HC Deb 29 April 2004 vol 420 cc1005-18 12.32 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 (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for next week will be as follows:

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 One). There will be a half-day debate entitled "The Government's Failure to Solve the UK Housing Crisis" on an Opposition motion, 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.

FRIDAY 7 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 10 MAY—Second Reading of the Energy Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 11 MAY—Remaining stages of the Housing Bill.

WEDNESDAY 12 MAY—Second Reading of the Age-Related Payments Bill, followed by a motion to approve the first report of the Procedure Committee on estimates and appropriation procedure.

THURSDAY 13 MAY—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 14 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The House may wish to be reminded that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the end of business on Thursday 27 May and return on Monday 7 June.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. May we have two days on Report for the Pensions Bill, and will he ensure that that debate does not fall on 18 May, when the National Pensioners Convention has its parliament in Blackpool? The Leader of the House will understand how important it is for the Minister for Pensions to be present there to hear the robust views of the pensioners. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) will also be there on that day.

When can we expect to receive the Home Secretary's Bill to prevent courts from releasing psychopathic terrorists who have been detained While sane?

What has happened to the statutory instrument denying welfare benefits to non-working east European migrants, which is due before I May? Can we expect it tomorrow?

The Leader of the House will be aware that on this morning's "Today" programme, Giscard d'Estaing, president of the Convention on the Future of Europe and architect of the EU constitution, confirmed that Britain could reject the constitution and still remain a full member of the European Union. Is there any reason why the Leader of the House should not now consult the Electoral Commission about the question to be asked in the referendum and swiftly introduce the necessary paving Bill, and will he tell us about the timetable today?

Finally, why is it that everything that the Government touch seems to go wrong? We are told this morning that Royal Mail is losing 1 million letters a year—particularly in London—through theft, incompetence, cannabis on the job and a chaotic culture. Does the Leader of the House understand the sheer bloomin' misery caused to pensioners when their money does not arrive, or to the person whose credit card is stolen? What is the response of Ministers? Apparently, they say, "Oh, we intend to watch tonight's television programme." Should they not have controls in place, and when will they explain to the House what they are doing about this scandal?

Mr. Hain

I was intrigued to discover which questions the shadow Leader of the House would ask. The polling organisation ICM has refused to work for the Tories on the ground that they are doctoring its questions. This is the first known case of a pollster sacking a client to protect its integrity. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is in the same boat.

I shall certainly give very serious consideration to the hon. Gentleman's request for two days on Report for the Pensions Bill. He makes a fair point about the parliamentary time needed to debate it, particularly given the large number of Government amendments to it. He will appreciate that it is a very important Bill that protects workers from being robbed of their pensions. We have seen such tragic cases recently, but of course it was under the Tories that such circumstances were created and allowed to continue.

On the Home Secretary's preventing courts from releasing psychopathic terrorists, he of course keeps this issue under constant review. If extra powers are needed—[Interruption.] There are very tough powers in existence, for which we are constantly criticised, including by Conservative Members. The statutory instrument to which the hon. Gentleman refers will be laid tomorrow, so he can rest content on that point.

I have a transcript of Giscard d'Estaing's remarks on the "Today" programme about the European Union constitution. His point was that Britain would be pushed to "the edge" of the European Union if ours was the only country that did not sign up to the new constitutional treaty. If the other 24 countries agreed to it and Britain did not, we would be left behind and there would be consequences. One consequence of being on the edge would be precisely the kind of Tory incompetence that we saw during European negotiations on BSE. The Tories failed to create the circumstances in which we could work with our colleagues to solve the problem.

On the working time directive, the problems that we have sought to unravel in recent months are precisely those that the Conservatives foisted on us when in government by not negotiating the directive properly to protect British interests. We do not want to be on the edge of Europe: we want to be in the middle of Europe, influencing its direction, and that is where this Government will place us.

