HC Deb 11 March 2004 vol 418 cc1657-75 12.30 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)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would first like on behalf of the whole House to convey our deepest sympathy and condolences to the relatives of all those many, many people who have been so shockingly killed or injured by the bombings in Madrid today, in Europe's worst-ever atrocity. We are outraged and angry, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish people and their Government in the fight against this evil kind of terrorism.

The business for next week will be as follows: 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, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

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

THURSDAY 18 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 22 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget.

TUESDAY 23 MARCH—Conclusion of the Budget.

WEDNESDAY 24 MARCH—Opposition Day [7th allotted day, part 1]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced. This will be followed by a debate on the Equitable Life inquiry on a motion for the adjournment of the House, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

THURSDAY 25 MARCH—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 26 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Heald

I start by joining the Leader of the House in expressing condolences and sympathy to the victims of the bombs in Madrid and their families. I understand that so far it is reported that 170 people have died. It is an appalling tragedy, and we should express our feelings of sympathy and solidarity to the whole of the Spanish people. I also join the right hon. Gentleman in his remarks about fighting terrorism and standing firm in the west on this vital concern and issue.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business, and particularly for the debates on defence and Equitable Life—both of which I have been calling for a long time.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) asked the Prime Minister why the Government are trying to reverse the ban on the export of live horses. That will result in many ponies facing a miserable journey, only to be killed in southern Europe. The Leader of the House, kind-hearted as ever, in contrast to some of his colleagues, immediately shouted out, as reported at column 1522 of Hansard, that it was an issue of animal welfare. Indeed it is, and it is a matter of concern to animal lovers across the country. Yet the Prime Minister claimed not to know about the issue. That is surprising, given that he received a 65,000-person petition about this widely reported issue only last week. Is it not clear that we need a statement clarifying matters, preferably from the Prime Minister himself?

In his article in The Guardian this week the Leader of the House claimed that Labour had made an effort to lose its image as centralising control freaks, but that Back Benchers still felt marginalised. Is not the right hon. Gentleman guilty in all this, with his refusal to allow proper time for debate on important issues such as tuition fees, the Hutton report and the local government finance settlement? Has he forgotten the Government policy announcements saved up for the recent recess, referred to in early day motion No. 742?

[That this House notes with regret that the Government chose to save up many policy announcements, such as the reform of the examination system, substantial changes to the Civil Service and drug testing for school students, so that they could be made outside Parliament during the half-term recess; expresses its concern at this downgrading of Parliament and abuse of the stated purpose of the half-term break; and calls on the Government to make important announcements in Oral Statements to the House, so that honourable Members have the opportunity to hold the Government to account.] That was done so that the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues were simply unable to question the decisions made. It is not just that they feel marginalised; the fact is that they are marginalised.

Has the Leader of the House considered further my request that there should be a full review of the way in which the Government treat our Select Committees, as set out in early-day motion 760, given that that is based on the comments of Labour Members, as well as those of other parties? Is it surprising if they feel marginalised, when he refuses to do anything about it?

Has the Leader of the House any news about the timing of the debate on the aviation White Paper—something that hon. Members on both sides of the House care about? Is the reason for the delay that the decisions made were so unpopular? If so, is it not wrong that such an important debate should be kicked into the long grass for the Government's convenience? Can the right hon. Gentleman understand why hon. Members feel marginalised?

Mr. Hain

May I first express my gratitude to the hon. Gentleman for his statements in joining me in condemning the terrorism in Madrid? What has happened underlines the threat from terrorist attacks of that kind that we all face here in Britain, as well as elsewhere in Europe—not just in the United States— and we must be vigilant about them. The Government intend to remain vigilant about the danger of such attacks.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to describe me as kind-hearted: I will take that both as a compliment and as a damaging attack on my career prospects.

On the export of horses and ponies, the Prime Minister responded as he did, but he also said that he would reply, and there is absolutely no inconsistency about that.

On policy development both in the Labour party and in the House, I am in favour of opening up policy debate. Indeed, we are encouraging that process in the House of Commons. This Government are more accountable to the House than any previous Government. The Prime Minister has spent more time in the House answering questions, making statements and leading debates than his predecessor, a Conservative Prime Minister. He attends the Liaison Committee regularly. He is accountable there. No Prime Minister has ever been in that forum before. That is accountability. That is opening up the policy debate.

In addition, Ministers are more open than any of their predecessors in opening up the policy debate. That is what the big conversation is about. This Government, unlike the Conservatives, will face up to the country's future challenges by travelling across the country, as I will be doing later today, when I go to Birmingham to engage in a policy debate with the people about the future challenges that the Opposition refuse to confront.

On Select Committees, we have a proud record in strengthening their resources and in putting them right at the heart of parliamentary accountability, so I will not take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman about that.

On the timing of the debate on the aviation White Paper, the hon. Gentleman has quite properly been asking for such a debate, and there is concern throughout the House. We will hold the debate as soon as it is proper to do so, but we are embarking on a long-term strategy, which the Secretary of State for Transport announced, on the future of our airports and aviation over 30 years. Getting that right is important. Debating it is equally important, and we will do so when the time is right.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

On behalf of my colleagues and myself, may I entirely associate us with the remarks made by the Leader of the House? We share his dismay and his horror, as well as the sympathy that he expresses to the people in Madrid. As I came into the House, I was not aware whether any perpetrator had been identified. Can the Leader of the House give us any indication of whether it would be possible, if and when the perpetrators are identified, for a Minister to come to the House to make a statement? Of course if those in al-Qaeda, rather than the Basque separatists, are the perpetrators, there are implications for our security in the House and in this country, as part of the European Union. I hope that he will agree to that.

We are delighted that the Leader of the House has agreed to hold a short debate on Equitable Life and the Penrose report, but may I suggest that we need a full day's debate in Government time on the whole issue of the regulation of financial services and the protection of consumers? The extremely damaging and very important report on endowment mortgages from the Treasury Committee today shows that the financial services sector is simply not well regulated. Regulation, which is a Government function, is simply not doing the job. It is not just a question of Equitable Life because, as the Select Committee has told us, 60 per cent. of those receiving advice about endowment mortgages might have received inadequate—mis-selling—advice. The Select Committee identifies a black hole of £40 billion.

The whole regulatory regime is now on trial, and I think that the Leader of the House would agree that it is no longer possible and desirable simply to blame the regulatory regime under the previous Government. We must consider how the regime is operating now. Can we therefore have an indication from him as to how soon we can have a full day's debate in Government time on the whole regulatory regime?

Mr. Hain

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the Madrid atrocity. We do not have any evidence about those responsible, but the atrocity was of such a scale that that point needs to be taken into account.

On the hon. Gentleman's important questions about Equitable Life, he will know that the events in question happened under the previous Government and they were very serious. That is why Lord Penrose issued his report, why the Financial Secretary to the Treasury made a statement earlier this week and why Lord Penrose will appear before a Select Committee of the House next week to take the matter forward. We are also having the debate that I just announced.

The regulation of financial services has constantly been kept under review and I very much welcome the Treasury Committee's report on endowment mis-selling. People have suffered from mis-selling over the years, and the problem goes back many years before our term of office. However. I make no party point as it includes our term of Office, and that is why, soon after coming to office, we reformed the whole regulatory system by setting up the Financial Services Authority. That has resulted in action against 24 firms charged with endowment mis-selling leading to their paying £673 million to 430,000 customers. Complaints by individuals have resulted in a payment of a further £200 million. As a result of the new regulatory regime, extra action is being taken, but we will keep the matter constantly under review, especially bearing in mind the Select Committee's report.

John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 254?

[That this House welcomes the decision to terminate Connex's ownership of the South Eastern railway franchise and that this service will now be run by the public sector, through the Strategic Rail Authority; further welcomes the fact that this is the first passenger service to be brought back into public ownership since privatisation; is concerned, however that despite the poor record of privatised train operators, the SRA is proposing automatically to re-privatise this service by inviting private sector tenders for this service without considering a public sector option; and urges the Government to use its powers under the Transport Act to retain the South Eastern franchise in the public sector to help promote an integrated public railway system and ensure a better deal for the passenger and tax payer.]

The motion relates to the rail franchise for south-east London and Kent, and the Leader of the House will be aware that my constituents have the only passenger rail service that has been taken back in to public ownership. Has he seen today the report published by the Strategic Rail Authority on national rail trends? It shows figures on punctuality and that the publicly owned operator, South Eastern Trains, has had the best improvement of any of the train operating companies in London.

Given the improvement to the service that the public sector has begun to deliver, could the Leader of the House request that the Secretary of State for Transport come to the Chamber to make a fresh statement on the future of South Eastern Trains now that we have clear evidence that there is no need in the public interest for the Government to re-privatise that franchise?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has made his case in a compelling way. He will also agree that 1,400 more train services run every day compared with when we came to office. More than 2,000 stations have been improved; 19 new stations have been opened; bus use is up by 15 per cent. since 1997; and more than 1,500 new rail vehicles are already in service. That shows all the investment that we have been putting in and will continue to put in over the 10-year programme of our investment plan.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

My colleagues and I join in expressing our sympathy to those who have been murdered and seriously injured in Spain. We have had to live with this kind of atrocity. Fortunately, we now share a measure of peace.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the recent great black Britons poll in which the Crimean war nurse, Mary Seacole, emerged as the winner. The courage and service of this West Indian-born original lady of the lamp has, however, largely gone unnoticed. For that reason, I tabled early-day motion 744.

