HC Deb 30 October 2003 vol 412 cc435-46 12.31 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 3 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Sexual Offences Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 4 NOVEMBER—A debate on the quality of life in local communities on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, followed by a debate on African development strategies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 5 NOVEMBER—Opposition half-day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a debate on making a success of vocational education on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 6 NOVEMBER—Motions to approve programming and deferred Divisions in Sessional Orders.

FRIDAY 7 NOVEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include: 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.

Mr. Forth

I thank the part-time Leader of the House for giving us the business.

Mr. Speaker, you and the House may be aware that, as we speak, the memorial service for Sir Denis Thatcher is taking place. I would have been there if my duties had not kept me in the House, but I hope that you think it appropriate that we record the unique contribution that Sir Denis made to our public life. After all, without Sir Denis there would have been no Thatcherism. As we speak, the memorial service is, happily, packed to overflowing with the many, many friends and admirers of Sir Denis. My thoughts and, I hope, those of all Members present are with Lady Thatcher, her family and the many, many friends of Lady Thatcher and Sir Denis.

Is the part-time Leader of the House somewhat ashamed about the inadequacy of the amount of time allocated yesterday to an important debate on cannabis? I was shocked when I looked at Hansard this morning and noted that a mere 90 minutes of parliamentary time had been allocated to that important subject and that, of that 90 minutes, the three Front-Bench speeches took 70 minutes, allowing only four Back Benchers to share 20 minutes. Surely that cannot be right. It cannot be adequate that a matter of such importance, which raised much anxiety on the Government Benches, never mind across the House, was allowed only 90 minutes. Cannot the Government do something more sensible than that? It is not as though, sadly, we are pressed for time at present, Mr. Speaker, as you must be well aware—as am I. I make a plea that even if the subject cannot be revisited on this occasion, when it comes up in future proper time will be given so that Members on both sides of the House can make a proper contribution that reflects the real anxiety of their constituents.

Is the part-time Leader of the House able to do anything at all about the current disruption to communications between MPs and their constituents due to the wildcat strikes in the postal service? I hope that this matter is being given the close attention of the authorities in the House and the Post Office. It is bad enough to have communications generally disrupted, but knowing the value that we all place on the ability of our constituents to communicate with us and us with them, I hope that something is being done to ensure that those kinds of actions will not be allowed to get between us and our constituents. I hope that the part-time Leader can reassure us on that matter.

It is high time that we had a proper debate, rather than just brief exchanges, on the increasingly worrying matter of the Prime Minister, General de Chastelain and IRA decommissioning. If we look at Hansard, we find that, for example, on 27 October my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said: General de Chastelain has …made it quite clear that he never gave any additional information to the Prime Minister".—[Official Report, 27 October 2003; Vol. 412, c. 22.] That is what he told the House against the background of the fact that on 22 October the Prime Minister had said that people would be satisfied if they knew the full details."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 634.] We now have two dramatically different variations on this event. I felt genuinely sorry for the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) who on 27 October found herself saying that the Prime Minister and the Taioseach have been able to learn more about the decommissioning event than was set out either in the brief statement issued last Tuesday by the two members of the Decommissioning Commision"— and so on. That was her supposed response to the question. She went on to say, however, that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach were left with a greater sense of the nature of the decommissioning event than would be apparent from the statement and the press conference alone."—[Official Report, 27 October 2003; Vol. 412, c. 21.] What on earth does that mean? It strikes me that she was being put in the almost impossible position of trying to cover up or fudge what is a clear difference in an account of very important events by the Prime Minister on the one hand and the general on the other. Finally, she found herself saying that the two commissioners were able to convey and build confidence in both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach that the event that they had seen was substantial and significantly more than had happened in the past."—[Official Report, 27 October 2003; Vol. 412, c. 26.] Yesterday, the Prime Minister said finally that certain information was given to us by General de Chastelain and I had very much hoped that it would have been possible to provide the full information to everybody."—[Official Report, 29 October 2003; Vol. 412, c. 300.] We must get to the bottom of this matter because it is distressing that the Prime Minister of this country, dealing with a vital and sensitive issue, should find himself, on the face of it, so much at odds with someone of such eminence and integrity as General de Chastelain. My plea to the part-time Leader is that we have proper time allocated in the House for this matter. It is only a pity that the general cannot come here and give his account of events—perhaps a Select Committee would like to follow that up. The Prime Minister should certainly come here to allow us to question him on what has gone on in these delicate areas, so that we can get to the bottom of the matter and move on.

