HC Deb 09 September 2004 vol 424 cc863-76 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 13 SEPTEMBER—Second Reading of the Children Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 14 SEPTEMBER—Opposition Day [17th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on higher education, followed by a debate on pensions. Both debates will arise on motions in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

WEDNESDAY 15 SEPTEMBER—Procedure motion relating to the Hunting Bill, followed by proceedings on the Hunting Bill—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]. I think it would assist the House if I gave notice that we will be sitting later than usual in order to complete those proceedings.

THURSDAY 16 SEPTEMBER—Second Reading of the Civil Partnership Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 17 SEPTEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week following the conference recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 11 OCTOBER—Second Reading of the Mental Capacity Bill.

TUESDAY 12 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 13 OCTOBER—Opposition Day [18th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 14 OCTOBER—Motion to take note of a European document relating to justice and home affairs work programme, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Bill.

FRIDAY 15 OCTOBER—Private Members Bills.

The House will wish to know that the date of the state opening of Parliament will be Tuesday 23 November.

Mr. Heald

The Leader of the House will recall that I have been pressing him for a debate on the draft Regional Assemblies Bill. He knows our views about the referendum in the north-east, but surely he would acknowledge that the details of the regional assembly to be approved by the referendum—

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

Or not.

Mr. Heald

Or not. The details should be debated before the ballot papers go out, so may we have a debate in Government time, either next week or the first week back, so that Ministers can explain their plans before the electors receive their ballot papers?

The Leader of the House will realise—as was apparent when he announced the business—that there are differing emotions in all parts of the House and in the country about his announcement on the Hunting Bill, but may I press him on a number of matters? Surely, a Bill of that kind needs more than one day's consideration—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]. Will he think again about the time allowed?

When the Bill was sent to the other place last time, there were outstanding issues concerning compensation and the breadth of the offence. Can the Leader of the House assure us that the procedural motion next Wednesday will allow us to debate amendments on those issues? He may say that under the Parliament Act the Bill has to leave this place in the same form as last time and that a Committee stage is therefore inappropriate, but is not it correct that the House is able to put forward suggestions for amendments to the Bill in a separate motion to accompany it to the other place even under that procedure? Can he confirm that after the Second Reading debate there will either be a Committee stage or that more time will be allowed before Third Reading for suggested motions to be considered—and not just Government motions? Can he also explain how much time is to be allowed for each stage of the Bill?

Finally, will the Leader of the House accept that there are concerns about the way in which he is proposing to deal with this matter? The Government have been up hill and down dale over hunting for seven years, yet now we are being told that it is so urgent that the Parliament Acts have to be invoked, but at the same time that the ban can be delayed for more than two years.

The Bill involves taking away an aspect of liberty from people in rural areas. Surely time must be made available for proper debate of the issues involved. Will the right hon. Gentleman think again about the use of the Parliament Acts? It is wrong to use what is, in parliamentary terms, the nuclear option when it is not necessary and there is plenty of time available.

Mr. Hain

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman survived his reshuffle—or his leader's reshuffle—yesterday. I see that he now has an expanded portfolio, as shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs; I congratulate him on that, but I notice that even with that expanded portfolio he has still not been able to get into the shadow Cabinet. So the Leader of the House of Commons is in the Cabinet, but the Conservative party treats the House with such derision that it will not even appoint the shadow Leader of the House of Commons, with his expanded portfolio, to the shadow Cabinet.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific points, I had hoped, and I had been promising him, to publish the draft Regional Assemblies Bill by now. We will publish it just as soon as we can. The referendum is some weeks off—just under two months away—so there is plenty of time for that. On Monday, there will be a statement by the Minister for Local and Regional Government about this referendum, in which he will specifically address the issue of postal voting as well as other issues, and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to put his questions to him then.

