HC Deb 22 May 2003 vol 405 cc1153-73 12.31 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 the week after the Whitsun recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 2 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

TUESDAY 3 JUNE—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Fire Services Bill.

WEDNESDAY 4 JUNE—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day]. Until 4 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Pensions Crisis", followed by a debate on the euro. Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

THURSDAY 5 JUNE—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the European Union (Accessions) Bill.

FRIDAY 6 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 9 JUNE—Second Reading of the Courts Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 10 JUNE—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Sustainable Energy Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

WEDNESDAY 11 JUNE—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 12 JUNE—Debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 13 JUNE—Private Members Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for June will be as follows:

THURSDAY 5 JUNE—A debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on the Human Rights Annual Report 2002.

THURSDAY 12 JUNE—Debate on reports from the Environmental Audit Committee, the Science and Technology Committee and the Trade and Industry Committee on energy issues.

THURSDAY 19 JUNE—A debate on the report from the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on affordable housing.

THURSDAY 26 JUNE—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on the humanitarian crisis in Southern Africa.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business.

It will not surprise you to know, Mr. Speaker, that I have brought with me an extract from the New Statesman that I think will interest the House. If I may, however, I should like in that context to do something that you know I am very reluctant to do—that is, quote myself. [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on!"] Well, it is usually good value.

On 15 May, at column 462 of Hansard, I said that the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) had

contradicted each other completely on the vital matter of the advice that the Attorney-General had given the Government about the post-war Iraq settlement. I went on to remind the House that the Foreign Secretary had said that all the actions that we have taken have been taken strictly in accordance with legal advice"; but pointed out that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood had said that she believed that the UK could and should have respected the Attorney-General's advice."—[Official Report, 15 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 462.] My question—I hope the Leader of the House will either clarify this today or make provision in our business for it to be clarified as a matter of urgency—is about the fact that in the New Statesman we have what appears to be an authentic document; it is headed "Confidential", addressed to the Prime Minister and entitled "Iraq: Authorisation for an Interim Administration". It is allegedly from Lord Goldsmith QC, the Attorney-General, and is dated 26 March 2003.

I shall read two brief extracts from the document to show its importance. It states, and this is quoting the Attorney-General: my view is that a further Security Council resolution is needed to authorise imposing reform and restructuring of Iraq and its Government. Later, it states that the longer the occupation of Iraq continues, and the more the tasks undertaken by an interim administration depart from the main objective, the more difficult it will be to justify the lawfulness of the occupation". On the face of it, those are astonishing revelations. If they are true, they set completely at odds with one another what the Foreign Secretary told us and what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood—a former Secretary of State for International Development—told us. This is a serious matter. It goes to the heart of our constitution; it goes to the heart of the responsibilities of the House; and I challenge the Leader of the House to tell us whether that document is authentic. If it is not, presumably we can set the matter aside. If it is authentic, however, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us, or will we now get the full advice given by the Attorney-General at each stage of the Iraq episode?

I should like the Leader of the House to provide some time for the Prime Minister to come to the House immediately after the recess to give some explanations and, indeed, apologies for the following matters. First, in PMPs on 14 May—[HON. MEMBERS: "PMPs?"] Yes, Prime Minister's porkies. The Prime Minister said: What is very clear, as the right hon. Gentleman has just admitted, is that he"— my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition— wants people to say no to European enlargement". That was the Prime Minister's accusation. Well, how was it that, last night, on the Bill to give effect to the enlargement—the European Union (Accessions) Bill—every Member of Parliament, including all the Conservative Members, voted for enlargement of the European Union? Patently, the Prime Minister was pathetically wrong, so will he please come to the House and admit it, and tell us where he got that astonishing assertion, which, within 24 hours, was proved to be completely wrong?

It gets worse. The Prime Minister said that the Conservative party is now opposed not just to the single currency but to accession by the 10 new states", which we have just demonstrated to be nonsense. He went on to say: There is no point in his saying that he"— my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the Opposition— is in favour of accession but opposed to the European Convention, which is necessary to make the accession work."—[Official Report, 14 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 306.] That is another of the Prime Minister's favourite little ploys. But, Mr. Speaker, you will know, because you study these matters, that the Library of the House of Commons, on page 51 of research paper 03/48, states: While the Convention is looking at reforms to help make a larger Union function more efficiently and transparently, it has not been part of the enlargement process itself … The Convention and its outcome are not prerequisites for accession, the sole legal basis for which is the Accession Treaty. The Prime Minister was wrong—plain wrong, factually wrong—and the House of Commons Library says so. Will the Prime Minister come and make another apology to the House for being completely wrong again?

It gets worse. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh no!"] Oh yes. Because in PMPs yesterday, the Prime Minister said: The true agenda of the right hon. Gentleman"— my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition— and many other Conservative Members is to get this country out of the European Union."—[Official Report, 21 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 1005.] We know that the Prime Minister said that in his now notorious election address when he stood for election in 1983, so he may have been thinking of his own words, but my challenge to the Leader of the House is this: can he produce any Conservative manifesto, any Conservative policy document or any statement by a Conservative spokesman that bears out what the Prime Minister said? We need time in the House for that to be clarified, and I want the Leader of the House to do so as a matter of urgency because those sorts of distortions cannot be allowed to continue; they must be either apologised for or at the very least clarified, and the Government must provide the time for that to be done as a matter of urgency.

