HC Deb 15 January 2004 vol 416 cc961-73 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 for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 19 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Civil Contingencies Bill.

TUESDAY 20 JANUARY—Debate on attendance and behaviour in schools on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 21 JANUARY—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled "Failure of the Government to introduce a Civil Service Bill" followed by a debate entitled "Failure of the Government to address the West Lothian question".

Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

I welcome the move by the official Opposition to return to the traditional practice of announcing the subject of their debates. That advance notice will assist all Members in planning their work for the week ahead. I hope that this sets the pattern for the future.

THURSDAY 22 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 26 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Fire and Rescue Services Bill.

TUESDAY 27 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill.

WEDNESDAY 28 JANUARY—Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 29 JANUARY—Motion on Members' estimate matters.

FRIDAY 30 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

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

THURSDAY 22 JANUARY—A debate on the Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the illegal drugs trade and drug culture in Northern Ireland.

THURSDAY 29 JANUARY—A debate on "Afghanistan: the development challenge".

During the business statement last Thursday, hon. Members inquired about the publication of the Hutton report. Although the publication of the report is for Lord Hutton, not for the Government, I did commit to draw Lord Hutton's attention to the point that was raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Lord Hutton has informed me that when he announces the date for the publication of his report, he will also announce the arrangements for publication. Lord Hutton has also informed me that he has taken note of the point raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall in relation to the publication of his report. I have committed to keeping the House as informed as possible on this issue, and I hope that hon. Members are reassured by this statement.

Mr. Heald

May I thank the Leader of the House for his comments about prior notice on Opposition days? He should not, however, hold his breath because from time to time we will want to be topical.

May I ask the Leader of the House about the failure by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to respond to this week's Opposition debate on post offices? He will know that I raised a point of order at the time, but does he agree that whenever possible the Secretary of State should respond to a debate moved by the shadow Secretary of State? Will he reassure us that there has not been a change in the Government's practice? We understand that from time to time the Secretary of State may not be able to attend a debate, but an explanation should be given—it should be good, too.

The Leader of the House will remember that last week he was asked detailed questions about the Hutton report, including a question about the structure of the debate, and that he said that he would give the matter further thought. Can he tell us, first, whether the Prime Minister will open the debate and, secondly, whether the Defence Secretary will make the winding-up speech? Will there be a substantive motion on Lord Hutton's recommendations and an opportunity for the House to vote on the matter?

Does the Leader of the House understand the widespread frustration in the House that the Prime Minister feels able to go on the Frost show and answer questions about authorising the release of Dr. Kelly's name, whereas when he is asked questions in the House he hides behind the need to wait for the report's publication? [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) says that that is "dodging". Whatever it is, it is not satisfactory.

Finally, the Leader of the House will know that during this week's Opposition day debate on shortages of equipment for the armed forces in Iraq, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence called on the Defence Secretary to resign. The shadow Secretary of State for Defence cited the case of Sergeant Roberts, who was shot in the chest and would have survived had he not been ordered to hand over his body armour to other troops because of shortages. Since that debate, Sergeant Roberts's taped diaries have been released. In them, he said to his wife: We are going to war without the correct equipment. Can we expect a personal statement on the matter from the Secretary of State for Defence in the next week?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman's first point was that we should not hold our breath about Opposition days. I understand his desire to call topical debates, which is the Opposition's right, but he must understand Members' rights. When Members plan their diaries, they know the Government business and topics for debate on a particular day. He is denying Members the opportunity to prepare speeches and to decide whether they want to speak. The practice has been adopted in previous years by both parties when in opposition. I understand his desire to be topical, but I hope that he will respect Members' rights.

On the post offices debate, I understand that a member of the shadow Cabinet was not present, so it was not automatically the case that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should have been present.

On the Hutton report, the hon. Gentleman says that the Prime Minister appears on the Frost programme but does not come before the House. The Prime Minister comes before the House every week for Prime Minister's questions, and he has been asked questions about that matter. He has made himself more accountable to the House than any previous Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman presumably did not hear what was said at yesterday's Prime Minister's questions, because it was not in his interests to listen. The Prime Minister said: I have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than leading the Government's case on this issue."—[0fficial Report, 14 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 809.] That has been the position since I announced that the Prime Minister would make a statement to the House on the day that the Hutton report is published—I told the hon. Gentleman that weeks ago.

