HC Deb 04 March 2004 vol 418 cc1051-69 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 8 MARCH—Commons consideration of Lords amendments to the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the first joint report of the Accommodation and Works Committee and the Administration Committee on visitor facilities: "Access to Parliament".

TUESDAY 9 MARCH—Opposition Day [Unallotted]. There will be a debate entitled "Publication of the Advice from the Attorney-General on Iraq", followed by a debate entitled "Young People and Democracy". Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru.

WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH—Second Reading of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 11 MARCH—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on aviation services and a debate on biofuels. Details will be given in the Official Report. At 6 o'clock the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

FRIDAY 12 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 15 MARCH—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill. Remaining stages of the Fire and Rescue Services Bill.

TUESDAY 16 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Traffic Management Bill.

WEDNESDAY 17 MARCH—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

THURSDAY 18 MARH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

It may assist the House if I confirm that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will make a statement on Monday on the publication of the Penrose report. Next week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will make a statement on Government policy on genetically modified foods.

[Thursday 11 March:

Transport: In so far as they relate to aviation (6th Report of Transport Committee, Session 2002–03, (HC 454—I and HC 454—II) and Government response to the Transport Committee's Sixth Report, t into Aviation.]

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement, especially the announcement about the Penrose report. I have raised the matter with him on several occasions and on Tuesday I tabled early-day motion 741.

[That this House notes with concern the long delay in publishing the Penrose Report into Equitable Life and the consequent postponement of an oral statement or a debate on this important matter, which affects the life savings of hundreds of thousands of policy-holders and annuitants; and calls on the Leader of the House to ensure an early statement on the Penrose Report followed by a full debate.]

Given that it has taken the Leader of the House only two days to arrange the statement, will he announce on Monday that the review of Select Committees that early-day motion 760 mentions is imminent?

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Ha, ha, ha.

Mr. Heald

It is always good to have appreciation.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a copy of the Penrose report, which is obviously complex, to be made available early to Opposition spokesmen? Will a full debate take place in due course on that important matter?

Is there any news about the date for a debate on the aviation White Paper or will the estimates day debate on 11 March be sufficiently wide to cover it?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be a full debate before action is taken to cap local authorities?

The Leader of the House will know of the increasing concern about the escalating number of allegations of abuse of all-postal voting ballots. What are the Government doing about that? He will know that the Electoral Commission sanctioned a strictly limited and controlled pilot of that system for the European elections in two regions, and that measures have been taken specifically to avoid election fraud. In Monday's European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, the Government are seeking to defy the commission and increase the number of regions to four. Can the Leader of the House tell us how the essential protections will be put in place in the two extra regions, given that there is so little time? Does that not raise the risk that unscrupulous parties such as the British National party, and politicians of that sort, will simply be given a free run to abuse the system?

Finally, the Leader of the House will know that today is world book day. Has he seen the survey that shows that hon. Members read more than journalists, but that they entirely avoid self-help and mind, body and spirit books? We are said to prefer biographies. In the current political climate, would he like to recommend a suitable self-help book to his colleagues on the Labour Benches? May I suggest "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway" by Susan Jeffers or, as a suitable fiction title, "No Second Chance" by Harlan Coben?

Mr. Hain

On the future business of Parliament, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to assist the House? He will be aware that Lord Lloyd has tabled an amendment in the House of Lords— [Interruption.] This concerns the House of Commons as well. Lord Lloyd has tabled an amendment designed to put the Constitutional Reform Bill into Select Committee. That is unprecedented, against the express will of the Government and it will make it impossible to get the Bill through this Parliament. Will the hon. Gentleman prevail on his Conservative colleagues in the House of Lords to ensure that that amendment is resisted? That is important, because that manoeuvre could wreck the passage of a Government flagship Bill. I am sure that he will want to join me in opposing that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] Hon. Members say "Order", but it is important that a Bill supported by the Government is not wrecked as a result of that procedural manoeuvre.

I shall now answer the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised. On the Penrose report, as Leader of the House I always jump to attention on the hon. Gentleman's early-day motions. He has obviously had the desired result on that matter, but it was always the intention to make a statement on the report. I also confirm—I am sure that he will welcome this—that the Treasury will be publishing the report in full. I shall draw to the Financial Secretary's attention the hon. Gentleman's request to see an early copy of the report. As I understand it, it is a comprehensive report and no doubt his request will be taken seriously.

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when there will be a debate on the aviation White Paper, but there will of course be an opportunity to raise all his colleagues' points during the debate on Thursday, which should go some way at least towards satisfying his repeated requests on that matter.

