HC Deb 22 April 2004 vol 420 cc439-56 12.31 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House please give us 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 26 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 27 APRIL—Progress on consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 28 APRIL—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 29 APRIL—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments followed by Opposition half-day [7th allotted day] (Part 2). There will be a half-day debate entitled "The failure of the Government to protect the UK from animal and plant diseases" on an Opposition motion.

FRIDAY 30 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 3 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

TUESDAY 4 MAY—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 5 MAY—Opposition half-day [10th allotted day] (Part 1). There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill, followed by a debate on genetically modified crops on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 6 MAY—Remaining stages of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill.

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

THURSDAY 6 MAY—Debate on the report from the Transport Committee on ports.

THURSDAY 13 MAY—Debate on poverty and south Asia.

THURSDAY 20 MAY—Debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on foreign policy aspects of the war against terrorism.

THURSDAY 27 MAY—Debate on the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee on judicial appointments and a Supreme Court (Court of Final Appeal).

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I have one or two questions for him—a sort of tidying-up exercise, really. He will remember last year describing the European constitution as a "tidying-up exercise", and he went on to say: I think those who are starting off on a campaign for a referendum might as well put away their placards and stop wasting their money because we are not going to do it. Now that the Prime Minister has slapped him down, engaged reverse gear and is to have a referendum, would he agree that it is his job to bring it on? Or is his head as firmly in the sand as that of the Foreign Secretary, who said today that the referendum might never happen?

The Leader of the House can be assured of our full co-operation, so may we have the necessary Bill for the referendum within the next two weeks? Does he agree that the constitution that the Government negotiate cannot be changed by this House, so there is no need for lengthy debate before we have a referendum? Is it not right that if the British people say no in the referendum, that will be the end of the constitution, or does he take the view that he would simply keep asking until the people get it right? Is not the correct approach to accept the verdict of the people? If they vote yes, so be it. We would accept such a result. If they vote no, there should be no constitution. Why cannot the Government accept that?

Will an oral statement be made next week about local authority finances? May we have a debate on the Floor of the House before any capping occurs?

On Northern Ireland, may I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 1011, which refers to the worrying recent monitoring report?

[That this House notes with great concern the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission; and calls upon the Government to make parliamentary time available for the House to reconsider the facilities made available by the House authorities to Sinn Fein members.]

What time can he make available for a debate on that?

Finally, the Foreign Secretary has promised a debate on the desperate situation in Zimbabwe. The English cricket board needs clear advice from the Government against a tour. When can we have that debate, and when can we have the advice?

Mr. Hain

I thank the shadow Leader of the House for his inspiring series of questions, for which I am most grateful.

The Government have made clear our position on the tour to Zimbabwe. It is a matter, however, for the English cricket authorities to decide—

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

And Wales.

Mr. Hain

Indeed, the English and Wales cricket authorities must decide. Glamorgan players qualify for the English team, in a welcome sign of unity of the United Kingdom. The situation has changed significantly in recent times, however. An open letter has been signed by 13 white players in the Zimbabwean side, including the former captain, Heath Streak, which says: There has, in our view, been racial and ethnic discrimination in the selection of the national team. That seems to put the issue in a different perspective. It is not simply a question of appeasing a despot, the brutal tyrant Robert Mugabe, but an issue about sport. That takes me back to when I was in the picture. more than 30 years ago—[HON. MEMBERS: "Digging up pitches."] No, I never dug up any cricket pitches. I ran on them and sat down on them to stop apartheid tours, for which Nelson Mandela thanked me, as, I guess, would most Members of the House.

With the England cricket tour to Zimbabwe, we are faced with a different situation, which is that the Zimbabwean team, according to the former captain and 12 other white players, appears to be rigged in a discriminatory way, on racial lines. That puts the issue in an entirely different category. I also note that the Australian leg spinner Stuart MacGill has refused to take part, and I would expect many English cricketers to refuse to take part, too. If they did, I would be with them all the way.

On the question of the European Union constitution, about which the shadow Leader of the House helpfully and generous quoted all sorts of things that I had been saying last year, may I paraphrase Churchill by saying that there is no better diet than eating one's own words? That is precisely what the Prime Minister, I, the Foreign Secretary and a number of others have been doing these past few days. [Interruption.] No, it is very appetising.