Mr. Heald

What about the debate?

Mr. Hain

The arrangements for the debate will be announced in the usual way, nearer the time and when the report has been published—there is nothing unusual about that. Since the hon. Gentleman repeatedly raises the matter, let me tell him that there is something distasteful about him and the Leader of the Opposition trying to second-guess a judge and his independent report. Perhaps it would be more judicious for the Leader of the Opposition to show a little more self-restraint and stop trying to manipulate the judgment of an independent judge in advance of the publication of his report.

On the equipment situation in Iraq, we obviously all sympathise with the family of Sergeant Roberts, especially Mrs. Roberts. However, I do not think that anyone would disagree—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not—that all our British soldiers fought with extreme efficiency in the war to depose Saddam Hussein, and that they performed valiantly and deserve praise from all of us.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD)

I thank the Leader of the House for reporting back on the question posed last week by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on the Hutton inquiry. We appreciate that feedback and look forward to further feedback as the situation unfolds.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not once come to the House in the past 12 months to make a statement on environmental matters? Perhaps that is because she is at a loss to report anything that her Department has done on such matters. May I draw his attention to the report on climate change that was published last week by Leeds university, in the name of Professor Chris Thomas? It reports that over the next 50 years, we can expect one quarter of the land animal and plant species on the planet to be destroyed and thus to become extinct as a result of climate change. Will he tell the Secretary of State that there are important reasons why she should come to the House to give an account of what her Department is—or, perhaps, is not—doing?

Will the Leader of the House consider the situation in respect of the report by Judge Peter Cory on the Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson deaths? The report was presented to the United Kingdom and Irish Governments in October 2003, and it was stated that it would be published as soon as possible. The families of the bereaved and, indeed, the House are still waiting. Can he say when the report will be published and tell us the reason for the delay? Will he ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to come to the House to tell us about the process and that delay?

I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 375, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), on the exceptions service and the Post Office.

[That this House calls on the Government to clarify as a matter of urgency how housebound, disabled and older people who are not able to cope with the Government's three direct payment options will be able to claim their pensions and benefits after 2005; notes that the Government has consistently acknowledged the need for an Exceptions Service, yet has failed to give any firm indication of how this system will operate; notes that the Exceptions Service will only be in place 18 months after the move to direct payments began and that letters to claimants and the Government's publicity material largely Jail to mention the Exceptions Service or that people can continue to use their order books and girocheques until 2005; notes that uncertainty about how they will be able to collect their pension or benefits has led to anxiety and distress among the most vulnerable members of our society and that many of these people have either not responded at all or have chosen an unsuitable method of receiving essential income due to ignorance of the Exceptions Service; and calls on the Government to guarantee that the Exceptions Service allows for multiple third party collectors, does not require a pinpad and PIN, is fully accessible at post offices and reinforces the viability of the Post Office Network.]

My hon. Friend raised that matter in the House last Tuesday at column 762, but the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, who responded to the debate, did not have a word to say about it. Some 2 million Post Office customers could benefit from the exceptions service. It has been announced as a potential lifesaver for them, but it looks as though there will be extravagant delays in bringing it in. Will the relevant Secretary of State come to the House soon to tell us about that service?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming my feedback in response to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs makes herself regularly available to answer questions from the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member, and I am sure that everyone agrees that she is always accountable to the House. I agree that the climate change report from Leeds university is important, and he will understand that it is for that reason that the Government have adopted probably the most stringent emissions controls of any major economy anywhere in the world. We were enthusiastic signatories to, and advocates of, the Kyoto protocol as an attempt to try to control emissions so that the enormous environmental threat of climate change that the report identifies can be addressed. We are working internationally with other countries to get the protocol implemented in the most effective fashion.

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's points on the Cory report to the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, my right hon. Friend answered questions in the House only yesterday, so the matter could have been raised with him then.

The exemptions service for local post offices is important and, for a long time, the future of local post offices has been debated almost weekly. The Government are providing more and more pensioners and others with opportunities to use their cards. Two million pensioners have taken up the opportunity to get cash from local post offices with the card, which replaces the benefit booklet, and that is a sensible way to proceed.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab)

In my constituency of Broxtowe, Boots has declared that one third of its headquarters work force will be made redundant. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to tell the House at the earliest opportunity what steps his Department will take to work with Boots to minimise the impact on the individuals concerned?

