HC Deb 25 March 2004 vol 419 cc1053-71

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

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 will be as follows:

MONDAY 29 MARCH—If necessary, consideration of Lords message followed by remaining stages of the Employment Relations Bill.

TUESDAY 30 MARCH—Opposition day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled "The Need for a Referendum on the Proposed EU Constitution" followed by a debate entitled "Failure of the Government to Prepare for Changes in Doctors' hours in the NHS". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords message.

WEDNESDAY 31 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Higher Education Bill.

THURSDAY 1 APRIL—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week after the Easter recess will be:

MONDAY 19 APRIL—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill.

TUESDAY 20 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 21 APRIL—Opposition day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 22 APRIL—A motion to approve the first joint report of the Accommodation and Works Committee and the Administration Committee on visitor facilities: access to Parliament.

FRIDAY 23 APRIL—Private Members Bills.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. Has he any idea of when we will debate the aviation White Paper? He will know that I have raised that issue on other occasions, but it is of importance to hon. Members on both sides of the House and, indeed, to the country.

With final council tax figures out today, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the 6 per cent. increase is three times the rate of inflation and well above low single figures? Does he realise that council tax has gone up a whopping 70 per cent. under Labour? Does he realise how unpopular that is? Is not the reason for it the fact that the Government have laden councils with extra duties without providing adequate funding? As that is the Governments fault, will he assure the House that there will be a full debate in the Chamber before any capping takes place? Does it not all show that the old adage is true: dogs bark, cats miaow and Labour Governments put up taxes?[Interruption.]. I am glad that you enjoyed that, Mr. Speaker.

Can we have a statement from the Prime Minister about his Spanish discussions on the European constitution? His spokesman said yesterday that the Prime Minister would continue to insist that anything essential for our criminal court system cannot be changed". Does that mean in reality that we will be able to veto only in a narrow area and that everything else will simply be decided by the European Union?

In his discussions with the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, will the Prime Minister press for full information about the arms that have been sold to the IRA? Clearly, that would be helpful to the decommissioning process. Will he also ask the Libyan leader to use his special relationship with Robert Mugabe to improve the disgraceful civil rights situation in Zimbabwe? May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on both those issues, and can the Leader of the House tell us when the promised debate on Zimbabwe on the Floor of the House will take place?

Finally, will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the England cricket team on their triumphant tour of the West Indies? Can he tell us what plans the Prime Minister has to welcome the team back? Has he already booked the reception at No. 10?

Mr. Hain

I know of no plans to book receptions, but I know that the English cricket teams performance has been magnificent. I am delighted to join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the England team on those two brilliant victories.

On the aviation White Paper, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any further information than I have been able to give before.

The council tax increases are very low by comparison not just with what they have been in recent years, but with what they were under the Conservative Government who introduced the council tax in the first place. I understand that, on average, Conservative local authorities have had higher council tax increases in this settlement than Labour ones. That is because they are not applying themselves to their work in the way that they should. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the truth is that local government has had real-terms increases in funding of more than 25 per cent. since the Government came to power compared with what happened under the Conservatives—the party that he supports and is a member of—when there were often cuts or at least freezes in real terms in spending. That is the background against which we are operating.

On tax, the hon. Gentleman knows full well that, in 1997–98, under the last Conservative Government, the tax burden was 36 per cent. of gross domestic product. This year, it is 35.7 per cent., so the overall tax burden is, in fact, lower than that applied by the Conservatives.

On the European Union constitution, we have made it clear that we intend to stick by the negotiating red lines set out in the White Paper by the Foreign Secretary, including on key issues of criminal justice and law. It is interesting that, on tackling asylum problems and international terrorism and international crime, we have co-operated and been willing to introduce qualified majority voting—in other words, to give up the veto. We did that because back markers among other member states have dragged down our security. In the case of asylum, that led to asylum shopping where they have passed the buck to us. The new arrangements will stop that happening and provide much better protection for Britains interests, which is what is at stake on this matter.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not criticise the Prime Minister's visit to Libya. I welcome that, particularly because on 19 December the deputy leader of the parliamentary Conservative party welcomed the rapprochement with Libya. It is important and in the interests of Britain and the international community that countries such as Libya—which in the past have been rogue states and sponsored terrorism including, as the hon. Gentleman said, dealing with the IRA—renounce that tradition, as Libya has, and come into compliance with the international community, including on the issue of nuclear weapons. That has been an enormous benefit of the negotiation that the British Government, led by the Foreign Secretary and with the support of the Prime Minister, have been responsible for carrying out. The visit is important for taking that forward.

