HC Deb 26 February 2004 vol 418 cc413-26 12.30 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 1 MARCH—Remaining stages of 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 trade justice for the developing world followed by a debate entitled "Crisis in the Protection of Vulnerable Children". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

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 provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 8 MARCH—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill.

TUESDAY 9 MARCH—Opposition Day [Unallotted Day]. There will he a debate on a motion in the name of the SNP/Plaid Cymru, subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH—Second Reading of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 11 MARCH—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee.

FRIDAY 12 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

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

THURSDAY 4 MARCH—Debate on the Report from the Transport Committee on ports.

THURSDAY 11 MARCH—Debate on the Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on privacy and media intrusion.

THURSDAY 18 MARCH—Debate on the Report from the Science and Technology Committee on the scientific response to terrorism.

THURSDAY 25 MARCH—Debate on China.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. Was he as flabbergasted as I was by the remarks this morning by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short)? One understands the difficulties, but when will we hear a Government response on the issue?

The Prime Minister has just announced a new commission for Africa and a new emphasis on Africa. Is it not about time that we had a debate on Zimbabwe—we have not had one since 1997—now that the Government's quiet diplomacy has obviously failed? Is it not about time that the Government gave some clear guidance to the England and Wales Cricket Board about whether it should cancel its tour?

I have pressed tin Leader of the House on several occasions to tell us when the Penrose report is to be published. Hundreds of thousands of pension scheme members are worried about the loss of their life savings, and there is also concern on both sides of the House about the issue. Is it right that we are to have the statement next week? The rumour is that it will be on Tuesday. Is the Leader of the House able to give us clear information about that so that we do not have to wait for the Sunday newspapers, as we so often do these days?

The Leader of the House knows that we would like early debates on the airports and defence White Papers. Can he help us on those? When will the draft Mental Health Bill be produced for pre-legislative scrutiny? He will know that many Members on both sides of the House are concerned about that. Will we have to wait to hear about that in the Sunday papers, or will he tell us about it today?

Last week, the Government made announcements about the reform of the examination system, immigrants' benefits and substantial changes to the civil service and we had the inspired leak about genetically modified foods. To round off the week in recess, the Prime Minister gave an interview in the News of the World about proposing drug testing for school students. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is an important principle that announcements should be made in this place? When he said on the "Today" programme on Monday that there were too many announcements to inform Parliament about all of them, was he being serious and, if so, will he tell us what sort of announcement he will not be informing Parliament about? Will it be the tricky ones, or does he just want to leave something for the Sunday papers?

Mr. Hain

On the last point, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the "Weekly Information Bulletin"—as I am sure he has done—he will see that from 6 to 12 February there was a whole list of written ministerial statements—

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


Mr. Hain

Indeed, written ministerial statements, because the time of the House could not be constantly filled up with statements. The Government are held accountable to the House through those statements—on top of which, the Government, whether the Prime Minister or other members of the Cabinet, have given regular statements, weekly statements, on all those key issues. May I suggest that that was a typically fatuous question from the shadow Leader of the House? On that point—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Members should let the Leader of the House answer—that is how we handle things.

Mr. Hain

May I express surprise about the titles of the Opposition motions? I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for the advance notice, as it is in the interest of Members to know what next week's business will be, but I am very surprised that there is to be no Opposition debate on public spending levels, given the plans, as announced by the shadow Chancellor, to cut public spending in the first two years after the next general election by up to £18 billion. Surely, if the right hon. Gentleman is confident about that, there should be a debate in Opposition time on their spending plans.

The shadow Leader of the House said that he was flabbergasted by the statement made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). May I simply repeat what the Prime Minister said? It was a deeply irresponsible statement, and that says it all.

The Prime Minister's announcement this morning of the commission for Africa was very important, because of the poverty that Africa has been trapped in for a very long time.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con)

Why was it not made here?