It has come to my attention that there is at least the possibility that two battalions of our wonderful military in Iraq may find that their home leave is about to be postponed so that they may assist in Baghdad. The Leader of the House may or may not be able to tell us whether or not that is true, but at the very least I want him to guarantee to the House that, in such an eventuality, the Secretary of State for Defence will make an urgent statement to the House because the matter is obviously of great importance to the military and, moreover, to their families. I hope that we will be kept fully informed, within the constraints of time and the coming recess.

There is another question that affects the Ministry of Defence: what is happening in the Congo? If there is a possibility of our military being involved in the Congo in any way at all, not least in connection with the European security and defence policy—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is not telling me how to run my affairs.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I hope that the House understands that those are important matters, and I know that the Leader of the House will take them very seriously because I am asking him to ensure that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make a full statement to the House in the event of any military involvement by British forces in the Congo, particularly if it is under the auspices of the ESDP.

I have just two other matters to raise quickly. May we please have an urgent education debate in Government time so that Labour Members can demonstrate their wholehearted support for Labour's policy on student tuition fees? Such a debate would help the Government to show what enthusiasm there is among those on the Labour Benches for the Government's policy and how wholeheartedly they condemn our policy to get rid of student tuition fees. I am sure that that would be helpful to all.

Finally, will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to come to the House to clarify what he said on 19 May: I am convinced that this will encourage other Parliamentary Private Secretaries to believe that there is life after bag carrying. I sincerely hope so, as we approach the possibility of a forthcoming reshuffle."—[Official Report, 19 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 729.] I have heard that there may be a Government reshuffle tomorrow. Can the Leader of the House confirm that? If not, can he tell us when it will be?

Dr. Reid

As ever, it was a great pleasure to listen to the right hon. Gentleman. It was almost worth travelling through the night just to hear him this morning.

May I congratulate him on the breadth of his literary intake, which now appears to include the New Statesman? The right hon. Gentleman refers to an alleged leak. On that serious subject, as he knows, we do not release in detail—nor did any previous Government—the Attorney-General's advice, but we have made it plain that the Attorney-General's advice throughout has been that the Government have been acting lawfully on all those matters.

It was always the case, incidentally, that we wanted a fresh United Nations resolution, and the House will be pleased to hear that we have a reasonable expectation that, in the very near future—perhaps in the next few hours—we might have such a resolution passed. I hope that the House will be pleasantly surprised by the degree of support that we get for such a resolution, notwithstanding all the predictions of gloom and doom that have been made and that normally accompany the allegations that have been repeated again today.

As regards Europe, I am sorry that I was not here last night to note the exception that proved the rule on Europe—the Conservatives attempting to prove, in a completely engineered Division, that they had moved forward some decades in their view of Europe—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) issues challenges continually on Europe, and he has issued another today demanding that we give some evidence of an Opposition spokesman expressing resolute pessimism about Europe and opposition to it.

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Dr. Reid

The right hon. Gentleman nods again. He wants me to stand here and say things such as: With hindsight the European Union is not acceptable since we joined … the whole thing was probably a mistake. Those were the right hon. Gentleman's words in his address to the Anti-Common Market League on 21 January—[terruption.] Opposition Members have suddenly stopped nodding; they suddenly appear as stone, with the occasional laugh from the Benches behind. I shall repeat the words: With hindsight the European Union is not acceptable since we joined". I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman, having issued the challenge, would claim that those words were a deviation from policy or that, as on many other occasions, he is thoroughly unrepresentative of those on the Benches behind him. I know, however, that he is representative of his whole party—to the Conservative party, the European Union is, in the words that he challenged me to find, "not acceptable" Having met that challenge, let us move on to the right hon. Gentleman's other challenges.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a serious matter relating to the movements of our military in Iraq. I can tell him and the House that there are no current plans to deploy UK troops to Baghdad other than the troops who are already there to protect the UK embassy. Of course routine contingency planning continues, as it does for all armed forces, but no decisions have been taken. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to assure him, which I will do, that, as is the normal custom, Defence Ministers will write to the leaders of the main Opposition parties and to the Chairman of the Defence Committee if arrangements are to be put in place regarding the deployment of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which he mentioned specifically.

On the question of the Congo, the House is aware that requests have been made. Consideration has been given to any movements, and I can say with confidence that the Defence Secretary—who, along with the Foreign Secretary, has been more attentive to the needs of the House in terms of bringing information to it over the past few months than perhaps any Defence Secretary in recent memory—would of course wish to keep the House fully informed on that.

On education, I am always looking for opportunities to let the House debate issues pertinent to education, including the massive additional expenditure of £800 per pupil in this country since we came to office, record primary school results, 25,000 more teachers and 80,000 more classroom assistants. The more opportunity we have to debate those issues the better.

On the right hon. Gentleman's other point, I hope that all members of the Cabinet are around to take part in such debates. I cannot confirm one way or the other whether or when there will be a reshuffle. Of course, we never know. I recall—I hope that it is not breaking any Cabinet secrets—that when Lord Robertson left the House to take up his post as Secretary-General of NATO, and was given the accolade that he deserved in Cabinet and asked to respond, he started with the words, "Prime Minister, this is the last meeting of the Cabinet which I shall attend," looked round the Cabinet and added, "And that is something that no one round this table will be able to say." Reshuffles tend to visit themselves on us with less news in advance than all of us would hope for. I am not, however, aware that a reshuffle is forthcoming, and I am sure that if it were the right hon. Gentleman would, out of courtesy, be among the first to know.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I welcome the Leader of the House back from Seville and hope that he is not nursing a hangover. Will he comment on the text of the letter that the Prime Minister sent to the manager of Celtic saying: I have asked John Reid who, as you may know, is a Celtic fan, to represent the Government at the game and to underline our support for your efforts"? May I ask since when has it become necessary for a member of the Cabinet to be sent to a football match? Does that responsibility lie with the Leader of the House, or would it usually be the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? On this occasion, will her consolation prize for not going to Seville be the opportunity to chair a sitting of the Modernisation Committee in the Leader of the House's absence?

