HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1567-84 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 of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business following the half-term week will be as follows:

MONDAY 23 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Gender Recognition Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 24 FEBRUARY—Motions relating to the Draft Social Security Benefits up-Rating Order 2004 and the Draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2004, followed by an Opposition half-day [5th Allotted Day] (2nd Part). There will be a half-day debate entitled, "Crisis in pension scheme wind-ups", on an Opposition motion.

May I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on behalf of the House for the early notice he has given of the title of the Opposition day debate? It is 12 days away, but such notice gives hon. Members an opportunity to plan. Perhaps we can continue to discuss the titles of such motions to ensure that what appears on the Order Paper is not only consistent with what I announce, but accurately reflects the contents of the Opposition motions that he wishes to table, given that the titles that I announce sometimes do not appear on the Order Paper because of the need to conform with House rules.

WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY—Debate on the report from the Privy Counsellor Review Committee on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, on a Government motion.

THURSDAY 26 FEBRUARY—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Employment Relations Bill, followed by a debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 1 MARCH—Remaining stages on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill.

TUESDAY 2 MARCH—Second Reading of the Pensions Bill.

WEDNESDAY 3 MARCH—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 4 MARCH—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill, followed by a debate on women, equality and human rights on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 5 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House may also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Thursday 1 April and return on Monday 19 April.

Mr. Heald

I should, of course, have asked for the business for the next parliamentary week, in which case it would have been quite in order for the Leader of the House to reply "gardening"; luckily, he did not.

May I raise two issues with the Leader of the House? Last year, he and I marched shoulder to shoulder through the Lobby to vote for a democratically elected second Chamber, which was the most popular option among hon. Members. The option that received the fewest votes was an all-appointed Chamber. Why, therefore, have the Government chosen to proceed with that option? Who was it who said: If there is one fault greater in a democratic society than not to consult, it is to consult and then to ignore the results"? It was his predecessor. The Leader of the House has gone one better—he is now ignoring his own opinions, as set out in the Fabian Society speech that he made only last Saturday. If he wants to introduce a Bill, surely it must include ideas for electing the other place. May we have a statement in this place on the Government's intentions?

It has now emerged that the Home Office ignored warnings given last summer in a letter from the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) that illegal immigrants on pitiful wages were risking their lives collecting cockles among the currents and quicksands of Morecambe bay. The Minister's reply conceded that Home Office officials felt that little useful purpose would have been served by sending immigration officers", and went on to point out that there were "resource issues". That attitude must have encouraged the gangmasters to continue the operations that led to the deaths of the 19 people. It was an appalling dereliction of duty, and hon. Members know nothing to suggest that any action has been taken to remedy the situation.

Do we live in a country where the Government do not care about clamping down on illegal immigration, or that reckless and greedy profiteers are putting people's lives at risk? Will the Home Secretary make a statement to the House today to explain his Department's lazy and complacent response to this dangerous situation? If not, we in the House and people throughout the country will know what the Government really think—they just do not care.

Mr. Hain

The idea that this Government do not care about a large number of illegal workers who died on the Morecambe sands is, frankly, beneath the hon. Gentleman—and beneath contempt.

As for doing nothing about it, may I place on record what did happen, and in doing so congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) on her excellent job in defending her constituents' interests and exposing the appalling gangmasters' rackets? Immigration officers were not present on that occasion, but police officers were. The purpose of the initiative was to ensure that the police got a grip and tackled the problem, which they, and the Home Office under the leadership of the Home Secretary, were trying to do.

Mr. Heald

Are you blaming the police?

Mr. Hain

No, I am not blaming the police; I am correcting the record. It is not true that the Government or the police did nothing. On the contrary, the appropriate officials—police officers—were on the case months ago, which is what the Home Office Minister concerned said in the reply that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale received to her letter. We did not ignore the situation and there was no dereliction of duty. We were on the case, and we are on the case in other respects, such as seeking to eject a record number of illegal asylum seekers—more than any country across Europe—at the average rate of 1,500 a week.

I am glad that I stood shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman in the vote on the House of Lords. I have never hidden the fact that I have always believed in an elected second Chamber—I voted that way. The issue now is how we achieve that. First, we must get the Bill through, because it establishes a platform for subsequent consensus on final reform of the House of the Lords.

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


Mr. Hain

Yes, it does; otherwise we are defending the indefensible situation of hereditary peers remaining in the second Chamber and voting on laws of the land although they are there by accident of birth rather than by election or any other democratically accountable system of appointment. That is the position.

