HC Deb 06 November 2003 vol 412 cc933-47 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Hon. Members

Bye bye!

Mr. Forth

Can we have the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Water Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 11 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Arms Control and Disarmament (Inspections) Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the European Union (Accessions) Bill, followed by a debate on reforming the United Nations on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 12 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Fire Services Bill, followed by motions relating to stamp duty land tax orders.

THURSDAY 13 NOVEMBER—Money resolution relating to the Extradition Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Extradition Bill.

FRIDAY 14 NOVEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 17 NOVEMBER—Commons consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, followed if necessary by further Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

TUESDAY 18 NOVEMBER—Commons consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, followed if necessary by further Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

WEDNESDAY 19 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill, followed by Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

THURSDAY 20 NOVEMBER—Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

In respect of prorogation, I hope that it will be possible to prorogue no later than Thursday 20 November. The House will understand that that is subject to the progress of business in both Houses, but that looks like the most likely date at the moment.

The House will wish to be reminded that the next meeting of the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference is on Monday 10 November at 4.30 pm.

Mr. Forth

We are all very grateful, because at last we are getting a hint of some substantive business. It is significant that their lordships were mentioned so frequently because, sadly, it is they who are doing all the work in Parliament these days. However, we are grateful for the crumbs that we get from their lordships, and they will give us something to do in a couple of weeks' time.

Can I ask the part-time Leader of the House—

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

What about the part-timers over there?

Mr. Forth

I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you are as intrigued by the predictability of Government Members' comments as I am. On the state visit of President Bush, when are we going to be told what arrangements are being made for the President of the United States to address, as I hope he will, Parliament or both Houses of Parliament? I can understand that there may be security considerations, but I hope that we will be given proper notice of the event, and I for one hope to get an invitation.

When will the pre-Budget statement be made? Is it being delayed because the Chancellor is ashamed of what it will contain? Will it contain yet more stealth taxes? Will property taxes be sneaked into it? We are already getting a stealth tax on business leases next week. I wonder whether the pre-Budget statement is being somehow covered up, concealed or delayed because the Chancellor does not want to tell us what is in it.

On a similar subject, when will we be given the local government settlement statement? I hope that we can be told that a statement will not be made at the very last minute, that it will be given in ample time and that we will have proper time to debate it. As you know, Mr. Speaker, it is something that affects every Member of this House and all our constituents. The local government settlement is an important annual event, and I hope that the part-time Leader will be able to tell us that it will be delivered in proper time and that we will also have proper time to discuss it and question Ministers about it.

When will we see the Penrose report on Equitable? Some 1 million pensioners—I suspect that they include constituents of all Members—have been very much affected by Equitable. I hope that we can receive a guarantee that the report will be brought to the House soon, and that when it is brought we will be given proper time to debate it. I want to question Ministers on it, as I am sure do other Members from both sides of the House. I hope that there will be no further delay before the Penrose report on Equitable is made available to us.

Does the part-time Leader of the House agree with either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor about the European Union? The other day, the Chancellor told us in The Daily Telegraph: the IGC must respond without ambiguities that might, if unravelled, undermine even the best of intentions. He went on: Indeed our rejection of a federal European state and support for an outward-looking and flexible European Union is not a British obsession but can become, we believe, the settled view of most of Europe. I thoroughly applaud what the Chancellor said—[Interruption.] The part-time Leader tells us that he, too, applauds it. Perhaps we can find time for a little debate on the subject? it could be entitled, "Who is right on Europe: the Prime Minister or the Chancellor?"

The Prime Minister could open the debate and the Chancellor could wind up, and between them they could see whether they could get their act together.

Mr. Hain

On behalf of the whole House, may I be the first to congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on becoming Conservative party leader in his Saddam Hussein-type election? The Government are delighted that Mr. Poll Tax is now leading Her Majesty's official Opposition. I am also pleased the shadow Leader of the House is still hanging on in there.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

Like Custer's last stand. My vote goes to him, as one of the most treasured possessions of the Opposition Front Bench.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a series of questions, the first of which was about President Bush's state visit. He will appreciate that a state visit is a matter for the palace and the President's office, and that there are particular security considerations. I shall certainly make it top of my list to ensure that he gets an invitation to whatever events are held—if he is still shadow Leader of the House. If he is no longer shadow Leader, I shall, in my generosity, nevertheless try to get him an invitation, as I have enjoyed my spats with him.