I return to the question of the Attorney-General's role and responsibilities. The Leader of the House must recognise that outstanding questions remain, not least the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) asked the Solicitor-General a few minutes ago. For example, is it possible for a United Nations resolution to give an action retrospective legal sanction? We do not know; we have not heard an answer. The situation draws attention to the fact that, as the Attorney-General is a Member of the other place, there is no way in which elected representatives can hold him to account in this Chamber. Surely that raises an important constitutional issue. Would a way round that problem be for the Attorney-General to attend a sitting of the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department so that he could be questioned on matters of considerable importance such as those raised today?

That situation highlights the difficulties that hon. Members have encountered since the departure of the former Secretary of State for International Development. The new Secretary of State is not a Member of this House. Are the Government adopting a general practice of giving responsibility for major Departments of State to Members of the other place, who are unelected and thus unrepresentative of, and unaccountable to, the electorate? Surely that shows the importance of putting back into action the current stalled procedure on Lords reform.

When does the Leader of the House intend to resume the talks that were specifically requested and demanded by the motion that was put to the House on 29 October 2002? He will recall that the Modernisation Committee recommended that specific consultation should take place with Opposition parties on the legislative programme, with particular reference to carry-over, which must be a matter of discussion and consensus. He knows that we have only about 10 legislative weeks before the end of the Session, so when will he resume the consultation discussions?

Dr. Reid

The hon. Gentleman's first point was about the UEFA cup final. I think that the Prime Minister was, to some extent—I am not letting any secrets out here—making a virtue of a necessity because I was going to go to the game anyway. I apologise for having a human streak but when you wait 33 years for your team to get to the final, you tend to want to go—despite the attractions of the Modernisation Committee. I congratulate Porto on its victory but I think that Celtic's performance did us proud.

I think I am right in saying that we established the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. It would be advisable for the Committee to issue an invitation to the Attorney-General and to find out what happens—it is not for me to comment on his responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman also asked about carry-over and other procedures, and I shall turn my mind to that soon after the Whitsun recess.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I am not sure whether this is the right time to remind the Leader of the House that the last time Aberdeen made it to a European final, it actually won. I congratulate Celtic on last night's performance.

Will the Leader of House put pressure on the Paymaster General to make a further statement after the Whitsun recess on the workings of the new child tax credit and working tax credit? She has already made a statement on that issue but problems are continuing. I received yet another e-mail from a constituent this morning outlining continuing problems getting through to the helpline.

Further things have come to our notice since the Paymaster General's last statement. Serious computer glitches are holding up the whole process so that even if MPs manage to get through to their helpline, it is not always possible to resolve problems because the computer system cannot cope terribly well. Local Inland Revenue offices are now making interim payments, which they were not geared up to do before, but it has transpired that those payments—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Leader of the House will manage an answer.

Dr. Reid

I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful comments on football matters. The Paymaster General has made it plain that we are throwing whatever resources we can at the problems arising from tax credits, and we obviously deeply regret any outstanding problems that remain. If the system is not working to the extent that it should, as my hon. Friend suggests, there will be an opportunity to discuss the matter immediately after the recess because there will be a Westminster Hall debate on tax credits on the Wednesday after our return. The debate will allow her and other hon. Members to point out any problems and suggest solutions.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

I look forward to participating in that Westminster Hall debate. There is an important question about the publication of the Attorney-General's advice. Whatever precedents the Leader of the House prays in aid, the Attorney-General has set his own precedent by publishing legal advice on our engagement in the Iraqi conflict, which supports the claim for publication. Given that the right hon. Gentleman's responsibility is to guard the integrity of the House, is he aware that hon. Members' ability to trust the process is being affected—it is the trust that is under attack? The publication of the Attorney-General's advice would help to sort that out and give us a proper base on which to have knowledge and arguments.

Dr. Reid

Yes, and I think that trust in such matters depends on us being very accurate in what we say. The Attorney-General did not publish his legal advice prior to the military intervention in Iraq. He published a statement confirming that he supported the Government and that the Government's actions were in accordance with international law. He did exactly the same thing, incidentally, on the subject that is currently under discussion when he made it absolutely clear that we had always acted in accordance with international law. As the Prime Minister repeated this morning, the Attorney-General's advice throughout has been that we have acted lawfully. The distinction between what the Attorney-General did on both those occasions and the issue of legal advice itself has always been maintained by previous Governments, as well as this one.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to an article in yesterday's Evening Standard that indicated the effective closure of the locomotive and train industry throughout the country? That could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs, including up to 500 jobs at a plant in my constituency that has been producing trains for more than 100 years. The closure would be a tragedy and a loss of major manufacturing capacity and a major strategic industry in this country. Given the huge implications of the losses, will he raise the matter with the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Transport?

