HC Deb 15 July 2004 vol 423 cc1565-78 1.35 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 19 JULY—Remaining stages of the Health Protection Agency Bill [Lords]. Followed by motion to approve the Draft Council Tax Limitation (England) (Maximum Amounts) Order 2004, 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 to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Bill, followed by if necessary further consideration of Lords amendments. It may also assist the House if I confirm that there will be a statement about the findings of the balance of funding review report.

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 motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week following the summer recess will include:

TUESDAY 7 SEPTEMBER—Second Reading of the Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Bill [Lords].

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

THURSDAY 9 SEPTEMBER—A debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee on the EU's new chemical strategy.

THURSDAY 16 SEPTEMBER—A debate on the report from the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on postal voting.

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

I thank the Leader of the House for the business.

Although we are pleased that it is possible to have the capping of local authorities debated on the Floor of the House next Monday, as is normal practice, it is wrong that only an hour and a half is to be allowed when five councils and one fire authority are involved. May we have more time for that debate?

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why so many last-minute amendments on new matters were tabled by the Minister when the Energy Bill was discussed on Report this week, which meant that other hon. Members were unable to have their amendments discussed before the guillotine fell? When will the Leader of the House stop that sort of abuse?

Now that the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill has completed all its stages, will the right hon. Gentleman implement the Westminster boundary review for Scotland by laying the order before we rise?

Finally, I ask for a debate on the Butler report. It was made to Parliament and should be debated here, just like the Hutton report and the Penrose report. The Prime Minister has a poor record of making speeches here, but we do need a detailed speech from him in response to the report. He needs to address the flaws in intelligence and the way in which he conducts Cabinet business.

Lord Butler says that Downing street stretched intelligence "to the outer limits". He says that the 45-minute claim should not have been in the dossier at all. Throughout the dossier, serious misgivings about the intelligence were taken out. Who took them out? How could the Prime Minister then tell the country that the intelligence was "beyond doubt"? How could he tell this House that it was "extensive, detailed and authoritative" when we know that it was "little", "sporadic" and "patchy"?

The people of this country are entitled to believe their Prime Minister as he leads us into war. Can that ever be the case again—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is calling for a debate. We should not be holding it now.

Mr. Heald

We need a debate in Government time, led by the Prime Minister, before the House rises.

Mr. Hain

Well, that was a bit of windy rhetoric, was it not, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Before I respond to it, I shall deal with the other points that the hon. Gentleman raised. I do not accept that an hour and a half on council capping is insufficient. The matter has been debated regularly in the House and this will be an appropriate way in which to deal with it. I note the hon. Gentleman's point about Government amendments to the Energy Bill. Obviously, I share with him the desire to minimise the tabling of Government amendments to any Bill, especially at a late stage, including on Report. I also regret that other amendments were not discussed. On the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill, no, there will not be an order brought before the summer recess. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until an appropriate time for that.

I shall now deal with the substance of the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. There will be a debate on Iraq on Tuesday, as I have already announced, in which there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the Butler report. Indeed, I can confirm that the Foreign Secretary will make reference to it in his opening speech. He will obviously take interventions on that matter, and any Members who catch the eye of the Chair will be able to make their points.

I refute categorically the suggestion that the House has not had an opportunity to discuss Iraq. The Prime Minister has made a whole series of statements on Iraq and other matters. He also opened the debate on the Hutton report, at the request of the Opposition, among others. He has held himself accountable to the House more than any other Prime Minister, to the extent that, for the very first time, we had a debate and a vote authorising the decision to go to war, which was carried by a clear majority. So the idea that Parliament has somehow been bypassed in this process is absolute nonsense, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

The hon. Gentleman's reference to the Butler report represents the typically opportunistic stance of the Conservatives, who have consistently supported the action in Iraq. I could add to the quotations from the Leader of the Opposition on that matter which were repeated by the Prime Minister yesterday, but I shall spare the hon. Gentleman's pain. Frankly, if there is an issue of credibility involved, it is the shifty opportunism of the Leader of the Opposition, and I think that the voters in the by-elections today and in future will pronounce their verdict on that shifty opportunism. If there is a credibility problem, then it is the Leader of the Opposition who has a credibility problem on Iraq, the Butler report and just about everything else.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

