HC Deb 17 June 2004 vol 422 cc911-27 12.31 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows.

MONDAY 21 JUNE—Second Reading of the Health Protection Agency Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 22 JUNE—Opposition day [13th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled "Threat to the Integrity of the Electoral System", followed by a debate on NHS recruitment and retention. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

WEDNESDAY 23 JUNE—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords], followed by motions to approve the appointment of managing trustees to the parliamentary contributory pension fund and the House of Commons Members' fund, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

THURSDAY 24 JUNE—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on the Highways Agency and a debate on taxis and private hire vehicles. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

FRIDAY 25 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 28 JUNE—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Human Tissue Bill.

TUESDAY 29 JUNE—A debate on London schools on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, followed by a motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

WEDNESDAY 30 JUNE—Opposition day [14th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 1 JULY—A debate on Zimbabwe on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 2 JULY—The House will not be sitting.

Following are the details: Thursday 24 June—Estimates to be considered: Central Government Supply Estimates 2004–05 (HC 466); House of Commons: Administration Main Supply Estimate 2004–05 (HC 467); National Audit Office Main Supply Estimate 2004–05 (HC 468); Electoral Commission Main Supply Estimate 2004–05 (HC 469).

Tuesday 29 June—outstanding PAC reports 2003–04 to be considered: 1st report, "Tackling fraud against the Inland Revenue" (HC 62) (Cm 6130); 2nd report, "The new electricity trading arrangements in England and Wales" (HC 63) (Cm 6130); 3rd report, "The Sheep Annual Premium Scheme" (HC 64) (Cm 6136); 4th report, "Improving service delivery: the Forensic Science Service" (HC 137) (Cm 6155): 5th report, "Warm Front: helping to combat fuel poverty" (HC 206) (Cm 6175); 6th report, "Department of Trade and Industry: Regional Grants in England" (HC 207) (Cm 6155); 7th report, "Progress on 15 major capital projects funded by Arts Council England" (HC 253) (Cm 6155); 8th report, "The English national stadium project at Wembley" (HC 254) (Cm 6155); 9th report, "Review of grants made to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns" (HC 305) (Cm 6175); 10th report, "Purchasing and managing software licences" (HC 306) (Cm 6175); 11th report, "Helping consumers benefit from competition in telecommunications" (HC 405) (Cm 6191); 12th report, "Getting it right, putting it right: Improving decision-making and appeals in social security benefits" (HC 406) (Cm 6191); 14th report, "Inland Revenue: Tax Credits" (HC 89) (Cm tbc); 15th report, "Procurement of vaccines by the Department of Health" (HC 429) (Cm tbc); 16th report, "Progress in improving the medical assessment of incapacity and disability benefits" (HC 120) (Cm 6191); 18th report, "PFI: The new headquarters for the Home Office" (HC 501) (Cm tbc); 19th report, "Making a difference: Performance of maintained secondary schools in England" (HC 104) (Cm tbc).

The House may wish to be reminded that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the summer recess at the end of business on Thursday 22 July and return on Tuesday 7 September.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, and in particular for announcing the debate on Zimbabwe. Can he confirm that there will be a statement from the Prime Minister on Monday about the intergovernmental conference?

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that he got into a bit of trouble last year when he said he was quite happy to fight the … European elections on a Labour platform endorsing the European constitution? He said the Conservatives can oppose it and then the people will decide. Now that the majority have voted for parties opposed to the constitution, will the right hon. Gentleman not accept their verdict that there is no mandate to sign up to the European constitution?

The right hon. Gentleman has announced an Opposition day debate on the postal ballots fiasco. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Dame Marion Roe) has uncovered an important aspect of that: the shocking state of electoral registers with up to 20 per cent. inaccuracies, which has led to thousands of postal ballot papers being sent out to the wrong people. In Newcastle and in Chester, even babies received postal ballot papers. The Chester Chronicle headline was, "Blair's Babe: Voting slip 16 years early". The Labour leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, has called for a national rethink on postal voting. [Interruption.] This is the Labour leader of the council calling for the rethink. Does the Leader of the House recognise that the advantage of a polling station is that the voter is positively identified and the scope for impersonation reduced? Will he give an assurance that the review of the all-postal experiment will be completed and debated before the Government lay the necessary orders to make this autumn's regional assembly referendums all postal?

The right hon. Gentleman promised a draft Bill to set up regional assemblies before July. Can he reassure us that there will be a debate about the Bill before the referendums? The Prime Minister has made it clear how vital it is to have lengthy parliamentary debate before a referendum, so will the Leader of the House confirm that that applies not just to the European constitution, but to regional assemblies?

Finally, turning from bogus voters to bogus visas, can we have a debate on visa abuse and illegal immigration? Today's National Audit Office report slams the Home Office for allowing 10 times as many visa applications as embassy staff advised. Yesterday the police smashed a multi-million pound scam, involving student visas with more than 1,000 illegal entrants.

Is it not time that the Government started to listen to, and act on, advice? They are ignoring the voters on the European constitution; they ignored the Electoral Commission's advice on all-postal ballots; they ignored their own embassies' advice on immigration visas. Does the Leader of the House understand why people feel let down by Labour? Can we have a statement—a statement of apology?

Mr. Hain

You would not have thought, Mr. Speaker, from that bravura performance that the Conservatives actually lost the elections last week. [Interruption.] Yes, in comparison with the predictions of the Leader of the Opposition, as supported by Conservative Back Benchers, they did very badly indeed.

On Zimbabwe, I freely acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman, and others on both sides of the House, has been pressing me on that matter. I am pleased that we are having a debate about it, which will present an opportunity to send a message loud and clear to Robert Mugabe about what the House thinks of his despotic rule.

Yes, the Prime Minister will make a statement on Monday, following the European Council. The hon. Gentleman referred to the European elections. Of course, when I made my statement last year, there was no prospect of a referendum on the European constitutional treaty. Now there will be a referendum and we will fight it. When we do so, the pathetic Conservative policy on Europe will be exposed and it will be made very clear to the voters. One of the reasons why Conservative policy will be exposed relates to what happened last Thursday. I am surprised—no, perhaps I am not surprised—that the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the fact that a large proportion of the Conservative vote went to the United Kingdom Independence party. Some of his own Back Benchers are sympathetic to the withdrawal from Europe strategy. When the arguments are raised with the electorate, the electorate will clearly see that Britain should be at the heart of Europe under Labour and that Britain would be on a train out of Europe under the Tories.

On the issue of postal votes, the hon. Gentleman mentioned Birmingham, but there were no pilots for postal votes in Birmingham. There were local elections, but not the all-postal voting pilot arrangements that he and his colleagues consistently complain about. They did not apply in the west midlands. I should like to quote the joint statement from the north-west regional returning officer, Sir Howard Bernstein, and Martin Bottomley of the Greater Manchester police, who said: While the nature of the allegations has changed this year, the scale has not increased; if anything, it has lessened. When we look at the facts as opposed to the hype and the rhetoric, what we see is that 14 million people were given the opportunity to vote from the comfort of their own homes. The pilots covered that scale of voters, compared with 6.5 million last year. European election turnout in pilot regions was up more than 100 per cent. Is that not a good thing for democracy? That is compared with a rise of less than 50 per cent. in non-pilot regions. The facts speak for themselves. On the specifics of when the assessment will be made, the Electoral Commission is due to report in September. The Government, led by the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, are carrying out their own inquiry, and we will report to the House when those inquiries are over.

On the question of the regional assemblies Bill, that will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. Yesterday, I promised the Liaison Committee a timetable for that, and the expectation is that it will be published and available for pre-legislative scrutiny before the recess. That will give plenty of time for voters who will be voting on regional assemblies—and I hope that they will vote yes—to know what they are voting for, which is a voice for their own regions and, therefore, a stronger voice for their own interests.

I think that I have dealt with the matters raised, but I cannot read my own writing on the last point.

Mr. Heald

Immigration visas.

Mr. Hain

Yes, on the question of immigration visas, we have consistently put in place practices and procedures to tackle any abuses of the visa system or the immigration procedures, and the Home Secretary gave a written ministerial statement today that provides details of our response to the inquiry that was set up into what went wrong in Bulgaria and Romania. That is available for everyone to see.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Is the Leader of the House aware that when he gave the business for the next two weeks, he also announced the recess for 22 July, which means that after the next two weeks' business, there are only three more weeks left before the long recess? He will know that I have called for the introduction of a ban on fox hunting, and we need that before the long recess. There are now three weeks available for us to show that most Labour MPs are in favour of banning hunting, most Tory MPs are in favour of the opposite, the Liberals are split down the middle—so there is nothing neater in electoral terms—and UKIP members will be fighting one another like Kilkenny cats. There is not a subject under the sun that is better suited to us, and to raising our morale in the constituencies, than a ban on fox hunting. Get on with it!

Mr. Hain

I am with my hon. Friend in sentiment all the way. As he knows, the House voted for a ban on hunting and an end to cruelty to animals by a landslide majority, and I was in the same Lobby as he, with the vast majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The House's view on the matter is overwhelmingly clear, and I hope that Opposition Members will give a guarantee that the Conservatives in the House of Lords will not seek again to threaten the primacy of the House of Commons on this or other matters. I can tell my hon. Friend that when the time is opportune, an announcement will be made. The Government's intention is, as I have consistently said, to resolve the matter.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

May we have a statement, either before or during Tuesday's debate, on the Government's intentions or opinion polls, their use by newspapers and their potential for distortion of the electoral process? The Prime Minister's answer yesterday implied that that is simply a party matter, but I suggest that it is a much bigger issue. It affects every member of the House and the whole integrity of the political process. I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 1294, which a large number of Members on both sides have signed.

[That this House regrets the decline of self-regulation of public opinion polling companies in the United Kingdom; is deeply concerned that there are no sufficient checks on the integrity of polling or polling organisations; further expresses concern at the proliferation of non-scientific/empirical polling, in particular the use of techniques designed to secure the results favoured by those who commission the polls, and lack of transparency in the methodology employed; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to conduct a thorough investigation into the integrity, honesty and professionalism of the polling industry and, if indicated, introduce regulation.]

May I also draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to some specifics from last week, when the poll YouGov and the Evening Standard purported to demonstrate that Messrs. Livingstone and Norris were neck and neck when they were clearly nothing of the sort? The same poll in The Daily Telegraph overestimated and grossly promoted UKIP, when that was clearly inaccurate. Finally, the exit poll, which is quite difficult to get wrong, was simply wrong. May I suggest that the whole way in which polls are regulated or self-regulated should be examined?

On a quite separate matter, will the Leader of the House see whether the Home Secretary can come to the House, next week or the week after, to discuss some very important national lessons emerging from the Caroline Dickinson murder inquiry? The right hon. Gentleman may know that the family are constituents of mine. I took John and Sue Dickinson to see a succession of Ministers about the important lessons that need to be learned from the inquiry.

The chilling truth is that, without the heroic persistence of John Dickinson and the incredibly lucky break that occurred when an immigration officer guessed what might have happened with the person found to be the culprit in due course, no case could have been brought and no conviction secured. That is a shocking reflection on the adequacy of cross-Europe co-operation.

I do not deny for a moment that there has been a great improvement in that co-operation since 1996, and I am grateful to Ministers for their response to our lobbying on this matter. However, will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to look carefully to see whether there can be greater co-ordination between the investigating forces across Europe? In particular, will he look at the question of the harmonisation of DNA testing and analysis? That has not been possible in the past, but it was a very important feature of the Dickinson case. We all know that serious crime crosses national boundaries. Crime-stoppers must do so as well.

Mr. Hain

First, I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Gentleman stood by the Dickinson family as they went through this dreadful experience. I agree that Mr. Dickinson showed enormous persistence and courage, and great skill, in ensuring that justice was done.

It is a pretty shocking episode. The almost accidental way in which justice was eventually done exposes a series of matters, not least the question of harmonisation of DNA testing. Work on that is being done, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will take careful note of the interest of the hon. Gentleman in these matters, and of the points that he has raised.

The hon. Gentleman asked about opinion polls. I am sure that he does not blame those polls for the fact that the Liberal Democrat candidate in the London mayoral elections polled only 15 per cent., but he makes a fair and important point. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the chairman of the Labour party will consult with other parties on what is, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, an all-party matter.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the editorial in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph? It denigrates the proposals by the Modernisation Committee that people visiting the House should get a greater welcome and that the term "strangers" should no longer be used.

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


Joan Ruddock

No doubt the right hon. Gentleman agrees with the question posed by the newspaper. It asked: Why … should Parliament, a serious, grown-up institution, change its well tried ways to attract the attentions of those too young to be interested in it? Is that merely a reflection of the elderly profile of Telegraph readers, or is something more serious going on?

Mr. Hain

My parents-in-law are Telegraph readers, so I do not want to insult too many of them. However, I very much agree with my hon. Friend that the editorial was extraordinary. It began by saying: The heart sinks at proposals to make the House of Commons more accessible to young people. In our democracy, the young persons' vote is declining, as is their interest in politics. It seems that The Daily Telegraph has the enthusiastic support of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the former shadow Leader of the House.

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman nods, from his mediaeval posture on the other side of the House. The newspaper seems to want to turn off young people and young voters. The Modernisation Committee is an all-party committee, with Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour members. We feel that the House of Commons should send out a loud and clear signal to all members of the public—and to young voters in particular—that this is their House of Commons. They are entitled to be able to visit it more easily, to be given a better welcome and to have their concerns addressed. A whole series of practical and radical measures have been suggested to enable Parliament to be better connected with the public. We ought to welcome that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

I thank the Leader of the House very much for arranging the debate on Zimbabwe. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will open the debate, as it is a matter of very considerable importance. To some of us it is as important as the matters relating to Iraq, but my question is to do with how the House operates. Will the right hon. Gentleman take very seriously the problems facing many Select Committees, which are finding it difficult to get a quorum of members for important meetings? Particularly on the Government side, it appears that members of the Select Committee are being appointed to other Committees—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)


Mr. Speaker


Sir Nicholas Winterton

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Government Members are being appointed to other Committees of the House that they consider take priority over Select Committees. I believe that Select Committees are the most effective way of the House holding the Government of the day to account. Therefore, they must be of considerable importance. Will the Leader of the House turn his attention to that and have a word with his own leader of the business, as it were, namely, the Chief Whip?

Mr. Hain

The Chief Whip will have taken note of the points made by the hon. Gentleman and, especially given his seniority in the House, will want to study them carefully. The hon. Gentleman will find that in many of these instances it is a question of appointments to Standing Committees and Statutory Instrument Committees, which are very important, although I agree that Select Committees are vital for the effective functioning of the House and for holding Governments and Ministers accountable. I am happy to confirm that the Foreign Secretary will be opening the Zimbabwe debate. I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in the dreadful events in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the NHS loans out a lot of medical equipment and aids such as crutches, commodes, wheelchairs and even specialist beds, much of which is never returned. Will he ask the Health Secretary to come to the House and make a statement on the issue? Will he join me in congratulating BBC Radio Sheffield and other groups in South Yorkshire who have got together to campaign and encourage people to take such equipment back? That will save the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Mr. Hain

I am happy to congratulate BBC Radio Sheffield, on which I have been interviewed from time to time. I join him in appealing to his constituents and others to return equipment that is vital for the effective functioning of local hospitals.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

The Leader of the House will have seen recent reports, which were not unsurprisingly welcomed by the House Builders Federation, that the Government plan to scrap local authority designation of protected land. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has called the plan a blow for local democracy. Given the recent controversy over the Barker report, the cynical manipulation of the green belt and the general concern about the concreting over of our countryside, will the Leader of the House provide Government time before the summer recess for a debate on this extremely important matter?

Mr. Hain

I am sorry, but I have to rebut the proposition that we seek to erode the green belt or concrete over the countryside. It is just nonsense and scaremongering. The hon. Gentleman will have seen a number of written ministerial statements that made clear what we were doing to find areas, especially brownfield sites, which were suitable for the extra housing projects that we need to fill the gap in the housing programme that has been largely bequeathed by the Conservative Government.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

What did my right hon. Friend mean precisely when he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) "when the time is opportune" with regard to the use of the Parliament Act to make sure that hunting with dogs comes finally to an end? Can he be more precise? Does he understand that the question now is whether we will have the courage to end this barbaric sport once and for all? That is what the overwhelming majority of Labour Members wants and undoubtedly what a large majority of the country expects this Parliament to do before the general election.

Mr. Hain

As I have assured my hon. Friend and others, we are determined to resolve this matter.

David Winnick


Mr. Hain

When the time is right, I will make an announcement.

David Winnick

What does that mean?

Mr. Hain

When the time is right, I will make an announcement. There is no attempt to avoid this issue. It is clear that what my hon. Friend described as a barbaric practice has to be ended. There is no question about that. I am with him all the way. I think that he will be encouraged when I make the announcement about how we intend to proceed.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)

Can the Leader of the House give the House some information about the future of the statue of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, which is outside the House? He must be aware of the statements in the press that its location is to be changed. If that is so, why, when and where to?

Mr. Hain

I have not seen any proposals to change its position, so the hon. Gentleman can be reassured on that.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)

In welcoming the debate on Zimbabwe in Government time, may I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for the work that he has done behind the scenes to ensure that finally we have a debate? Given that the Foreign Secretary will open the debate, will he inform the House of some extra sanctions that this country might be able to impose rather than waiting for the European Union to do so? Is it possible for the House to have some form of debate to show that we do not want the England cricket team to go to Zimbabwe even to play one-day matches or the Zimbabwean team to come here in September and play at the Oval in my constituency in the International Cricket Council championships?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. As she knows, I am with her all the way in my opposition to Mugabe's regime. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is extremely concerned to make sure that events change for the better for the people of Zimbabwe. He will carefully note the view that she has expressed and will want to see whether he can make any progress in the direction that she asks.

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

Has a date for the statement by the Chancellor on the outcome of his comprehensive spending review yet appeared on the Leader's radar and if so, can he share it with us? Can he give a guarantee that before the House rises there will be a full day's debate in Government time on that statement so that the Chancellor can seek to persuade the Governor of the Bank of England that the Government's expenditure plans are sustainable?

Mr. Hain

There is no question but that the Government's expenditure plans are sustainable. That statement has been widely endorsed by economic commentators and others. As for a statement on the CSR, yes it is on my radar and no, I am not able to tell him yet when it will be.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, while there is no appetite to return to regular late-night sittings and all-night sittings, there is a mood in favour of adjusting the hours as they now stand. Has he made any progress on that matter?

Mr. Hain

I thank my hon. Friend for the constructive discussions that I have had with him and the efforts that he has made with others to find a way forward. The Modernisation Committee met yesterday and agreed after a fairly lengthy discussion to proceed with its review, which will include taking evidence from hon. Members who have been particularly articulate in supporting one position or another. We will also take close account of the excellent Procedure Committee report, which contains a comprehensive survey of Members' opinions, with an unusually high return from Members. I thank the Procedure Committee for that.

I am anxious, as I know my hon. Friend is, to find a way of avoiding a knife-edge vote like we had last time, but I think that if we simply dropped a proposition on the table tomorrow, we would get that again. I want to find a way of addressing all the issues that have arisen in the consultations that I have had and those issues that have been drawn to the attention of the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee. We want a modern approach. We do not want to roll the clock back, but we want an approach that deals with all the concerns that a large number of Members have about the present situation. That is what the Modernisation Committee will do. We shall write shortly to every hon. Member to ask whether they wish to add to our knowledge any points other than those identified by the Procedure Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), so that we can make a recommendation to the House.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

In his Mansion house speech last night, the Chancellor understandably called for an increase in the supply of housing, but unfortunately in the north-west of England, outside certain selected inner-city areas, Government housing policy is inhibiting the reuse of brownfield sites and the further supply of affordable housing. Will the Leader of the House persuade the Minister for Housing and Planning to make a statement to the House perhaps before it rises for the summer recess indicating a willingness to review policy with a view to achieving Government policy?

Mr. Hain

I am a bit puzzled by that point, because I do not recognise that situation. However, as the right hon. Gentleman represents a constituency in the north-west, he will know it better than I do. I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is well seized of his points and is able to discuss them with him to discover what can be done.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab)

The Braintree Riverside club in my constituency has been in existence since 1974. It has 150 members and provides an opportunity for older people to learn new skills in art, carving, computers, history and a range of other subjects every Friday. Up to now, the club has been supported by Braintree college, but under the new terms of the college's financial directives, it will not be able to pay the costs of £30,000 in the coming financial year. The club provides a valuable facility to the older people of Braintree. Can my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate so that lifelong learning and skills can be put at the forefront of the agenda for people in Braintree?

Mr. Hain

I acknowledge that that is an important issue for my hon. Friend's area. There will be a debate on Wednesday in which he could raise the matter further, and I hope that he will consider whether he wishes to do so.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

I also thank the Leader of the House for arranging a debate on Zimbabwe, which will give many of us an opportunity to encourage the Foreign Secretary to press internationally for deeper, sharp sanctions against the Mugabe regime.

The situation in Iraq is clearly deteriorating rapidly. I put it to the Leader of the House that the occasional statement, though welcome, from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence is not enough, and we need to have another debate on Iraq soon.

Mr. Hain

I am sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman's request and discussions are taking place. Clearly, the situation in Iraq is now entering a different position, with the handover of power to the Iraqis themselves and the prospect of elections to follow next year. It would be a good opportunity for the House to discuss where we are going and where our strategic focus lies, so I will bear the right hon. Gentleman's request closely in mind.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1292?

[That this House notes that the overwhelming majority of medical studies have shown that passive smoking is severely detrimental to human health; further notes that, according to a recent Imperial College London study, one person working in the hospitality industry is killed every week by the effects of passive smoking and that according to other studies, smoking is the cause of 32,000 deaths from lung cancer and 11,000 from other cancers every year; further notes that the Department of Health has initiated a major consultation exercise on smoking in public places that will form part of a White Paper later this year and that the Welsh Assembly is beginning a similar consultation; rejects the notion that a ban on smoking in public places would be illiberal and believes that a ban would act as an encouragement for heavy smokers to kick the habit; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation to ban the smoking of tobacco in public places forthwith.]

It already has more than 100 signatures. Is he also aware of the private Member's Bill, which I am now promoting? It has passed through the other place, promoted by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure the safety of people working in the catering and hospitality industry, one of whom dies every week because of passive smoking? Can he arrange for us to have a debate on that important issue and does he agree that we should take the lead in that crucial area of public health?

Mr. Hain

I agree that we should take a lead in that crucial area of public health and, indeed, we are doing so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has launched a major consultation, which includes questions about what action could be taken to tackle smoking, and second-hand smoking in particular. That has been extended to the end of the month and one of the options is the introduction of legislation to ban smoking in public places. My hon. Friend has been a champion of that policy and I pay tribute to her. The Second Reading of her Bill will take place on 15 October.

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

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) called for the regulation of opinion polls, but will the Leader of the House consider regulating Liberal party election literature, which is even more dishonest than some of the opinion polls mentioned? Can the Leader of the House assist us by rehearsing again the timetable for the regional assemblies legislation? If we are to get the draft Bill only just before the summer recess and if it will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, the voters will not know what the draft Bill—never mind the final Bill—will be like, before they are asked to vote in the referendums. Is not that the wrong way round and will he therefore look again at the timetable? Will he give an undertaking that people will not be asked to vote on regional assemblies until they know the final form of the legislation?

Mr. Hain

In a moment of unanimity with the right hon. Gentleman, I agree that regulating Liberal Democrat literature would be in the interests of humanity, not to mention democracy and honesty in politics. I will look carefully at any opportunities to do so.

On the issue of the regional assemblies Bill, I go back to the precedents. I was involved in the referendum held in September 1997 on whether to set up a Welsh Assembly. It was preceded by a White Paper, called "A Voice for Wales". The public knew that they were voting on whether to set up a Welsh Assembly. Not even a draft Bill was published before the referendum, let alone one subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. We have moved on since then. We have had a White Paper and the voters in the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside will know that they are voting on whether to have a regional assembly to give them a voice and real power over regional issues. The Labour party is in favour of empowering the regions of England and providing them with better democracy. The fact that we will publish a draft Bill before the summer recess, which will then enter the pre-legislative process, will mean that extra information will be available, and the right hon. Gentleman should welcome that. We are not failing to make details available of what will be a short Bill: voters will have more information than the Scots and the Welsh did when they voted in September 1997.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the public were informed by many of the world's politicians that we needed to go to war with Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction, it was an immediate threat to the world and Saddam Hussein was behind the tragedy of 9/11. Now we know that none of those statements was true, may we have a debate to examine the evidence behind them? At the same time, perhaps we could discuss the real reasons for going to war, which were oil and the west's need to control the Gulf region.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend and I have an honest disagreement on that matter. I respect the honesty of his point of view and ask him to respect the honesty of mine, that of the Prime Minister and of the Cabinet, who took the decision—with the overwhelming backing of the House of Commons in a vote—to go to war. On the question of weapons of mass destruction, we await the report of the Butler inquiry and the later report from the Iraq survey group. They will pose all sorts of questions, and it will be open to my hon. Friend to look at those.

I disagree with my hon. Friend fundamentally on one point. The Government never ever said that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. We never made that assertion and nobody should be allowed to suggest that we did.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

There was uproar and outrage recently at Belfast Crown court about the sentencing of Conor Doyle, who brutally murdered his girlfriend, Angela Snoddy, by stabbing her more than 70 times, almost severing her head. Could we have a debate on sentencing for serious crimes? Conor Doyle was sentenced to serve only 10 years before being considered for release. The House should have the opportunity to discuss sentencing levels, so that magistrates and the judiciary are aware of the concerns of right hon. and hon. Members and their constituents that, in far too many cases, sentences do not fit the crime. Life appears to be cheap, especially for women, and we need an opportunity to urge the Attorney-General to review all low sentences automatically.

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been anxious to ensure that life genuinely means life for the most serious murders and other crimes. He has introduced changes in the tariff arrangements and the sentencing procedures to ensure that the seriousness of crimes is taken into account by the courts. I agree that the case he mentions is appalling, and my right hon. Friend is taking a close interest in it.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

May we have a debate on the lessons to be learned from last week's elections?

Mr. Forth

Twenty-two per cent

Chris Bryant

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman said that, because 22 of the 25 seats in the Rhondda were held by Labour—I do not know What the problem was elsewhere.

May we look especially into the fact that many ordinary people who sought postal ballots were troubled that someone had to Witness their voting? They would like to see a change in that system. Furthermore, could the local and European elections always be held on the same day in future, as that seems to be rather good for turnout?

Mr. Hain

I certainly agree with the points that my hon. Friend made. The result in the Rhondda was an example to us all, not least in Neath. There was a complete wipe-out of Plaid Cymru, which paid the price for the dreadful council it had run and the policies for which it had been responsible. I agree with his point about the witness procedure, which was included, I think, at the insistence of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, who wanted to make as much mess as they could of the postal voting system—they wanted to discredit it from the beginning. The witness statement made many voters feel that the privacy of their vote was in some way transgressed and I think that the Electoral Commission will want to look at that issue.

There is great merit in my hon. Friend's last point; when there are European elections, local elections should be held on the same day, so that people can vote just once. As we saw, turnout was up significantly. The results, if not brilliant for the Labour party, were brilliant for democracy.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Can the Leader of the House find time next week for a statement to explain the logic behind why there will be referendums for regional assemblies before the House passes legislation, yet the Prime Minister is insistent that the House comes to its deliberations on the European constitution before the people will get a choice?

Mr. Hain

The situation is simple and I shall explain it to the hon. Gentleman. There are important precedents. When establishing a new body, such as assemblies for the three English regions, there is a vote on the principle, followed by the legislation to effect it. If the vote is no, the legislation is not proceeded with. That is exactly what we did in the case of Scotland and Wales and it makes sense, because an assembly is a new body—an entirely new institution.

What is at stake in the European constitutional treaty, however, is the amendment, reform and modernisation of several existing European treaties. There is a European Union; we are in it. We made that decision in a referendum under a Labour Government—denied by a Conservative Government—in 1975. As the legislation goes through, all the issues will be exposed, as will a lot of the Tory myths and downright lies about what the new constitutional treaty is about. The voters will come to see that it is a common-sense reform and modernisation, and the simplification of a tangled web of treaties into one text, so that everybody can see how the EU is structured and how it works. They will know, too, that the House of Commons for the very first time will be given a say on any new piece of European legislation. That is a big advance for democratic rights and for national sovereignty, and the hon. Gentleman should recognise it.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

May I return to the point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? It is important that we have an early statement from the Deputy Prime Minister on the timetable for the regional assembly referendums—when the orders will be made and so on. Does the Leader of the House think it right that we go ahead with all-postal voting in the regional assembly referendums in October when the Electoral Commission will not publish its review of all-postal voting on 10 June until the previous month—September? The whole thing has concertinaed and we need to rethink the timetable.

Mr. Hain

If I may say so, I think my hon. Friend has bought a lot of the Tory and media myths.

Mr. Prentice

No, no.

Mr. Hain

I am sorry to have to say that to my hon. Friend but I am afraid it is true.

The timetable is clear. We are currently assessing the evidence about what happened last Thursday and in the preceding week or two, because votes were cast before Thursday in large, if not overwhelming, measure. The Government will also seek the advice of the Electoral Commission and there will be plenty of time to take that into account for the postal ballots. There is a difference in that situation, however: people will be asked to vote yes or no to a regional assembly. We hope they vote yes, but that situation is different from the two sets of elections with what many people found were rather complicated ballot papers.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)

The Leader of the House may be aware of the ongoing discussions since July last year between the United States Administration and the United Kingdom Government about the renewal of a bilateral agreement on weapons of mass destruction programmes for both the US and the UK. May I commend a new report by the British American Security Information Council? Its conclusion states: The Labour Government has declined to set aside time for a full parliamentary debate and it has been parsimonious with the actualite of the agreement. Does the Leader of the House agree that US-UK nuclear weapons collaboration under the mutual defence agreement is important and that it should be debated in full?

Mr. Hain

It has been going on for a very long time—many decades—so I do not see a case for an urgent debate, but the hon. Gentleman can apply for a debate in the normal way.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

Public-private partnerships and private finance initiatives, equally unattractive cousins, have racked up aggregated debts of £120 billion, which is more than 10 per cent. of gross domestic product and is off the Government balance sheet. Perhaps the largest such deal is the one to modernise and upgrade the tube network, whose present net value is £16 billion over the next 30 years and which provides returns to shareholders at the mouth-watering levels of 18 to 20 per cent. Has the Leader of the House seen the report published today by Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General. Stripped of the accounting jargon with which I am relatively familiar, that report is excoriating in its criticism. It says, in effect, that the deal is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence to the taxpayers, travellers and train drivers of this land. When can we have a debate on the shambles and folly that is PFI?

Mr. Hain

There are many opportunities to debate those matters. The Government will obviously want to study the report carefully and the Secretary of State for Transport will want to note my hon. Friend's points, but he must acknowledge that through the PFI and the PPPs there has been a huge expansion in capital programmes under the Labour Government—

David Taylor

At a cost.

Mr. Hain

Of course. But the cost through public borrowing and public funding would have meant fewer opportunities to provide from public finance the many capital and public spending projects in which we have invested on a record basis.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

May I return the Leader of the House to the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay)? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that four weeks ago I asked for a debate on Iraq, especially in the light of the handover to the Interim Government on 30 June. As that date is only 13 days away and as he has already announced the business for the next fortnight, may I earnestly implore him seriously to consider holding a debate, certainly in the three weeks thereafter before we go down for the summer recess?

Mr. Hain

I will pay very serious attention to the hon. Gentleman's request I am sympathetic to it, but it is a question of fitting it into the rest of the business—the need to get Royal Assent for Bills and so forth. However, the time is fast approaching when we should take stock of where we are going on Iraq and his point will be well noted.

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

As a Bill to implement a version of the Tobin tax has been accepted by the commission on finance and budgets in Belgium and is due to be voted on by its Parliament in a fortnight's time, can we have a debate on the sensible proposals that the Belgians are currently examining? Those proposals involve a low, normal tax on currency speculation, but when matters get out of hand and the currency is being battered about by massive speculation, there should be a high rate of tax to interfere with that and dampen it down, because many of the world's economies in poorer nations are destroyed by currency speculation.

Mr. Hain

I acknowledge that my hon. Friend has long been an advocate of the Tobin tax. The Chancellor and the previous Secretary of State for International Development, who addressed these matters some years ago, have explained the Government's point of view, but I am sure that the Treasury will want to note the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

I was tempted to ask for a debate on just how badly a Labour Government have to lose a European election before they will realise that they should not sign up to a European constitution, but as I know that I would not get that, may I ask instead for a statement or debate on the law of trespass? I was involved in a case whereby a burglary took place and the police identified the fact that people had been present but were not able to charge them because their alibi was that they had gone into the house with the intention of occupying it and setting up a squat. Is there not something extremely strange about a situation where if people steal and take away another's property, they commit a criminal offence, but when they enter another's property, change the locks and sit there, they cannot be touched by the police and the owner has to go to enormous expense and trouble to reoccupy his or her own property?

Mr. Hain

That is a rather strange situation, I must concede. I am sure that Ministers in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, one of whom is sitting to my left, will have noted very carefully what the hon. Gentleman has said.

On the Europeans elections, the blunt truth is that everyone lost them: the Conservatives lost them, Labour lost them, the Liberal Democrats lost them and the United Kingdom Independence party lost them, as did every other minor party. That is the picture that resulted from last Thursday's vote.