HC Deb 08 July 2004 vol 423 cc1028-40 1.22 pm
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 12 JULY—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Bill.

TUESDAY 13 JULY—Proceedings on the Statute Law Repeals Bill [Lords], followed by remaining stages of the Energy Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 14 JULY—Remaining stages of the Patents Bill [Lords], followed by a debate on public expenditure on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 15 JULY—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Traffic Management Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Traffic Management Bill.

FRIDAY 16 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 19 JULY—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Health Protection Agency Bill [Lords]. Followed by remaining stages of the Public Audit (Wales) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 20 JULY—A debate on Iraq on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.

WEDNESDAY 21 JULY—A motion to approve three regional assembly and local government referendums orders, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.

THURSDAY 22 JULY—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

I thank the Leader of the House for the business.

May I congratulate the Father of the House on winning the award of parliamentarian of the year? In his speech, he highlighted the current difficulties in mounting campaigns here, the lack of debates in which the Prime Minister participates, and the shortage of time available for hon. Members.

Does not the Leader of the House have a responsibility to strengthen Parliament? In particular, he should allow sufficient time for the really important debates—something he signally failed to do over tuition fees, the Hutton report and the local government settlement.

May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman why nothing has been heard of the review of Select Committee powers—the Osmotherly rules—following the Hutton report? Why should we always have to bring in a judge when we want a serious inquiry?

More than six months ago, the European Scrutiny Committee asked the Leader of the House to change Standing Orders so that it could sit in public. Why has nothing happened about that? The Leader of the House announced that the three regional assembly referendum orders will be discussed on 21 July, before the Electoral Commission has even reported on the postal ballots fiasco, and before the debate—or indeed the publication—of the draft regional assemblies Bill. This morning, the Liverpool Echo reported that the Government will not publish that draft Bill before the House rises for the summer, even though we have been promised it time and again. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the case? How are we expected to judge all-postal balloting and the proposals for regional assemblies if the report has not been published and we have not seen the draft Bill?

Will the Prime Minister be publishing his response to our request for independent Electoral Commission observers at the two upcoming by-elections? Given the recent evidence of postal vote manipulation in Birmingham and elsewhere, surely that is necessary.

I thank the Leader of the House for finally announcing the debate on Iraq, which I have been seeking for many weeks. Is he able to confirm that the statement by the Prime Minister on the Butler report will definitely be made on Wednesday 14 July?

Finally, will the Leader of the House be taking part in the debate to explain why he pre-empted Lord Butler on GMTV by saying that whatever the verdict, no heads would roll? Surely those found to have made serious mistakes, including Ministers, should take the rap?

Mr. Hain

On the hon. Gentleman's final question: if he is doing me the courtesy of quoting what I said on GMTV, he should do so accurately and not rely on newspaper spin. I said: I do not know whether the Butler report will be critical or not but let's just wait for Lord Butler to report and then we will make a judgment. There may be lessons to be learned. Then I said: I think the secret intelligence service MI6 and the domestic security service MI5 do a fantastic job for us. That is not to say that they do not make mistakes from time to time any more than Government Ministers like me or … the Prime Minister. But overall they do a fantastic job so I am saying in advance that this Government will not be a party to any kind of witch hunt against anybody"— especially the intelligence services. That is the point that I am making. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will defend the intelligence services, and the work that they do on behalf of our national security, as vigorously as do the Government.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a statement on Iraq and the Butler report. I understand that Lord Butler will indeed publish his report on 14 July. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House, in accordance with arrangements to be agreed with Mr. Speaker, as soon after that as is appropriate and when Lord Butler has informed us of the precise arrangements for making his report public. That is a matter for him. In the usual way, there will be discussions with Opposition Members about where they fit into that picture. We are anxious to be helpful in whatever way that we can, but I stress that this is not a matter for me or the Prime Minister, primarily. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) will understand that it is a matter for Lord Butler.

Mr. Heald

On the same day?