I accept that there are differing emotions on hunting; there is no question about that. Within the hon. Gentleman's own party there were Members who voted for the ban on hunting, and the same applied on the Labour Benches. On the question whether there should be more than one day for debate, may I remind the hon. Gentleman how many times the issue of hunting has been debated in the House? The Bill, which is about to come before us again next week, was debated fully, in detail—in the House, in Committee, on the Floor of the House—and if we look back over the past seven years of Labour Governments, and indeed throughout the 1990s and the last phase of the Conservative Government, we see that this issue came up time and again. Time and again the House expressed its absolutely clear view that there should be an end to cruelty to animals through such a ban, and that view has been thwarted and denied by the House of Lords, which filibustered on the Bill in the last Session.

At issue is how we take this matter forward and how the will of the House of Commons to implement a policy that has been agreed on overwhelmingly by the House of Commons can be exerted. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman, as shadow Leader of the House of Commons, would be standing up for the rights of the House of Commons in this matter.

May I first deal with the timetable and then deal with the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised? I am sorry to take so much time to answer this question, but I know that the issue is very much on Members' minds. The intention next Wednesday would be to move the business motion at half-past 12. That could run till any hour—unless a closure motion is moved and you accept a closure motion earlier, Mr. Speaker. The Second Reading debate will run for five hours from half-past 12, so a vote would be expected at around half-past 5. Then the debate on the motion on the suggested amendments that the Government will be tabling early next week, to postpone commencement of the legislation in respect of hunting, will run for three hours. I accept that if other amendments to the Government's motion are tabled and are in order, they could be taken at that time too, so we would expect votes on that motion at around 8.45—certainly before 9 o'clock. Then debate on Third Reading can run for half an hour following a Division, and it would then be possible to send the Bill through to the House of Lords, accompanied by a message hopefully suggesting the amendments, and the Bill would then get its First Reading in the Lords probably next Thursday. That is the procedure that we have suggested.

There are three common-sense reasons for a delay in the commencement of the legislation, which I should have thought everybody would understand.

First, all of us are concerned with animal welfare, and we should all wish to do all that we can to provide time for the re-homing of dogs used in hunts or their humane dispersal if that is required. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has offered—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) asked me these questions; I am giving him the answers. The RSPCA has offered to help, based on its experience of re-homing greyhounds, and we hope that hunts will be able to work with it to achieve that.


Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Leader of the House reply.

Mr. Hain

The RSPCA is the expert authority on this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, it is not."] Oh, I see. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Leader of the House reply.

Mr. Hain

Conservative Members are arrogating expertise over that of the RSPCA.

Secondly—I should have thought that the House would want to understand this reason and support it—the delay in the commencement will give those involved in hunting time to cease the activities that are to be banned and to refocus any business activities on alternatives, such as drag hunting, or finding alternative employment. For example, the horse industry in the country is buoyant, with increasing activity in a variety of leisure and sporting activities.

Thirdly—this is my final point—the Government condemn the threats of illegal action by some supporters of hunting. We believe that most of those involved in hunting are law-abiding people who are prepared to respect the will of Parliament. Extra time for implementation will make it even clearer that illegal actions and threats of intimidation are totally unjustified. Of course, in the meantime, there will be a general election, and the supporters of hunting are free to vote for Conservative candidates, if that is what they want, and the opponents of hunting are free to vote for Labour candidates to ensure that the commencement date goes ahead as decided. So a general election will finally decide this matter, and the will of Parliament will be upheld.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

May I turn to an issue that is of real and urgent significance to the countryside and rural communities, in contrast to hunting? May I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have an early statement—preferably next week, but if not, when we return in October—on the Bellwin formula for providing funds to areas devastated by flooding and other natural disasters? I have in mind, of course, particularly the floods that hit Boscastle and the immediate area in north Cornwall just a few weeks ago, but there is a general national issue, which I think that the Leader of the House will agree is of importance and urgent significance to other areas that might be similarly affected at any time.

I pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department for their prompt and very positive response to the calamity that hit us in Cornwall, but there are issues that affect other areas. For example, York, some three and half years after the flooding, still cannot be absolutely certain how the Bellwin formula will operate in its case. As the Leader of the House will know, the Bellwin formula is the way in which central Government assist local government in such circumstances, but there is real difficulty with its complexity, with the very long-winded, slow processing of its bureaucracy and, indeed, with its exclusions. We need an urgent statement to clarify those matters.