The Chancellor will make a statement on the pre-Budget report soon. That statement will reflect the strength of the British economy under this Government. We have low interest rates, and after the quarter point rise today, we still have lower interest rates than we were used to under the previous Conservative Government, which illustrates the economic stability that exists under our Labour Government. Together with low inflation and record employment, that will be reflected in the Chancellor's statement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the local authority settlement. He will appreciate that, under our Government, settlements have been made earlier than usual. That will remain the case, and a statement will be made soon.

I appreciate the points that the right hon. Gentleman made about the Penrose report on Equitable Life. On behalf of our constituents, we all share those concerns, and I shall certainly seriously consider what he said.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the Prime Minister's and the Chancellor's views on the European Union. The truth is that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, other members of the Cabinet and I have exactly the same view. We are for Britain's membership of the European Union, unlike the shadow Leader of the House, who wants Britain to leave, losing nearly 3 million British jobs in all our constituencies in the process.

In respect of the intergovernmental conference negotiations, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been fully accountable to the House on numerous occasions. Our objective is to ensure that what we achieved when I represented the Government on behalf of the Cabinet in the Convention on the Future of Europe is a European Union that is a union of nation states, not a federal superstate, with taxation decided at a national level, not harmonised at a Brussels level. That is, and will remain, the position of the British Government, and I am happy to clarify it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

My colleagues and I share the delight at the appointment of the new leader of the Conservative party, not least because we are taking a close interest in the real election that will take place in his constituency.

Since the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is presumably not sure whether this is his last appearance in his current role, I should like to paraphrase Churchill by saying that, if this is his swansong—some swan: some neck.

I have very much enjoyed responding to five Leaders of the House, particularly over the past two and half years in which we have engaged in a sort of threesome on Thursday afternoons. [Interruption.] I have played only a bit part in that, but I suggest that all three of us have a close interest in the way in which this House does its business. Will the Leader of the House give some thought, between now and the Queen's speech, to providing an opportunity to debate the way in which this place operates? In particular, it is time we had a debate—perhaps on the Adjournment—on the role of the so-called usual channels. In the past, because of associations with hunting and the Whips, the usual channels have been given rather a bad name, and the public may misunderstand their role. However, that role is essential—it is rather like the mysterious subterranean way in which the sewers support civilisation. Will the Leader of the House give us an opportunity to debate in the Chamber precisely how we handle our business—not least the way in which we try to improve legislation?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing to the House's attention the fact that there was a 20 per cent. Labour vote in Folkestone and Hythe at the last election. Now, of course, that Labour vote will be carefully considering the best way of removing the leader of the Conservative party.

I genuinely echo the hon. Gentleman's generous comments about the shadow Leader of the House. He is a proud parliamentarian—the hon. Gentleman and I share that with him. Although we have our differences, that is the key part of his role, and we respect that.

As for the hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on the usual channels, I am afraid that that is typical of the Liberal Democrats, who never expect to be in government—

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Is that why you switched?

Mr. Hain

As a result, they do not take the usual channels seriously. Does the hon. Gentleman want his own Chief Whip cut out of the usual channels? The Whips play a valuable role in making sure that the business of the House goes forward: he should seriously reflect on that.

Mr. Purchase

The Leader of the House mentioned today's 0.25 per cent. movement in interest rates. Will he ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to the Dispatch Box next week to give the House his view on the effects that that change might have on manufacturing industry? We all accept that the high street and the housing market may be in need of a small increase in interest charges, but I urge upon my right hon. Friend the importance of ensuring that any fiscal measures at the Chancellor's disposal are used quickly in aid of our manufacturing industry.

Mr. Hain

First, I acknowledge my hon. Friend's considerable expertise and interest in manufacturing. He has long been an advocate of a strong manufacturing sector, as have I and many other Members of the House. He will know and be encouraged to note that a survey published only this week shows that growth in manufacturing is at its strongest for four years. The Government have created the economic stability which underpins manufacturing that has put it in a good position to resist the downturn in international trade and in a better position than many other competitor countries.