Dr. Reid

I shall certainly do that for my hon. Friend, although I have no doubt that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will in any case have heard his remarks. Whenever a major industry is threatened in any of our constituencies, I understand that hon. Members such as my hon. Friend who are avid guardians of their constituencies' interests will try to find any opportunity to raise the issue. I hope that when such events have been unavoidable, the Government's actions to establish taskforces and to allow debate in the House have risen to meet the scale of the problems.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

The Leader of the House may be aware that, in the past 18 months or so, I have raised questions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency about the possible risks posed to human health by the activities of a landfill site at Pitsea tip in my constituency. Recently these concerns have been given added focus by the gas emissions and odours emanating from the site. They are causing many residents much distress.

Will the Leader of the House now urge the Minister for the Environment to reply to my letter dated 6 May and to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)? The letter calls for independent assessments to be made regarding the possible risk to human health posed by the activities at the site and, in particular, by the gas emissions that are causing much distress. It has taken up to six months to respond to many letters that I have written in the past. That is simply not good enough.

Mr. Reid

I was not aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, and I apologise for that. I am sure that the appropriate Minister is aware of them, however. Although the hon. Gentleman said that it has, on some occasions, taken several months to reply to his letters, the letter that he referred to in this instance was received only two weeks ago. I know from the ministerial correspondence with which I have had to deal that the Minister may want to establish accurately and fully the facts of the case before he responds. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, and I will undertake to contact the relevant Minister.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend back from his thrill in Seville? I commiserate with him on the result. I thought that the team played well, but the guy who scored the winning goal had been carried off three times and should not have been on the field when he scored.

Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate in the House—scertainly before the summer recess—on the Child Support Agency and its continued mismanagement and failure to support mothers with children who need support? In particular, I refer to the case of Linda Lynch who, for the past nine years, has been cheated and lied to both by her partner and by officers in the CSA, as have her Members of Parliament. She has two had Members of Parliament in the past few years, and she has been cheated of something like £50,000. There are many people in the country like Linda Lynch and it is time that the House revisited the issue of how the CSA is failing women and, in particular, children.

Dr. Reid

I cannot promise a debate here, but I know that my hon. Friend raises these serious matters on every possible occasion. Perhaps an Adjournment debate would be appropriate to debate the issue, not least because I agree with him in general about the distress caused in some of these cases and in this specific case. He referred to two MPs and, if my memory serves me correctly, I think that I may have been connected with this case. I probably was the first MP; the name rings a bell.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition: let me remind him that he is still a member of Conservatives Against a Federal Europe."—[Official Report, 21 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 1005.] Will the Leader of the House allow the Prime Minister an early opportunity to come to the House to correct yet another misleading statement by him about our party's policy on Europe? Will the Leader of the House acknowledge that it cannot be otherwise, since Conservatives Against a Federal Europe closed down two years ago?

Dr. Reid

It is sometimes impossible to keep up with every development in the plethora of anti-European groups in which Conservative Members involve themselves. For example, there is the fuss being caused over a Convention, which will not make any decisions—they will be made by an intergovernmental conference. Even if it did, it has not even reached the final proposals and, even at this early stage, the Conservatives cannot contain their opposition to the proposals that have been put forward and on which decisions will be made.

The hon. Gentleman referred to accuracy, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred earlier to the accuracy of the research paper that the Leader of the Opposition mentioned yesterday. However, what they omitted to mention is that the research paper also states: The Convention is enabling the accession states to have their say in the future structure and methods of the EU and to contribute their views to the reform process on a more or less equal basis to the existing Member States. In other words, it is quite clear from the research paper that the Convention is integrally related to the extension of the EU to the new accession states. It says so in the paper.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on what is happening on the ground in Iraq? Yesterday, I met a group of Iraqi women who painted a horrifying picture of life in Iraq for women. They say that more than 300 cases of rape have been documented in the hospitals in Baghdad alone since the invasion, and they claim that the coalition is sidelining women, particularly women who want a secular state. In Basra, militant clerics are insisting that women trying to return to higher education have to be veiled. It would seem that there is a dangerous, lawless vacuum and that women are suffering greatly. It is time the House debated what is happening there now and what will happen in the future.

Dr. Reid

I certainly hope that the allegations to which my hon. Friend refers are not accurate. As far as the Government are concerned and, I am sure, the whole coalition, there is no intention, as she put it, to sideline the role of women. In fact, the opposite is true. One of the symbols of how far Iraqis will take an inclusive democratic approach to their own government will be the extent to which women play a role in that.

Whatever deficiencies there are in Iraq, all of us recognise that the system as it is likely to develop is hardly likely to be worse than it was under Saddam. However, my hon. Friend is right to continue to raise these issues and I can tell her that there will be a debate in Westminster Hall on the Wednesday after we return on the role of the United Nations in the reconstruction and development of Iraq. Perhaps she can seek to raise her concerns on that occasion.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

As the Press Gallery is celebrating its 200th anniversary, will the Leader of the House send the congratulations of the House to the inimitable Chris Moncrieff, the chairman of the Press Gallery? When we return, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a debate on the reporting of Parliament?

Dr. Reid

I have no hesitation in complying with the hon. Gentleman's request and, especially, in congratulating the inimitable Mr. Moncrieff, the chairman of the Lobby, Jon Smith, and the other constituent elements of the Press Gallery on its 200th anniversary. In view of the result, I am only sorry that I could not attend its dinner last night—

Mr. Forth

No you're not.

Dr. Reid

I am indeed sorry that I could not attend, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand.