Mr. Hain

I will indeed. I accept my hon. Friend's concern, as that is obviously extremely bad news for those affected at Boots. However, the Government have a good record in these matters. The employment service and other relevant agencies have a good record of helping people who unfortunately have lost their jobs to find new ones. Repeatedly—I am not saying that this is true in every case—people have found new jobs, both in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere across the country. When there were job losses under the previous Government people just wasted away on the dole, but now they are being helped into work, with employment rising all the time, as we heard in the announcements only yesterday.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

The historic office that you hold, Mr. Speaker, has been unique to this House for 600 years or more. Does the Leader of the House therefore share the concern of many Members, both in this House and in the other place, about the suggestion that there should be a Lords Speaker in the other place? Does he agree that that would cause confusion, not least because the role of such an officer would be very different from that of Mr. Speaker in this House? Will he reflect on those things, give some encouragement to those of us who believe that it would be a retrograde step by the House of Lords, and institute conversations with our colleagues in the other place?

Mr. Hain

I accept the points made by hon. Gentleman. Indeed, there are other concerns about the matter, which I have discussed with the Speaker and, as a result, have had the conversations that he requested. There is no question in my mind but that the Speaker of the House of Commons is the Speaker, who is known and widely recognised across the world.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

Mr. Speaker, I totally concur.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that this week a report was published on mobile phones and other telecommunications equipment, including masts. Does he agree that that is an important report, so it is right and proper that the House should have the opportunity to look at some of the issues arising from it? In particular, does he agree that some of the commitments made by services such as Airwave about monitoring equipment are not always kept? The issue has caused a great deal of alarm among members of the public, who would like us to take it up. Can he therefore find time for such a debate?

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly look at the matter, which the Government agree is important. We already support a £7.4 million mobile telecommunications and health research programme, which is jointly funded by the industry, but my hon. Friend has raised an issue about which there is widespread concern across the country and, indeed, in the House. He has the opportunity, as do other Members, to apply for a debate. Given the concern that exists in the House, it may be possible to hold an early debate.

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

The Leader of the House will remember that when the Greater London Authority Bill became law, Her Majesty's Government promised that the House would still hold regular debates on London matters. Is he conscious of the fact that that has not occurred? In view of the burgeoning deficit of Transport for London, which will add to the already hefty precept paid by Londoners, it is time that Parliament debated London matters in the House, not Westminster Hall, as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Minister for London regularly answers questions before the House, and the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to raise all sorts of issues with him and to apply for a debate. Notwithstanding the House's pre-eminent interest in such matters, he will also understand that, because of devolution, another authority is responsible for running such services and implementing policies. Obviously, adjustments have to be made in the way that we prioritise matters, given devolution, but the Minister for London is accountable and responsible to the House, and that will continue.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Lab)

Before Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the position of the university vice-chancellors? It is particularly important in view of the scathing comments made at a recent all-party group meeting on the position of the Liberals and Conservatives as being risible and beneath contempt.

Mr. Hain

I would certainly welcome such a debate. Obviously, if it is possible to find time for it before the higher education debate that I announced for 27 January, we will consider that. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that everyone understands that the vice-chancellors—who, I understand, met an all-party group in the Palace of Westminster only this week—regarded, as she says, with total contempt and as risible the Opposition's policies on that matter. I very much welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who said: On this issue, the Government is right and there is simply no good reason why the Conservatives should oppose its proposals. He said that the Opposition's policies would deprive almost half a million young people of the opportunity to enter higher education. It is not too late to change course. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's leader will listen to him.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP)

In the light of the very serious rioting that took place last night inside one of Her Majesty's prisons at Maghaberry in Northern Ireland, the very serious threats to prison officers' security in their own homes and the threat of possible industrial action arising from that, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to come urgently before the House to make a statement on those important matters concerning prisons in Northern Ireland, which could affect stability on the streets of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hain

I understand the importance of that matter, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. Northern Ireland Ministers are talking to the Prison Officers Association about those matters. Obviously, they will want to keep the House informed in the appropriate way, and I am sure that they will want to keep him informed about the outcome.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend find an opportunity in the next week for the House to recognise the death of Tom Hurndall, the British photographer who died on Tuesday night, having been in a coma for several months after he had been shot by an Israeli soldier while trying to rescue Palestinian children in the Gaza strip? If there were an opportunity to have such a debate in the House, we could use it, first, to pay tribute to Tom's bravery; secondly, to pay tribute to the dignity and determination that his family have shown during their ordeal over the past few months; thirdly, to ensure that the charges against the soldier who has been arrested for the shooting fit the severity of the crime and to make representations to Israel about that; and, fourthly, to suggest that all the evidence about that case should be made available to Tom's family. Finally, if we are to honour Tom and his memory, may I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 407, regarding Israel's separation wall?

