HC Deb 29 January 2004 vol 417 cc389-405 12.31 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 2 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Bill.

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

WEDNESDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Debate on Lord Hutton's Report on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, which will be opened by right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and closed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

THURSDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Motions On the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2004–05, followed by a motion on the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2004–05.

FRIDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 9 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill.

TUESDAY 10 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats, subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 11 FEBRUARY—Motion to approve the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2004 followed by Opposition half-day [5th Allotted Day] (1st Part). There will be half-day debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 12 FEBRUARY—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government has replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

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

THURSDAY 5 FEBRUARY—A debate on the report from the Broadcasting Committee on the rules of coverage.

THURSDAY 12 FEBRUARY—A cross-cutting question session on "healthy living", followed by a debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee on light pollution and astronomy.

THURSDAY 26 FEBRUARY—A debate on the Report from the Public Administration Committee entitled "On Target? Government by Measurement".

The House will wish to be reminded that, subject to the progress of business, we will rise for the half-term week on Thursday 12 February and return on Monday 23 February. The House may also wish to be reminded that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that the Budget will take place on Wednesday 17 March.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. The local authority and police grant debate will be one of the most important next week for all Members. Why has it been placed on the shortest day, given that the business on Monday and Tuesday looks somewhat light?

Can we have a proper debate in Government time on the deplorable decision, which has been implemented today, to downgrade cannabis and skunk and reduce enforcement in cases involving them? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that decision will lead to many more people experiencing the miseries of mental ill health and send out a message that the Government do not mind if our young people mix with hardened criminal pushers or join the first rung of the ladder that leads them to hard drugs use?

Why is it that this country cannot handle snowfalls, and everything just grinds to a halt? Has no one in the Government noticed that it seems to be an annual occurrence? Are Ministers aware that traffic is gridlocked; roads have not been gritted; schools are closed; flights have been cancelled; and cities such as Norwich have been cut off, leading the Salvation Army to open its hostels for the stranded? It is sheer blooming misery for commuters. Can we have a statement from the Minister in charge of our response to snow? And by the way, just who is that?

The Government suffered a narrow victory, by five votes, on the top-up fees issue on Tuesday. Should not the Standing Committee on the Bill reflect not only the party political composition of the House but the strength of opinion as expressed in the Division on Tuesday? The arrangements are set out clearly on page 693 of "Erskine May". Will the Government follow precedent and ensure that the Labour rebels are fairly represented on the Committee? Does the Leader of the House agree that the Committee should not have a Government majority of more than one?

The Leader of the House will have heard the calls from both sides of the House for a full inquiry into how this country went to war in Iraq. He will know that the Franks report followed the far less controversial Falklands war. The public want to know why the Government said that there were weapons of mass destruction, yet none were found. Can we expect an early statement—[Interruption] Hearing the noise from the Liberal Democrats reminds me that one hon. Member asked me to call for a debate on the plague of wild boars on the Kent-Sussex border. It may be that that plague has spread a little closer to this place than we had realised.

Mr. Hain

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I was interested to note that the ritual demand that we have heard from him in the past few weeks for a two-day debate on the Hutton report was not repeated. Why is that? Well, he has double standards. The report did not say what the Tories wanted it to say and that is why he is no longer interested in a two-day debate on the Hutton report. The truth is that the Conservatives should have the good grace to admit that they were wrong to accuse the Prime Minister of lying, wrong to impugn my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and wrong to accuse the whole Government machine—including civil servants—of falsifying evidence and manipulating procedures. The Leader of the Opposition should have the good grace to make a full-blooded apology, in the Opposition's time.

On the question of a wider inquiry, the Iraq survey group has been completing its work—

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

When will it finish?

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman reminds us. it has no date for completion of that work. Iraq is a big country, and the results will not fit into a Conservative timetable for a debate in the House of Commons. The group will complete its work, and I remind hon. Members that it has uncovered considerable evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programmes. I would be happy to quote the evidence from Dr. Kay, if the House wishes me to do so. Let us have no more hypocrisy. Instead, let us have some apologies from the Leader of the Opposition and the chairman of the Conservative party, who have criticised the Government for lying—they have been at it again in the past few days. They should come to the House and apologise because, according to Lord Hutton, their accusations are unfounded.

The hon. Gentleman raised some specific issues. On the local authority finance and police grant reports debate, the issues will not be cleared until the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments a few days before. There will be plenty of time to discuss the reports, so that is a bogus point, if I may say so.

On cannabis, I want to be clear about what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. Heald

We want a debate.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman has an Opposition day coming up soon and there was a debate on the issue in Westminster Hall only recently. The truth is that this is another example of Conservative opportunism.

The declassifying of cannabis will be done in order to ensure that we do not devalue and discredit the message on hard drugs. It is very important that we persuade people, especially youngsters, to concentrate on avoiding the really hard drugs that they might be dragged into supporting if they were put in the same bracket as cannabis.

I thought the hon. Gentleman's question about snowfalls particularly impressive. As he knows, snow has been a periodic problem. We are continually trying to improve our rate of response to it, and will go on doing so.

Let me say something about a wider question. I know the hon. Gentleman will take it seriously, because he is concerned about these matters as well. I think it important that we respect each other's integrity in the whole conduct of politics, as we do in the House. Public and political debate, in the BBC and other broadcasting outlets or elsewhere in the media, must once more involve an honest clash of policies and politics rather than constant attempts to challenge each other's integrity.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

I agree with that, but may I return the Leader of the House to arrangements for next week? Can he confirm information given yesterday by the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, that the Government's response to the Committee's report "Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction—Intelligence and Assessment" will be published early next week? That would enable Members to consider the information and recommendations before the Adjournment debate on the Hutton report. The right hon. Lady also said that the debate would be wide-ranging and need not confine itself to the narrow remit of Lord Hutton's inquiry, and I hope that the Leader of the House will agree to that.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the point at issue is not just whether the so-called dodgy dossier was "sexed up", but the location of those threatening weapons of mass destruction on which the Government relied so much? Does he also accept that, as I said on behalf of my colleagues last week, the circumstances surrounding that wide-ranging debate are exceptional and it should therefore continue until at least 10 pm? He may now regret telling me last week that the only exceptional circumstances that he could envisage that might necessitate such an extension were those in which Members needed to go on holiday.

Mr. Hain

indicated dissent.

Mr. Tyler

Well, he can put that right now. I hope that he will now say that the circumstances are exceptional, because this is an extremely important issue.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned David Kay and the evidence that he has given in Washington. In the light of the undoubted failures of United States and United Kingdom intelligence—no one can deny that now—on the real nature of the threat that faced us from Saddam, does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that there is a case for a wider inquiry? The fact that Conservative Members swallowed those spurious threats and that dodgy dossier does not mean that the whole House should.

Mr. Hain

I am afraid that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman on whether the report will be published next week. That is in the hands of the Committee.

Mr. Tyler

I was asking about the Government's response.

Mr. Hain

I am sorry. Obviously it is in everyone's interest to have the Government's response before the debate. I will let the hon. Gentleman know whether that will be possible. I agree that it is important for us to have all the background.

How wide or narrow the debate is will be a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we as a Government are very confident—not just confident because we have come out of the detailed inquiry by Lord Hutton as we have, but confident about our whole policy on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Let me remind him of what David Kay actually told Congress recently, as opposed to some of the spin that has been put on it: We have discovered dozens of WMD-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations during the inspections that began in late 2002…A clandestine network of laboratories…A prison laboratory complex, possibly used in human testing of BW agents…Reference strains of biological organisms concealed in a scientist's home…BW-applicable agents…work on ricin and other toxic agents, plans and advanced design work for long-range missiles and a systematic sanitisation of documentary and computer evidence in a wide range of offices, laboratories, and companies suspected of WMD work. Far from there being a massive failure of intelligence, as the hon. Gentleman asserts, I believe that the work of the survey group will confirm David Kay's statement to Congress: I think the world is far safer with the disappearance and removal of Saddam Hussein. I have said I actually think this may be one of those cases where it was even more dangerous than we thought. And he was the person who led the investigating team.

As to the handling of the debate, I have always said that we needed to await the report before announcing who would open and close the debate and the time allowed—which I have now announced. I do not think that a longer debate is necessary, but the Liberal Democrats will have an Adjournment debate soon and could choose that subject if they wish.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Instead of bothering with a day on the Hutton report, because it has all been said—the Tories do not like the report because it comes down in favour of the Government and against the BBC—will the Leader of the House use that day instead for a debate on the few pits remaining in Britain? Most of them—about 300 or 400—were closed between 1979 and 1997 but the few left need money. Does he accept that if it is possible for the Government to step in—as they did with Railtrack, Connex and the Jarvis contracts—to save lines, it would make sense to do the same for pits in danger, such as Hatfield and Selby? If private entrepreneurs such as Budge and others refuse to do anything to save jobs, the Government should do what they have done for the railways, take the pits over and make sure those jobs are saved.

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's passion, being myself a Member of Parliament who represents a coalfield community—which my hon. Friend was kind enough to visit some years ago. I share many of his sentiments and we will continue to do what we can to help a viable coal industry succeed. He will also understand, however, that tens of millions of pounds have recently been given in aid to pits across the country, including in constituencies in South Wales. Over the years, billions of pounds have been given to the coal industry. We must judge any further support against that background.

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

May I take the Leader of the House back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), to which the right hon. Gentleman did not respond, concerning the composition of the Standing Committee on the Higher Education Bill? The right hon. Gentleman will remember the point of order that I raised with Mr. Speaker on the night of the Second Reading debate and will have in mind page 693 of the 22nd edition of "Erskine May", which makes it plain that in nominating Standing Committee members, the Committee of Selection shall always ensure in the case of bills which divide the House on cross-party lines, that the strength of opinion as expressed in any division at second reading is properly reflected". Does the Leader of the House agree that that in effect means that as the Government had a majority of five on Second Reading, they are only entitled to a majority of about one on the Standing Committee? If the Committee of Selection does not observe the precedent and rule fully set out in "Erskine May", will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement to the House next week as to why not?

Mr. Hain

The right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly raises that point again, as I overlooked it when replying to the shadow Leader of the House. The Committee of Selection will want to consider that matter carefully but the rules are clear. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Division was principally if not exclusively on party grounds, but his point will be borne in mind.

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

I offer to help the Government out on the Committee considering the top-up fees, so I hope that will be taken into account.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 445?

[That this House believes that the supreme sacrifice of British servicemen and women who are killed in the line of duty, in war, peacekeeping or as a result of terrorism, should be acknowledged through a posthumous medal similar to the United States Purple Heart or the Memorial Cross of Canada and New Zealand, which can be presented to the next of kin and worn with pride on Remembrance Day; accepts that suitable criteria for such a medal need to he carefully defined and that this is best done by the Ministry of Defence in consultation with The Royal British Legion and forces' associations; and urges the Ministry of Defence to accept the policy and instigate such discussions.]

It deals with posthumous medals for British servicemen and women who have been killed in the line of duty during wars or peace-making activities or as a result of terrorism and asks that such medals should be in line with the US purple heart and the memorial cross in Canada and New Zealand. It has cross-party—and left, right and centre—support, so could we have a statement, which would compensate for the fact that I had to pull a question on the matter for Monday's Defence questions because I had duties on the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body?

Mr. Hain

I am not sure that we would want to take up my hon. Friend's. offer of help because I am not sure what kind of help that might be for the Government, but his generosity will be noted.

On the serious issue that he raised, there was the recent case of my constituent, Private Ryan Thomas, who was killed in action in Iraq. I know that individuals in the area pressed that case. There is no tradition in this country of awarding medals for which a prerequisite is the prior death of the recipient. This is a difficult issue and I know that the Secretary of State for Defence will keep it under constant review because I know of the strong feelings on this matter, about which my hon. Friend rightly reminded the House.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

In the last few days, letters have gone out from the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire to fire authorities up and down the country. In respect of my own fire authority, the letter announced that next year's funding would be capped at 5 per cent.—and that at a time when it has to meet pay increases of 23 per cent. That could well lead to cuts in personnel, closure of fire stations and a reduction in coverage throughout the country. Given that next week's business is fairly light, would the Leader of the House consider granting Government time to debate that serious issue as a matter of priority?

Mr. Hain

We have no plans to grant Government time to debate that matter. I am doubtful about the hon. Gentleman's 23 per cent. pay increase—I do not recognise that figure—but he can apply for a debate in the usual way if he wishes.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on the use and abuse of parliamentary privilege, particularly in view of Conservative Members' disgraceful allegations about the Prime Minister, accusing him of lying to the House and the country? Those are allegations that Lord Hutton has proved to be unfounded, allegations that should never have been made and allegations that should now be withdrawn and apologised for.

Mr. Hain

I would be very enthusiastic about finding time for a debate on those matters and I will certainly look into it. To add to my earlier point, some of the attacks made by the Leader of the Opposition have been despicable and contemptible and ought to be withdrawn. It is one thing to put tough questions and make strong points to the Prime Minister across the Dispatch Box—that is the Opposition's role—but quite another to challenge his integrity and accuse him of lying. I think that the Leader of the Opposition should withdraw those allegations forthwith and, if that does not happen, perhaps there is a case for a sensible debate about the way in which we conduct politics in this country.

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

May we have an early debate on education in Northern Ireland? The Leader of the House will be aware that the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland announced earlier this week the abolition of academic selection and the 11-plus exam from 2008. That runs contrary to the wishes of the population at large and, in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, can the Leader of the House ensure that time is made available for a debate on that very important issue, which affects everyone in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hain:

If the hon. Gentleman is so certain that it runs contrary to the wishes of the population of Northern Ireland, why does he not support going back to devolution and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which the Government are seeking to bring about? I understand that the decision was taken in consultation with the now, as it were, in abeyance education Minister, so it does reflect what the Assembly would have decided to do in any case.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab)

In common with the Leader of the House, I cannot imagine why the Tories have abandoned their call for a two-day debate on the Hutton inquiry—something must have changed. I would like to help Conservative Members by saying that I have some sympathy with the idea of having a two-day debate, which would allow them to tell the House why this morning Conservative Back Benchers were being pushed around the studios to smear Hutton, to attack the Government and to argue—after months of saying that we had to rely on Lord Hutton's integrity—that we can no longer rely on the integrity and judgment of Lord Hutton. It would also allow us to hear why Conservative Members, who were all gung-ho for war, ran in the opposite direction as soon as they spotted the first problem.

Mr. Hain

I agree with my hon. Friend. Having failed to undermine the integrity of the Prime Minister, some Conservatives, with support in the media, are trying to undermine the integrity of the judge, Lord Hutton. That is wholly contemptible. It is extraordinary that while I was on "The World Tonight" on Radio 4 last night, the presenter asked me the question whether the Government had fixed the judge. That was on BBC Radio 4—on a serious programme. I believe that some questions really should be asked in the BBC and in the media about the level of debate if it has reached such a dreadful state. We need a regrouping and a reconsideration to discuss issues properly instead of trying to pretend that everyone in politics, whether in the Opposition or the Government, is a liar. Down that route lies the destruction of democratic debate and, ultimately, of democracy.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House tell me and the House when the Government intend to respond to the Procedure Committee's report on "Sessional Orders and Resolutions"? The recommendations are strongly pressed by Mr. Speaker—if he is able to express a view—and by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Similarly, what of another report, which is particularly important to Back-Bench Members—the report on "Procedures for Debates, Private Members' Bills and the Powers of the Speaker"?

Mr. Hain

To be fair, I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter with me across the Floor before and he has not had the response that he wishes. We are consulting with the Home Office as regards matters affecting the palace and the House. We will try to have a debate and bring a resolution of the matter to the House as soon as we can. There are complex issues at stake, but the hon. Gentleman is entitled to keep pressing me on the matter.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)

I remind the Leader of the House that I spoke against the war on many occasions and voted against it, and that I am an equally passionate defender of the BBC. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the prevailing ethos in certain BBC programmes is very undermining of democracy in the sense that there is massive scepticism about the nature of politics and politicians? Is that not profoundly dangerous for democracy and something that is turning off vast numbers of citizens from politicians? The BBC appears to have a culture of distaste and disdain for politicians and politics.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I take it that the hon. Gentleman wants a debate on that matter.

Mr. Hain

I am not sure that I can promise my hon. Friend a debate on that matter but, for the reasons he gave, I think the House should consider it. It is not a problem that is exclusive to the BBC, though it is at fault. All broadcasters, the whole coverage of politics, the Westminster bubble that we as politicians of the Government and Opposition occupy together with the Westminster lobby—together we are all conducting politics in a way that is turning off voters, listeners, readers and watchers by the million. It is time that we got back to a position in which issues are clearly discussed and differences debated—toughly, yes, but we must get out of the spin that is endemic in the media—

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


Mr. Hain

Absolutely. We must get away from treating every issue as a gaffe, a split or a personality clash. There are tiny nuances of words and the media go chasing off on a new story in their 24-hour news agenda. That is demeaning of politics and, ultimately, it is not in the best interests of the media either.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Let me bring the Leader of the House back from his Westminster bubble to an issue that worries people up and down the land—the Higher Education Bill. Let us think about the Committee stage of the Bill, which will take place shortly. I put it to the Leader of the House that with a majority of only five, it would be right and proper for the views of the House to be fully reflected on that Committee and for the Government to have a majority of only one. If that did not happen, it would bring the Government and Parliament into disrepute and would look like a fix. We would then be going back down the road that the Leader of the House just said he did not want to go down.

Mr. Hain

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, and the Committee of Selection will wish to bear it in mind, as his colleague the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said earlier.

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

My constituent Michael Connell, a young man of 19 with learning difficulties, is in jail in Thailand facing charges of smuggling a small quantity of ecstasy tablets, thereby facing the possibility of a life sentence in a Bangkok jail. Leaving aside the interesting question of why Michael was arrested immediately on arriving in Bangkok—and which authorities provided the information to the Thai police that formed the basis of that arrest—does my right hon. Friend agree that given the growing numbers of young people from the United Kingdom travelling the world to countries such as Thailand, where the judicial system is different from ours, we need a debate on the implications of foreign criminal justice systems for UK nationals? I pay tribute to the work of the embassy in Bangkok in assisting Michael Connell, but this issue potentially affects every parent in the United Kingdom with a son or daughter travelling internationally. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on this matter?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for praising our embassy in Bangkok. All our embassies and posts overseas do extraordinarily important work on our behalf, often to incredibly high standards. The specific plight of his constituent, Michael Connell, will be of continuing concern, as the Foreign Office is involved. I know that the Foreign Office and the Home Secretary will want to look closely at the issue that my hon. Friend has quite properly brought to the attention of the House.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House persuade the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on dentistry? In Teignbridge, six practices have deregistered or closed. Patients wishing to register with the NHS are now given the option of going to Plymouth or to Cullompton—32 miles away in either direction. Does the Leader of the House think that that is acceptable, particularly for people on benefits who, effectively, have been denied any NHS dental treatment?

Mr. Hain

I am not aware of the detail of the situation; obviously the hon. Gentleman, as the local MP, is. Those distances sound large to me. I know that the Secretary of State for Health will want to look closely at the matter, which the hon. Gentleman might like to follow up with an Adjournment debate or by lobbying the Department of Health.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

This week, senior members of the Government—including my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—have acknowledged the need for greater dialogue before controversial matters reach the decision stage. Why has there been no debate in this House on genetically modified crops grown in this country? It is thought that the Government will take a decision on licensing GM maize within a month. Will he guarantee to the House that no decision will be taken until there has been a debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Hain

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her persistence in raising this matter, quite properly, in the House. Her concern about the future of genetic modification is shared widely across the House and the country. For that reason, as soon as we are in a position to do so we are committed to having a debate. I am sure that there will be no question of proceeding with any decision until the debate has occurred.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)

May I say how much I agree with the Leader of the House about the conduct of politics in this country?

To that end, can we have a full debate on the future of the BBC? From the Hutton report, it is clear that Andrew Gilligan was wrong in the allegations that he made on the "Today" programme; the BBC management was wrong in not investigating the Government's claims properly; and the board of governors of the BBC was wrong in not making its own investigations into those complaints. In my view, the BBC is handling its response to the Hutton report in a defensive and arrogant way. In the face of the criticisms in the Hutton report, all of the BBC governors—not just the chairman—should resign, and so should the director-general and the head of news. Can we have an urgent debate to discuss these important issues facing the BBC?

Mr. Hain

I am not sure when and where there might be an opportunity for such a debate, but the hon. Gentleman raises some serious points. Essentially, I take his point to be about the standard of journalism in the BBC as identified by the Hutton report, particularly the Andrew Gilligan episode. His wider point is about the standard of journalism in the media and its interaction with politics. We are not innocents; Ministers and Opposition politicians are caught up in the 24-hour news agenda swirl. Instead of seeking to report, challenge and question what is going on, journalism now seems to be trying to set its own agenda. That is the heart of the problem that the BBC has got itself into and from which it must escape.

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

I refer my right hon. Friend to the decision that the House took on tuition fees on Tuesday, which, for many of us, was the culmination of a highly unsatisfactory process. Will he find time for a debate—and will he consult widely—on how we can involve Back Benchers more fully in the production of policy, particularly in complicated areas such as higher education funding? In particular, will he give thought to the greater use of Green Papers by the Government, the regular use of draft Bills and the fuller involvement of Select Committees in considering such matters?

Mr. Hain

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are reflecting on the lessons of the Higher Education Bill, and we discussed the matter in Cabinet this morning. The policy was absolutely right, but the process that led to the Second Reading debate this week could have been improved. My hon. Friend makes suggestions about pre-legislative scrutiny—which would involve all hon. Members—and, in a Labour party context, using the policy-making processes of the parliamentary party and the national policy forum. Through that process, hard choices can be made and not ducked. It is important that we bear that in mind, as the Prime Minister is emphasising in his speech today. Better understanding and consent can be created and improvements can be made, as occurred in a rather haphazard and frantic way in the last few days leading up to the Second Reading debate. That could have been done far more effectively. The short answer is that lessons have been learned and are being learned.

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

If there is any truth in what the Leader of the House says, and following his bizarre lectures to us today about integrity in politics, will he use all his influence to ensure that the Standing Committee considering on the Higher Education Bill contains a proper proportion of Members of Parliament—particularly Government Back Benchers—to cover the point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) has just made? Surely at the very least Labour Members should be able to scrutinise the Bill to ensure that the undertakings made at the last minute to get the Government's narrow majority are held to by the Government right through the scrutiny of the Bill. May we have a simple undertaking from the Leader of the House that the Standing Committee considering the Bill will reflect the requests being made by his own Back Benchers, to say nothing of Opposition Members?

Mr. Hain

The point has been made before and I have answered it. The Committee of Selection will consider the matter seriously. During the Standing Committee's detailed consideration of the Bill, we might find out the Conservative party's policy on the future of higher education. So far, we have had some clear signals—[interruption.] Presumably, any amendments tabled by Conservative Members in Committee will project a different policy. So far, all we have had is a policy for cutting the number of students by up to 400,000, a policy for removing the grants that the Bill will bring in and a policy, briefed to The Guardian, of privatising universities in the future. If that is the alternative debated in Committee, I am confident that the Government will win the argument.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

We are promised referendums on regional assemblies in October. Would it not be a disgrace if they were carried on a tiny turnout? Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment on my two-clause private Member's Bill, which sets a 50 per cent. threshold on turnouts for the result of a referendum to be validated, not to try to derail it when it comes to the House on 27 February?

Mr. Hain

I am not impressed by devices such as that. A vote takes place democratically, people choose whether to vote and we must respect the outcome. What we have done and are doing, including in the north-west of England, which covers my hon. Friend's constituency, is to hold all-postal vote ballots, which will give electors the opportunity to vote in comfort and at their convenience and I hope that it will boost turnout. To the extent, that I agree with his points: the greater the turnout, the more legitimate the outcome, whether at a general election or a referendum. However, it should not be done by imposing an artificial threshold.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to my early-day motion 268?

[That this House notes that with the exception of Denmark and Germany, the UK is the only country within the EU that does not apply a reduced level of VAT for tourism; recognises that the UK's tourist industry is therefore disadvantaged vis-à-vis European countries; further notes that there is a clear correlation between VAT levels and consumer demand; believes that a reduced level of VAT on tourism services could create thousands of new jobs, increase the UK's tourism revenue and strengthen the UK tourist industry's international competitiveness; and therefore calls on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reduce VAT on tourism services, commencing with a reduction of VAT on tourist accommodation.]

The motion enjoys cross-party support and calls for a reduction in VAT on tourism, as I understand that only the UK, Denmark and Germany do not apply such a reduction. Research indicates that thousands of new jobs could be created in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we could help our industry to overcome the disadvantage it suffers at present. May we have a debate before 17 March, in the hope of influencing the Chancellor's Budget decisions?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman can apply for a debate in the usual way. On the specifics of the policy, however, I think that he will find that the most likely beneficiaries of a reduced rate would be major hotel chains and luxury hotels. For example, a 5 per cent. reduced rate for hotel accommodation would cost more than £600 million, so it would not really be well targeted. Our high registration threshold means that a substantial number of hotels are not actually registered for VAT, as they come under the ceiling. We can look into supporting hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation in other ways, because they are crucial. Tourism is a vital part of our economy, but we can target our support in other ways. I think that he will find that the general approach does not actually assist those whom he wants, quite properly, to help.

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

On the concern expressed about the way that policy proposals have come before the House as Bills, does my right hon. Friend think that the present haphazard method of examining draft legislation should be replaced by a system whereby all Bills come to the House as draft Bills and all are subject to pre-legislative scrutiny? Will he consider holding a debate on methods whereby that change might be achieved?

Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend knows, I am very sympathetic to increasing the number of Bills that are subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. Indeed, over the past few years the Government have increased the number of such Bills and they are better as a result of that scrutiny. Whether all Bills can be put under that regime is rather doubtful; for example, sometimes we have to bring in emergency legislation on Northern Ireland. I give that as an extreme example, and I know that my hon. Friend will acknowledge it, but I endorse the general principle that Bills are better if they are subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and I hope that we can continue to take it forward.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

In evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the retiring president of the National Farmers Union indicated that he anticipated a Government announcement on the implementation programme for the revised common agricultural policy on or before 17 February. To date, the House has not had an opportunity to debate any of those proposals and to inform the Secretary of State's decision-making process on that matter, so will the Leader of the House look into giving the House an opportunity to discuss it? It is the biggest single change in the CAP since the MacSharry changes of 1992 and so far Parliament has remained silent on the matter.

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly look into that, as Parliament's view on the matter is important. As the right hon. Gentleman says, it is a crucial change and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take careful note of the points that he made, especially as they come from him.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. I had an inkling that I might be the next Labour Member to be called.

I appreciate that there will be a debate on Lord Hutton's report next week, but given that the report stated that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made", could my right hon. Friend find some time for a debate on standards and ethics in public life, especially given the proclivity of the Leader of the Opposition to accuse the Prime Minister and others of being liars?

Mr. Hain

I addressed that matter earlier, but I know that my hon. Friend's feelings are shared elsewhere in the House. The point should also apply to the chairman of the Conservative party who, when The Sun leak took place, said that it had all the fingerprints of a Government which is willing to say or do anything to save its own skin"— and that we

now have a morally bankrupt Government which is as corrupt as it is corrupting.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hain

Conservative Members say "Hear, hear"—they are at it again. All the evidence was that the leaking of the report was nothing to do with the Government. This morning, Sky news reported that the information may actually have come into the hands of The Sun over the weekend, even before anyone in the Government had seen the report. It is time that we had from the leaders of the Conservative party —whether the Leader of the Opposition himself or the party chairman—a proper approach to these matters and a proper apology for their despicable behaviour.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

A week on Monday, we have the Second Reading of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill, which, as the Leader of the House knows, decouples the reduction of the number of Scottish Members in this House from the 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament. The only problem is that we have not had a definite announcement from the Secretary of State for Scotland that that reduction will take place in advance of the next election. Can we, therefore, expect a statement from the Secretary of State next week? If not, the Second Reading debate will be purely hypothetical and based solely on an assumption.

Mr. Hain

Obviously, we do not know when the next general election will be and that is clearly a factor. I know, however, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to take careful note of the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

May we have a debate on the question of—as I call them—animal rights terrorists? The Leader of the House will be aware that, recently, investment in Cambridge did not go ahead, but he may not be aware that other investment companies—biotechnological companies from Japan—have chosen to invest in Europe instead of in the United Kingdom because of the threat from animal rights terrorists. One of my constituents runs a guinea pig farm—which is controlled by the Home Office to ensure the protection of the guinea pigs—for medical research. He wrote to me saying: Before New Years Eve"— [Interruption.] I do not know why hon. Members find that funny. My constituent wrote: Before New Years Eve the activists smashed all the downstairs windows of my 86 year old father's home whilst he was in the house, and then threw red paint bombs through the smashed windows…he was petrified…between Christmas and New Year they were also at my niece's house…and they turned off all her water and then concreted the stop cock so she could not get it back on. The whole House will agree that those animal rights terrorists need some sort of control, so may we have a debate on the issue? Perhaps the Home Secretary could designate those people as terrorists, so that organisations for which I have the greatest respect, such as the Security Service, can be utilised to try to control their activities.

Mr. Hain:

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is certainly extremely serious that the construction and opening of that laboratory was prevented due to the threat of what, as he rightly says, cannot be described other than as terrorism. Many of us have a lot of sympathy with animal rights movements and support them. We want proper protection for animals and an end to cruelty, but to take things to such an extent and to terrorise scientists, doctors and others involved is wholly unacceptable. The hon. Gentleman is right and I know that the House will share his sympathies.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)

Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday two groups of primary schoolchildren were sitting on the extremely cold floor of Westminster Hall eating their sandwiches? Will he set up a process to improve facilities for school visits to the House? We should be promoting all forms of education.

Mr. Hain

I very much agree with the hon. Lady. When I first entered the House in 1991, I found myself in similar circumstances—that was before even the Jubilee café was available to visitors. We do not treat visitors with the respect that they deserve. After all, most of them are citizens of this country and, in the case of school students, future citizens, so we ought to give them a proper welcome. They should be entitled to the kind of facilities that they would expect when visiting any other important building in the country. We are looking into improving reception facilities and I hope to bring a motion to the House in due course, which will address some of those points.

It is also a question of the whole attitude of the House. We treat our visitors as strangers—the title we give them, in our anachronistic fashion—rather than as visitors, many of whom are electors. They are entitled to be here and they should not be seen as being here on sufferance.

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

The Leader of the House is very keen to provide opportunities for the Government to defend their integrity. In that context, will he find time for an early debate on the Government's abuse of taxpayers' money to fund politically motivated advertising campaigns, particularly in the light of the finding by Ofcom on Tuesday that the aim higher campaign to promote the Government's policy on tuition fees had "undue partiality" in a matter of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy, and to be contrary therefore to section 2, rule 15 of the Radio Authority advertising and sponsorship code? Given that the Government have broken the code, and given that about £600,000 of taxpayers' money has been used to promote a very contentious Government policy, should we not have a debate or a statement from the Government apologising for that?

Mr. Hain

As I understand it, although I am not aware of all the detail, the aim of the campaign was to encourage teenagers especially young teenagers, to go to university. It had nothing to do with a particular aspect of the Higher Education Bill. However, if the Ofcom report has made a recommendation that censures or criticises the Government in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes, it is obviously an important matter and the Secretary of State will want to take that on board and be accountable to the House for it.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

In his reply to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the Leader of the House explained that the Home Office had to be consulted in connection with the response to the Sessional Orders report. However, he did not deal with the second half of the question, on how he intends to respond to the report on the procedures for debating private Members' Bills and the role of the Speaker, and in particular the innovative ideas in the report on ways to involve more Back Benchers in debates.

Mr. Hain

I am sorry that I did not pick up that point from the question asked by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) earlier, but I am happy to respond to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) now. It is an interesting report, which has raised many issues. We will respond in due course, and I hope that he will be satisfied with that.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

Does the Leader of the House expect an oral statement next week on the release of the Penrose report on Equitable Life? As it has now been available to the Government, and selectively to those criticised in it, for over five weeks, at what point does he intervene to protect the House of Commons from continuing to be denied it?

Mr. Hain

Again, the hon. Gentleman has properly raised an issue of concern to all Members, as well as to many hundreds, if not thousands, of our voters. This issue must be addressed and I am sure that an opportunity will be found to do so.