The quarter per cent. rate rise will be considered in its broad context. It shows an economy that is strengthening. The raising of the interest rates by the Bank of England shows that what it wanted to do was to ensure that the stability that the Government have locked in remains while the economy continues to grow and grow at a faster rate. That is welcome news for manufacturers, in terms of bigger markets and the growth that underpins them.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that we are looking forward to an election in Northern Ireland. Will he put it on his horizon that it might be wise for legislation that affects the whole nation—for example, disability legislation and issues of that nature—to be kept before this House, particularly if a Government is not formed in Northern Ireland? In that way, the people of Northern Ireland will get the benefits that they should get as part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Hain

Legislation such as disability legislation will have to be considered in terms of what is devolved and what is properly reserved for Westminster. I will certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's point in mind, and I am sure that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will have noted it too.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the plight of the Allied Steel and Wire workers who came to Westminster earlier this week to meetings arranged by my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt). Is there nothing that he can do to get us out of this impasse? It is outrageous that the steelworkers have paid into the pension fund all their life and now are entitled to nothing. Is there no way forward that he can find that will prevent them from having to go to court to try to seek what is rightfully theirs? Can he not implore Ministers to get together to find some way out of this disgraceful situation?

Mr. Hain

I agree that it is a disgraceful situation. Successive Ministers have met delegations from Allied Steel and Wire and I commend my hon. Friend and other Cardiff Members for the way in which they have fought the cause of these workers who have been robbed of their pensions. She will appreciate that the Government have to consider the knock-on effects for other similar situations and the law in this respect. One reason why we are introducing new legislation, following the Green Paper on pensions reform, is precisely to address the plight of such workers who have been so badly treated on their pensions.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Will the Leader of the House consider asking the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to the House and make an early statement? This week part of the trial dealing with bovine TB was stopped. Since 1999 the Government have spent £158 million on dealing with this scourge, including £45 million on the culling trial. The cessation of part of this trial has left the world of agriculture in a state of great confusion. The future is unclear and we need a statement on that. Will he bear in mind the fact that, also this week, we have seen the beginning of the end of parts of the agencies that serve DEFRA, under the Haskins review? The House has not heard the details of it and the time is ripe to probe it.

Mr. Hain

The Haskins review has just reported and in due course, following consideration by the Secretary of State, who will want to reflect on it, she will report to the House. I am aware of the problem of bovine TB, as is she, and we are monitoring it closely and intend to keep it under supervision.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Can the Leader of the House tell us when we will have a further debate on the new deal? Now that it has been a success in providing more stable employment in certain areas, perhaps it could be introduced to political parties as well. Some of us just cannot understand why there is not an agency to which political parties can go, to stop this business of having two-year supply leaders of the Tory party.

Mr. Hain

That is a novel suggestion, and I shall certainly draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State. Obviously, it is of great concern—I am sure that it will be of interest to the whole House—that the official Opposition want to abolish the new deal, and that the new leader of the Conservative party is wedded to that policy. I am sure that, when my hon. Friend's proposal is considered, that issue will also be considered. Nearly 500,000 people have been brought into work and trained for work opportunities under the new deal, and it would be criminal to scrap it. That will be one of the issues to be contested at the next general election.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the lessons to be learned from the devolved bodies about scrutiny? I ask this in the light of the constitution unit's report, which shows that those bodies are better at keeping in touch with the public, and that pressure from their Opposition parties is more likely to lead to change by the Executive. Would there be lessons to be learned in that regard for under-employed Labour Back Benchers who are tempted to brief against their colleagues in Cardiff, and perhaps for the Secretary of State for Wales as well?

Mr. Hain

I am not sure about under-employed Labour Back Benchers, but there are certainly a lot of under-employed Conservative Back Benchers who are presumably celebrating the election of their new leader somewhere upstairs at the moment. One of the advantages of devolution, particularly in regard to the National Assembly for Wales's scrutiny procedures, is that we can learn from one other. That was one of the reasons why I campaigned so hard for a yes vote in the referendum, as the hon. Gentleman and others did. I hope that we will look at the way in which the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales have worked, and I hope that they will look at our procedures as well. Perhaps we will learn something from one another.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I raise a point of House of Commons procedure, of which I have given the office of the Leader of the House notice? How are we going to monitor the absolutely burgeoning costs of the commitment in Iraq? The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said recently that, For the current financial year, further sums have been drawn down from the special reserve. These are subject to scrutiny by HM Treasury and Parliament through the normal estimates process."—[Official Report, 30 October 2003; Vol. 412, c. 21WS.] Does the Leader of the House think that the normal estimates process, which takes an endless amount of time, is really the way in which the House of Commons should be following this enormous expenditure that we have been landed with?