I shall give a couple of quick examples. Local authorities are reasonably clear about how eligible they are, but the Environment Agency is not at all clear about how it can satisfy the requirements of the Bellwin formula. Business support is unclear, particularly in case of loss of income. Car parks have been swept away in Cornwall, and people are finding it extremely difficult to restore their businesses. That is not covered by the Bellwin formula. In particular, the general issue of capital expenditure is extremely important.

We need such a statement. The Cornish example is just one of many: it could happen to any constituency at any time, and anyone could be affected similarly. The Bellwin formula needs to be updated; it needs to be very clear; and people's confidence in that system needs to be restored. I hope that we can have such a statement.

Mr. Hain

I will certainly carefully consider the hon. Gentleman's request, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Deputy Prime Minister will want to study very carefully what he has said. I acknowledge the tremendous amount of work that he has done on flood protection measures, especially in Cornwall. I understand that he recently opened the flood prevention project in Bude. I also acknowledge the terrible suffering and hardship that his constituents have suffered in Boscastle. We all watched those pictures on television with absolute horror. As he said, although there were special circumstances in which he is well versed, with climate change, such flooding could happen elsewhere in the country. That is why his point is very pertinent.

I was grateful that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister—he generously did so in the media, which was appreciated—and his Department, which acted speedily on the matter. He will be pleased that York Members have met the Deputy Prime Minister regarding the situation there, so his concerns are being addressed. Government spending on flood defence has increased significantly over recent years, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Total annual expenditure is expected to be £478 million in 2004—05 and at least £564 million in the following year, so we recognise that the issue is serious.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Is the Leader of the House aware that many Labour Members welcome the fact that we will deal with hunting next week, albeit some of us are not too happy about the two-year delay? There might be a special delight in seeing Tory MPs encouraging lawbreakers in mining communities and elsewhere in the middle of a general election campaign, so that is another side of the argument just in case he wants to change his mind. We have debated this thing ad nauseam and as many as 400 MPs have voted for it time and time again. The third way was tried, but it did not get anywhere. We have seen a massive majority again, and that shows the democratic will. We should take no notice of the House of Lords at the other end, but get on with dealing with the matter because at the end of the day we made a promise and now we must keep it.

Mr. Hain

I agree with my hon. Friend that we made a promise and now we are indeed keeping it. The will of the House can prevail through the Parliament Acts, if necessary, although I hope that the House of Lords will act reasonably. On the delay to the commencement date, the sport is inhumane, but it is important for us to deal with it in a humane way. The decision to delay commencement will allow those businesses involved to adjust and the re-homing and dispersal of dogs to be done sensibly. I should have thought that everyone would see that as a common-sense approach. It shows that the Government are acting in a reasonable fashion to uphold the will of the House of Commons. It is the outright opponents, including many Conservative Members, who are the unreasonable extremists on the matter, to the extent that they seem willing to countenance lawbreaking.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

Is the Leader of the House aware that he has demonstrated today his ignorance of rural affairs and intolerance of the legitimate activities of minorities? Will he tell the House when the Parliament Act was last invoked in respect of a Bill that had not completed its passage through the House of Lords in the previous year?

Mr. Hain

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman and his role as a senior parliamentarian, but I cannot accept that I have displayed ignorance of rural affairs. All the opinion polls show that there is majority support in countryside areas for such a ban, as there is throughout the country. We would hope to avoid using the Parliament Acts by the House of Lords taking its responsibilities seriously as a revising and improving Chamber, rather than a vetoing Chamber, which is what it was during the past Session, thus bringing us into this predicament. We are acting to fulfil a manifesto commitment and the will of the House of Commons, which is why we are on a track that could end in the Parliament Acts being used, as they have been used before.