The serious point, which I know that the shadow Leader of the House will want me to make, as he asked his question in his customary serious fashion, is that we took the view quite properly, as did many Members on both sides of the House, that the House of Commons was the proper forum to ratify such treaties, as has been done previously, subject to line by line scrutiny. It was clear from the public opposition, however, that that position was not sustainable. The Prime Minister and the Government have therefore responded to public opinion and opinion in the House, and have decided to call a referendum, for which we deserve credit. That is the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of subsidiary questions. In particular, he asked whether we would have a referendum Bill within two weeks. What an absurd question for someone who aspires to be the Leader of the House of Commons to ask! We do not even have a settled constitutional treaty yet. How could we have a referendum on something that has not even been finally negotiated, let alone agreed in a final signing ceremony by all member states? What an absurd proposition. Moreover, if the hon. Gentleman is at all serious about aspiring to be Leader of the House, he must know that a Bill of that kind could not possibly be drafted within days. We should get real on this question.

Effectively, the hon. Gentleman has said that there should be a pre-legislative referendum. That is the new official position of the Conservative party.

Mr. Simon Thomas

What about Wales?

Mr. Hain

I shall come to Wales in a moment.

Only a few years ago, the Leader of the Opposition said: A pre-legislative referendum is designed to pre-empt parliamentary debate. It is not a new device. The device was the hallmark of continental dictatorships between the wars."—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 736.]

Let us consider what the constitutional treaty might look like. It will be a document with nearly 500 pages, nearly 500 clauses and nearly 100,000 words. Ought not such a document to be scrutinised in detail by this Parliament before being put to the people? This is a very different proposition from that of 1997, when we asked the people of Wales and Scotland whether they agreed with the principle of a Scottish Parliament or a Welsh Assembly. What we are talking about now is bringing together a series of past European treaties—three quarters of the new constitutional treaty will consist of them, if it is agreed—and enabling the House to examine the treaty in great detail before inviting the people of Britain to make a decision. That is the logical way to proceed, and the way we intend to proceed.

The Prime Minister has already answered the question about what would happen in the event of a "no" vote, but let me add this. We will work very hard to persuade the country of our case. If we agree to a constitutional treaty in the first place, it will only be on the basis of its being in Britain's national interests, and on the basis that all our key interests in respect of a veto on taxation, foreign policy, defence and the rest—matters that the Foreign Secretary has put before the House repeatedly—have been satisfied. If they are not satisfied, we will not agree to the treaty. If they are, we will believe—we do believe—that it will be in the country's interests, and will therefore make the case in the expectation of winning the argument and winning it in the national interest.

There will be a statement on local authority finance next Thursday, when Members will have an opportunity to question the Minister of State about capping.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Northern Ireland. As he will know, the Independent Monitoring Commission's first report has raised serious issues. He will recall that on Tuesday the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a statement to the House, saying that the Government were minded to act in line with the IMC's own recommendation that we consider withholding financial assistance from Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree with that—and I think that I have answered all his questions fully and frankly.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

May I tell the Leader of the House how much pleasure it gives me, and my Liberal Democrat colleagues, to hear him reverting to the radical instincts of his liberal youth? I hope he may be able to extend that to other issues besides Zimbabwe.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we have at least been entirely consistent about the need for referendums on major issues relating to constitutional relationships with Europe? That applies not least to the Maastricht treaty; I recall that only a small number of Conservatives joined us in the Division Lobbies then.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the motions on today's Order Paper relate to House rather than Government matters, and that there will therefore be a free vote with no question of his seeking to dragoon his payroll colleagues into the Lobbies in the event of a Division?

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we have still not heard a proper statement on the Government's proposals, or non-proposals, for House of Lords reform? He will recall that on 18 March, when I asked him when there would be a statement, he said: I ask the hon. Gentleman, in the nicest way, to contain himself on this matter. When we are ready to say how we are proceeding on the House of Lords questions, we will do so. An announcement will be made and he will need to wait until then."—[Official Report, 18 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 453.] As it happens, the very next morning, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs made the announcement on the "Today" programme. Is not that an extraordinary disrespect for Parliament?

There is a written statement on House of Lords reform on the Order Paper today. When will we get an opportunity to hear exactly what the Government now intend and to question the appropriate Ministers? Is it not extraordinary that, apparently, in that response today, the Government ask for a wide-ranging debate but do not give us, Members of Parliament, an opportunity to debate the issue? When does the Leader of the House expect that to happen? Seven years' work—the royal commission, the White Paper, the Public Administration Committee, the Joint Committee—has been torn up overnight by the Cabinet without any response or debate in Parliament. What does he intend to do, as the defender of House of Commons rights, to ensure that that situation does not continue?