Interestingly, Conservative peers in the House of Lords voted solidly for a fully appointed Chamber.

Mr. Forth

They would.

Mr. Peter Hain

Ah—the cat has been let out of the bag. We have one message from Conservative Front Benchers, who are being purely opportunistic, as they always are on every policy, but another message from elsewhere—and not just a message, but a practical vote against the very policy that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) appears to be advocating. I am in favour of getting through the reform that will abolish hereditary peers and establish a more accountable and independent appointments system, and of building on that over the subsequent period. I shall happily talk to the hon. Gentleman about that. The Joint Committee, on which I hope Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be represented, will be able to examine the system, which I hope will contain at least a strong element of direct election.

I have one final point on that matter, which is that I have been absolutely consistent in what I said to the Fabians last Saturday and in what I wrote in my book nearly 10 years ago. I have always believed that to have an entirely separate election for the second Chamber on a different date from the general election would be undesirable. I do not know what the turnout would be in such an election, and it would have the opportunity to offer a rival forum. We should examine, as the Lord Chancellor has said, the option of a secondary mandate whereby the votes cast at a general election would determine the composition of an elected second Chamber. It will be interesting to see what the Conservatives do in a serious debate on the matter, instead of their normal opportunistic posturing—which has been countered by the way in which they have voted in the other place.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether and when we will have an opportunity here to debate the 26th report on senior salaries, which was published this morning, and—more importantly—the Prime Minister's written statement that has just been released? Does the Leader of the House recognise that the Prime Minister's spokesman has confirmed that the report means that the Prime Minister's salary will be increased to nearly £179,000?

Interestingly, the briefing given this morning referred to performance-related pay. Can the Leader of the House explain precisely how that will apply to Ministers? What would happen if there were an error of judgment at the highest levels of government? Would salary be docked if, for example, the Leader of the House made a mistake, or if the Prime Minister made a mistake and led the country to war under false pretences? Would his pay be docked sufficiently to take account of that error?

On Lords reform, can the Leader of the House confirm that there will be a debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 25 February? Since he has already said that he has taken the lead on this issue, and since it would seem that he alone in the Cabinet is sticking to the manifesto commitment to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative, which everyone else signed up to but has since reneged on, will he lead for the Government in that debate?

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the lead Secretary of State on the House of Lords reform Bill, which will be introduced in due course and which will abolish the hereditaries and establish an independent system of appointment, will be the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. Yes, I can confirm that there will be a debate on the House of Lords on the first Wednesday after we return.

On public sector pay, the Senior Salaries Review Body recommended that Members' pay and Ministers' pay be increased in line with the general rate of inflation, which is about 2 per cent., and the Government have accepted that. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that Members' pay should be docked on a performance-related basis, so that he might take a dock in pay depending on whether he performed well or badly at business questions. All that we are doing is implementing what the House has decided. Ministers' and Members' pay is linked to civil service grades. The pay review looked at civil service pay, and this is the result. The increase is in line with inflation, so I do not think that his arguments apply.

I have one other point to raise with the hon. Gentleman. I am very concerned about the number of Opposition Members who turn up for their own debates. I found it amazing that no Liberal Democrat Back Benchers were present during their party's debate on the environment earlier this week. Even more galling is the fact that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has tabled an early-day motion—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must stop the Leader of the House.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

Before we launch forth on messing up the arrangements in another place, could we look carefully at the arrangements in this House? Is the House of Commons going to continue to limp along on the totally inadequate changed hours, which are not only affecting the work of Select Committees but destroying the Refreshment Department? They are also making it impossible for schools in the north to visit the House of Commons at any sensible hour. They really are a negation of any sensible access to a democratic establishment.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will be aware that I have announced that we shall review the hours, and I am taking soundings on that and consulting everyone across the Floor as well as our own Back Benchers, including her—[Interruption.] Perhaps I could address the specific issues that she has raised. First, the question of when Select Committees meet is a serious one. The Chairman of the Liaison Committee and, indeed, the Liaison Committee itself raised the issue with me when we met before Christmas. There is now an opportunity for Select Committees to meet in convenience, as it were, on a Wednesday morning, not least because the parliamentary Labour party has decided that, after the Easter recess, it will meet on a Monday evening. Perhaps my hon. Friend will look at whether that will give her an extra opportunity. I realise that there have been changes to the catering arrangements as a result of the new hours, but the Refreshment Department's income has actually gone up—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady asked the Leader of the House a question. She should not then interrupt him.