I welcome the proposed statement on the balance of funding review. I also welcome the Adjournment debate on Iraq next week. It was clear from the statement and the comments made yesterday that there was palpable frustration in the House that some Members could not express their views at that time, and I hope that next week's debate will provide an opportunity for the large number of Members—whether they were for or against the war, and whether they are pleased or displeased with the outcome—to affirm their anger that they were led into war on false assumptions. I hope that the debate will provide an opportunity for that opinion to be expressed.

Will the Leader of the House tell us who will summate in that debate? It is important that the Government should have an opportunity to explain, in response to Butler's finding that "serious errors" were made, who individually carries responsibility, when it has been stated that there was collective blame. Will the Foreign Secretary be the person to convey a definitive answer to that question?

Butler raises a wider question, on which the Leader of the House is perhaps the best person to report back to us. If there was a failure of what has been called an informal system of governance, in terms of the way in which the Cabinet functioned and made decisions, will we have a report presented to us, either through a statement or a debate, on how Cabinet government and its reporting procedures are to be improved?

Switching to another subject, a large number of Members on both sides of the House are concerned that schools are being built and transport systems improved by private finance initiative contractors—particularly Jarvis, which is on the brink of bankruptcy. Indeed, we might come back to Parliament in the autumn faced with serious disruption to building programmes if that company does go bankrupt. Is the Leader of the House in a position to say whether the Secretary of State for Education and Skills or another Minister will be able to make a statement on that before the House breaks up?

Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Health referred to the serious problems arising from MRSA in hospitals and has now acknowledged that this is a major problem in the health service. Can we have a full statement and debate on this, as there is widespread frustration in the House that, although this issue has been raised by me and many other Members over the last six or seven years, it has taken all this time for it to become a top priority issue for the Secretary of State and for action to be taken? Can we have a fuller explanation of what action is being taken on this matter?

Mr. Hain

On Iraq and the Butler report, there has been an honest difference of opinion between the Liberal Democrats and the Government on this matter. I accept that the hon. Gentleman and his party oppose the action that the Government took; they did so honestly, just as we acted honestly, and there should be a mutual recognition of the honesty of each other's position. That is in stark contrast to the opportunism of the Conservatives, who were actually urging us to go to war before the United Nations passed resolution 1441. In fact, they were inciting us to go to war without the authority of the United Nations, before that process broke down. At least the Liberal Democrats have maintained a consistent position on the issue, although that is about all I can say for it. It has yet to be decided who will reply to the debate on Iraq, but I shall obviously take into account the points that the hon. Gentleman raised in that regard.

On the Cabinet the Butler report made it perfectly clear that the decision making and the style of the Cabinet was no less effective, to quote the Butler report, compared with other Governments. There were 24 Cabinet discussions on Iraq, many of which I attended after my promotion to the Cabinet. There were 25 key meetings of Ministers and officials, and that is apart from the war Cabinet itself. So there was full consultation, every Cabinet Minister had the opportunity to speak, and at the end of that process we came to Parliament and sought the approval of Parliament in the first ever vote on whether to go to war. Any questioning of the decision making is therefore simply unacceptable.

I wonder whether the Liberal Democrats have actually read the Butler report. Perhaps I should read one of its conclusions, which states that we have reached the conclusion that prior to the war the Iraqi regime: a. Had the strategic intention of resuming the pursuit of prohibited weapons programmes, including"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that I ought to say to the Leader of the House what I said to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). We cannot go into the details of that debate at this time.

Mr. Hain

I am I happy not to go into the details, in that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

On MRSA, we were the first to introduce a mandatory system for collecting reports of bloodstream infections. It was introduced in 2001, and it was much needed, given what went on before, including under the previous Conservative Government. Improved cleanliness is obviously an important part of tackling this problem, but it will not be tackled by that alone. I remind the House that it was the previous Conservative Government who privatised hospital cleaning and contracted it out so that low costs were the order of the day, rather than high quality. We have sought to reverse that. On PFI contracts, I will certainly draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Has my friend seen early-day motion 1512 on Cabinet decision making, which stands in my name?

