—an all-party report which sets out the issues relevant to the Chancellor's five tests and the ultimate decision? Can he find time for a debate on it on the Floor of the House, before the Government come to a conclusion on this important issue?

Dr. Reid

I am aware of the report, and I am grateful for the work that has been put into it. It is the culmination of a great deal of consideration by the Select Committee, so in a sense the detailed debate by the best-qualified Back Benchers has already taken place, and it has been put into the public domain. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to have any further discussions after the Cabinet has reached a view on the matter. We have always said that if a decision were taken to proceed on the euro, we would bring it to Parliament before going to the ultimate arbiters—the people of this country—in a referendum.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Notwithstanding the fact that the Leader of the House has announced a debate in Opposition time on education, may we have a debate specifically on money that is being held back or otherwise by local education authorities? We understand from a letter from the Secretary of State that the reason why teachers are being made redundant is that LEAs are holding money back. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) says, "Right." There will be teacher redundancies in Staffordshire, including in Netherstowe high school in Lichfield, yet according to the Secretary of State's own figures in his letter, Staffordshire passes on 106.2 per cent. of its SSA grant—more money than is allocated by the Government. So someone has not done their sums right. "Shurely shome mishtake?", as Private Eye might say.

Dr. Reid

I do not know the details of the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but the disbursement of money from the centre via LEAs to a myriad schools and other educational institutions is a complex process. Some of the things that he mentions could be the result—I merely speculate—of changing school rolls, changing numbers of teachers and the pressures created by increases in pensions. I am glad to say that the terms and conditions—[Interruption.] Well, we should be proud that the Government have provided a better pension scheme for teachers.

One thing is certain. The amount of money provided has in every case been greater than the pressures on local authorities. We have gone to enormous lengths, and will continue to do so, to find out if and why any of the money has not been allocated to schools.

Mr. Bellingham

Teachers are being sacked. We need action now.

Dr. Reid

We do not deny that there is a problem, but we should see it in context and remember that spending per pupil is up something like £800 since the Government were elected. So there will be no reticence on the part of the Government about holding debates on education. When one looks at the bigger picture, the reason why we have had the best ever primary school results, GCSE results and A-level results and the reason why we have moved from sixteenth to third in the world in terms of primary literacy is that we have put the money in. If some of that has not yet got through, of course we regret it, and we will do everything possible to ensure that the reasons are identified and remedied.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

My right hon. Friend will be fully aware of the contribution that has been made to rising educational standards by the system of national testing and league tables, but does he accept that there is now growing concern that the main factor that determines a school's place in the tables is the ability and motivation of the pupils who happen to come through the doors? Does he also accept that the school performance tables rely on a single indicator to an extent that no other performance tables in the public services do? Does he agree that there is a genuine feeling that it is time to revisit the methodology of school league tables; and can he find time for a debate on the subject in the near future?

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend will know that the Government very much value—and believe that parents value—as much information as possible about their child's education being passed to them. He will also know that we have been concerned to ensure that when that information is passed out it is as neutral and objective as possible. That is why, not long after we took office, we changed the league table criteria to added value.

If my hon. Friend believes that in the light of experience we need an even more sophisticated criteria base on which to evaluate those results, I am sure that he can take the opportunity to make those specific points during an Adjournment debate. He should be in no doubt, however, that, contrary to many recent commentaries and some recent propaganda, we believe that the tests are a vital part of allowing parents to evaluate their child's progress and of maintaining the progress that has been made so far in literacy, numeracy and the results that I mentioned earlier.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

As, during our time in Northern Ireland, the Leader of the House and I knew Mr. Liam Clarke of The Sunday Times, a distinguished and very professional journalist, does he not think that it is time for a statement on the disgraceful behaviour whereby armed police came to the Clarkes' house in the middle of the night and arrested Mr. Clarke and his wife, which was quite unnecessary?

Is it not also appropriate, in the light of questions by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), that the Prime Minister should come to the House to give a statement about just what was going on in relation to the bugging of Mo Mowlam's telephone conversations?