[That this House recognises the results of the recent 100 Great Black Britons poll organised through the Every Generation website; notes that the poll plays a vital role in celebrating the United Kingdom's black culture and heritage; further notes that the campaign is an excellent medium through which citizens of the United Kingdom can learn about the contributions made by black people to the country; pays tribute to the poll winner, the late Mary Seacole; recognises the valuable work undertaken by the West Indian-born nurse tending to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War; further recognises that her dedication to providing assistance to the wounded is exemplified in the effort she made to overcome discrimination and prejudice which led her to travel to the Crimea at her own expense; notes that other than being awarded a Crimean medal for her work, Mary Seacole has been largely unrecognised for over a century; supports the recent calls by the Royal College of Nursing for a statue to be erected in London in her honour; and calls on the Government to provide funding for such a statue.] The motion calls on the Government to provide funding for a statue in honour of the late Mary Seacole. I am delighted that, to date and in a very short time, 74 colleagues in the House have signed it. It also has the full support of the president of the Royal College of Nursing, Mrs. Sylvia Denton OBE. Will the Leader of the House take note of the early day motion, bring its contents and broad-based support to the attention of the relevant Government Departments, and ask for consideration of the feasibility of, and funding for, an appropriate statue of that great lady?

Mr. Hain

I would be happy to take the hon. Gentleman's eloquent request forward. I wish the Mary Seacole memorial statue appeal, which has been in existence for a while, every success at securing a suitable site and statue to honour her memory.

May I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement on the Madrid atrocity? He is quite right to remind the public that we have been through experiences of terrorism ourselves in the north of Ireland and also on mainland Britain. However, we must bear it in mind that the scale of this atrocity is so huge and horrible that the Spanish people deserve not only our condolences, but our support in dealing with the problem.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that given that the Penrose report showed that Equitable Life was a mutual in name but not in nature, perhaps we need a longer debate so that we can consider how we could implement some of the recommendations made by the Cooperative Commission? It suggested that if a body claims to be a mutual, it should actually be a mutual. I hope that my right hon. Friend will draw the attention of his fellow members of the Cabinet to the fact that we will need to do more to implement the commission's recommendations if the honourable term "mutual" is to be properly respected in the future.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I know that those in government who are responsible will want to take careful note of what he said and to bear it in mind for future policy development.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

The Leader of the House rightly indicated the Government's support for Select Committees, but there is no point in Select Committees producing reports unless they are debated. May I raise with him again two reports by the Procedure Committee, which I chair, namely those entitled "Procedures for Debates, Private Members' Bills and the Powers of the Speaker" and "Sessional Orders and Resolutions"? Both reports are important to the House, so can he give any indication of when the Government will reply to the reports and when—hopefully—we may get a debate?

Mr. Hain

Yes, it is quite legitimate for the hon. Gentleman to chase me on the matter because some time has elapsed since the two important reports were published. I have written to him about this, and I am consulting the Home Secretary on the demonstrations outside the House. I hope to be able to give the hon. Gentleman some welcome news in the not-too-distant future.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab)

May we have a debate on Niger and Ethiopia, both of which are due to have top-up debt relief yet are not receiving it because it is being blocked by the US, with which we are supposed to have a special relationship, as well as Germany and Japan? Ethiopia stands to lose $35 million of support every year, and that support is desperately needed for life-saving services. The country has faced a historical drop in coffee prices and another mammoth drought. Please may we have a debate on the matter so that we can find out what else can be done to relieve the desperate suffering of many people in Ethiopia and Niger?

Mr. Hain

It is now 20 years since "Live Aid", so it is quite appropriate for my hon. Friend to point to the continuing tragedy that exists in Ethiopia and, I am afraid, too many African countries. She will be aware that there has been a massive expansion of British Government aid and development assistance to Ethiopia. That went up from £19 million to £57 million over two years, which indicates our firm commitment to tackling world poverty, ensuring that we tackle the wider issue of debt, and trying to resolve the problems to which she draws our attention.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

The Leader of the House spoke movingly about the scale of today's Spanish atrocity. Is he aware that 16 March is the anniversary of Halabja, when Saddam Hussein slaughtered 6,250 men, women and children and commenced the Anfal destruction of 4,000 Kurdish villages, during which 182,000 Kurds were murdered and slaughtered in an unbelievable act of genocide in which chemical weapons of mass destruction were used on civilians? May the House have a debate in which we can remind people why it was right to remove Saddam Hussein and the evil that he continued to perpetrate?

Mr. Hain

If I may say so, that was an excellent and well-put question. I echo everything that the hon. Gentleman said, and in the ensuing debate about process, comings and goings and the difficulties that terrorist attacks continue to create for the stabilising of Iraq we should remember that the Halabja atrocity, as he said, showed not just what Saddam was capable of but what, in fact, he committed. We should also remember that Saddam Hussein is the only tyrant in history to kill 1 million Muslims. Nobody else has done so, and we should bear that in mind when we debate the Iraq war and its aftermath.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Government are redeploying 60,000 Government jobs to the regions. He will know that in Halifax we have a wonderful business and arts complex called Dean Clough, which was once the largest carpet factory in the world. Nearly 3,000 people are already employed there, but there is space available for more. Could we have a debate on redeployment to the regions so that Members can say that there are wonderful places in their constituencies for jobs to come to?

