HC Deb 22 July 2004 vol 424 cc485-500 12.31 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for the week after the summer recess will be as follows:

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

WEDNESDAY 8 SEPTEMBER—Opposition day [16th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 9 SEPTEMBER—A debate on the European constitution on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 10 SEPTEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first sitting week in October will be:

THURSDAY 14 OCTOBER—A debate on the UN international year to commemorate the struggle against slavery and its abolition.

As we rise for the summer recess, I thank on behalf of the House all the staff of the House for their hard work, courtesy and support for all of us. I also record my personal thanks to the parliamentary Clerks across Whitehall for their assistance and support. I wish you, Mr. Speaker, all hon. Members and, more importantly, the staff of the House a happy and, I hope, relaxing recess.

Mr. Heald

May I associate all on these Benches with those remarks about the staff, the Serjeant at Arms, you, Mr. Speaker, and the Clerks Department?

The Leader of the House has announced the business for September, but may I ask for an urgent oral statement later today from the Minister for the Cabinet Office about the jurisdiction of the ombudsman in the reopened inquiry into Equitable Life? The ombudsman has stated that the Government Actuary's Department is not within her jurisdiction, but that she would like to include it in her inquiry, and she has written to the Minister requesting that that happen. The matter is hugely important to our constituents, who have lost so much financially through the crisis, not to mention the misery, anxiety and distress that they are suffering. May we have an urgent oral statement and will the Leader of the House ensure that the necessary order to make that happen is laid today?

After yesterday's announcement of deep cuts to our armed forces, may we have an assurance that a full debate will take place in Government time when we come back after the recess?

Yesterday, the Leader of the House issued a written statement designed to stop the abuse by Ministers of the reply, "I will write to the hon. Member and place a copy in the Library", which is a way of burying bad news because the true reply never appears in Hansard. Will he consider making a short oral statement in September on that and on delays in replies to parliamentary questions? His solution to the problem is that Ministers will simply abandon questions unanswered at the end of a Session.

Last year, there were 1,550 "will write" replies, and on the last day of the Session, the Home Office alone put out more than 150 "will write" replies. Is the Leader of the House seriously saying that 1,500 questions a year will now simply be abandoned by Ministers, so that instead of burying bad news, they never give it at all? Will he also explain why, according to the Library, there are still 427 of those replies where Ministers have never got around to writing and placing the letter in the Library?

Finally, as an end-of-term report—a sort of tidying-up exercise—can the Leader of the House tell us now, or will he make a statement, more than six months after these matters were first raised with him, what he is doing to review the Osmotherly rules, so that Select Committees can receive the documents and witnesses that they need so that we do not have to call in an outsider every time we want a serious inquiry? What is he doing to give legal effect to the Sessional Orders; what is he doing to have a vote on the Tuesday sitting hours; and what is he doing to change the Standing Orders to allow the European Scrutiny Committee to sit in public, as it has asked to do? In his youth, he used to take direct action. He would reclaim the streets from the National Front. He would tear up cricket pitches to stop the tours. May we have some of that sense of urgency now with those parliamentary questions?

Mr. Hain

That was a nice seasonal rant—was it not?—and very enjoyable it was too. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer then."] I am about to give the answers. On the Osmotherly rules, I will meet the Liaison Committee at its meeting, probably in October, at a date still to be fixed. The Liaison Committee has asked me to report back to it on that issue, and I am doing precisely that.

On the Sessional Orders, when we are ready to come forward, we will do so, as I have already promised. I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman asks me about the sitting hours and whether the European Scrutiny Committee should sit in public. He asks me what is going on. He is a member of the Modernisation Committee, which I chair. In fact, he sits right next to me, and quite a congenial companion he is. Both subjects—sitting hours and providing the House with greater opportunities to scrutinise European matters—are before us now. In fact, we were discussing sitting hours yesterday, so I do not know what on earth he is on about. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the standard of those questions: the shadow Leader of the House is not even in the shadow Cabinet. [Interruption.] The previous shadow Leader of the House was in the shadow Cabinet, of course.