Mr. Hain

The Prime Minister has repeatedly made statements and answered questions on Africa over the past few years. He is a Prime Minister who has taken more interest in rescuing Africa from poverty than any of his predecessors. On Zimbabwe, the same is true. When I was a Foreign Office Minister, I remember regularly making statements to the House, answering debates in Westminster Hall and answering questions in robust terms. If behind the question put by the shadow Leader of the House is the view that Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe is being dragged into a desperate state by that tyrant, I agree. We are working continuously with other African leaders to bring that situation to a conclusion, so that the people of Zimbabwe can be liberated from that tyranny. I notice, however, that there is never any suggestion from the Opposition for an alternative policy to deal with Zimbabwe.

On the planned, or proposed, English cricket tour, discussions have been going on, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Ultimately, the decision is for the English cricket authorities; they have sought and been given advice. Their adviser, Des Wilson, has drawn up a framework for taking a decision, and a decision will, ultimately, be taken.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Penrose report. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has said on several occasions, most recently only a couple of weeks ago on 12 February, that the Treasury plan to publish the report in full as soon as possible and that it will answer questions following publication. He asked when, and whether it would be next week. When is when we are ready to do so—[Interruption.] I understand the concern of Members and all our constituents about the matter, but the hon. Gentleman should appreciate that the Government will give a considered response when we are ready to do so, so that we can take the matter forward.

On the defence and airports White Papers, and all the others, I have already answered those questions, as the hon. Gentleman has put them to me before. On the draft Mental Health Bill, a great chunk of it has already been subject to consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, as he knows. The question is when the remaining issues are to be considered, and we shall take that forward when we are able to do so.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

I want to request an urgent statement for next week. The Prime Minister has been answering media questions this morning, but does the Leader of the House accept that he is principally accountable to the House? As there are extremely important topical issues—not least, of course, the collapse of the case against Katharine Gun and the disclosures of the former Secretary of State for International Development—for the remit of the Butler inquiry, will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister to come before the House on that specific issue, which only he can answer?

If it was so necessary to persuade members of the United Nations Security Council to support the second resolution, why did the Prime Minister later assure the House that that resolution was not necessary before he took the country to war? Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister comes to answer that question and to explain precisely how the implications of those cases relate to the remit of the Butler inquiry? For example, the Attorney-General has already indicated in the other place that the Foreign Secretary must answer questions about GCHQ. He has already said that there are important issues that are the Prime Minister's responsibility, and the later statement from the Solicitor-General cannot possibly cover that. So when will we get that opportunity to question the Prime Minister?

Will the Leader of the House confirm whether the full advice and instructions given by the Foreign Office legal team to the Attorney-General before he produced his opinion on the legality of the Iraq invasion will be made available to the Butler inquiry and made public? As he knows, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has consistently asked for that to be made public. The leader of the Conservative party did not regard it as important that we saw the legal advice on the invasion of Iraq—he wanted to go to war anyway—but we have consistently asked for that, and we now believe that it is extremely important.

I have a constituency interest in GCHQ: the listening post is at Morwenstow in my constituency. I want to know whether my constituents are being put in an invidious position by what they are being asked to do. The Prime Minister set up the Butler inquiry. He, and only he, can answer to the House on its remit.

Mr. Hain

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman was yesterday, but the Prime Minister was here, answering questions put to him by hon. Members from across the House, and the hon. Gentleman could have put any question to him if he had been called. The Prime Minister is here every week. He appears before the Liaison Committee. He makes statements to the House. He is a Prime Minister who is more accountable to the House than any of his predecessors, and the hon. Gentleman ought surely to recognise that.

On the Gun case and the events that transpired yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Solicitor-General is about to make a statement to the House, and the hon. Gentleman will be able to pursue any question that he wants then. The Attorney-General has already made a statement in the other place.

On Iraq, the issue has been debated up and down, inside out. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can continue to debate it if he wishes, but the position has always been clearly stated by Ministers—whether the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence. We worked night and day to try to get the second resolution. That was our preference. We wanted United Nations backing. That was not possible, and action was needed to follow to get rid of Saddam Hussein, which was accomplished.

