HC Deb 22 January 2004 vol 416 cc1469-83 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 Common (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for next week will be as follows:

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—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions and Statutory Payments Bill.

I can confirm to the House that shortly after the conclusion of Lord Hutton's statement, the Prime Minister will come to the House to make a statement.

THURSDAY 29 JANUARY—Motion on Members estimate matters.

FRIDAY 30 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 2 FEBRUARY—Motion to approve the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2004.

TUESDAY 3 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Child Trust Funds Bill.

WEDNESDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Debate on the Hutton Report.

THURSDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Motions on the Police Grant Report and Local Government Finance Reports.

FRIDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us that business, but he will recall that he was asked last week about the presiding officer on the Woolsack. Has he seen early-day motion 444, and does he have anything further to report on it?

[That this House notes the report prepared by the House of Lords' Select Committee on the Speakership of the House of Lords and its recommendation that the senior Lord presiding on the Woolsack should be known as the Lord Speaker; further notes that the Committee recognized the argument that this might lead to confusion with the Speaker of the House of Commons, but dismissed it; respectfully consider that there would be considerable scope for such confusion to occur, particularly in respect of Mr Speaker's role in representing this House at home and overseas; and calls upon the Government to facilitate consultations between both Houses about this important and sensitive issue.]

The Leader of the House will remember that I asked him for two days in which to debate the Higher Education Bill. Given the great interest in that matter in all parts of the House, does he agree that his decision to allow just one day is misconceived, particularly when one considers what other business has been allowed a long prime-time allocation? On Tuesday this week, the debate on truancy did not last its course, and there was a very light House. The Times ran the story of that miserable debate on its front page, under the headline, "So, chaps, just how should we tackle truancy?" It pointed out that only seven Members were prompted to speak and showed a photograph of an almost empty Chamber. Should not the Leader of the House get his priorities right and give adequate time to the issues that really concern us all?

I know that the Leader of the House is currently considering the structure of the debate on the Hutton inquiry, but he has announced only one day for it. Given that the business for the week after next is still provisional, will he accept that many right hon. and hon. Members, including those on the relevant Select Committees, will wish to take part in that debate, and agree that it needs at least two days? What assurances can he give me that he will look at setting aside adequate time for that debate?

Does the Leader of the House accept that there will inevitably be a need to investigate in a separate debate how we can improve the effectiveness of our Select Committees so that they can obtain the kind of documents and witnesses that have been denied to them but were made available to Lord Hutton? Surely that would involve a detailed review of how Select Committees are treated by the Government and how the rules do not seem to give Select Committees real teeth. What plans does the right hon. Gentleman have for a debate on that important subject?

Finally, there will be justified outrage in the House and the country if we have an inadequate debate on the Hutton inquiry but are then faced with yet more feeble, poorly attended Adjournment debates on matters considered by hon. Members, including the Leader of the House's own Back Benchers and some Ministers, to be less important. Is it not right that in this place we should have a serious amount of time set aside for us to debate really serious subjects?

Mr. Hain

Of course I agree that there should be plenty of time to debate really serious subjects, which is precisely why I have announced the business today as it is. First, on the Hutton report, the hon. Gentleman has asked for two days to debate it. There will be a statement next week by the Prime Minister, which will go on for as long, Mr. Speaker, as you wish to let it go on. The Prime Minister is committed to answer all the questions that are put to him, which will certainly take some time. In the following week, there will be a full day's debate on top of that.

The hon. Gentleman is seeking to make mischief and to try it on. Oppositions do that kind of thing; we did it on Scott. As the Labour Opposition, we asked for two days on the Scott report. The Conservative Government whom he supported had a one-day debate. That is the precedent, which we will continue to follow.

While I am discussing Hutton, I must add that the Leader of the Opposition has been behaving in a distasteful fashion by questioning the Prime Minister's integrity. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will, in advance of the Hutton report, put it to his right hon. and learned Friend that if that report does not question the Prime Minister's integrity, he should apologise right away. We want to know now whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman will make an apology, in view of the serious statements—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are, of course, discussing next week's business.

Mr. Hain

Indeed, Mr. Speaker. I am doing precisely that.

As for the presiding officer on the Woolsack, to whom early-day motion 444 refers, I repeat what I said last week in relation to the title of Lord Speaker: I do not have any further information, and the House of Lords is still considering the question.

The hon. Gentleman asked again for two days' debate—no doubt this will become a Conservative ritual—on the Higher Education Bill. The single day that has been allocated to the Bill, on top of all the debate in and outside the Chamber, is absolutely normal for a Bill of that kind, and that is how we intend to proceed.

On the truancy debate, and the pictures showing an empty Chamber, one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), wrote an interesting letter to The Times in which he pointed out that many Members were involved in Select Committees and other business of the House at that precise time. The hon. Gentleman should not therefore play to a media gallery in trying to suggest that the House is not doing its work. In fact, Members were busy in all Committee Rooms of the House undertaking important Select Committee work.

That brings me to the hon. Gentleman's important questions about the effectiveness of Select Committees. By all means, I would be happy to receive representations and to review the role of Select Committees, and the House may wish to do so over the coming period. As a Government, however, we have agreed extra resources for Select Committees. The Prime Minister, for the first time ever, has agreed to appear before the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs. By doing that, he has made himself more accountable to Select Committees, because we believe in those Committees, and in their holding Ministers accountable. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to endorse that principle, at least we can agree on that.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

I hope that we do not need to remind the right hon. Gentleman that he is not just a Cabinet Minister but the Leader of the House, and he therefore has a special responsibility to Members on all sides of the House to make sure that we have proper opportunities to do our job. In that respect, may I address again the question of the debate that he has announced on the Hutton report on Wednesday 4 February? As we understand it, that debate will have to deal with issues of accountability at the heart of government, the future of public service broadcasting and the BBC, and, as he said, the way in which this House, through its Select Committees, scrutinises the Executive. Those are all extraordinarily important issues.

Despite what the right hon. Gentleman said about the position of his party when in Opposition, may I put it to him that two wrongs do not make a right? May I draw his attention to the fact that in business questions on Thursday 22 February 1996, the then Labour spokesman, now Lord Rooker, a Minister in the other place, described the decision of the then Government to have a debate on the Scott report on the Adjournment as "parliamentary cowardice"?

He said that it was parliamentary cowardice not to table a motion on which the House could divide. Can the Leader of the House assure us that the debate on the Hutton report will not just be an Adjournment debate, but one that will give the House the opportunity to divide on a motion and, if necessary, to amend it? On that occasion, my party was consistent, because my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) said that he thought that the Government were hiding behind the procedural device of an Adjournment motion".—[Official Report, 22 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 510–11.] Since when does the Leader of the House believe that because the Conservatives did something, it gives Labour an excuse to do the same? At the same time, I understand his point about a two-day debate, but can he at least tell us whether he is prepared to table a motion to suspend the 7 o'clock cut-off, so we can carry on until 10 o'clock? There is nothing to stop us doing that. Those extra three hours would be particularly valuable for Back Benchers. Finally on that issue, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that he will do everything he can to restrain the length of speeches from those on the Front-Benches, so that Back Benchers have a real opportunity to contribute to the debate?

On a small matter, the Leader of the House announced that on 5 February there will be separate motions—in the plural—on the police grant and the local government finance arrangements. Given the extremely important implications of this year's police precept and council tax—with threats of major increases—can we have two debates, as used to be the practice, on those two orders, rather than amalgamating them, in which case the police grant tends to be submerged?

Mr. Hain

I understand why the hon. Gentleman raised the last point, but the difficulty is that the two budgets come together in some respects, so it is better to handle them that way. However, there will be plenty of time for him and others to debate both issues.

May I add to the points I made to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about having a two-day debate on the Hutton report? We shall have plenty of time to discuss that report. As I explained earlier, the Prime Minister will make a statement, as he promised, and he will lead the debate, as he promised, so there will be plenty of opportunities for people to ask questions and make their points.

On the status of the debate, I ask the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) to await the publication of the report. We should all do that, and see what it says. I will then be in a position to announce at business questions the following day exactly what the handling of the forthcoming week's business, including that particular issue, will be. I will take careful note of the point that the hon. Gentleman made, as is my duty.

As to the hon. Gentleman's first point about the length of the debate, I do not intend to go beyond the moment of interruption. We have agreed sitting times and, save for exceptional circumstances—

Mr. Tyler

These are exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Hain

Well, by exceptional circumstances I mean what occurred shortly before prorogation at Christmas and just before the summer recess, when hon. Members, having booked holidays and so forth, would not have wanted us to extend the sittings into the recess. In those circumstances, we had to go beyond the moment of interruption. Much of the House's business is important every day of the week. As I explained, we are following precedence on the Scott report, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree was also serious and important, and will handle the Hutton report in a similar fashion. With those reassurances, and in view of the hon. Gentleman's own points about the arrangements, I hope that he will accept my response.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

I welcome the announcement by the Under-Secretary of State for Health with responsibility for public health, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), that, in future, people conceived by donated sperm, eggs or embryos will have the right to know the identity of the donor. That important announcement is in the best interests of the child, and I welcome it as the right way to proceed. Can the Leader of the House tell me whether the House will have an opportunity to debate that important issue and, if so, when?

Mr. Hain

I agree that that is a very important issue, and the public health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield, yesterday announced a wide-ranging review of these matters. It will include public consultation next year to which people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and other Members of the House can submit their views. She also has an opportunity to apply for a debate at any time and to question the Minister when she comes to the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

I had hoped to be able to press the Leader of the House for a debate on the document produced by the No. 10 performance unit on the performance of this Government. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has denied public access to that document, praying in aid the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I can only assume that its contents are so bad that he does not want it in the public domain. Therefore, may I take this opportunity to ask the Leader of the House when the debate that he indicated should take place on the defence White Paper will actually happen?

Mr. Hain

I will be in a position to announce that in future weeks. On the right hon. Gentleman's specific

question, I remind him that we as a Labour Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act, because we believe in freedom of information.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab)

Can my right hon. Friend indicate when the text of the Hutton report will be available to Members?

Mr. Hain

Lord Hutton has made it clear that he will make his statement and, I guess, it will take some time. At the end of that statement, the report will be made available in the House and you, Mr. Speaker, will be consulted on this matter in accordance with Lord Hutton's wishes.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con)

Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to review the extraordinary revelations this morning in the Scottish press about the lack of preparedness for Scottish troops, particularly the Black Watch, as they entered theatre without enough nuclear, biological and chemical armoury? Lieutenant Colonel James Cowan said: If decisions had been taken earlier then the right kit could have been in place. Can we have a debate in Government time to establish why that was not the case?

Mr. Hain

I have not had the pleasure—if that is the word—of reading the Scottish press this morning. I am sure that the Minister concerned will note the hon. Gentleman's points. He also has the opportunity to apply for a debate.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)

In light of the Electoral Reform Society report on proportional representation for local government, which claims that the British National party would not take control of Burnley council if we had PR, will the Leader of the House allow us a debate on PR for council elections so that we can dispel such bunkum? Does he agree that PR in local councils is the local government equivalent of the assisted-places scheme for fascists?

Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend knows, the BNP has not got control of Burnley council now, and certainly nothing should be done to encourage that. On the contrary, I hope that the BNP candidates are roundly defeated by Labour candidates, or by the candidates of every other party represented here if Labour cannot beat them, as well. We need to get that poison out of our political system. I think that he and I have similar views on proportional representation systems, but I am not sure whether he supports my view that we should have the alternative vote in single-Member constituencies.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

Following the good wishes of the Leader of the House last week for my attempts to secure a debate on the health aspects of phone mast technology, Mr. Speaker has granted such a debate in Westminster Hall at 2 o'clock next Wednesday. In view of the fact that this debate may take place at the same time as important business in this Chamber, will the Leader of the House consider whether the debate in Westminster Hall might be moved or suspended if it coincides with a statement on Hutton?

Mr. Hain

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman talk to Mr. Speaker about this matter. I am not in a position to suspend the debate nor would I wish to do so. However the situation can be resolved in other ways.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

When can we debate early-day motion 433?

[That this House is appalled at the distress caused to 40 families in the Newport village of Peterstone Wentloog (Llanbedr Gwynllwg) by demands from Mr Mark Roberts that they pay 9 per cent, of the value of their property for the right of access to their homes; urges the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government to accelerate reforms in the manorial laws and to extend section 68 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to Wales to prevent this unscrupulous exploitation of ancient titles; and condemns the attempted parasitic extortion by Mr Mark Roberts and his solicitors Darwin Gray of Cardiff through the misuse of ancient titles that revive the unjust privileges of feudal laws.] Distress was caused to 40 of my constituents who faced injunctions on new year's day from Mr. Mark Roberts of Barry island, who claims ownership of the common land near their homes and is demanding 9 per cent. of the value of their houses. They have been informed that taking the matter to court might cost each of them between £50,000 and £60,000. Is it not important that we look into parasites such as Mr. Roberts, who is trying to revive the injustices of feudal law by pretending to be the manorial lord of the area?

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's motive for raising that extraordinary case. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to apply for a debate.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

Can the Leader of the House explain why only two Opposition parties will have early access to the Hutton report? The Conservatives and Liberals, quite rightly, will have access to the report six hours ahead of its publication▀×yet that privilege will not be extended to my party and to colleagues in Plaid Cymru and the Ulster parties. Surely all parties should be treated equally. How does the right hon. Gentleman justify that appalling discrimination?

Mr. Hain

I understand that a representative of the minority parties has written to the Prime Minister, who is considering the matter. I ask the hon. Gentleman to await a reply. The minority parties decided to break with the tradition of working through the Liberal Democrats but that is a matter for them. As I said, the Prime Minister is considering his request.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will know that there is a requirement to review the sitting times in this Chamber. Does he agree that we will appear rather eccentric and wholly out of touch to the people we represent if we insist that we cannot deal with the business of Parliament without regularly sitting late into the evening?

Mr. Hain

I announced a few weeks ago my intention to review that matter through the Modernisation Committee. The Procedure Committee—under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton)—has already sent out a questionnaire, which I understand has received a good response.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

indicated assent.

Mr. Hain

I received a good response to my letter, so I will certainly bear in mind my hon. Friend's observation. It is in the interests of the House to reach a consensus on the issue but if that is not possible, we shall have to face the consequences.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)

The Leader of the House should grasp the fact that the education debate earlier this week cannot be compared in any way, in terms of current importance, with the issues for debate on the Higher Education Bill and the Hutton report. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that it would be a dereliction of duty if he does not deliver to the House two-day debates on each of those subjects, which are of vital and immediate national interest?

Mr. Hain

I appreciate that that is the Conservative message for the day. I have already answered that point. The precedent was established by the Scott report.

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

He nodded.

Mr. Hain

Yes, the hon. Gentleman nodded in agreement.

Mr. Ruffley

I did not.

Mr. Hain

I would much welcome an Opposition day debate on Conservative policies for university funding. We learned today that they are about to announce a policy of privatising universities, abolishing grants and cutting student numbers—whereas the Government stand for widening access, bringing back grants and helping poorer students. That is the choice.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab)

Most constituencies have post offices located inside commercial premises. A problem arises when such premises close down, because the post offices are closed with them—as happened at Roneo Corner in Hornchurch, without any notice or warning. As a result, pensioners were in a panic because the source of their pension payments disappeared. Can a statement be made on the closure of post offices within commercial premises, with a view to undertaking a survey that would show when and where such problems are likely to arise in future?

Mr. Hain

I recognise that is a severe problem and it is one on which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has answered questions. My right hon. Friend will doubtless note the circumstances that my hon. Friend described, which arise from the difficulty of locating post offices in commercial premises. We must ensure that when that is done, pensioners and others receive the same standard of service, for that is vital.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

The Leader of the House has a difficult job finding time for debates, but the right hon. Gentleman has as one of his responsibilities the interests of Back Benchers in all parts of the House. If it appears from representations made to the Leader of the House that more time is required to debate the Hutton report, will he reconsider his answer to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and at least consider extending that debate beyond the point of interruption at 7 o'clock? It is important that the House has the opportunity fully to debate the Hutton report, with as many right hon. and hon. Members as possible taking part. The Liaison Committee believes that Hutton will have implications for Select Committees. Also, will the Leader of the House respond shortly to the Procedure Committee's report on Sessional Orders and resolutions, whose recommendations could solve some of the problems facing the House?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman quite properly makes his point and will be aware that the Prime Minister is due to appear before the Liaison Committee after the publication of the Hutton report—which will provide another opportunity to subject the issue to the Committee's closest possible expert scrutiny. Given the precedent set by the Scott report—which I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees also dealt with a serious matter—the one day allocated to debating Hutton is entirely proper. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will note the number of right hon. and hon. Members who wish to catch your eye and will allot the time available for speeches accordingly.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that just before Christmas, Conservative-controlled Essex county council decided to end the provision of meals at primary and secondary schools? He will appreciate that that decision has caused great concern among head teachers and governors—particularly in small schools. Terling primary school in my constituency, which has just 100 pupils, estimates that it will cost an extra £4,000 per annum to maintain the provision of meals privately. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on that important issue?

Mr. Hain

I am horrified by my hon. Friend's account and hope that his constituents will follow his lead in protesting against that dreadful policy.

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

Following press reports today, does the Leader of the House share my concern that the Deputy Prime Minister appears to be travelling around the country spreading confusion about the future of the Barnett formula? Given that the right hon. Gentleman has called for a great debate on that formula, can there be an early statement on Government policy—preferably before the Government rely upon the votes of Scottish Members to force tuition fees on my constituents and those of other English Members?

Mr. Hain

All right hon. and hon. Members are equal. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Indeed we are. Or is it the new policy of the Conservative party to Balkanise the House of Commons and insist that certain right hon. and hon. Members will be able to vote only on certain issues? Down that road lies absolute pandemonium. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that Ulster Unionist and other Northern Ireland Members will not be allowed to vote on issues that do not affect them? That is a very dangerous road.

The Deputy Prime Minister, quite properly, made a number of comments about funding regional government. Government policy on the Barnett formula is well known. We are in favour of maintaining that formula, which has operated effectively over time, and have distributed resources across the United Kingdom in accordance with its provisions. The Opposition can call for a debate on that issue at any time.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Ministers are quoted in the press today as saying that the Government do not have the numbers to win next Tuesday's vote. Are there any circumstances in which the Higher Education Bill will be withdrawn?

Mr. Hain

No.

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

May I associate myself with the concerns expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan)? He referred to this morning's report in the Scottish press about the equipment given to troops in Iraq. I bring to the attention of the Leader of the House a report that appears on the front page of one newspaper. It refers to a regimental sergeant-major in the Black Watch, and states: The requirement was for there to be three NBC"— that is, nuclear, biological or chemical warfare— suits for each soldier, but he had struggled to make two available. Equipment that was out of date was simply redated to extend its shelf life, none of the detection equipment had been calibrated, rendering it unusable, and there was nothing available to decontaminate vehicles if there was an attack. The report quotes the sergeant-major as saying: None of the stuff worked. It was a good job that nothing happened out there. Those are serious allegations. Surely the Secretary of State for Defence—either the current one or his successor—should come to the House and confirm or deny them.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman raises this matter quite properly. Obviously, he will seek to pursue it, either through a debate in his own name or by other means. However, as I have said consistently—and I repeated it on Sky television on Sunday—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing an outstanding job. He is a very valued Cabinet colleague, and he will listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say. The hon. Gentleman should address the specifics of this matter to my right hon. Friend, or raise them in other ways.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

May we have a debate on the shocking decision to change the name of East Midlands airport to Nottingham airport? As my right hon. Friend knows, the airport is owned by Manchester airport. The equivalent would be to rename Manchester airport Salford airport or, to give a Scottish example, Glasgow airport Rutherglen airport. The chief executive of East Midlands airport, Graham Kelly, has agreed to meet Members of Parliament on this matter, but there is widespread concern in Leicester and elsewhere in the east midlands about the way in which the decision was made.

Mr. Hain

I understand why my hon. Friend raises this matter. I guess that I would take a similar view if I were a Leicester Member of Parliament. However, this is a commercial decision by the airports group involved. We do not have any power to intervene, and my hon. Friend must raise the matter with the company. The Civil Aviation Authority has said that it is content that there are no safety implications. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to make the fiercest representations with local people on this matter, and I recognise that that is what he is doing now, quite properly.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

The Leader of the House is quite right to see as one of his main duties the need to ensure that the public have confidence in this House. He will share my view that people will have that confidence only if, by and large, we debate issues that concern them. Will he therefore reconsider the possibility of holding a two-day debate on Hutton? The right hon. Gentleman and I were both Members of this House when the Scott report was published. The significant difference between then and now is that we now have Westminster Hall. Many of the debates that have been criticised on the front page of The Times could be held there. That would allow us to have more two-day debates, when that is considered to be relevant by Mr. Speaker, the right hon. Gentleman and others. Will he reconsider the matter?

Mr. Hain

I have answered that question already. It is clearly the Conservative message of the day. However, the truth is that Westminster Hall debates make this Government more accountable than any other, as Ministers must answer questions in those debates. Previously, that happened only in Select Committees or on the Floor of the House. The extra accountability offered by Westminster Hall will be evident in respect of the Hutton report, as it is on all other issues.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Will there be an opportunity next week for a Minister to make a statement or answer questions on the expected decision by the England and Wales Cricket Board regarding the tour of Zimbabwe? That is important, given Mugabe's totally lawless tyranny. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issues involved are the same as those that arose 30 years ago, when Labour Members—and I emphasise that it was Labour Members—protested against cricket being played in apartheid South Africa? My right hon. Friend demonstrated against that proposed tour in a more practical way when it was necessary for such demonstrations to be held.

Mr. Hain

Indeed, my hon. Friend joined me and others in fighting that evil. The regime in Zimbabwe under Mugabe is indeed barbarous. People heard my views on this matter when it first arose last year, but the ECB has written to the Foreign Office to ask for advice. The Government will reply shortly, and the Foreign Office remains ready to offer guidance on safety and security issues, and on the political and humanitarian issues in Zimbabwe. I take this opportunity to welcome the report presented to the English cricket authorities yesterday, as it puts such tours in a much wider context by setting out the moral issues that are involved, over and above the sporting issues. That is precisely what my hon. Friend and I sought to do in respect of apartheid. I am sure that the same applies in connection with this tour.

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

Why does the Leader of the House keep wriggling and prevaricating on the subject of the Hutton report? He completely failed to answer the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), who asked a simple question about when the report would be made available to Members of this House. That was a relevant question, and perhaps the Leader of the House is about to answer it.

Why, oh why, cannot we have a proper length of debate on this very important report? It was commissioned by the Prime Minister, and is about the Government. It is of interest to every hon. Member and to many people outside the House. Why does the Leader of the House give the impression that he is evasive and shifty on this issue, when he could quite easily give us some straightforward and open replies about when the report is to be made available, when the statement will be made and when the debate will be held? Please can we have an answer now, so that the right hon. Gentleman no longer looks shifty?

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman would call me shifty and evasive if I were to recite the 10 times table. For an image of shiftiness and evasiveness, he need only consider the performance of the Leader of the Opposition on the "Breakfast with Frost" programme in connection with the issue of student finances. I have made it crystal clear that Lord Hutton has said that at the end of his statement, and not before—

Mr. Forth

Give us a guess.

Mr. Hain

No, I will not give the right hon. Gentleman a guess, as it is a matter for Lord Hutton. He is one of the most senior and authoritative judges in the country, and it is for him to decide how to make the report public. The right hon. Gentleman should stop behaving in such an impudent fashion towards such a senior member of the judiciary. When Lord Hutton has finished his statement, the report will be made available to the House, in accordance with the judge's wishes.

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

Pursuant to the question asked by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) about the Procedure Committee report and the conduct of debates, does my right hon. Friend agree that Members of this House are not all equal when it comes to debating very big issues such as the top-up fees Bill and the Hutton report? As the Procedure Committee has noted, Labour Back Benchers—especially those elected from 1997 onwards—tend not to get called. The minimum possible allocation of time per speech is eight minutes, which means that those hon. Members are always squeezed out. I am sometimes one of them. If my right hon. Friend insists on holding a one-day debate on those matters, even though there is a huge amount of interest in them, will he negotiate with Mr. Speaker to see whether that eight-minute limit can be reduced? In that way, more hon. Members who want to make a point in those debates can be called.

Mr. Hain

No, I will not negotiate with Mr. Speaker. Such negotiations are never held, as he has his responsibilities and I have mine. However, the House has heard what my hon. Friend has said. Obviously, we want as many hon. Members as possible to be called within the normal time for debate, in the proper fashion. The Scott report was also very important, and we intend to follow the precedent set at that time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) mentioned the Procedure Committee report. I want to take this opportunity to apologise to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) for not responding to his question on that subject. It is a very important report, and it needs to be considered by all Members so that progress can be made.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the failure to provide equipment, such as body armour and biological, chemical and nuclear filters, to our military personnel in Iraq? The failure to provide such equipment when and where it was needed was in large part a result of the delay by the Government in placing the relevant orders. That delay was an attempt to quell the revolt against the war by Labour Back-Bench Members. In other words, soldiers were sacrificed for the purposes of political appeasement by this discredited Government.

Mr. Hain

That is the most outrageous allegation that it is possible to make. Our soldiers, who fought under the leadership of the Secretary of State, form the most effective fighting machine in the world, which the hon. Gentleman is denigrating—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) should let the Leader of the House answer the question.

Mr. Hain

The Ministry of Defence is considering whether enhanced combat body armour should become personal issue for all personnel, but it is too early to judge the outcome of that consideration. The issue was debated last week, but the hon. Gentleman was not even present to make that point and put proper questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who would have been happy and confident to answer them because of his brilliant leadership during that campaign.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

May I bring early-day motion 448, which stands in my name and which already commands cross-party support, to my right hon. Friend's attention?

[That this House opposes any proposals to introduce top-up fines for those convicted of minor misdemeanours such as motoring offences.] Will he use his good offices to discourage those in the Home Office who propose to introduce such measures, the receipts from which will be used to compensate and support victims of crime? Will he remind them that those proposals will not reduce minor crime and that compensation for victims of crime should be funded by central Government alone?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend is referring to what is obviously a consultation document, and I am sure that the Home Secretary and others will take his views into account. However, he will understand that we have two objectives: to protect victims and give them the support, redress and compensation that they need, and to maintain sensible rules, whether in respect of fines for road safety transgressions or other matters. It is a question of getting the balance right. The consultation paper has been issued and we will take all views into account.

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

The Leader of the House will know that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that in 2002 the United Kingdom was the favourite country by far for applicants for asylum in the whole of the western world. We received many more than 100,000 asylum applicants in that year and are still head of the league for applications. Will he get the appropriate Minister to come to the House and announce a scheme whereby boroughs that contain a port of entry within their boundaries—such as my own borough of Hillingdon—are fully compensated for the additional cost of unaccompanied refugee children? Such boroughs must bear that cost because of the Hillingdon judgment, and they may have to support children until they are 21, which could put some of them into the capping regime. That state of affairs is intolerable.

Mr. Hain

The issue is difficult and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise a constituency matter in that respect. The Government's policy on asylum, which I am sure that he supports, has been progressively to clamp down on illegal human trafficking, and we have done so with increasing effectiveness. We are advancing that policy and requests such as his should be considered in that context—although I notice that he is requesting extra public spending, which flatly contradicts his party's policy.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have an early opportunity to discuss the proposals by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on whether children conceived by in vitro fertilisation should continue to have the right to a father? If he cannot provide an early debate, will he at least ensure that there is a swift ministerial statement on the issue? In particular, section 25 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 stresses the need to put the well-being of children first and recognises the importance of fathers.

Mr. Hain

I recognise the strong and articulate points made by the hon. Gentleman. The Minister concerned will take them into close account because this is currently a live issue.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

Although The Times photograph cuts off before it reaches the Gangway, the Official Report shows that I was present for the debate on Tuesday. If the Leader of the House wants to blame the empty Benches on the perfectly legitimate point that Members had to be elsewhere, I am sure that he will acknowledge that that is increasingly the result of the absurd hours that we keep. It would be much better if the vast majority of Members whose seats are not located near London could spend next Tuesday evening debating the Government's proposals on tuition fees. If the Leader of the House will not arrange such a debate, his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) showed his enthusiasm to explore the Opposition's policy on tuition fees. I am sure that he agrees that that would require a two-day debate—perhaps we can reach a deal.

Mr. Hain

On the subject of doing deals, I will happily approach The Times to suggest that the next time it takes a photograph it zeros the camera directly on the hon. Gentleman to make sure that he is well in the frame. It could also turn the lens the other way and see how many members of the press are present for debates. The Press Gallery is not at all full; in fact, it looks decidedly empty.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)

It is lunchtime.

Mr. Hain

I would not be so churlish as to suggest such a motive.