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

Look what happened to me!

Mr. Hain

Yes, look what happened to the right hon. Gentleman. His successor has been demoted—[Interruption.] Since I have been provoked in such an outrageous fashion, let me say that it is interesting that the shadow Leader of the Lords is in the shadow Cabinet, whereas the shadow Leader of the House is not. It rather indicates the Conservatives' view of the House.

On Equitable Life, I understand the important issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. There is real concern among policyholders, and right hon. and hon. Members have properly raised this with me in the past. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—who, of course, is an Officer of the House—is entirely independent of the Government. The decision that she made and the reasons for it are matters for her, but we will co-operate fully with the commissioner's investigation. Only this week we received a request from the commissioner to extend her jurisdiction to cover the Government Actuary's Department. We are considering that request and will respond to the commissioner as soon as possible.

On defence, which the hon. Gentleman also raised with me, he referred to defence cuts.

Mr. Heald

Deep cuts.

Mr. Hain

Well, we know about deep cuts—the deep cuts mounted by the Conservative party when in government. The Conservatives cut planned defence spending by 15 per cent. when the shadow Secretary of State for Defence was Minister of State for the Armed Forces between 1994 and 1997. We have now had the largest sustained increase in defence spending for 20 years. In real terms, the increase will be 1.4 per cent. a year over the next three years—a further £3.7 billion of defence spending over the spending review period, which will continue to make our fighting forces the best in the world.

On the "I will write" issue, the shadow Leader of the House must do his job and try to oppose me. I understand all that—we all understand it—but he really should concentrate on the facts. What I did in this instance—with your encouragement, Mr. Speaker, because we share concern about the "I will write" situation—was to say that rather than a Minister replying, "I will write" and placing a letter in the House of Commons Library, which means that is not accessible for inspection by hon. Members with ease or members of the public, the replies will be put online and in Hansard so that everyone will be able to see them. That represents an advance for parliamentary scrutiny, so I cannot for the life of me understand why the hon. Gentleman thinks that it will bury bad news. The replies will go online immediately and will be printed in Hansard. The fact that letters that Ministers would previously have put in the Library will be available for inspection by everybody represents an advance in parliamentary accountability, which has been a feature of everything that I have done in the past year as Leader of the House.

Mr. David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great consternation in my constituency and, indeed, the whole of Greater Manchester about the announcement on Tuesday that cast a shadow over the expansion of light rail in our area? Expectations for Metrolink are at the heart of all our ambitions for economic regeneration in Tameside and Oldham, so its loss would be a tragedy. I am heartened that the Secretary of State for Transport confirmed that the door has not closed on Metrolink and that his officials will work with the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority to find a way forward. Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ensure that there will be an opportunity for the Secretary of State to come to the House after the recess to report on the progress that I hope will be made during the summer to get the Metrolink extension to Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham back on track?

Mr. Hain

I understand the point that my hon. Friend raises. I know that there are real worries about the matter, because it affects the constituency of the Deputy Leader of the House and he has expressed the same concerns to me. The tram has been an important part of the transport network in the area and I know that a meeting is taking place with the transport authority. The Secretary of State for Transport will want to study closely the representation that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) makes to me.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

May I associate myself and my colleagues with the comments made about the staff of the House, although I would not like anybody to think that they are on holiday throughout the whole recess any more than most Members? A great many of the staff of the House work hard during the recess to ensure that we can work efficiently from the moment when we come back in September.

I am hardly reassured by what the Leader of the House said about Equitable Life, so I hope that he can be a bit more specific. The matter is important and urgent, and many of our constituents are anxious about what will happen next.

May we have an early statement—or, even better, a debate in Government time—when we come back in September on school funding? Hon. Members will recall that a year ago, many schools were placed in an extraordinary state of financial turmoil following the Government's re-ordering of local government and school budgets. The impact of those proposals was compounded by radical changes to pensions, national insurance contributions and the standards fund, so governing bodies and heads were put in a difficult position. The Secretary of State for Education then accused local authorities of pocketing£500 million for other purposes, and when that accusation wore thin, head teachers were accused of being financially incompetent.