On the Attorney-General's advice—again, as the Prime Minister has made it clear this morning, and he would have made it clear if he had been asked yesterday by the hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues if they had taken the opportunity to do so—such advice is never published, and it never has been by previous Governments. That is the situation—frankly, it is irresponsible to suggest otherwise—but, as he also knows, a summary of the essential point that the Attorney-General was making appeared in an answer to a parliamentary question, as appropriately tabled. In fact, the House was informed of the gist of the advice, but it has not been the practice to publish the Attorney-General's advice because Law Officers' advice is not published. It is private advice to the Government.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

Yesterday, Baroness Scotland visited my constituency to speak about antisocial behaviour, and two people were at the back of the hall: one was the new community beat officer and the other was the new community support officer in Pencoed. If the Opposition are not minded to do so, will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the £18 billion of cuts and on how many police and community support officers would go and how many police stations would close as a result in my constituency?

Mr. Hain

I am very tempted indeed to discuss with the Chancellor the opportunity to do that, because my hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that his constituents—indeed, the whole House—would wish at an appropriate time to discuss the consequences of the £18 billion-worth of cuts over two years, following the next general election. As he rightly suggests, that figure includes a cut in policing budgets of up to £1 billion. Those cuts would have a catastrophic effect on the recruitment of new police officers and the provision of extra resources to tackle crime that has been taking place under this Government. In contrast, under the previous Government, the number of police officers was reduced and crime went up—a dangerous situation for everyone concerned.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

Some time ago, I sent three letters to the Prime Minister asking him to correct the erroneous impression that the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) was killed off by the Lords, when it never reached the upper House. I finally managed to wring an answer out of the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House, because the letters were not answered.

The Prime Minister seems to be having problems with his correspondence again. I recently wrote to him asking him to place in the Library a copy of the threatening letter that he sent the director-general of the BBC in 2003 and to list the threatening phone calls made by Mr. Alastair Campbell on his behalf to the BBC between March and April 2003. The Prime Minister seems to be unable to answer those questions, so can the House have a debate on the Floor of the House so that we can question the efficiency of the Downing street correspondence unit?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman can apply for any debate on any issue that he likes, including that one. However, may I just say that the Prime Minister does not send threatening letters to anybody?

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab)

The Leader of the House may not be aware of the fact that decades ago MPs on both sides of the House representing the east midlands campaigned to establish an independent news and current affairs centre for the east midlands based in Nottingham. Like Members from the east midlands and me, he will be alarmed to learn that this morning ITV announced the proposed closure of that centre, which is to be moved to the west midlands, with the loss of 200 jobs. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that we have an urgent debate on the issue?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will have the opportunity to put that to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport at Culture, Media and Sport questions on Monday 8 March. However, I well understand his anxiety about job losses and the concerns of people in the east midlands that there should be proper independent television coverage and programmes that reflect local and regional interests. I am sure that the television chiefs and the Secretary of State will want to bear in mind what he said.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to look at early-day motion 657, which stands in my name and asks the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get his teeth into the sticky problem of discarded chewing gum?

[That this House despairs at the disgusting problem of discarded chewing gum 7 which blights the streets of every city and town the length and breadth of the country; notes the efforts of local authorities in trying to address this problem, but acknowledges that despite these efforts discarded chewing gum continues to present an intractable problem; calls on the Chancellor to introduce a chewing gum levy on the chewing gum manufacturers, so that for every packet of chewing gum bought a couple of pence is taken in the form of a levy to be then given to local authorities to address this problem; and calls on the chewing gum manufacturers to do more to make sure their product is fully bio-degradable and non-adhesive.]

I am sure that the House is aware of the appalling mess that blights every town and city the length and breadth of the country. Will the Leader of the House chew over my request for a debate, and consider my modest proposal for a 2p levy on chewing gum manufacturers so that that horrible mess can be addressed?

Mr. Hain

I will chew it over.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

May I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend early-day motion 652 on private Members' Bills?

[That this House believes that, under the present sitting hours, Private Members' bills should be taken on Tuesday evenings after 7:00pm, which would make all Fridays non-sitting days for honourable Members; further believes that this would allow honourable Members to be able to use Fridays for working in their constituencies, thereby enabling them to foster closer relationships with businesses, schools and organisations which function from Mondays to Fridays; and further relieves that it would enable more honourable Members to be present in the House and take part in the debates and votes on private Members' bills.]

The motion was tabled three days ago, and has already attracted 58 signatures. It proposes that private Members' Bills, instead of being heard on a Friday, should be debated on Tuesday evenings after 7 pm. What progress has my right hon. Friend made with the Modernisation Committee on the issue?

Mr. Hain

We have not had an opportunity to consider any detailed propositions such as the one suggested by my hon. Friend. I have noted the early-day motion, and am struck by the fact that it has cross-party support. It needs to be taken seriously, and I urge her and her colleagues, including Members who signed the early-day motion, to have discussions with other colleagues who have taken a different view of the original decision to change the hours to see whether a consensus can be built around the issue or a variation of it. If I can find an early consensus on the sitting hours of the House I am willing to table a motion, but I am not willing to table an early motion on a proper review in the absence of any such consensus.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House allow us to have a debate on agriculture, as there are many issues that we need to discuss, not least the new subsidy arrangements announced by the Government two weeks ago and which, either by accident or design, will have a serious impact on the income of upland livestock farmers in England, including those in my constituency in Northumberland? Those farmers look after some of the most loved landscapes in England, including the Lake District, the Pennines, Dartmoor and Exmoor. We need a debate to find out how we can rescue them from impending financial disaster.

Mr. Hain

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's concerns. As he knows, the Secretary of State has made a statement on the likely outcome of European future financing and her plans in respect of England. However, when he talks about financial problems, he should recognise that his party now advocates a cut in agricultural and rural support programmes. The problems in his constituency will not be solved by Conservative party policy, and I suggest that he change his stance.

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

My right hon. Friend will know that the decision to allocate secondary school places to children in London under the new unified pan-London admission system is imminent, and that that is a very important matter for thousands of parents and children in London and in other parts of the country where similar allocations are in the course of being made. In view of increasing parental pressure and competition for places in good schools and the increasing number of appeals against decisions by admission authorities, does my right hon. Friend accept that it is time to have a debate on the Floor of the House about the operation of school admissions, especially secondary school admissions, and specifically about the role of the schools adjudicator, two of whose decisions, in Wandsworth and Hertfordshire, were recently overturned by the courts? Will he find time for a debate on the whole issue of secondary school admissions in the near future?

Mr. Hain

I recognise my hon. Friend's continuing expertise on, interest in and advocacy of comprehensive schools through the campaign for comprehensive education, and I know of his concerns about such matters. My hon. Friend is of course free to apply for a debate, but I am sure that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will want to pay close attention to his comments.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con)

As we just heard, two weeks ago the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came to this House to make a statement about common agricultural policy reform. In that statement, she said that people on Exmoor will benefit from those reforms, but I am afraid that that is manifestly not the case. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask her to come to the House to correct those comments; and in his reply to me, will he refrain from giving us a party political tirade, because this is about European money, not domestic taxpayers' money?

Mr. Hain

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about Exmoor. He is right to raise the matter, and the Secretary of State will certainly want to take account of his remarks if the impact is as he describes it. As my right hon. Friend said, the effects are balanced right across the country. Moreover, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that reform of the original subsidy system, which was provided by a bloated and inefficient common agricultural policy, was much needed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for nodding. Although the general terms of the Secretary of State's announcement were welcomed, I understand that its application to his own area is an issue, and my right hon. Friend will want to take close account of his remarks.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)

May we have an early debate in Government time on early-day motion 691, which stands in my name and in those of colleagues?

[That this House applauds the courage and patriotism of GCHQ translator Katharine Gun who made public information about a memo from the US Government National Security Agency requesting UK assistance with a covert surveillance campaign of the United Nations Security Council members such as Mexico and Chile prior to voting on a resolution which would have endorsed the proposed invasion of Iraq in March 2003; welcomes the decision to drop the charges against her for breaching the Official Secrets Act; considers that the actions of Ms Gun qualify her as a whistleblower—an employee who, on the basis of principle, exposes a malpractice or a miscarriage of justice that deserves public attention; calls on the Government to reform the Official Secrets Act so that whistleblowers are able to have a public interest defence so that if a jury can be persuaded that a breach of the Official Secrets Act is in the public interest this should be an absolute defence; and calls on the Government to make a statement on the information made public by Ms Gun.]

The motion, while praising the courage of whistleblower Katharine Gun and welcoming the decision, albeit somewhat late in the day, to drop all charges against her, calls on the Government to reform the Official Secrets Act to afford whistleblowers the defence of public interest, which, if a jury is so persuaded, will be deemed an absolute defence?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will know that the Government introduced both legislation to protect whistleblowers and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, so our record in this respect is very good indeed. However, she is of course able to apply for a debate and to question the Solicitor-General when she appears in the House shortly.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

I am aware that following this business we are to have a statement by the Solicitor-General. Having listened to the Attorney-General's statement in the other place this morning, I am sure that it is apparent to most observers that it raises more questions than it answers. Speaking as a one-time procurator fiscal depute, it is surely apparent that someone in Government has danced with tackety boots all over the notion of independent prosecutors bringing prosecutions in the public interest. It is inevitable that in the course of the next few days more information will come into the public domain about the case and the decision to drop proceedings. Will the Leader of the House give me an assurance that when it does, we will be allowed the opportunity to discuss it fully?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman is hunting for conspiracies that do not exist. The Solicitor-General's statement, like the Attorney-General's statement, will be crystal clear on the matter. The decision was taken by the Crown Prosecution Service on evidential grounds following consultation with independent prosecuting counsel and the Attorney-General. Such decisions are essentially for the independent prosecuting counsel. There is no point in the hon. Gentleman's shaking his head—that is the fact of the situation.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House make time as early as possible next week for a full debate on all the security information that was sought before the conflict in Iraq, particularly the bugging operation that apparently went on at the United Nations? Does he not think that the British public and taxpayers who pay for all this have a right to know what went on, who made the decisions, and who authorised that bugging to go on, if it did? In the interests of transparency, an early debate would be very welcome.

Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend knows, the Butler inquiry was set up specifically to look into the whole question of intelligence in relation to this issue. As regards the latest allegations, the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear this morning that Governments and Prime Ministers do not comment on security or intelligence matters. If we, or they, did, that would endanger the whole security of the country and the operations of the security services. Even if my hon. Friend is successful in getting a debate, he will not find it very profitable to have done so.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)

The Leader of House will have noted early-day motion 683 on the 300th anniversary of the British link with the territory of Gibraltar.

[That this House notes with great pleasure that this year sees the celebration of the 300th Anniversary of relations between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom; further notes during this long period of time the closeness of that relationship and the ongoing support of Gibraltar to the United Kingdom, especially during periods when the support of Gibraltar was of crucial importance; further notes, with pride, the deep commitment of Gibraltar as a member of the British Islands and Mediterranean Region of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to the principles of the Commonwealth in which it is a highly respected member; and believes there is a need for the fullest cooperation and understanding between the two countries in any decisions that may need to be taken that would in any way affect Gibraltar and this should only be done with the fullest involvement and co-operation of the elected representatives of Gibraltar and its people.]

The Leader of the House will be aware that next week a special service of thanksgiving will take place in London to celebrate that great anniversary. As he is renowned for his campaigning for democracy over many years, will he bring to this House at the earliest possible opportunity legislation to give the people of Gibraltar the same democratic right to vote to elect a Member of Parliament to this House that is enjoyed by everyone else in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hain

The answer to that question is no.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)

Can the Leader of the House find the time to discuss the miners' compensation package? Such a debate would allow those of us who represent mining constituencies to congratulate the Government on recognising the suffering that miners underwent during their years of working underground. It would also allow me to raise the case of my constituent Mr. Harry Fletcher, who is 80 years old, worked underground all his life creating wealth for this country, and now suffers from the most severe vibration white finger imaginable. His records have been lost and there is no longer any living witness to the fact that he was employed underground, which has led to the denial of his application for compensation. Will the Leader of the House allow us to debate that matter on the Floor of the House or, if not, will he at least bring that case to the attention of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?

Mr. Hain

I will certainly do that. As a representative of a former coal mining community, in concert with my hon. Friend I know that these cases worry many of our constituents who are in an appalling state of health, whether caused by vibration white finger or lung disease. I am sure that everything that can be done to assist with his constituent's case will be done by the Minister for Energy or the Secretary of State. However, I remind him, and I am sure that he will want to agree, that there have been record payouts of hundreds of millions of pounds—indeed, getting on for £1.5 billion—across the country to rescue the sick miners concerned or their families from the appalling destitution into which they have fallen as a result of the ill health that they have suffered.

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

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the sleight of hand that he practised in not giving a proper answer to my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House? When asked why we are not getting proper oral statements from Ministers in this House during which they can answer questions from Members, the Leader of the House resorted to some slick comment about written ministerial statements. Even he must understand that there is a difference between a written ministerial statement, which cannot be questioned by Members, and a proper oral statement when Ministers come to the Dispatch Box and are prepared to answer questions from Members of Parliament from both sides of the House. When will the Leader of the House stop taking refuge in this ridiculous written ministerial statement procedure and get his colleagues to come and answer properly at the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Hain

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that it is better to have the procedure of planted questions—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

I presume, then, that he agrees that written ministerial statements are a good idea.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

He cannot have it both ways. He must surely agree that written ministerial statements are a preferable alternative to planted questions.

The right hon. Gentleman is practised at perpetuating the myth that there was sleight of hand. Cabinet Ministers have made masses of statements, and they make them every week. If he looks at the record of this Parliament, he will find that we are at least as accountable to the House as previous Governments. During the first six years and nine months of his premiership the Prime Minister spent 107 hours and 30 minutes in the Chamber, whereas John Major's equivalent period was 87 hours and 30 minutes—an extra 20 hours of accountability o the House by our Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has made 61 statements, compared with just 46 by John Major. That shows much greater accountability to the House by a Labour Prime Minister than by his Tory predecessor.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to consider the demands of the Doctors for Reform group, which yesterday called for everyone in the country to be forced to purchase medical insurance, whether they can afford it or not? May we have an urgent debate on that important matter and on today's further revelations that, far from being an independent organisation, this group is a Tory front organisation dedicated to undermining and dismantling the NHS? When a group parades as independent, surely Members of the House have a right to know what its true political affiliations are, particularly when the issue is the sensitive one of health spending and the protection of the values of the NHS, and particularly when the group is clearly—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There are other Members' contributions to be considered.

Mr. Hain

I agree with every word of my hon. Friend's question. Indeed, I would be enthusiastic about the prospects for a debate on those lines, because a clear divide is opening up between this Government, who believe in publicly funded health services from which people can seek relief from pain or proper treatment free at the point of use, and an alternative point of view—advocated by the Conservatives, and probably also by this front organization—of moving towards increasing privatisation, robbing the national health service of up to £2 billion to walk down the road to private hospitals. That is the choice—a high-quality publicly funded national health service under Labour or privately funded health provision under the Conservatives.

In respect of one other matter, may I correct a mistake that I inadvertently made about business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 4 March? The debate will in fact be on the report from the Transport Committee on overcrowding on public transport, not, as I think I said, on ports.

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

The Leader of the House has made great play of the amount of time that the Prime Minister spends in the House of Commons. Is it not important, however, that, when he is here, what he says is factually accurate? If it is not, he should come to the House to correct it as quickly as possible. During yesterday's Prime Minister's questions, he committed a clear error of fact when he said the right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong; the guidance— he was referring to drug testing in schools— is to be issued next week."—[Official Report, 25 February 2004:Vol. 418, c. 279.] That guidance was issued on 16 February, so the Prime Minister made a clear error of fact and should correct it. When will he come to the House to do that?

Mr. Hain

On the general matter of Prime Minister's questions—[Interruption.] I will answer the hon. Gentleman's point specifically. The Prime Minister has answered a massive range of questions, including one on Buddhism in relation to one hon. Member's constituency. I am advised that the drug guidance to head teachers and schools is being issued on 9 March, which accords absolutely with what the Prime Minister said yesterday, so the hon. Gentleman should withdraw his question.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend may be aware of early-day motion 665, which stands in my name, in relation to profits in the oil, gas and banking industries.

[That this House recognises the excessive profits recently recorded in industries such as oil and gas and banking; and therefore calls on the Government to use its influence to ensure these profits are fairly distributed between shareholders, employees and consumers who have all contributed to these profits rather than the executives who award themselves large bonuses or other hidden benefits.]

Will my right hon. Friend use his tremendous influence within the Government to ensure that executives in those industries have a moral responsibility to ensure that these excessive and record profits are shared among shareholders, employees and especially consumers? Their contributions have led to the profits being gained, and they should not go into the coffers of chief executives.

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's point. The staff concerned will want to be properly remunerated, and the senior managers concerned will want to be fairly remunerated, but not by being given exceptional rewards for mediocre performance. His question is important and he is free to apply for a debate to raise the issues involved.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House give urgent consideration to holding a debate on the flawed processes surrounding consultation and decision making on the network reinvention programme for post offices? On 16 February I received a letter from Eddie Herbert, the north-west area head for post office reinvention, about Turves Road post office in my constituency, in which he stated that he was still having to take time to consider the consultation responses that he had received. I learned yesterday, however, that the meeting between the Post Office and Postwatch was held on 16 February—the same day that he wrote to me to say that he was taking more time to consider responses. May we please have a debate on the Floor of the House that will enable us to explore this and other flaws in the process?

Mr. Hain


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before we go any further, I remind Members that they must be fair to other Members. Long questions mean only that other Members' questions will be cut out.

Mr. Hain

I understand the hon. Lady's concerns about consultative processes conducted by Post Office managers. I, and many other Members, have received many representations about flaws in that process. I am sure that the Post Office managers concerned, and the Secretary of State, will want to take careful note of what she says.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

In the run-up to the publication of the defence White Paper, my newspapers regularly carried scare stories about the demise of the Cheshire Regiment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the great work done by the regiment, and will he reconsider his answer to the shadow Leader of the House and grant an early debate on the defence White Paper so that we may praise the work of the county regiments and expose the proposed Tory cuts in defence?

Mr. Hain

I am inclined—[Interruption.] I see that Conservative Members are joining my hon. Friend in exposing the mistaken policies of their party. I join him in praising the brilliant standards, reputation and courageous work of the Cheshire Regiment over many generations. Its future, and that of other regiments, would be jeopardised by the cuts of £1.5 billion planned by the Conservative party in the first two years following a general election.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

In reply to my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, who complained about the plethora of Government news announcements made in the recess, the Leader of the House, sounding more like a partisan news manager than the custodian of our democratic principles, called in aid a long list of written ministerial statements. Does he not notice that three of the eight statements on today's Order Paper concern important issues relating to Northern Ireland business, which are the concern of this House and on which we need to question Her Majesty's Government, as the devolved institutions of the Province are in abeyance?

Mr. Hain

Notwithstanding the specific question that the hon. Gentleman asks, my point is that surely an above-board written ministerial statement on such questions is preferable to the practice adopted by Governments over the decades—and quite possibly the centuries—of planting questions so that they can answer them to make ministerial statements. That is common sense. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, many oral statements are made by Cabinet Ministers, virtually every week, and they are here to answer questions almost every day of the week as well.

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

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many thousands of people in my constituency and elsewhere are in desperate need of rehousing, and that there are not enough houses for them. In recent discussions with private builders and construction trade unions, it has become obvious that builders are interested in the development of executive homes, on which they can make a big profit, not in the building of social housing on brownfield sites for local authorities or housing associations. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate in which we can look at the possibility of developing once again a substantial public sector house building industry, which could provide homes for people in my constituency and elsewhere?

Mr. Hain

The Government have initially been focusing on investment and improvement, rather than on new house building, which is a much-needed task, as I know my hon. Friend will agree. He nevertheless makes an important point on the need for more social housing. That is why the increasing investment going to local government—on a massive scale under this Government—and into housing provision is very important. That contrasts with the policies proposed by the Opposition, who would make cuts of £2.5 billion in local government spending in the first two years following a general election, if they were to come to office.

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