In a quaint remark at the end of his questions, the hon. Gentleman asked why everything that this Government touch goes wrong. What about the record number of jobs in the economy, and the lowest inflation and mortgage rates for a generation? These are the things that people really care about, not the antics of Conservative Front Benchers at Prime Minister's questions and business questions.

On the substantive issue of the allegations made against Royal Mail staff, they are very serious and Royal Mail's investigations unit will look into them. That process will continue. The unit has a record of conducting investigations over a number of years. We as Members of Parliament depend on our local Royal Mail service—on our local postie—and have a good relationship with the staff, who are admired throughout the country for the fantastic job that they do. I do not think that we should attack them willy-nilly, in the disgraceful way that the hon. Gentleman did.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

In view of the continuing fighting in Fallujah and Najaf and the death last night of American servicemen, as well as the death of a large number of Iraqi civilians over the past few days and weeks, and the very serious statement made by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, calling for a political rather than a military solution, will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a statement from either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary at the earliest possible opportunity, and a full debate on the whole desperate situation in Iraq, where we are increasingly seeing the Vietnamisation of a war that the Americans simply cannot win? We need a political solution brought about by the international community, with the Iraqi people.

Mr. Hain

Like my hon. Friend, no doubt, I marched against the Vietnam war. I see absolutely no comparison with the situation in Iraq—on the contrary. It is a very difficult situation, with terrorist groups and others seeking to destabilise the operations of the coalition forces. I agree. however, that a political solution is needed, and that is precisely what the Government are backing, with power due to be handed over to the interim Iraqi governing council in June, as part of creating a free and democratic Iraq and solving the political problem that existed for a generation under Saddam Hussein's undemocratic dictatorship.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)(LD)

I thank the Leader of the House for his hint that there will indeed be two days for the Pensions Bill. May I encourage him to change that hint to a firm promise? I draw his attention to the publication of two recent written statements by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, one on sustainable development and the other on energy efficiency, with the latter running to 116 pages and incorporating a 16 per cent. reduction in the Government's CO2 emissions policy targets. Does he agree that it is not really satisfactory for the Secretary of State to have made only one statement to the House on environmental matters since the general election, and will he ask her to put in a rather more diligent performance?

We welcome the statements that have been made, but is it not time for the House to have a proper debate on Iraq, where we appear to be in a descending spiral of more disorder, more troops, more casualties, and, according to senior diplomats, no plan B? Will the Leader of the House assure us that we will have an opportunity to debate the Government's strategy on Iraq thoroughly in the near future?

Mr. Hain

Iraq is debated at the highest level in the House almost daily, and certainly weekly. Only last week, the Prime Minister made a statement to the House on Iraq, and the hon. Gentleman and others were able to question him. Despite the difficulties and the attempts being made to destabilise Iraq and prevent it from going down the democratic path favoured by the Government, we will get through in the end.

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised at the amount of time given to debate the Pensions Bill on Report. His point has been well registered, as has that of the shadow Leader of the House.

The hon. Gentleman's point on energy efficiency is an important one, but I disagree fundamentally with his allegation about the Secretary of State, who is widely admired throughout the world for her leadership on environmental issues and on tackling climate change and rising CO2 emissions. She has done more than any other Environment Minister in the world to drive forward that agenda, and she should be praised for that, not criticised.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 1059, tabled by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and signed by many other Members, on international noise awareness day?

That this House places on record its appreciation to the UK Noise Association, a coalition of key organisations lobbying on different aspects of noise, for the work it undertakes in seeking to tackle the increasing nuisances and problems caused by unnecessary noise, particularly by anti-social neighbours; is alarmed that Britain's cities are up to 10 times noisier than a decade ago and that tranquil areas in the countryside are fast disappearing; is further alarmed that 32 million people in the UK are exposed to high levels of noise and that an estimated 2.5 million live in homes with bad sound insulation; notes that 28th April is the ninth international noise awareness day; congratulates the UK Noise Association for supporting the event and assisting honourable and Right honourable Members in the formation of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Noise Reduction in Society; and calls on the Government to introduce further measures to make the country a quieter place.]