Mr. Hain

On the question of a referendum, the hon. Gentleman invites me to accept the proposition that the Liberal Democrats are totally consistent. As all my right hon. and hon. Friends will confirm, the Liberal Democrats will say one thing to one part of Britain and another thing to another part, to gain opportunistic advantage, so the idea of being consistent is a novel proposition from any Liberal Democrat which I regret to say I am not prepared to accept.

The debate on the security screen, which we will shortly undertake, will be a completely free vote. There will be no dragooning of anyone into the Chamber. It is a matter for the House. As I will make clear this afternoon, the decision on it was taken without consulting the Prime Minister or the Cabinet—I expressly did not consult either the Prime Minister or the Cabinet.

I have noticed the hon. Gentleman's amendment. I do not wish to anticipate the debate, but since he has raised the matter, I would point out that it raises very serious issues. I am clear where I stand on it. If he and other hon. Members wish to avoid the responsibility that I have had to undertake, that is a matter for them; but I will spell out clearly the consequences of taking that action, which could be very serious indeed, based on the security advice that I have been given by the director general of the security services.

On House of Lords reform, the hon. Gentleman says that the Government are showing disrespect for Parliament. Disrespect for the House of Commons has been shown repeatedly over the past year or two, up the corridor, by Conservative Members of the House of Lords, who have consistently defied the will of the House of Commons and sought to mobilise their majority with hereditaries to overturn the elected decisions of the Commons. That is where disrespect is being shown.

In regard to consultation and the rest of it, as the hon. Gentleman says, a written statement has been made today, which refers to the responses to the consultation that the Lord Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, undertook. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed that. There will be an opportunity to debate these matters. I give him that guarantee. The Government are determined to move forward on the issue in terms of composition, the powers of the Lords, and the reform of its procedures, too.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

The reason for discussing the first report of the Independent Monitoring Commission on matters in Northern Ireland is that it would give us an opportunity to influence the Government's response to the report. Some of us feel that its financial provisions are inadequate. Some of us even feel that early-day motion 1011 does not go far enough. For example—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. He is getting us off to a bad start. This is questions, not statements. I ask all Members, a great many of whom are trying to catch my eye, to ask short questions, and we will have, I hope, brief answers.

Mr. Barnes

May we have a debate on the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission in order that a number of tougher measures could be brought forward? I do not think that there is an opportunity to say what those are at the moment, but there are a good number of them.

Mr. Hain

I appreciate the points that my hon. Friend has made and his long interest in and expertise on the issue. It was an independent report. It is important that we have time to consider it. He will have the opportunity to raise any specific points at oral questions next Wednesday and, of course, he is free to apply for a debate at any time.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

May I remind the leader of the House of what the Prime Minister said on Tuesday about the referendum on the European constitution? Parliament should debate it in detail and decide upon it. Then, let the people have the final say."—[Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 157.] I invite the Leader to introduce at the earliest opportunity the legislation for elected regional assemblies so that it can be debated and decided upon before the people decide; or is it just a matter of expediency which way the Government play these matters?

Mr. Hain

No. As I have explained, there is a clear distinction between the two. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Indeed; before "ums" and "ahs" come from Opposition Members, I repeat what I have said. The question as to whether people in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside want an elected regional assembly or not is an issue of principle. A Bill will be published in the summer that can be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and will be available to people voting in the referendums so that they can see what they will get. That is an issue of principle: do people want something or not? The constitutional treaty is an issue of substance. We are bringing together previous treaties for which the hon. Gentleman's Government—and, I suspect, he himself—voted. Some three quarters of the clauses in the new treaty are taken from existing treaties and brought together in a new form. In addition, there are new reforming and modernising measures to cope with enlargement. It is a big issue that is not about whether we join the EU or are in or out of it; or perhaps it is. Maybe that is what this is really about for some Opposition Members.

We will have detailed scrutiny of the new draft constitutional treaty and about whether it is acceptable to the British people. Before we put it to the vote, the British people will expect 100,000 words, 500 pages and 500 articles to be scrutinised in detail by the hon. Gentleman and all of us before they know what they are being invited to vote upon. That is different from whether one wants a regional assembly or not.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab)

May we have a debate on how to create real choice in maternity services? A number of women in my constituency choose to give birth in the nearest midwife-led unit, which is in Malmesbury outside the primary care trust boundary. The unit is threatened with closure. May we have a debate on how we deliver, maintain and expand choice for women and on how we advertise services, as it is not just a question of looking at crude financial statistics that do not show the quality of service?