Mr. Hain

I agree that it is a considerable expenditure. The best assessment of war-fighting and peacekeeping costs over this year will be submitted formally to Parliament in the winter supplementary estimates, and we hope to inform Parliament of those costs shortly. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we are involved in stabilising a bad security situation around Baghdad and the Tikrit area, although the south of the country is in much better shape, as is the north. I am sure that he will want to support that, whatever his views on the rights and wrongs of the war, because we want to provide a stable, democratic, peaceful future for the Iraqi people—something that they have not had for generations.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Would the Leader of the House, in a bipartisan spirit, look at an occurrence this morning when the Government announced in a written statement a plan to deal wholly differently with agreements made under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990—section 106 agreements? The fact that a Minister did not come to the House means that many people will suspect that this is the beginning of a new form of stealth taxation. I am sure that the Government would not wish that to be believed, and a sensible debate about his would demand that it should not be. Why did no Minister come to the House to make this announcement, so that we could have a discussion about this major significant change in the way in which we handle our planning laws?

Mr. Hain

I appreciate the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman raised that question, but he will also understand that the purpose of issuing written ministerial statements is to provide the House with more information, so that hon. Members like him can check their policy response. I assure him that there is no attempt to impose a stealth tax of any kind through this procedure. It is an attempt to modernise the planning system, which has been the objective all along.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that early-day motion 1759 on House of Commons sitting arrangements has attracted 170 signatures from both sides of the House?

[That this House notes that the revised sitting hours and related arrangements have now been in place for 10 months; believes that there is now sufficient experience of the new arrangements to enable the House to judge what adjustments would be appropriate to enable the business of the House to be conducted more effectively; and calls for a review of the reforms.]

Will my right hon. Friend tell us when a review of these reforms will take place?

Mr. Hain

I am well aware of the number of signatures to that early-day motion. Obviously, there are strong feelings on this matter on both sides of the House, and sometimes bitter divisions of view on it. The House took a decision last year for the hours to be changed for the rest of this Parliament. In the consultations that I am having with many Members on both sides of the House, I want to keep continually under review exactly how we can ensure that some of the bottlenecks and teething problems in the new system can be resolved. I hope that we can take these matters forward soon, because there are a number of unsatisfactory aspects to the arrangements—for example, the very early sittings of some Committees, and the fact that the Chamber is locked earlier in the evening, which means that Members cannot bring dinner guests in to have a look when the House is not sitting. We should resolve issues such as those in a commonsense way, but there will have to be a review before the end of this Parliament to satisfy my hon. Friend's concerns and those of others.

Bob Russell

The Leader of the House referred to the strength of the economy. Does he accept, however, that hundreds of thousands of families are not benefiting from that strength? I am referring to the 35,000 households, for example, in the counties in the east of England with children who are living in accommodation that is not suitable for their needs. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this, so that we can discuss the social consequences of 25 years of insufficient investment in new council houses?

Mr. Hain

The social consequences are very serious, as the hon. Gentleman says, and we are seeking to address this issue. It is important, however, that he acknowledge that the hard-won economic stability that we have created through a combination of low inflation, low interest rates and high employment has brought prosperity to his region and his constituency, along with more jobs—including in the areas that contain those particular dwellings. Building on the back of that economic stability, greater investment in housing—and social housing—can be taken forward. We cannot do that without the economic stability that we have created.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the EU Commission is to put to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health a proposal to approve a BT sweet corn called BT11, ahead of the rigorous regulations that are to be brought into force later this year? Doing that would end the moratorium in Europe on both genetically modified food and crops.

I have pressed my right hon. Friend in the past to have a debate on the Floor of the House on this issue, and I repeat today that things are happening in other places that are determining the possible future commercial planting of GM crops in this country. There is a need for a debate on the Floor of the House—notwithstanding the fact that I am grateful that there is to be a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall next week.