[That this House calls on Israel to cease immediately the building of its Separation Wall deep within Palestinian territory, which, according to the preliminary analysis by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of maps published by the Israeli Government, will be 687 km long and will leave more than 274,000 Palestinians living in 122 villages and towns either surrounded by the Wall or trapped between the Wall and Israel's internationally recognised borders, some even requiring permits from Israel to continue living in their own homes; notes that the analysis estimates that a further 400,000 Palestinians living east of the Wall will be separated from their farms, jobs, markets, hospitals and schools, and that the Wall will have "severe humanitarian consequences" for 30 per cent, of the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank; contrasts this with the fact that UN figures reveal that 54 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and 63 per cent, of settlers will be on the side of the wall next to Israel, giving Israel control over the richest agricultural land and the aquifer system which provides much of the West Bank's water resources; further notes that the Wall is made up of concrete, razor wire and electronic fences, trenches, motion sensors, guard towers and security roads, that it costs $4.7 million per kilometre and that it violates articles 53 and 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Britain is a high-contracting party, which forbids the destruction of property and confinement of persons by an occupier; welcomes the decision of the International Court of Justice to open hearings into the legal consequences of the construction of the Wall; further notes that, whilst Israel needs security, the Wall does not follow internationally recognised borders; insists that it does not become a de facto border for a future Palestinian state; further notes that only a reinvigorated peace process with full international support will stop the violence on both sides, not an 8 metre high wall; and calls on the British Government to bring all available pressure to bear on Israel to cease building this Wall.]

It would probably have meant more to Tom than anything else if we were to play a role in building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than allowing them to construct walls.

Mr. Hain

This was an absolutely appalling incident and a stain on the record of the Israeli defence force, and I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Tom Hurndall and to the dignity of his family, who have suffered gravely over the past few months. On the question of providing evidence to the family, I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that Baroness Symons is writing to the Israeli Foreign Minister with the family's request for information, and we will certainly do all that we can to help in this situation.

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

When will we have the annual debate on the rate support grant settlement? Is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread disbelief in Hampshire and elsewhere that council tax increases can be held to the level expected by the Government? A very large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to take part in that debate, so will he organise adequate time and separate it from the debate about police resources? Those issues are traditionally discussed in the same debate, but this year they deserve separate debates of their own.

Mr. Hain

Obviously, the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises—particularly given that he raises them with his authority in the House—will be closely looked at by Ministers. I am sure that he will appreciate that his council, along with other councils throughout the country, have had above-inflation increases under this Government, after years of cuts under Conservative Governments. We all want to see a limit on council tax rises—they have been going up at too high a rate—and the Government are working with local authorities and providing the funding that, I hope, will ensure that that happens throughout the country.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the usefulness of a debate on the new educational maintenance grant? We could then promote its take-up specifically in the Asian community, which could, in turn, lead to a reduction in the appalling number—300—of girls who are removed, year on year, from Bradford district schools at the age of 12-plus.

Mr. Hain

First, I acknowledge my hon. Friend's strong involvement in this vital area? Further education, especially, has been widely neglected over the decades. It is now being given exactly the priority that it always should have had, and educational maintenance grants are an important part of that. I am sure the issue that she raises—the importance of the Asian community having access to, and knowledge of, those grants—is one to which the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will pay close attention.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

I make no apology for returning to the Prime Minister's role in the Hutton debate when it takes place in the House because, week after week, we fail to get satisfactory answers from either the Leader of the House or the Prime Minister. Is the Leader of the House aware that only two Ministers were interviewed and cross-examined by Lord Hutton—the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence? So there is an open-and-shut case that they should open and close the debate. The Leader of the House has already partially quoted from column 809 of yesterday's Hansard and Prime Minister's questions, when the Prime Minister said: I can assure him that I have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than leading the Government's case on this issue. That is important".—[Official Report, 14 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 809.] I endorse that. In the light of those comments from the Prime Minister, why was the Leader of the House not prepared to tell my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) a moment ago that the Prime Minister would lead in the debate, as well as make a statement? There is absolutely no excuse or reason why he should not lead in the debate as well.

Mr. Hain

May I just say that the repeated way in which the right hon. Gentleman, the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition have sought to question the Prime Minister's integrity is shabby and distasteful? At the appropriate time, there will be announcements about the handling of the debate, as there always are, and about who will open and who will close it and on the other procedures for handling it.

The right hon. Gentleman and the whole House should leave Lord Hutton to continue to complete his report and to publish it in his own way. When he does so, the Prime Minister will be the first up in the House to report to the House in the statement, and arrangements for a debate will be announced as soon as it is possible to do so. The right hon. Gentleman will have to hold his breath for that.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will have seen reports this week that genetically modified maize could be sown for commercial planting this spring. Does he think that that is a reality? Does he agree that a debate is long overdue, given that the GM science report, the GM economics report, the GM public debate report and the GM report on farm-scale evaluations have all been published without an opportunity for hon. Members to debate those matters in the Chamber?

Mr. Hain

I agree with my hon. Friend that a debate is needed; I have indicated as much before. The latest report adds to the case for having as early a debate as it is possible for the business managers and the Secretary of State to plan. It is important that all these issues are properly evaluated, and I know that there is concern about them right across the House.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)

The Leader of the House will be aware that, today, the Royal Mail is launching the United Kingdom's first ever digital stamp. That means that the traditional stamp can be ditched in favour of a computerised version. Will he arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House to clarify the concerns of my constituents, who fear that this will mean the ending of the Queen's head on British stamps, and to eliminate the possibility that that could happen?

Mr. Hain

That is fatuous nonsense. The Queen's head will remain on all stamps sold to the hon. Gentleman, to other Members of the House and the public. He will understand that franking goes on—and has gone on for decades—by commercial organisations that do not use the actual physical stamp with the Queen's head on it. He will also understand that even he could move into the modern era and consider digital forms of franking. That is what the issue is about. He should really focus on more important matters.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and in the spirit of modernisation, should we not learn from the devolved institutions? Is there not a case for the Government to consider whether the occupant of the Chair in both Houses should simply be called President?

Mr. Hain

No, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con)

In view of the pro-European credentials of the Leader of the House and his belief in open government, is he aware that, on 3 December at the European Scrutiny Committee, we voted to have our deliberative sessions in public? That is a great step forward for the media and the public. They will be able to hear what we are doing. We examine hundreds of pages of directives and other stuff every month, and we want to share them with the public and the media. Is there a problem with that, or could we just have a notice on the door saying, "Open to the public"?

Mr. Hain

I very much welcome the European Scrutiny Committee's decision. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Indeed I do. In fact, I would like to see greater scrutiny of European matters in and by the House. I shall be considering, along with colleagues on the Modernisation Committee, how we can take that forward.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House accept that we have a limited time available in which to discuss cannabis reclassification? Will he consider an urgent debate based on the evidence that there seems to be a growing incidence of mental health problems among users of cannabis? Will he do that as soon as possible?

Mr. Hain

Home Office Ministers are aware of the report and they have commented on it. I know that there is concern about this issue, and I am sure that Ministers will listen closely to the points that my hon. Friend makes. He will, of course, have an opportunity to secure a debate on the matter himself.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

May I strongly support the comments of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on the need for a debate in the House on the safety and health aspects of mobile telephony following the publication this week of the report by the Government's adviser, Professor Lawrie Challis, the findings of which can only really be described as inconclusive? Such a debate would enable hon. Members on both sides of the House to express widespread concern and also enable us to mount the case for more Government money to be spent on independent research. The research to which the hon. Gentleman referred is largely funded by the industry itself.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I know that he has applied for a private Member's debate on the matter. I hope that he, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), is successful in achieving it. We welcome the publication of the report of the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation on the health effects from radio frequency electromagnetic fields. It is important that we keep this rapidly developing area under review. I know that the hon. Gentleman's constituency concerns are important in that respect.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend make time for an early debate on the atrocious situation in Zimbabwe? In discussions with his ministerial colleagues, will he bear in mind the hideous persecution being meted out to gay and lesbian people in Zimbabwe that has forced my constituent, Neil Noble, to become an asylum seeker?