Robert Mugabe is certainly one of the issues that has arisen in the negotiations that have taken place and in the relationship that is now developing. It may well be—we shall have to see—that the kind of support that Libya has so shamefully given to Mugabe over recent years in particular will come to an end. I hope so, because the hon. Gentleman and I share the view that the sooner Mugabes despotic rule in Zimbabwe ends, the better not just for the people of Zimbabwe but for the international community.

On when there might be a debate on Zimbabwe, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Foreign Secretary has promised one. When I am in a position to tell him when it will be, I will do so.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

When does the Leader of the House intend to make a statement on security in and around this building? Can he tell us how many parliamentary security passes go missing each year? My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) extracted figures from Government Departments that show that 6,795 security passes have been lost from Government Departments in the past 12 months. Shockingly, the Ministry of Defence seems to have lost 3,007 passes in just 12 months. It scarcely gives us confidence in its response to terrorism.

Will the Leader of the House make it clear that that is much more important than the problem that could be identified as people climbing over the railings into this building? Will he lay to rest once and for all the suggestion that appeared yesterday that we are to have a concrete prison wall around these buildings with razor wire along the top? Will he explain to the public as well as to Members of Parliament that it is important that we retain this place as a monument of open democracy, rather than creating a symbol of terrorist success?

I think that the Leader of the House was here when the Solicitor-General made her statement in the House yesterday. Does he accept that there is a real problem about the contempt issue and that, if a constituent comes to our advice surgery and tells us about, say, a family court case in which they are involved, they may well be in contempt of court? In listening to them talk about that, we too could be in contempt of court. We could refer to the matter in the House but not in the media. Will he undertake to examine the issue and look again at the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, on which I serve, which have still not been properly debated in the House?

Mr. Hain

On the last matter, I realise the hon. Gentleman's concern, which I think that we all share. The Solicitor-General is looking into that matter, especially the position of Members of Parliament and constituents, who make contact with all of us every week, if not every day. Obviously, it is an important issue and we will monitor it closely. I will keep an eye on it on behalf of the House.

On passes, I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that it is a serious matter that must be dealt with. It is a problem principally for Government Departments, as he, to be fair to him, identified, but it is something that we must all be careful of. I hope that permanent secretaries and heads of security in Departments will take immediate action to ensure that the number of passes lost is kept to an absolute minimum and that proper procedures are in place to ensure that.

On the wider question of Parliament security and access for constituents, I share the hon. Gentlemans view that there must be openness and accessibility for all our voters and citizens because this is their Parliament, not ours. We are Members of it. It is a privilege to be voted here by them. It is important to maintain that openness and accessibility, but a balance must be struck with the security of the Palace of Westminster.

We are in a new era of threats from terrorists, including al-Qaeda and others, and we must take the proper security measures. That is what Mr. Speaker and I have been discussing with House officials and with others, including representatives of the Security Service and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to ensure that we achieve proper security and better security than we have now. It is an evolving matter. It changed after 11 September with the armed police around the building. Those security measures must be taken forward and we must ensure that Parliament is protected.

To summarise, we need a proper balance between—

Mr. Tyler

What about the wall?

Mr. Hain

I have read in recent days the most amazing press reports, including some on the wall, which I know nothing about and by which I would be very surprised. Mr. Speaker asked, with my support and that of members of the House of Commons Commission, for a proper independent review by the security services and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. We await that review. Mr. Speaker took that initiative, which I very much support, to ensure that proper security measures are recommended and put in place; but, specifically on the wall, I cannot confirm that, in common with a lot of the other reports this week, and I would be very surprised if we went down that road.

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House make sure his diary is free next Tuesday afternoon so that he can meet the Prospect trade union members who are lobbying the House to oppose the Government's proposal to privatise the Forensic Science Service? Does he agree that although we have a good Government, that is an absolutely barmy policy?