Mr. Hain

Within the rules, I always enjoy my hon. Friend's heckling from the Bench Benches. Indeed, I admire her—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It does not help me, and the hon. Lady should not do it.

Mr. Hain

I realise the frustration that my hon. Friend and many other out-of-London Members, including me, feel about the limitation on tours and school visits. That is why I have talked to the official responsible for such visits, and we are considering making adjustments to improve the opportunities for school visits and other visits that Members arrange from their constituencies, because this has undoubtedly been a very negative outcome over the past weeks.

I think that we can move forward and resolve the three issues that my hon. Friend has raised, but I want to see a consensus created on the wider question of hours, by people on both sides of the argument talking to each other and finding a way to move forward. There is every sign that Members are showing a willingness to do that. I want us to have a vote that achieves a consensus rather than a narrow vote that leaves one side triumphant and the other side embittered.

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

The Leader of the House has just confirmed that a Bill will shortly be introduced on the House of Lords. Will he give the House an assurance that the Government will not draw the long title of the Bill so tightly that it will not be possible to table amendments on a directly elected element?

Mr. Hain

I can give the right hon. Gentleman no such assurance.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

May I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the importance of professional football to the national way of life? Many football supporters are extremely concerned about the recent spate of takeovers by billionaires from outside the country—such as the takeover of Chelsea—and about the current situation at Manchester United. Speaking as a Manchester United supporter, I must tell my right hon. Friend that it will not go down very well in Manchester if a takeover bid is made for United without reference to the interests of football, and if such a decision is made only in the interests of business. Can we expect an early statement from Ministers on how they intend to approach takeovers in professional football?

Mr. Hain

I recognise my hon. Friend's concern. I know that he is an avid Manchester United supporter, and that he will be mourning last night's results just as I, as an avid Chelsea supporter, am celebrating them. I understand his concern, however. The takeover of Chelsea football club, which has brought much needed relief and many tens of millions into our coffers, whereby we are now creating the best club in the world, has nevertheless raised the important issue of foreign takeovers that my hon. Friend identifies. I know that the all-party football group has done a lot of work on this matter and expressed much concern about it. It is an important issue that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will want to take close account of. I am sure that she will also study what my hon. Friend has said and be happy to talk to him about the implications.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

I do not know about the Chelsea PFI scheme from Russia, but will my right hon. Friend have a statement made by the appropriate Minister regarding the supreme court proposals and the statement by the Lord Chief Justice, no less, that he will oppose the proposals unless he gets a £50 million prestigious home for the supreme court? We are not talking about a few rolls of wallpaper here. I regard this as blackmail, extortion or bribery. I do not know whether some legal interpretation can be made, but it ill becomes a Lord Chief Justice to act in this fashion.

Mr. Hain

Knowing my hon. Friend's fearsome reputation, I am sure the Lord Chief Justice is quivering over what he said. If the reported remarks are correct—and I do not know—I find it surprising if that is the principal reason for objections by the Lord Chief Justice to modernising reforms, which will establish a genuinely independent senior judiciary and a new, modern system of a supreme court, and ensure that the system of appointments to the senior judiciary is independent, rather than being in the Prime Minister's hands. I would have thought that most people of common sense around the country, including those in the Lords, would recognise that. I hope that the Lord Chief Justice will in due course do the same.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

On Tuesday evening at Earls Court the British music industry will once again host the now annual, increasingly popular, Brit Awards ceremony, which, I am sure the Leader of the House is aware, is where the cream of the British music industry comes together to celebrate another year of success and achievement. The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the industry is currently experiencing real difficulties, mainly in the form of piracy, counterfeiting and illegal downloading. May we therefore have a debate on the British music industry, to examine these issues and to celebrate the success of what is still one of our most dynamic, creative and successful indigenous industries?

Mr. Hain

Unfortunately, I shall not be at the Brit Awards, as I shall be visiting people across Wales, although I received an invitation. I am glad that many hon. Members will take advantage of their invitations, because our music industry is vital in terms of exports and Britain's reputation world wide for being in the vanguard of modern music. I know that particular notice will be taken of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, as he was a distinguished rock musician in his previous career.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