There are numerous ways in which the contribution of the press—in all its strengths and perhaps some of its weaknesses—to our democracy can be debated in the House. I shall certainly consider whether Westminster Hall or other mechanisms could be deployed to do that in this, the Press Gallery's 200th anniversary year.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new duties? He keeps us bouncing up and down, because we sometimes do not know whether he has finished his replies. That keeps us all fit.

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1217?

[That this House welcomes the successful passage through the House of Lords of Lord Lester's Equality Bill, which seeks to modernise the structure of equality legislation in the UK by ensuring that it is streamlined, simplified, more inclusive and more effective; welcomes the surprisingly large measure of agreement which accompanied the progress of the Bill both cross-party and amongst anti-discrimination advocates and business; recognises the progress made by the Government in this area, including the publication of the consultation on the future structure of equality institutions in the UK; and calls upon the Government to bring forward a draft Single Equality Bill with the intention of legislating on it in the current Parliament.]

The motion calls for a single equality Act that will modernise, simplify and update the anti-discrimination laws in this country, including the strands of religious belief or the lack of it, sexual orientation and age that receive no protection against discrimination in the provision of goods and services. Will it be possible to have a debate in Government time on what is now a long overdue modernisation of the protections against discrimination?

Dr. Reid

The Government understand the objectives behind the Bill and share Lord Lester's desire to advance towards a more equal society and more successful Britain. Equality is a priority for the Government, as demonstrated by the legislation that we have passed or have planned and by our policies to promote equality. However, we do not believe that a complete legislative overhaul is the right approach. It is more productive to pursue incremental improvement and to work for culture change.

I hope that I have contributed to the health of the House by keeping Members jumping up and down.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

I think that we are all grateful for the exercise, Mr. Speaker.

I am quite surprised to see the Leader of the House in the Chamber after the exertions of last night. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating Celtic on a fantastic display last night, and the Celtic football fans. About 70,000 of them descended on Seville, and in the best tradition of Scottish football fans there was not one arrest.

May I turn the right hon. Gentleman's attention to a less than successful team—the one that currently runs the Scotland Office? May we have an early debate on that issue? We have found after four years of devolution that the running costs of the Scotland Office have increased by about 50 per cent. Similarly, there will be a number of new staff. I do not know what they will do. Presumably they will be in place to entertain a bored Secretary of State who is doing a non-job.

Mr. Reid

First, I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the fans. I hope that the situation continues throughout today and tomorrow as well. There were an astonishing number of fans in Seville without tickets. Their behaviour has been a credit to Scotland and to us all.

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on the Scotland Office. He says that running costs have increased by 50 per cent., but that is from a base that is about 1 per cent. of what it was previously. It is a tiny budget, considering the efforts that are made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ensure that across a range of issues Scotland does not lose out in terms of industrial policy, telecommunications and North sea oil, for example. There is a range of policies that create jobs in Scotland and maintain the standard of living there. Instead of constantly talking down those who are defending Scotland's interests, the hon. Gentleman would do better to praise the efforts that they make.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

Will the Leader of the House find Government time to have a debate on the steel industry? Over the past three years we have had one reorganisation after another. Each reorganisation has undermined the competence of the industry. Each time, thousands of employees have lost their jobs. After the most recent reorganisation, I learned from the Financial Times—not from Corus—that Corus is considering selling off the Teesside site. That will create an enormous problem for my region, involving 3,000 jobs directly and 12,000 indirectly. This is an extremely serious issue for us in Britain. I ask that we have a debate on the industry in Government time.

Dr. Reid

I know the role that my hon. Friend has played as a defender and promoter of the interests of her constituents and of others who are involved in steel production. I have tremendous respect for the role that she has played, not least because I came from a constituency that at one stage was dominated by steel, and which has lost tens of thousands of jobs. I know the hardship that that can bring.

The industry remains a significant employer and contributes to the economy. It underpins many other parts of manufacturing. I am sure that my hon. Friend, through Adjournment debates and by other means, will continually bring the issue to the forefront of our minds in her fight for her constituents and for others who are employed in the steel industry.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The Minister will have seen The Guardian this morning, with its remarkable report on drugs and the "success" of initiatives in trying to reduce the number of victims of criminals and to reduce the number of criminals who are victims of drugs. Will the right hon. Gentleman try to arrange for an early statement on the Government's response to what is revealed in the report, and for a debate shortly afterwards, so that we can find ways of implementing the intentions, of which there have been a stream, and the money and initiatives, of which there have also been a stream, so that we can introduce effective action and make a real difference?

Dr. Reid

There are issues that unite everyone on both sides of the House. The battle against drugs and the poison that is often poured into the veins of young people in this country is not the exclusive concern of any party in this place. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that constant vigilance is needed. Today, in cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall, the subject of drugs is on the agenda. The hon. Gentleman may have an early opportunity of raising the issue.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1223?

[That this House condemns the decision of the Medical Research Council to close the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill to downsize and to re-site it in Cambridge in the absence of consultation with the employees.]

This world-class research facility employs about 700 people in my constituency, and is under immediate threat of closure by the Medical Research Council after inadequate consultation with the staff and the local community. The decision has been condemned not only by local people but by the scientific community at large. Will my right hon. Friend raise this issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, which Department is responsible for the MRC, and find time for an early discussion in the House on an important research facility, which it seems we shall lose for the nation?