Mr. Hain

I was going to say to my hon. Friend that that debate was going to take place. The Minister will reply to it, and there will be an opportunity for all those issues to be raised and for her very proper concerns to be addressed. In no way should a series of, as it were, cascading developments be allowed to change policy in the way she is concerned about.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for letting me ask this question. May I raise with the Leader of the House an issue about which I am sure he is concerned, namely, access for disabled people to the House of Commons? Yesterday, three of my constituents from the Marlborough school in Woodstock, all of whom were wheelchair-bound, came to visit the House for Prime Minister's Questions. The Serjeant at Arms, the police and the Admissions Order Office were incredibly helpful but is the Leader of the House aware that wheelchair users who want to watch Prime Minister's Questions are confined to staying behind the stone facade at the back of the Gallery? Does he agree that we really ought to do more, in 2003, to ensure that disabled constituents can come to the House of Commons and get a proper view of the proceedings and be treated better? Frankly, despite all the best efforts of the authorities of the House—who were magnificent—the current arrangements are not good enough.

Mr. Hain

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's concern, and that of other Members. The House authorities are trying to deal with it. Access to the House for members of the public is crucial, and we must take a much more reformist approach to it. That applies to people with disabilities, and to other members of the community. I am keen for us to have a visitors' centre and a proper walkway, perhaps leading from the Members' Entrance, so that visitors can queue under cover rather than being stuck out in the rain. They are, after all, citizens of this country. They are the people who vote us into this place. We should treat them with more respect, whether they have disabilities—the hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to that issue—or not.

Mrs. Gwyneth Danwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

As my right hon. Friend will know, in 2004 the Government will introduce regulations on consultation in the workplace, and are encouraging people to meet those standards as soon as possible. Will he set a really good example in this regard? Will he not just consult all unions, workers and parliamentary staff in the Houses of Parliament, but at least consult MPs again about the unworkable, unhelpful and even rather debilitating changed sitting hours?

Mr. Hain

I am indeed consulting all Members—including my hon. Friend, who has spoken to me about these matters and will, I am sure, continue to do so. I want to secure consensus, because, as I have said, there are strong views on both sides. We want to ensure that this is a modern place reflecting modern life outside.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

I think that if we are not a House of Commons that reflects life outside, we will cease to command the respect of people outside.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Were this week's articles by the Chancellor of the Exchequer part of the Government's euro roadshow campaign? To allay the fears of some of us who suspect that the roadshow does not exist, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many events he has attended since I last asked him this question? He boasted then that he had attended a meeting of the Welsh euro organising committee—a very exciting event. What other exciting events has he attended since?

Mr. Hain

Another meeting.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor to come to the House as soon as possible? Talk of interest rate increases always gives the jitters to first-time home buyers. We do not want to return to the 1980s under the last Government. I want the Chancellor to give an assurance that we will not see houses being repossessed, people being thrown out of their homes, and double-figure interest rates.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to question the Chancellor during next week's Treasury questions, but I can reassure him and his constituents that there is no prospect of a return to the sky-high interest rates and mortgage levels that we experienced under the Conservative Government. They dispossessed tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, caused negative equity, and created the economic blight from which we, as a Labour Government, had to recover.

Our present interest rates are historically low for modern times, and the economic stability locked in by this Government will keep them low. Nevertheless, I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want inflation to rise on the back of a strong economy, affecting his constituents and causing pressures on interest rates.

That is the issue with which the Bank of England has grappled, and I think that it made the right decision today.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that personal debt has increased by more than 50 per cent. during the Government's lifetime, and, with increasing interest rates expected, the problem is growing at a massive rate. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on debt in the United Kingdom in either this or the next Session?

Mr. Hain

The truth is that debt is much more easy to finance with the current low interest rates, and indeed with foreseeable rates. Under the Conservatives' high interest rates, debt levels were difficult to manage and many people were plunged into penury and poverty. The present economic stability, better job opportunities, high employment rates and overall strength of the economy mean that we are unlikely to experience the problem that worries the hon. Gentleman.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

As my right hon. Friend knows, at the beginning of the year the Central line was closed for three months. W ill he raise with our colleagues in the Department of Transport my constituents' concern about the long delays in the handling of compensation claims? Some have been able to obtain satisfaction only by making representations to me, and through my interventions.

Mr. Hain

I understand that £8 million has been paid so far in refunds. The Secretary of State for Transport will address my hon. Friend' s concern about the difficulty of securing compensation, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

The Leader of the House commented earlier on the state visit by President Bush. Might it be possible to raise with him the deep concern felt by many Members about the case of my fellow Scot Kenny Richey, currently on death row in Ohio? Those who are concerned include the 75 signatories to early-day motion 1593, which states

That this House notes the recent decision by the Home Office to grant Kenny Richey British citizenship? further notes that Mr Richey has spent 16 years on death row in the State of Ohio for the alleged murder of a two-year-old girl killed in a fire at her mother's apartment; notes that following the case having been heard at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on 7th May a final decision is expected before August as to whether he should face execution; notes that important forensic and eyewitness evidence has come to light since the original verdict was reached which casts serious doubt on the safety of the conviction; notes, however, that under US law new evidence produced after a certain time does not provide grounds for a reversal; and therefore calls on the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to make direct and robust representation to the state authorities, the Governor of Ohio and the President of the United States on behalf of Kenny Richey at the earliest opportunity, the eventual objective being to secure clemency.

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, there is substantial doubt about the safety of Kenny Richey's conviction. If his execution is allowed to go ahead without that doubt being addressed, there will be an enduring stain on the reputation of the United States for fairness and justice.

Mr. Hain

I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point of view and to his request. As he will appreciate, this Government and this country oppose the death penalty, whether imposed within our own boundaries or anywhere else in the world.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

The lives of many of my constituents are being blighted by antisocial behaviour—aggressive begging, drunk and disorderly conduct and noisy neighbours—and also by criminal behaviour. Residential properties are being used for drug dealing and prostitution. I know that the Government have introduced some good legislation, and I find it enormously frustrating when local authorities and the police do not respond properly to it. May we have an early debate on their effectiveness or otherwise in responding to what is already on the statute book?

Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend says, we have already introduced provisions to tackle antisocial behaviour, which is a scourge throughout the country, not least in constituencies such as mine. I share her frustration at the failure of police forces, local authorities and other agencies to implement those provisions. She will have an opportunity to address the problem when the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill returns from the House of Lords, although we are particularly frustrated at the way in which the House of Lords is itself frustrating the democratic wish of MPs and the elected Government to tackle the problem by trying to amend and disable the Bill. We shall have to do something about that when it comes back to the Commons.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to come here and make a statement on why he is refusing to answer a number of sensitive questions? On 20 October I tabled a question asking the Secretary of State to outline the sanctions and powers of the international monitoring body to take action against parties such as Sinn Fein in relation to past terrorist activities. He refused to answer that, and also the question I tabled on 30 October asking him to make a statement on the arms and explosives held by all republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Yet this House voted to go to war on the basis of public information brought to it on weapons of mass destruction—arms and explosives that threatened us.

Mr. Hain

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland regularly makes himself accountable to the House. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, he was at the Dispatch Box only a few weeks ago. He will have noted the hon. Gentleman's intervention, and I must leave it at that.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a wide-ranging debate on the Government's success in reducing economic and social divisions? In particular, will he ask Ministers to talk about the significant improvement in local authority funding, compared with the capping, cuts and poll tax that went before? We could also talk about the 1 million jobs that have been created under this Government, the successful introduction of the minimum wage, which it was forecast would lose 2 million jobs, the abolition of the incredibly discriminatory section 28, and the improved workers' rights, compared with the anti-worker attitude of the previous Administration. I am sure that the House could have an interesting and wide-ranging debate on those matters.

Mr. Hain

I am sure that we could, too, especially as the policy that my hon. Friend identified—opposition to a minimum wage—was led by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who projected that introducing it would lead to 2 million job losses. What have we seen instead? Some 1.6 million new jobs have been created while the minimum wage has been in force. On that policy, and on the right hon. and learned Gentleman's record on the poll tax, and of presiding over rising unemployment, we can have a debate.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the council tax is nearly, but not quite, as unpopular as that legacy of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the poll tax. When we hear the local authority settlement and the police authority settlement, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that there is plenty of time for all Members who wish to do so to express their constituents' anger about having to pay more and more, without any benefit accruing to either local authorities or local services? Better still, will he introduce a debate on the abolition of the council tax and its replacement with a fair alternative?

Mr. Hain

I would be very happy to have a debate on that policy, because the Liberal Democrats' policy of a local income tax could add up to 6p in the pound to income tax. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting, as the first part of his question implied, that levels of council tax are causing anything like the outcry caused by the poll tax?

Mr. Heath

indicated assent.

Mr. Hain

In that case, is the hon. Gentleman advocating a return to the poll tax? I think we should be told.

Mr. Heath

I think I clearly said not.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the possible threat of even further industrial action in the fire service. Will he use his good offices to remind all those concerned of the dangerous and damaging consequences, not only for the general public but for the morale of firefighters themselves, should any action be taken? Will he use his influence to ensure that both parties will have every opportunity to reach a satisfactory conclusion before any ministerial intervention?

Mr. Hain

We are all concerned about the situation affecting the fire service, especially as, although a generous pay settlement was agreed between the union and the authorities, including extra pay increases for modernisation, there now seems to be an impasse in some sections of the Fire Brigades Union, and an unwillingness to accept the quid pro quo of extra pay, over and above the general public sector settlement, in exchange for modernisation. That is the issue that needs to be resolved, round the table rather than on the picket line.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

May we have a debate about the rules governing the portrayal of parliamentarians in the House of Commons art collection? Is this not a timely moment to examine the way in which the rules governing, for example, the portrayal of former and current Leaders of the Opposition work, and perhaps commission some suitable modern art? Could we not ask Damian Hirst to produce a suitably realistic presentation of both the current and the former Leader of the Opposition?

Mr. Hain

I think that that would be a very good idea.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1868, about a chlorine emergency at Staveley in my constituency?

[That this House calls for a full investigation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs into the escape of chlorine at Staveley in Derbyshire from the chemical works of Rhodia Eco Services which led to workers being taken to hospital, children locked in schools, the blocking of a wide section of the town and residents having to follow emergency procedures for a considerable length of time with many being unable to return to their home? and requires action to be taken so that nothing similar will occur in the future.]

That took place on Monday at Rhodia Eco Services, and the escape of chlorine gas led to areas of Staveley being blocked off for several hours, with all the disruption that that caused in schools and elsewhere. May we have a written statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the role of the Health and Safety Executive in examining that episode? The statement could also cover the fact that, with the honourable exception of Peak FM, Radio Hallam and today's Derbyshire Times, the media carried little about the incident, because we happen to be at the edge of several different media areas. That major crisis should have been given the type of coverage that it was entitled to, which probably adds to the case that I am making for the Health and Safety Executive to take firm action to ensure that nothing like that happens in the town again.

Mr. Hain

I assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State shares his concern about that serious incident, which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) have brought to the attention of the House. I am sure that she will want to take the matter up and make a written ministerial statement about it at some point.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Would not a debate on the unneeded surplus in the national insurance fund help the Government to find a practical solution to help the Allied Steel and Wire workers? At the end of the financial year there will be a £30 billion surplus—£20 billion above the necessary contingency fund. The fund has already been used for extraneous purposes, such as compensating industry for green taxes, which cost £2 billion a year. Would it not be reasonable, just and practical to use a tiny part of that huge surplus to compensate the Allied Steel and Wire pensioners?

Mr. Hain

I know that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has looked closely at such matters, because he, like the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has received a delegation from the ASW workers, along with MPs who have, quite properly, been concerned about the situation. I shall ensure that he is aware of my hon. Friend's proposition.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

There has been a good deal of discussion in the House about the European Union constitution, but it has emerged only recently that it is to include an energy chapter. There is a great deal of concern that that could involve ceding competence over this country's oil and gas reserves to the European Union. May we have a debate on that important subject? Most Members are pleased that the Government have made taxation a red line issue, but many would wish to express the view that the licensing and control of our oil and gas reserves, which we have exercised since they were discovered in 1964, should also be a red line issue.

Mr. Hain

Indeed, I tabled an amendment on that matter on behalf of the Government in the proceedings of the Convention on the Future of Europe. It was one of the few unresolved issues on which we still need a proper outcome in the negotiations. I assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is proceeding along the lines that he advocates. Licensing must indeed remain a matter to be supervised and directed as it is at present—and other countries, including the Netherlands, share our position, so I think I can reassure him that we shall get an outcome that he will find satisfactory.