Mr. Hain

I am delighted that the shadow Leader is in such good, frisky form, as he has been a bit subdued lately. I congratulate him on his triumph, after a long and arduous campaign, in finally getting rid of his leader and his Chief Whip, too. I wish him every luck in the forthcoming reshuffle. I see that his party's short experiment with democracy has given way to leaders once again emerging from smoke-filled rooms—a Magic Circle method of choosing a leader that I thought it had abandoned 40 years ago.

On the right hon. Gentleman's specific points, I share his thoughts and sympathies with the Thatcher family, and I agree that Sir Denis Thatcher was unique in every way. On the question of time for a debate on cannabis, I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, but the fact is that the issue was debated vigorously yesterday, and the Government brought forward that debate for precisely that reason. On the question of disruption of communications through the post, clearly everybody wants the dispute to be settled quickly. I am sure that Post Office workers and Royal Mail staff want it to be settled quickly, as do the management and the Government. Talks are now taking place and I hope that they succeed. Ultimately, all disputes end in a negotiated settlement, which is how this one will end, so I hope that that can be achieved sooner rather than later.

The question of General de Chastelain and Northern Ireland is really one of the right hon. Gentleman's worn out old gramophone records. The issues have been fully answered successively. Indeed yesterday, while the right hon. Gentleman was away plotting to get rid of his leader, the Prime Minister answered the question fully and clearly. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), answered it fully and clearly on Monday and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland answered it fully and clearly yesterday. It is time that the state-funded Conservative party started to support the Government on getting a resolution to the Northern Ireland situation. When we were in opposition. we supported the Conservative Government and John Major when he took the peace process forward. Rather than stabbing us in the back, it is time for the Conservative party to support us in getting a resolution to the crisis.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House find an early opportunity to make a statement available to the House, or to make one himself, on the apparent confusion about the Government's policy on reform of the House of Lords? He mentioned postal communications, but there seems to be a real communication problem between No. 10 and the Department that we have learned to love as DCAF.

The Lord Chancellor recently said publicly to hon. Members that he does not regard the door on the future democratic and representative composition of the second Chamber to be closed. If that is true, it widens the scope of the consultation that is taking place on the Government's September White Paper and the response to the Joint Committee in July. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome that, as do I, but it puts the whole issue back in the melting pot. It seems that there could be a rush towards introducing a tinkering Bill on reform after the Queen's Speech. If so, there will not be an opportunity for the consultation that the Lord Chancellor suggests.

The Leader of the House will recall that this House voted substantially against an all-appointed second Chamber, because he too voted that way. If we are to revisit the issue, will he assure us that we will hear a statement about the Government's position and that there will be a proper opportunity for cross-party debate by whatever mechanism he considers appropriate?

Will the Leader of the House clear up an additional mystery that arose yesterday? When responding to a question from the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), the Prime Minister gave the impression that there would be an open debate with a free vote at some point. What will the debate be about? Will it simply be about the Bill? Will it be a debate on wider issues? Will there be a free vote?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify the situation—at least for him, because I think that it is perfectly clear. We are consulting on a relatively straightforward Bill to abolish the hereditary peers, which I am sure his party will want to back, and to establish an independent appointments commission to address non-party peers and to check the propriety of party-appointed peers. That is a specific exercise. However, we have made it clear that in the longer term, given that the House could not agree on an option for reform, the door remains open to bring about a settlement that will survive and be sustainable in the long term. As the Prime Minister made it clear, we will want to consult on that and people will want to express their views freely. There is a distinction between the completion of the consultation exercise and the introduction of subsequent legislation and finding out, in the long term, whether we can reach consensus on a more democratic alternative which, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, I voted for earlier this year—along with him, I guess.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