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's point. Choice is absolutely crucial, especially to expectant mothers. There is a debate in my constituency about a decision to go to a midwife-led unit because of a shortage of consultants, so I am well aware of the issue. Actually, where it has happened elsewhere—in Caerphilly, for example, where it was subject to huge protest at the time—it has proved hugely successful and has been welcomed by women in particular. I recognise the point that she has made, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will note it carefully.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Cabinet was not consulted prior to Tuesday's statement on the constitutional referendum, and that if there is no collective decision there should be no collective responsibility? Members of the Cabinet will therefore be able to campaign on whichever side of the referendum they wish. Is not the fact that no collective decision was made another blow to democracy and another reason why the Daily Express has decided to quit supporting the Labour party and to support the Conservatives, to restore faith in our democracy?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I did not see a great connection between the hon. Gentleman's question and next week's business. I hope that the Leader of the House will answer briefly.

Mr. Hain

There is no connection at all, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on fascism and the far right? I ask that, given the reported invitation over the coming days by the fascist British National party to Jean-Marie Le Pen to speak in the west midlands. Does he agree that Le Pen's racist and anti-Semitic outbursts are well known in France, and that we do not want the kind of racism, discord and disharmony that is spread by Le Pen and perpetuated by the BNP in the west midlands or, indeed, this whole country?

Mr. Hain

Jean-Marie Le Pen is trying to exercise his right to free speech here; something he would not be able to do under the fascist, racist regimes that he supports. It is disturbing that he has been invited and all of us in this Chamber must redouble our efforts to ensure that neo-Nazis such as Le Pen get out of this country and take their hideous racist and anti-Semitic ideas with them.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I once again appeal to the House for questions that relate, at least to some degree, to next week's business; otherwise, we are simply distorting the occasion.

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

Will the Leader of the House be prepared to come back to the House next week to clarify what was said in this House on 20 April by the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), the Chairman of our eminent European Scrutiny Committee. about the referendum Bill? He said that full and proper parliamentary scrutiny will be applied to the Bill before any referendum. A few moments later, the Prime Minister said that given that the constitutional treaty is a 300 page document"— the Prime Minister's version must be different from the Leader of the House's one— it is surely right and better that the public have their say after an informed debate in the House in which we can thrash out some of the issues."—[Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 470, c. 163.] I am asking the Leader to come back next week, as it would allow him to confirm that the constitution will be on a "take it or leave it" basis and that this House will have no opportunity to amend it. If we are to be given a 300 or 500-page document and told to take it or leave it, will he elaborate on what form he expects our debates, deliberations and scrutiny to take?

Mr. Hain

The document is 500 pages with the protocols, which I would expect the Commons to want to look at as well. The actual draft constitutional treaty is in the form that the Prime Minister described. The right hon. Gentleman, with his long experience in the House, knows that this constitutional treaty will be treated exactly like all the other treaties that have been brought before the House. A Bill will be introduced to give ratification effect—subject to a referendum in this instance—to the treaty, with the Committee stages held on the Floor of the House.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Terry's of York, which has been making chocolate in my constituency for almost 240 years, announced this week that it intends to close, with the loss of 316 jobs? Those jobs will go to accession members of the EU from eastern Europe, Sweden and Belgium. Despite the fact that we are still getting inward investment, does my right hon. Friend share my concern at the loss of manufacturing jobs from this country? Will he express my concern to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Will there be an opportunity shortly for this House to debate our country's industrial policy?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has that opportunity regularly at Trade and Industry and Treasury questions, and he has the opportunity to raise his specific constituency issue in this House through the normal channels. I understand the point; it is a serious situation and a body blow to his constituency. I saw the context in which this is taking place during a visit to China as Secretary of State for Wales. Manufacturing is fleeing to China from all over the world because engineering wages can be as low as 60p an hour. There is no way we can compete with that kind of low labour cost, except by going up the added-value chain and increasing our investment in skills and science to deliver added-value manufacturing. That is the future for the British economy, as it is for my hon. Friend's constituency. Of course, unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, his constituents will be able to apply for jobs, because there are more jobs being generated in the British economy than ever before.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

Will the Leader acknowledge the responsibility of the United Kingdom as a guarantor power in Cyprus? May we have an early debate in the House on Cyprus, a debate that might lead to an inquiry into the role of Alvaro de Soto—the Peruvian special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Cyprus—and the reasons for his perceived sympathetic bias towards the Greek Cypriots to the disadvantage of the Turkish Cypriots?