As the Leader of the House will know, this week the Audit Commission published an important report on education funding, which made it absolutely clear that the fault lay almost entirely with the Government and especially with the Secretary of State. Will he arrange an early opportunity for the Secretary of State to come to the House and apologise for falsely accusing everybody else for what went wrong, and especially to apologise to governing bodies and heads?

Mr. Hain

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman's point that many members of staff continue to work by maintaining the House and doing all sorts of preparatory work for our return after the recess. I understand the point that he makes about Equitable Life, which the shadow Leader of the House raised. The Financial Secretary is seized of the issue, and the hon. Gentleman will remember that she made a statement to the House on the matter and faced detailed questions.

On the question of school funding, obviously mistakes were made—there is no question about that—as the Audit Commission points out, and responsibility for them has been allocated. We are now over that period. I would not have guessed from the hon. Gentleman's question that education spending at the end of the spending review will be £12 billion higher. That is an enormous increase over and above what has been provided for. We have a fantastic record in education, with more than 28,000 extra teachers recruited, 105,000 more school support staff, the best ever GCSE and A-level results, and average spending per pupil up by £800 in real terms compared with the Conservatives' miserable record when they were in power.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab)

May I further add to the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) for an urgent debate on the future of light rail in Government time when we return in September? The constituencies surrounding Greater Manchester, specifically Oldham and Rochdale, are concerned about the continuing extension of light rail. As has been said, it is at the heart of the economic regeneration. Although we welcome the Secretary of State's moves to help ensure that we get an affordable scheme, we need that to happen urgently. A debate in Government time will add to the sense of urgency and reassure the people we represent that it is not "never", but it just needs to be more affordable.

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's point, which she properly raises on behalf of her constituency. The Metrolink extension is important. I also remind her, however—no doubt she would be the first to say this, if she had the opportunity—that we have seen enormous investment and improvements in the dreadful legacy of public transport that we inherited. There has been a 25 per cent. increase in rail passenger journeys since May 1997 and more than 1,500 extra rail services are timetabled every week day. Some 19 new rail stations have been built, nine reopened and more than 2,000 improved, and 34,000 new buses have been introduced since we came to power. That is a pretty impressive record compared with the dreadful one we inherited.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

Is the Leader of the House aware of how desperately disappointed many people in Britain will be that, once again, there is no time for a debate on the abolition of fox hunting? Does not that mean that there is no prospect of getting legislation through by the next election? Is he aware that many of those who voted Labour years ago feel cheated because they were given the impression and the promise that time would be given at an early stage to make a decision on fox hunting? He should do something about that and give the House of Commons the opportunity to decide the issue.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman is a welcome, if unusual, advocate for Labour voters. I made it clear last week, and have done so before, that we intend to resolve the matter. I said last week that I would not make an announcement on the subject today, and I have not.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Does the Leader of the House recall that when he made those statements about getting rid of fox hunting, he almost gave me a wink and a nod that it would be dealt with when we return in September. We know that it will not happen in the first week and he conveniently said nothing about the second week. Do I take it as read that we will deal with it in that second week?

Mr. Hain

That is foxy question. I am not sure that winks and nods are appropriate for the Leader of the House at the Dispatch Box. I think they might be spotted by you, Mr. Speaker, and others. It is normal not to announce all the business now for when we return in more than six weeks' time.

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

May I put to the Leader of the House an alternative topic for debate in the second week in September? He wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and me regretting that he could not find time before the summer recess for a debate on the Procedure Committee reports, including the one on Sessional Orders. He will know that the eyesore and disturbance in Parliament square continues. Can we have that debate on the Sessional Orders report when we return in September? It is urgent, in any event, because the date for the next Session is advancing quickly.