Dr. Reid

I am aware of the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend refers. No formal decision has been taken on the future of the National Institute for Medical Research. The Medical Research Council is developing a long-term strategy for its major capital investments over the next 10 to 15 years, including the NIMR. The results of the recent consultation exercise on this issue will be considered at a council meeting in July. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will have heard my hon. Friend's remarks.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

The appointment of a Member of the other place as Secretary of State for International Development is seen by many people as reducing the importance of international development, and could be interpreted as an attempt to take the spotlight off the reconstruction process in Iraq. It is being said also that it may be a first step to taking international development back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Lest this matter should become a scar on the conscience of the Prime Minister, will the Leader of the House please arrange for his right hon. Friend to make a statement on the issue?

Dr. Reid

The debates in the House, including one today, and debates at the United Nations, where a resolution was proposed by, among others, this Government and this country, are testimony to the attention that we have paid to the issue.

The budget of the Department for International Development has doubled and the number of Ministers in the Department has increased. I believe that we have gained a Secretary of State of inestimable abilities to deal with the reconstruction of Iraq. That means that there is no need for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or for anyone in Government to have any pricks on their conscience about the matter.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Although a late convert to the fortunes of Celtic, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will recognise that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Government's policy of full employment in every region. He will know that 340 jobs have just been lost in the textile industry in my constituency. That brings the total of jobs lost to 1,600 in the past 12 months. Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on manufacturing, with special reference to the north-east and County Durham?

Dr. Reid

Manufacturing has been going through a difficult period for some time. The Government have tried wherever possible to support it. Every job loss is a tragedy. However, it is fair to put that in context and to remember that since the Government came to power about 1.5 million more people are in work than there were before. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and others, such as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who takes a great interest in the regional dimension of our policies, will have heard what my right hon. Friend has said.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on precisely what assistance he is willing to offer to Independent Television News in its sad quest to determine the fate of Fred Nearac and Hussein Osman, who were with Terry Lloyd when he was killed 60 days ago? On 9 May, the Secretary of State told ITN that until there was evidence of a war crime it would not be possible to have a formal investigation, and that is fully understood. It appears that the right hon. Gentleman has not yet issued an instruction to the military police in Iraq to assist ITN with its searches. Will the right hon. Gentleman please bring this matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence? We owe a great deal to these brave men, and their families are extremely distressed.

Dr. Reid

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on the interest that he takes in the matter and in military affairs generally. I will certainly bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

In spite of the valiant efforts of the work force over the past six years to build a successful company, the sad news was announced this morning of the loss of 1,000 jobs at LG Philips in my constituency. That is a result of market conditions. Some of the job losses are due to fair competition and some to unfair competition. More than 1,000 jobs have recently been lost in Newport in the steel industry. Is it not time that we had a major debate on the fate of manufacturing industry and its accelerating decline? It has been the backbone of the British economy, and job losses, as in this case, are terrible tragedies to the 1,000 families involved. There is also a loss of skills and a loss of manufacturing capacity, which are irreplaceable.

Dr. Reid

Of course, the fact that throughout the past few years this country has, both in historical terms and by comparison with any of our competitors, fared far better during the recession is no consolation to anyone who has lost their job, as my hon. Friend described. Wherever there are major job losses, the Government constantly try through taskforces and other means to make sure that, as quickly as possible, skills and jobs are brought back to areas such as his constituency. It is never an easy task, but I am sure that on this occasion, as on previous occasions, the Government will do everything we possibly can.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

As the Leader of the House knows, the war in Iraq is over and some troops have already been withdrawn. Is he aware that the Royal Army Medical Corps reserves—consultants who are required in their own institutions, where waiting lists are growing—are still being detained in Iraq, while regulars have been brought home? Is it not possible for the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health to co-ordinate movement better, for the well-being of all?

Dr. Reid

I do not know the specific details to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I know that there are enormous pressures on the medical services in particular in the military, which may mean that it has proven difficult to be as flexible about returning home as in the case of other soldiers or members of the armed forces. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. On behalf of the whole House, I pay tribute once again to our armed forces. The fact that they have faced a long delay, as the hon. Gentleman points out, is another indication of the deprivations and sacrifices that the men and women who serve this country so well undertake so willingly. We are all in their debt for that.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

With regard to Iraq, would it not help to clear the air to have a debate as soon as possible after the recess, dealing with all aspects of the reconstruction and the role of the occupying powers and the United Nations? Hopefully, the Security Council will pass the resolutions today. In any such debate, should not reference be made to the thousands of corpses that have been discovered—people who were executed by Saddam? Perhaps the critics will tell us whether they now believe that, as so many of us believe, it was justified for the country to be liberated. Incidentally, I believe that senior Ministers should be in the House, and I hope that that point will be taken up by the Prime Minister.

Dr. Reid

I hope that the whole House will agree with my hon. Friend's remarks about the nature of Saddam's regime and the evidence that is forthcoming. It never ceases to amaze me that some of those who concentrate on the important and legitimate question—I do not deny its legitimacy—of the weapons of mass destruction seem completely blind to the fact that thousands of bodies are being unearthed every week by the other side. A balanced approach, as my hon. Friend mentioned, would benefit all of us. He asks for a debate. I know that there is a continual demand for debates on the issue. I do not think that any previous Government have offered so many opportunities for debates and statements on such subjects as the present Government. Just after the Whitsun recess, there is another opportunity for a debate in Westminster Hall on the reconstruction of Iraq.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

In the light of the recent opinion poll that showed that 84 per cent. of people in this country want a referendum on the European constitution, should we not have a debate so that we can explain why the Opposition support a referendum on a constitution and are prepared to listen to the people, whereas the Government are not?

Dr. Reid

As I said earlier, people must recognise that what is being compiled under the Convention is a series of proposals. No decisions will be made by the Convention. They will be made by an intergovernmental conference. If the hon. Gentleman wants to explain anything to people, surely he should explain why the leadership of the Conservative party happily went through the Maastricht treaty and the Single European Act without a referendum, and why the Conservative party is suddenly a convert to a referendum when no decisions have even been made by the Convention. The answer is simple: it is another piece of sheer opportunist anti-Europeanism by the Opposition.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate on the cost of home care services? In my Tory-controlled borough of Redbridge, the self-declared party of the poor and vulnerable is proposing to double the maximum charge for home care from £100 to £200 a week, which has caused great distress to a number of my constituents, including 87-year-old disabled widow, Mrs. Lena Odgers.

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend refers with a degree of irony, I think, to the Conservative party when she calls it the party of the poor. That will come as a huge piece of news to everyone in Britain, not least the poor, especially after the very limited experiment in compassionate Conservatism which, after several hundred years, the party decided to try, but which it abandoned after 13 months as incompatible with everything else that it stood for.

The Department of Health's guidance, "Fairer Charging Policies for Home Care and other nonresidential Social Services", seeks to ensure that service users should not have their incomes reduced below basic levels of income support, plus a 25 per cent. buffer, as a result of charges. The guidance provides clear objectives for councils that do charge, to ensure more consistency and fairer charging systems that support social inclusion and the promotion of independence. Sometimes even all those buffers are not strong enough to withstand the assaults of Conservative councils on the poor.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a statement from the Government on their plans for the millions of people who wish to continue to draw cash from the post office as their benefit and pension books are withdrawn, particularly in view of the revelation this week that hundreds of thousands of disabled people will not be able to use the proposed PIN machines? Such people are already disadvantaged by the fact that many of them cannot access bank cash machines, which are too tall.

Dr. Reid

I know that Ministers have spent a huge amount of time trying to make sure that, as the system is modernised, it provides a range of options so that people can get the benefits of a modern method of withdrawing their benefits, while minimising the disadvantages, including making themselves the target for attacks, in the case of the old, the elderly and the infirm. As ever, I am sure that Ministers will listen to the hon. Gentleman's point, as it is our intention to ensure that the new system is an advance in what people are offered, not a retrograde step.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 947 which has been signed by a large number of hon. Members from all parties.

[That this House notes that after 33 years since the Equal Pay Act was introduced, the pay gap between men and women for full-time work remains considerable at 19 per cent.; further notes that the pay gap for part-time work is even larger at 41 per cent, and that this has remained unchanged for the last 25 years; acknowledges that in retirement, women suffer the consequences of a lifetime of pay inequality as the pay gap grows to become an income gap of 44 per cent.; commends recent research commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission that shows only 18 per cent, of large employers and 10 per cent, of medium-sized employers have actually carried out a pay review or are in the process of doing so; acknowledges that without conducting a pay review employers may be unaware that pay inequality exists in their organisation; welcomes the steps the Government has already taken to address the pay gap; but urges the Government to go further and give the strongest possible lead to employers.] Will he arrange a debate on the subject? Despite the Government's best efforts, we are not making much progress in narrowing the pay gap, and only a small percentage of employers have carried out pay reviews to try to identify where the pay gap is.

Dr. Reid

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that our commitment is beyond question. As a Government, we are leading by example on these matters through commitment to equal pay reviews in Departments and Government agencies, which are on track to be completed in the course of the first half of this year. We are also encouraging employers to pay fairly through the equal pay questionnaire, which was introduced on 6 April, by providing additional funding of more than £150,000 on top of the £145,000 already provided to trade unions for the training of representatives on equal pay issues in the workplace and by funding the pay review toolkits. We are using a range of measures to tackle the problem, but it is a difficult one and I do not pretend for a moment that we have either solved it or gone as far as we would like. Any opportunities for debate, whether in an Adjournment debate, in Westminster Hall or during the debates devoted to the subject of equality of opportunity that occasionally arise in the House, will be occasions on which this worthy topic should be raised.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

May we have a debate on the nature, meaning and understanding of time in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will understand the empathy that I felt with Hamlet in his lament, The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!", when I received from that Department this parliamentary answer, dated 1 May: The Department will be writing to all livestock fanners in England about the new rules on disposal of fallen stock before Easter."—[Official Report, 1 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 457W.] I do not know about you, Mr. Speaker, but I thought that Easter fell shortly before 1 May. It took a further question from me, which was answered this week, to drag Ministers back to the same space-time continuum as the rest of us. I was informed that, on 17 April, the Department had indeed written to all livestock farmers regarding the new rules. Even if I cannot have a debate on the more erudite subject that I have suggested, I wonder whether I could have one on that very important subject, as the new rules and regulations are still causing serious distress and anxiety to livestock farmers throughout the country.

Dr. Reid

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having made the most literary contribution to today's business questions. As a matter of fact, Easter occurs every year. I assume that the Department was referring to Easter this year, in which case it will no doubt have noted his reprimand. On the general philosophical subject of time, we should all read Stephen Hawking's book, "A Brief History of Time", which I recommend even if for no other reason than that it brought to my attention the fact that there are 100 billion suns in the galaxy and 100 billion solar systems in the observable universe, so none of us should take ourselves that seriously.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read early-day motion 1282, which calls for the abolition of the House of Lords Appointments Commission?

[That this House notes that the House of Lords Appointments Commission has, since its creation, recommended one batch of People's Peers in April 2001 and nothing since; further notes from its web site that it is still actively soliciting applications from putative peers; is deeply concerned that the Commission's running costs are estimated at £120,000 for the past year during which time it has met twice; and believes that the Commission no longer serves a useful purpose, if it ever did, and should be wound up forthwith.] How can we possibly justify keeping this body in existence when it has appointed only one batch of people's peers, more than two years ago in April 2001? It costs an arm and a leg£120,000 a year—but rarely meets.

On a connected matter, may I ask what is happening to the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform? My right hon. Friend's predecessor was instrumental in selecting hon. Members to serve on the Committee, which is clearly deadlocked. It is split three ways, and I should like to know what plans the Leader of the House has to take House of Lords reform forward.

Dr. Reid

On the last subject, I am tempted to say that I have a cunning plan. I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that I have one at this stage, but I am reflecting on the report that the Joint Committee recently issued. My hon. Friend also asked about the abolition of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. I have seen the early-day motion to which he referred. I cannot extend my sympathy and support towards it, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister hopes to make a statement in the not-too-distant future about appointments to the commission and related matters.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

May I commiserate with my right hon. Friend about last night's result, having been a Celtic supporter ever since I could turn on the wireless on a Saturday night and listen to "Sports Report"? It is a tragedy that we lost last night. He probably has not had time to consider the fact that the first test match with Zimbabwe began at Lord's today. I and my hon. Friends the Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and for City of York (Hugh Bayley), as well as the Opposition spokesperson on international development, stood outside the ground handing out black armbands to signify the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate before the second test match begins in about a fortnight to enable all the Zimbabwean cricketers and exiles, who were out in force today at the ground, to see how the Government are developing their thinking to bring an end to the Mugabe dictatorship and to tyranny, beatings and torture, and to let democracy and the people of Zimbabwe have their say again?

Dr. Reid

The Government's policy on Zimbabwe has not changed. For the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned, we will do our utmost to maintain international pressure through sanctions while using dialogue between ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change aimed at restoring Zimbabwe to democracy, prosperity and stability. He will know that we have already introduced targeted measures against the regime, which were rolled over unanimously by the European Union in February. We are handling the matter proactively in a range of international spheres. We will certainly continue to do that and I hope that he will find opportunities in the House to raise some of the terrible things that have been happening in Zimbabwe.

I suppose that 1 should conclude by responding to my hon. Friend's making yet another reference to Celtic by pointing out in the even-handed way in which we proceed in this House that it is worth noting that Glasgow Rangers are top of the Scottish league at present. Let none of us be accused of taking a biased view on these matters.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)

Earlier this week, Corus at Shotton on Deeside announced the loss of a further 95 jobs at a plant that, at its height, employed more than 14,500 people. It will now employ just over 600 people. Further to the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), will he allow time for an early debate on the future of the steel industry, which has been so badly mismanaged in recent years?

Dr. Reid

I accept the importance of the point that my hon. Friend makes. After hearing the points that have been made, it occurs to me that the manufacturing industry might be a very useful and relevant topic for cross-cutting questions at some stage in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

The experience of the past couple of weeks has clearly demonstrated that it is impossible for this House to transact its business successfully and keep to the hours imposed by the modernisation agenda. I have been told that a cross-party consensus is emerging that an acceptable compromise would be to retain the new Wednesday and Thursday hours, but restore the former Tuesday hours. Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing an early opportunity to test that consensus?

On a lighter note, if my right hon. Friend is in a generous mood, will he also think about the opportunities afforded to Back Benchers to participate in business questions and see if there is any way of ensuring that we do not have to compete with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), whose act is so honed, colourful and entertaining that it now deserves a special slot of its own?

Dr. Reid

On the second point, it is worth commending the contribution that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) makes, although I note that, not least due to the custodianship of the Chair by Mr. Speaker and yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, everyone who wanted to ask a question today has managed to get in. On the other matter that my hon. Friend raised, we will certainly pay a great deal of attention to that.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Will my right hon. Friend turn his attention to a problem that affects many hon. Members? The Parliamentary Communications Directorate appears to have been allowed to establish a virtual monopoly in providing IT equipment to Members, and has now taken steps to withdraw a proper service from Members whose equipment it deems non-standard. The changes to the PCD network have resulted in any non-standard equipment being denied access to the network. Of course, what PCD means by non-standard is that it is not supplied by PCD. As my right hon. Friend knows, because I copied for him a letter that I sent to the Speaker's Office this morning, I wrote to PCD on 15 May asking why equipment supplied from elsewhere could not have access to the network. I assumed that the problem was the specification of the equipment. I received a response from Mr. Peter Beasley as follows: This is not about the specification of the machine. It is about the difference between a centrally supplied machine and a machine purchased from an external source. I believe that that is an abuse and represents a huge cost to the public purse, as Members who have non-PCD-supplied equipment have been forced to upgrade it at hugely inflated cost, and pay for that from their incidental expenses allowance. I believe that that should be raised with the House administration.

Dr. Reid

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention. I accept what he is saying and know that he has brought the issue to Mr. Speaker's attention. Responsibility for the issue rests with the Information Committee and the information strategy board. If there were a change of policy, it would be considered in the normal way by the House of Commons Commission. However, I note that my hon. Friend is pursuing his own case with vigour, and I am sure that he has a great deal of understanding from other hon. Members.