HC Deb 06 May 2004 vol 420 cc1493-507 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)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 MAY—Second Reading of the Energy Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 11 MAY—Remaining stages of the Housing Bill, followed by a motion to approve the First Joint Report of the Accommodation and Works Committee and the Administration Committee on Visitor Facilities: "Access to Parliament".

WEDNESDAY 12 MAY—Second Reading of the Age Related Payments Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the Promotion of Volunteering Bill, followed by motion to approve the First Report of the Procedure Committee on estimates and appropriation procedure.

THURSDAY 13 MAY—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Child Trust Funds Bill, followed by a debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 14 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 17 MAY—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

TUESDAY 18 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Pensions Bill (Day One).

WEDNESDAY 19 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Pensions Bill (Day Two).

THURSDAY 20 MAY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Pensions Bill (Day Three).

FRIDAY 21 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Heald

Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister whether it was likely that more British troops would be sent to Iraq, and the Prime Minister said that the Government were "in discussion" and that the matter was "under … review". Yet today, we read on the front page of The Times—there is a similar story in The Sun— that 2,000 Marines are being sent there. So while the Prime Minister was saying one thing here, his spin doctors were saying another to the press.

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

What is new?

Mr. Heald


As it is the Prime Minister's birthday today, will the Leader of the House give him a present—a piece of advice—and tell him to cut out the spin and to be frank and straightforward with the House and the country? May we also have a statement on troop deployment?

The Leader of the House will recall that I have asked him on numerous occasions about the Sessional Orders and the report of the Procedure Committee. When will we have some action and what is the timetable?

I am grateful to the Leader of the House: last week, I asked for two days on the Pensions Bill and he has given us three. I hope that he is setting a precedent; perhaps he can confirm that he is. Has he seen the all-party amendment that would provide compensation to victims of the Allied Steel and Wire pension scheme disaster? May we have a statement before the week after next, explaining the Government's response to this much-needed proposal?

The Foreign Secretary promised weeks ago a debate on Zimbabwe in Government time, yet no such debate has been held. In fact, there has been no such debate in Government time since 1997. The England and Wales Cricket Board is waiting for clear advice from the Government about the proposed tour. The Leader of the House is something of a specialist on preventing cricket tours—will he prevent this one?

Finally, has the Leader of the House seen the article in today's edition of The Guardian entitled "Hospitals in countdown to threat of chaos"? It points out that the Health Secretary has apparently admitted to the British Medical Association that there are 100 days to avert the chaos that will result from the introduction of the working time directive on 1 August. The chairman of the BMA says that the Health Secretary is acting too late, that more than half of hospitals will not be ready, and that there is a risk of overnight emergency admissions being shut down. May we have an urgent statement on this alarming report?

Mr. Hain

The shadow Leader of the House makes every effort—it is no doubt his job—to demonstrate contrived indignation about everything that is going on in the world, but he knows that the situation in Iraq is very difficult and that British troops stand ready to do whatever is necessary and are doing a great job out there at the present time. If and when extra troops are needed, the Prime Minister has made it perfectly clear that he will keep the position under review. There is absolutely no substance in the hon. Gentleman's jumped-up indignation on that point.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for wishing the Prime Minister happy birthday—the most successful Prime Minister that Britain has had in living memory. In respect of spin, I was interested to note that the hon. Gentleman did not defend his own party's spin on the council tax. Conservative Members were jumping up and down with indignation on the council tax, on which they quoted figures selectively—a real example of spin.

On Sessional Orders, I have already made it clear that we will respond when we are ready to respond, and in a sensible fashion.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging the extra time that is being devoted to the Pensions Bill. It is particularly necessary because of the dreadful inheritance that resulted from the Conservatives' inability to protect pensioners throughout the country. We are introducing extra protection for pensioners as well as investing more in pensions, particularly for those on low retirement incomes. As to the ASW workers and others who have been robbed of their pensions in a scandalous fashion, that issue is under continuing review and will be dealt with if we possibly can do so.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Zimbabwe and I share his and his party's view. I am glad that the Conservatives have at least belatedly come round to their current viewpoint. Some of us have been consistent for decades in opposing political oppression and tyranny in southern Africa, whether it be under the old apartheid system, which the Conservatives apologised for year after year—I recall Mrs. Thatcher attacking Nelson Mandela—or under Robert Mugabe's regime. I believe that we should maintain consistent views on this issue, which has been conspicuously lacking from the Tories. I have made it absolutely clear that, if I were an English cricketer, I would not tour in Zimbabwe, and that is probably the view of many English cricketers as well. However, it is not for the Government to instruct the English cricket authorities what to do on that issue.

On the question of hospitals, the hon. Gentleman has the bare-faced cheek to talk about chaos. We should remember the chaos under the Conservatives, when people were lying on trolleys in corridors day after day. Now we are seeing record investment in our hospitals. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that doctors should work all through the night and the following day? We are seeking a sensible solution to the problem and we will secure it when it is available.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab)

Further to questions asked last week, may we have a full debate on events in Iraq? I ask that not just because of the recent troop deployment, but having regard to the UN call for an inquiry after the events and slaughter in Falluja. It would also give those Conservative Members who belong to the chattering classes—we should recall that they pressed for war months before we went to war and told the Prime Minister that he should ignore the UN— an opportunity to explain why, after voting for the war, they are now apparently having a pang of conscience. It would also give Labour Members the opportunity to tell them, "Actually, it is a bit too late." More than 20,000 people have died in Iraq, and no matter how much Conservative Members' consciences bother them, it will not bring them back.

Mr. Hain

The situation in Falluja has been very serious. The Government and the coalition are trying to introduce some stability to protect lives. However, my hon. Friend is right to remind the House that the Opposition wanted to railroad us into Iraq, regardless of any UN mandate. Indeed. they criticised the Government for seeking UN support for the action that we took, and urged us to go ahead regardless.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

On the subject of the English cricket team's tour of Zimbabwe, the Leader of the House will have noted that the Prime Minister, in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), announced yesterday that the Foreign Secretary and, I think, the Minister for Sport and Tourism were going to see the England and Wales Cricket Board today. May we have an urgent statement on that? The statement might provide an opportunity for the debate on Zimbabwe that all of us think is necessary, but it should deal specifically with the representations that are to be made to the International Cricket Council.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the problem resided with the ICC. Are the Government and the ECB making a submission to the ICC? If so, what are they trying to get it to agree to? Do the Government agree that there should be criteria, other than the existing ones, that would make it possible for the tour to be cancelled without the penalties that are threatened at present? What is the Government's position on the matter?

My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has already corresponded with the Minister for Sport and Tourism to suggest that an all-party submission to the ICC would be helpful. Does the Leader of the House—especially given his radical, Liberal past on these matters—agree that now is the time to make a new submission, so that we take account of the moral, legal and ethical issues it involved, and make sure that the tour does not take place?

On the question of the security of the Palace of Westminster, has the Leader of the House seen today's report about security at Buckingham palace? It offers a very open assessment of what has gone wrong there, and what proposals have been made to put matters right. The Leader of the House will recall that I asked him on 25 March how many security passes to this building had gone astray, given the very large number that have gone astray from Government Departments. Can he give me that figure now? If lot, will he write to me about it?

Finally, will the Leader of the House confirm the Government's position in respect of votes at 16? The Electoral Commission has made one recommendation, but we are now told that Ministers take a different view. What is the Government's position on the matter?

Mr. Hain

First, I acknowledge that the Liberals, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have been consistent in their battle against apartheid in sport over the past 30 or 40 years, and they are adopting the same approach to dealing with the problems in Zimbabwe. Our record is consistent, unlike that of the Conservatives, who seem to worry only about black tyranny, not about white tyranny as well, even though that is where these problems arise.

The hon. Gentleman asked for specifics about the meeting due to take place this afternoon. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are due to meet the English cricket authorities, and we shall have to wait for the outcome of that meeting. The Government's position is clear. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday that he would prefer that the tour did not take place, but the Government cannot treat the English cricket authorities as though they were a Department of State. They must make their own decisions, and I know that the hon. Gentleman accepts that.

We all share a sense of frustration with the ICC, which I do not believe is properly discharging its responsibilities to international cricket. I am afraid that some of its statements today echo exactly the inconsistencies and prejudices evident 30 or 40 years ago among cricket authorities the world over in respect of apartheid. The sooner the ICC adopts a morally consistent position, the better.

The hon. Gentleman asked about security. I have seen a summary of the Security Commission's report, and we welcome its proposals in respect of the royal estate. A post of director of security for the royal households has been announced and put in place. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary makes clear in a written statement today, a wide range of checks is being developed, and an annual plan will be agreed to ensure that security is improved. Of course, there is a read-across to the Palace of Westminster from that. That is why we have set up an independent investigation by the Security Service and the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

I gave the figures in respect of the number of passes that have been issued during the debate last month. The hon. Gentleman can check them for himself.

Finally, on the issue of votes at 16, the Electoral Commission recommended in a recent report that the voting age should not be reduced to 16. The Government have not had a chance to respond to that report, but we are holding a big conversation with people right across the country—

Mr. Forth

Oh, no!

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues scoff at the big conversation because when they were in government they never had a conversation with any members of the public. That is why they were run out of office.

Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of concern on both sides of the House about the effect in practice of the revised sitting hours of this Chamber. He will also be aware that the responses to the recent questionnaire on the issue show a small overall majority for reverting to the previous times on Tuesdays. Can he assure us that we will have an early opportunity to debate the matter in the House?

Mr. Hain

As my hon. Friend knows, the Modernisation Committee will begin a review shortly into how to resolve the issue. I pay tribute to her efforts to try to find a consensus on the matter. As she knows, I have wanted to achieve agreement so that the House can move forward, instead of being split as we were when the original decision was taken As my hon. Friend fairly acknowledged, the Procedure Committee report shows a narrow majority in favour of changing back to a 10 pm finish on Tuesdays, but 200 Members did not register an opinion. If we can find a consensus through the Modernisation Committee review, I will put it to a vote in the House as soon as it is possible to do so.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement next week on the managed closure of post offices? I bring his attention to early-day motion 1133, in the name of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and supported by other Lancashire Members, including myself.

[That this House congratulates the Lancashire Evening Post in its campaign to save post offices from closure throughout Lancashire and recognises that the Lancashire Evening Post has received thousands of responses from its readers supporting the campaign; raises concern that Royal Mail are providing financial incentives to sub postmasters to leave, thereby allowing the Royal Mail to close post offices leaving local users with no service; and calls on the Royal Mail to be open and transparent in making a business case for closure ensuring that all interested parties are consulted and provided with all the facts in relation to profitability and use of individual branches before any decision to close is taken.]

Thirty-one Lancashire post offices are about to close, including three in my constituency—two in Clitheroe—and one in Ribchester. The motion also praises the campaign of the Lancashire Evening Post and thousands of its readers to keep the post offices open. Is it not insanity to pay post offices to close instead of paying for them to open? When will we see an end to this post office set-aside?

Mr. Hain

I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman raises about his constituency, and we have all had to deal with such problems, not only in the last seven years—or the last year or last few months—but for the last 20 years. We have seen a whole process of change which was partly brought about by people changing their shopping habits and not using their local post offices as much as we would like. The Government have been dealing with the problem. We have put extra money in to support the distribution of local post offices and we will continue to work on the problem.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

May I bring my right hon. Friend back to the subject of the possible deployment of troops in Iraq? The headlines in The Sun and The Times are specific. They claim that the troops will go out "to seize flashpoint city" and that the decision has already been made. That would be an extremely dangerous mission. Will my right hon. Friend deny that such a decision has been taken and, if he cannot, when can we have a statement? After all, we have a right to know before the Murdoch press.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will know that similar press reports have appeared almost daily—or at least weekly—in recent months. Sometimes they have been accurate and sometimes they have not. I do not have anything to add to what I have just said and the Prime Minister made the position clear yesterday.

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

Three months ago, when the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee, he agreed to review the rules under which civil servants give evidence to Select Committees—the so-called Osmotherly rules. When does the Leader of the House anticipate reporting progress on that review?

Mr. Hain

The Prime Minister is due to appear before the Liaison Committee in a few months' time and I should have thought that he would he questioned about that subject if it has not been progressed in the meantime.

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab)

I am one of the many hon. Members who enjoy showing constituents around the House. However, I have noticed lately that a key piece of our history is missing from the Royal Gallery—the death warrant of Charles I. That is one of the most important documents in the history of this House and of this nation, as a reminder of when our valiant predecessors put an over-mighty monarch firmly in his place.[Interruption.] I have no one in mind at the moment. Can the Leader of the House find out when that key document will return to the Royal Gallery?

Mr. Hain

My deputy mutters that the document is currently subject to scientific research. I have no idea what that means, but no doubt my hon. Friend's concern will have been noted by the House authorities and his constituents will be satisfied in future.

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

As we are currently sending more reservists out to Iraq—for example, some members of the Royal Irish Regiment will be going out—may I, too, press the Leader of the House for a debate on troop deployment? At the same time, we could examine the attitude of employers who have not played fair with reservists mobilised to serve their country.

Mr. Hain

If employers are not playing fair, that is an important issue because members of the Territorial Army do a valuable job and should be treated fairly. On troop deployment generally, and the role of the Royal Irish Regiment, the Ministry of Defence will have carefully noted what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)

May we have an early statement from the Foreign Secretary about the situation faced by British lorry drivers who are incarcerated in French prisons? When I last inquired, about 60 HGV drivers were being held in those prisons, including my constituent, Paul Watson, who has been locked up in Arras prison since last October and still does not know when he might go to trial. He has been refused bail on several occasions, and although I have applied for a permit to visit him it seems that the French are quite adept at losing such applications. Will the Foreign Secretary come to the House to explain what we are doing to secure proper treatment for British lorry drivers, many of whom, I believe, are innocent, so that our constituents are free to come home to their families?

Mr. Hain

I know that my hon. Friend has pursued that case with great diligence; I acknowledge that, and his constituent will be grateful. I am very surprised that the French authorities are apparently denying a British Member of Parliament, who is also a fellow citizen of the European Union, access to his constituent and I hope that that will change. In the meantime, the Foreign Office is providing full consular advice and my hon. Friend is free to raise the issue with the Foreign Secretary or his Ministers who will want to support my hon. Friend in whatever way they can.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

The well-informed Leader of the House will have seen the report in today's papers suggesting that the Government may be considering the development of more incinerators because they are said to be less dangerous than landfill. The campaigning newspaper, the Yellow Advertiser, is currently exposing landfill contamination on Two Tree Island in my constituency. May we have a debate on how we can increase recycling to meet the Government's recycling targets, which are likely to be missed? Recycling is the very best way forward.

Mr. Hain

I fully agree that recycling is the main solution to the problem. If we do not adopt a much more sensible response to waste disposal, we shall cover the entire landmass of Britain with landfill. That is why we are putting such emphasis on recycling and other innovative ways to dispose of waste.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

When I first became an MP 12 years ago, I never thought that unemployment in my constituency would drop below 2 per cent. It has done so as a result of fantastic partnerships between the private sector, local government and central Government. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the role of central Government in that area, especially in the context of programmes such as the new deal?

Mr. Hain

I shall certainly be happy to look at that request, not least because the Conservatives are making an attack on the new deal a principal part of their approach in the coming months. Indeed, the shadow Leader of the House has published a pamphlet attacking the new deal, despite the fact that 223 people in his constituency have (brained jobs through the new deal, only seven of which are subsidised. We want everybody to be given the chalice to work; about a million people are being helped by the new deal and, in the next election, I shall be happy to fight against the Conservative proposal to abolish the new deal and for the Government policy of full employment to give everybody hope under the new deal.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

I support calls for a full debate in Government time on post office closures, if only so that we can examine whether it makes any sense to pay post offices to close rather than investing in them so that they can continue to make a contribution to the communities we serve.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman is free to apply for a debate at any time. As he knows, the matter has been regularly debated in the House and he has no doubt made a contribution to those debates.

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

Following the historic events of last weekend, when the accession countries finally joined the European Union, can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the impact of accession? Would not that provide a useful opportunity for us to test out some of the more hysterical tabloid predictions about the number of east Europeans coming to Britain? It could also provide a useful background for debate about Europe in the run-up to the European elections on 10 June, as well as for the debate on the referendum on the constitution. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate about the EU in the near future?

Mr. Hain

The Prime Minister will make a statement after the European Council at the end of next month, but I should certainly welcome other opportunities, although I do not think I should start the European election campaign today in business questions. My hon. Friend's point about the accession or 10 countries to the EU is well made. Their accession will enlarge our zone of security and stability; it will re-unify the whole of Europe, after its savage division after the second world war and the cold war; it will improve environmental standards by ensuring that the new countries raise their environmental standards; and it will also provide extra opportunities for prosperity and jobs. That is the great prize of EU enlargement.

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

Does the Leader of the House realise that he gives the impression that he is dragging his feet on the question of the review of the sitting hours of the House when he talks about the narrowness of the majority in the Committee? Does he recall early-day motion 262, which was signed by 245 Members?

[That this House notes that the revised sitting hours and related arrangements have now been in place for 12 months; believes that there is now sufficient experience of the new arrangements to enable the House to judge what adjustments would be appropriate to enable the business of the House to be conducted more effectively; and calls for an urgent review of the reforms.]

The Government have made a U-turn on allowing people to vote on the European constitution, so how about allowing Members of the House to vote on their sitting hours?

Mr. Hain

There will be a vote on sitting hours.

Dr. Lewis


Mr. Hain

Let me take the hon. Gentleman through the sequence of events. At the beginning of the year, I announced that the Modernisation Committee would conduct a review. In the meantime, the Procedure Committee had circulated a questionnaire to every Member and there was a large response to which I referred earlier. That response showed a very narrow division, not on reverting to the old hours on Wednesday—there was no real support for that—but on the Tuesday hours. The division was between those who wanted the hour of interruption to remain at 7 o'clock and those who wanted to move back to 10 o'clock. In the Modernisation Committee we need to reflect on the detail of the response to the Procedure Committee and, yes, at the end of that process the House will have a vote on its future sitting hours, as has always been promised. The current hours are only for the rest of this Parliament.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab)

The Leader of the House will be aware of early-day motion 583 signed by 168 Members on both sides of the House.

[That this House notes with regret the horrific murder of Jane Longhurst by Graham Coutts who had become an avid user of corrupting internet sites such as 'necrobabes', `death by asphyxia' and 'hanging bitches'; offers its 10 support to the family of Jane Longhurst in their call for action to he taken to close down these sites; calls on the Government to conduct a review of the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 and all other key legislation; and asks the Home Secretary to ensure better co-operation from the international law enforcement agencies to close down such internet sites, which are likely to incite people to do harm to others.]

It calls for action to restrict UK access to corrupting and depraved internet sites, following the horrific murder of Brighton schoolteacher, Jane Longhurst, who originally came from Reading. She was killed by an avid user of internet sites such as "Necrobabes" and "Death by asphyxia". The Home Secretary has already pledged to try to take action against such sites and to restrict access to them, but does not my right hon. Friend think that as there is wide support for action from Members on both sides of the House it is a suitable subject for debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Hain

Indeed. I know that the whole House shares my hon. Friend's absolute abhorrence at that obscenity and the way in which internet sites can promote such behaviour. That is why the Government have been working closely with the Internet Watch Foundation, internet companies, telecom operators and others to increase our ability to prevent children from accidentally accessing explicit adult material of that obscene kind. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's campaign to ensure that we are constantly aware of the issue.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

Can the Leader of the House find Government time to debate the endemic fraud and corruption in the EU—the organisation so much admired by him and his hon. Friends in the Government? The issue has been dramatically highlighted by the National Audit Office and by the failure of the European Parliament to do anything about it.

Mr. Hain

Fraud in the European Union is indeed a great concern. That is why the Government have ensured that we focus on fraud the whole time and why Commissioner Neil Kinnock, despite the criticisms of him, has been embarking on some of the most difficult work that any commissioner has had to undertake to try to reform the European Commission's practices and ensure that such inefficiencies and fraud are tackled head-on. That must be done, not only in the interests of all of us, but in those of a Europe of which we can be proud.

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

Statements and oral questions on Iraq are welcome and could well be extended, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), but they are surely not enough. We need a fully-fledged debate on Iraq, the situation in Falluja, what is occurring in the prisons and the two legs of the Government's argument on weapons of mass destruction and humanitarianism. Moreover, we need to debate practical suggestions about how we can get out of the current mess, and the role of the United Nations and the role of a free Iraqi labour movement are important things that could be outlined in that a debate.

Mr. Hain

As I have told my hon. Friend before, I agree about the importance of a free Iraqi labour movement—something that did not exist under Saddam Hussein, but that he and I want to take root in Iraq. As for a fully-fledged debate, my hon. Friend has the opportunity to apply for one at any time, but he cannot really suggest that we have not had many opportunities to discuss developments in Iraq.

Mr. Barnes

A full day.

Mr. Hain

I have noted what my hon. Friend says about a full day's debate. In respect of the United Nations, we are working for another Security Council resolution and the intention is to hand over responsibility for the governance of Iraq to an interim Iraqi authority from the end of next month. That is on course and we will continue to do everything that we can to support it.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD)

I thank the Leader of the House for his robust comments on the proposed English cricket tour to Zimbabwe, but may I press him on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that there should be a debate, or at least a statement, in the House next week, following today's meeting of the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Sport and Tourism with the England and Wales Cricket Board? Would not such a statement provide an opportunity for all parties in the House to join together to pressure the International Cricket Council to change its rules to allow the cancellation of such tours on the ground of moral issues, without fines being imposed?

Mr. Hain

I am at one with the hon. Gentleman on this. Undoubtedly, the villain of the piece at present is not just Robert Mugabe's despotic regime, but the way in which the ICC is turning a blind eye to that. I find that unacceptable, and it would be a good idea if we could explore—whether through a debate in the House or other means—how the focus of attention can be put on the ICC.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the future of post office closures? The closures are being done differently from in the past. In fact, enticement, bribery and every other means are being used to encourage post offices to close when we believe that they are viable businesses. There is no transparency, the books are not made available to make a rational judgment and the evidence needed to make the judgment is concealed. That is not an appropriate way to close post offices.

The losers are the public. Generally, old people use post offices. Many of the post offices involved are surrounded by old people's bungalows and sheltered accommodation. Those people will continue to need post offices. They will continue to live in those homes, but post offices will be unavailable to them. I plead with my right hon. Friend to arrange an open debate, with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry available to the House.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes some serious allegations—the Secretary of State will want to take note of them and respond to him—but I agree with him in this respect: the local post office in my own village in my constituency is a fulcrum for the village. Pensioners and others dependent on benefits use it particularly actively. Pensioners in a former mining constituency such as mine do not have cars and cannot get down the valley easily, so the post office is a vital community facility. He is absolutely right about that.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con)

When will we debate the proposed referendum on an EU constitution? Although the Prime Minister could open such a debate, would it not be a good break with precedent to allow members of the Cabinet to speak in it and have their say—a say that they were denied around the Cabinet table? Perhaps the Leader of the House could respond to the debate, so that we could hear him eat his words before we go off and eat our dinner.

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I responded to a similar impudent point from the shadow Leader of the House a few weeks ago. This issue will be debated in due course, but how can we debate a referendum on a European constitutional treaty that has not yet even been finally negotiated, let alone agreed and signed? That is the point. He and the Conservative party decided that they opposed the draft constitutional treaty before it was even properly published and agreed in the European Convention, on which I represented the Government. They are still pressing the same position when the negotiations have not finished. Let us see what is negotiated and whether agreement can be reached, and then we will decide how to proceed.

Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab)

I am sure that the Leader of the House shares my concern about the levels of council tax. May we debate that important issue and particularly the effects—cuts in services or increases in council tax—if there were a two-year cash freeze on local government funding?

Mr. Hain

Of course, the consequences for council tax of a cash freeze on local government spending, which would cut local government funding by £2.4 billion, would be catastrophic. Council taxes would rise by 10 per cent. as a consequence of the spending plans promoted by the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Cabinet in the first two years of a Conservative Government. Local government spending would be cut by —2.4 billion, either savagely cutting services or sending council tax levels sky high. That is the prospect that awaits the people of Britain if they get a Conservative Government.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House find time to hold a debate on the Environment Agency's proposed amendments to the substitute fuels protocol that will, by sleight of hand, allow waste materials to be rebadged as fuel and thus imported into this country for disposal at plants such as the Westbury cement works?

Mr. Hain

Obviously, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will want to take careful note of the hon. Gentleman's point.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the role played by police community support officers who make a valuable contribution to reducing crime and reassuring the population in my constituency? May we have an opportunity to debate both the possible expansion in the number of support officers and the effect that a £900 million cut in the Home Office and criminal justice budget would have on those people, whom we now have out on the streets reducing crime?

Mr. Hain

I would welcome an Opposition debate on that matter. My hon. Friend is right: it would be interesting to find out whether the Opposition could defend their policy of cutting Home Office expenditure by almost £1 billion, slashing the number of police officers and community support officers, who are vital to improving security in our communities and dealing with antisocial behaviour and the other intimidation that is visited upon senior citizens, especially. That is a question for the Opposition to answer in the coming election campaigns.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

Has the Leader of the House seen the reports in today's press that unscrupulous law firms are launching legal actions against British troops in Iraq? Will he make it categorically clear that no British troops, either in Iraq or any other theatre, will be subjected to claims under human rights legislation?

Mr. Hain

The Ministry of Defence is obviously very concerned about this matter. Indeed, the Government are concerned about it and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will follow the points that he makes and the whole situation very carefully.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the statement made yesterday by the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, about progress on reviewing baby death convictions following the Angela Cannings judgment. What arrangements will my right hon. Friend make for that issue to be debated in the House when that review is completed? It is a matter of enormous concern for all parents, carers and paediatricians. I am told that many paediatricians are reluctant to become expert witnesses or take on cases where child abuse is suspected, which may leave children unprotected.

Mr. Hain

This is a very important matter and I acknowledge the close and expert interest that my hon. Friend has shown in child protection and children's rights. That is why I am sure that the Attorney-General's statement and the accompanying written ministerial statement will be particularly welcome to her.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

I thank the Leader of the House for the generous provision of three days' debate on the Pensions Bill on Report and Third Reading, but will he assure the House that, within that time, sufficient time will be given to debate all amendments relating to the 60,000 workers who have lost their pensions, including any amendment that may be tabled by Labour Members if the Government do not make their own announcement before that time?

Mr. Hain

It is partly because of the importance of the matter that sufficient time has been allowed, not just to debate the necessary technical amendments tabled by the Government but to address that issue. I assure my hon. Friend that, if an amendment tabled by Back Benchers is selected by you, Mr. Speaker, and if it is in order, there will be enough time to debate it, if, indeed, it is necessary to table such an amendment at all.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that patronage is the curse of our age and that 46 new Members have entered Parliament by appointment, not election? What is happening with House of Lords reform and will it ever take place while peers in the other place have a right of veto and can overrule the decisions that we take in the elected House?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend will welcome the increased number of life peerages, which enables the Labour contingent in the House of Lords at least to close the gap with the Conservatives, who are still the largest party there, which makes their presence in the upper House disproportionate to their support in the country. As for House of Lords reform, the Government are addressing the issue and we are determined to advance reforms on the composition of the House of Lords, its powers and procedures.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

I am pleased that Members on both sides of the House have welcomed the fact that the European Union has increased in size with the arrival of 10 new member countries. They will be aware that this week the President of Poland is making a state visit to this country and I am sure that we all welcome the fact that Poland has come back to its European home. May we have a debate in the House as soon as possible on the economic implications of future enlargement of the European Union for both Britain and the EU as presently constituted?

Mr. Hain

I join my hon. Friend, on behalf I am sure of the whole House in welcoming the state visit by the President of Poland, which was an important ally of ours in the second world war and has long been a friend of Britain's. My hon. Friend is one of the Members who have promoted ties with Poland. We value its entry into the European Union and I believe that it will be a strong ally of Britain in the EU's future development.

As for any future plans for the EU enlargement, my hon. Friend knows that Bulgaria and Romania are closing a number of chapters necessary for the conclusion of negotiations on their accession and other candidate countries are lining up, including Turkey, which I personally would like to see in the EU at some point. No doubt there will be opportunities to debate later enlargement.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Coop)

In light of a planned lobby of Parliament by employees of Her Majesty's Prison Service and the national probation service, who wish to express their concerns about the national offender management service, would the Leader of the House care to pay tribute to the professionalism and commitment of those two groups of people and ask the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House to supply the organisational detail that is missing but necessary, provide assurances about resource levels and explain the delphic term "contestability", which seems to threaten employees and voluntary sector providers alike?

Mr. Hain

The Home Secretary will want to pay attention to the points made by my hon. Friend, but I happily join him in paying tribute to the role played by prison officers and probation officers. As for the latter, I often feel that they are the butt of attacks and criticisms, rather like social workers, but in fact they do an important job, which we are happy to acknowledge.