Mr. Hain

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman properly raises. We are all unhappy about the eyesore and you, Mr. Speaker, have persistently raised the matter with me. It is not easy to resolve. It may require a change of law, for example, and we are in the process of deciding how to move forward. We will bring the Sessional Orders report to the Floor of the House as soon as we can, but I cannot say whether it will be in the second week of September.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity today to give a splendid present to virtually everyone in the parliamentary Labour party—I imagine that 90 per cent. of us would regard it as such—by telling us that the Parliament Act will be used to make sure that the Hunting Bill becomes law? Is he aware that we will continue to raise the issue at every opportunity in the House of Commons, as I am doing now, in the parliamentary Labour party and outside until we get a firm pledge that the Government will ensure that a House of Lords veto on the matter is to be overcome, the wishes and decision of the elected Chamber will be honoured and respected, and hence the Bill will become law?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend mentions splendid presents. When I was a boy I always looked forward to Christmas, rather than the summer, for those, and I advise him to bear that in mind.

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

There continues to be a serious issue in Northern Ireland of racially motivated attacks on innocent people and families. The latest such deplorable attack took place last night on an Asian family in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and suggest that such deplorable attacks, and what can be done about them, may be a suitable subject for debate in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman understands that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee can meet in Northern Ireland only with the agreement of all parties. Obviously, this incident is very serious, and I know that the Secretary of State is well aware of it and will bear in mind the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan have had to be postponed due to the terrible violence in that country and that the promises made by NATO to increase the troops in the country to ensure security for the elections have not been fulfilled? Now that the presidential election date has been set for 9 October, will he do everything in his power to ensure that NATO troops are in place well before that date, so that the courageous Afghans who have come forward to be registered for the elections—some have died in the process—are given the strongest impression that when we said that we would not walk away from that country, we really meant it?

Mr. Hain

The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that we will not turn our backs on the long-suffering Afghanis, and my hon. Friend is right to re-emphasise that point on her own behalf. We continue to work very closely with President Karzai, the United Nations and other countries throughout the world to make sure that a decent future is built for the people of Afghanistan, notwithstanding the problems there.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

Depressingly, but all too predictably, in her statement yesterday on the future of the rural economy the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave scant acknowledgement to the plight of many of the country's farmers. Does the Leader of the House share the concern of many members of the Women's Institute in East Devon about the continuing plight of Devon's dairy farmers? Can he guarantee us a debate on the future of the country's dairy farmers, in Government time, when Parliament returns in September?

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's points, and the Secretary of State will obviously note very carefully the representations that he has made.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

May I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for the zeal that he brings to reforming the proceedings of the House and increasing our ability genuinely to scrutinise and hold the Executive to account? Does he accept, however, that one area in which we have been unsuccessful in making progress is the US-UK mutual defence agreement, which can be renewed for a further 10 years under the Ponsonby rule without the House having any right to scrutinise it? In view of the fact that a legal opinion issued today says that renewal of the agreement would put Britain in breach of the non-proliferation treaty, will the Leader of the House, first, agree to look at that legal opinion and, secondly, arrange a full day's debate in the House on the renewal of the agreement?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has long experience of raising these matters, and he is acknowledged throughout the House as an expert on them, but I do not agree that we have no opportunity to scrutinise this matter. He has just asked me a question about it. He is able to ask questions of the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary, depending on which aspect he wishes to raise, to table early-day motions and to apply for debates, and he can continue to do so.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

Can the Leader of the House explain why no decision has been announced while the House is sitting about the appointment of a British Commissioner to the European Commission? Can he reassure us that the Prime Minister is not having second thoughts about appointing the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who, as someone who has resigned twice from the Cabinet, strikes many Conservative Members as the ideal candidate for a post that is unaccountable and unelected and from which no one would dream of resigning for the sort of outrageous behaviour for which he has been responsible in the past, and to be a member of a body that, when it collectively resigns, immediately reappoints itself?