Dr. Reid

I know that my answer will disappoint and frustrate the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, but I will not add anything to the statement that the Prime Minister has already made.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

In the light of the ruling by Judge Graham Jones against Thomson Holidays on Tuesday, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the inadequacy of the Warsaw convention of 1929 in governing the liability of airline carriers? Airlines have complete control over the well-being of their passengers—where they sit, what they eat and even the air that they breathe—but have no legal responsibility whatsoever for their health or welfare. That must end. Such a debate would allow this House to warn the 50 million people in this country who fly abroad every year that they have no protection from the considerable health risks that face them, including deep vein thrombosis.

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend has been a robust advocate of the rights of travellers and consumers, and, to his credit, has raised the subject on every conceivable occasion. Although I cannot promise him today that we will have a debate on the Floor of the House, I have no doubt that his commitment to the cause and his ingenuity in finding opportunities to make his points will stand him in good stead, as it has over the past year or two.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

On behalf of the Ulster Unionists, I pass on our best wishes to the Leader of the House. We all hope that at the end of the UEFA cup final he will find new youth, but that at the end of the Scottish league season he will age considerably.

The Leader of the House announced that the House will have time on Monday to debate the second postponement of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. That was caused for no other reason but that the organisation that the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) commands has refused to disband and to disarm, while his party, Sinn Fein, operates as a normal democratic party. Would not the time of this House be better spent debating the evidence that is being given today a few hundred yards away in Westminster Central hall—that Martin McGuinness, the Member for Mid-Ulster, fired the first shot on Bloody Sunday, which exonerates the Parachute Regiment; and that in the same year in which Bloody Sunday took place, 1972, 24 soldiers and members of the RUC were murdered under the command of Martin McGuinness, 20C Derry brigade, Provisional IRA? Would not that be a more honest use of the House's time?

Dr. Reid

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his birthday wishes and for his rather cryptic comments in a language that the English do not know, but which he and I, and other Scots, probably understood.

On the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill, I should tell the House that draft copies will be available this evening and will be sent to Opposition parties and Northern Ireland Members. I mention that because last night I spoke to several Members who were worried that they would not have sufficient time to read it. The Bill will be published on Friday at 7.30 am, and amendments will be accepted at the Public Bill Office between 11 am and 3 pm tomorrow. I should also tell Members who were awaiting with anticipation the debate in Westminster Hall that it had to be adjourned because of the emergency statement that took place last Thursday, and that we understand that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has requested that it be rescheduled to July.

As for the hon. Gentleman's comments about the Bloody Sunday inquiry, it would not be appropriate for me to make any specific comments about that, other than to say that my experience in Northern Ireland taught me that if truth, reconciliation and justice are to be achieved in future, they must be undivided truth, reconciliation and justice. In other words, they must be achieved in such a way that all people in the community who have suffered, not just one section of the community, feel that their woes, concerns and pain have been addressed.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May I ask the Leader of the House about the allocation of time motion in respect of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill, which will be early business on Monday? It is very important that we have a proper Committee stage. How much time does he intend to allocate to that, bearing in mind that we will not have seen the Bill, that he cannot be privy to the number of amendments that will be tabled before 3 o'clock on Monday, and that as the legislation that we passed postponing the elections was relatively short, the Bill must by definition be quite complicated. There are reports that Members who had decided to retire from the Northern Ireland Assembly will be on half-pay for some indeterminate period, although they are no longer MLAs. That illustrates the fact that we need to consider the Bill with forensic skill and in some detail, and that it cannot be bounced or railroaded through Parliament.

Dr. Reid

I take my hon. Friend's comments very seriously, not least because of the interest that he takes in matters of Northern Ireland and of parliamentary scrutiny. In an ideal world, we would not have the Bill at all, and elections would be going ahead. In a less than ideal—but approximating towards it—world, we would have an endless amount of time to scrutinise an important issue: the postponement of democratic elections. But we do not live in an ideal world, and events in Northern Ireland move sometimes with incredible speed and sometimes with incredible slowness, inch by inch. This is one of the occasions on which it is necessary to act with some alacrity to postpone the elections, and to do so having gone extra miles, and having taken extra time, right up to the last minute, to try to avoid postponement. That is why we shall have to deal with all the stages of the Bill in one day. I hope that within those limitations we will give it as much scrutiny as we humanly can.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have a debate on rotten public services at rip-off prices in the form of higher taxation under the Government? They have already taken an extra £130 billion from the British people in higher taxes in the past six years, almost all Departments fail to spend even their existing allocations, and Ministers are all too fond of setting, missing and scrapping public service agreement targets. What confidence can the Leader of the House offer that the Government's record on public service reform and improvement will be any better in future than in the past?

Dr. Reid

Rather than condemning public services as rotten and rip off, the Government prefer to allow plenty of time to debate the way in which we match the unparalleled investment in our public services with radical reform. We want to match those two elements not simply because that is conducive to debate but because it results in genuine change and benefit to people's lives. I have already mentioned the changes in education. On health, there are 50,000 more nurses, 10,000 more doctors and 300,000 more operations. We achieve change in people's lives through radically reforming our public services, and we make adequate time available for debating that in the House. Yesterday's debate was an example of robust discussion ending in widespread support for the Government.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

At Treasury questions, the Paymaster General pointed out that the Inland Revenue was dealing with 5.3 million cases of child tax credit and working family tax credit. If only 1 per cent. of cases go wrong and people lose out on benefits that they previously received, it means 80 cases per constituency. Can we hold a discussion about the problems? There is a specific difficulty in cases that involve several agencies. For example, the Child Support Agency, income support and child tax credit may affect each other. If difficulties arise in more than one agency, that creates an especially serious problem. Some of us are continuously on helplines; perhaps we could do with some help to deal with the matter.

Dr. Reid

The issue has been raised several times in questions and statements in the Chamber in the past week. Although the vast majority of cases have been tackled, a significant number remain to be transferred to the new credit system. Everything possible is being done: money is being spent and more human resources have been brought in to cope with the matter. I ask hon. Members to understand that although the position is distressing for everyone who has not received their benefit, the ultimate reward of the tax credit system for millions of people will be the biggest single advance for working families and pensioners in the history of the welfare state. Any complexity is therefore due to the huge step forward that the system constitutes.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

The Leader of the House knows that, on Saturday, it will be a year since the tragic crash at Potters Bar in which two of my constituents were killed. He must also know that there is mounting concern about the lack of progress in the investigation and any resolution of the cause of the crash. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement in the House next week about the investigation and what is being done to secure progress? The victims, their families and those who travel on the line every day need reassurance that their anxieties are not out of sight and out of mind.

Mr. Reid

Everyone on both sides takes the matter extremely seriously. The inquiry is under way and effectively in the hands of the Health and Safety Executive. People would frown upon any interference by the Secretary of State in such an inquiry. Of course, we want it to be done as expeditiously as possible, but we also want it done properly and not rushed. I believe that Transport questions will be held next Tuesday or Wednesday, and the hon. Gentleman can raise the matter then.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Should not the House reconsider the electoral systems that we imposed on the devolved Assemblies? Last week's bizarre result means that the Welsh Assembly now consists of 40 winners and 20 losers. Forty seats, of which 30 are Labour, were won on the first-past-the-post system. The other 20 Assembly Members benefited from an assisted places scheme, under which not one member of the Labour party got a seat although it won the vast majority of votes in the second ballot.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in hoping, like most Welsh Members of Parliament, that Rhodri Morgan, the Prif Weinidog of Wales, will soon announce that as he was elected as old Labour, he intends to rule as old Labour?

Dr. Reid

If I remember correctly, my hon. Friend is a convert on the subject—I mean the electoral system, not old Labour. Others who are not necessarily converts would take the view that although it might be too early to consider changing electoral systems in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere, we should bear in mind experiences thereof when examining future developments in our constitution for other areas. If that is not sufficiently cryptic, I can find another way of putting it.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I draw to the Leader of the House's attention the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on asylum removals, which is one of the most important and damning Select Committee reports of recent years? It demonstrates that immigration control and the process of removing asylum seekers who are not entitled to remain in the United Kingdom are totally ineffective. Will the Leader of the House therefore ensure that a debate on the matter is not tucked away in Westminster Hall in the middle of July but held on the Floor of the House, as a matter of the utmost urgency, preferably in the next two weeks?

Dr. Reid

I am not sure that I can guarantee a debate as soon as the hon. Gentleman would like, but I want to make several points.

The Government take the issue seriously and there is no attempt to push it aside. Although we have always maintained that it must be tackled, not exploited, if the Government are not prepared to face up to dealing with it, others will exploit it.

I welcome the detailed report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on a complex subject. We shall consider it carefully. I also welcome its acknowledgement—perhaps, in fairness, the hon. Gentleman should have mentioned it—of the efforts of the immigration and nationality directorate and its contractors to carry out the removals task with "dignity, humanity and fairness". It is a difficult topic in practice as well as in political discussion, but we shall continue to tackle it.

Provisional management information suggests that we have removed approximately 24 per cent. more failed asylum seekers and their dependants in 2002–03 than in 2001–02. Any abuse of the system is unfair, not least to those who seek to enter this country by normal, legitimate and ordered means.

We must also consider ways in which to decrease the number of applicants for asylum in this country. The Prime Minister has outlined what we would like to happen between last October and next October to reduce numbers greatly. I believe that we shall realise that aspiration.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Almost a month has elapsed since the publication of the discovery in Baghdad of a document dated 27 November 2000, in which an Iraqi intelligence agent reported that the Russian intelligence service had provided him with the names of assassins for apparent possible use against the west. May we have a ministerial statement—perhaps a written ministerial statement—from a Foreign Office Minister about representations to President Putin on that serious matter?

Dr. Reid

I have to confess to the hon. Gentleman that I am not aware of the measure of veracity and substance of these reports. I am also somewhat constrained by the self-discipline under which we normally operate on such matters of intelligence. I am sure, however, that the Secretary of State will have heard the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. On all matters relating to Iraq, we have tried, within the confines of time, to be as accessible and open with the House as we possibly can, up to and including the unprecedented debates that we have had on the war itself. There is no retention of information or curtailment of debate for the sake of it, so far as the Government are concerned.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What on earth has become of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill?

Dr. Reid

It is still our intention to get that Bill approved and on the statute book as soon as we possibly can.

Mr. Swayne

It has been out of Committee since February.

Dr. Reid

Well, there is a huge number of priorities, but I know that both the Government and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister regard this as a very important issue, not only in itself but because of all the implications that it has for the wider issue. It is still our intention to get the Bill through as soon as possible.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

When the debate to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) referred takes place, will Ministers also take the opportunity to explain why, when an unquantified number of asylum seekers have not been removed, they are encouraging 100,000 people a year to migrate lawfully to this country—a number that would require a new town the size of Luton every year for the next 10 years to accommodate them?

Dr. Reid

We have to distinguish between lawful, ordered immigration into this country—particularly when it can make a valuable contribution to its economy, as well as its social life—and unlawful immigration. Immigrants have made such contributions over many years. Indeed, many of us would not be here if the attitude that the hon. Gentleman is taking had been adopted. That is not to say that we should in any way tolerate abuses of the asylum system, and I have already made it clear that we have acted robustly on that over the past year. That is already having an effect. We have made great strides in speeding up the removals process; in particular, our targets on a proportion of decisions taken in two months, and on decision and appeal in six months. As intake reduces—that is where we are putting the emphasis at present—we will have more resources to deploy to making high-quality decisions fast, which, in turn, should reduce the proportion of cases granted on appeal. But I do not think that we want to take the attitude that, whatever skills we may be offered, or need, we should set our face against any form of immigration just because we dislike foreigners.