International noise awareness day was yesterday. The early-day motion draws attention to the work of the UK Noise Association and the fact that 32 million people in this country are now subjected to excessive levels of noise, with 2.5 million homes having either no or very little noise insulation. Tranquil areas of Britain have virtually disappeared. When my right hon. Friend is making bids for the Queen's Speech—fewer than six months away, and I believe that the process is under way now—will he ensure that appropriate legislation is entered in the pipeline? Our Government have been quiet about noise for far too long.

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his noisy question. He raises an important issue for all Members of Parliament. We all know that our constituents are increasingly worried about the problem and I am sure that the Secretary of State will want carefully and closely to consider the points that my hon. Friend made. We are implementing an EU directive requiring compliance with noise maps and the production of action plans to manage noise from the transport industry in particular. We are also tackling night noise through antisocial behavour legislation. We are on the case, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will make any additional points to the Secretary of State.

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

On the same issue of noise and antisocial behaviour, when can we have a debate on the report of the Procedure Committee on Sessional Orders, which would allow the House to deal with the unsightly cacophony on Parliament Square? Does the Leader of the House recall telling me last November that that problem would have to be dealt with sooner rather than later; and does he recall telling my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) a month ago that there would shortly be some good news on the matter? Does he also remember that, the last time I raised the matter with him, you, Mr. Speaker, also expressed interest in the debate?

Mr. Hain

I think that pretty well all the points that the right hon. Gentleman made in those questions are true. We are on the case, but I am sure that, with his long parliamentary and governmental experience, he will appreciate that it is not a straightforward matter. We are examining whether existing procedures and measures can be utilised more efficiently. That, rather than relying on potentially time-consuming legislation, is my preferred course. We will see how it goes and I hope to report back to the right hon. Gentleman when I can.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

As my right hon. Friend will know, the enlargement of the European Union will take place on Saturday 1 May. Will he arrange an urgent debate next week so that the House can examine the benefits of enlargement? That is particularly important in view of the scare stories that Conservative Members have put about over the last three months—for example, that millions of people will be getting on easyJet flights from Warsaw and Prague. We need to argue that that will not materialise on Saturday. Will he also arrange, through the Secretary of State for Transport, for the Leader of the Opposition to go to Luton airport to find out whether that actually happens?

Mr. Hain

It would be valuable for the Leader of the Opposition to do so, because he Was in power as Home Secretary when the accession treaty was signed and these measures first started on their road. As regards my hon. Friend's wider point, we heard the same scare stories when Greece, Portugal and Spain joined the European Union. They were all poor countries—

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas)


Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend reminds me, Ireland as well. Exactly the same scaremongering took place then. We have put measures in place to stop any abuses of the benefits system. Enlargement will take place, and I assume that both sides of the House support the enlargement of the EU as an important reunification of Europe, which will create greater stability, greater prosperity and protect our environmental standards.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

May I join other hon. Members who have pressed for a full two-day debate on Iraq? Those who voted against the war could then restate their view that the war was unnecessary, unjustified, unwise and probably unlawful. We could also express our deep concern at the fact that we are so closely linked in strategy and tactics to the policy of the present United States Administration.

Mr. Hain

I disagree with almost everything that the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. I notice that he made no reference to the despotic and tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein, which we must remember was responsible for the deaths of 1 million Muslims. I do not know of anyone in history who bears a similar responsibility.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)(Lab/Co-op)

Would the Leader of the House consider a debate on the conduct of the media? Such a debate would deal not with the gratuitous insults that you and I, Mr. Speaker, receive from the snooty scribblers in their sketches, but with the serious misrepresentations and falsehoods that regularly appear now. It would also cover the unjustified personal attacks on Members of the House, especially Ministers, which cause great distress to families. Those attacks are beyond belief, and existing voluntary arrangements are no longer sufficient to deal with them.