Mr. Hain

I do not agree with my hon. Friend, except on the fact that we have a very good Government—I am glad that he acknowledges that. On the Forensic Science Service, he will have the opportunity to make representations to the Home Secretary—he may well have done so already—and to question Ministers during Home Office questions.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

The Leader of the House spoke earlier about the impact of the European Union on the United Kingdom. Is he aware that European employment directive 2000/78/EC could outlaw companies long-service awards to their long-serving employees? Is not that a ludicrous intrusion into the sovereign domestic policy of this country? Will he arrange for the appropriate Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and make statement on the matter? Does he agree with me—I am sure that most Members do—that long-service awards are a wonderful traditional way of recognising long, loyal service by an individual to a company or firm?

Mr. Hain

I agree absolutely that long-service awards are a vital part of our culture and tradition of recognising long service. I would be astonished if that were the impact of the directive, about which I know nothing. If it were, it would be ludicrous. As for the wider picture, the hon. Gentleman knows that that is one of the reasons why I have undertaken—I know that I will have his support on the Modernisation Committee—

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


Mr. Hain

Aside from the former shadow Leader of the House. Whenever I say "Modernisation Committee", he falls into rage and general—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

Despair—well, there we go. The right hon. Gentleman is a perfectly preserved antiquated Member of Parliament, and I think that he should be kept that way—and given an award for his long service in that capacity.

To return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), he illustrates one of the reasons why we want European scrutiny to be shared more widely, rather than to remain confined—albeit effectively and admirably—in the European Scrutiny Committee. That Committee does a great job, but Members at large ought to be more involved.

Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab)

Low pay is an issue in my constituency, especially among young people working in industries such as tourism and catering. When can we have a debate on low pay among young people, so that we can clarify the strategy to deal with it, and make sure that both sides of the House are committed in the long term to resolving the problem of the exploitation of young people?

Mr. Hain

I would very much like a debate on those lines. Perhaps the Opposition will do the House a great courtesy by calling such a debate, so that we can see what their policy is on low pay. The Governments policy is clear: we have just announced an increase in the minimum wage, including for the first time the minimum wage for young people—16 and 17-year-olds—after a recommendation from the Low Pay Commission. Low pay has been a curse of the British economy for far too long. It survived under the Conservatives, whose leader said that the introduction of the minimum wage would lead to 1 million job losses. In fact, there has been an increase of about 1.8 million jobs. We can have high pay standards, competitiveness and economic success—they should march together.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Further to the significant questions on security asked by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), although the issue is sensitive, may we have an undertaking from the Leader of the House that before, for example, a screen is installed in the Strangers Gallery or a perimeter wall is erected, there will be a debate and a vote here in the Commons?

Mr. Hain

I have made clear what would happen, as did Mr. Speaker in his letter to us all and his announcement after the February recess. After Easter, there will be a debate on security. I am grateful for the way in which the right hon. Gentleman prefaced his remarks: he understands that these are sensitive issues. The last thing that we want to do is alert potential terrorists or others to exactly what procedures we are introducing and the way in which we are coping with additional threats. He will want to join me in making sure that the House and the Chamber are free of threats from terrorists and others while preserving all the traditions and, indeed, the openness for which our democracy is renowned throughout the world.

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

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. The reality is that Parliament is a reflection of the electorate, so it is important that he give an undertaking that major security changes that can be openly debated are debated. Will he assure us that no decisions will be taken in the Easter recess without Parliament being offered an opportunity to express an opinion?

Mr. Hain

We have already confirmed—indeed, Mr. Speaker's letter did so—that any permanent changes will be subject to decision by Parliament. I have a responsibility, as does the Speaker. Indeed, you have the primary responsibility, Mr. Speaker, along with the House authorities, the House of Commons Commission and the relevant Committees of the House, for ensuring that security arrangements are secure. We are in an entirely different era, and I do not think that my hon. Friend wants or expects us to debate every security change in the open before we decide whether to proceed with it. That would be virtually opening the door to the attacks or threats that would undoubtedly follow. Let us approach this on the basis of consensus, but also with seriousness. I do not think that my hon. Friend or the House would want me as Leader of the House or those who are actually responsible for security—I myself am not—to take a casual attitude to this extremely important issue. The House has been under attack before from terrorists, and we want to make sure that it is not again.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that, when the Finance Bill reaches the Committee of the whole House, we will have an opportunity to discuss the Chancellors job-destroying and fraud-prone suggestions for strip stamps on bottles of Scotch whisky? Does he, like me, look forward to Scottish Labour Members, some of whom have large whisky interests in their constituencies, explaining why they voted for this damaging measure?

Mr. Hain

These matters were debated in the Budget debate, and the Budget's approach was overwhelmingly endorsed in a vote earlier this week. It is a travesty to say that those measures are job-destroying. I like a drop of malt whisky—no doubt the hon. Gentleman does too—but the Chancellor's measures are designed to stop fraud. The whisky industry, the economy and the Exchequer are the victims of widespread fraud at present. The measure is designed to stop that and protect the Scottish whisky industry in particular, so I would expect the hon. Gentleman to welcome it.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op)

When does the Leader of the House expect to find time to allow us to debate the appointment of the United Kingdom Commissioner to the European Union? Does he agree that that appointment is not a long-service award and that it is essential that whoever is appointed has the credibility that comes from the support of the House of Commons as a whole?

Mr. Hain

That sounds like a job application to me.

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

Has the Leader of the House heard the outrageous suggestion that the House should no longer sit on Fridays, thus depriving it of a valuable part of its activities? Is he also aware of the even more ridiculous suggestion that if the House did not sit on Fridays, it would somehow improve security? If that were the case, is not the logical extension of the argument that the House should not sit at all?

Mr. Hain

That suggestion appeared in reports either this morning or yesterday, and was one of the many press reports swirling around, very few of which have any connection with reality. The House has already decided to sit on 13 of the 36 days available, so we do not sit every Friday, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. He is nodding in agreement, so I assume that he approves.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman wants us to sit on Friday every week.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman put that to a vote and see how many of his Conservative colleagues support him. Fridays are often important days for constituency business, and allow us another day in addition to the weekend to be in our constituencies to meet and serve our constituents. He may be able to get back to Bromley on a Friday afternoon, but it is not possible for those of us who live far from London to get to our constituencies. I have seen an early-day motion to the effect that the House should not sit on Fridays, but it is only one of the many options that will no doubt be submitted to the Modernisation Committee after the review of the hours of the House conducted by the Procedure Committee.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

On security, does my right hon. Friend agree, especially in view of some newspaper reports, that it is not simply a matter of protecting Members of Parliament but the hundreds of people who work in the Commons and the Lords, who are as entitled to protection and security as ourselves? If certain measures are considered necessary in view of the acute terrorist threat, we should keep that very much in mind and not simply think about ourselves.

Mr. Hain

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. As he said, the matter affects the security not just of Members in the Chamber and elsewhere but the many staff who serve us so well and diligently. As he will recall, the assistant of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) was attacked and killed in his surgery. Such incidents cannot be dealt with by protection in the House, but we must be alert to the security threat to everyone who works in the House, not just Members.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

What advice can the Leader of the House give to Members in whose areas post office closures have gone ahead without proper consultation or provision of information? What can we do, and is the only alternative to seek judicial review?

Mr. Hain

Clearly, there have been instances of such closures. In my capacity as Secretary of State for Wales, I am aware of cases in which there has been a lack of proper consultation and proper involvement by local Members of Parliament, which is regrettable and deplorable. However, the hon. Lady will know that there was a debate on the subject yesterday, and she herself secured an Adjournment debate on it. The Government are well aware of people's concerns, as are senior managers in the Post Office.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

Next Wednesday, the House will have an opportunity further to improve the Higher Education Bill. Will my right hon. Friend do whatever he can to try to ensure that the principle of variability remains in the Bill, as it is important both for universities such as the university of Derby, with a fine tradition of encouraging young people from nontraditional backgrounds into higher education, and for universities wishing to attract additional students to minority courses? Does he also agree that the principles in the Bill of deferred fees, payment later in life and much more generous grants should be applied across the board and extended to further education where they will offer just as much, if not more, help as they will in higher education?

Mr. Hain

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that the principle of variability allows flexibility to, for example, charge no fee for a physics course. We are short of physicists, chemists, electrical engineers and others, as there has been a long-term slide in the number of students doing such courses. An incentive through the fee structure for students to take such courses would be a big boost to the country and the economy. It is therefore imperative that the Bill go through unamended, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will bear that in mind. As the Secretary of State for Education and Skills made clear, any amendments could effectively kill the Bill and it is important that what the House voted for in Committee and on Second Reading goes through so that students, especially those from a low-income background, can be properly supported with new grants and other assistance, and so that universities can get the finance that they need to become world-class universities, which is essential to the future of the British economy.

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

When can we have a debate on the report of the Procedure Committee on Sessional Orders so the House can decide what it wants to do about the unsightly cacophony on Parliament square? The Leader of the House may remember that I asked last year for a debate on the matter, and he said it was important and that the debate should take place sooner rather than later. A fortnight ago he was asked about it, and he said that he hoped to be able to give some welcome news in the not-too-distant future. We have not had any. What is going on?

Mr. Hain

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. We are all concerned about the matter. The Home Secretary has been examining it, and when he is ready to present proposals, we will have a way forward to put to the House. The position remains that we will have a debate and a decision as soon as I am able to arrange it. I know, Mr. Speaker, that you are equally concerned about the matter, because you told me so. Members on both sides of the Chamber are concerned, but we need to proceed in the proper fashion.

Mr. Speaker

The Leader of the House gives me an opportunity to say that I want the matter dealt with as quickly as possible.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of successful police raids this morning on unscrupulous gangmasters of the sort who operate throughout the United Kingdom. Will he congratulate the police on those successful raids? Does he agree that the police need the tools to do their job if they are to deal with the problem throughout the UK? For that, they need effective legislation. My right hon. Friend knows that a private Member's Bill is going through the House dealing with the licensing of gangmasters. Will he give the Bill not just a fair wind, but his full support by giving appropriate parliamentary time and resources so that it can become effective legislation, giving the police the tools to deal with unscrupulous gangmasters?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has done the country a service by introducing his Bill. The Government are fully supportive of it. I understand that the Committee stage is lined up for next week, and my hon. Friend should then be in pole position for Report and Third Reading on one of the remaining Fridays—14 May, 21 May, 18 June or 16 July. He can be assured that we will give the Bill what support we can. I welcome the fact that there have been some 40 arrests this morning, including some senior figures in the gangmasters operation. I know that the House will also welcome that.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

May I first add my congratulations to the England cricket team, not least to Jones the bowler—a good Welshman?

A week last Monday, I attended a celebration of the new deal in Pontypridd at one of the foremost schemes in the country, combining Jobcentre Plus activities with manpower services. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the new deal so that we can celebrate the successes of the staff and individuals involved and consider ways in which we can continue to improve it, to reach those parts and those people that other programmes have failed to reach?

Mr. Hain

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Simon Jones, or Jones the bowler, as he called him. That reminds the House that it is, in fact, an England and Wales cricket team and that there have been many brilliant Welsh bowlers and cricketers over the generations. We want that to continue. Simon Jones was the spearhead of the attack that destroyed the West Indies' defences. That shows what talent is coming out of Wales.

On the new deal, my hon. Friend is right. It has done fantastic work in former coalmining communities such as those that he and I represent. In trial pilots that are going on in his area, it is tackling the problem of people who have been in a state of long-term economic inactivity and on incapacity benefit. That is one of the many reasons why it is imperative that the new deal stay in place. I see that the Liberal Democrats are joining the Tories in an extreme right-wing measure that would abolish the new deal, thereby barring many thousands of people across Britain, including those with disabilities, from getting the support and the personal advice that would enable them to get into the jobs market, which everyone should welcome.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Is it possible to arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement to the House next week about the guidelines that his Department gives to national health service trusts about the suspension of members of staff? About 1,000 members of NHS staff are currently suspended, costing millions of pounds and no doubt resulting in operations being delayed. The issue was highlighted clearly and starkly by the absurd suspension of Dr. Hope, who, I understand, has now got his job back, but who is a neurosurgeon whose suspension delayed operations simply because he wanted more croutons in his soup. That is ridiculous. There must be sufficiently sane guidelines in place to ensure that such insanity does not happen in the future.

Mr. Hain

If those reports were true, I agree that that was pretty insane. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and his Ministers will have taken careful note of the hon. Gentleman's points.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that one of the strengths of the ITV network in the past has been the regional system of broadcasting so that the English regions, Scotland and Wales have had proper reporting of events in their local areas. That has come under threat with the Carlton-Granada merger. There was a lobby of Parliament this week by the National Union of Journalists and BECTU, and concerns have been expressed that rationalisation taking place in the midlands presages future centralisation among the ITV companies. Will my right hon. Friend take on board the fact that when the Government passed the Communications Act 2003 they placed on Ofcom a duty to examine the regional distribution of broadcasting? Will he draw that to Ofcom's attention and call for more action from it?

Mr. Hain

Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will note my hon. Friends comments and take careful steps to ensure that the points he has made are looked into. I agree that it is imperative that regional and—in the case of Scotland and Wales—national broadcasting through the ITV network retains its distinctive flavour and makes sure that news, especially, and culture are reflected in its content and programming, and that the necessary resources are available. After the chaotic near-destruction of the ITV network under the Government of Margaret Thatcher, I hope we will see an ITV that is effectively a unified service providing quality national programming and allowing regional and national broadcasts to take place in the way that I described. But BECTUs concerns must be addressed as they are clearly important.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD)

Does the Leader of the House agree that events during the past week in the middle east have made it more important for us to consider the subject, and that an hour-and-a-half debate in Westminster Hall—even if I managed to catch the Speaker's eye, or whatever the term is for gaining debates in Westminster Hall—would not be adequate to cover it? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider holding a full debate in the Chamber on the situation in the middle east as soon as possible, or do the Government just have nothing to say on the matter?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Lady spoiled an important and effective point by that last comment, and I ask her to withdraw it or reflect on it. She, I, the Government and, I expect, the entire House take the same position on the matter and deplore the assassination of Sheikh Yassin. The Government work tirelessly to try to secure peace in the middle east, including on an independent Palestinian state, security for the state of Israel and recognition by surrounding Arab states that Israel's future must be secure. That is what we should work towards. If the hon. Lady is successful in securing an hour-and-a-half debate on the subject, it would enable everybody to say pretty much the same thing—that we share in the condemnation of such attacks, and of suicide bombings, and that we want to work together to find the best way to solve an intractable problem.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report by the Prime Minister's strategy unit about the future of the sea-fishing industry, published this morning, is deeply significant for coastal communities across the United Kingdom? The industry is vital for some of the most remote communities in the country. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate as soon as possible after Easter so that all right hon. and hon. Members who have an interest in the issue, which is a matter of life and death for those communities, can discuss it and the prospects for a sustainable future for many of our constituents?

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly consider that request, because, as the Fisheries Minister has made clear, the Government share my hon. Friend's concerns and his support for the report, which points the way towards sustainable fishing. Sustainable fishing is at the heart of the issue because our seas have been depleted and fish stocks are being eradicated at an alarming rate. We must work towards a more sustainable future for fishing, because there will be no jobs if fish stocks are exhausted, and the report points the way towards achieving that future.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on ethical foreign policy, which we do not hear much about these days? Such a debate would give us an opportunity to discuss Gaddafi's support for terrorism, and human rights, democracy and good governance—or otherwise—in Libya, and, in particular, overall responsibility for the murder of Yvonne Fletcher and for the mass murder of people at Lockerbie. Some of us fear that ethical foreign policy is being replaced by a culture of impunity for a dictator who may or may not bear overall responsibility for mass murder.

Mr. Hain

It is not clear from the hon. Gentleman's question whether he supports the Government's initiative.

Mr. Robathan

I asked for a debate.

Mr. Hain

Indeed, but does the hon. Gentleman support the Government's policy of bringing Libya into the international community rather than its sitting outside as a rogue state? I should have thought that everybody would support the policy, and the Prime Minister's visit has been welcomed by the families of victims of the Lockerbie disaster and, indeed, by the family of WPC Fletcher. The problem goes back over many years, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) began to resolve it, a process that the Foreign Secretary has taken forward. The Prime Minister's visit symbolises the beginning of a new process by which Libya complies fully with international standards. As for ethical foreign policy, the truth is that the Government, through an arms exports policy that bans the export of arms that could be used for internal repression or external aggression, have adopted a policy based on the highest possible standards and ethics, which stands scrutiny anywhere in the world. In many other respects, we promote human rights across the world.

Mr. Robathan

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the Conservative Government had a shabby record on arms exports and human rights. The Labour Government have established a good reputation as a result of the high standards that we have introduced.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)

Yesterday was an Opposition half day, and, once again, the subject matter was not revealed to the rest of the House until the morning of the debate. I understand why the official Opposition take some time to dream up a subject on which they can attack the Government, but whether that is a matter of tactics or incompetence, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not right or fair to the rest of the House for the subject matter of Opposition debates to be brought up at the last minute, which happens frequently? Will he consider introducing a system whereby, if fair notice of the subject matter for Opposition day debates is not given, the time will be forfeit and awarded either to the other Opposition parties or, indeed, to the Government to focus on the consequences of Tory policies, if the Conservative party were elected.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friends shout, "Good idea" and, "Hear, hear" at that suggestion. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) makes an important point, which I have raised with the shadow Leader of the House on a number of occasions, although, to be fair, I know that advance notice has been given of next weeks Opposition topics, for which I am grateful. None the less, my hon. Friend cannot intervene in a debate on, for example, post offices, if he can only find out the topic on the morning of the debate, and that prevents hon. Members from organising their business. Advance notice is courteous to the House and is part of good procedure and process. I hope that the Opposition will bear that in mind, as they have done for next week.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

This week, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence took the unusual step of recommending the withdrawal of disposable tonsillectomy instruments following a number of unfortunate post-operative haemorrhages and an audit by the university of Birmingham. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Secretary of State for Health should come to the House to explain why his Department advised the use of those instruments in the first place? Does he agree with the parents of deceased toddler Crawford Roney that an urgent investigation is needed into exactly what went wrong in Richmond house three or four years ago?

Mr. Hain

That incident is obviously serious, which is why the Secretary of State has put in place stringent standards and inspection arrangements. I know that the Secretary of State for Health will take careful note of the hon. Gentleman's points and make sure that the appropriate procedures and policies are implemented.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

In the light of the publication of final council tax levels from local authorities, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate about the future of local taxation, so that we can compare and contrast various proposals, particularly local income tax? We could also consider the effect of the £100 to help pensioners with their council tax that the Chancellor recently announced.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friends suggestion is welcome, and business managers and the Deputy Prime Minister will want to examine it. The House would do well to reflect on the different solutions to the problems with council tax, which we inherited from the previous Government and have continued to operate. On the one hand, the Government are committed to low council tax increases, as evidenced by the general level of settlement this time; on the other hand, the shadow Chancellor has announced that a future Conservative Government would cut local government budgets by £2.4 billion in their first two years, which would result in sky-high council tax increases. That is the choice: it is between a Labour Government who continue to invest in high standards of public service and provide local government with the resources that it needs, or a Conservative Government committed to cutting local government budgets, which would put council tax increases through the roof.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

May we have a debate on the music industry, which the National Music Council reports as contributing £3.6 billion per year to the UK economy? Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that protecting copyright is important to the health of the industry, which loses £241 million a year through internet downloads? The key is to educate people about the importance of copyright protection, and can we therefore debate today's announcement by the British Phonographic Industry, which is launching a scheme to warn significant illegal uploaders of music on to the internet that they are breaching the law?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend is an accomplished guitarist, and he therefore takes a personal interest in the matter. All music lovers want to know that our music industry is properly protected, and that the sort of practices to which he referred are not allowed to continue without restriction. I know that the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Culture, Media and Sport will study his remarks closely, and they are alive to the problem, which they are working on solving.

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

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on human rights and fair trials abroad following the sentencing of my constituent, Majid Narwaz, to five years in prison in Cairo? He has already been detained there for two years. His trial was a disgrace, and the charges were entirely trumped up. When the Leader of the House arranges such a debate, will he ask the Prime Minister to attend and to explain to the House why he has refused to get involved in that case?

Mr. Hain

Such cases are sensitive. The hon. Gentleman has properly raised the case of his constituent on the Floor of the House, and the Foreign Secretary will want to study his remarks closely. However, there have been serious problems with terrorism in Egypt, and the Egyptian authorities have repeatedly made representations to us about British citizens whom they allege are involved. I do not know whether that is true, but the hon. Gentleman takes one view of that particular case, and the Foreign Office will want to study what he said closely.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

I fully realise the sensitivities of this issue, but is the Leader of the House in a position to confirm that he has taken security advice on the type and scope of demonstrations in Parliament square? It clearly makes very little sense at the moment to allow the erection of a series of banners that form a barrier directly outside the main entrance to Parliament, restricting the field of view and the ability of the armed police to operate.

Mr. Hain

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. There is a balance to be struck between the right to protest, which is an ancient and honourable part of our democracy—the hon. Gentleman is nodding in agreement—and proper security for the House of Commons in an era of terrorism and threats from al-Qaeda directed specifically at Britain and at important institutions of the British state, including Westminster.

  1. Pregnant Women (Discrimination) 987 words
  2. cc1055-6
  3. Muslim Women (Working Practices) 274 words
  4. c1056
  5. Pay Differentials 340 words