My right hon. Friend is aware that 6 June next year marks the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Many hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber are worried about the organisation of that. As we approach Armistice Sunday, will he give us time for a full debate on the issue so that hon. Members' worries may be eased?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. We obviously want the 60th anniversary to be celebrated appropriately and be well organized because many people risked or gave their lives in that important episode and we will want to honour them appropriately. I shall ensure that those responsible listen to his point.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Leader of the House find time to get an answer for Members of Parliament on the Government's exact definition of the word "sustainable", as it is so incontinently applied across much of their policy, especially in respect of planning? There are many large planning applications in the southeast, southwest and elsewhere in England where sustainable development is much trumpeted by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but no one can provide an exact definition of sustainable. Will the Leader of the House bend his considerable intellect to get us the definitive answer on what sustainability means in the Government's rather erratic lexicon?

Mr. Hain

I regard the hon. Gentleman as one of the most sustainable Members of the House and long may he remain so. I shall certainly consult the scribes to see whether I can get him a sensible definition.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

In the next few days, the Energy Minister will visit Japan. Part of the purpose of the visit is to persuade the Japanese Government once again to buy plutonium fuel from the United Kingdom. Given that there is an industrial dispute at Sellafield, that Sizewell B is out of action and that both our nuclear generators are technically bankrupt, is it sensible to ship plutonium from one end of the planet to the other? Does my right hon. Friend think that we should have a full debate on the international plutonium trade?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has the opportunity to apply for a debate in the normal way and I will take note of his request. When I was Energy Minister, for all of five months, I had to grapple with those issues and am well aware of the concerns that he expresses.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Does the Leader of the House acknowledge the importance of debating the fishing industry before the Fisheries Council meets towards the end of the year, because the possible closure of the North sea fishery is on the agenda? I anticipate that he will have more difficulty arranging that this year because the Queen's Speech is slightly later than usual and there is always pressure on debating time on the Floor of the House after that. Will he assure me, however, that by hook or by crook—by using some device—he will give those of us with fishing interests a proper opportunity to ensure that Ministers are fully briefed from the Floor of the House before the Fisheries Council meets?

Mr. Hain

This is obviously an important matter to the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues with fishing interests. His views are well founded. As he knows, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is well practised at keeping the House informed and comes before the House at every appropriate opportunity, as do the Ministers of State.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

A fortnight ago, I raised large-scale voluntary transfers with my right hon. Friend and, in particular, the situation in my district council area of Stroud. Will he go back again to our right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to gauge what is happening with the ballots and to make it clear that it is in no way helpful for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to get drawn into the decision-making process? The decision should be an entirely local one and the ODPM should have no say in whether it is right or wrong for a local authority to get rid of its council stock.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes a strong case. The fact that he has raised it again will no doubt impress the Deputy Prime Minister and I shall draw it to his attention.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I thank the Leader of the House for his positive response to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on the preparations for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the last big opportunity for veterans to remember everything that went before and to commemorate those who died. The right hon. Gentleman may be unaware of the fact that the Royal British Legion states in unusually strong language that the present preparations are "nothing less than insulting" to the veterans because they are so low key. In particular, it is anxious that this country should be represented at that commemoration event at the highest possible level, as the Americans will be. When he takes up the issue, will he emphasise that point?

Mr. Hain

I was not aware of that matter, but I shall certainly take it up because the interests and aspirations of the Royal British Legion need to be treated with the utmost seriousness, and they deserve proper reflection.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

At a time when the nights are drawing in and it is getting darker, will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to congratulate my constituents and many others who, in the past few days, have celebrated Diwali, the festival of light? Can he send a clear message to everyone in our many diverse communities that we in this country will continue to stand for inclusiveness, multiculturalism, tolerance and understanding between people of all faiths?