Mr. Hain

On the same day, indeed. Shortly after Lord Butler's report has been made public and he has been able to explain it, the Prime Minister will make a statement, as is appropriate and with the agreement of Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked about the Father of the House. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his well deserved award of parliamentarian of the year. He is one of our greatest parliamentarians, even if he makes life uncomfortable for Ministers from time to time. He did that for me when I was the Foreign Office Minister covering Iraq, but he is a man of tremendous courtesy, and he is one of the best Members of this House.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to the Prime Minister reporting back to the House. Like me, the hon. Gentleman is a member of the House of Commons Commission, and he therefore will have studied every page and line of the Commission's report in great detail. It shows conclusively that the number of debates and the opportunities for debating time have remained the same. The changes made by this Government have strengthened Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee only the other day. He appears before it twice a year, and that is a novel feature that we introduced. He has made many statements and come before the House pretty well whenever he has been asked to do so. On the issue of the Osmotherly rules, my right hon. Friend made it clear at the Liaison Committee earlier this week that I will bring before it the Government's suggestions and proposals for updating the rules. No dates have yet been agreed with the Committee, but it will be sometime in the autumn—whether early or late has yet to be decided, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand.

On the European Scrutiny Committee's vote to open its proceedings, we have not changed the Standing Orders because there has been no opportunity, in business terms, to do so. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Modernisation Committee, so he will know that it is considering the question, and he will be able to contribute to that consideration.

I have not seen the Liverpool Echo. It remains, as I have said before in business questions—perhaps even in answer to the hon. Gentleman—our objective to publish the draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny before the House rises. We want to achieve that.

On the issue of postal votes, we await the Electoral Commission's report, which will appear in September. The commission, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has been enthusiastic about promoting wider postal voting and I am sure that its report will be read with great interest in respect of elections and referendums of all kinds.

On the issue of election observers, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to the Leader of the Opposition following his request that the Electoral Commission should appoint observers to the by-elections in Birmingham and Leicester. My right hon. Friend makes it clear in his response that the decision about whether the commission should observe those elections is a matter for it to decide.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

We, too, congratulate all the winners last night, including the Father of the House. I was also delighted to see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) received an award from the Leader of the House. They were able to exchange greetings as former Young Liberals.

The Leader of the House may wish to give us some information about the hunting Bill and his further plans. Has he noticed that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who chairs the Committee responsible, has recently hung a huge picture of a hunt in full cry in the Members' Tea Room? Is he trying to tell us something?

Both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Health have been invited to give evidence to the independent inquiry, chaired by Lord Lloyd, into the illnesses suffered by troops in the first Gulf war. Will a statement be made on how the two Secretaries of State intend to respond to that invitation? It is an important independent inquiry into a very serious issue, and it concerns many veterans in all our constituencies.

The Leader of the House has already referred to the excellent report from the House of Commons Commission and I pay tribute to all those who contributed to it. I should point out that I am not a member of the Commission. The Leader of the House is right that the report should be given more coverage. I know from his work on the Modernisation Committee that he is anxious that people outside the House should be fully aware of all the work that takes place here, and given that it is our principal role to hold those who spend the taxpayer's money to account—some £140 million of that money is spent at this end of the building—how and when can we debate that report? For example, will we have the opportunity to do so in Westminster Hall?

Mr. Hain

On the latter point, I will look sympathetically at the hon. Gentleman's request. As he said, the report contains much fascinating and important information, although I am not sure that it will make the front page of the tabloids. I think that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr Heald) will agree with him that it is an excellent report and deserves wider coverage. I also agree that the work of the House is not just about the cock pit of the Chamber: it is also about Select Committees, Standing Committees, other domestic Committees and a range of activities that keep almost all Members busy from dawn to dusk in their work as parliamentarians. That message needs to be spread more widely. We have agreed a series of recommendations in the Modernisation Committee report entitled "Connecting Parliament with the Public", and I hope that the House will take them forward. It is up to many other bodies in the House to take the practical suggestions forward and I hope that they will do so.

I very much endorse the hon. Gentleman's praise for the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). As I said last night, he is one of our greatest parliamentarians and a wonderful person. That was not because of my history in the Young Liberals 30 years ago; it was because I think that he is a genuinely nice person, which cannot be said for all 650-odd Members of Parliament. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name them."] No, I will not be led further down that road.

On the picture in the Tea Room, I have had it reliably whispered in my ear that it is of a steeplechase, not a hunt, and that it has been there for three years. It is nothing to do with the issues that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raises, but hunting is a matter that has been raised with me repeatedly at business questions. I cannot add anything to what I have already said and I do not intend to do so. The position is clear.

On the issue of Gulf war syndrome and illnesses, I am sure that my right hon. Friends concerned will want to take close notice of the hon. Gentleman's important points. He properly raises the genuine concern about the issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I have in mind the time that I want to move on to the next business. Whether hon. Members can read my mind or not is up to them, but I appeal once again for brevity and for proximity to next week's business. I shall not call any hon. Member who was not here for the start of the statement.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)

Has my right hon. Friend noted that early-day motion 978, in my name and those of several of my right hon. and hon. Friends, has now attracted 269 signatures?

[That this House looks forward to the early reintroduction of the Government's Hunting Bill; recalls its own votes to ban the cruel sport of hunting with dogs on at least nine occasions since 1995; welcomes the Government's commitment to resolve the issue in this Parliament; notes, in the event of a further rejection of this legislation by the House of Lords, that the provisions of the Parliament Acts will apply; and looks forward to seeing a ban on hunting on the statute book by the end of this parliamentary session.]

Last week, my right hon. Friend told my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) that there were two more business statements before the recess. There is now only one more business statement before the recess. I have assured the enormous number of people who have written to me about this issue that my right hon. Friend can be trusted to do what our early-day motion says, which is to ensure that the ban on hunting is on the statute book by the end of this parliamentary Session. I would like my right hon. Friend to confirm that our trust is justified.

Mr. Hain

I fully understand why my right hon. Friend asks that question and has signed that early-day motion. Indeed, had I been on the Back Benches, I would probably have signed it myself. I can assure him that all those concerned in government are well aware of the obligations that we have to resolve the matter. He can be assured on that issue, as I have assured him in private before and as I have assured many hon. Members in the Chamber before.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate about telecommunications masts, a matter that is exercising my constituents in Great Bentley because Orange proposes to install a controversial mast there? Could we also use that debate as an opportunity to discuss why the Deputy Prime Minister is mounting a challenge in the Court of Appeal to his own guidance? That guidance resulted in a mast in Harrogate being sited very near a school, but many people regard it as a health risk and believe that the precautionary principle should apply. Why is the Deputy Prime Minister attacking his own guidance in the Court of Appeal, unless the Government's policy is a mess?

Mr. Hain

The Government's policy is not a mess. We are seeking to provide certainty on the matter, under the law. We are clear that it is not the Government's objective to have telephone masts dumped in school playgrounds, although I recognise the proper constituency issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. The same issue has been raised in Birmingham where the Liberal Democrat candidate, who has been dubbed Nokia Davies, is a lobbyist for a telecommunications company that seeks to spread telephone masts all over the Hodge Hill constituency, which would be dreadful for the local constituents.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing concern and anxiety among Labour MPs that the hunting Bill will not become law and will miss its chance, as it did in the last Session? As time is very short indeed, and bearing in mind the possible date of the next election, can my right hon. Friend give a firm promise that the Parliament Act will be used and that the Bill will become law and that a vile and barbaric so-called sport will come to an end?

Mr. Hain

I have repeatedly made my position very clear, including to my hon. Friend. I appreciate why he asks his question, but time may not be quite as short as the tone of his question suggests.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

I was very concerned that the Leader of the House did not announce a date during the next two weeks for the Second Reading of the Mental Capacity Bill, as the Government have published the Bill and we have had First Reading. I serve on the Bill's Scrutiny Committee, and have held discussions with Lord Filkin on the Bill's possible passage, so I hope that the Leader of the House can reassure me that we shall see the Bill before the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Hain

Obviously, as business unfolds I shall be able to answer the hon. Lady's question more specifically. From what I said earlier, however, she will know that a lot of business is coming back from the Lords, so it would be sensible to dispose of that before the recess, not least so that Royal Assent can be given to many urgently needed pieces of legislation.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

May we have an urgent debate next week on the shocking statistics published by the Home Office, which show that the number of stop and searches of people of Asian origin has risen by 38 per cent. since September 2001, and by 36 per cent. for those of Afro-Caribbean origin? That is of concern to the people of Leicester and also to the wider community, so does my right hon. Friend agree that we should have a debate about that important issue?