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

There will be some weeping and gnashing of teeth on these Benches and great joy in other areas, not least the City of London, at the decision of the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) to spend more time with his Government. Does the Leader of the House plan to insert into the parliamentary timetable an opportunity for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—not unlike that of the Chancellor of the rest of the country—to describe and explain his policies and activities, not least his touching belief that great amounts of private money and influence are necessary to drive up standards in public services?

Mr. Hain

I am grateful for that constructive question, but not sure that I can help my hon. Friend.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con)

As someone who has served on every Standing Committee to consider hunting Bills since 1992—when I was first elected—I do not think that I am going to persuade the Leader of the House to change his mind about the procedures that he wishes to adopt next week. May I follow the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) by asking a question about the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? It is apparent that he will be performing a Labour party function, so who will be paying his salary?

Mr. Hain

The position is a Crown appointment, and my right hon. Friend has been given important responsibilities in co-ordinating the strategy unit and the No. 10 policy unit. That is important to make sure that the Government can meet future challenges facing the country, whether competitive threats from the likes of China, issues arising from climate change, or the problem of antisocial behaviour. My right hon. Friend will be pivotal to those operations, and will work on behalf of the Government.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement about hunting, but I, too, regret the two-year delay. However, my question is about the Children Bill. I am pleased that that important Bill is coming back to the House on Monday, but will my right hon. Friend do his best to ensure that there is a free vote during its passage on any proposal to change the law on the corporal punishment of children, which is a matter of conscience? If there is a proposal to change it, we should be allowed a free vote.

Mr. Hain

I will certainly look at my hon. Friend's request. I acknowledge her expertise and her admirable persistence in making sure that children's rights are constantly defended and, where they are not, exposing that. I therefore take particular note of what she said.

Briefly, on her reference to the commencement delay, I am sure that Labour Members and others will understand the practical reasons for that delay, which is needed to deal with the re-homing and dispersal of the hounds, as well as the business consequences for people involved in the industry. It is also needed to give people time to adjust, so it is a reasonable position for the Government to adopt, and I should have thought that on reflection she would want to support it.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD)

On 2 September, the European Commission responded to a submission from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to close the sea bass fishery this winter to reduce the by-catch of dolphins and other cetaceans. DEFRA claims that the EU Commission said that the evidence was not sufficient. There is not much time before the winter sea bass fishery begins, so there is an urgent need to debate what the lack of evidence was and what other mechanisms exist for achieving a closure of that sea fishery, and to confirm whether the UK Government will close the fishery for the part of the waters over which it still has rights.

Mr. Hain

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's evident expertise, which is far superior to mine. He has raised an important issue, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will wish to take close note of what he said and respond accordingly.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement on hunting, but is he aware that if there is any criticism by most people in the country it is simply about why we have taken so long to do this. Is not a constitutional point involved, as the decisions of the House of Commons, certainly on a free vote, cannot be treated with contempt time and again by the unelected Chamber? If the Tories are in such fury about such an important issue we can conclude that we are doing right at long last.

Mr. Hain

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and am pleased that his constant harrying of me at the Dispatch Box has properly produced the result that he wanted.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge- Brownhills) (Con)

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), told the House on 11 February that there would be a debate in Parliament on any final proposal to remove from the public domain information about claims registered in employment tribunals. The Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2004, which were laid before the House on 20 July, remove all such information from the public record. As they come into force on 1 October, when will the right hon. Gentleman honour the Government's undertaking to give the House time to debate them? There is one week to go, but an announcement has not been made about such a debate.

Mr. Hain

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for being unsighted on this matter. However, I shall certainly make sure that it is followed up speedily, and that he receives a response as quickly as possible, as he has raised an important issue.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

Has the Leader of the House reflected on early-day motion 1627, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)?

[That this House expresses grave concern at the decision of the Iraqi Interim Government to ban Al Jazeera from reporting in Iraq; and calls upon the Foreign Secretary to express this concern.] What would our reaction be if the "Today" programme, the "World at One" and "The World Tonight" were all closed down by an occupying power?