On postal voting, I should have thought that, in an era of declining voter turnout, it was in all our interests to encourage greater turnout, whichever party those voters support, to improve the health of our democracy. We face the phenomenon of declining voter turnout across the democratic world. In areas where pilots for all-postal votes in local elections have taken place, turnout has dramatically increased. Is the hon. Gentleman saying, on behalf of the Conservatives—although I understand that this is the Liberal Democrat position as well—that they do not want more postal votes and better access for voters? What are they frightened or? Are they frightened of a large turnout of voters in the north-west of England, Yorkshire and Humber, the east midlands and the north-east of England? I should have thought that he wanted greater voter turnout.

On fraud and abuse, the Electoral Commission has made it perfectly clear that it is satisfied that the pilots can go safely ahead without any real risk of serious abuse. On the point about having four regions instead of two, the commission listed other regions, including the north-west of England and Yorkshire and Humber, as possible candidates for pilot schemes if the Government so chose. Millions of voters will be given extra opportunities as a result of this, and I cannot for the life of me understand why the Conservatives are seeking to deny those voters in the north of England the chance to vote more conveniently and easily in elections that are for local government and the European Union.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a full debate on the council tax before any capping takes place. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that, if he has to cap high council tax local authorities, he will do so. It is encouraging that at the moment the average increase seems to be about 6 per cent., which is much lower than it was last year and in previous years. The Deputy Prime Minister intends to bear down on those councils, including Conservative councils, that are pressing for gigantic council taxes at a time when we have put record investment into local government and when the increase in grant settlement for Conservative-controlled local authorities is actually larger, at about 6.1 per cent., than that for Labour local authorities, although I am not sure that I should remind my colleagues on the Labour Back Benches of that. There is no excuse for large council tax increases.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's question on world book day. May I remind him that the survey also shows that Members of Parliament read in bed?

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House tell us when we can expect the long-delayed Bill to evict the remaining hereditary peers from the House of Lords? Will he also tell us whether the report in today's edition of The Independent, headlined, "Lords reform in disarray after officials bungle drafting of Bill", is correct? Will he now confirm that, as this is a major constitutional issue, it will be taken in full in Committee of the whole House? Does he recall that, in the votes last year, the option of an all-appointed House, which was advocated by the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor. was defeated in this House by 87 votes—a large majority? As the Leader of the House was on the right side in those votes, I am sure that he will also recall that 332 Members voted for a majority elected second Chamber. It would clearly be a contempt of this House if those votes were ignored, and if a Bill were produced that had the effect of creating an all-appointed second Chamber, without any steps being taken within Parliament to make progress towards completion of reform.

In those circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he is taking seriously our proposition for a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee to examine ways in which we could fulfil the mandate of this. Government and his colleagues? He will have seen that many Members on both sides of the House have endorsed that proposal as a way forward. Will he tell us what steps he proposes to take to allow the House of Commons, and the House of Lords, to make progress? I hope that he will agree, as he has been on the side of the reformers, that we have had plenty of consultation and independent analysis, and that it is now time for Parliament to complete this process and bring this long-running Whitehall farce to a successful conclusion.

Mr. Hain

I thank the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for voting to extend by an extra day the time that the Higher Education Bill will be considered in Committee. I must also express my amazement that the Conservative Opposition voted against that programme motion, thereby seeking to deny the extra discussion on higher education in Committee that they have been pressing for. That is an extraordinary position.

On the reform of the House of Lords, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing untoward about the situation in respect of the Government's Bill. It is going through its proper process before being introduced into Parliament, and that will take place when we are ready to complete that process. In respect of the issue that he has quite properly raised in the past on the nature of House of Lords reform, he knows that I voted in a similar Lobby to him on a number of occasions a year ago. It is vital, however, that he join us in seeking to tackle the essential obstacle and anomaly in the current situation, which is the presence of 92 hereditary peers. I cannot for the life of me believe that the Liberal Democrats, with their long-standing policy on this matter, would actually vote against a Bill that sought to get rid of those hereditary peers. I just cannot believe that—or maybe I can, depending on the position that the Liberal Democrats take.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has had discussions on this matter with the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. He has also quite properly raised with me the matter of a third stage of House of Lords reform, to which I am strongly committed. The Lord Chancellor has indicated that it is our intention to proceed down that road. The hon. Gentleman says that there has been plenty of consultation, but the problem is that there has been no consensus. All the options were defeated a year ago, including the option for a fully appointed Chamber. I note, however, that the House of Lords, as I pointed out previously, voted pretty well overwhelmingly for a fully appointed Chamber. I would therefore find it extraordinary if the Conservatives, Cross Benchers and hereditaries were to seek to defeat a Bill that would maintain for the time being the present situation of an all-appointed Chamber but improve and modernise it by establishing an independent commission, and remove the anomaly of people making laws because a long-deceased ancestor happened to be awarded a peerage for no reason at all.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on debt relief and aid, in relation to which several issues are of serious concern at the moment—[Interruption.] Yesterday's debate was on trade justice, and this is an issue that needs further debate. Everybody agrees that Ethiopia needs top-up debt relief, yet the US Treasury spokespeople are saying that more debt relief would simply encourage more borrowing. If we are to achieve the millennium development goals to which all countries are signed up, we need more debate and more action on these issues. In particular, I would like the UK to take the lead and increase aid to 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product, which some other countries have managed to do, and which we should also be able to do.