Mr. Hain

If the snooty scribblers are here, I think that my right hon. Friend has guaranteed himself a slot in their sketches tomorrow. He has made his point very eloquently.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

During the Easter recess, BAE Systems announced 1,000 redundancies at their plants in Lancashire. In part, that reflects the fact that the Government have yet to conclude discussions with the company over the ordering of tranche 2 of Eurofighter. This week, we learned that the company is considering selling its military shipbuilding capability, and that relationships between the company's senior management and the Government are at rock bottom. Given the company's strategic and industrial importance, will the Leader of the House find time for an early statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on the Government's relationship with BAE Systems?

Mr. Hain

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the company's strategic and industrial importance, which the Government have consistently recognised as crucial. His constituency interest means that the right hon. Gentleman, understandably and rightly, has championed the company's cause, but he will understand that there has been a huge investment of public money—as much as £1 billion—in the company in respect of defence technology. The rise in defence spending means that there are great opportunities for the defence industry right across Britain.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

May I add my voice to those calling for a debate on Iraq? The seriousness of the security situation there makes such a debate essential. However, I want to draw the Leader of the House's attention to the plight of Refreshment Department employees, many of whom face redundancy because of the new hours of the House. One employee—of 30 years' standing, and a trade union representative—was given half an hour's notice of redundancy and then escorted from the premises. That is no way to treat longstanding and loyal members of staff, and it is time the House discussed the matter.

Mr. Hain

If that were true, it would indeed be outrageous. Those responsible for such matters, including the members of the Catering Committee, will want to look into what happened. However, I must correct my hon. Friend in one respect: the reforms and changes taking place in Refreshment Department staffing stem from the House's decision to reduce the level of subsidy for hon. Members' catering services, and are not to do with the hours that the House sits. Indeed, catering income has risen since the hours changed. My hon. Friend may have legitimate concerns about the change in the House's hours, but that is not responsible for what is happening in catering.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

Does the Leader of the House agree with Scotland's First Minister, who has said that Scotland's falling population is perhaps the single biggest challenge facing Scotland in the 21st century? He has identified the fact that Scotland has the fastest falling population of any nation in Europe. May we have a debate to examine the differing immigration requirements of the UK's constituent parts? The UK's difficulties with immigration mean that it may be sensible to devolve the immigration policy to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Hain

I must acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity in taking any opportunity to press his case for Scottish independence. The problem is that no one in Scotland—apart from members of the Scottish National party—agrees with him.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the recently announced increase in the numbers of teachers and classroom assistants? The House needs to consider how it can be maintained, and the possible effect on that increase of proposals to passport pupils from schools to the private education sector. Another factor that needs to be debated is that the passports could be funded by a two-year freeze on public expenditure.

Mr. Hain

If any Government were to adopt those policies, the result would be devastating for schools. Tens of thousands of teachers and classroom assistants have been recruited, but their numbers would be savagely cut. The policy is therefore very mistaken, and the Conservatives who advocate it, will find themselves in the dock at the next general election.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

Reports in the national press today reveal the serious reservations of business leaders, and especially of the director general of the CBI, about the now-notorious £10 million bung for the trade unions that the Government hale included in the Employment Relations Bill. Will the Leader of the House ensure additional time to discuss that specific measure? That is needed because of the sneaky way in which the Government introduced it, and because of the widespread belief that it is an outrageous abuse of taxpayers' money by a political party.

Mr. Hain

I do not know how the hon. Gentleman can accuse the Government of being sneaky, when the provision was put before the House of Commons as part of proposals for employment reform. Is he seriously suggesting that a modernisation fund to encourage trade unions to be more strategic in the way that they tackle the problems, of skills and investment faced by our economy and industry is not a good thing? Surely he wants members of the work force, including those who organise in trade unions, and of management to be forward looking? They should be looking to drive up our skills and our ability to add value so that we can compete in the modern world.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware that some opponents of the constitutional treaty favour Britain having associate membership of the EU. Can we have a debate on the Floor of the House so that some of us can point out that associate membership of the EU is not full membership?