Mr. Hain

The situation in Zimbabwe is tragic and atrocious. The deterioration of the country under Robert Mugabe's tyrannical leadership just makes everyone want to cry. The people in the country are suffering as they have never suffered before. In fact, they are suffering more than many of them, including Robert Mugabe himself, suffered under the old white minority regime. It is time that Zimbabwe changed direction and got back on the road to being the prosperous jewel in the crown of African countries that it once was.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)

Is now not the right time to debate extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales? That might give the Leader of the House the opportunity to expand on his damning indictment of the Scottish Executive. Perhaps he could give the House an insight into whether he thinks that the problem is entirely the fault of the Scottish Labour party or whether he also blames its coalition partner colleagues, the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Hain

This is another bit of nationalist spin joined by the Scottish press and the broadcasting authorities, who have completely misrepresented—as they all too often do—what goes on in the Scottish Executive and the leadership of the Labour party in Scotland. I have made it perfectly clear to those in Wales who want a Scottish parliamentary solution as an alternative to the present democratic settlement that, if they want that solution, they will have to have a referendum. There were tax-varying powers on which the people of Scotland voted in 1997, so there would have to be a referendum on that in Wales. As Scotland has had its own legal system for many years and Wales does not, there is also an issue there as to what is appropriate. Scotland, under the Scottish Parliament, has done very well. It is the case that Wales has done better economically; it has done better than any other economic region of Britain under the present powers of the Welsh Assembly.

I believe that the First Minister in Scotland, Jack McConnell, is doing an outstanding job and that the Scottish Executive are doing a good job for Scotland, with record public investment, record numbers of jobs being created and unemployment coming down. That has all happened under Labour and compares with what happened under the Conservatives when all that was in reverse. If the nationalists got their way, there would be an independent Scotland, and it would become bankrupt.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab)

Members of the House are regularly e-mailed with unsolicited pornography. Most recently, there has been a massive increase in illegal child pornography, and that has occurred at a time when the NCH has released a publication producing research linking internet child pornography and child abuse. May we have an urgent debate to push forward action against those who produce child pornography and to link up with action in the United States and in the industry? That should focus in particular on the United States, which is the origin of the transmission of millions and millions of illegal images that are causing crime globally?

Mr. Hain

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely revolting and obscene that we, and citizens the length and breadth of the country, including children, should receive such outrageous pornography on our e-mail systems. That is why the House authorities are monitoring the situation daily to try to block it and to put firewalls in place that stop it. He can be reassured by that and by the fact that the Government are considering how we can stop the flow—electronically, as it were—of such awful material across the Atlantic.

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

When the Leader of the House had his little whinge about Opposition days, did he not let the cat out of the bag? He implied that Government Members of Parliament really do not want to be here, want to have something utterly predictable in their diary and are incapable of preparing for a debate unless they are given lots of time to be briefed about it. When will we get the spontaneity back into our proceedings and when will the Government and the Leader of the House, in particular, allow greater spontaneity in questions and in debates? Will he please drop this pathetic attitude on behalf of his right hon. and hon. Friends that, unless they are briefed well in advance and know exactly what will happen, they cannot function as Members of Parliament?

Mr. Hain

I do miss the right hon. Gentleman as shadow Leader of the House. He was great fun. His successor is doing a great job but the right hon. Gentleman provided extra spice and interest for us all. Having said that, I find his specific question extraordinary. He quite rightly wants advance notice of Government business but wishes right hon. and hon. Members to be denied knowledge of forthcoming business—perhaps on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

So the right hon. Gentleman thinks it is a good thing, even if Members cannot plan their diaries and perhaps have to cancel appointments because an important issue has arisen on which they want to speak? It is not about Ministers but about right hon. and hon. Members having notice—as they always have with both Conservative and Labour Oppositions in the past. I hope that the welcome practice announced today will continue.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Welsh Assembly voted yesterday to end the defence of reasonable chastisement in relation to parents hitting their children? Under the Assembly's present powers, it cannot do anything more, but will my right hon. Friend urge the Minister for Children to incorporate that policy into the forthcoming children Bill?

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Julie Morgan

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it cannot be right that adults have greater protection than children?

Mr. Hain

I was aware of the vote to my which hon. Friend referred. The Minister for Children is carefully considering that issue.