Mr. Hain

I very much agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments. I know that she will also want to applaud the way in which our Government have nearly doubled the overseas aid and development budget after years of merciless cuts by the Conservatives when they were in government. We are leading the international campaign to tackle world poverty, reduce the burden of debt and promote trade justice, which is in sorry contrast to the Opposition's plans to cut the aid budget by £250 million in the first two years of a possible Conservative Government—an astonishing attack on the poor of the world.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

In each of the last three weeks, either the glass doors between the colonnade and Portcullis house, which I understand are manufactured by a company called Portal, or the unreliable escalator up to the Portcullis house main floor, manufactured by Otis, have been unserviceable. The taxpayer spent more than £250 million to improve the infrastructure and working conditions for Members and their staff. Every day. thousands of journeys are made between these premises, so although the Leader of the House is clearly not responsible for the unreliable equipment supplied to the House by those companies, will he please inform the House, Members of Parliament and the hundreds of staff who use those facilities what is going wrong and, when they are broken, how long it will be before they are mended, because we are not serving our constituents well in this way?

Mr. Hain

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's question and share his frustration and irritation. It is not right that this should be occurring. My brief from the Serjeant at Arms says that there is a shortage of spares, and that a store of spares is being built up on site to help to avoid such delays. I am sure that the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue on the Floor of the House will ensure that matters are speeded up.

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

My right hon. Friend will recall early day-motion 247 in my name, welcoming the success of the national minimum wage but calling for it to be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds.

[That this House welcomes the success of the national minimum wage in giving protection to millions of workers across the United Kingdom; and urges the Low Pay Commission to extend the minimum wage to young full-time and part-time workers by including 16 and 17 year olds in the legislation at the earliest opportunity.] A report from the Low Pay Commission is now with the Government. Can he find time for a debate on the national minimum wage and its possible extension?

Mr. Hain

I know that my hon. Friend has long argued for that, and the Government have been examining the situation carefully and awaiting the report from the Low Pay Commission. I can tell him that an announcement is due in the coming weeks, and I hope that he will find it an encouraging one.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

I was very interested to hear that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will make a statement on genetically modified crops next week. This is the first time that the Government have devoted any Government time to the issue. Has the Leader of the House seen the cross-party motion in my name that appears as No. 46 on today's Order Paper, calling for full parliamentary scrutiny and a vote on Government policy in respect of GM crops? The Leader of the House told the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on 29 January that as soon as we are in a position to do so, we are committed to having a debate. I am sure that there will be no question of proceeding with any decision until the debate has occurred." — [Official Report, 29 January 2004; Vol. 417, c. 398.] Can he assure the House today that we will have an opportunity for a debate on a Government motion, not just question or statement, and put it to a vote in this House?

Mr. Hain

I remind the hon. Gentleman that no GM seeds can be planted this year, because the planting season has passed. The urgency of such a debate has therefore slipped a little. Nevertheless, I am glad that he welcomes next week's statement, and I stand by what I said: the Government are indeed committed to arranging a debate, and we shall do so as soon as is practicable. A number of issues are involved, including the fact that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister for the Environment are committed to attending a number of Agriculture Council meetings that are crucial to Britain's interests. It is a question of arranging a time when at least the Minister for the Environment can be present, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are on the case.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Cardiff was named the first fair trade capital in the world earlier this week? That means that a certain number of shops, supermarkets and local authority and other businesses stock fair trade goods. Will he join me in congratulating Cardiff council and the other organisations involved, and can he think of ways in which the Government can help other cities to follow Cardiff's example? May we have a debate about that?

Mr. Hain

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Cardiff on a flagship achievement in what is indeed a flagship city—the fastest-growing capital city in Europe. Anyone who has been there recently—and the Modernisation Committee is going on onday—will have seen a dynamic city that is growing fast and proudly taking its place as one of Europe's leading cities.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Two weeks ago I visited BAE Systems in Samlesbury in my constituency, and talked to trade union representatives who were worried about the fact that the Government were dragging their feet over the announcement of tranche 2 of the Typhoon programme, formerly known as the Eurofighter. This week I read in a newspaper that the Secretary of State for Defence was minded to cancel tranche 2 and reduce the number of Typhoon aircraft that the Government would buy. That would have a huge impact on manufacturing jobs and defence manufacturing capability. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come here as soon as possible and make an announcement about the programme's future?