Mr. Hain

It is very tempting to give an answer to that question, but on the serious issue of al-Jazeera, I believe in free media and their operations. Iraq and the Interim Government are in a difficult position, as they face constant terrorist attacks. I understand that al-Jazeera—I have been interviewed on the channel a number of times, and was happy to appear, as it was fair and straight coverage—broadcast proceedings from the Republican convention, apparently including extracts from President Bush's speech, so it seems to have a liberal attitude on these things.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Returning to the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, surely we should have a debate on his role in the House? A precedent has been set by a number of people who have held that position and done mostly party work that was paid for by the party, not the taxpayer. I am afraid that the answer given by the Leader of the House to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) did not offset our concerns that most of the work that the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) will do is entirely party work for the forthcoming election, so should not be paid for by taxpayers.

Mr. Hain

If someone undertakes party functions—this applies to myself as a Cabinet Minister as well as any other Minister, as the right hon. Gentleman will know from his days in government—the normal ministerial support does not apply. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, however, is undertaking important forward co-ordinating policy work for the Government, with responsibility for the strategy unit which, as I can attest from my experience of working with it, consists of a group of very bright people who are looking ahead to the challenges facing the country, as well as the Downing street policy unit. That is an extremely important task.

Mr. Mike Wood (Batley and Spen) (Lab)

During the recess, yet another authoritative report was produced pointing to the dangers of the use of CS gas spray, which is currently used by all but three police forces in the country. It seems that the health not just of people who are sprayed but of police officers using the equipment is under considerable threat, so could we have a statement?

Mr. Hain

The Home Secretary will obviously look closely at what my hon. Friend said. However, he will be aware that CS spray has been available to the police as self-defence equipment since 1996. The physical effects of the spray are unpleasant, but it has been used in circumstances where there might otherwise have been serious injury to the police or the public. Work is continuing to identify suitable alternative solvents.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

When the Leader of the House chaired the Young Liberals he supported a campaign to impeach the then Lord Advocate of Scotland. Does he still believe that impeachment is a sanction available to the House when seeking to hold Ministers to account, or will he oppose any moves to introduce a motion for debate under that procedure?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman is an admirable researcher who digs up all sorts of facts, some of which are uncomfortable for the Government. I cannot for the life of me recall that campaign, which was over 30 years ago. However, he has dug it up from a file somewhere, so I acknowledge his research expertise.

The House of Commons has already voted overwhelmingly to back the Government's position on Iraq. That was the House's clear decision. For the first time, the Government brought to the House a motion on a decision to go to war, and gave it an opportunity to authorise it or not. That decision was made, but the hon. Gentleman is seeking to circumvent it.

I am advised by the Clerk of the House that impeachment effectively died with the advent of full responsible parliamentary government, perhaps to be dated from the second Reform Act of 1867, and a motion of no confidence would be the appropriate modern equivalent. The Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1999 concluded that The circumstances in which impeachment has taken place are now so remote from the present that the procedure may be considered obsolete. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should research the matter more carefully.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab)

The investigation into the way that the NHS in east Kent handled allegations against the disgraced general practitioner, Dr. Ayling, was published this morning. In the absence of any oral statement to the House about the failings that were found in the system, and given the failure of the Department to hold any press launch on that document, my constituents and others who were victims of Dr. Ayling are holding their own press conference today in east Kent. Does my right hon. Friend think that a matter of such importance should be aired on the Floor of the House? Will he look for time to hold a debate on the subject?

Mr. Hain

Having visited my hon. Friend's constituency with him, I know how much his constituents admire him and how hard he works on their behalf. This is another example. He will have the opportunity at questions to the Secretary of State for Health on Tuesday to raise the matter. It being an important local issue, no doubt he will take the opportunity to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

I must express sadness to the Leader of the House that prejudice and the denial of the rights of rural communities are being given such priority by the Government in parliamentary time. Will he give some priority to the two reports of the Procedure Committee which were published more than 10 months ago, and to which the Government, I am pleased to say, have replied? They are of considerable importance to the House because they deal with procedures, the role of the Speaker, private Members' Bills, and Sessional Orders and resolutions, which have a direct connection to the security of the Palace. Will the right hon. Gentleman please indicate that before the end of this Session of Parliament, those two reports will be debated on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Hain

As soon as I can, I intend to announce dates for the debate on that issue, on which the hon. Gentleman has quite properly pressed me repeatedly, as it has been delayed for some time. It is intended to have a debate before this Session of Parliament ends. I can give him that assurance.