Mr. Hain

Indeed it is not, although some Conservative Members have argued otherwise. Associate membership would be devastating for Britain. It would do more than put us on the edge of the EU, as Giscard said on the "Today" programme this morning; it would cause us to be right out of the picture as far as Europe is concerned. It would threaten British jobs, more than 3 million of which are based in companies that trade with the EU. It would also threaten our ability to be at the heart of what is the world's biggest and richest market, and one of its most important political blocs. [Interruption] That may be Conservative policy, and their excited chatter underlines that. It will not be the policy of this Labour Government.

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

Will the Leader of the House say more about the mysterious statutory instrument on benefits for migrants? I suppose that we should be grateful for tiny crumbs, as he has told us that it will be discussed tomorrow However, will he give more details about the parliamentary timetable for this very important measure, so that we all know what is going to happen, and when? What is his assessment of our vulnerability in the period when it is subject to parliamentary scrutiny? What might happen if it is rejected because of its inequity?

Mr. Hain

The order is the same as any other, including the one that was discussed on Tuesday night. However, in the meantime, I want to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his wonderful tie, which is dazzling everyone in the Chamber.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend agree to an early debate on women's participation in politics? Is he aware of the report from the Electoral Commission this week which shows that women are turned off by the macho style of politics in Westminster, and that they are much more likely to vote and to engage in politics if they have a female MP? Also, the Labour party's policy of having all-women short lists was specifically cited as a way forward.

Mr. Hain

Yes, I am aware of that report. I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the large number of women now being selected by the Labour party in vacant seats. That compares with the dismal record of the Conservatives—and, I am sorry to say, of the Liberal Democrats and other minority parties. We want more women in Parliament, as women represent more than half the population. [Interruption.] Conservative Members want to know why—that is the authentic voice of the old, male chauvinist, traditional Tory party, barking at me from the benches opposite. We want a Parliament that reflects the country. We do not have that at the moment. As my hon. Friend noted, the Electoral Commission report shows that, on the whole, women candidates tend to do better than men, as women—who are disinclined to vote in the current climate—feel a much greater identification with female MPs.

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

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1051, the main sponsors of which are six of his colleagues.

[That this House is shocked by reports from the United Nations of a looming major humanitarian catastrophe in the Darfur region of Sudan where 665,000 people have been internally displaced, 453,000 others have been affected and more than 100,000 refugees have fled to Chad; notes with alarm that the top UN official in the Sudan has described the situation as being comparable to the Rwandan genocide; and calls on the UN Security Council to address the situation urgently.]

What steps are the Government taking to make their views known to the Government of Sudan and through the United Nations to see whether action can be taken? A militia, apparently backed by the National Islamic Front Government, is persecuting Muslims because of their colour.

Mr. Hain

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the situation in Darfur, which is indeed dire. The civilian population is in a precarious state, and civilian protection is a serious concern. We have committed more than £9.5 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the crisis, and we are providing key personnel to reinforce the United Nations presence. We will continue to monitor the situation to make sure that we avoid the even worse catastrophe that the hon. Gentleman foresees.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the corporate social responsibility of companies such as BP, which announced its largest ever profit last year but which has also announced, with a cavalier attitude, that it is going to dispose of its weaker businesses, which will include the olefins and plastics plant—the company's only one in the UK—at Grangemouth in my constituency? Some 500 workers there rely on the company for their livelihood, and it seems to me that, in spite of all the whitewash in BP's corporate responsibility documents, it forgets that it made its wealth from the people of the United Kingdom and used our assets, particularly in the North sea, to boost its profits for 30 years. Surely we need a debate to try to align the responsibility such companies have to their shareholders with a responsibility to the work force, to UK plc and to the people of Scotland.