Mr. Hain

I know that the matter is of concern to the people of Leicester and I am grateful that my hon. Friend has raised it. The Government are concerned about any issue of disproportionality and those figures suggest that pretty conclusively. We are committed to improving and developing a close partnership with the Muslim and other communities, with the shared aim of combating terrorism, as I know those communities want us to do, and we are undertaking specific work to reassure Muslim communities that counter-terrorism powers are being used proportionately and appropriately and that that will continue to happen in the future.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

Can the Leader of the House tell us whether we will have a statement on the situation in Darfur before the House rises for the summer recess? There has been speculation that armed elements from the African Union and elsewhere will be going there to defend the people. When will they be in place and what other help is being given to the 1 million people who are under threat every day?

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a statement two weeks ago. We all share the hon. Gentleman's concern. The Prime Minister is well seized of the matter and has been actively engaged, along with the Foreign Secretary, and there will be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise the point again next Wednesday.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Is the Leader of the House aware that on the basis of what he has already said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), it would seem that waiting until 11 October will be a bit too late to get the hunting measure through? Will the Leader of the House confirm that it is in his mind that when we come back in September would be the most appropriate time, as there is not much time left now? It would make those eight or nine days very exciting—although we only need one—if we got the measure through and put the House of Lords firmly in its place.

Mr. Hain

There speaks the voice of experience and great wisdom in Parliament, but as my hon. Friend also knows from his long experience I have not yet announced any business for September.

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

Will the Leader of the House ensure that next Tuesday's business finishes promptly so that as many Members as possible can watch the excellent BBC programme "Restoration", which as it happens, features a project in my constituency, Clestrain hall in Orphir in Orkney? It is not just about the restoration of a building but about the belated restoration of a man's reputation—that of the late Dr. John Rae, who was vilified by the 19th century establishment as a result of the evidence he brought back about the fate of the Franklin expedition in the north-west passage. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that we are not forced to miss that televisual feast?

Mr. Hain

It sounds fascinating and the hon. Gentleman has given it a fantastic plug.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

Neither the House nor I, as a Nottingham Member, has been directly informed about this: I read in the newspaper this morning that my city of Nottingham is to be rate-capped. The council tax payers will be billed, at a cost of £250,000, for an over-budget of £180,000. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is arrant nonsense and that over-centralisation has reached a ridiculous pitch? The orders are before the House at present. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the matter is debated on the Floor of the House, rather than being tucked away in a Committee Upstairs, so that Members from Nottingham can bring the Deputy Prime Minister to the Dispatch Box instead of the Minister for Local and Regional Government, who is fully conversant with the fact that it is ridiculous to save £180,000 by charging council tax payers £250,000?

Mr. Hain

Both the Minister for Local and Regional Government and the Deputy Prime Minister will have carefully noted my hon. Friend's statement. The Minister for Local and Regional Government made a written ministerial statement today, which outlines the whole position, and my hon. Friend will be able to have sight of it now. Notwithstanding the issues that he properly raised about Nottingham, I am sure he will understand that it is in the interests of all council tax payers and of the country that local authorities keep their council tax rises to an absolute minimum, especially for people on fixed incomes.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the fantastic job that the Royal Welch Fusiliers are doing in Basra. Will there be an opportunity to discuss, debate or even prevent the cuts that may be coming to the manpower in our armed forces because the Ministry of Defence has probably spent too much on equipment?

Mr. Hain

As Secretary of State for Wales, I was in Brecon on Thursday night, watching a marvellous display of beating the retreat performed by Welsh regiments. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that the Royal Welch Fusiliers have done a fantastic job in Basra, as have many other Welsh soldiers. Some of them have just returned from action there and some are about to go out. Perhaps we can at least unite in applauding all their work.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham) (Lab)

Speaking as a chairman of the works of art committee, I confirm my right hon. Friend's observation that the painting in the Members' Tea Room is indeed of a parliamentary steeplechase. The only dog that appears is a Jack Russell, clearly an unsuitable beast for chasing foxes. Perhaps the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) should have listened more closely to his mother's strictures when she told him that if he carried on doing it his eyes would eventually fail him.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that, although he is trusted implicitly on the Labour Benches on the abolition of hunting wild mammals with dogs, there is also a degree of nervousness? It is a problem for us, and I hope that he will not misunderstand the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and various right hon. and hon. Members will be going to see the Prime Minister to ensure that his firmness and integrity on the issue are the same as my right hon. Friend's.

Mr. Hain

I am sure that there is no question about the Prime Minister's views on the matter. Just as I am on the same side of the football pitch as my hon. Friend, as a Chelsea supporter, so, too, I am on the same side as him in the argument about hunting.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

May we find time for a further debate on choice in education? I can then show how wrong it would be to close one of Canvey's three excellent secondary schools, not least because it would frustrate both parties in developing policies on choice in education and would prevent the Conservatives from giving the people of Canvey real choice following the next election, which we will win.

Mr. Hain

Obviously, I cannot speak of the situation in Canvey, which the hon. Gentleman quite properly raises as a local Member of Parliament, but the people of Canvey will be very clear about the choice before the next election: continued massive investment under Labour, with more and more public provision for schools free of charge, and the Conservatives' policy of taking money from the state system and shipping it down the road to private schools to subsidise with taxpayers' money private schools that only a minority of the country can attend. We are in favour of choice and high standards for everyone, not a tiny, Conservative few.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware of early-day motions on the future of the Forensic Science Service. He will also understand that there is widespread support throughout the House to keep that service. Will he urgently find time to hold a debate on that issue?

Mr. Hain

I will certainly ensure that the Home Secretary hears what my hon. Friend has said—my right hon. Friend is sitting next to me—but the Forensic Science Service has played a very important part over the years and will continue to do so.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

Has the Leader of the House had any notification from the Secretary of State for Defence that he will come to the House before the summer recess to announce the downsizing of Her Majesty's armed forces? If that is to happen, will the Leader of the House guarantee that that statement will not be made on a quiet day to bury bad news? Does he not understand that there is great unease in military circles, particularly in garrison towns, such as Colchester, which are already suffering from the overstretch and undermanning of the Army? If the Government are planning to downsize the armed forces, let us at least have a debate, let us have it before the summer, and let us have all the cards on the table.

Mr. Hain

The Secretary of State for Defence will want to come to the House as soon as it is possible for him to do so, and practical in business management terms, after the comprehensive spending review has been announced on Monday, when the hon. Gentleman can raise those issues. I am sure that he will agree that what we have seen over recent years and what will continue is massive investment in our defence forces on a scale that has not occurred before under any Government, especially a Conservative Government. I do not know how far back he wants to go in terms of a Liberal Government, but that support for our armed forces and the work that they do will continue under this Labour Government. Of course, under a Conservative Government there would be cuts in defence spending, along with many other cuts as well.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

May I ask the Leader of the House to allow an urgent debate next week on the district auditor's role in ensuring probity in local government? As a result of an Adjournment debate last month, we exposed the fact that the London borough of Hillingdon was forging and fiddling its planning performance figures to gain Government planning service delivery grant. The district auditor has completed his inquiry and is preparing his report but has not interviewed all the relevant former staff or the councillor who exposed the scandal, has not approached me or the residents who are coming forward with other planning scandals, exposing them individually, and proposes to provide the report to the London borough of Hillingdon's senior members and officers, who will decide whether that report is published or sees the light of day. I ask that with a sense of urgency.

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and the Ministers concerned will have noted it very carefully.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware of early-day motion 1473, on the activities of a company called Walters (UK), which is removing contaminated waste from my constituency, but in doing so is causing extensive atmospheric pollution of the local area.

[That this House expresses its concern about the operation of Walters (UK) in removing contaminated waste from the Castlegate development (Penrhos) in Caerphilly; believes that the people of Caerphilly are having to endure unacceptable noxious odours because of the failure of the company to prevent atmospheric pollution; points out that the company has belatedly brought in additional equipment, owing to public concern, and that this equipment should have been onsite from the first day of the operation; calls upon Walters (UK) publicly to apologise to the people of Caerphilly for the noxious odours which their operation has released; and suggests that all honourable Members should examine carefully whether this company should carry out future work in their constituencies.] Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that company's activities in having total disregard for my constituents' interests? Will he call on the company to consider compensating my constituents for the inconvenience that it has caused?

Mr. Hain

I understand the strong feelings that my hon. Friend has properly expressed on behalf of his constituents. I understand that the situation has been constantly monitored by the local authority, which has appointed specialist consultants to advise it, and that the Environment Agency is also monitoring any impact on ground and surface water. Although the smells are very unpleasant, the regulators are apparently satisfied that no health risk is involved. I am told that work on removing the wastes that are causing the odours should be completed by mid-July.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

May I repeat the request to hold a debate on the Floor of the House about the written announcement about the designation of authorities subject to council tax capping made by the Minister for Local and Regional Government? The statement gives central Government a bad name. The words "mind-bogglingly" and "stupid" spring to mind when considering the fact that Nottingham faces an overspend of £180,000 and a cost of £250,000 to re-bill every council tax payer to give them a rebate of £1.75—less than the cost of a pint. As we will have to defend that to local ratepayers, will the Leader of the House ask the Minister to explain why he refused to allow Nottingham to address that in the current year's budget, make the adjustment in the year that follows, use the £250,000 for productive purposes and not put us in an absurd position? If that was being done by the councillors themselves, we would demand resignations or sackings—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is packing a speech into a question.

Mr. Hain

The Minister for Local and Regional Government will, in due course, read with close concern the points that my hon. Friend makes, but I repeat what I have said already. The Government are between a rock and a hard place: local council tax payers, including his constituents, naturally become very angry about unacceptable council tax rises, and it is important that the Government maintain close control over excessive council tax increases. Of course, Nottingham and other local authorities were given plenty of notice to allow them to adjust the situation before such action was necessary.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend knows that the Public Administration Committee, on which I serve, will publish a hugely significant report next week. May we have an early debate on whether we really need lords and ladies, knights and dames in this day and age? There is huge interest about that subject outside the House, and I hope that we can debate the report.

Mr. Hain

I cannot comment on a report that has not been published.

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

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1448, on the regulation of estate agents?

[That this House recognises the Government's proposals to regulate the buying and selling of homes by the introduction of home information packs; notes that, while solicitors, surveyors, home inspectors and financial advisers are all subject to regulation, estate agents, who are responsible for the co-ordination of the buying and selling process, are not subject to any regulatory or licensing arrangements; and believes that, in light of the abuses and bad practices highlighted by the Consumers' Association and the BBC's Brassed Off Britain, and with the support of the UK Association of Estate Agents and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, all estate agents involved in the buying and selling of homes should be subject to statutory regulation, including an independent disputes resolution process with compensation arrangements for disadvantaged customers.]

Given the proposals in the Housing Bill on the introduction of home information packs, will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate, so that those who are central to the most important financial transaction that most people will undertake in their lives are first, fit and proper people, secondly, properly licensed, and thirdly, qualified to do the job? May I suggest that he will make himself extremely popular with the general public if he accedes to that very modest proposal?

Mr. Hain

I well understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The Department of Trade and Industry is considering the Office of Fair Trading report on the estate agency market in England and Wales, which includes recommendations on the future regulation of the industry. We aim to publish a response shortly.

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

In previous years, I have always noticed that my constituents' complaints about antisocial behaviour—everything from neighbour nuisance to under-age drinking and even the misuse of air rifles—increase as we enter the summer period. As local authorities and the police can now enforce antisocial behaviour orders, may we have a debate next week to assess the effectiveness of those orders? That would also enable us to tell the public why the Liberal Democrats oppose them.

Mr. Hain

There is a great deal of concern about hypocrisy on this matter. We find that hon. Members—mostly Liberal Democrats—vote against speeding up the process of evicting noisy neighbours, against issuing fixed penalty notices for antisocial behaviour and dispersal orders to tackle antisocial behaviour, against closing down crack houses in 48 hours and against fines for the parents of truants, and so on. Yet the Liberal Democrat candidate in Hodge Hill says that she supports all those measures. The voters will understand that that is plain hypocrisy.