Mr. Hain

The Secretary of State will of course be here to answer questions on his allotted day. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the company in his constituency, and the Secretary of State will obviously take careful note of what he said. I might ask, however, how the programme could proceed under a Conservative Government if one were elected, given that the Conservatives are committed to cuts of £2.5 billion in defence spending in their first two years in office.

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

Many Labour Members were brought up on council estates and would attest to the importance of affordable homes in good condition with accountable landlords. We were reassured when my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), who was then the relevant Minister, said that decent homes would still be a requirement where local authority landlords were retained by tenants. The present Minister for Housing and Planning has apparently announced a change in Government policy that will allow investment only where the private finance initiative, stock transfer or an arm's-length management organisation is operating. Will my right hon. Friend ask him why there is no fourth option, why the policy has changed, and why no statement has been made to the House?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will note my hon. Friend's remarks, which obviously came from the heart.

Total housing investment will be £11 billion over the next two years—a big injection of extra capital and support for housing. That contrasts markedly with the shadow Chancellor's plans to cut spending on housing by £400 million in the first two years of a possible Conservative Government.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

Street youth crime, thuggery and antisocial behaviour are becoming the most urgent, pressing issue in our communities. May we have a debate that will show us how to galvanise police and local authorities into action to tackle this blight on our communities?

Mr. Hain

I agree., and I think that the hon. Gentleman's sentiments will be echoed on both sides of the House. In all our constituencies this has become a real plague—or blight. to use his phrase. That is why we have introduced tough antisocial behaviour legislation. It is imperative for police, local authorities and other agencies to apply those laws rigorously and to ensure that we tackle the problem at root and also avoid criminalising, in a pre-emptive way, youngsters who are causing trouble and indulging in yobbery. I am sure that he will welcome the Government's proposals.

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

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Office for National Statistics has published information showing that 250,000 people disappeared from electoral registers in 2003, despite a growing population? The last time that we had a serious debate on this issue was when we were considering what became the Representation of the People Act 2000, when rolling registers were introduced. They were a thinned-down version of what I proposed in my Representation of the People Bill in 1993, which was supported by the current Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the late John Smith and many members of the current Cabinet. May we have a debate on what is still a serious situation so that we can put it right? People cannot even abstain if their names are not on registers.

Mr. Hain

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his long campaign, which has brought about a much better way of registering voters. We are now trying to increase opportunities to achieve what he wants. As I said earlier in connection with postal voting pilots in the north and the east midlands, it is vital for more and more people to have a chance to vote, so that the health and vibrancy of our democracy is improved.

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

Yesterday, the Northern Ireland Chief Constable reported a serious level of continuing IRA violence on the streets, particularly punishment beatings and shootings aimed at young people. That comes on top of the Tohill abduction, which has caused a crisis in the political situation. May we have an urgent statement from the Government revealing what action will be taken against the IRA, and in particular to remove the privileges and perks that it currently enjoys under the Belfast agreement, which have been denied to other paramilitary organisations in breach of their ceasefires?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to table a question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for answer on Tuesday, and I hope that he will take advantage of it. But, as the Government have consistently made clear, it is imperative for all parties to ensure that they are not half in and half out of the democratic process. The incident mentioned by the hon. Gentleman was very serious; that is one of the reasons why the British and Irish Governments have asked the Independent Monitoring Commission to examine the allegation that Provisional IRA members were involved in an abduction, in the context of the preparation of its first report on paramilitary activity.

Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows that feelings are running high on miners' compensation schemes and the fact that miners are losing out. There was an excellent Adjournment debate on the subject yesterday morning. We are rightly exposing the unscrupulous practices of lawyers, but we must also make clear to miners and their families that the end of this month is the cut-off date for them to make claims. Will he use his good offices to encourage them to do just that?

Mr. Hain

I welcome my hon. Friend's question. As a former Energy Minister who was responsible for introducing reforms to speed up the process, and as a representative of a former coalfield community, I am passionate about miners' compensation schemes and rewarding all who are entitled to rewards. It is indeed essential for solicitors and, indeed, trade unions not to double-charge. At the same time, we are talking about the biggest compensation scheme in Britain's history—probably in the history of Europe, if not beyond it—in which more than £1 billion has been given to help sick miners and their families on account of the appalling circumstances from which miners have suffered.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

I am sure that the Leader of the House would want to be evenhanded. He described Cardiff as a flagship city on account of its fair trade policies, so would he also attribute flagship status to the borough of Macclesfield, which has taken a similar decision? However, that is not my real question.