Mr. Hain

I must deprecate, in the gentlest possible way, the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I know Mr. de Soto from my time as Europe Minister, and he is an expert and highly experienced United Nations representative who has done a fantastic job. If the situation were really as the hon. Gentleman describes it, it would be interesting to know why the Turkish Cypriots were anticipated to vote in favour in the coming referendum and why there was some scepticism among the Greek Cypriots. I myself hope—I hope that the whole House shares this view—that both Greek and Turkish Cypriots will vote yes to having a future for their country in the European Union.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment that any referendum on the constitution will look at the wider issue of Britain's involvement in Europe and the work that has been done and the progress made in the past seven years. However, may we have an early statement on how that will affect the Government's commitment to a referendum on the euro? Are we now to assume that there will definitely not be a referendum on the euro during this Parliament, or is there a possibility of a referendum on the euro before the referendum on the constitution if the economic tests are met? May we have an early statement on that?

Mr. Hain

I cannot promise my hon. Friend an early statement on that matter, although I pay tribute to his long advocacy of Britain's entry into the euro, a policy that I respect, and for which he has gained respect. I remind him that the Chancellor announced at the Budget only last month what the situation on the euro was. We will call a referendum if and when the economic circumstances are right, but not before. Given that the Chancellor announced that policy only last month, I do not anticipate another early statement—certainly not next week.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Can the Leader of the House allay my fears that the Prime Minister set an unfortunate precedent yesterday when he said that as and when he loses the EU constitution referendum he will come back to this House, and that further questions will be put and referendums held until he gets a yes vote? Can the Leader of the House assure us that if he loses the vote on the screen today, he will not come back next week with a further motion to try to reverse the decision that we take this afternoon?

Mr. Hain

I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman as a parliamentarian, but he must not misrepresent what the Prime Minister said. If he looks at Hansard, he will find confirmation that what he has just said bears no resemblance to what the Prime Minister said. We will work hard for a yes vote if we have an agreed constitutional treaty to put to the people of Britain after it has passed through this House. That is our position, because we think that that will be in the national interest. We are not going into a referendum expecting to lose it, and we will fight and work hard to persuade people of our case. It is therefore extremely premature to anticipate any other result.

On the security screen, I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) earlier. The House must decide on that, and although the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) probably takes a different view from mine, there would be serious consequences if the House decided not to proceed with the introduction of a permanent screen. When the right hon. Gentleman hears what I have to say this afternoon about the clear advice from the head of MI5, he will be clear, as I am, that I am willing to accept my responsibilities on the matter. The issue will be whether he is prepared to do the same.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab)

Has the Leader of the House noticed that there is no parliamentary dimension to the state visit of President Kwasniewski of Poland? May we have a statement on policies relating to state visits? I gently remind the Leader of the House that in the lifetime of this Labour Government, no head of state has made a state visit and addressed both Houses of Parliament and the Royal Gallery. That is wrong. That should happen, but the practice has been eroded because of the political initiative of having the President of China and George Bush to visit here, although that did not appeal to many parliamentarians. May we return to the situation in which state visits are for the Crown, Parliament and people, so that Parliament can welcome those people without being sidelined by such political initiatives?

Mr. Hain

I certainly should not want to see Parliament sidelined, and as a reputable parliamentarian, my hon. Friend would quickly trip me up if that were to happen. I shall certainly bear his points in mind and discuss them with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others, to see where that leaves us.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

May we have an early debate next week on changes to the constitution? I do not mean those that are proposed to be dealt with by a referendum, but the change introduced unilaterally by the Prime Minister: namely the apparent abolition of Cabinet government. In that debate, may we have an answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on whether the Cabinet was consulted? If it was not, are its members bound by the decision that they did not collectively take, or are they still collectively bound by the previous reverse decision that they had taken? May we have those matters cleared up, or are we to believe that members of the Cabinet are simply the meaningless ciphers that they have long appeared to be to many Opposition Members?

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that, having just attended the Cabinet this morning, I can assure him that Cabinet government is alive, well and flourishing, and that that matter was discussed this morning, introduced by the Prime Minister—

Mr. Forth

This morning!

Mr. Hain

Yes, at this morning's meeting the Prime Minister discussed that matter. I was consulted on the decision, as were other members of the Cabinet, so the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) can be reassured on the matter.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)

I appreciate the remarks that the Leader of the House has made on Zimbabwe, but will he answer the question of when we will have a debate on it in Government time? I thought that that commitment had been given, and it is important that we have the debate soon, especially given that the England and Wales Cricket Board will meet the Government on 4 May to discuss Zimbabwe's tour and its visit to this country, during which it will play at the Oval in my constituency. In view of the deportation of the distinguished sports journalist Mihir Bose from Zimbabwe this week, while he was covering a cricket match, will the Leader of the House try to use his influence on the issue, on which I know that he feels strongly, to hold a proper, full debate as soon as possible?