Mr. Hain

That would be a well-attended debate. Halifax is wonderful, and has a wonderful Member of Parliament, but I do not think that it is as wonderful as Neath, which, I am sure, will bid for its share of those jobs. To be serious, yes, the Government are committed to making sure that as many jobs as possible are transferred from congested London and the south-east to English regions such as my hon. Friend's and to the nations of the United Kingdom.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

Given that the right hon. Gentleman represents Neath, he may not be aware of problems with NHS dentistry in the south-east, particularly the abhorrent practice whereby a new NHS dentist opens, attracts a client list and, a year or two later, decides to go private. Children will only be treated if their parents sign up as private patients. Will the right hon. Gentleman find Government time to debate that issue, so that we can consider whether there should be a minimum length of contract when an NHS dentist sets up?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Lady will have an opportunity to table a question at Health questions next week, and I hope that she takes advantage of that. The issue is clearly important, but she will bear in mind the fact that after long years of decline in dentistry, we have 2,000 extra dentists and are continuing to invest in the service and train more people to make sure that a first-class dental service is available to everybody in the country.

David Winnick (Walsall. North) (Lab)

On 25 February, I supported the Government's position on those detained at Belmarsh, and I believe that I was right to do so. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that there is bound to be concern about the way in which the remaining four United Kingdom citizens held by the Americans will be tried—if, indeed, they are to be tried? There is a strong feeling in this country that a military commission is not the most appropriate way to try such people. Will he therefore find an opportunity for a statement, if not a debate, on the subject. because it is essential that in the war on terror we do not lose the fight for hearts and minds? Justice must be done and, as they say, must be seen to be done. A military commission to try those four UK citizens is not, as I said, the most appropriate way of dealing with the matter.

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's point, and am at one with him about the fact that justice must not be compromised in the war against terrorism. That is one reason why the Home Secretary launched an open consultation. As a Government, we must confront the need on the one hand to guarantee security from terrorist attacks of the kind that took place in Madrid today and which could occur in Britain at any time—we must be very aware of that—and on the other the need to safeguard individual rights. That balance is extremely difficult to strike in today's world, and we must continue to pursue that consultation with, I hope, understanding and contributions from all interested parties.

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

Would the Leader of the House be willing to have a debate next week on graft, corruption and fraud in the European Union, which is out of control? Instead of laughing, Members should consider the individual who was appointed co-director of a campaign to help poor people in Paraguay and spent £1.5 million of the money on the purchase of cars, houses and women. Is it not scandalous that public money, which costs us £1.4 million every hour of the day, is used in that way, and that nobody seems to be able to control it?

Mr. Hain

Any fraud or corruption anywhere, including the European Union, whether in Brussels or elsewhere, must be stamped out, which is one reason why Commissioner Neil Kinnock undertook an effective programme of work to reform the structure of the European Commission and tackle the bureaucratic sclerosis that led to the problems described by the hon. Gentleman. We will continue, however, to be vigilant in tackling those problems.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab)

May I, too, send condolences from my constituents and myself to the families of those killed in those horrific attacks in Madrid and wish Godspeed to the injured?

Would my right hon. Friend secure time for a debate on the growing but undiagnosed problem of the use of drugs in the British Muslim Community? I bring to his attention an insightful piece for "Newsnight" last week by the journalist Imran Khan that highlighted programmes by drug action teams in constituencies such as mine. They are jointly funded by the police and the local council, and target young Muslims who conceal their use of drugs from others because of cultural and religions considerations and do not use the well-funded services that the Government have provided to fight the pernicious menace of drugs. Does my right hon. Friend accept [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should leave time for the Leader of the House.

Mr. Hain

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's vigilant work on the problem of drugs infecting proud communities that have not previously been infected by that menace. She does her best to tackle that problem, and it is crucial to maintain, spending on drugs programmes operated by the Home Office and the NHS to counter the spread of drugs. The planned cuts announced by the shadow Chancellor in Home Office spending of up to £1 billion in the first two years, together with the fact that the NHS would be robbed of £2 billion under the patients passport scheme, would put such projects under strain.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), when replying to a recent debate on Zimbabwe in Westminster Hall, made it clear that the Foreign Secretary wanted a debate on the Floor of the House and was discussing that with the usual channels. I thank the Leader of the House for his positive response to my question last week, but can I push my luck by pursuing the issue of Zimbabwe a bit further on a slightly different field and urge him to arrange time for a Minister at least to make a statement on the cricket tour? After the meeting in Auckland this week, it is essential that the Government state categorically that the English cricket team should not go to Zimbabwe That would put an end to the matter, and would be appreciated by Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Hain

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for continuing to bring to the attention of the House the dreadful situation in Zimbabwe under the misrule of Robert Mugabe. As for the cricket tour, we made it clear that that is ultimately a decision for the English cricket authorities, and there has been regular contact with them as they have sought advice on the situation. I wish to make it clear, as other Ministers have done, that I do not support the tour. If I were in the unlikely position of being selected, I would not go, and many cricketers up and down the land feel exactly the same way. I am sure that Lords will bear that in mind when it makes that decision—I am referring to the respectable face of Lords, not the problems that we have been having in the upper House.

