HC Deb 27 November 2003 vol 415 cc125-39
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

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

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

Mr. Speaker, you informed the House yesterday of the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech. The business for next week will therefore be as follows:

From Monday 1 December to Thursday 4 December, continuation and then conclusion of the debate on the Queen's Speech, with Divisions expected on the final two days.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 8 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill.

TUESDAY 9 DECEMBER—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, followed by a debate on fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 10 DECEMBER—A debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 11 DECEMBER—Estimates [1St Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on child care for working parents, followed by a debate on people, pensions and post offices. Details will be given in the official Report.

At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Mr. Speaker, the House will wish to be reminded that the next meeting of the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference is on Monday 1 December at 3.30 pm.

Mr. Heald

As the Leader of the House knows, the Prime Minister launched his great conversation with the nation yesterday, but within hours the Leader of the House went on "Newsnight" and refused to debate with other parties. Does that mean that the conversation does not include Opposition Members?

The Leader of the House will also know that the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) has suggested that the Prime Minister might like to extend the conversation to include Labour MPs, in particular because 128 Labour

Members have signed early-day motion 7 on university top-up fees: [That this House recognises the widespread concern about the effects variable tuition fees and the perception of debt may have on access to universities, particularly among students from families on modest or lower middle incomes; notes that there are alternative models of funding higher education, which the Department for Education and Skills has considered and which do not involve variable top-up fees; and calls on the Government, therefore, to publish full details of these alternatives to facilitate proper, informed debate and understanding before proceeding with legislation to reform the higher education funding system.]

If the conversation is to include Labour MPs, are we to expect an early statement from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills?

Will the Home Secretary be making an early statement abandoning his plan to put the children of asylum seekers into care? That is clearly an obnoxious proposal, with no support, and it should be withdrawn.

Can the Leader of the House confirm whether there was a printing error in the Queen's Speech? Is it really the case that the Government are to put forward a Bill for a referendum on the euro, when we all know that they have no plans for such a referendum this side of a general election? Surely, the Bill should have been for a referendum on the Euro constitution, especially in the light of recent information that Britain would lose the right to determine its own foreign policy. Would the right hon. Gentleman like to contemplate his previous remark that that was merely a tidying-up exercise?

The shadow Leader—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shadow?"] Sorry, it was a freudian slip, Mr. Speaker; the right hon. Gentleman is soon to be shadow Leader. The Leader of the House will know that concerns have been expressed that no Bill on mental incapacity was announced. Can he explain what has happened to that? Were all the Bills anticipated for the Session announced in the Queen's Speech? If not, can he list what we are to expect? For example, I understand that the gender recognition Bill, which was not in the speech, was given its First Reading in the other place today. What is the true Queen's Speech? Where are the other measures and what is to happen to them?

The Leader of the House will be aware that our armed forces are greatly overstretched at present. Recent reports suggested that some of the oldest and most illustrious regiments, such as the Black Watch, may be under threat. In an interview in The Times yesterday, the Defence Secretary denied wholesale redundancies, but can the Leader of the House tell us when the House will hear what the true position is? Will the statement on the Defence White Paper be made on 11 December? If not, can he tell us when it will be made?

Finally, there is considerable concern on both sides of the House about the new sitting hours, which have also led to the Catering Committee reducing hours in the Refreshment Department. What representations has the Leader of the House received about that? Is he prepared to undertake research into Members' views with the idea of producing a consultation paper—say, before the summer break—and to make a commitment that the matter will be fully debated, perhaps in September? Can the right hon. Gentleman at least make his views known on the process of review?

Mr. Hain

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is getting up to speed in his job as shadow Leader of the House. I look forward to enjoying jousts with him.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Government's great conversation. He knows the protocol that has been adopted with regard to programmes such as "Newsnight" by Ministers of all parties over the years. Frankly, the idea that, when we engage in debate, as I am doing now, with Conservative Members, the Liberal Democrats and other Opposition Members, we are afraid of debating or having a conversation with them—[Interruption]—the conversation—is ludicrous—[Laughter.] Conversation with them is absolutely ludicrous.

Why is the big conversation important? No Government in living memory, if ever, have undertaken such a degree of consultation on the future big challenges facing Britain and, indeed, the whole world. When well into their term of office, the Tory Administration—the Thatcher and Major Governments—ran out of ideas, ran into trouble and fell out of touch with the people. I should have thought that, by contrast with that record, people would welcome the fact that we are saying in this big conversation with every citizen that we want to know their views on big issues that confront the country—for example, how we will fund pensions for an ageing population. Indeed, I know that that conversation will be welcomed when the Prime Minister launches it tomorrow, because people want a form of politics that engages them. The hon. Gentleman should be concerned that the whole Westminster bubble in which Opposition Members, Government politicians and the media live is completely divorced from the issues about which most people are concerned. The big conversation is about engaging with the people on the future challenges for the country.

We know where the Opposition stand on student fees. They want to deprive 250,000 students of the opportunity to go to university. The dividing lines, therefore, are clear. We are trying to find a better way of funding higher education than exists at present, for future years when there will be a funding shortfall. What do the Conservatives propose? Their solution is to cut out the opportunity of 250,000 students to enjoy university education. We want a more highly educated work force because we know that Britain's future lies in having a highly skilled, highly educated work force in a knowledge-based economy. That is the big debate before us.

The disgraceful, opportunistic way in which the hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition yesterday misrepresented the Government's policy on asylum obliges me to explain the Government's policy to the House. Let us look at our proposals.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have announced to the House that we are discussing the business for next week. We must concentrate on that.

Mr. Hain

I was asked, Mr. Speaker, whether there would be debates on this subject next week. Of course the Government's legislation will be discussed during the Queen's Speech debates and there will be an opportunity to raise these issues. In anticipation of them, let me make a succinct rebuttal of the hon. Gentleman's point. We are talking about asylum seekers who have lost their appeals. The Government are saying that we will pay for return air tickets for the whole family and provide a rehabilitation allowance to settle them in their country of origin. I should have thought that most fair-minded people would say that that was a reasonable attitude for the Government to take. It is firm, but fair. Or is the hon. Gentleman's case simply to let open the doors to all asylum seekers and let them stay here even if they lose their appeals? If that is Conservative party policy, perhaps the shadow Home Secretary will announce it next week.

Yes, there will be a Bill on a draft referendum on the euro. We need to be prepared to make a decision on joining the euro on meeting the five tests. The hon. Gentleman asked why there was no referendum on the constitution. We have gone into that argument time and again. The fact is that the negotiations have not yet been concluded. We are negotiating hard and all our red lines will be met.

Yes, there will be a mental incapacity Bill and yes, there will be a gender recognition Bill. All Governments have additional Bills, and draft Bills in our case, in their legislative programme that are not in the Queen's Speech. It is a regular occurrence. There is nothing new in that.

A defence White Paper will be issued on 11 December. The Defence Secretary made it crystal clear in The Timesthis morning that old regiments will not be abolished. As he said. he would expect to have the same sized armed forces in five years' time as today—about 103,000 trained soldiers. The issue is whether we reconfigure our defence forces in order to meet the challenges of the future. That is what this is about.

The hon. Gentleman asked about sitting hours and catering. I was as surprised as everyone else to receive the letter from the Chairman of the Catering Committee about the new arrangements. The Chairman and indeed the Committee as a whole are keen to hear the views of hon. Members and will respond to them. The Chairman has assured me that that will happen. He listened to hon. Members' views in respect of the Smoking Room, where the hours that were originally proposed have been readjusted but the same cost savings achieved.

I put this point to the House, because it is an important matter for hon. Members. There is a £6 million subsidy for catering in the House. I do not think that taxpayers should be subsidising to the extent that they are.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

It's the hours.

Mr. Hain

I am coming to the hours. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that his argument does not stand up. I do not think that taxpayers should be subsidising catering in the House to the tune of £6 million. I am not suggesting that we should have the kind of commercial rates that are charged around Westminster. We should have reasonable rates, especially for the 4,000 people who work here, not just Members of Parliament, but taxpayers will find it hard to understand why they are subsidising meals—heavily, in the case of the Members' Dining Room—to the tune of £6 million in total.

That is in the end a matter for the Catering Committee, and not a matter for me, but I want to refer specifically to the hours issue. The truth is that demand for catering has gone up since the hours have changed.

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


Mr. Hain

Indeed. The right hon. Gentleman will be interested in the facts that have been provided for me from the Refreshment Department. Demand for the Members' Dining Room has increased by 5 per cent. since the hours have been changed and demand for cafeterias has increased by 13 per cent. The most dramatic increase in business has been in the use of meeting and conference rooms in Portcullis House, which have experienced an increase in demand of more than 50 per cent.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

These are statistics from the Chancellor.

Mr. Hain

These are statistics from the House authorities. Excluding banqueting, which is not subsidised, catering income in the first 10 months of 2003, coinciding with the change in hours, increased by 16 per cent. against the same period last year.

Right hon. and hon. Members may have legitimate questions—I have myself—about the proposals from the Catering Committee, which came rather out of the blue and have been adjusted since, but it has nothing to do with the sitting hours, as those figures conclusively show that catering income and demand in the key areas have gone up since the hours have been changed.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

The Leader of the House said that the Prime Minister will make an announcement tomorrow about his so-called conversation with the nation. Will that statement be made in the House, and if not why not? Surely, as representatives of the nation, Parliament must be involved. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the current legislative programme, including the proposals on student fees, will be among the subjects discussed during those conversations, and if not why not? What is the point of them if people are not allowed to comment on issues of immediate topicality?

Surely a practical way in which the Leader of the House could help the House at this stage in the parliamentary year would be to give us a simple, straightforward list of the Bills and draft Bills that are coming forward, each with the sponsoring Department. That is not available to us—or indeed to anyone else. Will he look at that simple, practical proposition?

In relation to the so-called Lords reform Bill, some weeks ago at business questions, I asked the Leader of the House whether he had seen the exchange of letters between the outgoing Lord Chancellor, the Secretary of State for DCAff, and the Chairman of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Now that the

Leader of the House has had time to study that correspondence in detail, perhaps he would be kind enough to clarify its significance.

For example, the Leader of the House will recall, as I pointed it out to him, that the Committee—if it is to be reconstituted—is given a very wide remit. Will he now confirm that there will be a draft Bill on House of Lords reform for that Committee to look at before any final decisions are made about the format? What is the point of having a Committee of both Houses of senior parliamentarians to look at the proposals if the Bill is already set in concrete? Can he confirm that there will be plenty of time for that Committee to consider that Bill, and will he give us an undertaking that its views and recommendations will be published before the Government come forward with the Bill itself? What will be the remit when that Committee is reconstituted, and when will it be reconstituted? Will there be a motion before the House to ensure that the Committee is given the widest possible remit to meet the requirements of the Lord Chancellor?

The Leader of the House will recall, because we were on the same side, that on 4 February the House voted soundly to defeat the proposition for an all-appointed House of Lords, despite the support of the then Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister. He will also remember that more than half of MPs voted for a 100 per cent., 80 per cent. or 60 per cent. elected House. When will he stand up for the views of MPs against the undemocratic dinosaurs of Downing street?

Mr. Hain

The Labour party's big conversation will be launched tomorrow by the Prime Minister at the party's policy forum in Newport in south Wales. I do not want to spend too much time on this matter, but it will deal with the big challenges facing Britain. That is the importance of it. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that the Government, in the mid-term of their second term of office, are looking to the decades ahead and consulting people about the big issues facing Britain. We are a Government and a party who face the future with fairness and firmness, but Opposition parties do not seem to be interested in the future.

The issue of student fees will doubtless come up, as it did in some of the interviews and conference calls that I did yesterday on the Queen's Speech. We need to engage people in a debate about the future of higher education. The Liberal Democrats' alternative method of funding higher education is more tax increases across the board—[Interruption.] Well, we know where the dividing lines are—tax increases from the Liberal Democrats, cuts in student numbers from the Conservatives and the Labour Government saying that we need to find a different way to move forward.

On the issue of a list of draft Bills and Departments, the hon. Gentleman will have seen the Queen's Speech and he will be able to align the Departments with the Bills. He asked about the views of the Secretary of State for DCAff. I am a decaff drinker myself, although in my trade union days my horny-handed colleagues used to prefer caffeinated coffee. If the hon. Gentleman was referring to the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and House of Lords reform, I confirm that we are committed to that and, indeed, the Bill was announced yesterday. The consultation paper that the Lord Chancellor issued has been widely consulted on. He has written to the Joint Committee, we have taken account of the views that have been expressed and, in due course, the Bill will come before Parliament. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the House of Lords voted for an all-appointed Chamber and it will be interesting to see whether it will do a somersault over its earlier decision.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is apparent that many of my colleagues are already engaged in the big conversation and are spreading the message from one end of the country to the other? I have been engaged in it this morning at Chelsea royal hospital, and I have some good news. That hospital is so good that the doctor told me at my cancer check-up at 8 o'clock this morning that I do not need to go back for another 12 months. That was a good Christmas present and the best sort of conversation. The health service is doing so well that it has helped to cure me of cancer and has got me a new United Nations heart. I cannot go wrong with the health service. Keep putting the money in. Unfortunately all those people I met at the hospital this morning did not find a BBC reporter waiting to talk to them when they came out. That is because the NHS is a great success story, and that is the conversation that we should have.

Mr. Hain

Absolutely, Mr. Speaker. I look forward to having many such great conversations with my hon. Friend, who is a brilliant exponent of all sorts of big conversations. The point he makes about very good treatment in the health service under this Labour Government is one that all Labour Members—and, if they are honest, Opposition Members—will acknowledge. People who use the health service overwhelmingly find it an excellent health service, whose nurses, doctors and consultants give fantastic support, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has been able to praise it.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

The British public and the House are surely entitled to expect consistency from their Government, but in respect of house sales and purchases, the Government are being very inconsistent. We are told that the housing Bill will contain a proposal for a seller's pack, to make house selling and buying easier, yet simultaneously we are told that the Chancellor is considering raising stamp duty, which will make buying and selling houses more difficult. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Chancellor will make that clear in his pre-Budget statement—or are the Government planning to make an earlier statement, so that this inconsistency can be cleared up and those who have profound concerns about these matters can have those concerns put to rest?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the publication of the Bill and any Government statements that might or might not accompany it, but there is no inconsistency at all. We all want a modern housing market, able to cope with the demands of the coming decades and to provide a much better deal for home buyers and home sellers. That is the objective. The present system is far too complicated and rigid and it is important that we free it up, so that house sales and purchases can be more easily accommodated to the needs of home owners.

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

May I welcome the inclusion of the housing Bill in the Queen's Speech? Can my right hon. Friend give any indication as to when its Second Reading will be? If there is to be any delay, will he arrange for a more immediate debate on the very welcome proposals to license houses in multiple occupation? This is a measure, for which many Labour Members have argued for several years, to deal with some of the worst properties and some of the most vulnerable tenants—a measure which the Conservative party resisted over and over again when in government.

When Ministers come to the House to consider this issue, will my right hon. Friend ask them to look again at the definition of HMOs? It is rather complicated. It could exclude some of the worst properties and some of the most vulnerable people, and it would be a shame if this excellent measure were in any way compromised by a technical deficiency.

Mr. Hain

I welcome my hon. Friend's question. I cannot give him a date for the Bill's introduction or Second Reading yet, but it will be coming forward and I am glad that he welcomes it. I know that the issues he has raised will be listened to carefully by the Secretary of State, not least because of my hon. Friend's long-standing experience and expertise—I know his constituency concerns on this issue. However, I am sure that he will welcome the fact that there is £5 billion more of Government investment in affordable housing—double what it was in 1997.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

Everybody will have been delighted to see the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) here this morning and will have been particularly glad to hear what he had to say, but it is clear that most of his colleagues on the Labour Benches do not find the new hours very convenient. Will the Leader of the House think again on this one? All we are asking for is a conversation with Parliament, followed by a vote.

Mr. Hain

There will be a conversation with Parliament followed by a vote, because that was the decision that Parliament took when it said that it wanted to change the sitting hours for the rest of the Parliament. Then there will have to be a review, and I will be considering how to take that forward.

I am aware of the concerns of the hon. Gentleman, who is a long-serving, experienced and senior Member of the House. This is an issue on which there are strong concerns on both sides of the argument, and my duty as Leader of the House is to take the issue forward in a way that recognises the strong feelings on both sides rather than prematurely rushing into a decision which, in my view, would not be in the interests of the House and could be highly divisive. We will keep the issue under review, and I will obviously wish to consult the hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House as we take this matter forward, in time for the decision that we are obliged to take before the end of this Parliament.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Would the Leader of the House accept that he has two very heavy and important responsibilities—first, his responsibilities, as Leader of the House, for the Government's legislative programme, and secondly, his responsibilities to the House as a whole, not just to the Labour Government of the moment? Would he try to get the two more in balance, because to my mind it is critical that his interest in the well-being and proper functioning of the House should be more evident than it is?

In that connection—you referred to this in your statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker—will the Leader of the House find a very early day for a debate on the Sessional Orders and Resolutions report of the Procedure Committee, which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the Serjeant at Arms, the Clerk of the House and the Home Office all consider to be important, and which, I believe, a majority of Members of the House likewise consider to be very important?' Will he find an early day for that very important debate?

Mr. Hain

It is an important issue, and I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman's definition of the role of the Leader of the House. He knows that my door is always open to him, because he has come through it regularly, and we have lots of conversations, given his important role as Chairman of the Procedure Committee. I welcome his report and I am grateful to him for his work and that of his Committee. Of course, Mr. Speaker has expressed a view, which we will need to take closely into account. A decision will be needed on this matter in the light of the Committee's important recommendations, which we will obviously study carefully.

Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House find an early date for a full debate on farming? The dairy industry is in continual financial crisis and tuberculosis is spreading among cattle. There is a debate about whether the new payments under the common agricultural policy should be based on the historic or the area-based system, and the House should have an opportunity to be involved in that debate. Is this not the time for the Government to prove that farming is not a forgotten industry for them?

Mr. Hain

Farming most certainly is not a forgotten industry, as is evidenced by our continuing support for the rural community and by the priority given it by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I will certainly draw to her attention the hon. Gentleman's concerns, because they are important issues. Of course, he could apply for a debate. Given where we are in the parliamentary calendar, I cannot promise him an early debate, but we will take close note of his concerns.

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

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and the response that was given, the Leader of the House will

know that paragraph 22 of the Procedure Committee report includes a recommendation that the Government introduce legislation to deal with Parliament square. Does he agree that, in a country where there is ample opportunity to protest, it is wholly inappropriate that there is an unsightly demonstration and placards in one of the most historic landscapes in the country? Will he commit the Government to introducing the necessary legislation, so that we can resolve that issue once and for all?

Mr. Hain

We will have to resolve that issue. We have to balance the rights of people to protest and express their views—I have done a bit of that myself in my time—with the rights of Members of Parliament to proper access to the Palace and to go about their business normally. It is to balancing those rights that the Committee has helpfully drawn our attention; we need to take that forward, and I shall do so in close consultation with you, Mr. Speaker, and other hon. Members, not least the Committee Chairs.

Sir Nicholas Winterton


Mr. Hain

Committee Chairmen in the case of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who have a direct interest in this matter, which needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

Mr. Speaker

I call the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful—I won the jackpot.

Mr. Bercow

What it is to be well known.

Mr. Luff

Indeed. May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the last Hansard of the last Session—Thursday 20 November, part 2, which contains the large number of written answers given at the end of the Session? Does he really think that the answers given by the Home Office are adequate and enable the House properly to do its job of scrutiny? By rough calculation, 302 questions asked of the Home Office were answered on 19 and 20 November, 285 of which received the answer: I will write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of my letter in the Library. I accept that some of those questions were difficult and would have required some time to answer. Other Departments have used that tactic, too, but the Home Office has done so much too often, and it denies those outside the House the results of effective scrutiny by the legislature. Please do something about it.

Mr. Hain

I got to know the hon. Gentleman well on an overseas trip a few years ago, and I can confirm that he is a decent and amiable Conservative—though that has probably finished his career for good.

I will draw his point to the attention of the Home Secretary. The Home Office is a large Department with considerable responsibilities, but equally, it is the right of Members of Parliament to have their questions properly answered.

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

Although we shall shortly have a pre-Budget statement from the Chancellor, the Leader of the House knows that that allows only about an hour or an hour and a half for Members' questions. There are headlines today such as "Negative equity to peak in 2006 says consultancy" and "Brown faces risk of raising taxes", which was endorsed by no less a body than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Given that, and the fact that, since 1997, central Government employment has risen by 200,000 and local government employment by 150,000, while manufacturing employment has fallen by 600,000, when are we going to have a debate about the Government's disastrous record on employment? In view of those shifts in the pattern of employment and the dire warnings being issued by reputable bodies outside the Government, when are we going to have a debate?

Mr. Hain

Disastrous record? The Government have presided over probably the longest period of sustained growth, low inflation, low interest rates and high employment of any Government in living memory, if not ever. If that is a disastrous record, I would like to see what a successful record is like. The truth is that the Government have been successful economically and in other ways. The right hon. Gentleman complains about the level of public investment, but that is not surprising coming from a Conservative, because the Conservatives want to slash public spending by 20 per cent. At this point in the economic cycle, with world trade conditions being stagnant and with virtually every one of our economic competitors either in recession or stagnant, we have seen not just high consumption, but high public investment. Over the cycle, we shall have to stabilise public spending and investment and ensure that private investment fills the gap, as it is already starting to do, with an upturn in manufacturing reflecting another good success story under the Labour Government as compared with the decline in manufacturing in virtually all our competitor nations.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House re-examine the policy that determines when Ministers come to make statements before the House? I ask that because in the last few days we have learned that, instead of dealing with the difficulties of getting tax credits, the Inland Revenue is, on account of mistakes, demanding the repayment of overpayments of moneys. Secondly, we have recently learned that the new computer of the Child Support Agency has gone on the blink to the extent that further misery will be visited on many of our constituents with deeply personal issues. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have the chance to probe Ministers on such matters? Finally, will he confirm whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Prime Minister will be at Speaker's Corner on Sunday to take forward the great conversation?

Mr. Hain

The Prime Minister, other Ministers, and indeed the whole of the Labour party will be involved in a great conversation with the whole of the public right across the country—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

That will no doubt include the constituency of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), if he wishes to take part in it.

On Ministers making statements, when they are to be made, Ministers will make them in the normal fashion. There have been some hiccups in the tax credit administration. but the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) would not want to detract from the fact that this is an overwhelmingly popular measure that has brought huge income and benefit to those on low incomes. I accept that if there have been administrative hiccups, they need to be sorted out.

As to the Child Support Agency's computer, big computer projects are often difficult to bed down. That is true in the private and the public sector. The problem is being sorted out. There have been some problems, but the right hon. Gentleman exaggerates them enormously.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

The Leader of the House will have been as disappointed as I was to hear that Benjamin Zephaniah has turned down the offer of an award for his poetry—an offer that I am sure was made purely on artistic merit. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on poetry, which we should encourage? There is already one budding poet in the House, who wrote the immortal words: She came in the night … Breasts rising as I feel the urge to bite. Who would mess with this amazing sight? Perhaps we could encourage poetry in the House by instituting a poet laureate of the House of Commons. It would show an inclusive and forgiving nature in the Government if the author of those lines were to be the first recipient of such an award.

Mr. Hain

I am tempted, but on reflection, I will not be seduced.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on means-testing? I am not just talking about the increasing number of pensioners who are means-tested in every fashion, but middle income earning middle Britain and the sort of people who pay full prescription charges, full council tax, full payment for school meals and full tuition fees. They are the sort of people who pay full for absolutely everything. Now we hear that access to free school buses, a tradition in this country, will be means-tested as well. When are the Government going to stop kicking middle Britain?

Mr. Hain

This business of means-testing goes back to the 1930s when it was punitive. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that giving people on low pensions and low incomes an entitlement to extra benefits through tax credits and pension credits is the equivalent of means-testing, that is a joke. The truth is that the Conservatives oppose such support for people on low incomes and low pensions, because they plan to scrap it. We are putting in extra resources to make work pay and to make sure that thrifty pensioners who have worked hard all their lives can benefit and enjoy retirement.

On school buses, the hon. Gentleman has completely misrepresented—as have the newspapers—what is proposed in the draft Bill, which he will have an opportunity to subject to pre-scrutiny. The Government are seeking to deal with an issue. First, there is much traffic congestion during the school run. Traffic is up by about a fifth, so we want to try to get more children to go to school in buses and out of cars. Secondly, there is the question of child safety. The issue is complicated by the fact that school transport is generally not provided for journeys of less than three miles, so how, do we change the regulations and configure school transport in a way that, especially in rural areas, provides for a better deal? That is what the proposal is about and the hon. Gentleman should not seek to mislead the House—inadvertently, I am sure—in the way that he has.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

May I bring to the attention of the Leader of the House an item from yesterday's Gracious Speech that I hope there will be no rush to bring before the House, namely the Civil Contingencies Bill, which is currently published in draft? It will be apparent to anyone who has read the draft Bill that it poses a very real threat to civil liberties in this country and that it is widely drawn in that it would give wide powers to the Government. Indeed, many of the definitions in the Bill, such as that of an emergency, are widely, loosely and dangerously drawn. I understand that the Joint Committee that examined it is due to report tomorrow and I hope that there will be plenty of time for the Government to consider the terms of that report before the Bill comes to the House for Second Reading.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to raise whatever detailed points he wants, but it is extraordinary that he is effectively saying that people in this country who stand in danger of being blown up by terrorists or attacked by suicide bombers should not have proper civil contingency arrangements in place. If that is what he saying, he will no doubt vote against the Bill. If he has constructive amendments to move or thinks that some detail could be better, we will consider his suggestions.

Nobody should be in any doubt that this country faces a terrorist threat that is very serious indeed even when compared with the worst days of the IRA. We therefore need proper civil contingency arrangements in place and systems prepared to allow us to deal with that. That is what the Bill will do.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on post offices so that a Minister could explain to me why the Post Office proposes to close 80 per cent. of the post offices in Belper? It wants to close four of the five post offices that serve the people of Belper, so how on earth can the Government give a commitment that pensioners will still be able to collect their pensions from a post office when the Government will leave only one post

office serving more than 20,000 people? That cannot be right. What are the Government going to do to instruct the Post Office to alter these disastrous proposals?

Mr. Hain

We will certainly not privatise the Post Office in the way that many Conservatives have advocated. The Post Office obviously uses criteria for local post office provision and, as I have said on many occasions before when answering questions in this slot, I find the decline of local post offices extremely regrettable, but it is a long-term trend. If the hon. Gentleman wants a debate about the subject, there will be one on 11 December, as I announced only a few moments ago.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

May I take the Leader of the House back to an aspect of the business that he announced for the next two weeks? He said that, a week on Monday and for part of the following day, the House will be asked to consider the remaining stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. He will know that the Bill had a rocky, long and rather strange ride during the past Session and that it was sent back to Committee. How much time on the Tuesday will be devoted to the Bill before consideration of the other measure that he announced? Will that time be only for Third Reading or will Report continue on Tuesday?

Mr. Hain

The conclusion of the remaining stages will take place over two days—a long day on Monday and part of a day on Tuesday. The consideration on Tuesday will be followed by a debate on a fisheries motion, which the House expressly asked for before the Christmas recess, to which we agreed. There will be plenty of time to address the issues. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bill's purpose is to end the bureaucratic logjam that has existed in the planning system and to allow businesses to invest more easily in enterprise to go forward in a better way so that communities may prosper more effectively. He will find that we have allocated plenty of time to address the remaining stages.

Mr. Bercow

Given the serious concerns that have already been expressed about the Government's intended asylum policy and the evident and extreme discomfort of the right hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished humanitarian, when trying to defend it today, may we have an urgent statement on the Government's plan to chuck asylum seekers' children into care and break up families simply to boost the breast-beating, sabre-rattling, macho-posturing, he-man image of the Home Secretary? That crypto-fascist policy will be deservedly rejected by the fair-minded majority of the British people.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman knows that there will be a debate on home and constitutional affairs next Tuesday. He is a distinguished parliamentarian, if I may pay him that compliment, and his intemperate outburst is wide of the mark. As I have said before, the proposals that the Home Secretary has brought forward are to be considered for situations when people have lost an appeal—sometimes multiple appeals—and gone through the whole process, when they are due to go back to their country of origin after being provided with air fares and a rehabilitation allowance, and when we have said that if they choose to leave their children behind, they will be looked after. What more can we do? We have an obligation to ensure that legal migrants who come here are safely accommodated and can find their own way in British life and that those who are here illegally are returned to their country of origin. That is precisely what we are trying to do in a humane and sensible fashion.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

May we have an urgent debate on the national roll-out of the digital transmitter network? In large parts of my constituency in East Sussex, digital television and radio are not available. No date has been set for that availability and it is well nigh impossible to get answers about when a date might be set. What is more, many of my constituents still cannot receive Channel 5 on a free-to-view analogue basis and some cannot even get Channel 4. With Christmas schedules plastered across the media, many of my constituents rightly feel cheesed off.

Mr. Hain

if I am right, the problem in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is the south downs. I know that, in my area in south Wales, valley communities also find it difficult to get digital transmissions. We, as a Government, are committed to the nationwide roll-out of digital and I shall certainly draw the points that he raised about his constituency to the attention of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House think back to the answer that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff)? Written answers are printed in Hansard not only for our benefit but so that the public may read them. Will he arrange for answers that are laid in the Library to be made available to members of the public?

Mr. Hain

I will certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's precise point more carefully, but frankly, I would have thought that that is done already.

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