Having recently returned from a visit to Israel and the occupied territories, and spoken to members of the Palestinian Authority and the Likud Government, two things are clear. One is that everybody knows the way forward and what needs to be done. The second is that there is a literally deadly impasse at present. Will my right hon. Friend therefore try to find time for a debate on this issue on the Floor of the House, particularly in the light of continuing loss of lives on both sides, issues over the line of the security fence and the possibility of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? It is vital that the House keep an eye on these issues and lobby for the road map to peace and for long-term peace and prosperity for all the people—Palestinians and Israelis.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend eloquently puts what I think is a position widely shared across the House and across all parties. He will have the opportunity to question my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on this matter very soon after we return. The vision that he has offered is that there must be negotiations for an independent Palestinian state, but one that gives the Israelis the security they need from suicide bombers and other attacks. That is the only way forward, and the sooner they get down to the road map again and the negotiations to achieve it, the better.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con)

There has already been a reference this morning to the tragic deaths of the Chinese workers in Morecambe bay. Council officials calculate that in the Breckland district council area, part of which I represent, there are some 15,000 foreign workers, some of whom are there legally, some illegally. I have been warning Ministers about the implications of this for at least two and a half years, but my efforts have been greatly hampered by the fact that it seems that no one Department is in the lead and that no one Department wants to know the facts.

There is no excuse now for Ministers not knowing the facts, in the light of the tragedy and also in the light of the report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on gangmasters, published last September. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the implications of Morecambe bay and the issues raised in the Select Committee report, and allow Members to question the Government on their extremely limp response to the report?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising this point, which affects the coastline near her constituency. Indeed, it affects us all. I do not agree that there has been a limp response. We have been pursuing the gangmasters, and are doing so in the Morecambe bay area. That is the purpose of the investigation. The police—the appropriate security officials, rather than immigration officials—came in and were on the case in order to track down the gangmasters. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will want to consult closely on the matter—his consultations will include the right hon. Lady, if she wishes to make any representations—because this is a common problem that we have to solve together.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)

We have seen in recent days Eurotunnel yet again falling into serious financial difficulties. In one way or another it will have to be bailed out by the public purse. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a full debate on rail freight, because only by pushing more freight through the channel tunnel will it eventually become financially viable? The same is true of the channel tunnel rail link. The only way in which it will be fully utilised and really become viable is if more freight is put through the CTR tunnels currently being constructed. Will my right hon. Friend make time for that debate, so that we may also look in particular at the way in which we can get full-scale road haulage trailers on to trains? That is the way forward.

Mr. Hain

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will study carefully what my hon. Friend said. I agree with everything that he said, as, I am sure, does my right hon. Friend. The objective must be to get more freight on to rail and off the roads, for environmental and congestion reasons, apart from anything else. That is one of the many reasons why record investment is going into the railways and will continue. The channel tunnel is a vital link for our exports.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

Following the NHS ombudsman's ruling against South Cambridgeshire primary care trust that a person with dementia should receive free NHS care at home, may we have a debate to explore the implications for people with all forms of dementia in residential care, whose health care should surely be funded by the NHS? We must now take the opportunity, after the South Cambridgeshire ruling, to end the discrimination against people with dementia.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman raises a problem that is common to all our constituencies. It is one of the reasons why we are introducing the Mental Incapacity Bill, initially in draft. He will have an opportunity to see whether it meets the concerns that he has identified. It is a serious issue, and I hope that those responsible locally will take note of his comments.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

I congratulate the Government on implementing their ten-minute Bill on the 92 remaining hereditary peers. Of the Lords who sit in the upper House simply because their ancestors received titles, many have titles that were given centuries ago. Indeed, the ancestor of one was given the title on 28 June 1283. How can it be possible to defend people sitting in the House of Lords, part of Parliament, simply because their ancestors were given titles centuries and centuries ago? The matter should have been dealt with long ago, and I am pleased that the Government are to take action now.

Mr. Hain

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The idea that people sit in judgment on our laws, and vote on them, because a great, great, great, great grandmother was the mistress of Charles II is an astonishing democratic proposition. The Conservatives now support the hereditary peers and the principle of their remaining in the House. That will become a clear dividing line between a Labour Government who seek to modernise our democratic institutions and a Conservative Government who would seek to keep them in mediaeval times and put us in a situation in which our Parliament became a laughing stock internationally.

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

On that very point, does the Leader of the House seriously think that this blatant cherry-picking and gerrymandering of the House of Lords will get through Parliament without full-scale reform? What the Government are trying to do—let us be quite clear about this—is to fiddle the figures in the House of Lords by removing the hereditaries, without giving us proper reform following that. The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the official Opposition are pledged to a democratic upper House, which his party apparently now is not, so we will take no lectures from him until we have a debate to flush all of this out. We will defend the hereditaries until we get proper, full reform of the upper House, and we will not accept his crude attempt at gerrymandering.