Mr. Hain

I acknowledge my hon. Friend's consistent record on this matter, on which we share the same view. I also share her condemnation of the deportation of Mihir Bose, who is a fine cricket correspondent.

On whether there should be a debate before or after 4 May, we should await the meeting between the cricket authorities and Ministers, and see what transpires after that. I do not think that the Government's position will change. This is a decision for the cricket authorities, not for the Government, although the Foreign Office and others have given the cricket authorities the advice that they have sought.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

Will the Leader of the House amend the business for next Thursday, when we are due to debate in Westminster Hall the report of the International Development Committee on the humanitarian situation in the west bank and the Gaza strip, so that, rather than debating that albeit important report, we can debate the foreign policy aspects of what is now happening in Israel and the occupied territories? There have been some worrying changes and pronouncements from the American side over what have been called the new realities on the ground in Palestine. That has huge implications for not only next week's debate but the foreign policy aspects of the Government's position. Would it not therefore be appropriate for next Thursday to be taken over by a debate in the Chamber on the Government's policy on Israel and the occupied territories?

Mr. Hain

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, and interest in that issue is widely, if not unanimously, shared across the House. I am sure that he will take every opportunity available, while staying strictly in order, to raise the points that he wishes to raise on that matter, because the humanitarian situation reflects the foreign policy failures that there have been multilaterally and internationally in the attempt to resolve the desperate situation of the Palestinians and their relationship with the state of Israel.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)

When will this House debate in Government time the situation in Iraq? The Prime Minister has said that we have a military and political strategy, and no criticism can be laid against British troops, who continue to conduct themselves with great courage, discipline and dedication. However, it was this House that committed those troops to a war, albeit on a false prospectus. Surely we have a duty to examine precisely what the political strategy is, to ensure that it gives those troops the proper support, and that it can perhaps begin to deliver to the Iraqi people some of those promises so glibly—and at the moment, so emptily—made.

Mr. Hain

Despite recognising my hon. Friend's position on Iraq—it is a principled and honest one, but so is the Prime Minister's and the Government's, as she will doubtless agree, even though it differs from hers—I do not accept it. Her reference to glibness is not worthy of her. The Prime Minister made a statement on Iraq on Monday. She had the opportunity to question him then, and there will be further such opportunities. It is a very difficult situation, but she will recognise that everything is being done to try to contain the terrorist attempt to destabilise Iraq's democratic progress.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House say whether he is shortly to publish the Government's response to the Procedure Committee report on debate procedures, the role of the Speaker and private Members' Bills, and their response to its report on resolutions relating to access to this House, which are normally passed at the beginning of every parliamentary Session? Will he find an early opportunity to debate those important reports? The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) mentioned the Independent. Monitoring Commission. May we have an early debate on that issue? Perhaps that would enable this House to withdraw the lavish facilities and resources currently made available to Sinn Fein. It is unacceptable to have one rule for the Northern Ireland Assembly and another for this place.

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this question was raised with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland only the other day, and as I made clear to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), there will be an opportunity to raise it next week during Northern Ireland questions. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I shall respond very soon, on the Government's behalf, to the Procedure Committee's report on debate procedures. He has repeatedly reminded me of the absence of such a response, as he is entitled to do. The question of public disorder surrounding the House is much more tricky. We are consulting on whether time-consuming legislation is needed, or whether other ways of dealing with the problem can be found. We shall respond to the hon. Gentleman, his Committee and the whole House as soon as we can.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate next week on local authorities' ethical handling of planning and development? Only yesterday, the Scunthorpe Telegraph broke the story that a business in the area seeking a large and controversial expansion on prime agricultural land, against the interests and views of local people and the parish council, has made a £5,000 donation to the council's ruling Tory group. It is staggering to note that in the council leader's opinion his colleagues need to take advice as to whether they can determine this matter. I doubt whether anybody locally is any doubt as to what should be done. Can the House find time to debate these matters, and to make it clear that planning should be in the interests of the local area? It should not be a question of "he who pays the piper calls the tune".