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

The Prime Minister is to be warmly congratulated on his decision to come to the Liaison Committee twice a year, and I hope that he will consider expanding the number of his visits so that we can have more sessions. The purpose of Parliament is to study legislation and to ensure that it is of the very best quality. Is the Leader of the House content with the fact that so many timetabled Bills seem to need amendment at various stages because we do not appear to be discussing legislation in the Chamber in the way that we once did?

Mr. Hain

We are always looking to improve the scrutiny of legislation and to address any problems that might arise from time to time. I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that through the introduction of pre-legislative scrutiny, which is an historic move, there is now the opportunity to scrutinise Bills in advance to a greater extent than there ever was. Under the existing rules of procedure and timetabling motions, there is a great deal of scrutiny. It has put an end to the endless filibustering in which we have all indulged in opposition, and focused discussion on the real issues involved in Bills before Standing Committees.

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

What has happened to the Government's Bill to reform the upper House, or is the Leader of the House losing his appetite for constitutional reform? Can he give me an assurance that when we do get the Bill, the long title will be broad enough to permit an amendment in this House to enable an elected element to the upper House, or is this to be another occasion when the views of Back Benchers are marginalised?

Mr. Hain

I have certainly not lost my appetite for constitutional reform—on the contrary. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to hold his horses for a while, and he will find out that the Bill will be published. As to the amendments that will be selected for debate, that is not a matter for me. That is a matter for the Speaker and the House authorities. We shall have to await the publication of the Bill and see what amendments do or do not arise.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)

In the spirit of the big conversation, will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on how we involve young people in political parties? Will he also agree to meet the officers of Young Labour and Labour Students, who were a little taken aback to read of his comments supporting the wholesale reform of their institutions? Is he prepared to distance himself from the comments of his special adviser, who told me yesterday that he thought those organisations were fundamentally undemocratic?

Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend knows, I have spoken to many meetings of Young Labour and Labour Students throughout the country. I think that they are great organisations. We ought to encourage them and bring them much more into the mainstream of the party. We ought to encourage a better link between Young Labour and Labour Students so that when students leave university, they stay in the Labour party rather than peeling off. I shall, of course, be happy to meet them, although I am not sure that that is a responsibility of the Leader of the House.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)

On behalf of my party and my Scottish colleagues, I fully associate myself with the remarks of the Leader of the House regarding the outrage in Madrid. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Richard report is imminent, and I know that he will be thinking about the way in which it should be debated. There are concerns—legitimate concerns—throughout the House about what may or may not be in the report. Will he consider not only holding a Welsh Grand Committee debate, but securing Government time for a full debate so that all Members representing Welsh constituencies may air their views fully?

Mr. Hain

I shall obviously take full account of what the hon. Gentleman says. As he knows, the Richard Commission report is due at the end of the month. I have no idea, nor does the hon. Gentleman, what its recommendations will be. We have discussed the matter, and I shall take note of what he says and of any opportunities to discuss it. He will understand that it is a report to the National Assembly for Wales, not to the House, although the Assembly, the Welsh Assembly Government and its First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, may well make representations to us following the report as to any changes that might need to be implemented by way of legislation in the House. We shall have to wait for that period before we decide how we handle the matter.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

May we have a wider debate about the financial services industry, particularly the almost daily scandals that are the legacy of an era when laissez-faire went mad, leading to the modern equivalent of the South Sea bubble? Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to make it clear that there is a difference between scandals such as Equitable Life and the mis-selling of endowment mortgages, and the issue of the Allied Steel and Wire workers and others in occupational final salary pension schemes? They were compelled to join their schemes, they were never given any sort of health warning, and they have no means of redress other than the Government. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the difference in that case?

Mr. Hain

Policyholders of Equitable Life and members of pension schemes like that of the ASW workers and many others have been severely short-changed, and in the case of ASW workers, robbed of pensions to which they may have contributed over a period of 30 years and which, after all, are deferred wages. The Government are aware of the scandal that led them to suffer and we are seeking to address it. We have to be careful of the read-across of potentially billions of pounds to claimants right across the field. That is where the difficulty arises.

Mr. Heald


Mr. Hain

So, as regards Equitable Life, there will be a debate and we will continue to take the matter forward. The shadow Leader of the House makes facial contortions and heckles me from the Front Bench. What does he suggest? Does he suggest that potentially hundreds of millions and billions of pounds are lavished in that way? If so, how does that square with his party's commitment to cut public spending in order to make room for tax cuts? That is the question he will have to answer one day.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)

As the Leader of the House knows, in a few weeks 73 million people from eastern Europe will get an unrestricted right to come and live and work in the United Kingdom. The Government have very belatedly introduced a requirement that those migrant workers register with the Government. Will he confirm that the office that will administer the new scheme is the same Sheffield office that earlier this week was discovered to be running a covert immigration policy, about which the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), apparently knew nothing? Will the Government organise an early debate on the matter and introduce the regulation governing the scheme so that we can examine it and prevent another immigration scandal?

Mr. Hain

I understand, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration made clear, that those problems arose in that office without any authorisation from any Minister, senior managers or the director general. Without authorisation from any of those senior figures, guidance was issued locally to staff. I am interested to see that the individual who has now been suspended, and who appeared shoulder to shoulder with the Leader of the Opposition, is reported in The Independent this morning as having sent e-mails to the BBC suggesting that Islamic fundamentalists should be silenced by nuclear weapons". I suggest to the Leader of the Opposition that he should be a little more careful about the people with whom he walks shoulder to shoulder in future.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the recent decision by the Automobile Association to withdraw its only major operations centre in Scotland, with the loss of 240 quality jobs in my constituency. Will he join me in calling on the company, which is committed to consultation with its employees, to hold a wider consultation with those in the rural communities, whom that organisation uses to advertise its services? The membership should also be consulted before the decision is put into practice.

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Minister and the Secretary of State will take careful note of what my hon. Friend says. In my view, prior consultation in such circumstances is always not just the wisest, but the only policy that should be adopted.

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

I commend the Leader of the House for the strong and timely sentiments that he expressed earlier in reply to the question from the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) about the persecution of Kurds in Iraq.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that those who campaign in Iran for Kurdish autonomy have also suffered persecution and occasionally been put to death. May I therefore draw his attention to the growing public concern in Scotland about the case of three Kurdish refugees in Glasgow, who are entering a life-threatening stage of their hunger strike in protest at the decision to send them back to Iran, where they believe that they will be put to death because they were activists who sought autonomy for Kurdish people in Iran? May we have time next week for a Home Office Minister to explain the Government's policy on the three men?

Mr. Hain

Obviously, the situation is serious and potentially tragic, and the Home Secretary will monitor it closely. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that to drive down the number of illegal asylum seekers—I do not comment on the case that he raised—the Government have to be vigilant and would come under attack from his constituents, let alone other hon. Members, if we were not.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House find a parliamentary occasion on which to celebrate widening the European Union on 1 May? Perhaps it could coincide with the state visit of President Kwásniewski. We could thereby bring some balance to the current debate by reminding hon. Members that in the darkest days of 1940, of the few pilots who fought above this place, 13 per cent. were Poles and Czechs, and 17 per cent. of the kills were by Poles and Czechs. If that was so pivotal, not only for us but for democracy, the men who made the blood sacrifice above here won for their grandchildren the right to participate in the free club of the European Union and the free market. It ill behoves us to say for 50 years. "Look how wonderful things are this side of the curtain, with the market economy and capitalism", but when asked, "Can we join?", to reply, "Hang on. Not so fast. Hold back." That is happening. We need to remind The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph that, but for those people who fought in 1940, there would be no The Sun, The Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail

Mr. Hain

I say, "Hear, hear" to that. I hope that those newspapers' editors will bear my hon. Friend's comments in mind. He is right that it is a historic occasion—we are witnessing the reunification of Europe, which was so bitterly divided by the second world war and the cold war. All our friends—the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians and many others from the 10 accession countries—are joining us in the rest of Europe where they should always have been allowed, tasting the freedom and smelling the free air rather than being trapped in the shackles of the Soviet empire.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

Following the assertion of the Leader of the House a few moments ago that the Government are the most accountable in living memory, will he provide a debate on ministerial standards? In the past few days, I have received a response from a Home Office Minister to a letter that I wrote on 8 January 2003. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is unacceptable for Ministers to take such a slap-happy approach to correspondence with Members of Parliament of any party? Will he emphasise to Ministers that that is not only unacceptable but that we have a right to insist on timely and informative responses from them on all occasions?

Mr. Hain

Of course, the hon. Gentleman, like every other hon. Member, has that right. I know nothing of the case that he raises although I understand that it came up in a debate in Westminster Hall. The Government have a pretty good record of responding promptly to Members' letters and questions. If the odd slip-up occurs, it clearly should not happen.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

May we debate early-day motion 625? [That this House expects the proposed war on Afghan drugs to replicate the anarchy that similar action caused in Colombia; recalls that destroying drug crops in Colombia has not cut production but has created a state of permanent civil war involving three armies, two of which are funded by drug money; notes that the reduction of 90 per cent, in poppy cultivation achieved by the Taliban has been reversed with this year's record crop; asserts that any future interruption in the supply of Afghan heroin will be immediately replaced by increases from Pakistan, Myanmar and Kazakhstan, leading to the bloody chaos of the Colombia-isation of a huge area of central Asia; and declares that the only practical way to reduce heroin use is by cutting demand.] The perverse result of our invasion of Afghanistan is not a reduction of heroin poppy production but the biggest crop that it has ever had. Similarly, military action in Colombia has left that country in a state of anarchy and permanent civil war, with increases in drug production in Peru and Bolivia. Is not there a grave danger that, if we pursue our current policies in Afghanistan, and a reduction in production were achieved there, it would mean only an increase in growth in Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Myanmar? Is not there also a danger of that leading to a Colombia-isation of a large part of central Asia?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes a serious point but I am sure that he would not suggest that our objective of a free Afghanistan with no drugs could have been achieved by allowing the Taliban to stay in control, backed up, as they were, by al-Qaeda, rather than by action to liberate the Afghans. Serious problems always arise, as they have in Iraq, when one confronts a despotic regime and tries to rebuild a country, especially from the bottom upwards. That applies especially to Afghanistan, where there was no proper system of government.

I cannot dispute my hon. Friend's point about poppy growing, but our aim is a democratic, free Afghanistan, which is also drugs fee.

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

May I take the opportunity to thank the Leader of the House for the help that he gave those of us who asked a few weeks ago whether Her Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister would go to Normandy to attend the 60th anniversary of D-day? I ask him to work the same magic for 4 June—two days before the D-day events—when celebrations in Rome will mark its liberation. That was one of the culminating points of the Italian campaign, which cost 45,000 British, Commonwealth and allied lives. Would not it be a wonderful gesture if, on their way to Normandy, the Prime Minister and Her Majesty showed that the people who were fighting to free Europe, even a year before D-day, had not been forgotten?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman's point is well made and I am grateful for his comments. I am not sure whether any magic was weaved on my part in respect of the decision, but the Prime Minister's office will have taken note of his comments and important point about 4 June.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

Last Thursday, the trustees of the Lister-Petter plc pension fund in my constituency announced that they would start to wind up the pension fund. That is likely to result in workers, who have paid in for as long as 38 years, losing 90 percent. of their pension provision. I sign up totally to the campaign that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) is waging. He has been relentless in his support of Allied Steel and Wire workers. I stress to my right hon. Friend that the problem will not go away. Labour Back-Bench Members will continue to campaign until we consider not only what we should do for the future but retrospectively. It is unfair that those workers should be thrown on the scrap heap and have no future. Will he consider methods of drafting something that can be included in the Pensions Bill to ensure that we overcome that serious problem?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There must be brief supplementary questions if I am to call all hon. Members who wish to ask a question today.

Mr. Hain

I am troubled by my hon. Friend's comments. It sounds as though he has described what may tragically be another appalling case. The Pensions Bill will provide protection for the future, but he is right about the current predicament. That is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is continuing to explore every opportunity to deal with such cases in a way that does not expose the taxpayer to a literally limitless bill. That is where the problem lies.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

Does the Leader of the House agree that reopening on 16 March the inquest into the depth of Dr. David Kelly will allow detailed answers to be sought to the questions that remain after the Hutton report? Will he allow a debate on them at a later date?

Mr. Hain

More questions have been asked and answered on that unhappy affair than on almost any other matter that I can think of.

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

Would my right hon. Friend arrange for a wide-ranging debate to be held on the improved services to local communities that have resulted from the significant increases in funding to local councils up and down the country during the past few years? He will not be surprised to hear that when I go round my constituency, I find that people want more police officers on the beat, an improved environment and cleaner streets. Will he acknowledge that such a debate would give Conservative Members the opportunity to explain how their policies would produce significant cuts in the services that the public most value?

Mr. Hain

Yes, that would be a good opportunity, and if it is possible to organise that, we shall try to do so. That would allow us to contrast the different approaches of this Government and the Opposition to local government funding for the years ahead. Opposition policies would result in £2.5 billion worth of cuts in the first two years of a Conservative Government, were they to be elected. That would have a devastating effect on local government not only in Sheffield but right across England, Wales and Scotland. It is very important that the people of this country realise the choice before them.

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

The Leader of the House is fond of boasting, as he did today, about Ministers who come to the House to answer questions, but he has neglected to say that when Ministers give answers, they are either inadequate or non-existent. Will he conduct an exhaustive search throughout the Government to try to find a Minister who gives adequate, straightforward answers to questions in this place? If he finds such a person—I shall be impressed if he can—will that person then conduct a seminar for other Ministers, with the Prime Minister present, so that we might have some hope in the future of getting answers of any kind from Ministers?

Mr. Hain

I wonder whether that might include Ministers from the period when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister. For example, on the Equitable Life issue, he did not advocate the improvements in the regulatory system that might have prevented the desperation now felt by Equitable Life policyholders. I understand that that matter was debated in Westminster Hall, although I do not know whether he took part.

Mr. Forth

No, I was not there.

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman did not take part in that debate because he is conducting a one-man boycott of Westminster Hall. The debates there continue with or without him, and although I am sure that they would be much more colourful if he were present, if he chooses to boycott them he cannot expect any justice from me when he asks such questions.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

May we have an urgent debate on devolution? The Leader of the House will know that some politicians in this country argue that we should completely change the way in which the national health service and the education system are run, by introducing vouchers or passports for schools and hospitals. Can he tell us how those schemes would apply in Wales and Scotland, where those matters are devolved? Would the Conservative party, if it came to power, have to dismantle the whole devolution settlement to impose those schemes on Wales and Scotland?

Mr. Hain

That is an interesting question because, as my hon. Friend said, the devolution settlement has devolved responsibility for education delivery and policy to Wales and Scotland. If the Conservatives, or anyone else, sought to bring in a schools voucher system, of which we saw a poor example in the old nursery schools voucher scheme—we abolished that immediately when we came to office—there would be a revolt in Wales, Scotland and the whole nation, including every part of England. People do not want to see our schools robbed of money so that children can be taken down the road to private schools, nor do they want to see their hospitals robbed of up to £2 billion because people can take money out of the national health service to go down the road to private hospital provision.

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

Following that answer, is the Leader of the House aware that the draft disability discrimination Bill refers specifically to England, with references to Wales and Scotland, but explicitly states that it does not extend to Northern Ireland? Is he aware that the disability lobby in Northern Ireland and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland are concerned about that? Will he consult his colleagues to see whether the Bill can be extended before it passes through the House, so that people with disabilities in Northern Ireland can have the same facilities as those in the rest of the kingdom?

Mr. Hain

Ministers are aware of that matter and will have taken note of the hon. Gentleman's question. We want to see protection right across the United Kingdom, but it cannot always be delivered in the same Bill, given the Northern Ireland settlement, as I know that he will understand.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House to make a statement on the working of permitted development orders? Those orders are allowing the despoliation of the English countryside and seaside. Railtrack is currently completing what I accept is essential safety work and fencing along the beautiful red-stone cliffs of south Devon, which many Members who have used the train to the west country will have seen. The design of the work is an eyesore, involving galvanised steel fencing and posts that can be seen for miles from the sea. If permitted development orders were revised, we could stop such despoliation.

Mr. Hain

The cliffs of south Devon are indeed beautiful, and the hon. Gentleman is lucky if they are in his constituency. Obviously, the reconstruction of our rail network and the investment that we are putting into infrastructure across the country are designed to improve standards, but not at the expense of the environment. I am sure that his point has been noted.

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

May we have an urgent debate on planning policy in relation to telecommunications masts? I do not know what the experience of the Leader of the House as a constituency Member is, but in Worcestershire there has been a sharp increase in concern, probably because of the new generation of masts. Such a debate might enable Ministers to provide reassurance on health issues and to listen to practical suggestions for improvements in the planning process that would ensure that local people's voices were better heard.

Mr. Hain

I agree that it is important that the voices of local people from Worcestershire and the entire country are better heard. There is a balance to be struck between the important extension of new mobile communications and local environmental impact, as the hon. Gentleman will agree. We must get that balance right.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD)

I draw the Leader of the House's attention to the National Audit Office report on "Estimating the Level of Spirits Fraud" that has just been published. It concludes: Neither survey estimate can be accepted as unequivocally reliable, and great care is needed in determining what reliance can be placed on the results at present available. In next Wednesday's Budget, the Chancellor is considering introducing a strip-stamp scheme for whisky bottles, and his justification is previous Customs and Excise estimates of fraud. The NAO report, however, has quite clearly rubbished the methodology used by Customs and Excise. Will the Leader of the House convey to the Chancellor the view that it would be totally unacceptable to introduce such an expensive, strip-stamp scheme, which would have dire consequences for an important Scottish industry? He cannot possibly introduce such a scheme based on the results of such a dodgy survey.

Mr. Hain

I am sure that, as a Scot, one of the last things that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor wants to do is to damage the Scottish whisky industry, and he will have noted the point that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) has made. Perhaps I can take the liberty of telling the House that a wonderful Welsh malt whisky, Penderyn, was recently launched as the first such Welsh single malt whisky. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his fellow Scots will taste it in due course, to see what a competitive rival has come from Wales.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD)

Thank you for calling me and for giving me this exercise, Mr. Speaker—as you can see, I need it.

When Members voted on the motion to go to war with Iraq, we were promised progress on the middle east peace process. In view of the high-level visits that we have had in the past week from Israeli Ministers and Palestinian Ministers, and in view of the deteriorating situation in that area, could the Leader of the House arrange for us to have a debate on the middle east peace process in this Chamber, in Government time?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Lady is right to continue to draw our attention to the tragic stalemate—if I may call it that—between Israelis and Palestinians in the middle east, with its awful consequences of terrorism, killings and continued tension and violence. We must never forget what is happening there, which is why the Prime Minister is engaged almost daily in trying to unlock the problems and move forward. If there is a chance for such a debate, we will take it. Of course, the hon. Lady has the opportunity to apply for such a debate at any time.