Mr. Hain

How on earth getting rid of hereditary peers can be called gerrymandering, I have no idea. The present composition of the House of Lords, partly because of hereditary peers, is gerrymandered in favour of the Conservative party. That is the reality. There is a vast majority of Conservative peers, including hereditaries. The Government have fewer peers in the House of Lords than Cross-Benchers, let alone Conservatives. That is a form of gerrymandering against the will of the people, who elected the Government to carry out our manifesto.

The right hon. Gentleman should join us in getting rid of hereditary peers through an independent system of appointment, which is light years away from gerrymandering, taking the power away from the Prime Minister. We will then move on to find a consensus on an elected second Chamber, or at least a second Chamber with a large proportion of elected peers. If the Conservatives will back us in that venture through consultation in the Joint Committee, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is calling for, we can move forward. I suspect that in the end Conservative Members, like Conservative peers, will vote against modernisation and democratisation, because they are the last vestiges of a commitment to an elitist democracy.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab)

Can I persuade my right hon. Friend of the growing case for a debate in Government time on the future funding of the national health service? I understand that work is underway at Richmond house on primary care trust allocations for the next three years. I know that a number of my hon. Friends whose primary care trusts are still some distance from their target funding would welcome the opportunity to influence the work that is underway at the Department of Health.

Is the case not made more pressing by some of the mixed messages that we have seen this week about lower taxes and higher NHS spending, which can have only a destabilising effect on NHS staff throughout the country?

Mr. Hain

On targets and funding levels in certain areas, my hon. Friend will be aware that waiting lists have been coming down steeply throughout England. That is a sign of the huge investment that the Government are now making. Against that background, I am astonished that the Leader of the Opposition is quoted as saying in a speech this week that the Government have spent a huge amount more on the NHS and that this approach has been tried and has failed. We have recruited thousands of extra nurses, doctors and consultants to make sure that waiting times are driven down to give people relief from pain, and the Leader of the Opposition is saying that we are spending too much money. As for the shadow Chancellor, the editorial of 12 February in The Daily Telegraph says that "The Tories are all over the place on tax and spend." We are seeing opportunism again. The same old extremist policies are coming back.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read the report published yesterday entitled "Obesity, the Time Bomb" by three eminent bodies, which recommended a cross-Government taskforce to look into a strategy for this problem? Looking at the Leader of the House, it is clearly a problem that he does not face. He gets plenty of exercise running from Government Department to Government Department putting out fires and, indeed, starting them. However, he knows that there is a problem, particularly with youngsters, who seem to believe that they can have a Big Mac and large fries twice a day and that that will have no long-term effect on them, whereas clearly it will. They need good dietary information and good exercise opportunities. This is not a case of Billy Bunter versus Twiggy: it is a matter of getting the right balance and getting information out to our youngsters. Will the Leader of the House consider seriously setting up a cross-Government taskforce to give guidance on and a strategy for this problem?

Mr. Hain

There is a strategy for the problem that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, in combination with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and other Ministers, is pursuing, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It is to encourage people to take more exercise. I get most of my exercise in the Neath valleys and in the gym rather than engaging in my departmental responsibilities.

We are bringing in new standards on nutritional content and we are increasing food labelling and food marketing, especially to stop or discourage advertisements that encourage young children to eat junk food and become obese. It is an extremely serious problem, and for that reason the hon. Gentleman is welcome to apply for a debate. However, the Government are on the case and will tackle the matter energetically. I am sure that his advice will be welcomed.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is a radical reformer. Does he think, therefore, that we should be having some full-day debates determined by Back Benchers? May I suggest as a starting point a debate that I know would have a great deal of support? We should have a full-day debate on the legacy of the National Coal Board, during which we could consider the unresolved issues concerning canteen workers. There are also issues involving the mineworkers pension scheme. In particular, we could have a proper and full debate about scandalous solicitors. One of them has today cited my right hon. Friend in defence of why they have been double charging miners, miners' widows and their families, despite the fact that the Government have already paid them. Given that we have a radical and reforming Government, does that not warrant at least a full-day debate?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend raises some important issues that I, like him, as a coalfield community Member, have been very concerned about. First, on the mineworkers pensions scheme, the Government's guarantee has ensured that despite the recent deficit, mineworkers' pensions have been topped up with taxpayers' funds. Therefore, they will be guaranteed their final salary pension schemes in a way that, unfortunately, people in the private sector are not. I think that former miners will welcome that.

My hon. Friend will know that the claim of canteen workers for equal pay is a long-standing grievance that was neglected by the Conservatives. It was resolved when I had responsibilities for energy. I know that some anomalies are still outstanding, with some individuals being not properly recognised and registered by the National Union of Mineworkers and by Arthur Scargill. That is a difficult problem.

I agree with my hon. Friend about applying for a debate on the scandal of solicitors who are taking Government money—taxpayers' money—to process compensation schemes. They are taking millions and millions of pounds of taxpayers' money and then penalising and exploiting often really sick miners by taking an additional cut of their compensation. That is a scandal. If it is not illegal, it is certainly against the code of the compensation scheme that was laid down by the court. The sooner that my hon. Friend is able to identify and, if necessary, name solicitors under privilege in the House, the better.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the Floor of the House on the future of air transport? Since the publication of the White Paper in December, there have been demands from Members on both sides of the House for a debate. With the exception of one Westminster Hall debate, it is clear that not enough time has been provided. There is a serious demand for such a debate.

Mr. Hain

I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. He is free to apply for a debate at any time. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made his statement and published the White Paper, I think that it was widely welcomed. There was a full opportunity then to hold him accountable.

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

In view of the recent exchanges in the House on the contribution of taxpayers to provide Short money for political parties in the UK, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the contribution of UK taxpayers to the funding of European political parties of which British Members are members, particularly perhaps the strongly pro-federalist European Peoples party?

Mr. Hain

The fact is that taxpayers' money does subsidise, quite properly, European political parties. It is interesting that the Conservatives have now decided to affiliate to the most federalist party in Europe. I encountered its members when I was representing the Government on the European convention. They were in favour of more and more integration, the creation of a European federal superstate and stripping Parliaments like ours of their power to maintain sovereignty over European decisions. It is an interesting body swerve by the new Leader of the Opposition that he has joined the federalist superstate fanatics in the European Peoples party.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the Government's strategy on defence medical services? Is he aware that the two main features of this strategy are the closure of the Royal hospital, Haslar, which is bitterly opposed, and the building of a new Royal College of Defence Medicine on the site of the Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, at a cost of £200 million? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government have now run out of funds and cannot develop the Selly Oak hospital, which means that their strategy is in tatters? It is not surprising that the admiral responsible for the policy has resigned from the Royal Navy rather than implement it, but it would have been more dignified if the Ministers responsible for those policies had resigned instead. Can we have a statement, because the Government policy is in tatters, and there is no plan B?

Mr. Hain

I recognise that this is an important constituency matter for the hon. Gentleman, who has raised it with the Secretary of State for Defence on numerous occasions. However, I do not accept his description of Government policy as being in tatters. Indeed, the Government are continuing to invest record amounts in defence and the defence of our country. I have read reports that the shadow Chancellor may be considering a cut in defence spending, but we shall no doubt find out next week. The issue is where we will get the money. If taxes are to be cut for the few, as the Conservatives apparently advocate, what will happen to our defence forces, let alone our hospitals and schools? That is the dividing line that is now opening up in British politics, and the people will decide that it is a Labour Government who can best protect their interests in defence and elsewhere.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)

Would the Leader of the House consider a debate on terrorist activity in the United Kingdom, and could it include consideration of the disturbing facts revealed this week on the BBC programme "File on 4", which looked at the recruitment of British citizens to terrorism? Would he also note the comments of Dr. Tamimi, a senior spokesman of the Muslim Association of Britain, who is reported in the English edition of "The Jerusalem Report" on 9 February as saying that he occasionally acts 'informally' as a public relations adviser for Hamas"? Hamas, of course, is a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Mr. Hain

I am obviously disturbed by my hon. Friend's account of what has appeared in "The Jerusalem Report". I am sure that the Home Secretary and, indeed, the security authorities will want to study carefully the points that she has made.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con)

The Financial Secretary made a written statement today about Equitable Life, which raised more questions than it answered. We now know that the Penrose report, which was given to the Treasury more than seven weeks ago, has been given to the Financial Services Authority, the Serious Fraud Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, a group of independent actuaries and Equitable Life senior management, but it is not available to the public or the policyholders most affected. Could the Financial Secretary come to the House today to tell us when we will get that report, and whether it will be published in full or will be edited, given some of the comments by bodies that already have it, and given her response to a parliamentary question?