Mr. Hain

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman and the whole House of the situation: European Commissioners have always been chosen by the Prime Minister of the day, and the appointments have not been subject to parliamentary debates, so the question whether that happens during the recess is not material. I shall remind the right hon. Gentleman of the timetable in Brussels. The President-elect of the Commission, former Prime Minister Barroso, is appearing before the European Parliament at the moment. His nomination as President should be approved by the European Parliament tomorrow; he will then take office on 1 November. In the meantime, the 24 member states will offer their nominations for their Commissioners over the coming weeks, and in August President-elect Barroso will agree the appointments with each of the member states. That list will then be agreed by qualified majority voting and submitted, before the end of August, to the European Parliament. The Parliament then prepares for hearings with Commissioners-Designate, which will take place from 4 to 14 October. From 25 to 28 October, the Parliament will vote to approve the new Commission as a body.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

It is now more than three years since we last had a debate on road safety in Government time. Given that since then road deaths have stuck stubbornly at about 3,400 a year, given the public outcry about soft sentences for drivers who kill innocent passers-by, and given the lively debates here about speed cameras and road traffic policing, is it not time in the autumn for another debate on road safety in Government time?

Mr. Hain

If my hon. Friend catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will have an opportunity to take part in an Adjournment debate on road safety on the very day that we come back, when he can raise those important issues.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

May I ask the Leader of the House to consider making a statement when we return about the transferring of parliamentary questions? I point out to him a question to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I drew as No. 3 today. I was told by DEFRA that the issue did not relate to it, so its Ministers could not answer and it was transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry. However, on 10 March my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) asked a similar question and DEFRA gave an answer.

I am told that part of the reason for transfers is that Ministers are not allowed to answer questions on subjects that they feel may come within the remit of another Department. That does not seem to stop Ministers answering such questions on the radio; why cannot they answer them in the House?

Mr. Hain

As a Government, we have a proud record of answering questions. As a result of the modernisation of the House, the provision of extra Westminster Hall debates, the strengthening of Select Committees and the fact that the Prime Minister comes before the Liaison Committee, we have advanced parliamentary scrutiny and accountability in a number of areas. That has made it much easier to keep Ministers on their toes. On that issue, I am absolutely clear that the hon. Gentleman is simply missing the point. The other point that he made, about transferring questions, he raised as a point of order with you yesterday, Mr. Speaker, and it is not a matter for me.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Sir Hayden Phillips delivered his report on reform of the honours system to the Prime Minister last Friday, and we have pretty radical proposals from the Public Administration Committee on how the honours system could be recast. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate in Government time on that important issue?

Mr. Hain

I acknowledge that my hon. Friend has consistently taken an interest in how the honours system is operated. The PAC's interesting report needs to be studied; the Government will do that, and we will consider Sir Hayden's recommendations alongside that.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that, as promised, the Government will publish a draft Civil Service Bill in this Session? Will he explain the Government's apparent tardiness in doing so, given that two excellent drafts have already been published, one by the Public Administration Committee, and the other a private Member's Bill promoted by the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)?

Mr. Hain

There is no issue—the question is simply one of publishing at the right time. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend was quite sympathetic in his responses to our hon. Friends the Members for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) and for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons), but I put it to him that there is real anger in Greater Manchester about the apparent decision to drop the Metrolink scheme. The regional newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, described it as a betrayal. Will my right hon. Friend take that message back to the Secretary of State for Transport and make sure that he understands that Greater Manchester expects him to return with proposals agreed with the passenger transport authority and the contractors, and to ensure that our conurbation has the Metrolink that it badly needs for both public transport and environmental reasons?

Mr. Hain

I understand the point that my hon. Friend properly raises. Given that he has raised it, I am sure that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will take even more careful note of it than before. However, part of the anger to which my hon. Friend referred might have arisen from a misconception that the north-west of England is somehow cross-subsidising Crossrail in London. That is simply not the case. There is a long way to go before the funding mechanism for Crossrail is put in place, not least the negotiation of the passage of a private Bill through Parliament.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP)

No mention was made of the Royal Marines in yesterday's statement on defence, yet after I left the Chamber I received a letter from the Ministry of Defence informing me that RM Condor at Arbroath in my constituency is under review. Any threat to the base has a huge impact on the local economy. Does the Leader of the House think it appropriate that information is released in such a way? May we have a debate in Government time on the effect of base closures on local communities?

Mr. Hain

It is important that local MPs be properly notified. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence wants to do that, and that the process of consultation is continuing.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

May we have an early debate on the extraordinary decision by the Tory-Liberal coalition in Birmingham to pull the £2 billion highway private finance initiative scheme at the eleventh hour? Such a debate is needed for two reasons: first, we need to understand how any private company can be expected to commit the necessary resources and submit a bid by August for a project that might now not go ahead: secondly. I want to know whether the people of Birmingham will be liable to pay compensation to the companies for the losses that they have incurred. Will my right hon. Friend advise me on how to bring some sanity to bear on this latest act of civic vandalism?

Mr. Hain

That does sound like a bit of a shambles from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration. I was interested to read in an editorial in The Birmingham Post of 16 July: The message from the council's new Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration, whether intentional or not, was one of dithering while the roads crumble. That sounds spot-on to me.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

As the Leader of the House, most uncharacteristically, was over-prepared in his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), may I invite him to have a second go but to leave his notes behind? Does he agree that the appointment of a European Commissioner is very important to this country, that it is vital that the right person be appointed, and that it would be appropriate to have a statement on that appointment, especially if the appointment proves to be controversial, as the newspapers lead us to believe it will be?

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman courteously invites me to respond in greater detail than before. I am sorry, but I am unable to respond to that courteous invitation.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

This morning, I received a telephone call from one of my constituents who works in Tesco house in Cardiff to say that this afternoon Tesco will publicly announce a further 160 job losses in its head office in Cardiff. That is in addition to the 230 jobs lost last year. The jobs are to be outsourced to Bangalore. I am sure that my right hon. Friend realises how great the disappointment is, especially after all the reassurances that Tesco gave. Many long-standing employees will lose their jobs. Will he arrange an urgent debate on the issue when we return?

Mr. Hain

I know that the management of Tesco will take careful note of my hon. Friend's comments, because there will be real concern in her constituency about the job losses. If anything can be done, I hope that her representations will help it to be done. Tesco is now the biggest private sector employer in the country and therefore very important, but I am sure that it will review the situation in Cardiff in the light of her comments.

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

Will the Leader of the House try a lot harder in respect of Equitable Life? He will know—or perhaps he does not—that on today's Order Paper, No. 32 in the list of these peculiar written ministerial statements that we now have is an announcement that the Minister for the Cabinet Office will say something about "Extending the Jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (The Ombudsman)." Is that a tease or a hint? Will he please be a lot more specific about what the Government will do in response to the request by the ombudsman in respect of Equitable Life? It is not good enough to keep hundreds of thousands of people waiting and frustrated again and again on a matter that should be straightforward for the Government. If there is any transparency and decency in the Government, let us have an answer.

Mr. Hain

The first part of my answer is that I do not accept that to make a written ministerial statement is peculiar. On the contrary, it is perfectly proper to use such a statement as an alternative to the previous practice—with which, presumably, the right hon. Gentleman was happy—whereby the Government were required to plant questions in order to provide information to the House by answering them. Today's practice is far better: Ministers can make written ministerial statements in which they give the information that the House is entitled to have.

Dr. Brian Iddon Bolton, South-East) (Lab)

When we had a drugs tsar, he produced an annual report and we debated misuse of drugs on the Floor of the House. Since then, the National Treatment Agency has been set up and things have moved on in other ways, but as chairman of the all-party drugs misuse group, I ask my right hon. Friend to reinstate the annual debate on the subject.

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly give it consideration. Coming from the chairman of the all-party group, that question is important. However, my hon. Friend knows that drugs misuse is high on the Home Secretary's agenda and that he has plenty of opportunities to question my right hon. Friend on the direction of Government policy. In addition, he can apply for a debate himself if he feels that one is needed.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

Will the Leader of the House make time available to debate the merits of introducing a Health and Safety Executive business awards scheme in conjunction with the insurance industry? Small and medium-sized companies that have a claim-free record and those that have made significant improvements to health and safety at work could be recognised. Does he agree that such a scheme operating in all regions of the UK would publicise good practice in the workplace, focus attention on the need to continue to raise health and safety standards, and bring to the attention of business the benefits of having no claims when negotiating employer and public liability insurance?

Mr. Hain

That is an interesting idea on which Ministers will reflect. We want to give every encouragement to good practice in industry, and if an awards scheme is regarded as a sensible way to achieve that, no doubt the idea will be taken forward.

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

Yesterday, a consolidated document on parental separation was published. When will we have a chance to be consulted and have a debate on that document? The key question that some fathers whose marriages have broken up are asking is that care of the children should be arranged strictly 50:50. I have a constituent who has that arrangement, under which the child benefit and child tax credit go to the mother only, and as a consequence the Child Support Agency payments have to be made from the father to the mother, despite there being a strict arrangement that it is 50:50, where there is no exact partner with care and no exact absent parent. This matter could be thrown into the debate.

Mr. Hain

It is quite proper that that should be thrown into the debate. We all have cases like that, which are highly complicated and very distressing, especially for the children involved. That is precisely why we brought forward the consultation and the written ministerial statement that accompanied it. My hon. Friend has the opportunity to respond to that, as do other Members, and their responses would be welcome.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

In an end-of-term spirit, may I congratulate the Leader of the House on his wit and great courtesy—[Interruption.] I am speaking genuinely and the right hon. Gentleman knows it. Would he, even at this late stage, consider extending today's debate, the main debate, so that we have time, because there is great cross-party support on this, to debate and welcome the great dedication, professionalism and care of the hospice movement? We know that the Government are giving more money to the national health service, and we are very grateful for that, but equally we know that that money is not filtering through to the hospice movement, which is currently seriously underfunded. We need to find ways to get the new Government money that is going into the health service through to the excellent hospice movement.

Mr. Hain

I always welcome the hon. Gentleman's questions at business questions, and since he has praised me, I will welcome them even more in future. He has shown great dedication on the matter of the hospice movement. We all admire the attention that he has given it and how he has consistently ensured that it is an issue before the House and therefore before the Government, so that the hospice movement is taken forward and given extra support, and I applaud his efforts.

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

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to today's written ministerial statement on the Government's response to the Office of Fair Trading report on estate agents? I ask him to arrange an early debate on the matter so that I can welcome the Government's intention to table an amendment to the Housing Bill, whereby all estate agents will have to join an independent redress scheme, and welcome also the consultation document to consider amending the Estate Agents Act 1979 later in the year, to give further protection to consumers. I regret that the comprehensive licensing of estate agencies is ruled out, but I understand that the door is still open possibly to require all estate agents to join a professional body from which they could be expelled for inappropriate practice. It is a step forward and I would like an early debate so that I can welcome the steps that the Government have taken.

Mr. Hain

I hope that the Government will listen closely to my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do so, because my hon. Friend has displayed a great deal of energy in order to take forward reform in this area, and many home buyers will welcome that and applaud his efforts.

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

May I add to the calls for an early statement on the future of the Metrolink in Greater Manchester, a great initiative that was put in place under a Conservative Government? An early statement would be an opportunity for the present Government to explain why, in spite of their supposed commitment to public transport, they are apparently incapable of taking that forward.

Mr. Hain

I understand that the cost estimate for the Metrolink project has increased considerably, perhaps to nearly double that estimate. I am happy to praise the odd thing that the Conservatives did and this sounds like one of them, but it is hard to find other such examples that deserve praise. However, since we are in a generous seasonal spirit I will give the hon. Gentleman that point.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab)

Those of us on the Government Benches appreciate that an increase in real terms to the defence budget is an increase. Unfortunately, to the general public the reduction in servicemen would appear to give a contrary view. Is my right hon. Friend aware that during consideration of the Armed Forces Pensions and Compensation Bill, great reservations were expressed by Members on both sides of the House, given that about 10 per cent. of servicemen and women who were leaving the services were ending up on the dole queue? Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on how he proposes to look after the 10 per cent. who are already on the dole queue, and the possible numbers who are going to make the percentage even greater?

Mr. Hain

Anyone faced with the prospect of going on the dole is in a situation that no Government would want to encourage or to support. What is planned in this instance is that by a combination of natural wastage and early retirement, and procedures like that, nobody will end up being made redundant and without a job. Of course, in today's economy, as a result of the Government's very successful economic policies, employment is rising year by year and month by month and those who are in the unfortunate situation of losing their jobs, wherever the sector might be, have plenty of alternative job opportunities as a result of our economic success and the stability that we have brought. I am sure that that will apply in the few cases that might arise.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

There is a great deal of concern in a number of constituencies, certainly in my own, about the instances of abuse of the planning system by Travellers on private land. The concern of hon. Members such as me who want adequate provision for Travellers is that this is poisoning the relationship between settled communities and the Travellers' community. We are told that Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are bringing forward proposals to strengthen enforcement powers for local authorities; is there an opportunity for a statement on that matter during the two-week spill-over in September, and will we have the details of those proposals in the near future?

Mr. Hain

The Deputy Prime Minister is sitting almost next to me and has heard the hon. Gentleman's eloquent argument, and will want to take close account of it. The Minister responsible has been gripped on the issue, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate—he is nodding in acknowledgement—and I think we all applaud what the Minister is seeking to do. Any additional representations that the hon. Gentleman wishes to make will be listened to.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

The Leader of the House has gone through the rather arcane and mysterious process by which our EU Commissioner will be named and selected. The Leader of the House believes in modernisation; is it not about time we chucked out the process to which I have referred and modernised the system so that the Prime Minister's nomination came before the House? Would it not have been far better—the Prime Minister has made his mind up, from what we can make out in the newspapers—if the name had been announced this week, and we then had a full debate? We could have voted on whether we thought that our one EU Commissioner ought to be the person selected by the Prime Minister.

Mr. Hain

Does the hon. Gentleman really believe everything that he reads in the newspapers? In which case—

Mr. Evans

indicated assent.

Mr. Hain

He does! This is a novel form of behaviour for Conservative Members.

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

May I press the Leader of the House following his answer to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) concerning the Northern Ireland Grand Committee? Would it be possible for the objections to meeting there to be published so that we might know why a party—we suspect that it might even be a sister party of the Government—keeps objecting? It seems a denigration of democracy that the people of Northern Ireland cannot see their own Grand Committee meeting occasionally in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hain

This is clearly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, for the parties involved and ultimately for the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is able to make progress on this matter, but it is not something for me.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

May we have an urgent debate on antisocial behaviour? The Government have tried to be tough on antisocial behaviour, with varying degrees of success, but they have done nothing to be tough on the causes of antisocial behaviour. May I refer the Leader of the House to the marvellous superhero, Jo Frost, of "Supernanny", whose wonderful combination of old-fashioned discipline in a modern context every Wednesday on Channel 4 is doing more to be tough on the causes of antisocial behaviour in families up and down the land than the Government have done in seven years.

Mr. Hain

I realise that the hon. Gentleman wants to make his point powerfully, and he has just done so. I do not quarrel with him for that. But we have seen the longest and most sustained fall in crime for a century. Antisocial behaviour is one of the areas that the Government have prioritised for tackling, seeing 11,000 more police officers recruited, more community support officers and more community wardens. We have taken legislation through the House and the other place on antisocial behaviour when, often, we have not had the support of either Conservative Members or Liberal Democrat Members, who have appeared to turn a blind eye to antisocial behaviour, when we all know that it is one of the curses of modern life.

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has made a decision of enormous ethical significance to sanction designer babies, which goes against the spirit of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, and has pre-empted the outcome of studies by two Select Committees. Will the Leader of the House allow us to have a debate in Government time on the authority's future?

Mr. Hain

I shall obviously bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request, but he has many opportunities to raise those matters with the Secretary of State for Health, and, indeed, he can apply for an Adjournment debate himself.