Mr. Hain

I am sure that Lord Browne, the chairman of BP, will take careful note of what my hon. Friend has said. Obviously. BP is one of our national champions and one of our most important industries, not least in my hon. Friend's community. It is important that it should continue to enjoy the confidence of its work force and the communities that it serves.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)(Con)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate about residential blight caused by prospective airport development and the necessary compensation schemes for which we wait and which must be brought forward by the airports themselves? Can we have such a debate soon to end uncertainty for those of my constituents who are affected by that blight?

Mr. Hain

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, and uncertainty is in no one's interests. The Secretary of State for Transport will want to take careful note of the points raised and to respond to the hon. Gentleman to ensure that his constituents enjoy the certainty to which they are entitled.

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

Surely we must have a debate on Fallujah, Iraq and the chaos and mayhem there, not so that those of us who opposed the occupation may say "We told you so," but so that we can offer constructive suggestions about the way forward in the difficult circumstances that exist there. One such suggestion would be the greater development of the wider labour and trade union movement in Iraq, which supports neither terrorism nor oppression.

Mr. Hain

I am very much in favour of the greater development of the trade union and labour movement in Iraq. Of course, that was not allowed, and was specifically prevented, under Saddam Hussein, who is now, mercifully, not ruling the country in his despotic way. My hon. Friend has many opportunities to raise the situation in Iraq, and I am sure that he will take every one of them.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

A few minutes ago, the Leader of the House drew attention to the importance of a strong, democratic, well established trade union movement to this country's social and economic well-being. I endorse the thrust of his point, but, bearing in mind that a rotten financial institution is terrible for all other financial institutions, does he agree that a rogue trade union, such as ASLEF, also brings the entire trade union movement into disrepute? Will he arrange for the Minister who will be responsible for the good news that he mentioned earlier to tell the House why the trade union movement allows ASLEF to behave as it has under its current executive and former general secretary? Together, they are damaging the good name of all trade unions.

Mr. Hain

ASLEF is an independent trade union, governed by the law and the rules, and, as a member of the Trades Union Congress, it accepts its obligations. All sorts of things are going on in the union at present, but I do not think that they justify the hon. Gentleman's over-the-top question.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab)

This week, the Prime Minister announced his wish that the G8 would give the highest priority to climate change and terrorism in its discussions next year. In view of the chief scientific adviser's recent remark that climate change is a greater threat to civilisation than terrorism, in view of the Government's energy White Paper's argument that energy efficiency is the key way to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, and in view of the long-awaited publication this week of the energy efficiency action plan, will my right hon. Friend find time in the very near future for a debate on the contribution of energy efficiency and productivity to combating the threat of climate change?

Mr. Hain

If I could find time for such a debate soon, I would readily do so. I agree that this is one of the central challenges facing the world. Governments such as ours have a proud record in signing up to the Kyoto protocol, leading the way in energy efficiency and pressing for more renewable energy, which will assist with this task, and of protecting the environment in every way. If my hon. Friend applied for a debate and had the opportunity to hold one, it would give us an opportunity to display that record to the whole House.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con)

Tomorrow, the unelected south-west regional assembly meets to choose whether to upgrade the A358 in my constituency or to build a new road across the beautiful black downs. The decision will then be conveyed to the Secretary of State for Transport, putting the ball very much in the Government's court. May we have a debate so that those of us who are elected to this place and believe in the A358 option can influence the Government's decision on a matter of vital interest to the west country?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman has many opportunities to press the Secretary of State on that matter, and I am sure that, in the interests of his constituency, he will take them all. I was intrigued to hear him refer to the unelected south-west regional assembly. Does that mean that he is in favour of an elected one?

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Thousands of foreign women are trapped in domestic slavery. We read in the papers about mail-order brides and so on. It is a mystery to me why holding another person's passport cannot be made a criminal offence. Will the Leader of the House urge the Home Secretary to make a statement on that pernicious form of exploitation.

Mr. Hain

I agree that it is indeed pernicious. The Home Secretary and his Ministers take a close interest in the matter, and I am sure that further information will be sought from my hon. Friend about the precise circumstances that, he has properly raised.

Bob Spink (Cast1e Point) (Con)

The Independent Monitoring Commission's report of 20 April recommended act on against Sinn Fein in response to continued high levels of violence and terrorism. The £120,000 fine imposed is entirely inadequate. When will the Leader of the House give the House the opportunity to consider withdrawing facilities in the House from Sinn Fein as a result of the IMC's recommendations?

Mr. Hain

I understand the hon. Gentleman's wish to raise these matters, and I recognise that he regularly attends business questions. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a full statement on the matter and answered questions for nearly an hour.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend today announced a debate on Tuesday 4 May on the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill. I am sure that the strongly held feelings about the Bill on both sides of the House are not lost on him. Will he use his good offices to ensure that—notwithstanding an emergency—no ministerial or other statements will be made on that day that would eat into the already limited time that Back Benchers will have?

Mr. Hain

I am aware of the many strong feelings among hon. Members on the matter. I can assure my hon. Friend that more than adequate time will be provided for a full debate in which all the issues can be raised. There are no plans for a statement at the moment, but in politics one can never anticipate what may arise. I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)(LD)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the working of Prime Minister's Question Time and will he consider extending it to 40 minutes? As I am sure the Leader of the House is aware, yesterday out of 535 lines in Hansard, 216 were taken up in an exchange between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party. Last week, of 652 lines in Hansard, 246 were taken up by that exchange. Some 650-odd other right hon. and hon. Members might wish to catch the Speaker's eye and if the time were extended to 40 minutes, it would give us a better chance.

Mr. Hain

When I next need advice on Prime Minister's questions, I shall turn to the hon. Gentleman, as he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of them. For the period that it has operated—in this Parliament and the previous one—the half-hour provided for Prime Minister's questions has been very successful in enabling the House to hold the Prime Minister to account. That is what he wants, and we do not need to extend the time any further.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

On the matter of the timing of the Report stage and Third Reading of the Pensions Bill, will my right hon. Friend pass on to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister my thanks for the remarks that he has made in Prime Minister's questions—including this week to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan)—and for the work that has been done by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor to try to find a solution to the problem of the 60,000 people who have lost their pensions? But will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House also convey the necessity for the Government to produce their conclusions on that work before Report, which will be the last opportunity that the House will have to influence the issue?

Mr. Hain

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on behalf of the Allied Steel and Wire workers in Cardiff, who—like many others—were scandalously robbed of their pensions. We are anxious to resolve the matter if we can in a way that does not read across to other areas and cost taxpayers billions of pounds in extra claims for compensation because of the collapse of private schemes across the country. I am grateful for his comments about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's words yesterday. If there is a way to achieve our aims, there is certainly a will to do so on the part of the Government, and we will do all that we can to secure that outcome.

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

Will the Leader of the House turn his attention back to what the website of The Daily Telegraph calls "Thieving, laziness and utter chaos in the post"? He has dealt with the thieving and laziness allegations, but in my constituency and in Hampshire there is utter chaos, with people not receiving their deliveries until well after lunch. It is not the second delivery that has been abolished, but the first delivery. Can the Minister responsible come to the House and explain how the Post Office can compete with new, electronic forms of communication, when the service now appears to be so unreliable?

Mr. Hain

I remember when I was a researcher for the Post Office workers' union, many years ago, that most union members argued that the second delivery was a protection to ensure that the first delivery arrived on time. At any rate, that has been changed. It is a matter for Royal Mail, but I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman made, especially in respect of his constituency. If he has accurately depicted the situation there, it is obviously of great concern.