Mr. Hain

As I hope the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Financial Secretary made a written ministerial statement on 5 January which clarified our plans to publish the report in full as soon as possible, and said that Treasury Ministers will answer questions after publication. I am sure that he will agree that the issue is important. It has been raised with me on a number of occasions in recent weeks, and I am well apprised of its significance. It is an important issue to get right before a Minister comes to the House or the report is published with the Government plan of action in response. I am sure that he will understand that this is a complex matter. We have to get it right in the interests of everyone affected.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that since deregulation in 1986 bus services have declined a great deal? On that note, I draw his attention to early-day motion 519, which calls for the extension of the bus franchising system in London to the rest of the country:

[That this House recognises the success of the franchised bus network in London which has improved service quality and resulted in much greater use of services; notes the decline in bus patronage and continuing reductions in socially necessary services since the industry was deregulated outside London; and therefore calls upon the Government to change the current legislative framework in order to make it easier and quicker for local authorities and passenger and transport executives outside London to introduce franchising in circumstances where the industry has failed to provide a socially inclusive service and deliver the quality necessary to achieve patronage growth in line with national targets.]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if that system is good enough for the people of London, it is good enough for our constituents? Will he arrange for an early debate, so that we can talk about ways in which we can give bus passengers a much better deal?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend's desire for a better deal for bus passengers is one that the Government and I share. I agree that the bus deregulation carried out by the previous Government was a disaster, which is why we have encouraged the rationalisation of bus services and put record amounts of subsidy into the provision of local services, as I have seen in my own constituency, especially in remote areas. That is important in ensuring that people living in rural areas have a better quality of life and much easier forms of transport.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con)

Does the Leader of the House share my disappointment that we did not reach question 14 in Education questions earlier, as that deprived Members on both sides of the House of the opportunity to express concern about the continuing crisis in school funding? Last year, there was a dreadful situation in which schools throughout the country threatened redundancies of teaching and non-teaching staff. We were assured that it would be better this year, but I have already received communications from schools in my constituency. The head teacher of Woodheys primary school, Mrs. Daniels, wrote to me: I have spent hours and hours agonising over an impossible task—I am supposed to give staff more support time, release and a better work/life balance (as promised by the government) and through not fault of my own or my governors we will have to lose all support staff, many trained in-house, in September '04. It is a dreadful problem, which the Government promised would not happen again this year. Can we have an urgent full-day debate in Government time on school funding so that we can try to head off the crisis before it causes redundancies next year?

Mr. Hain

The real crisis would arise if the Conservatives' policy of 20 per cent. cuts in school funding were implemented. The hon. Gentleman is free to apply for a debate on this subject at any time, but the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has frequently answered questions on it. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, an estimated 180 schools across England will benefit from the £2.2 billion capital investment programme announced today, on top of the recruitment of 25,000 more teachers and 80,000 more support staff, as well as the repair or refurbishment of 21,000 schools. That is a dramatic contrast with the Tories' record of cuts, closures and teacher redundancies. However, two problems remain. The first is getting the school funding route through local authorities right—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is working on that—and the second is falling rolls in certain areas, which is a big problem in my own constituency.

Mr. Gordon Prentice(Lab) (Pendle)

May I ask my right hon. Friend about the membership of the Standing Committee considering the Higher Education Bill? What happened to the convention that the composition of a Bill Committee reflects the vote on Second Reading?

Mr. Hain

We have a significant reduction in the Government's usual majority for that Committee to just three, to reflect precisely the balance of opinion in the House. That is something of which we took account, and the usual channels accepted it, so the hon. Gentleman's point has been recognised.

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

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 532?

[That this House believes that the powerful campaign being run by the Daily Mirror for medals recognising the bravery of six military policeman killed in Iraq also shows the need for medals which recognise all British servicemen and women who have been killed in the line of duty as proposed in Early Day Motion 445.]

The motion supports the Daily Mirror's campaign for medals to recognise the bravery of the six military policemen killed in Iraq, but goes on to argue that there should be general provision to recognise all British servicemen and women who have died in the line of duty. As I would love to be a friend of the Ministry of Defence, will it make a statement saying that that request will be looked at favourably and granted?

Mr. Hain

This matter has been raised before by the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I know that it is an important issue, as one of my constituents died in Iraq only a few months ago. However, if we focus on granting awards to people who have died on active service, there is a problem of balancing that against recognition for those who carry out their duty and come back safe and sound. We will certainly look at the matter very closely indeed, but the traditional view of the armed forces is that it would be wrong to overcompensate, as it were, for those who unfortunately die and sacrifice their lives, when others come back, having performed individual acts of bravery.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

As the pensions Bill was published today and as the Leader of the House has announced both a Second Reading and an Opposition debate on a related subject, will he take the opportunity in the meantime to speak to his Cabinet colleagues at No. 10, the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to emphasise the fact that the plight of people who have lost their pensions as the result of insolvency is not the same as the Equitable Life issue, not least because many of them were compelled to join their pension schemes and never received a health warning that it was possible that their pensions would not be paid in full? Will he make sure that that point gets across while compensation is still being considered?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes an important distinction affecting Allied Steel and Wire workers in his constituency—precisely the kind of issue that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is studying. The question is, where can a boundary be drawn on such claims? The ASW workers were treated absolutely appallingly, along with thousands of others who suffered a similar predicament. The Government are looking at the issue in a way that will not extend the boundaries, such that could give rise to millions of potential claims but recognises the particular plight of the workers concerned. I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to discuss that matter with the Secretary of State. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the pensions Bill published today, which will provide protection against precisely such exploitation and scandal in future.

In response to a note helpfully passed to me by the shadow Leader of the House, perhaps I may add to an earlier reply. If I misled the hon. Gentleman or the House in my remarks about the usual channels, I meant to say that the Committee of Selection had a Division and that the hon. Gentleman's side lost—that is the usual way of doing things when there is disagreement.

The fact remains that we have significantly reduced the normal majority for a Committee with a membership of 25 to just three. Included among its Labour Members are some who voted against the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "One."] That shows that we recognise the strength of opinion on the Floor of the House.

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

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the Strategic Rail Authority and its ability to remove from train operators obligations to service improvements in their original franchise agreements? Such a debate would allow me to pay tribute to the Yorkshire Post for helping to expose the fact that the SRA has removed from Midland Mainline the obligation to provide an hourly fast service between Sheffield and Leeds, which is badly needed. Apparently, that obligation was removed because Midland Mainline is so poor at delivering the rest of its services that the company cannot be trusted with a new one. That action was taken without consulting the passenger train executive and Members of Parliament, and with no compensation payable by Midland Mainline. The PTE was told that if it could find another operator to deliver the service, it would have to meet the cost. That unaccountable and unacceptable decision strikes at the heart of the SRA's activities and deserves a debate.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will have the opportunity for a debate and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will want to take note of that matter. There is a record investment totalling billions of pounds to improve the railway infrastructure, with 1,400 new vehicles and many more train journeys. The railways are carrying more passengers than for more than 40 years. The Government will continue modernisation and investment to meet the transport and congestion challenges of the future.

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

In the gaps between gardening next week to which the shadow Leader of the House referred, will my right hon. Friend find time to read the National Audit Office report on the Criminal Records Bureau's early years of operation, in particular the debacle surrounding Capita's computer systems? Will he consider whether we should re-evaluate the love affair with private finance—now that the first flush of romance has paled and the initial ardour has cooled—and examine why we are being further seduced down a path that has already produced commitments for future taxpayers of £120 billion? Is not the private finance initiative prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in its consequences for the British people?

Mr. Hain

I do not recognise that description or outcome in the many schools and hospitals throughout the country that have been built with the benefit of private sector investment. Nor is the NAO report likely to be at the top of my reading list next week—when I will not be gardening but visiting various parts of Wales.

The report to which my hon. Friend refers stated that the Criminal Records Bureau has made many improvements since the problems that arose originally: It is now reliably delivering over twice the number of checks undertaken by the police each week than under the old arrangements into children and vulnerable adults. That is a sensitive area and the CRB is doing much better. Admittedly, that is at extra cost, but I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes our clamping down on all sorts of problems affecting children and vulnerable adults.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op)

Will my right hon. Friend organise an early debate on the extraordinarily laid-back attitude of the Post Office's major shareholder—the Government? The Post Office wants to shut sub-post offices in my constituency, meaning that many residents will have to spend 10 per cent. of their pension on a taxi to collect it or wait hours for a bus—and bus drivers can accept only three passengers with Zimmer frames before others must be turned away. Where sub-post offices are closed, pensioners' quality of life is massively reduced. Will my right hon. Friend please call in such decisions for urgent review?

Mr. Hain

I can see that at this stage in the Government's life, we have a new definition of being on message among some Back-Bench colleagues. My hon. Friend makes the important point that sub-post offices often represent a vital facility in small communities. We aim at keeping as many offices open as possible and are providing record amounts of subsidy to help ensure that that is done in areas where there is no alternative facility. Lifestyle changes are helping to close local post offices, almost regardless of what the Government could do—except at prohibitive cost. The ease with which pensioners can travel to post offices is a critical issue and one of which the Post Office takes close account. I am sure that my hon. Friend's strong representations will be recognised.