To return to postal voting pilot projects, Conservative Members are concerned that the Electoral Commission's recommendations were for two pilots, but the Government are seeking to extend them to four. I met the chairman and chief executive of the Electoral Commission yesterday and they told a colleague and me that they had recommended two pilot projects, and that it was the Government's decision to extend them to four. They were concerned that sufficient safeguards were not in place to guarantee the security and integrity of the electoral roll. They believed that, because of the vulnerability and abuse of the electoral register, it would not be a good idea to extend to four pilots at this stage.

Mr. Hain

I understand that the hon. Gentleman met the Electoral Commission recently. If he reflected carefully on the matter, he would confirm that the Electoral Commission, in addition to the two top regions of the east midlands and the north-east, identified further regions in the second tier, which the Government could, if they wished, bring into the postal voting system. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the allegations of corruption and abuse are in respect of the existing system, which is different from the proposed system. If the Electoral Commission were seriously worried about abuse and corruption, it would not have recommended two regional pilots in any case.

What I find baffling, particularly from a strong democrat such as the hon. Gentleman, about such a question, is that the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside will be taking part in a referendum on an all-postal-vote basis a few months later to establish whether the people want regional government. What is the difference between having an all-postal-vote pilot in June and one in September?

Mr. Heald

It is question of timing.

Mr. Hain

It is not a question of time. The truth is that, if the Bill goes through, many millions more people in the north of England will be able to vote with ease from their homes—and Conservative Members should support that. On Macclesfield, I am delighted that it is a free trade—or rather, a fair trade—area and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)

This week it has been announced that a longstanding nursing home in Hook in my constituency is to close and, despite its proximity to the local school, reopen as a unit for people with personality disorders. There is considerable local concern and anger that that could happen without any local consultation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the local community and its representatives should have a large role in deciding the appropriate nature of such resources, and will he allow time for a debate on the procedures that govern such matters?

Mr. Hain

I am concerned to hear that there has been no consultation. I would have thought that consultation should happen—and should already have happened—in that case. I am sure that those responsible will take note of the important point that my hon. Friend has raised.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

I am sure that the Leader of the House is greatly looking forward to Opposition day debates next week, particularly the SNP/Plaid Cymru motion that suggests that the Attorney-General should produce and publish his advice on the war in Iraq. Given that that provided the legal basis on which we went to war, can the Leader of the House confirm that the Solicitor-General will reply to the debate and, if not her, the Prime Minister?

Mr. Hain

The arrangements for which Ministers handle which debates are decided at the appropriate time, and the hon. Gentleman will receive due notice of that. However, the proposition that the Attorney-General, surrounded as he is by Law Officers advising him in great numbers, would have given advice that was anything other than absolutely straight and full of integrity is an absurd and preposterous one. That is what lies behind the allegation that the Scottish nationalists and their colleagues in Wales wish to propagate—and it is not acceptable.

I believe that we need to arrive at a better position for public life. Currently, virtually any judge is branded a liar, virtually every Cabinet Minister is branded a liar, and the only people who escape branding as liars in the current frenzy of public debate are journalists. They are the ones who are supposed to be telling the truth. Perhaps we should have a debate on the standards of journalism in this country.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that by the time Members return from the Easter recess, more than half of the Refreshment Department staff who serve Members of Parliament as opposed to members of the Government will have received their notice? They will be paying for the changing of our hours, although we are constantly told that the Refreshment Department is making a bigger profit than before. It really is outrageous that the facilities for Members are increasingly limited, while other facilities—desperately needed though they are—are given priority.

Mr. Hain

I know of my hon. Friend's views on sitting hours, and she takes a strongly held position on the matter. She is free to continue to argue it, but it is an entirely separate matter from the position of catering staff. I share her concern about that, and I am sure that she will want to address her concerns to the Chairman of the Catering Committee, which is responsible for those matters. She is absolutely right, though she reluctantly conceded it, that income from catering in the House has increased since the change of sitting times. The relationship between the reformed hours and catering provision is not straightforward.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

As someone hoping to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye in Westminster Hall next Tuesday afternoon and someone who initiated a debate on Zimbabwe in Westminster Hall 15 months ago, I put it to the Leader of the House—he has an outstanding record of opposing the Mugabe regime—that many of us are deeply disappointed that, with the deteriorating position in Zimbabwe, we have not had a full-scale debate on the Floor of the House. Westminster Hall is not sufficient to debate such a serious matter. I know that the Leader of the House agrees with me, so can he persuade the Foreign Secretary to initiate in Government time a full-day debate on Zimbabwe on the Floor of the House as soon as possible?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary—he and I have been in touch with the right hon. Gentleman's office, partly as a result of the quite proper questions that he has recently put to us—is carefully considering the need for a debate in the Chamber. We all share—the right hon Gentleman and I especially—an absolute revulsion for the state to which Zimbabwe has descended under Robert Mugabe's tyranny. Frankly, with rape and terror camps being established, where people are trained to wage terror on the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe it seems to me that Robert Mugabe is rapidly catching up Idi Amin as the Hitler of Africa.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to last Session's early-day motion 63:

[That this House expresses its sadness that more than 1,748 members of Her Majesty's armed forces have lost their lives through non-natural causes since 1990 and sends condolences to all their families; notes that almost 200 deaths have been caused by discharge of firearms and further that some 200 are described as self-inflicted; notes the growing public perception that the Ministry of Defence response to these deaths is inadequate and distressing to the be? caved; applauds the courage and determination of the friends and families of Scan Benton, James Collinson, Geoff Gray and Cheryl James who died at Deepcut barracks in Surrey; and of Paul Cochrane, Ross Collins, Richard Donkin, Tony Green, Dale Little, Aled Martin Jones,Alfie Manship, Gary Riches, Richard Robertson, Alan Sharpies, David Shipley and Christopher Young who have subsequently come forward to make public their own grievances and frustrations at the hands of the military authorities; believes the Army has a duty of care and protection towards all personnel, particularly young soldiers; believes that the culture of secrecy surrounding the varied cause of these deaths must give way to greater transparency; believes that the environment in which these deaths continue to occur and the absence of a system for prompt, effective and independent investigation of deaths has led to a breakdown in public confidence that can only be restored through a full and independent public inquiry; and urges the Government to establish a tribunal of inquiry without delay.]

The corresponding provision this Session is early-day motion 78.

They deal with the demand by more than 200 hon. Members for a public inquiry into the Deepcut and other deaths.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Surrey police today issued its report, urging a broader investigation and inquiry. In its statement, however, the Ministry of Defence, while agreeing to make an early statement before the House, has not indicated the nature of the inquiry. Will the Leader of the House draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence the fact that, when asked what a broader inquiry was, the Surrey police replied that it was one independent of Government and Army, transparent, with powers to call for people and papers, held in public and intimately involving the families of the victims."?

Mr. Hain

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's persistence in bringing this matter to public scrutiny. He referred to this morning's statement on the matter, which stated that each of the four deaths in that appalling series of incidents was an individual tragedy in its own right. The MOD is working energetically to see what lessons can be learned, and I understand that the Select Committee on Defence will establish its own inquiry into the matter. I am sure that that will be welcomed by all concerned.

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

I reassure the Leader of the House that previous pilots on all-postal ballots in the borough of Trafford in my constituency have resulted in far more Conservative votes than Labour votes. We are not concerned about the electoral implications for the Conservative party of moving to all-postal ballots. However, we are concerned that it is impossible to guarantee the confidentiality of such ballots, and to ensure that intimidation will not take place. May I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider the matter? Will he look again at the advice from the Electoral. Commission, and will the Government consider accepting the wise counsel on this issue from another place?

Mr. Hain

I have two points to make, although the hon. Gentleman can raise many of these matters in the debate on Monday—

Mr. Heald

Don't worry—he will.

Mr. Hain

The shadow Leader of the House says that the hon. Gentleman will do just that. The principles are clear. First, increased turnout is in all our interests. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said that postal voting caused the number of Conservative voters to rise. Although that is bitterly disappointing to me, it is a consequence of increasing turnout. We all have a vested interest in securing high turnout, in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside, as well as in the east midlands and the north-east.

Secondly, if the enterprise were as risky as has been claimed, why has the Electoral Commission recommended that two regions go ahead with postal voting? If there were problems of abuse, lack of confidentiality and corruption, the commission would have said that no pilot schemes should be held. It has not said that, however: it has said that we should go ahead with two schemes and that if we judge that there are sufficient resources and so on to enable four pilots to be held, we should go ahead and hold those as well. That is exactly what it said.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

We celebrated St. David's day this week, and it is appropriate that hon. Members walk beneath his portrait as we come into the Chamber from the Central Lobby. Also this week, the Western Mail announced that the greatest Welshman ever was Nye Bevan, the hero of public services. Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate in the near future on the valuable role played by public sector workers? If the Opposition came to power, those workers would come under attack the very next day, and their P45s would be in the post.

Mr. Hain

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Aneurin Bevan on winning the race to be Wales's outstanding hero. He was the runaway winner, which is marvellous. As my hon. Friend noted, Bevan introduced the national health service, which has been a gift to all of us. Under Labour, more nurses, doctors and consultants have been recruited. We are beginning to put the NHS back on its feet again, after years and years of cuts. If the Conservatives were to come to office, there would be more cuts in the NHS, and a reduction in the number of nurses.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

Given the lack of public confidence in the network reinvention process for post office closures, will the Leader of the House read, and act in support of, early-day motion 725?

[That this House calls on the Department for Trade and Industry to halt forthwith the Network Reinvention Programme of post office closures while an investigation is carried out into flaws in the notification, consultation and decision-making process, which led to inaccurate information being presented to the public and to consultees, including honourable Members and at least one metropolitan borough council, and which have led furthermore to a decision to close a post office being made on the same day that honourable Members and a council were notified in writing by Post Office Limited's Head of the North West that more time was being taken to review that closure, and which have led to the designation of a rural post office as urban without reference to clear criteria including those in the Performance and Innovation Unit report of 2000; notes that Royal Mail now recognise inadequacies in the process and that subsequent closure consultations will be modified but that current consultations will not be changed; regrets the failure of the Post Office and Postwatch to use clear and unambiguous language in their replies to honourable and Right honourable Members; and further regrets the failure of Post Office Limited to transmit a clear, strategic, coherent vision of the future of the Post Office at the heart of local communities.]

Mr. Hain

The hon. Lady will know that there is an Adjournment debate on the subject next Thursday, in which she can try to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab)

Earlier, my right hon. Friend mentioned the Third Reading of the Fire and Rescue Services Bill, which provides for the regionalisation of fire call centres. That is understandable, as it will help procurement, and make possible the synthesis of the radio communications systems that are used. However, before the Bill was published, Government policy was that we should move to joint service systems covering the ambulance, police and fire services. That approach has been adopted in the tri-service centre in Quedgeley in my constituency, at a cost of £6 million. If there is to be a move to the regionalisation of fire service call centres, will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate so that Gloucester can put its case—which I —believe to be irresistibly strong—to house that regional fire centre?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has mounted a very impressive and persuasive argument. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will want to listed carefully to it. Indeed, I think that my hon. Friend has already raised the matter with him. I wish him all good luck in his attempt to win the argument.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

The Leader of the House is clearly wedded to the idea that postal voting will re-engage the public in elections, but will he really excite the British public by pledging that there will be a postal vote covering the whole of the UK in respect of any future European constitution?

Also, the right hon. Gentleman will have noted that today's edition of The Guardian reports that Lord Hutton feels extremely aggrieved at the way in which the conclusions of his report into the death of David Kelly were taken out of context, misreported, and therefore misunderstood by the British public. To assist in the rehabilitation process, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Prime Minister to place in the Library of the House what he has so far refused to place there—a copy of his letter to Greg Dyke dated 19 March, and details of telephone calls by Mr. Alastair Campbell to the BBC between 12 March and 14 April?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman is engaging in exactly the sort of activity that The Guardian says so astonished Lord Hutton. I urge him, and everyone else, to accept that the Hutton report was an independent report by an outstanding judge of independent mind. A refusal to accept the report's conclusions has bedevilled the debate in recent weeks, and that is also what seems to lie behind his question.

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab)

I chair the all-party group on autism, and very much welcome many of the initiatives that have been taken to improve support services for autistic people. However, I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a report published this week entitled "Mapping Autism Research". It highlights the need for more and better co-ordinated research into the causes of autism, and the effectiveness of interventions. In other words, we must find out more about what works. May we have an early debate on this issue, and will my hon. Friend draw the report's findings to the attention of his ministerial colleagues?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that my ministerial colleagues will have their attention drawn to the report, not least because the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), is sitting nearby on the Front Bench. He will have heard the eloquent case that my hon. Friend has just made. I have experienced the problems associated with autism through a child in the family of one of my friends. We are beginning to deal with the problem in a way that is much more comprehensive than was the case in the past. I am sure that the points made by my hon. Friend will be borne in mind.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

The US authorities have still not formally notified the British Government about the arrest of Krishna Maharaja, who is a British citizen. Will the Leader of the House consider asking a Foreign Office Minister to make a statement, next week or the week after, on the recent judgment that the fact that Khrishna Maharaj may have evidence showing that he is innocent is not a reason for ordering his retrial?

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's request to the attention of the relevant Minister. Our relations with the US are traditionally very close, and need to be maintained in a spirit of partnership. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in congratulating Senator John Kerry on his decisive victory in securing the Democrat nomination for the election campaign.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend comment on recent media speculation that the port of Mostyn on north Wales might not be used to transport Airbus wings to France? If true, would not that be a terrific blow to north Wales?

Mr. Hain

I am very disturbed by the report, and by the apparent action of the Environment Agency. I have visited the Airbus plant, which is the biggest manufacturing plant anywhere in Europe. It is a vital part of the economies of north-east Wales and the north-west of England. I hope that the matter can be sorted out by the Welsh Assembly, the Environment Agency and the other parties involved. As my hon. Friend said, it is proposed that the wings should be transported by way of Mostyn docks. I have visited those docks: their navigational access to the river Dee is very important, as it would allow the wings to be transported down to Toulouse, where this big new aircraft is to be constructed. I therefore hope that the problems can be resolved speedily.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

Further to the very important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), the Leader of the House may not be aware that last week the television cameras were once again camped outside the gates of the BAE Systems factory at Warton in my constituency, reflecting growing uncertainties about aspects of the company's future and the Eurofighter project in particular. Two months ago, when the defence White Paper was published and I raised the issue with the Leader of the House, he kindly acknowledged the importance of there being a debate on the White Paper. Given how events are now moving and the uncertainties affecting potentially 40,000 jobs in the north-west, may I ask him for that debate so that all the issues can be thoroughly discussed?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Secretary of State for Defence will note the right hon. Gentleman's impassioned plea on this point. I, too, recognise the crucial importance of the defence industry to the north-west economy, including his constituency. The Secretary of State will want to bear that in mind and, I know, always does bear that in mind in any decisions that he takes.

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

Following the previous question and the earlier question from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), as we approach the date of the Chancellor's Budget statement, could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate about the full implications of the Opposition's plans to freeze and cut defence spending, not just on the Eurofighter project, but on smaller projects such as the important Territorial Army base in my constituency or the future expansion plans of the Lancashire Fusiliers regimental museum in my constituency? Can he find time in the near future for a debate on all aspects of the Opposition's plans to cut defence spending?

Mr. Hain

I am very concerned indeed to hear that future Conservative Government plans may threaten the Lancashire Fusiliers museum, which is a fine museum, and the Territorial Army headquarters. If £2.5 billion worth of cuts are implemented in any Government programme of defence cuts, such projects will be casualties. It is absolutely vital that we alert people to that fact.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough) (Con)

May I return the Leader of the House to a matter for which he does have some responsibility, namely the business of this House? May I repeat the request made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a speedy debate on the air transport White Paper, in particular in so far as it reflects on the proposed expansion of cargo night flights into and out of east midlands airport? The flights will come low over my constituency and disturb the residents of the many villages.

The Leader of the House may not be aware that on 23 February I was due to have a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), but unfortunately it had to be cancelled. His private office asked me to write or email to make another appointment. I did so twice on the following day and have followed up that request. On 27 February the private office told me that the Minister's reply was being drafted. Does it really require a great deal of effort to reply to a letter or email to fix a ministerial appointment? I am happy to see the Minister in the Tea Room; I do not have to go to the Department to discuss this hugely important issue. If I cannot have a meeting with the Minister, surely we should have a debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Hain

I am worried to hear of the hon. and learned Gentleman's experience and I am sure that the Minister concerned will want to meet him as soon as practicably possible, particularly as the hon. and learned Gentleman has been pressing the matter repeatedly and the Department is aware of his concerns about east midlands airport and the implications of the aviation White Paper. He might try to raise the matter again a week on Monday during the debate to which I referred at the beginning of business questions.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)

May we have an early statement on negotiations with the Government of Tanzania regarding asylum claims? On 25 February the Prime Minister told the House: We are in negotiations with the Tanzanian Government on how we can process claims for asylum nearer to the country of origin."— [Official Report, 25 February 2004, Vol. 418, c.277.] Yet on 2 March in a written reply to me, the Minister of State at the Home Office, referring to these negotiations, says: These partnerships are not about processing asylum claims nearer to the country of origin." — [Official Report, 2 March, Vol. 418, c.892W.]. Given the extreme sensitivities surrounding asylum claims and immigration at the moment, surely it would be in the best interests of the Government to come to this House and define precisely what they are hoping the aforementioned negotiations will achieve.

Mr. Hain

Obviously, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State will want to note my hon. Friend's points, but I am sure that she will agree that it is sensible to negotiate with all countries to make sure that the problem of asylum is dealt with more speedily and satisfactorily, closer to where people originate from. I am sure she will also be pleased that the number of asylum seekers to Britain has halved under the policies that we are implementing and that removals are 24 per cent. up on last year, to record numbers. We are getting a grip on this problem, but getting other countries to help in whatever way they can is part of that process.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)

May we have an early debate on the outrageous activities that have been taking place at the Royal Free hospital since 1995, where the inflammatory bowel disease study group has been carrying out lumbar punctures and a battery of other invasive tests on autistic children without proper research or clinical ethical approval, which was granted only for clinically investigative activities on children with disintegrative disorder? Yet the paper published in The Lancet yesterday, partly retracted by some of the authors, reveals that none of the children subjected to these tests had disintegrative disorder.

This is a serious matter because children are not allowed by law to be used as research guinea pigs. Clearly, any consent to these investigations may well be invalidated by the lack of such ethical approval. Does the Leader of the House feel that the time is now right for a national health service or an independent inquiry? Can we at least have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on this matter?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the issue. Certainly, the matter will be taken careful note of, given the way in which the hon. Gentleman has raised it today?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker