HC Deb 23 October 2003 vol 411 cc789-802 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please 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 27 OCTOBER—Opposition day [20th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled "The Threat to NATO from EU Defence", followed by a debate entitled "Effect of Government Targets on the Provision of Health Care". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

TUESDAY 28 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 29 OCTOBER—Motion to approve the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003.

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

THURSDAY 30 OCTOBER—Motion relating to pay for Select Committee Chairmen.

FRIDAY 31 OCTOBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 3 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Sexual Offences Bill [Lords].

I should like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the beginning of November will be:

THURSDAY 6 NOVEMBER—A debate on the reports from the Quadripartite Committee on export controls.

THURSDAY 13 NOVEMBER—A cross-cutting question session on older people, followed by a debate on housing: improving conditions and making the market work better.

I am pleased to announce the Commons calendar for the next Session. I have to warn the House that I have erred on the side of caution and have identified only those days on which we can be confident that the House will not be sitting. However, subject to the progress of business, if I am able to offer additional days I will do so. Details of the recesses are as follows:

For Christmas, the House will rise on Thursday 18 December and return on Monday 5 January 2004. For the constituency recess, the House will rise on Thursday 12 February and return on Monday 23 February. The House will rise for Easter on Thursday 8 April and return on Monday 19 April. For Whitsun, the House will rise on Thursday 27 May and return on Monday 7 June. The summer recess will begin when the House rises on Thursday 22 July, returning on Tuesday 7 September. The House will rise for the conference recess on Thursday 16 September and will return on Monday 11 October.

Copies of the Calendar are now available in the Vote Office—I have one here.

Mr. Forth

I am sure that the House is especially grateful for the information that the part-time Leader of the House has given us. I noticed that colleagues were assiduously making notes as he spoke, which shows the level of interest in that information.

Can the right hon. Gentleman comment on the mysterious shrinking September sittings? It is within my memory that, when the Government first announced the very welcome development that we were to sit in September, three weeks was mentioned. That may be in your memory, too, Mr. Speaker. Then the time was rather mysteriously reduced to only two weeks; because, I suspect, the Government suddenly realised that they might be held to account rather too much while the House was back. If I heard the part-time Leader of the House correctly, he has now shortened that period yet again. We are to come back on Tuesday 7 September, not on Monday 6 September; then, presumably—if the right hon. Gentleman will confirm this—we shall sit only for three days in that week and for only four days in the following week. So the September sitting, during which the House was going to have an opportunity vigorously to hold the Government to account, has shrunk, by my calculation, to seven sitting days. Is that accidental or deliberate? What are the Government afraid of? Why does not the Leader want us back for lots of time in September to do our business, and why is he denying us that opportunity? We need to know.

Now I should like to ask the part-time Leader whether he can allow the Deputy Prime Minister to lead a debate which I suggest might be entitled, "How to own up gracefully to ministerial inaccuracies". I say that because yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) asked the Deputy Prime Minister: Why is it…that under his Labour Government the construction of social housing in English rural authorities has halved? That was a perfectly reasonable question. The Deputy Prime Minister replied: I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has said that before, but it is just not true."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 630.] That seems to be an absolutely factual statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, but my right hon. Friend immediately wrote to him: I am afraid that your answer to my question was completely contrary to—

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

What has this got to do with next week?

Mr. Forth

I'll tell you what, Mr. Speaker: I am in a generous mood, so I will do the right hon. Gentleman a favour and get him into Hansard. If he had been listening to what I said, he would have heard that I have asked for a debate, and the debate was to be entitled, "How to own up gracefully to ministerial inaccuracies." If I had been in error, Mr. Speaker would have been down on me like a ton of bricks, but so far he has allowed me to continue, so I shall press my luck just a little bit further.

In his letter, my right hon. Friend said to the Deputy Prime Minister: I am afraid that your answer to my question was completely contrary to answers given by your Department. That indeed was the case, but in fairness to the Deputy Prime Minister, he wrote back immediately to my right hon. Friend, saying: I can confirm that the figures that were given by the Minister of State are correct. I apologise for the fact that on the floor of the House"— and so on.

Now, will we have that debate? Will the Deputy Prime Minister be able to give us a shining example of how properly to apologise to the House for inaccuracies, and will he then pass the report of that debate to No. 10, so that the Prime Minister can learn for once how one should apologise to the House for inaccuracies, and so that I do not have to raise it in "Prime Minister's porkies" every week? That, I think, would be a very helpful development indeed.

Finally, may I ask, please, when we shall have a debate—I know that this has just been raised at Question Time, but I think we should have such a debate—on genetically modified crops? We know the position that the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) takes on this; it is a very knowledgeable and honourable position. We are constantly intrigued by the role played by Lord Sainsbury, an Under-Secretary of State responsible for science at the Department of Trade and Industry. And now—this is fairly unusual—we have an insight into the Prime Minister's views on this very important subject. He told us yesterday in the House: I know that there is a huge campaign against GM"— for once he is plumbed in and well informed. He is aware of it. But then he says, but to be frank, the Government have no interest in the matter one way or the other"— this is the Prime Minister— other than to…do the right thing. However"— there has to be a however, and this is the however, and this is why we need a debate to tease this out— the biotechnology industry is a vital part of this country's industry. Many people believe that the science of genetics will be the most important science of the first half of the 21st century, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that other countries are piling investment into this area."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 642.]

The Prime Minister would appear to have prejudged the issue, would he not? It is therefore very important that we have a debate in the House as early possible, so that the Government can tell us what they are thinking and, as important, so that the House can tell the Government what Members of Parliament are thinking. We must not, surely, have this issue kicked into the long grass.

Mr. Hain

I am delighted to see that the right hon. Gentleman is in such fine and robust form, because I have been getting a bit worried about him; he has been unusually invisible over the past week. One exception was when I saw him sitting on the second row—interesting—when his leader was on the front row. He was almost right behind him. Surely the shadow Leader of the House should show some solidarity and loyalty to his leader by sitting alongside him, but there he was. I do not know whether he is stepping into the newly vacated role as the quiet man of British politics.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was one of the dozens—scores—of his hon. and right hon. colleagues who were plotting over the past few days, one of whom said: While it is true we need 25 names to get a vote of confidence, we need only three names to get him sectioned". I do not know whether that was the right hon. Gentleman, but to come his points on September, I do not know whether he would really like the September sittings to be switched to coincide with the Tory party conference week, because I am sure that he would far rather be here than at the Tory party conference. He overlooks the fact that we did a lot of very important business in September. I think that I am right in saying that he was critical of sitting in September.

Mr. Forth

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hain

Oh, fine. I withdraw that. The right hon. Gentleman ought to know that we did a lot of very good work in September, and I am sure that we will do a lot of very good work in the days that we have allocated in the coming September.

The right hon. Gentleman asked such a long, contorted question about the Deputy Prime Minister that I do not think that anyone understood what on earth he was on about, but if he was asking for a debate on social housing, he can apply for one in the normal way or encourage some of his Back Benchers to do so.

On the substantive issue that the right hon. Gentleman quite properly raised on GM crops, it is important that there be an open debate on GM crops. The scientific evidence has now come in; the Government will consider it very thoroughly; and I would expect the House to debate GM crops in due course, so I am very happy to accede to his request. The timing will depend on when the Government have considered all the evidence and we will then come to that matter.

Finally, I was very surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not raise the great, important issue of public finances, because I see that the Tory party treasurer is planning to stop his £5 million funding of the Tory party unless there is a change of leader. [HON. MEMBERS: "What has that got to do with next week?"] Well, I am sure that he will want to know. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Speakers should not hear these things.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Just following up that ticklish little bit at the end of the right hon. Gentleman's comments, I wonder whether we ought not to have an urgent debate on the state funding of political parties. The Leader of the House will recognise that the Electoral Commission is doing a very careful job in analysing exactly what is happening at the moment and what could happen in future, but I understand that that report may not be available to us until quite late next year. I wonder whether the Leader of the House could identify an opportunity, perhaps immediately after the Queen's Speech, to hold a debate on that issue. Or perhaps, indeed, we need a paving Bill; otherwise any changes, reforms and improvements in the state funding of political parties could not take place before the next general election.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will be aware that all parties are signed up to the principle of state funding. Indeed, the Conservative party has accepted about £20 million from the taxpayer since the 1997 loss of office. I wonder therefore whether he could particularly consider the concerns that have been expressed on all sides about the way in which parties—such as the Conservative party, which is now very seriously in debt—are becoming corrupted by the way in which influence is imposed on them by millionaires' cheques. Perhaps he will have seen the interview this morning with Mr. Stuart Wheeler, who said that it is the duty of Conservative MPs to act urgently and that there is an overwhelming case for changing the leader of the Conservative party.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going too far.

Mr. Hain

I would very much welcome a debate on state funding, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue because what it is actually about is extending the existing public funding for political parties in the House, which has led to a situation where the public funding of the Conservative party has more than trebled to a staggering £4 million since 1997. In fact, the Conservative party is now propped up by public funds. Over the last period, the Conservatives only raised £3.5 million themselves and received £4 million of public funding. The taxpayer should know about that.

There is a strong case—and I will therefore look seriously at the argument for a debate—for extending public funding so that our political parties outside Parliament, as well as inside Parliament, are supported and we can better connect with the public. I do not mean funding for campaigning, poster boards or leaflets—I mean state funding of the kind that is practised widely throughout the world, which makes sure that political parties can keep more closely in touch with local people and therefore better reflect their views.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Europe next week there will be a meeting of the Standing Committee on Seeds and Propagating Material of Agriculture, Horticulture and Forestry to consider the contamination levels of non-GM seeds by GM seeds? May I draw his attention to the statement made by Eurocommerce, which consists of Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Boots and others that the proposed thresholds for seed lots will lead to contamination of the whole of the food and feed supply chain and will considerably reduce the freedom of choice available to consumers"? Given that this Government have consistently supported those thresholds for contamination, may I tell him that we cannot wait until the Government have considered all the evidence? There is a need for a debate now. Things are happening and decisions are being taken that will determine the future of GM in this country for ever.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has expertise in this area, as I acknowledged last week when she properly raised a similar matter, and I do think that we need a debate on it. As to whether it is as urgent as she says, although she made a powerful point, that will be a matter for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I shall certainly draw it to her attention.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

The Government are forcing thousands more houses on my small but beautiful—although overdeveloped and congested—constituency, without any thought of infrastructure improvement. Can we have a debate to consider a third road for Canvey Island, the congestion at Saddler's Farm and in Hadleigh, and the provision of a new terminus rail station for Waterside Farm, linking up to Pitsea?

Mr. Hain

Congestion is serious—there is no question about that—and it is a legacy of the dreadful transport policy that this Government inherited from the Conservatives. The hon. Gentleman of course has the opportunity, of which I hope that he will take advantage, of applying for an Adjournment debate in which he can properly raise these issues and reflect his constituents' concerns.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Will my right hon. Friend alleviate the worries and concerns of many of the pensioners in my constituency who are looking at policy being adumbrated by the Conservative party to remove a large amount of the moneys that they currently get? A single pensioner currently getting £102.10 would be reduced to £85 by the policies of the Conservative party—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Those matters have nothing to do with the Leader of the House during business questions.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Will the Leader of the House clarify one key point? Will he endorse the comments of the Economic Secretary the other day that the Government have no intention whatever of changing the capital gains tax regime for homes? Will he also tell the House what the Government raised in stamp duty in 1997 and what they are likely to raise in stamp duty this year?

Mr. Hain

I certainly note the hon. Gentleman's request for a debate, but I can confirm the Treasury's view that the Government have absolutely no such intention. Indeed, right across the board on tax matters, this Government have a very good record, which is confirmed by the recent report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which showed that we have one of the lowest business tax regimes in the world.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1761, on the proposed closure of the Coal Aston post office in North-East Derbyshire?

[That this House is deeply concerned that the work of the National Consultative Team at the Post Office in considering representations made about proposed branch closures is nothing but a sham; is concerned that a typical letter sent out to local residents opposing the proposed closure of their Post Office in the parliamentary constituency of North East Derbyshire contains lengthy arguments in favour of the closure programme indicating that no special circumstances exist in their case and that their representations have already been dismissed; believes that it is not good enough for 80 per cent, of a Post Office letter supposedly relating to a current consultation process to prejudice the outcome, and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ensure that no decision is made about the future of the Coal Aston branch until a genuine and open assessment is made of the substantial representations which have been made.]

It relates to the response of the national consultative team of the Post Office to the massive number of letters and the great petition presented to it. That response almost says that it is all a waste of time because the decision has already been made, as 80 per cent. of it tells them why it thinks that there should be changes in the Post Office programme.

If there is to be a consultative procedure, should it not be an open procedure and not a sham? Should not the Post Office at least have the good grace not to tell us that it is a sham in advance, during the time that it is taking place? Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to show how we will have genuine consultative procedures so that constituents' views can be listened to?

Mr. Hain

I will certainly draw that to the Secretary of State's attention. I agree with my hon. Friend that consultation on local post office closures in his constituency and throughout the country must be genuine, and I am sure that the Post Office will want to ensure that it is. Local post offices perform a vital function in local communities, but unfortunately, there have been progressive closures for decades. It is important that each closure should happen on its merits in the current context.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Can we have an early debate on the impact of tuition fees and foundation hospitals on Scotland and Wales? Being a Welsh Member, the Leader of the House will be aware of the negative financial implications for Scotland and Wales, not to mention issues relating to staff retention. For example, does he know whether the Treasury has made an assessment of the cost to Scotland and Wales; and is he prepared to concede that there are issues here?

Mr. Hain

There are clearly issues here that are a proper matter for debate in the House—indeed, they have been debated and will continue be debated in the months to come. The really important question that the hon. Gentleman must answer is how he would plug the funding gap in universities. Universities were virtually bankrupt when we came to office in 1997. We have increased funding progressively and now propose to introduce a much fairer system of student finance that will especially support those at the bottom of the income range. The Scottish National party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have no answer to the serious funding gap that will exist unless we allow students to contribute a small amount toward their university education. [Interruption.] Yes, indeed, because taxpayers currently contribute £14 for every £1 contributed by students. I think that most taxpayers will say that our proposal is a fair deal because university graduates have a much greater opportunity to earn high incomes than others.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Would it not be appropriate for the Home Secretary to come to the House as quickly as possible to make a statement on police training and the need to ensure that those with sickening racist views are excluded from the police as quickly as possible? Would it not also be appropriate for the reporter who made the programme that was shown on the BBC to be congratulated on carrying out an important public duty? The shadow Leader of the House did not raise the subject, so perhaps he is not interested in it, but Labour Members are interested. Racism must be fought, and there is certainly no room for racists of any kind in the police force.

Mr. Hain

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and the BBC indeed deserves praise for exposing the problem. I congratulate Clive Wolfendale, the deputy chief constable of North Wales police, on saying that he admitted to feeling "physically sick" when he saw the scenes. That shows that the police force is absolutely determined to root out racism. Although 99 per cent. of police officers are not racists and have never practised racism, a minority in the force needs to be dealt with and it is quite clear that police chiefs are dealing with it in the most robust fashion; as my hon. Friend says, individuals are rightly being thrown out.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

When will the Leader of the House be able to tell us the arrangements for a joint address of both Houses by President Bush? Would it not be an absolute disgrace if he did not address both Houses and follow the precedent that has been set on many occasions when Presidents of the United States have visited this country?

Mr. Hain

I will obviously give consideration to the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on security and transparency in the Home Office's detention and removal centres? According to this morning's Dover Express, there have been 16 breakouts from the Dover centre in the past eight months, with 24 failed asylum seekers going missing, and no one from the Home Office, the immigration and nationality directorate or the Prison Service has seen fit to inform the public or brief the local MP. Surely those important matters should be brought to the Floor of the House for urgent debate.

Mr. Hain

I am very surprised that my hon. Friend, as the local Member of Parliament, has not been properly informed in the manner to which he should be entitled. I am sure that the Home Office will want to address the problem and I shall draw it to the Home Secretary's attention, because the situation is clearly intolerable. My hon. Friend's community is putting up with a detention centre that I understand is used prior to the removal of asylum seekers. If there are any escapees, that must be tackled and the local community must be reassured.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), will the Leader of the House confirm that stories in national newspapers saying that the Government have decided to withdraw the invitation for President Bush to speak to both Houses are untrue? Although I would not expect him to give us details of when the speech will take place, for security reasons, does he accept that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to hear President Bush? There is a clear precedent because he and I, among others, heard President Clinton speak to both Houses in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords, and President Reagan did that as well.

Mr. Hain

I certainly recall the example of President Clinton's address and I shall report back to the House at an early opportunity if I can give further information.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Will my right hon. Friend consider giving us a full day's debate on the packaging industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people who are involved in paper, board, glass, plastics, steel, aluminium and wood? The industry must meet targets that are set by the European Union and Her Majesty's Government. The question of reducing, recycling and reclaiming waste applies to every constituency in the country. We should be allowed a full day's debate on the packaging industry to consider what happens with the industry, including the landfill tax, and the environmental factors that follow. Given that there has been no debate in the House on the packaging industry for such a long time, will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a full day's debate?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful that my hon. Friend raised the matter because I, like many hon. Members, have packaging companies in my constituency. The packaging industry plays a vital role in our economic life. I will certainly ensure that his request for a debate is reported to the relevant Secretary of State, although I think that more than one Department is responsible for the issue because it is relevant to industry and the environment.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

Did the Leader of the House hear this morning's reports that unsafe track has been laid in my constituency between Cheadle Hulme and Stockport? Will he urge the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House as soon as possible to make a statement on the situation, tell us what he intends to do to sort out the mess—a mess it is—and assure us that unsafe track has not been laid on other parts of the west coast main line? We have had the wrong sort of leaves and the wrong sort of snow, and now it seems that we have the wrong sort of track.

Mr. Hain

I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport this morning and he is seized of the issue. He is meeting Network Rail today. He has ensured that safety will apply on that stretch of track because speed will be reduced. I understand that it is anticipated that normal running may be resumed after Sunday next. The situation is a very bad example of rail contracting and, no doubt, of other matters which will be investigated. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to keep the House informed.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Last week I asked the Leader of the House whether local authorities that refuse to transfer their council housing stock on principle should be penalised compared with those that sell off or transfer their stock. I did not get a decent answer, so I would like one today to tell me that those authorities will not be penalised for sticking to Labour party principles and keeping their own council houses.

On the subject of crime, does my right hon. Friend think that the figures are comprehensive enough, because there have been many incidents of backstabbing on the Tory party Benches lately and I think that they should be included in a comprehensive review?

Mr. Hain

A bit of law and order on the Tory Back Benches would be advisable.

On council housing, I do not want Labour councils penalised, nor does my hon. Friend. I drew his concern to the attention of the Deputy Prime Minister and I am sure that it will be addressed in due course.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

May we have an early debate on the mounting crisis in local government funding in many southern councils? Before the recent change in the formula, a granny from an area like mine received funding to be in an old people's home at about 40 per cent. of the level of a granny from Islington, to mention a borough at random. We now face three years of further squeezing under a formula that rewards every constituency represented by a Cabinet Minister. That is a travesty of justice for the elderly and the school children in my constituency.

Mr. Hain

It is a myth that the Government are discriminating against local authorities. All local authorities, including the hon. Gentleman's, have received big increases in funding in recent years. Whether that is channelled into facilities for the elderly or used in other ways is a matter for local authorities. The idea that there are huge cuts is a travesty. Huge cuts were running around when his party was in power.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

I note the response to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), but will the Leader of the House go further and consider allowing the House to debate a call for Network Rail to conduct an inquiry into Jarvis engineering works on our railways and to withdraw its decision to make Jarvis the preferred bidder for a major renewals contract in the London north-east area? Jarvis has withdrawn from its three major contracts. It has a poor maintenance record, is associated with accidents and derailments, and faces possible prosecution on safety issues.

Mr. Hain

Jarvis has many questions to answer, which it will do over the corning period when the incident is investigated. That is the intention of the Secretary of State for Transport and is partly the purpose of his meeting today. No doubt he will keep the House informed on that serious matter.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

When the House debates the reclassification of cannabis next week, will the Leader of the House ensure that sufficient time is available for a proper debate? Will he also ensure that all evidence on both sides of the argument is put before the House? There is a danger that some hon. Members, especially those of a certain age, will address the issue with knowledge or experience that is out of date and inappropriate. It is important that the House knows that the cannabis available today is 10 or 15 times stronger than cannabis that was freely available in the 1960s and that it leads to a fourfold increase in the danger of serious depression or schizophrenia. Evidence suggests that the level of mental illness will rise dramatically if the use of cannabis in its current form is to increase. It is vital that Members are aware of those facts. Will the Leader of the House ensure that they are made available before the vote next week?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman makes his point eloquently. I am sure he will try to catch the Speaker's eye in next Wednesday's debate.

David Wright (Telford):

As winter approaches, there have been numerous reports of problems with electricity and water supplies. May we have a statement on the preparedness of utility companies for the forthcoming winter period?

Mr. Hain

I shall ensure that the relevant Secretary of State is made aware of my hon. Friend's concern. If there is information that he or the House needs, I am sure that it will be provided by the Department.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I support the plea for President Bush to address both Houses of Parliament? Such announcements are always made in the United States first. I hope that this time it will be announced here first.

Is it possible for a Foreign Office Minister to address the House in the near future on the guidelines on people who come to the UK for specific purposes that are given to entrance clearance officers? If not, perhaps they could be published instead. Some people travel great distances only to be refused entry for spurious reasons. For example, a person who came here for training in orthopaedics was refused entry because he was not going to spend long enough in the UK. That is strange.

Mr. Hain

I shall draw that to the attention of the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for visas. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will get a response.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Yesterday I attended a lobby of London bus workers organised by the Transport and General Workers Union to press for extra funds because of the success of regulated buses in London, which carry 1 million more passengers a day than they did three years ago. Will the Leader of the House organise a debate on the possibility of re-regulating buses outside London where passenger numbers are falling, services are being cut and there is general public dissatisfaction with a service that is effectively the same free-for-all that we inherited from the previous Government?

Mr. Hain

I know that the Secretary of State for Transport is aware of local concern about the subject and of the campaigns by local bus authorities. I am sure that he will want to take account of the situation in south Yorkshire.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House reinstate the regular debate on small businesses, which used to take place in Government time in this Chamber? Given that 99.6 per cent. of companies in the UK employ fewer than 100 people, that they account for approximately 50 per cent. of the private sector work force and that they generate two fifths of national output, is it not important that we debate the fact that those small businesses, which are the seedcorn of our current and future prosperity, are drowning in a sea of regulation, which is deeper and more hazardous than any with which they have previously had to contend?

Mr. Hain

I can agree with the hon. Gentleman on one thing: small businesses are the seedcorn of our economy. That is why the Government are providing more support and assistance to small businesses than ever before, which is why they are flourishing in a way that they have not for generations. However, regulation is an issue. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise it and it is being addressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. We want to ensure that businesses are not overburdened with red tape or regulation but allowed to proceed with their enterprises to generate the prosperity and jobs that flow from that.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to last week's report by the Audit Commission and Ofsted on the planning of school places? It highlights the increasing problems caused by the polarisation of more-popular secondary schools and less-popular secondary schools. We are increasingly running a system in which schools are choosing children rather than children choosing schools. That is why we have a vast increase in the number of parental appeals and an increase in the number of cases going to the school's adjudicator. Is it not time that we had a full debate on the issue so that we can examine all aspects of admissions policies in our secondary schools?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will study carefully what my hon. Friend says and reflect on his local experiences. I am sure, however, that he will equally want to put it on the record that school standards have been rising in my hon. Friend's community and across the country—[Interruption.] Yes they have, including in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). Morale is better and funding is going into education. As a result, schools are in a much better shape to provide the highly skilled population that we need to have a successful economy.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I was interested to see that elements of the police and the British security industry are working on a scheme whereby, in the event of a serious terrorist attack, the private security firms will send men and equipment to back up the police at the scene of the incident. Although I applaud the initiative, will the Leader of the House confirm how those volunteers will be co-ordinated and why it is necessary to have volunteers rather than a formed Government body? May we have a debate on the subject?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes account of it.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

A couple weeks ago the Government announced a new drive to improve levels of physical fitness in this country. May we have a debate on the matter so that, among other things, we can examine the performance of some Customs and Excise offices, such as the one that serves my constituency, which are charging non-profit-making sports clubs such as the Kirkley and Pakefield sports club in my constituency VAT on new changing rooms that the club wants to provide? We all thought that non-profit-making sports clubs that want to provide more facilities to get more people involved in sport were exempt from VAT.

Mr. Hain

I have noticed that as my hon. Friend has continued his life in the House, he has become a more and more radiant example of physical fitness, and I congratulate him on that. The issue that he raises is an important one in his constituency, and the Chancellor and other Ministers concerned will want to consider it and see whether it can be addressed.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

Has my right hon. Friend had time in the past week to visit the Committee Corridor, where the heating has been chaotic? Those of us who serve on the Standing Committee considering the Water Bill have been suffering Siberian temperatures until today, when it was positively tropical. While he is there, will my right hon. Friend look at the labels on some of the Committee Room doors? Committee Room 13 is now the MacDonald Room, Committee Room 12 is the Lloyd George Room and Committee Room 11 is curiously both the Peel Room and the Wellington Room. What is going on with the labelling of our Committee Rooms? Who is deciding all this? Have we not got better types of modernisation to get on with?

Mr. Hain

I understand that the Works of Art Committee has taken a decision to rename the Committee Rooms. I hope the numbers are not removed, or none of us will be able to find them. Since the Committee Rooms are all being named after former Prime Ministers, I am sure that the name Iain Duncan Smith will not appear on one.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his opposition to reviewing the new hours of sitting of the House? Has he considered that, apart from the usual arguments, the new arrangements are clearly grossly unfair to the official Opposition, not because they are left with insufficient time to scrutinise the Government, but because they do not have enough time to plot successfully against their own Leader?

Mr. Hain

I have not noticed an absence of plots against the Conservative leader on the Opposition Benches. As I said before in respect of the hours, the House took a decision, which applies for the rest of the Parliament. It will be reviewed in due course to see whether we want to proceed with it.

Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes)

Will my right hon. Friend do his utmost to find time for a full day's Adjournment debate on the funding of the health service? The British people have a right to know how the health service is to be funded in the future, and what the Government will do to ensure that the future of the health service is safe. People need to see that there is clear blue shark-infested water between the Government's policies to protect the health service, and the policies of the Opposition, which would destroy the health service, not to mention the gloopy quicksand of the wannabe Opposition, the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Hain

I would welcome a debate on the funding of the health service. There is now a clear choice for the country between the Government's investment at record levels in the health service, recruiting more and more nurses, doctors and consultants and providing a higher standard of service to all, compared with the Opposition's view that charging and private funding should be introduced, robbing the health service by putting public money into private hospitals. I alert the House to the fact that every time somebody takes out money in order to have an operation performed in the private sector, according to the Opposition's policies, they are effectively taking out nurses, consultants and doctors. It is not like going along to the local hospital and taking out money from a bank that one can take down the road to another bank. It is taking out money that funds medical staff, without whom the hospitals cannot function at the level that they should.