Mr. Hain

I thought for a moment that my hon. Friend was going to refer to "something of the night" and would be ruled firmly out of order. In fact, he made an important point that we should rejoice with the communities that celebrate Diwali. We salute, too, the fact that we live in a multicultural, multi-faith and multiethnic society, and are proud to do so because it, and especially the festival of light, enriches us.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate, ideally in Government time, on the programme of post office closures? I received notification yesterday that two more post offices in my constituency, in Ashingdon and Hockley, have been earmarked for closure. Both closures will cause particular problems for my constituents, who will have to travel further for post office services. Many Members on both sides of the House are affected by the issue, so can the Government provide time for a debate to try to drive home the point that it is of serious concern?

Mr. Hain

It is indeed serious for many communities, and it is quite proper for the hon. Gentleman to raise it. However, the phenomenon has being going on for decades; it is not particular to our Government, and is the outcome of many different factors. The hon. Gentleman has plenty of opportunity to raise his constituents' interests in the debates that are already taking place in Westminster Hall or, indeed, to apply for such a debate himself.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Has my right hon. Friend seen press reports this week saying that the Government propose to abolish the Commission for Racial Equality and replace it with a single equality body? Would it not be appropriate for the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House on this important matter, bearing in mind the comments that my right hon. Friend has just made about a multicultural society? Can he arrange time for a debate on this important subject before the proposals are taken further?

Mr. Hain

I shall draw those comments to the Home Secretary's attention. As my hon. Friend is aware, the proposal for a new commission for equality and human rights was made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which called for an integrated institutional support for human rights and equality. That is the remit of the new body. I am sure that my hon. Friend's request for an early debate will be listened to most carefully. Of course, he has alternative avenues for securing a debate himself.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

I am sure that I am not the only Member who continues to be heavily lobbied by pensioner organisations in their constituencies on the Government's plans to do away with the pension book and pay pensions directly into people's bank accounts. Of the 913,000 pensioners in Scotland, 15 per cent. still do not have a bank account, and 59 per cent. would prefer payment by pension book. Can we have an early debate to address my constituents' many fears and anxieties on the issue?

Mr. Hain

I know of the fears and anxieties, because I have heard them expressed by pensioners in my constituency, many of whom do not have bank accounts, could not operate one and have no intention of doing so. However, pensioners are still free to choose to retain the existing cash-based method rather than a bank account transfer. I encourage them to exercise that choice, and not be intimidated in any way by advice to the contrary. That is my message to them, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would echo it.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

May I remind the Leader of the House of the democratic decision that the House made about its hours of operation and the timetable, and urge him not to find parliamentary time to discuss them again? Is he aware of the fact that although some hon. Members are dissatisfied by the decision, many others would be excessively dissatisfied if the issue were reopened?

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The hon. Lady is always excessively dissatisfied.

Dr. Starkey

Opposition Members would know.

Hon. Members who supported the decision would be excessively annoyed if the issue were reopened and any attempt were made to return to the previous hours.

Mr. Hain

I am acutely aware of excessive feelings on all sides of the argument, both for and against the hours that were decided. I can reassure my hon. Friend that, as I have said before, the hours that we now enjoy were decided by the House for the rest of this Parliament. In due course, we will review the hours and make a decision about what happens in the next Parliament. That was the decision that the House made and I intend to stick to it. Meanwhile, I welcome representations from my hon. Friend and others about the way in which things could be improved. There are many associated issues. For example, I discovered the other day that the Smoking Room is being closed prematurely. Members who want to go for a drink or simply want to spend the evening there find themselves shut out, perhaps only an hour after the last vote. That does not seem reasonable, and I hope that such issues can be dealt with properly and the interests of hon. Members protected.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Can we have an urgent debate in Government time on standards of reading? Given that improved literacy is a central prerequisite of children's ability to fulfil their potential, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the teaching of reading there should be no place whatsoever for the absurd advice of those teacher-training academics Kimberley, Meek and Miller, who said that within the psycho-semiotic framework, the shared reading lesson is viewed as an ideological construct where events are played out and children must learn to position themselves in three interlocking contexts"?

Mr. Hain

Again, I admire the hon. Gentleman's incredible memory and his felicity with a prepared question. Those researchers sound like a firm of solicitors rather than educational academics. However, to be serious, the hon. Gentleman is right that literacy is the foundation of knowledge, which is why we have given special emphasis to literacy hours and other forms of literacy support in primary education. As a result, compared with the situation in 1997, when I had ministerial responsibility for education in Wales and about half of our children were not reading to the required standard, three quarters are now reaching the standard and the number is rising. That is a genuine improvement, and the points made by the hon. Gentleman will be treated seriously.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the annual slaughter of many of our fellow citizens who are guilty of nothing more than going to their place of work? There is an overwhelming need for legislation on corporate manslaughter to bear down on those employers who are profligate with the lives and safety of their employees. Given that there was a manifesto commitment some years ago, can we have a clear statement from the Leader of the House that such legislation will be included in the Queen's Speech? If not, can we have an early debate to tease out from the Government when that legislation will be introduced?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will obviously understand the standard reply that I have to give. I cannot anticipate the Queen's Speech, but I am sympathetic to his point, which was well argued. I hope that it will be taken on board.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to an article by Thomas Harding in The Daily Telegraph today, and ask him to reconsider his response to a request from the shadow Leader of the House for a debate in the House on the misunderstandings that have arisen over the decommissioning process? I should like clarification of the law that forbids General de Chastelain from revealing things. That law is doubtful, and has been used in the House to silence people. It will figure in the forthcoming election, especially as the general himself was a hostage to the IRA, and led to the debacle that Monday when a statement on decommissioning was not forthcoming.

Mr. Hain

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the situation. I have answered the point already.

Vera Baird (Redcar)

May I return briefly to the welcome announcement about the commission for equalities and human rights, and ask that an early debate might centre on the need, which stands side by side with that announcement, for a single equalities Bill, so that each of the strands that the commission will cover can be enforced with equal vigour?

Mr. Hain

I shall draw my hon. and learned Friend's point to the attention of the Secretary of State. I am grateful that she welcomes the announcement of the new organisation, which will improve the rights of all those whose interests it seeks to address.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Further to the point so powerfully raised by my right hon. Friend the full-time shadow Leader of the House, is the part-time Leader of the House aware that the postal strike has spread to Berkshire, Coventry, Oxford and beyond? Is he aware that it is causing grave problems not only as regards the ways that Members in all parts of the House can communicate with their constituents, but with regard to the provision of payments through the Department for Work and Pensions to pensioners and other vulnerable people in our society? Is he also aware that Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Royal Mail, said: There is a fair amount of intimidation by unions in London, which is illegal"? Is it not about time that we debated the issue, or at least that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a statement to the House?

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, talks are under way between management and the unions in an effort to resolve the dispute. It is in their interest and in the interest of all of us, that that is done as soon as possible. I understand the difficulty of communications with constituencies. There are, however, two alternatives—e-mail and telephone—with which we can get by meanwhile and on which we can rely. [Interruption.] I know that the shadow Leader of the House does not do e-mail, but most other Members do. I admire the right hon. Gentleman's commitment to tradition. On the serious point made by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) about benefits, both the Royal Mail and the Department for Work and Pensions have contingency plans to minimise the effects of any action, to ensure that anybody, including pensioners, who is entitled to benefits or other payments receives them.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

In the Leader of the House's announcement of the provisional business for the week after next, he allocated time for consideration of the remaining stages of the Water Bill. Would he consider extending the period of that debate, as many on both sides of the House fear that a substantial part of the debate will be taken up by discussion of fluoridation, although many other parts of the Bill are equally important? I draw particular attention to the concerns of Members from the southwest, where the highest water charges for the cleaning up of 30 per cent. of the nation's beaches are being paid for by 3 per cent. of the population.

Mr. Hain

I recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. A full day has been allocated for the debate, which can be programmed. No doubt those responsible will bear his comments in mind.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Has my right hon. Friend seen today's issue of the Yorkshire Post, which carries an article about a serious firework incident in Eckingi on in my constituency? It seems that a mortar bomb firework was strapped to a rocket and went through a ceiling, seriously damaging a child's cot. It is lucky that Joel Eason was not in the cot at the time, or he could have been killed. My right hon. Friend might remember that on 16 October I raised the matter of fireworks with him at business questions and asked for a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in order to implement the Fireworks Act 2003, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). The existing legislation should be used proactively to co-ordinate the various agencies involved. We have not had a statement, written or verbal, from the Secretary of State. Such a statement would be welcome, so that my constituents could see what effective action is being taken for the future.

Mr. Hain

I have not had a chance to see the Yorkshire Post, but I agree that the phenomenon—the problem of firework fiends who are terrorising neighbourhoods and individuals—is serious and needs to be dealt with. A case in Llanelli was reported in my local Evening Post. A firework was unleashed through the front window of a pensioner's home and hit her. Three men have been arrested. As my hon. Friend says, that calls for a much more proactive attitude on the part of head teachers, youth workers, the police and local authorities to make sure that fireworks can be enjoyed safely on Guy Fawkes day, rather than the new breed of explosive fireworks that are almost weapons, which are unleashed on neighbours and members of the community. It should be a time when children can enjoy the spectacle of fireworks in safety, not an opportunity to terrorise people.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

Will my right hon. Friend make time available for an urgent debate on the storage of high, medium and low-level nuclear waste?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has opportunities to apply for a debate himself, but I shall pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I heartily endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) about the reform of the hours. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that some of the opposition to the reforms might be diminished if he were to review public access to the Palace of Westminster, particularly during morning sittings?

Mr. Hain

I agree that we need to consider public access. It is one of the teething problems that have arisen as a result of the new hours—for example, many Members have told me that they find it difficult to arrange constituency visits. With the new sitting hours of the House, such visits can take place only on Monday. There are various options to overcome the problem. One is to install a glass window behind the Gallery. The way we treat our visitors must be examined in a broader context. We do not make them as welcome as we should. I am keen to look at that, but in the meantime I shall address my hon. Friend's point.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every full-time member of staff whom we employ should be provided with a computer by the House? If he does agree, when will he introduce such a proposal, so that the current inequity between computers and staff is overcome?

Mr. Hain

My sympathies are with my hon. Friend. The matter is being considered and we hope to make an announcement in due course to see whether his request can be met.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the minimum wage? Is it not timely to consider its impact, particularly on employment? When it was introduced, some hon. Members thought that it might have a negative impact on jobs—an idea that might be described as having something of the right about it.

Mr. Hain

That would be a worthwhile debate. Many members of the state-funded Conservative party said—[Interruption.] Indeed, state-funded. In the last period, the Conservative party got more money from public funds than it raised through private donations. My hon. Friend makes an important point. There were accusations and allegations that millions of jobs would be lost. The about-to-be crowned leader of the Conservative party said that 2 million jobs would be lost as a result of the introduction of the minimum wage. In fact, 1.6 million new jobs have been created since the minimum wage was introduced, showing that we can have economic stability, full employment and high social standards.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the report published this week by the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention entitled, "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2003" which, despite recording some encouraging progress, notes worryingly that in the past year opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has increased, opium production has increased dramatically, and the geographical spread of opium planting has reached 28 of the 32 provinces of Afghanistan. Given that the destruction of the opium trade was part of the raison d'etre for the war on Afghanistan, which I supported, and given that 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of his constituency and mine originates as poppies in Afghanistan, is it not time for a Foreign Office Minister to make a statement to the House about these worrying findings, or at least for a debate, so that we understand the implications and hear what the Government propose to do about the matter?

Mr. Hain

I have not had a chance to read the report to which my hon. Friend refers, but I have been informed of its contents, which are indeed very worrying. I am grateful to him for raising this matter and I shall certainly draw it to the Foreign Secretary's attention to see what can be done. Clearly, the threat is very disturbing indeed.