Mr. Hain

Given my hon. Friend's description of the situation, the only response that I can give is to congratulate him and the Scunthorpe Telegraph on bringing this scandal to Commons' attention. I hope that the local communities recognise the seriousness of the situation. Planning decisions should not be subject to political donations; rather, they should be taken according to planning law and according to the interests of local people.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

Yesterday, the US Congress heard evidence about the Iraqi oil for food programme and about a list of 270 non-Iraqi names who allegedly benefited from Saddam Hussein's largesse by corrupting that scheme. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement next week on the implications of the programme for Britain, and in particular for the one British subject named on that list— it is on the internet and available to anybody—so that a criminal investigation can take place and his former friend the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) can have his name cleared?

Mr. Hain

Frankly, I am not sure that those two matters are related, although they might be. As a former Minister with responsibility for Iraq, I remember evidence consistently being produced of Saddam's manipulating the oil for food programme, smuggling out oil and getting hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue—if not billions—to sustain his despotic regime. That is one reason why the situation that had continued for years was not sustainable, and I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that view. This is a serious allegation and the Government, along with the United Nations' authorities, will doubtless want to investigate it urgently and to see what transpires.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

As part of the general debate on Europe, will we have time for a specific debate on the comments of EU Commission President Romano Prodi, who said that, should Scotland or Wales leave the United Kingdom, they would also automatically leave the EU and have to re-apply for membership, with no guarantee whatsoever of being re-admitted? So is it not true that Scotland and Wales are better off within the United Kingdom, and that the separatists who peddle the myth of independence in Europe run the risk of doing irreparable damage to the Scottish and Welsh economies and people?

Mr. Hain

Absolutely, and if I can get an early debate on that issue, I will be happy to do so. As my hon. Friend rightly confirms, the EU Commission President has made it crystal clear that if Wales and Scotland became independent, as the Scottish and Welsh nationalists advocate, they would immediately forfeit membership of the European Union. That would leave them outside the biggest and richest single market in the industrial world and would bring bankruptcy upon them. The people of Wales ought to know about the futility of that independent strategy.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

I am still waiting for a response from the Northern Ireland Office that I was supposed to receive by 26 March. Next Monday is 26 April. Is it possible that the office is on a go-slow, thereby keeping pace with those of its civil service colleagues who are protesting about bad wages, or is it just inept?

Mr. Hain

The Northern Ireland Office is certainly not inept, and I am sure that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman does not really allege that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been extremely busy in recent weeks dealing with the many critical issues with which the hon. Gentleman is very familiar. Now that he has made the point about his correspondence, the office will be well aware of it.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

May we have a debate on the recent remarks by Sir John Kerr, who, as Members will know, is a retired senior British diplomat and was the secretary-general on the Convention on the Future of Europe? He said that the convention on the future of Europe had no mandate to lay the foundation of a state, and it did not. It drafted a constitutional treaty for Europe, not a constitution for Britain. Does the Leader of the House agree with that view?

Mr. Hain

I completely agree with it. Sir John Kerr was a very highly regarded diplomat and permanent secretary to the Foreign Office—I worked with him as a Foreign Office Minister—and he served the Convention on the Future of Europe with great distinction, and I doubt whether we would have successfully drawn up the draft text were it not for his expertise. We should therefore take very seriously the points that he makes, one of which is that this is a constitutional treaty for the whole of Europe. If Britain decided that it wanted to opt out of that treaty, there would be very serious consequences. That would be especially true if the current Leader of the Opposition were in government, and was unwilling to renegotiate or to try to find a way forward to satisfy any criticisms that might have been expressed in a referendum campaign. The reality is that if he were unwilling to discuss such matters, in effect, Britain would be opting out of Europe and out of the new constitutional treaty.

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

May we have an early statement on the steps that the Government are taking to ensure that the valour and skill of servicemen past and present are properly recognised through the efficient and timely distribution of medals? Is the Leader of the House aware of the deep concern that exists in my constituency and elsewhere at the announcement this week of the closure of the Droitwich Spa medal office, at the busiest time in its history? It is having to cope with many applications for the Suez, or GSM canal-zone, medal, and the increasing number of Iraq medals. Its closure could compromise the efficient distribution of those medals.

Mr. Hain

I am very concerned to hear about that. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence and the other Government authorities will want to take close note of what the hon. Gentleman has said and address the problem urgently.

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

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the important issue of bus deregulation outside London? Since its inception there has been a constant fall in bus passenger mileage, and unfortunately that fall has continued since 1997. Having given 42 days' notice, a bus company such as First Mainline, which is in my constituency, is able to withdraw a service to the people of Mosborough. As a result, many hundreds of people, including pensioners, are cut off from their local supermarket, and locally elected representatives have no say whatsoever in the taking of such action.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will have the chance to apply for such a debate. I am concerned to hear about what he said, as will be the Secretary of State for Transport, not least because the Government have provided more subsidies for bus services than ever before. That is a policy that we intend to stick to. Should the Opposition gain power, that funding would, of course, be reneged upon, because they are determined to cut transport budgets in the first two years of their period of office.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a debate on a matter that should be of grave concern to us all? The publication of the Disability Rights Commission report, "The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People" showed that 86 per cent. of websites were not accessible to disabled people and the majority of the rest were only partially accessible. If we cannot have a debate on that matter, will the Leader of the House ensure that a statement is made on disabled people's access to Government websites?

Mr. Hain

That is a very good point, which I have not heard before, and I am sure that the relevant Minister will want to reflect carefully on what the hon. Gentleman said. I am not sure whether the issue could be dealt with through the forthcoming disability rights Bill, to which the Government are committed, and which will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman has certainly provided a well-made point that has been well taken.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)

May I welcome the Government's announcement on Monday that education maintenance allowances worth £30 a week are to be rolled out nationally from this September? Bolton was one of the 55 pilot local authorities that trialled EMAs: it found increased participation in post-16 education and improved attendance by those who were enrolled. May we soon have a debate on this excellent Government initiative?

Mr. Hain

If it were possible and Government business allowed it, I would be happy to arrange such a debate, although my hon. Friend could apply for a private Members' debate in the usual way. I agree that it is a fantastic policy, which will provide real hope and opportunity to thousands of youngsters who are now denied those prospects by leaving school early. As he said, the pilots have shown that the staying on rate is much higher, which is why I find it extraordinary that the Conservative Opposition describe it as a gimmick. My hon. Friend would agree that Conservative Members should be told that his constituents who have benefited from the policy describe it as life opportunity, not a gimmick. The Conservatives should be reminded of that at the next general election.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP)

Northern Ireland questions next Wednesday will not give Members the opportunity to debate or vote on equality of facilities for all hon. Members of the House. Following the £120,000 fine levied on Sinn Fein in the Assembly, which was authorised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, surely we should have a full debate and an opportunity to vote on the £500,000 allocated by the House last year to two members of the army council—Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams—and their colleagues. They should have no facilities or finance from the House until they come in and swear or affirm an oath of loyalty as other right hon. and hon. Members of the House do.

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the independent report referred not only to Sinn Fein, as he pointed out, but to the Progressive Unionist party—

David Burnside

It does not have Members here.

Mr. Hain

I acknowledge that that party is not represented here, as the hon. Gentleman said. He has made his point.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

May we have an urgent debate—preferably instead of one of the footling Opposition day debates over the next fortnight—on the precise consequences of the UK voting against the constitutional treaty? Is it not the case that if we voted against it, any Government—Conservative or Labour—would have to start renegotiating another treaty with EU colleagues? If that Government chose to adopt a line and could not persuade a single other European country to accept it, and then decided to act unilaterally, it would consign Britain to the sidelines of Europe, which would be bad for our economy and our country's future.

Mr. Hain

Indeed, which is why I would welcome the opportunity to have a debate. I invite the shadow Leader of the House to table an Opposition motion on the subject in order to defend his party's policy on that matter. The consequence would be exactly as my hon. Friend says. If we went into a referendum on the basis of rejecting the whole idea of bringing together the existing European treaties into a single constitutional treaty, we would be left saying to the other 24 member states that they should walk away and do their own thing. If that happened, we would be left outside, on a ticket out of the European Union. That is the Opposition's policy, and they will be reminded of it in the coming months running up to the referendum.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

Following this morning's revelation that an estimated £30 million—perhaps much more—has been deducted by solicitors in various guises from miners' compensation, may we have an urgent debate or statement next week? We should discuss, in particular, whether the Government ever envisaged that miners, their widows and families should receive anything less than 100 per cent. of their industrial injury compensation.

Mr. Hain

As a former energy Minister, I can be absolutely clear that it was always expressly understood that, under the terms of the court judgment and the Government's compensation scheme, the costs of legal fees incurred would be borne by the scheme, not by miners themselves, retired miners or their families. Unless a separate agreement has been negotiated—as in the case of the National Union of Miners in Nottinghamshire—and such an express agreement falls within the scheme, what my hon. Friend mentioned is unacceptable and, I would suggest, falls outside the rules of the scheme. No miners should have their compensation docked in that way by unscrupulous solicitors.