[That this House notes with unease Lord Butler's observations on page 147 of his report concerning the nature of Cabinet discussions on Iraq; is dismayed that while a small number of key Ministers met frequently, no papers were circulated to the full Cabinet or to a Cabinet committee despite the fact that "excellent quality papers" were written by officials and that information given to Cabinet ministers outside the inner circle and in the Cabinet forum was solely by way of oral briefings by the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary; further notes that Lord Butler's conclusion that this practice "reduced Cabinet Ministers' ability to prepare properly for such discussions" and this reduced "the scope for informed collective political judgement"; deplores the way in which vital decisions on war and peace were taken on the full authority of the Cabinet but without the active participation and engagement of all its members; and calls on the Head of the Home Civil Service and the Prime Minister to give an undertaking to Parliament that the concerns expressed by Lord Butler in the machinery of Government will be fully addressed.]

It is not just the Liberal Democrats who are exercised about this matter: 147 Labour Members voted against the war. PowerPoint presentations to Cabinet Ministers can be no substitute for considered background papers circulated in advance so that Cabinet Ministers can make an informed judgment on important decisions such as going to war.

Mr. Hain

It is always nice to know that we have the support of my hon. Friend on these matters. I want to say to him frankly and bluntly that I was in the Cabinet during many of those discussions. They took a great deal of time over many meetings—indeed, there were 24 Cabinet discussions on the matter. as I said earlier. There was a great deal of probing of all the issues, and the idea that the Cabinet was some kind of sop in regard to the decision that was made is absolutely wrong. My hon. Friend ought to withdraw that suggestion.

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

May we please debate who should set up committees of inquiry? Is it not now obvious that a committee established by the Prime Minister—the chairman was appointed by the Prime Minister, the terms of reference were written by the Prime Minister and the members all got privy councillorships before it started—is not a satisfactory way in which to achieve a truthful outcome? I suggest to the Leader of the House that it might be better if all future committees of inquiry were appointed solely and entirely by the House of Lords.

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman's question is eccentric and predictable. Is he impugning the integrity and credibility of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who served on the Butler inquiry? We have had the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry, an independent inquiry headed by a judge—the Hutton report—and now the Butler inquiry, which was headed by a former Cabinet Secretary. Those four inquiries produced 1,056 pages of material and 500,000 words of analysis. None of the charges made by any critics of the Prime Minister or the Government has been sustained, and the critics should shut up, put up and accept the result of those four inquiries.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House inform hon. Members why the business for September, which he announced today, does not include the topic of hunting with dogs? As I understand it, unless the topic is brought back in the House today, it will not be debated in the September session because one parliamentary month must pass before a Bill can be debated under the Parliament Acts.

Mr. Hain

I think that my hon. Friend will find that he is not right on that point. I have announced today all the business that I can confirm at this stage. A considerable period of the Session remains, and I do not necessarily expect to make an announcement before the House rises for the recess. However, hon. Members know that I have repeatedly made strong commitments in this House, and those commitments to resolve the issue will be honoured.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on the powers of coroners' courts? An inquest begins in Hatfield today into the death of the son of one of my constituents, who was killed when he was struck by a lorry on the A1. Because the company that owns the lorry and the lorry driver are domiciled abroad, however, the coroner cannot bring the lorry driver to the coroner's court to answer questions. If the Leader of the House agrees that that is an anomaly, I wonder whether he can find time for us to debate and discuss the matter.

Mr. Hain

The issue is obviously serious, and the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will want to pay close attention to that point and will hope to support the hon. Gentleman in taking the matter forward.

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

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1497, which describes the astonishing decision by the Conservative council in Calderdale to appoint a British National party member to its racial equality and community cohesion working party?

[That this House condemns the decision by Calderdale Council's Conservative Cabinet to appoint a BNP councillor to the Racial Equality and Community Cohesion Working Party; congratulates the Halifax Evening Courier on its campaign and vocal opposition to this appointment; believes that the people of Calderdale will not support this decision; and calls upon Calderdale Council's Conservative Cabinet to reverse this decision which is at best shortsighted, and at worst provocative and offensive towards ethnic minorities in Calderdale.]

In view of the television programme, which is due to be shown tonight, that apparently includes film of BNP members fantasising about machine-gunning worshipers at mosques with a million bullets, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that we had a debate in this House on the activities of the BNP, on the Conservative party's position towards the BNP and, in particular, on the BNP's contribution to racial equality and community cohesion?

Mr. Hain

I agree with my hon. Friend on that matter. One of the BNP members who appears in the BBC film is quoted in The Sun this morning: My dream is to have a Transit van with a machine gun in the back, you know like they have in the back of the helicopters, with about a million bullets. All wired up to it, just open the doors outside the mosque on a Friday afternoon when they are all coming out. That is a statement of the vilest kind from a vile party of Nazis and thugs, and the sooner we confront it and beat it, the better. The organisation has long-standing criminal connections, and we should wipe it off the electoral landscape by taking it on at the ballot box. West Yorkshire police takes those claims seriously, and it will consider whether sufficient evidence exists to prosecute. It is also important that the House reaffirms our support for the rights of all individuals to worship Islam, which is one of the world's greatest religions. The Government respect and value the major economic and cultural contribution that the British Muslim community makes to our country.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the number of Government decisions that are not subject to any parliamentary scrutiny because they are made using the royal prerogative? Is he aware that his Department keeps no central record of how many such decisions each Department makes? Will he therefore ask the Modernisation Committee, of which he is the Chairman, to look into ways of making the use of the royal prerogative subject to parliamentary scrutiny?

Mr. Hain

That is an interesting and novel constitutional question. On the question whether to go to war in Iraq, the Government abandoned the tradition of deciding to make war by royal prerogative and came to the House to seek its consent in a vote. I shall bear the right hon. Gentleman's points in mind, but the British constitution has long relied, for good or ill, on the royal prerogative.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

As someone whose constituency lies outside London, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in recognising the professional service delivered by the staff in the House of Commons Travel Office. He knows that that service could be jeopardised by the change of supplier; will he use his influence to make sure that the new supplier protects those staff, their jobs and their conditions and, more importantly, that the service delivered to hon. Members is not compromised?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point of which the Administration Committee will want to take careful note. I do not want to see the future of any staff jeopardised in the way that he fears, and those staff will be protected by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981. I use the Travel Office and confirm that the staff do a fine job—we all rely on their expertise and professionalism.

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

Will the Leader of the House indicate what progress, if any, has been made on the Northern Ireland Grand Committee meeting on occasions in the Province itself? The issue is especially important given the continued absence of devolution in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hain

That is not a matter for me, but the hon. Gentleman has raised it properly, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will want to take it into account.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)

I am sure that you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Mr. Cook of the Office for National Statistics cannot count. Mr. Cook has got the population figure for Manchester wrong by nearly 7 per cent. and has made similar mistakes on about 20 other towns, cities and boroughs around the country, which obviously impacts on funding streams. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has made a rational and sensible decision to adjust its funding figures for local government in Manchester and other places because of those mistakes. Unfortunately and incredibly, however, the Department of Health has not adjusted its figures, so the health service in Manchester will probably be underfunded by £20 million. Does my right hon. Friend not think that time should be found to discuss that extraordinary situation, in which two Departments are responding to the same statistical mistake in different ways?

Mr. Hain

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern in raising the matter. The Secretary of State for Health and the Deputy Prime Minister will want carefully to reflect on the implications for funding and services in Manchester.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con)

Following this week's announcement that the Government are to sack more than 100,000 of their own civil servants, which is more than 10 per cent. of the payroll, in the interests of equity, may we have an early debate on how we might attain a commensurate reduction in the number of Ministers?

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the number of Ministers has been pretty constant and the limit is defined on a statutory basis. He also knows that this is part of a programme of transferring staff from back-office functions, especially with the use of new technology and efficiency measures, to deliver extra front-line services. That is an objective that the people of Britain will applaud and it stands in stark contrast to the Conservative Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported, who repeatedly cut front-line services in health, education, policing and just about everything that matters to people.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

On the Hunting Bill, is not the position that, if the Parliament Acts are to be used, as the large majority of Labour MPs want, the measure rejected by the Lords will have to be sent back to the Lords one month before the end of the present Session? Is my right hon. Friend aware that not disclosing when the Parliament Act will be used, or if it is to be used at all, will lead to growing disappointment and worry that we will repeat the situation in the last Parliament and that, despite the large majority in favour of banning hunting with dogs, no effort will be made to ensure that the measure becomes an Act during this Parliament? The only way of doing that is through he Parliament Acts, and time is getting very short indeed.

Mr. Hain

I am not sure that time is getting as short as my hon. Friend suggests. We are well aware of the timetabling issues concerned. I have little to add to what I told my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), other than to repeat that, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we intend to resolve the issue in this Parliament.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con)

The Leader of the House will understand that some of us who voted against the war did so because we did not believe what the Prime Minister said. Many others, on both sides of the House, did not follow us in that because they did believe what the Prime Minister said. I put this to the Leader of the House as someone who cares passionately about it: if we are to discuss the issue properly, we need the Prime Minister here so that he can explain very clearly why he told the House that he had assurance when he clearly did not have that assurance. That is absolutely clear from the Butler report.

The fact that the Prime Minister is not coming to the House is the main issue for those of us who voted against the war. Can we please have an understanding that he will come to the House so that those of us who were not even able to ask a question will at least be able to hear him explain what for many of us is one of the most disgraceful elements of this Government?

Mr. Hain

I understand and respect the right hon. Gentleman's point of view. As his vote demonstrated, he honestly and clearly took a different opinion on whether Britain should have gone to war to topple Saddam Hussein, and that is fine. But the Prime Minister came to the House yesterday to make a detailed statement and to answer detailed questions, and he was challenged in detail on all these matters. That is what he did in the debate on the Hutton report and has done consistently in Question Time. The right hon. Gentleman should not try to rerun his basic and fundamental disagreement with the Government—which is on a matter of principle, and I respect that—in the face of four independent inquiries that covered half a million words and more than 1,000 pages and which disagreed with the fundamental proposition of the right hon. Gentleman and critics of the war: that the Government acted in a disingenuous fashion. We did not. We saw the evidence—the Prime Minister saw it and I saw it—and we acted honestly on it. That is the situation.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab)

Tomorrow, the schools break up for the summer holidays. When we return in September, would it be a good idea to examine the behaviour of some young boys over the summer months? In my area, they have been using replica guns and air rifles as a source of entertainment. Should not the House have an opportunity to discuss restrictions on air rifles and the possible banning of replica guns?

Mr. Hain

That is an important issue, not only in my hon. Friend's constituency but in many others where youngsters are acting in an extremely antisocial fashion. It is a great shame that some Members of this House, especially the Liberal Democrats, have voted consistently against tough laws to clamp down on youth yobbery, including that which she describes. In the end, that weakness in the face of antisocial behaviour will be judged harshly by the voters.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House give favourable consideration to holding a debate on the importance of savings to our economy? It is clear that the Government are not really interested in promoting savings, because their current economic position is underpinned by high personal indebtedness, an overheating housing sector, steeply increased public expenditure and very high consumer spending. Will not the Government's neglect of the importance of savings be at the top of the charge sheet when the Chancellor of the Exchequer moves out of No. 11?

Mr. Hain

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's charge. People right across Britain, of all incomes and ages, are enjoying greater prosperity and economic stability than in recent living memory.

On debt, whether in the case of mortgages or other loans, the very low interest rates mean that the proportion of people's disposable income that is required to fund those loans and mortgages is much lower than it has been in the past. That is the benefit of low interest rates, low inflation, continued growth and continued high employment that we have benefited from under a Labour Government compared with the shabby record of the Conservatives.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab)

When will the Leader of the House find time to debate a review of land legislation that allows property companies such as Warborough Investments to become freeholders of community centres, such as Forrestdale Forum, for thousand of pounds, then to threaten and intimidate lay trustees with forfeiture of the lease, with the consequence of realising hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of profits by an unencumbered freehold, as they did in Brent? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the law and local councils should protect community centres, which provide such valuable family and social facilities, from property companies armed with teams of aggressive lawyers?

Mr. Hain

The account that my hon. Friend gives the House is disturbing. Nobody in those circumstances should be intimidated or threatened as he describes. Community centres do a valuable job in serving local communities and should enjoy the respect of everybody concerned.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

Will the Leader of the House look again at the business for next Tuesday, when the Welsh Grand Committee is due to debate the draft Transport (Wales) Bill? As Secretary of State for Wales, the Leader of the House will be aware that that Bill transfers powers to the National Assembly from the Strategic Rail Authority, which the Secretary of State for Transport has just abolished. As we will have another opportunity next Tuesday to look again at rail infrastructure in Wales, and to welcome the Secretary of State's announcement earlier today, which follows Plaid Cymru policies, can we widen that debate to discuss how those new ideas can be properly funded in Wales? What is the Leader of the House going to do with the draft Transport (Wales) Bill, which now looks rather redundant?

Mr. Hain

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no intention of following Plaid Cymru policy—that would send us up a closed branch line. As regards the Transport (Wales) Bill, we were well aware of the impending announcement on the rail review by the Secretary of State for Transport when the decision was taken to introduce the Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny, and we are aware that amendments may be required, either in the Bill itself or through technical amendments to the Strategic Rail Authority legislation that will be necessary to implement the White Paper. These matters are being taken closely into account, and the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to probe the issue in the Welsh Grand Committee.

Mr. Mike Wood (Batley and Spen) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will no doubt be surprised to hear that ambulance drivers regularly receive speeding tickets as part of their life-saving work, and even more surprised that ambulance trusts around the country spend £1 million a year to resolve that issue. After a 37-year blemish-free career with the ambulance service, my constituent, Mick Ferguson, was under threat of prosecution for 10 months. On his behalf, and on that of his wife, Ann, and the GMB, his union, who supported him through that trauma, I warmly welcome last week's announcement by Department of Health Ministers that they intend to end that anomaly and to indemnify ambulance staff showing the blue light. We need a statement to the House so that we can unpick the detail of the announcement. When does it start, and does it apply to private ambulance companies as well as NHS—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must practise asking more concise questions. I think that the Leader of the House has the gist.

Mr. Hain

I share my hon. Friend's frustration, as do the Government, which is why the Department of Health is working alongside the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers to resolve the problem. Indeed, a new protocol is being drawn up by ACPO, as the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), announced when she spoke at the annual conference of the Ambulance Service Association on 2 July. She will have noted carefully what my hon. Friend said and will, I am sure, be able to clarify the position in due course.

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

Can we have an early statement on the Government's policy of allowing the destruction of green belt land in metropolitan areas where it really counts, and replacing it with green belt in areas where there is little pressure for development? I have been pursuing statistics on that policy since 2 March, when I received a reply from a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister telling me that I would shortly receive a response with statistics. I tabled further written questions in May and June, only to be told that I would receive a reply as soon as possible. I could easily come to the conclusion that the Government have something to hide unless they make a statement in the near future.

Mr. Hain

It is nonsense to suggest that we have anything to hide. We have a great deal to be proud of, as we are making much more use of brownfield sites to construct more housing and developments. The suggestion that we are about to destroy the green belt is a fabrication, albeit unintentional, from the hon. Gentleman. However, he got caught up in his own rhetoric, and for the record, we reject it entirely.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

May we have a debate as soon as possible on an issue that is often hidden, but is probably the most significant one in many Welsh valley communities—incapacity benefit? There is considerable evidence to suggest that once people are on incapacity benefit for eight months, they are likely to be on it for at least eight years. Most people who start off with minor illnesses end up with serious ones. Can we have a thorough reform of incapacity benefit so that it is not a passport to poor health and low income but enables people to get back into work?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend is right to identify a central problem in valley communities such as the ones that he and I represent in south Wales. It is because a large proportion of people are on incapacity benefit that the Government have introduced a number of pilots, working with individuals on benefit to find ways of allowing them to get back into work. Those pilots have been hugely successful, and the Department for Work and Pensions intends to roll out a much bigger programme to encourage people on incapacity benefit to end their dependency on benefit, get jobs and enjoy better health, thus securing greater opportunities and prosperity.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

Does the Leader of the House share my concern that self-employed men in the United Kingdom, with the exception of men can low incomes or those who are of a certain age, are not entitled to statutory paternity pay? In view of the discrimination against many of the 2.5 million self-employed men that prevents them from taking time off to assist with the care of their new-born children, could we have a debate in the House to consider the extension of statutory paternity pay and end that discrimination?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue. I like to think of myself as a diligent constituency MP, as he undoubtedly is, but I have not come across the problem. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will want to pay close attention to his remarks and write to him about the matter.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the publication of what Butler called the "excellent quality papers" that were prepared for Cabinet Ministers but never seen by them, thus, the report said, reducing their scope for making political judgments? One Cabinet member has already said that, not only did he not see the papers but he was not aware of their existence. Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he has seen them?

Mr. Hain : No, I have not, but I do not regard that as a problem. [HON. MEMBERS

"Ah!] No, I do not, because other papers were produced. I referred earlier to 25 key meetings of Ministers and officials at which papers were considered.

Paul Flynn

That was uninformed discussion.

Mr. Hain

I respect my hon. Friend's disagreement with the Government's decision on Iraq. He has an honourable point of view, and has argued it consistently and honestly. Equally, he should respect the fact that the decision was taken after a great deal of serious and detailed consideration. There was more high-quality, probing discussion of that issue in Cabinet than of any issue in the first period in which I was a member of the Cabinet. The notion that Cabinet Ministers closed their eyes and followed the Prime Minister into war is nonsense and a fabrication. The Butler inquiry also found that the way in which the Cabinet and the Government worked on the matter was, as I said earlier, no less effective than on other issues and other policy decisions.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

If they have not got the papers, they do not need to close their eyes.

Is the Leader of the House aware that our high commissioner to Kenya recently told business men about £188 million-worth of corruption under the new Government? He told them that their earnings were being looted by the servants of the state and that the gluttony of practitioners now in government … causes them to vomit all over our shoes. I raised that speech with the Chancellor in Treasury questions, but he did not appear to know that a Government spokesman made it. Can we have a debate on the use of overseas aid and how much of it is corruptly abused?

Mr. Hain

There was no suggestion, as I understand it, by the high commissioner that the allegation that the hon. Gentleman makes was the issue.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

What about the Opposition's cuts?

Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend reminds me, if we are debating overseas aid, there will be an opportunity to remind the public and the House of the massive cuts planned for overseas aid and development assistance by the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition following their freeze on all non-school and health funding in the first two years of a Tory Government. As for Cabinet government, there is an obsession with processology, which was raised earlier in the House. People cannot live with, or accept, the fact that four independent inquiries headed by eminent people of the utmost integrity have now disproved all the allegations of disingenuousness and other criticisms levelled at the Government concerning their decision to go into Iraq. People should surely accept that we acted honestly, just as we accept the fact that critics of the Government have an honest difference of opinion with us.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)

Royal Mail deliveries in my constituency are increasingly erratic and recently 60-odd letters to businesses and companies were dumped in an empty shop. My right hon. Friend will share my admiration for Post Office workers who, day after day, whatever the weather, tramp through the streets of our constituencies. Will he organise time for a debate on the use by Royal Mail management of temporary staff and agency workers, which produces more erratic deliveries than we would want as constituency Mps?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend made a valid point in raising the use of temporary and agency staff to plug gaps in the system that should be filled by trained postmen and women, who do a fantastic job. I am glad that he expressed his admiration for the Post Office workers in his constituency. The Post Office and Royal Mail management must address that issue urgently, particularly in his constituency.