I always admire the way in which the hon. Gentleman upholds the sovereignty of the House. What I am doing in the role of the Leader of the House by bringing back the Hunting Bill next Wednesday is precisely that. To do otherwise would be a denial of the sovereignty of the House and the decision of the House. It is not a question of giving the matter priority over other issues that are more important in a daily sense. It is a statement that the will of the House ought to be respected and that, when the House votes overwhelmingly and repeatedly on a matter, it should have an opportunity to resolve the matter. That is what we intend to do now.

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

The main reason for the House returning for two weeks in September is so that constituents' concerns during the summer can be raised with the Government, as the spokesperson for the Lib Dems did by raising the matter of the floods in Cornwall. We need such an opportunity, but should we not make these two weeks more user-friendly? At least the business of the House will pick up next week with some dramatic discussions, but the initial week has been dull, with too many Adjournment and Opposition day debates, rather than debates that get to the meat of issues. Then there is the problem that we are working in a building site, so the power is out in certain MPs' rooms, I cannot get access to my computer and I cannot get into the Library to get access to the computer there. How on earth can I be a moderniser if I cannot get to modern technology?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There will be a vote early next year on the sitting times of the House and September sittings will be for the decision of the House. There are arguments to and fro on that. My hon. Friend properly pointed to the opportunity that Members now have to raise issues in September as a result of the sittings. I note that the ritual demands for the recall of Parliament that always happen in the summer have not occurred this time, for the obvious reason that we are meeting. On the work that we are undertaking, there are three Second Readings next week. That is serious business. There is serious business this week as well, including consideration on proceedings of Bills, and this afternoon we have a European Union policy debate, as we promised. These are all important matters and our time is being used effectively.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House admit that, far from a ban on hunting being the overwhelming view of the House or of this Parliament, when the vote was last taken in the Chamber the majority of the 659 Members of Parliament were either absent or voted against? There was no absolute majority of Members for a ban. Does he accept that only a minority voted for a ban, and that there is substantial opposition in the second Chamber, so to speak of it being the will of Parliament is nonsense?

Mr. Hain

This is a new constitutional convention—that when there is a clear majority in Parliament, there must be a threshold or quorum in order to satisfy the hon. Gentleman. The truth is that, if the House of Commons votes clearly for a particular policy, as it has repeatedly done—overwhelmingly, as happened earlier this year—the will of the House of Commons ought to be respected. That is an elementary democratic principle. Or are the Conservatives inventing new rules for Parliament on the hoof to satisfy their own prejudices on the issue?

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

Like me, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of the miners' compensation scheme to constituencies such as ours. In Ogmore, more than £40 million has been paid out in vibration white finger and chest disease payments. Although I appreciate that time for a debate is tight, will he find time for a statement at least on the effect of the abolition of the Department of Trade and Industry on industrial injuries schemes and miners' compensation?

Mr. Hain

I was hoping that the Liberals might table an Opposition motion on the subject to have their policy tested. It is an extraordinary policy, as the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, and would lead to the abolition of the science budget and other things, including the miners' compensation fund, which has brought hundreds of millions of pounds—£2 billion across the country—to my hon. Friend's constituency, to sick miners in my constituency, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and those of scores of hon. Members right across the nation. If the DTI were abolished, that fund would become insolvent, along with many other functions including the protection of women, the Low Pay Commission, promoting exports and inward investment, and the Small Business Service. All those vital supports for our economy and for the pursuit of justice would disappear as a result of a cack-handed Liberal Democrat policy, of which we see so many.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)

May I remind the Leader of the House that it is now two years, seven months and 26 days since the fire at Yarl's Wood detention centre in my constituency, which almost cost scores of lives and cost more than £100 million? It had profound implications for the conduct of the Home Office and the immigration service and for the Group 4 custody protection team that was in charge of Yarl's Wood at the time, yet we still have no report to the House of the inquiry that was promised by the Home Secretary the day after the incident. Can the Leader of the House explain why the Government are not pursuing the prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw, to get the report out to the House as quickly as possible, and will he arrange for the Home Secretary to explain to the House why the Government are not seeking to bring the results of the inquiry here as soon as possible? The delay seems like an insult to all those who were concerned by the implications of the fire.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman has a well-deserved reputation in the House for raising issues seriously, and not in a flippant or causal fashion. The fact that he has chosen to do that on this issue underlines the seriousness of the point that he raises on behalf of his constituents about the Yarl's Wood report and when it will be published. I will makes sure that the Home Secretary is aware of the matter that so that he may have a proper response.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab)

At a time when British manufacturing is, thankfully, performing increasingly strongly, does my right hon. Friend know about this particular area of concern for an important industry for the future? Renewable energy manufacturers are waiting for a decision by the DTI on the future grant funding for products such as solar cells because the present regime ends next spring. Will he have a word with his ministerial colleagues in the DTI about making an announcement on that long-term investment programme as soon as possible?

Mr. Hain

I will speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I share a passion for renewable energy with my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who was kind enough to invite me to the opening of Sharp's wonderful new plant in Wrexham, which builds photovoltaic panels. Unfortunately, most of those panels are exported to Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but I would like to see them included in new build and installed on roofs right across the country. His point about grant funding for solar cells is important, and I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to respond to it positively.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that every policy decision must pass this key test: Does it, in practical terms, advance and improve the lives of Britain's hardworking families in the future? A hunting ban in Shropshire will cause people to lose their jobs, damage businesses, do nothing for animal welfare and place intolerable pressure on an already stretched police force. Will the Leader of the House stand up and give us three areas of daily activity in which, in practical terms, a hunting ban will advance and improve the lives of Britain's hard-working families?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Leader of the House should not stand up and do that because he has announced that a debate will occur on Wednesday, when the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) should put such questions to the Minister responsible.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House knows that research is an important activity in my constituency. Has he assessed the effect of the abolition of the DTI on business, universities and my constituency?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Once again, that question is not about next week's business.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a statement on the so-called urban regeneration of post offices, which seems to be the urban closure programme? Two post offices in Teignbridge and nine post offices in the adjoining area of Torbay are under threat, and the consultation closed on 8 September. Rural post offices can claim money for social need, but urban post offices cannot. I chaired a public meeting in Decoy about the closure of the post office, the clear social need for which was demonstrated by the elderly people, mothers, teachers and local businesses who attended. Can we have an explanation why no social need programme exists for urban post offices?

Mr. Hain

Given the nature of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, he understands the importance of small post offices in rural areas and villages, which is why they take priority for support. The Government have made several hundred million pounds available to support local post offices, despite the fact that people's changing lifestyles and shopping habits mean that they are depriving local post offices of their traditional custom. The Government and I want as many local post offices as possible to survive and the Minister with responsibility for the matter will take note of the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is against deferring the implementation of the Hunting Bill, as are all other animal welfare organisations. We will have a free vote on the Hunting Bill, but will we have a free vote on the accompanying motion that deals with the commencement of the Act? Many people believe, as I do, that we cannot afford to hang around for two years before implementing the Act.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend and I take the same position on the matter and always have done. We want to see the Bill go into law and the banning of that inhumane sport. I hope that he supports the Government's position of seeking to allow a reasonable interval between Royal Assent and commencement, so those involved in hunting can adjust their lifestyles and the dogs can be re-homed and dispersed humanely. It would be wrong if an inhumane sport were followed by the hounds involved being dealt with inhumanely, and I hope that my hon. Friend changes his mind and supports the Government.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker