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Commons Chamber

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 10 April 2003

The House met at half—past Eleven o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

London Local Authorities And Transport For London Bill Lords

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers To Questions

Education And Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Funding (Hendon)

1.

If he will make a statement about the funding of schools in Hendon in 2003–04. [108240]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

According to our latest information, the London borough of Barnet has increased its schools budget by 11 per cent. or £17 million. However, it has increased its individual schools budget—that is, the funding that the education authority passes to schools for them to spend as they consider fit—by only 7.8 per cent. or £10.5 million.

I remind my hon. Friend that he required Barnet to passport £14.5 million—double what we received in grant. After a 24 per cent. tax increase and £11 million of cuts, the council is still £1 million light. However, the standards fund changes are the real culprit.

Our schools are £5.6 million short of what they need simply to stand still. Copthall school, a high-performing comprehensive that my hon. Friend recently visited, is losing four teachers and cannot afford the new books for the changed GCSE syllabus. More than half the infant and primary schools are receiving an increase of less than 3.2 per cent. net. Parkfield school is receiving a zero increase; Mathilda Marks Kennedy school is actually losing 1 per cent. in cash terms. There is no prospect—

My hon. Friend makes his point effectively. I pay tribute to his efforts to draw attention to the situation of Barnet schools. We recognize the difficulties that some face. In my original answer, I highlighted the fact that there is a considerable gap between the healthy 11 per cent. increase in the overall schools budget and the amount that is getting through to schools, and we believe that Barnet should deal with that. My hon. Friend has drawn to our attention the enormous variations in the figures for different schools. We encourage the local authority to examine its formula and find ways to support some of the schools that are doing the least well.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) rightly blames the Government in connection with the changes to the standards fund, but he did not mention the increased burden of employers' national insurance costs and teachers' pension contributions. This morning, a Barnet head told me:

"It's breaking my heart. We've got a good school here, but we are struggling to find a penny. We are looking at at least three redundancies."
What does the Minister have to say to frustrated heads, teachers and parents who are paying massive tax increases but see their schools being cut to the bone?

It is absurd of the hon. Gentleman to speak of schools being cut to the bone. Changes have been made to the local government funding formula and the standards fund. We have been able to assist several authorities that fell below the 3.2 per cent. threshold, but, unfortunately, Barnet did not fall into that category. However, at an earlier stage, when we agreed to implement the outcome of the School Teachers Review Body process, we acknowledged that the healthy increase in teachers' pay in London, especially in inner London, but in outer London as well, was one that we wanted to support. That is why Barnet received £579,000 from the London budget support grant to enable it to pay the extra money to teachers in those schools. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that that has assisted the schools, but we need to do more, which is why I shall continue to work with the borough and with colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), to ensure the best deal for Barnet schools in future.

Specialist Schools

2.

If he will make a statement on the performance of specialist schools. [108241]

On 1 April, the Specialist Schools Trust published its excellent latest analysis by Professor David Jesson of York university. I shall place a copy in the Library of the House of Commons. The document presents an analysis of educational outcomes and value added by specialist schools in recent years; it contains a wealth of data and I commend it to the House. To draw out one particular set of statistics: 54.1 per cent. of pupils in non-selective specialist schools achieve five or more GCSE A* to C grades, compared with 46.7 per cent. of pupils in other non-selective schools. That represents a 3 percentage point improvement in specialist schools over the previous year, compared with a 2 percentage point improvement in other schools.

I welcome the clear benefits that specialist schools provide for pupils, but what about schools in challenging circumstances that would dearly like to become specialist schools, but are struggling both because they have difficulty raising the finance and because they lack the support needed to develop plans that will secure the improvements so evident in specialist schools? What help can such schools receive?

My hon. Friend is right. There are several sources of support. The first is the local education authority: as she knows, the director of education and the authority in Sheffield are giving Sheffield schools substantial support to become specialist schools. The second source is the wide variety of work carried out by the Specialist Schools Trust, which is generally welcomed by schools. One aspect of that support is access to a fund to help schools that are not able to raise the £50,000 by their own efforts. Money is made available to replace that as things move forward. There is substantial help and I want to encourage all schools in the country to seek specialist status.

I happily endorse the support for specialist schools of the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn). Indeed, I congratulate the hon. Lady on being one of two Labour Members who voted with the Opposition against the ten-minute Bill that was introduced by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to reduce the powers of specialist schools, when 135 Labour and Liberal Democrat Members were on the other side. Why does the Secretary of State think that he has visibly failed to convince his own party of the merits of specialist schools?

I read the debate on the ten-minute Bill with interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) made an articulate speech in moving the Bill, which I am studying carefully. As my hon. Friend said in that debate, he is not opposing specialist schools, but arguing for change in the specialist school regime, which he personally favours. That is a legitimate and positive debate to have, and throughout my party we think that specialist schools play a major role in improving educational standards, and we shall support them strongly.

The Secretary of State should be aware that while we on the Opposition Benches were prepared to vote for specialist schools, for the Government's own policy, the Minister for School Standards abstained, refusing to vote for the Government's policy. Will the right hon. Gentleman now acknowledge that one of the attractions of specialist school status is the extra money that is available? Will he admit that this year's settlement has left schools throughout the country, in Labour areas as well as Conservative ones, angry and disappointed at the cuts and redundancies that they are facing? As he has heard already this morning, this has made head teachers and teachers desperate for any extra money because they have been so badly let down by this Government.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the parliamentary convention is that Ministers do not vote on ten—minute Bills. However, they listen carefully to the debate and take account of what is said.

Specialist schools make a major difference in raising educational standards. That is why we support them, and that is set out clearly in the proposals. That is why many of my colleagues are encouraging schools in their localities to be specialist schools. That is the right way to go. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the principal motive for schools becoming specialist schools is financial. I do not think that that is the case. The principal motive is the ethos of specialism, which we published a few weeks ago.

Regardless of the merits of my Specialist Schools (Selection by Aptitude) Bill, may I tell my right hon. Friend about the achievements of Derby high school in my constituency, which became the first school in the country to become a joint arts and science specialist school? Does he not think that this is an interesting development? Will he encourage more schools to apply for joint specialisms? Would not that be a particularly useful way forward for schools in rural areas?

My hon. Friend's suggestion is entirely correct. As I think he would acknowledge, and as the Select Committee will acknowledge, the proposals that we put forward in "A New Specialist System" encouraged precisely that mix of specialisms that will achieve the sort of quality that my hon. Friend has referred to, both in rural areas and elsewhere. We are developing a creative collaborative approach to specialism, which is the right way forward.

What would the Secretary of State say to a local business man in my constituency who supported specialist status for his local school and then received begging letters from the Specialist Schools Trust and other Government quangos, which he described as Government propaganda paid for by taxpayers? Is it right that people who have worked hard to support their local school should receive begging letters from Government bodies?

That is a facile point. We had an excellent reception, just before Christmas, of specialist schools and sponsors from a wide variety of different schools throughout the country, all of whom were extremely positive about the approach. Many sponsors were looking for additional means by which they could support education in this way. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's constituent school was present at that event, but I expect that it was. However, most sponsors—I cannot speak for the one that he mentions—are positive about the support that they give and often seek to give further support to other schools.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) mentioned, the process of becoming a specialist school is time-consuming and difficult. The seven secondary schools in Stevenage have banded together and put in a joint application. What measures is my right hon. Friend's Department taking to encourage schools in suitable localities to do the same?

We are giving guidance to local education authorities to encourage that kind of thing, but I would add one important point: the process of becoming a specialist school is now entirely about one question—the ability to achieve the quality standard necessary to become a specialist school. We will be rigorous about that, but we removed before Christmas the competitive element between schools which meant that, although a school had done the work that my hon. Friend referred to and passed the quality test, it could fail a test against somebody else. All schools that do the work and pass the quality standard will get specialist status, which is a significant difference both for individual schools and the collaborative framework to which my hon. Friend referred.

Sex Education

3.

What measures he is taking to improve sex education in schools. [108243]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

From April 2003, there will be a professional development programme for teachers of personal, social and health education which includes a specialist module for sex and relationship education. Up to 750 teachers will participate this year. Those awarded qualified teacher status must now demonstrate that they are familiar with the framework for PSHE, including sex and relationship education.

It is probably safe to assume that a geography teacher is best placed to teach geography and a maths teacher best placed to teach maths. I welcome the announcement, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is probably not ideal that maths and geography teachers among others should teach sex and relationship education? Will he therefore go a step further and develop a programme in which trained specialist teachers deal purely with sex and relationship education and can deal with all aspects of sexuality and relationships in light of the increasing incidence of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? Will he also make sure that children at school have good access to information sites on the internet, the use of which is often banned by other programmes?

I shall not he tempted down the path of responding to the opening part of the hon. Lady's question. That would guarantee me a place in the parliamentary sketches tomorrow, so it is probably best not to.

The hon. Lady takes a close interest in these issues. I had an opportunity, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), to appear before the Select Committee on Health as part of its inquiry into sexual health. The response that I have given today demonstrates the seriousness with which we are taking the need for full training and professional development for teachers in our schools. The hon. Lady raised the specific issue of access to the internet, a matter on which I have responded to the Select Committee. Schools clearly want to be able to block access to inappropriate sites on the internet, but if material can be of assistance to sex and relationship education programmes we very much want schools to make that available via the internet. Those decisions are clearly best made at school level, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in encouraging all schools to take up responsible sex and relationship education.

Does my hon. Friend accept that some of the most important skills in that area are parenting skills? Many will benefit immensely, when they have children of their own, if we ensure that they have the full advantages of education. The best teacher is not necessarily the one in the classroom—it is the one at home. Particularly in a deprived area such as my own, proper parental support for youngsters at school is probably the most important skill, even above numeracy and literacy.

My hon. Friend is right. Parental involvement in the delivery of sex and relationship education is clearly crucial. Our citizenship programme and the inclusion of citizenship in the core curriculum in secondary schools can play a part in parenting education for future parents—people who are now students in our schools. However, we need to look at other ways of engaging with parents. The Connexions programme is one way in which that can be delivered, but I am certainly keen to learn of other positive examples so that we can ensure that parenting education is as effective as possible.

Statistics demonstrate that some of the work that is going on, particularly when health and education professionals work together, is already having a positive impact. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred to the high levels of teenage pregnancy in this country, which is of great concern, but it is welcome that the latest statistics demonstrate that there has been a 10 per cent. fall in the number of under-18 conceptions over the past three years, and I hope that our policies will enable that trend to continue.

Skills Strategy

4.

How many further education colleges he and other Ministers in his Department will visit between 10 April and the publication of the skills strategy to discuss the strategy. [108244]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Ministers visit colleges on a regular basis. All local learning and skills councils will have discussions with colleges and other providers on the forthcoming skills strategy during April and early May.

To help to address skills shortages, further education colleges have been invited to bid for extra learning and skills councils' moneys for additional post-19 non-basic skills courses such as plumbing. Will my hon. Friend tell the House how much extra Government money—over and above that already built into baseline provision at colleges—will be available from the Learning and Skills Council nationally as part of the skills strategy for post-19 non-basic skills courses from September? If that information is not currently available, can he tell me the date on which it will be?

One of the great challenges of the skills strategy is to define the respective contributions of the Government, the individual and the employer. Central to that will be the creation of a funding system that is sufficiently flexible to focus not only on national outcomes such as basic skills level 2 qualifications, but on specific regional skills needs and sectoral skills shortages and gaps. One of the central challenges of the strategy will be to create a more flexible financial and funding framework that will allow us to focus resources on sectors such as plumbing and joinery, in which there are serious skills shortages. The details will be published in the strategy in June.

When the Minister visits further education colleges between now and June, will he clarify the Government's thinking on the delivery mechanism for adult learning and skills? Colleges have been asked to provide three-year plans under the success for all programme, for example. Will that be the vehicle for delivery? Yesterday, the Chancellor appeared to announce that employer-led training will be the vehicle for delivery through the training tax credits. The Minister has also said that the regional development agencies and the sector skills councils will have a key role. Are the Secretary of State and his Ministers running this programme, or is it the Chancellor? What advice would the Minister give to college principals on this matter?

One of the challenges of the skills strategy is to focus on the needs of the customer. The customers in this case are the individual learners and the employers. We need a combination of interventions to create a much higher level of investment in skills in this country. This is about raising the standards of colleges and training providers generally, which is why the success for all programme is so important in terms of investment and reform. It is also about stimulating employer engagement and investment. That is being done through sector skills councils, through the use of the supply chain and through the use of intermediaries such as banks, financial advisers and others. So we need a high-quality supply side, in terms of educational institutions, but we also need to incentivise the demand side with regard to individual learners and employers. There is not a choice between the two. One of the challenges of the skills strategy is to reduce bureaucracy and create a clearer and more transparent system that small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, will be able to understand how to access far more easily than at present. The skills strategy will seek to address that.

When my hon. Friend goes about his business around the country, will he consider coming to North Yorkshire, and, specifically, the Yorkshire coast and Scarborough and Whitby? We have particular challenges in terms of the peripherality of our community, and of the delivery of these services in a rural context. We also have entrenched long-term unemployment, and it is a particular concern of mine that we are not getting to those people at the moment. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues with some of those people, so that we can roll out the strategy effectively in my constituency.

It would be a pleasure to visit Scarborough on any occasion, particularly to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents. We tend to talk about skills in the context of young people doing better and of post-16 staying-on rates. We also talk about work force development in terms of adults who are already in employment. We should not forget those adults who are close to the labour market but who continue to be unemployed and find it difficult to access employment, often because of their lack of basic skills. We intend to focus our strategy in June equally on the needs of those individuals. We have record levels of employment, but we cannot be complacent about those who remain outside the labour market.

I congratulate the Minister on having produced the quintessence of the Government's approach to everything—a combination of interventions, as he called it.

Let us look briefly at the Government's record. Individual learning accounts are 50 per cent. over budget, and fraud and abuse are costing taxpayers £100 million. Then there is the folly of winding up national training organisations while only half the sector skills councils are in place. Given the harsh and entirely unmerited things that Ministers have said in the past about further education colleges, should we not look forward to the launch of the skills strategy in June less with anticipation than with dire apprehension?

When I spoke on a platform recently about skills, in the company of the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, he said that for 20 minutes he had heard the most sensible words that he had ever heard a politician utter on the subject. I said that I did not think that that would do me much good in my own party, but it did, I hope, show that the Government are taken seriously in this regard.

For the first time, we seek to produce a strategy across Government. This Department, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions are working together on it. We also seek to develop a strategy which genuinely, for the first time, engages with small and medium-sized enterprises. The failure to do that has historically been a major weakness in our system.

As for further education colleges, those in the sector themselves say that this is the most exciting reform and investment programme they have seen for 30 years.

Will someone teach Ministers the skill of speaking plain English without resorting to the appalling verbiage and dreadful jargon that smother good sense and do no credit to any holder of public office?

There speaks the contempt and arrogance of a party that is destined to remain in opposition for a very long time.

Truancy

5.

How many initiatives the DFES and its predecessor Department have announced since 1997 to tackle truancy. [108245]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Since 1997 we have been working to support local education authorities with a range of measures to tackle truancy and improve school attendance. In the last year we have introduced electronic registration systems into more schools, we have co-ordinated national truancy sweeps, and we have funded behaviour improvement programmes in areas with high levels of truancy. Over the next three years, we will implement our national behaviour and attendance strategy to support schools in improving behaviour and attendance and tackling truancy.

What I actually asked was how many schemes the Government had announced. Perhaps the Minister was not there on the day when the answer was given to him, but the truth about the latest Government scheme, involving bringing parents before a magistrate, is that only four out of 10 parents turned up. The local council's principal officer for inclusion said

"It's obviously been a failure… The scheme clearly needs rethinking."
Would the Minister care to comment on that?

I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that truancy is a problem that we need to tackle, and an issue on which there ought to be national consensus. Every day 50,000 children truant, and 7.5 million school days are lost every year. Truancy leads directly to educational underperformance and street crime. What the Government are doing, for the first time, is establishing a combination of positive support and early intervention to prevent truancy and nip it in the bud when it begins. We are also ensuring that sanctions and other consequences result when parents do not fulfil their responsibility to get their children to school.

More adults than ever before are supporting teachers. We are reforming the educational welfare service. We have nationally co-ordinated truancy sweeps. We are reforming the curriculum—and yes, we are holding parents to account for the first time when they actively condone truancy. We believe that there must be a combination of support, prevention and accountability.

My hon. Friend will be aware that truancy is often related to social difficulties in areas of deprivation, and to family breakdown and the like. This puts enormous pressure on the head teachers of very large schools in such areas, in which there is a high proportion of people with social difficulties. Will my hon. Friend consider recommending the appointment of, and the provision of the necessary resources to support, specialist social workers in such schools to take that pressure off of head teachers and teachers?

There have never been more adults in our schools supporting teachers in their front-line classroom duties. Classroom assistants, learning mentors and Connexions personal advisers are there to make links to provide intensive support to individual young people, particularly those who are the most challenging within the school community. They also make links between what is happening in school and what is happening at home, and central to that is the role of Connexions, which addresses any barrier that is preventing young people from progressing within the education system, be it the curriculum, the relationship with the school, the situation at home, or the relationship with peers. There have never been more adults working as part of the school work force to focus on the needs of all children, but especially of those who are the most challenging to the education system.

Will the Minister acknowledge that court action, fixed-penalty notices, parental contracts and the like are not a great deal of help with the permanent truants, who are completely out of the control of their own parents? What estimate has he made of this hard-core group, and what specific initiatives does he have for them?

Such observations are fairly typical of the Liberal Democrats, based as they are on the principle of all rights and no responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman will recall the recent high-profile case of Mrs. Amos, who was sent to prison as a last resort because she had consistently failed to send her children to school. However, she is now the greatest advocate of our policy. She says quite openly that she sends her children to school regularly, and her family are receiving intensive levels of support. There is no doubt that, as a last resort, fines and imprisonment lead to the triggering of action that is so important in terms of finally dealing with the underlying problems that result in such children not attending school.

Pupil Performance (Kent)

7.

What comparison he has made of pupil performance at key stage 2 in Kent with performance among (a) comparator authorities and (b) English authorities generally. [108248]

In 2002, Kent's key stage 2 results in English, maths and science were just below the national average, and were below those of similar authorities.

Is that not pretty awful? Of course, it has come about because teachers, instead of doing what they want to do in the final year of key stage 2, have to coach the 11-plus. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been reported this week in Kent newspapers as saying that he has no plans to scrap selection. Given that, as we now know, we get worse results at A-level than do non-selective areas, worse results at GCSE than do non-selective areas, a higher proportion of failing secondary schools than do non-selective areas, and, now, worse results at key stage 2 than do non-selective areas, is it not about time that we made some plans to scrap selection?

The Government do not support extension of the 11-plus, as my hon. Friend knows. However, in the end it must be for local people to make decisions about the future of school organisation in their areas. The issue must be the standards to which he refers, and I commend him for the work that he is doing to ensure that the debate is about standards and not about ideology.

Public Service Agreement Targets

8.

If he will make a statement on progress in meeting his public service agreement targets in relation to (a) literacy, (b) numeracy and (c) truancy in schools. [108249]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

The standards of literacy and numeracy in our primary schools are at their highest levels ever. We are committed to taking extensive action to raise standards further, and to reduce truancy to achieve the challenging targets that we have set.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his reply. Given that the trumpeted public service agreement targets on literacy and numeracy were missed in 2002, and that the target on truancy was missed and then scrapped, why cannot the hon. Gentleman see that for the Government to fail to meet targets set by independent experts would be disappointing, but to fail to meet targets that they themselves have set requires incompetence on a truly spectacular scale?

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should make those remarks in a week when the international reading literacy study has demonstrated that the standards achieved by 10-year-olds in this country are the third best of any country in the advanced industrialised world. That is a great tribute to the success of the national literacy strategy.

We have set very ambitions targets. Since 1997, the numbers of 11-year-olds achieving the expected level in English have risen from 63 per cent. to 75 per cent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in praising that great achievement. Yes, we did not hit the target, but we are not lowering it. We have an ambitious target of 85 per cent. of pupils achieving the expected levels in both English and maths from next year, and we aim to sustain that target through 2005 and 2006. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support us in seeking to ensure that the vast majority of 11-year-olds reach the expected levels in English and maths.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned primary schools quite specifically. That theme is consistent with what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the shadow Chancellor, has said. In his piece in The Guardian earlier this week, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that 25 per cent. of primary school children could not read, write or count. How does my hon. Friend feel that that compares with the 1997 figure, when 40 per cent. of primary school children were unable to reach level 4?

My hon. Friend is right. The 1997 figures show that 63 per cent. of pupils achieved that level in English, and 62 per cent. in maths. There has been a very substantial improvement. The national literacy and numeracy strategy and the hard work of teachers in our primary schools have ensured that that improvement has come about.

Is not the most common cause of truancy the fact that a pupil cannot keep up with classmates? Does the Minister agree that setting helps to raise standards and reduce truancy? Is not it therefore a cause for concern that the overwhelming majority of lessons in our secondary schools are mixed ability?

The causes of truancy are complex and varied. Different practices are adopted in different schools and areas to tackle that. The evidence on setting is mixed. There is evidence of successful setting in certain subjects at certain stages, and other evidence that shows successful mixed-ability practice. What is important is that we enable head teachers to study the evidence that is available and to make the best decision on setting and mixed ability for the children in their schools.

Higher Education White Paper

9.

What representations he has received from students on the White Paper "The Future of Higher Education". [108250]

Our consultation on the White Paper has so far received 57 responses directly from students. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had numerous meetings with students during our visits to the universities, and as part of our regional consultations. We will publish a full report of the White Paper consultation later this summer.

Has my hon. Friend had time to look at early-day motion 994, which has now been signed by 49 hon. and right hon. Members? It is also supported by Cambridge university students' union, in my constituency. Will she consider the view that the early-day motion expresses, which is that, if extra money is required for universities, a measured increase across the board in tuition fees would be preferable to a system of top-up fees?

I have seen the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend refers, and I have considered the views that it expresses. Indeed, we considered that option when we put together the proposals in the White Paper. A number of arguments counter my hon. Friend's view of the matter, perhaps the most important being that we know that there are different returns for individuals who attend different institutions and take different subjects. At its most extreme, there is a 44 per cent. difference in average returns between graduates from institutions at the two extremes of the graduate pay scale. I put this to my hon. Friend: is it really fair to ask for an even contribution from students when graduates get an uneven return from their attendance?

Does the Minister accept that most students take the view that the replacement of grants with loans and the introduction of fees have had a devastating effect on low-income families? Would not a much better way forward be to reintroduce grants, rather that constantly expanding the number of universities? That would mean that children from poor homes had a better and more equal opportunity in education.

It is entirely because we accept that people from low-income backgrounds may be deterred from attending universities that we are proposing the changes in the White Paper. They include the reintroduction of grants for a third of the student cohort; the continuation of fee remission on the first £1,100 for students with low-income backgrounds; the abolition of the upfront fee, so that students have to repay only after they become graduates and start earning; and the continuation of no real interest being charged on the loans. That is a package of proposals that will counter the feelings of some students, particularly those with low-income backgrounds, that may deter them from attending university.

Has the Minister seen the Open university's submission on behalf of mature students? It makes the point that 50 per cent. of students are mature students and expresses concern about the White Paper's lack of emphasis on such students and, indeed, on part-time students. How does the Minister intend to respond to that?

We regularly meet the Open university—indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met its vice-chancellor only last week. I do not accept that the White Paper fails to address issues affecting mature students, and I would put two points to my hon. Friend. First, the Government's targeted support in the existing regime has been increased, which particularly helps mature students. Secondly, the White Paper contains proposals to support part-time students, introducing grants to such students for the first time ever.

School Budgets (Norfolk)

10.

What assessment he has made of the impact of (a) the increase in national insurance contributions and (b) the new formula spending share on school budgets in Norfolk. [108251]

My Department is analysing in detail the impact of the changes in Norfolk and other local education authorities on the basis of the LEA returns now being submitted as a result of financial decisions. On Norfolk, I have discussed these matters closely with the director of education and the chief executive of the county and I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the county council's decision this week to add £500,000 to the extra £1.6 million that the Government were able to allocate recently to help schools in Norfolk.

I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the extra money allocated to Norfolk county council, but will he meet head teachers in my constituency, perhaps with me, so that he could hear directly from them the scale of the problem with this year's budget? I received a letter from a head teacher on behalf of the North Walsham cluster, which set out the position of all the schools in that cluster and pointed out how many schools were facing cuts in staff and teaching support assistance. The situation is pretty bleak, so will the right hon. Gentleman meet those teachers?

I have already met people from schools in my own constituency and my neighbouring constituency of Norwich, North. I understand that Norfolk representatives of the National Association of Head Teachers are seeking a meeting with me and I am prepared to meet them. I have also had substantial email and letter exchanges with schools, including some in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The questions that I am putting to Norfolk county council include the following. Why is 41 per cent. of the standards fund—a total of £6.3 million—being held back from schools? Why is 1 per cent. of the individual school budget—£2.84 million received during the year—also being held back from schools? Why was the non-individual school budget increased by 29.5 per cent., which is a substantial amount, much higher than that received by many other authorities?

The hon. Gentleman may join me in considering why the Norfolk formula allocation has such wide variations in budget share per pupil—for primary schools, the lowest is an 18 per cent. decrease, while the highest is an increase of 95 per cent. The upper quartile primary schools have had embedded increases of an average of 16 per cent., with the lowest quartile receiving only 7 per cent. Those are sharp differentials. The county council does not have a system of floors and ceilings, which it should have, as we do in the country as a whole. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in asking the county to explain itself on those matters.

May I express similar concerns to those of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)? I have done a survey of schools in my area and many are in exactly the same position with a shortfall in funding, perhaps requiring redundancies. They also welcome the Government's massive investment in education and the extra £1.6 million, which will go a long way. I also congratulate Norfolk county council on adding the extra £500,000. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the Norfolk local education authority to put all that extra money in the schools that are facing difficulties, redundancies and staff cuts, thereby ensuring that there are no redundancies this year and, I hope, for the foreseeable future?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and, like him and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I acknowledge the concerns of schools. However, the wide variations in the figures between schools are extremely striking. We have to understand why that is, because the budget for each individual school is affected by a combination of the Government's allocation to the LEA, the council tax increase, and the county council's formula for allocating money. We are analysing those factors carefully and I will report back to colleagues in Norfolk.

Individual Learning Accounts

11.

If he will make a statement on individual learning accounts. [108252]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

We have acknowledged the serious mistakes that were made in the design and delivery of the individual learning accounts scheme. The hard lessons learned will inform the development of a successor scheme.

Despite the terrible rip-offs that bedevilled the implementation of the individual learning accounts scheme, does my hon. Friend agree that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the concept? Does he agree that unions such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—and I declare an interest as a member—instituted remarkably successful partnership schemes that exceeded what the Government had envisaged? What will the Government do to enable unions such as USDAW, and the TUC, to push the programme further and do vital work for many workers who have never been involved in education since leaving school?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the principles that underpinned the individual learning accounts scheme were absolutely right; ILAs were successful in getting non-traditional learners back into learning and in giving purchasing power to learners so that they could choose the learning that was most relevant to their needs. Singularly successful in that process was the role of intermediaries such as trade unions and grass-roots community-based voluntary organisations, which were able to influence learners who, in the past, had found education an entirely negative experience. When we announce the details of the successor scheme in June, as part of the skills strategy, we will seek to ensure that we uphold the original principles, which are as true now as they were before.

Sex Education

12.

If he will undertake a review of the publications that will be eligible for use in sex education in schools should section 28 be repealed; and if he will make a statement. [108253]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

Head teachers and governors make decisions about materials that are used in schools. They must ensure that materials used for sex education are in accordance with the personal, social and health education framework and the law, and that inappropriate materials are kept out of the classroom. Legally, section 28 has no bearing on what is taught in schools, so a review of publications is unnecessary.

The Minister will, I am sure, be aware of the nature of some of the publications in circulation, which contain a lot of lurid information that will do nothing to deter pupils from becoming sexually active before they are physically or emotionally mature. Parents, governors and teachers in my constituency would welcome being involved in a review of the appropriateness of any publications that may become available in schools should section 28 be repealed.

Such matters are best left to the school and to the professional judgment of teachers in conjunction with governors—who, of course, have a duty in law to consult parents. It is very important that parents be consulted by schools when sex education policies are being considered. I do not believe that there is widespread evidence of the sort of abuse that the hon. Lady has described, although I am always willing to look into it. However, the framework that we put in place through the Learning and Skills Act 2000 provides a robust basis for the right kind of sex and relationships education for our children in schools.

School Budgets (South-West)

13.

What assessment he has made of the impact of the increase in national insurance contributions and the new formula spending share on school budgets in the south-west. [108254]

In 2003–04, the national increase in funding is sufficient to cover the pressures that authorities face, including national insurance. However, we appreciate that, for some authorities, low education formula funding increases, coupled with reductions in the standards fund grant, are likely to result in lower budget increases for schools. In the light of representations about that, we have announced an additional grant of £28 million, including £1.2 million for south-west schools.

The Minister will be aware that Poole unitary authority is now the 145th worst funded education authority in the country. Schools face the cuts that he describes, so what action will he take to ensure that improvements in school standards are sustained in Poole and in all other hard-hit authorities across the south-west?

I am, of course, committed to raising school standards in Poole, as elsewhere. I thought that the hon. Lady was about to congratulate the Government on the 29 per cent. increase in funding for, schools in Poole since 1997 and on the £13 million capital programme that will go into action this year. We hope to move to a system of three-year budgets and I encourage the local authority to work closely with schools to ensure that money is getting through to the front line.

How will school budgets in the south-west, and in nearby authorities such as the Isle of Wight, be assisted by the Chancellor's steps to end national pay bargaining announced yesterday?

The Chancellor made himself clear yesterday when he set out a careful approach to public sector and other pay. The Government have already taken steps to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility in the education system, including the recruitment and retention allowances that are available locally. They introduce much-needed flexibility to the system.

Soliicitor-General

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Rape Convictions

19.

If she will make a statement on recent trends in the number of convictions for rape. [108261]

Recent trends show an increase in the number of convictions for rape, but a fall in the percentage of reported rapes that result in a conviction. Of all the serious offences of violence, rape is least likely to be reported, least likely to be prosecuted and least likely to result in a conviction. The Government and the voluntary sector are working with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to improve both law and practice to ensure that rapists are brought to justice.

I welcome that reply. A number of people in the criminal justice system believe that rape conviction rates would rise dramatically if every initial police interview was video-recorded. Does the Solicitor-General agree with that view and will she take steps to initiate a more thorough approach to ensure that such initial interviews are video-recorded so that juries see the reality of the impact of those violent crimes on the victims?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Some police forces routinely video-record the initial complaint when the victim comes in. They do that so that she can say it once off and they put the statement together afterwards, without having to go through it slowly, stopping and starting, thereby increasing the ordeal. The question then is whether that practice can be spread to all police forces, so that all complainants have those facilities. Secondly, what is done with those video recordings? Can they be used in court as evidence to show how the victim was when she first reported the incident? She might look cool as a cucumber when she actually gives evidence, but the video recording made when she first complained might show her dishevelled and distressed. There are issues about the admissibility of evidence and they are being looked at by the police, the prosecutors and the courts, together with me and my colleagues in the Home Office.

Although we congratulate the Government and support them on anything that they do to enable the successful prosecution of rape offences, will the Solicitor-General give some thought to charges against men that are made erroneously? Can the reporting of cases be not allowed unless there is a guilty verdict?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the anonymity of a defendant on the basis that there is a great deal of prejudice against them if allegations are aired in court, in public. The victim is, of course, anonymous but the defendant's name is in the papers. The question relates to whether an acquittal would expunge all that prejudice or whether it would hang around. The issue is important. As regards openness in court proceedings, the fundamental principle is that, if at all possible, everything should be done in public and everything should be on the record: justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done. The exception for victims of sexual offences was introduced by the House, because victims were not prepared to come forward. An exception was made to the normal rule that everything is public only because otherwise victims would not report. Defendants do not have the luxury of not coming forward—they have to come forward—so the issue of deterring them does not arise, and the normal rule that everything should be in public, unless there are exceptional reasons, should prevail. There are no plans to give defendants anonymity.

Race Hate Crimes

20.

If she will make a statement on the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service towards the prosecution of alleged race hate crimes. [108263]

The Crown Prosecution Service reviews all allegations of inciting racial hatred in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors. All cases are considered individually on their merits. However, when considering the public interest test, the code for Crown prosecutors specifically states that a prosecution is likely to be needed in the public interest if the offence was motivated by any form of discrimination against the victim's ethnic or national origin. All such prosecutions are dealt with by specialist prosecutors in the casework directorate in CPS headquarters.

Can my hon. Friend say why extremists such as Abu Hamza, who regularly on our televisions and in our newspapers spews out vitriol inciting hatred and violence towards Jews, Hindus, Americans and many other people, cannot be prosecuted? Surely those racist attacks that are visibly coming from his own mouth are evidence enough for a case of inciting race hatred.

Offences of inciting racial hatred and offences against the person such as threats to kill are prosecuted. Indeed, the Crown Prosecution Service recently reported that in the past year there has been a 20 per cent. increase in the number of defendants dealt with by the CPS for offences involving race hatred. That is against a background of a 28 per cent. increase in such defendants over the year before, and the conviction rate being kept steady at 83 per cent. There is greater determination for police and prosecutors to work together to bring offenders to justice. If there is sufficient evidence to bring about a conviction, it will nearly always be in the public interest to prosecute such offences.

Given the collapse at trial of the libel action brought by the notorious revisionist historian, David Irving, against Deborah Lipstadt for her excellent book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory", can the right hon. and learned Lady tell the House what discussions she has had with, or what advice she has offered to, the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to its policy on the circulation of revisionist neo-Nazi material?

If material constitutes by its circulation an offence of inciting racial hatred, if there is sufficient evidence to constitute the elements of that offence, and it is brought to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police or anybody else, it will consider whether to bring a prosecution under the code for Crown prosecutors. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring forward evidence, the Attorney-General and I will undertake to look at it. We consider very seriously any cases that are brought to us by hon. Members, as we do those that are brought to us by members of the public and others.

Prosecution Policy (Financial Institutions)

21.

What monitoring role she performs regarding decisions whether to prosecute in connection with suspicious transactions reported to the authorities by financial institutions. [108264]

The Attorney-General and I superintend the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office, who are independent, and they make the decisions on whether to prosecute suspicious transactions reported by financial institutions. We regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office to discuss current investigations and prosecutions.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that bank reports to the authorities of suspicious transactions have rocketed in recent years, and that there were more than 50,000 such reports last year? Given that the whole country is rightly focused on depriving terrorists of their funds, stopping money laundering and denying smugglers the proceeds of their trade in human beings, drugs and alcohol and tobacco, can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the prosecuting authorities are sufficiently geared up to respond to the enormous rise in the number of such suspicious transactions?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In the past, fraud has all too often been considered as a victimless white-collar offence that is not important. My hon. Friend is right to say that money laundering, drug trafficking and human trafficking are all connected with money laundering. Prosecutors across different departments have been working together on the issue, as have ministerial colleagues. My hon. Friend will know that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which introduces a new offence of failing to disclose suspicious transactions, came into force in February this year, and that further money laundering regulations placing obligations on professionals to disclose will be introduced later this year. The international fraud business lies behind a lot of other crime, and we have to gear up our act to tackle it.

The Solicitor-General is, of course, right to concentrate on the use of anti-money-laundering and proceeds of crime legislation against terrorism and other serious crimes such as drug smuggling. Will she accept the point that I put to her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, however, that some financial institutions have used the legislation, which has laudable intentions, to impose extra and very burdensome obligations on customers, particularly on small charities, and have sought to increase their statutory requirements by adding requests for intrusive information for their own commercial reasons? Will she agree to meet me and representatives of charities who have contacted me to look into this matter? We do not want laudable anti-terrorism legislation being misused to intrude too much into people's personal lives and personal information and to disrupt the valuable work that charities do.

Of course, I agree to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the important issues that he raises. Clearly, a balance must be struck: on the one hand, charities and small businesses do not want to be overburdened by reporting regulations, but on the other, they are often victims of fraud themselves. Fraud against small businesses and charities is an issue that they are rightly concerned about dealing with. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and to take those issues forward.

The Customs and Excise prosecution office now comes under the Solicitor-General's Department's aegis. Millions of pounds have been lost to the Exchequer in connection with the failed London City Bond and Stockade prosecutions. When will those matters be resolved finally? When they are resolved, will she make a statement to the House?

When the matters are resolved finally, I shall certainly consider how to give the House appropriate information as required on those important cases. I know that the hon. Gentleman has corresponded with and met the Attorney-General in relation to the matter, and that he takes an interest in these issues. I cannot comment further at this stage, but, clearly, we keep the issue under review.

Iraq

12.32 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the situation in Iraq.

I will deal in a moment with the post-conflict arrangements. Let me start, however, with the military situation. All right hon. and hon. Members will have followed the extraordinary events of the last four days as coalition forces entered Basra and then Baghdad. We can all share the new sense of hope so evident on the faces of ordinary Iraqis who are now tasting freedom, many of them for the first time in their lives.

I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the courage shown by the men and women of our armed forces and those of the United States, and their compassion in dealing with the civilian population. Some of our service personnel and some of the United States personnel have made the ultimate sacrifice to help remove the threat from Saddam's regime and to secure Iraq's liberation. We mourn them and we send our deepest condolences to their families and to their comrades in arms.

I also want to express my profound sorrow at the death of innocent Iraqi civilians as well as of a number of international journalists and aid workers. This is, I am afraid, a tragic consequence of military conflict, despite all the care taken by the coalition military forces to keep casualties to a minimum.

Given what we have seen and what we now know, there is understandable euphoria at the progress made in recent days. We must recognise, however, that the military task is far from complete. Large areas of Iraq are still not under coalition control, and units of the Iraqi armed forces are still engaged in combat. After years of brutal repression, we have also inevitably seen excesses and lawlessness on the streets as the old regime collapses. Coalition military forces will be doing all that they can to provide a secure environment for the Iraqi people.

For all the difficulties that may be ahead, we are, without question, now at the start of a new and much better chapter in Iraq's history. As our control extends, I am afraid that still more of the dark secrets of Saddam's regime will be revealed. Just two days ago, ITN's Bill Neely gained entry to Saddam's secret police building in Basra. In graphic detail, a former inmate, Hameed Fatil, described how he had been tortured, along with two of his brothers. Hameed was the lucky one; his two brothers, having been tortured, were then executed, but Hameed had to re-enact the ordeal that he had gone through before the cameras. There were no television cameras in Saddam's torture chambers—there are now, and the truth that they reveal is shocking.

As for Iraq's programmes to develop chemical and biological weapons—to develop weapons of mass destruction—we know that those programmes existed. We know that those weapons existed, and in 173 pages of damning detail the weapons inspectors have already spelt out all the questions that the Iraqi regime has failed so systematically to answer. We now will seek those answers, which the Iraqi regime failed to provide. We pledged to rid Iraq of those weapons, and we stand by that commitment.

The recent, rapid course of events has made all the more timely the discussions on Monday and Tuesday at Hillsborough between President Bush and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Those discussions were dominated by issues relating to post-conflict Iraq. Copies of the joint declaration issued by the two leaders have been placed in the Library.

Our immediate priority is to ensure the delivery of food, medicine and humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will make a statement on that shortly; but, in brief, British forces are already heavily engaged in the provision of humanitarian assistance and in the organisation of basic services in the areas of the south that we control. As the coalition brings security to more of Iraq's territory, the flow of assistance will increase. We are actively looking at sending police advisers to Basra to assist UK forces and to help to create a more lawful and peaceful environment as soon as possible, but our responsibilities to the people of Iraq go well beyond immediate humanitarian relief.

For a generation, Iraqi people were starved of information both about developments in their own country and in the wider world, but those days when they had to labour under the lies spread by Saddam's propaganda machine are now at an end. I am pleased to announce that a new Arabic television service, "Towards Freedom" is being launched in Iraq today, with opening statements from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Bush.

A major subject of discussion at Hillsborough was how best to help the people of Iraq build a stable and prosperous country, living in peace with its neighbours. The Hillsborough declaration emphasised that the United Nations had a "vital role" to play in the reconstruction of Iraq. The United Kingdom and United States plan to seek the adoption of new United Nations Security Council resolutions, which would affirm Iraq's territorial integrity, ensure rapid delivery of humanitarian relief and endorse an appropriate post-conflict administration for Iraq. In that context, we welcomed the appointment, by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, of a special adviser to work on that range of issues.

At Hillsborough, we reaffirmed our commitment to protect Iraq's oil and other natural resources, as the patrimony of the people of Iraq, which should be used for their benefit, and for their benefit alone.

Active discussions are under way among members of the Security Council to prepare the ground for those further resolutions. In addition to participating in the Hillsborough discussions, I have travelled in the past week to Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Madrid for consultations with Secretary Powell and the Foreign Ministers of Germany, Russia, France and Spain and our other NATO and EU colleagues.

It is our guiding principle that, as soon as possible, Iraq should be governed by the Iraqi people themselves. We therefore support the early formation of an Iraqi interim authority, which will progressively assume the functions of government. The coalition will need to work with the UN in establishing that body. As an initial step, I greatly welcome—I believe that the House will, too—the initiative taken by British military commanders in the south of Iraq to bring together local tribal leaders. I envisage at the right moment a national conference, bringing together credible representatives from all parts of Iraqi society to agree on the establishment of the interim authority.

Iraq's neighbours, too, have important interests at stake. They, like us, want to see a stable and prosperous Iraq living at peace in its region. Many of them have given valuable support to the military coalition. All will have an important contribution to make in the reconstruction phase. Last week, I saw the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mohamed Gul, and I look forward to talking to him again shortly. Next week, I will be visiting a number of Gulf states in the region.

My ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), will shortly be visiting Syria and Iran. It is important to maintain dialogue with both those countries. Syria and Iran now have their chance to play their part in the building of a better future for Iraq. I have maintained a dialogue over the past two years with the Iranian Government and, in particular, with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, covering a wide range of issues, including some that cause us concern. As for Syria, we hope that it will now take the opportunity to make a decisive break with the policies of the past and so contribute to a better future for the entire region.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has so often emphasised, nothing would make a more significant contribution to stability in the region than a solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. That, too, was the subject of major discussion at Hillsborough. The Prime Minister and President Bush look forward to the publication of the road map as soon as Abu Mazen's Cabinet has been formed. President Bush made clear yet again his commitment and that of his Administration to implementing the road map and, as he said at the press conference, to expending the same amount of energy in the search for peace in the middle east as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done in respect of Northern Ireland.

For the Iraqi people, the search for a lasting peace began yesterday. Iraq has been a country essentially at war with its neighbours and itself for the past 24 years, its people subjected to a tyranny whose full horror will become ever more apparent in the coming days and weeks.

Just 23 days ago, this House endorsed the Government's decision to resort to the use of force in order to remove the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and to bring the Iraqi people's long nightmare to an end. In committing our armed forces in this way, we in this House took the most difficult decision that can ever face any democracy. But we were right to do so, and today we are well on the way to achieving the objectives that we in this House set. In doing so, we have taken on new responsibilities to and for the people of Iraq, and we will apply the same energy and commitment to fulfilling those responsibilities as we have to the military task.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for an advance sight of it.

While the conflict is not yet over, today must nevertheless be a good moment for the Foreign Secretary. We recognise the positive contribution that he has made to the emerging situation in Iraq today, and we must all welcome the enormous progress towards liberation that has been so swiftly and effectively achieved.

Three weeks ago, this House voted to send our armed forces to war. We asked much of them and they have responded magnificently. War is grim and cruel, but we can take pride in the courage, professionalism, attitude and, most importantly, restraint of our servicemen and women in this conflict. We pay tribute to them and to the American and other coalition forces as well.

We on the Conservative Benches remember with great sadness and pride those who gave their lives in the cause of bringing liberation to the people of Iraq and thereby making the world a better and safer place. Nor should we forget those innocent but unavoidable civilian victims of war who have been killed or wounded. They have also bought freedom for their country.

The military phase is clearly not yet complete. Our thoughts and prayers must remain with the coalition armed forces in the difficult and dangerous days ahead. However, we must look to the peace as well. Many unanswered questions remain. The first problem is the increasing outbreaks of lawlessness and looting. It is legally incumbent on the coalition to ensure public order and safety and means of enforcement. I presume that there were plans in place to deliver that. I should be grateful if the Foreign Secretary could tell us what they are. For example, could there be a role for NATO in helping to produce the manpower in the short term? Have Arab states made any offers to participate in peacekeeping? What proportion of the existing police service in Iraq can be sufficiently trusted to play a central part in enforcing the law? Security is an urgent matter, not least to enable the provision of humanitarian aid.

On Tuesday in Belfast, the Prime Minister and President Bush referred to the vital role of the United Nations. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify that? What precisely does "vital role" mean? Will he confirm that the United Nations is already involved through its control of current oil revenues under last week's renewed resolution on oil for food? Is it clear to whom, legally, the revenue from Iraq's oil belongs? What progress is being made to achieve a further resolution to lift current sanctions? I believe that that is needed to enable the restoration process to proceed. Is it included in the resolution that the United States tabled in the Security Council today? What else does that resolution contain? How many resolutions should we expect as a result of the Foreign Secretary's statement today?

The Foreign Secretary spoke of early steps to set up an interim administration. Will he give us an indication of the likely timetable for reconstruction? For example, will there be a conference in Naziriyah this weekend, as has been suggested? How soon and by what process will a leader of the interim authority emerge? When does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the interim authority will be in place? What will be its relationship with the Pentagon Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance? Will they run in tandem?

What did President Bush mean when he spoke of the United Nations helping to stand up an interim authority? When the Foreign Secretary mentioned endorsement, did he mean that a resolution was imperative, or can it be achieved in other ways? Who will ensure that the interim Iraqi authority is, as promised, both Iraqi and representative of all parts of the country?

It was a bit rich of the French President, who ensured that neither France nor the United Nations are involved in the liberation of Iraq, to claim that
"reconstruction is a matter for the UN and it alone".
Did the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity yesterday, when he met his French counterpart, to refute that, and to point out that France's conduct in recent weeks gives it little or no authority to pontificate now?

We welcome the Foreign Secretary's reassertion that uncovering and eliminating weapons of mass destruction remain a key objective. What independent arrangements are being made to verify the discoveries when they are made?

We have long emphasised the importance of maintaining the integrity of the state of Iraq. How does the Foreign Secretary intend to manage the inevitable tensions between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq as Kirkuk, Mosul and the surrounding oil fields are liberated?

What is the Foreign Secretary's current assessment of reaction to war in the Gulf and the wider region? He mentioned the publication of the road map, which is obviously important. When will it be published—in days, weeks or months? Is he worried about the reported unhelpful activities of Syria?

The war's objectives—disarming Saddam Hussein, eliminating weapons of mass destruction and liberating the people of Iraq from oppression—were right when the House endorsed them three weeks ago. They remain right today. It is in all our interests that they are successfully achieved and that a prosperous and peaceful Iraq replaces the evil that has gone before. We must not waver in our determination to see them through.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous personal comments, which I reciprocate. Military action should not be an issue of partisan politics across the Chamber because that is bad for the country and, above all, bad for our armed forces. Thankfully, because of the official Opposition's statesman-like position, it has not been such an issue, and I express my gratitude to the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Gentleman, especially.

The right hon. Gentleman asked several questions and I shall do my best to reply to as many as I can. I am sure that other hon. Members will raise several of them. The increasing outbreaks of lawlessness were discussed in some detail this morning at a meeting of Ministers. The situation is, as ever, patchy, but reports as of this morning show that the situation is changing. British commanders in the south say that there seems to be less looting and lawlessness than before. They are doing everything that they can to ensure that law and order is restored and, as I said, we are looking actively at putting together teams of police advisers to assist with that role. Of course, we are aware of our responsibilities under the fourth Geneva convention, the Hague regulations and the additional protocol.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what we meant by the "vital role" for the United Nations. I was asked that yesterday, and no doubt I shall continue to be asked it. In the end, the judgment of whether the role of the United Nations turns out to be vital will be set against history. Reality will be the referee of that. President Bush did not use the word reluctantly; he volunteered the word three times in answer to questions during his press conference at Hillsborough. The framework is as set out in the decisions announced at Hillsborough and, before that, in the Azores. This country and the United States have recognised not only the general role for the United Nations, but its vital role on not only humanitarian relief, but reconstruction.

We are working with our partners in the United Nations Security Council on one or more further resolutions. The right hon. Gentleman asked how many, and that depends on the practicalities. One resolution—1472—has been passed since the military action began. Despite suggestions that we had run into difficulties, it was agreed rapidly, thanks not least to the co-operation of Germany, which sponsored it, and the resolution's unanimous support. We look forward to similar co-operation in the future.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about likely timetables. I am sorry that I cannot provide him with explicit timetables, but we are getting on with the job as quickly as possible. He asked about the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which was established by the United States. Several of our people are working alongside General Garner and his staff. The body's function is as stated in its title—reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. It will 'work with the interim authority in the early stages, but we hope that such external institutions will be replaced relatively quickly by internal institutions that will be run for, by, and from the Iraqi people themselves.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the reported comment by the President of France. I raised that during constructive discussions yesterday morning with Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, and I was assured that President Chirac had not used those words. [Interruption.] Well, the right hon. Gentleman asked the question and I raised it yesterday.

We understand Turkey's historic anxieties and also the anxieties of the Kurdish people on either side of the border. We look to Turkey, as we do to every other member of the United Nations, to comply with existing UN Security Council resolutions that lay down emphatically the importance of having respect for Iraq's territorial integrity within its existing borders. I shall talk to Foreign Minister Gul again shortly.

The right hon. Gentleman asked when the road map would be published. It will be published as soon as Abu Mazen's cabinet is in place—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, he asks whether that will be days or weeks, but I am afraid that that is a matter for Abu Mazen and Chairman Arafat, not for me.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Syria and reports of its unhelpful activities. We hope that Syria's actions are not unhelpful, but to the extent that they are, we look to it to end any and all assistance to the Iraqi regime and to co-operate fully with the people of Iraq and coalition forces.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance notice of his statement. I am sure that everyone in the House will welcome yesterday's events in Baghdad. We hope that they mark the end of the most intense period of this conflict and although military operations will continue, a welcome end is now in sight. Liberal Democrats join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to our armed forces and, of course, mourning the loss of life during the conflict.

The Foreign Secretary said that he stands by his commitment to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Will he outline who he believes should take a lead role in the task of identifying and disposing of any weapons of mass destruction that may be found in Iraq? Is that now a task for coalition troops or United Nations inspectors? The Prime Minister said yesterday that independent verification would be preferable. Did he mean that UN inspectors should be given the task and, if so, when does the Foreign Secretary envisage that it will be safe for them to return?

Now that Saddam's regime has fallen, does the Foreign Secretary still envisage that there will be direct attacks on Saddam himself or is the Government's policy now safe capture? If capture is the policy, will he confirm Saddam's status? Does he regard Saddam as a war criminal who is subject to international law, or is Saddam's fate subject to a decision made by any future Government in Iraq? What advice has the Foreign Secretary sought from the Attorney-General on that point?

Finally, the Foreign Secretary has made it repeatedly clear that occupying forces have a responsibility for law and order and people's welfare under international law. We welcome his statement that police advisers will be sent to Basra but, clearly, more than just advisers will be needed. What plans exist to change the role of British troops to policing and peacekeeping, and will more troops be required to fulfil those functions?

I greatly welcome the change of the Liberal Democrats' tone. There is always space in heaven—[Interruption.] I was about to say that there is always space in heaven for sinners to repent, but for the benefit of the Hansard reporters, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) added "bandwagon". I did not want them to be confused about what the hon. Gentleman said. The change of tone is good news and we look forward to further recantations of the Liberal Democrats' position. If they will the end, they have to will the means as well—

We hope not.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) asked about inspectors. As I said in my statement, we are completely committed to finding the answers to the questions—173 pages of them—raised by UNMOVIC in its last, and final, report of this phase that was published as the Security Council meeting on 7 March finished. The military forces are bound to have the initial responsibility for that because we are in occupation and, for all sorts of reasons, the inspectors are not in Iraq.

We will discuss future arrangements for verification with the United Nations, Kofi Annan and our coalition partners, but any discoveries that are likely to made— either by chance or in the heat of the battle—will almost certainly be made by coalition forces. Given those circumstances, I hope that there are no cries by people who did not support military action in the first place—who managed to will themselves into believing that there were no biological or chemical weapons in Iraq—that because coalition military forces make the discovery, if and when that happens, the veracity of their discovery is to be challenged. There is a reality that needs to be accepted.

The hon. Gentleman asked about direct attacks on Saddam versus his capture. I would much rather see that man put on trial as a war criminal. Unlike Saddam, I mourn for the death of any individual whether they are a criminal or innocent, and I am sure that I speak for the whole on House on that. However, I cannot say for certain in what circumstances—if any—that man will be either captured or apprehended.

On Saddam's status, we have of course taken advice from the Attorney-General. I have before me the full text of the relevant parts of the fourth Geneva convention, the Hague protocol and regulations and the additional protocol. It is likely that Saddam will be classified either as a criminal or an unprivileged belligerent. In any event, he will be put on trial if he is captured alive.

My right hon. Friend is quite right: as the liberation of Iraq proceeds, more of the regime's dirty secrets will be revealed to the public at large. For human rights reasons alone, I am certain that the military action will be vindicated.

On war crimes, Indict's A list has 12 most wanted war criminals; its B list has 35. We know that at least one of them—Ali Hassan al-Majid—is dead, but the rest remain. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if those people are alive, they will stand trial, preferably at a UN war crimes tribunal on Iraq which has long been awaited? Many documents will be found in the process of liberating Iraq. They will contain secrets that the regime will undoubtedly want destroyed. I hope that there is a system of preserving them so that the photographs and the documents in the police stations and cells can be used against those people who have committed those awful crimes.

I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend. She showed huge courage in standing up for an oppressed people in parts of Iraq and for the Iraqi people as a whole, and she has taken completely unwarranted and unjustified criticism for that. Unfolding before our eyes on the television screens is vindication enough for her stand.

War criminals were the subject of part of ministerial discussions this morning. We do not know where those people are, but if we did they would be apprehended if it were safe to do so. If they are alive and we can obtain evidence, the UK and the United States intend to ensure that they face the full rigour of the law. It all depends on the evidence because we, the United States and the international community operate trials according to the evidence, unlike the trial system operated in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. One critical part of gaining the evidence is to ensure the integrity of the evidential chain from the moment that the documents are discovered so that there can be no accusation later of a contamination of evidence. We are in active discussion with our armed forces and those of the United States to ensure that that happens.

My hon. Friend also asked whether war criminals would be put on trial before a UN tribunal or some other tribunal. No decision has been taken. If we establish a Government and governance of Iraq by the Iraqi people, that would be a matter of intense discussion with them. Although I appreciate the role that UN tribunals, like those in respect of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, have played, they are hugely expensive. The tribunal on the former Yugoslavia has already cost more than $500 million; the tribunal on Rwanda is getting on for $600 million for nine indictees. We have to consider whether there are other swifter, more efficient, but equally just processes to bring such people to trial.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's generous tribute to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) will be echoed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. In order to underline the Government's determination to have a smooth transition to Iraqi rule, will he discuss with the Prime Minister the possibility of appointing a resident Minister—a member of Her Majesty's Government—to be present in Iraq during those crucial weeks?

I will certainly raise it out of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but the better approach—the one that we are following, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has made clear to the House—is for us to have a senior representative of the British Government with military experience working alongside General Jay Garner of the United States. When I am in the Gulf early next week I shall discuss those issues with General Garner and our representatives, but I believe that that is the better way to proceed for the time being.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister on the cardinal and indispensable role that they have played in placing a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians right at the top of the international agenda? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the liberation of Iraq highlights even more starkly the subjugation of the Palestinians, speedy, definitive progress on the road map will be the best way to dispel any scepticism in the Muslim world on the operations that are taking place?

I agree with my right hon. Friend and am grateful to him for his personal remarks, as I am sure my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be. As I have often said, delivering peace between Israel and the Palestinians requires an end to the terrible injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians. It also requires an end to the terror that the Israelis have suffered. One of the many benefits that should flow from the liberation of Iraq is an end to the state sponsorship of desperate terrorism, which has caused such damage and death in Israel and the occupied territories.

Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that the Government will continue to work towards a political settlement in Iraq which enables our troops to come home as soon as possible and that we have learned the lessons of the mistakes of the Kosovo conflict which have left our troops there four years later? The prospect is that our troops will be home from Iraq a long time before they are home from Kosovo.

Yes is the answer, but there is a big difference between Kosovo and Iraq. Part of the problem is in determining the status of Kosovo. That is still unresolved. Is it a state or part of the former Republic of Yugoslavia? No or very few institutions were functioning properly in Kosovo whereas Iraq has an institutional base. We do not want to stay a day longer than we are needed, but we will stay as long as is necessary. That is the same for the United States. The whole purpose is to liberate Iraq, to deal with the weapons of mass destruction, to help support and sustain a secure and stable Iraqi Administration and developing democracy, and then leave.

My right hon. Friend knows that BBC Monitoring Service, based in my constituency, has provided and will continue to provide an unrivalled, swift and unbiased news and information service from the region. Will he offer a message of congratulation to the staff there who have been providing that service in the last difficult weeks and months?

Yes, I would like to congratulate those staff and the staff of many other agencies whose unseen and unsung work has made such a contribution to the success of the action.

It was necessary to have a national understanding of the reasons for Britain to be part of the coalition. May I publicly acknowledge that one of the important factors in that was the public decision of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) to stay in the Government? That has helped many people to understand that the purpose of the action is to benefit the Iraqi people, both in and outside Iraq.

In the coming months, will the Foreign Secretary give attention to whether far more can be done to spread the message around the world that very few wars are fought between sides that are both reasonably democratic, and very few high-level and persistent civil wars occur in countries whose Governments govern with the assent of the people?

The hon. Gentleman pays a generous, but entirely well-deserved compliment to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. I am sure that she is grateful—

I know that she is, but I thought I ought to check. [Laughter.]

The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) makes an important point about democracy. Democracy is not only right in itself, but the greatest bulwark against terror, terrorism and tyranny. The events in Iraq in the past few days are fascinating to those who take an interest in the history of humankind. There was a regime that had immense power, but only the power that is exercised down the barrel of a gun; remove that, and all the power crumbles into dust. By contrast, democracy, the power of the spirit, lasts and lasts.

By some estimates, as much as one fifth of Iraq's population has fled the country in the past 20 years. Some Iraqis are in Britain today, and many of them either had or have acquired skills, professions and experience that would be invaluable in the rebuilding of their country. Will the Government be in a position to assist any Iraqi citizens who, of their own free will and in due course, wish to return to Iraq to contribute to the rebuilding of their country?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the 4 million people who were forced to leave Iraq. Their number is an indication of the desperate state of that country. It is early days, so I cannot make any promises about the type of programme that we might establish to get people back to Iraq, but I remind the House that we did that in respect of Kosovo and Afghanistan, and we shall of course take that experience into account.

I join the Foreign Secretary in his tribute to the forces, but will he include the Australians, who have often been forgotten, and perhaps even the Kurds, who have been advancing from the north with the Americans?

I understand the extent of the upheaval in Iraq, but I am concerned about media reports of one officer suggesting that, if it proves necessary, some Ba'athists might take on police activities again. We must be very careful about that. Based on our experience of people who have been involved in terrorism seeking to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland, we doubt that the people of Iraq will readily accept those who have persecuted them in the past continuing in such a role.

The hon. Gentleman raises the important and difficult issue of distinguishing between the leaders of the terror and those who went along with it because that was the nature of the society. We will have to make use of many people in the middle and lower ranks of all the services who remain in Iraq so that administration can continue—indeed, that is an obligation on us under the various conventions and texts of international law. Our armed forces initially, and then the interim authority, will have to make difficult judgments about who are genuinely culpable and who can be allowed to get on with their jobs once they have shown loyalty to the new Government or Administration. That is a task that must be undertaken.

Will the Secretary of State say what plans there are to establish a policing operation in Iraq to prevent further looting of many benign public institutions, which will remove evidence that could be used to prosecute war criminals in future? By what date does he expect British and American forces to have withdrawn completely from Iraq and handed over either to a UN international body, or to an Iraqi organisation? Will he confirm that Britain and the United States have no plans to maintain either a permanent presence in Iraq, or permanent commercial control over the Iraqi people and economy?

My hon. Friend started well, but as ever—[Laughter.] Of course I cannot give a date—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not? Give a date."] He knows very well that I cannot give a date. I have already said in answer to a previous question that our troops will not stay in Iraq longer than is necessary. We have no interest in them staying longer than is necessary.

As for oil, yes, some have suspected that oil is an issue, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has categorically answered those suspicions on many occasions, saying that if our sole interest had been Iraq's oil, we would have spared ourselves any humanitarian concern and taken the short cut to doing a deal with Saddam Hussein. The action has nothing whatever to do with oil. President Bush and the Prime Minister have repeated their commitment that the oil wealth and revenues of Iraq should be used for the Iraqi people alone. That is what will happen.

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that without a UN resolution, the coalition will represent "an occupying army" with no legal right to reconstruct Iraq? That is the view of the Secretary of State for International Development, who is in her place; is it the view of the Government?

The position is that the coalition forces have every lawful right to act in accordance with the various legal texts to which I have already drawn attention. Those rights and powers are extensive, and it goes without saying that everything that our forces and civilian personnel, and those of the United States, do will be strictly in accordance with international law.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially his comments about the need for a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian issue. No one doubts his commitment or that of our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the middle east peace process, but a degree of scepticism persists about the depth of the US Government's commitment. Will he state whether he believes that the Americans are prepared to face up to the Israelis on the question of illegal settlements? Without their removal, there can be no unified and viable Palestinian state. Will he also give an assurance that the timetable accompanying the road map is not negotiable and will not be stretched into the distant future as a result of backstage pressure from the Israeli Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment. Achieving a peace raises difficult issues for all the parties concerned. There are difficult issues for the Government and the people of Israel, because they will have to deal with the questions of settlements, refugees and east Jerusalem. There are difficult issues for Arab states, which will have to recognise the state of Israel. There are difficult issues for the Palestinians and the Arab states, who will have to stop terror.

As for the motives and commitment of the United States Government, I believe what I see with my own eyes: a President of the United States who is completely committed to what he says he will do. He is a man of his word and I believe that he will fulfil his commitments, first, to publish the road map, and then to exert the same energy to implement the road map as our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has exerted in respect of Northern Ireland, which is a huge amount. He knows the importance of delivering justice to the Palestinians and security to the Israelis, not only for those people, but for the security of the whole region.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that there be no reason for the liberated people of southern Iraq to turn against British troops? Those of us who served in Northern Ireland in 1969 remember when the Catholics turned against the British forces. Will he also recall the success of the use of British police and they way they helped during the elections in the run-up to the Rhodesia settlement? Finally, will he ensure that when the bulk of the British troops return, there will be a parade for them in London, so that people can see and thank them?

Although it is early days, I think we have already seen in Basra and the south that, far from their turning against British troops, as people's terror and shock from the regime gives way to confidence in the way that British troops undertake their duties so well, they are being welcomed, not rejected. Of course there will be criminal gangs. There will be members of the Ba'ath party who do not want to meet members of the armed forces, but they will be in a minority.

As for honouring our forces, the hon. Gentleman will realise that that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. However, I am in no doubt that he will be committed to ensuring that appropriate means of honouring, collectively as well as individually, the fine service of our armed forces will be found.

My right hon. Friend will have seen press statements about the Basra maternity hospital being looted. I welcome his commitment to considering sending police to assist our troops to restore law and order in such institutions. Understandably, there is anger among doctors in Basra about those events. There is also anger among clinicians in this country. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that work will continue to restore order as quickly as possible so that babies can be born safely in a free Iraq?

Yes, I give that undertaking. I also give an undertaking to ensure that we get water and power on as quickly as possible—in some instances power has been cut not as a result of coalition action but as a result of sabotage by retreating Iraqi forces—and that there are proper medical supplies.

The Foreign Secretary and virtually all of us in the House know full well that the only long-term ambition that either Britain or America has for Iraq is for it to be a peaceful and stable country, and for the action that has taken place to lead to a more stable and peaceful world. However, the right hon. Gentleman will accept that there are many people, especially in the region, who have their doubts about long-term objectives. Will he do everything that he can to ensure that those who are responsible for letting contracts for rebuilding Iraq understand that sensitivity, and that whatever the source of the money to pay for it, wherever possible Iraqi resources and companies and other resources within that region will be utilised to help to rebuild the country—rather than the activity being seen as somehow a business opportunity for other parts of the world?

On a personal note, I add that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister deserve and are entitled to a few days' break over the next few weeks. I mean that genuinely. However, will they find time to consider what has been happening in one or two other parts of the world while the eyes of the world have been directed on Iraq? I am thinking particularly of some horrendous incidents in Zimbabwe.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the behaviour of the coalition forces and the Governments who are behind them in the way in which we deal with post-conflict Iraq. We must show the same high standards as our armed forces have shown in the military conflict.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about time off. I have already cancelled a holiday. I took that decision when military action began. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right about conflicts that are going on elsewhere. I reassure him by saying that although these issues have not been front-page headlines, I have been very concerned, for example, about Zimbabwe and by the brutal treatment that has been shown by ZANUPF forces as they appear to be losing their grip in parts of that country. Similarly, I have been very concerned about the rising tension across the line of control between India and Pakistan.

And the Congo. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

Those three issues have been subjects of discussions, not least at Hillsborough.

Surely no one could have failed to be moved by the pictures yesterday of the jubilation of ordinary Iraqi people in celebrating their freedom. It much reminded me of when I sat watching the television when Nelson Mandela walked free from his incarceration. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Iraqi people could do worse than consider some of the experiences that South Africa had on its road to building freedom in that country?

Saddam's evil and brutal rule is over in Iraq. Once again, brave men and women have given their lives to the great prize of freedom. We owe them a great debt of honour.

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend, including his point about South Africa. I pay tribute to his son, who is serving with our armed forces in the Gulf, and through his son to all his fellow comrades in arms in our services, the United States services and the Australian services.

I shall draw the attention of the House to a remark that I think says almost everything about the Iraqi regime and its complete absence of principle or scruple. It is what I heard on the radio this morning, as many others did, from Mohammed al-Duri, who was the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations. Unfortunately, I spent many hours sitting in the same room with him listening to him explain and justify the evil nature of the Iraqi regime. He speaks extremely good English and knows what he is saying. He said, "The game is over." So for him, the killing, the terror and the lies were all a game, and he knew it. Those who think that we were wrong to take action—the apologists who are still around—need to bear in mind that one of the greatest apologists for the Iraqi regime has put his hands up and said, "The game is over."

Please, please. Wait for it.

Does it not say so much about the Government that as the bodies are being stacked up in the main Baghdad hospital, the Government see it as a priority to set up a new propaganda television station? Thirsty Iraqi civilians will not be impressed by replacing the 6 o'clock news with Saddam with the 10 o'clock news with Tony.

I doubt very much whether that will gain the approbation of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

We have had many years of experience of dealing with authoritarian regimes—for example, de-Nazification, what happened in Japan and the work that was done in central and eastern Europe over the past decade. I declare an interest as chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I ask my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development whether early consideration can be given to how we can go forward on an all-party basis, as we have done over many years, to help the people of Iraq get a genuine, multi-party democratic system.

Yes is the answer to that. It is worth bearing in mind that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy has been active in eastern Europe. Some of those countries suffered under tyrants who were nearly as bad as Saddam Hussein, including Romania's Ceaucescu. They have emerged from those shadows to form an active, functioning democracy, and are about to come into the European Union. We can do the same, or similar, for Iraq, by giving it support to empower its own people to form that active democracy.

Order. Provided that there are brief questions and only one from each Member, I shall be able to call all the Members who are standing.

The Foreign Secretary was right to draw attention to the failures of the war crimes tribunals in Bosnia and Rwanda, but there is another model that the United Kingdom and the United States initiated and were responsible for, which is the successful tribunal in Sierra Leone that has its own specific UN mandate. I wonder whether that might be a model for Iraq. It would ensure that whatever happens is under the authority of the UN and has international respect.

There are a number of models, including domestic ones. We need to consider what will work and what will be most cost effective.

Will democracy in Iraq not require even more than political parties and general elections? Will it not require extensive civil liberties so that people can form interest groups to represent their positions, such as the trade unions that have traditionally been strong in the Basra area? Will the Government see that the Iraqi labour movement is facilitated to ensure that it has a full role in the establishment of a new Iraq?

May I echo the Foreign Secretary's condolences on the deaths of service personnel, civilians and journalists in conflict, and praise the professionalism of the UK armed forces? In welcoming the apparent end of the Hussein regime, I wish to ask a specific question about post-Hussein Iraq? The Foreign Secretary will be aware that there has been widespread autonomy for the Kurds in recent years, including different arrangements in the oil-for-food programme. Will the UK Government support the Kurds if they wish to maintain that devolution in future?

We greatly welcome the autonomy that the Kurds have been able to achieve. Iraq is a country with many differences within it, but it is crucial that whatever arrangements are reached they are developed and agreed by the Iraqi people within the essential framework decided by the international community—the United Nations—on the territorial integrity within the existing borders of Iraq.

Who will decide who constitutes a credible representative of the Iraqi people in the interim Government? We are receiving reports that there is no agreement at the moment in the American Administration on the issue, and there are clear differences of opinion between the Departments of State and Defence. Will the responsibility for that decision therefore rest with the United Nations?

It will not be possible for it to be done by the United Nations simply because it would be premature for the UN to be involved in that direct way. In any event, even it was, it does not have the expertise to say that X should be a representative but Y should not be. We have agreed with the United States and the international community that those decisions will be made by the Iraqi people themselves. We have already made it clear that we want to work with the United Nations and, of course, coalition forces, but we have to start somewhere. As in Afghanistan, one starts somewhere, gets representative councils together at a regional level which then come together and form a national conference. They start off with an interim authority, which is what we are talking about, then, over time, more democratic and representative institutions are built up.

What is the danger of the liberation of Baghdad being used as a justification by the regime in North Korea for acquiring its own nuclear deterrent? Will the Foreign Secretary see his Chinese and Russian counterparts to ensure that the UN takes a robust line on that issue?

I do not think that there is any excuse for the action currently being taken by North Korea in defiance of its international obligations. Yes, this is a matter that I have actively discussed with my Chinese and Russian counterparts, and, of course, with Secretary Powell, Mrs. Kawaguchi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, and many others.

I understand that Iraq's national debt, incurred by Saddam Hussein, is well over $50 billion. I assume that there have been discussions in connection with that massive liability. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that that debt is properly and lawfully repayable?

The hon. Gentleman would have to ask a better lawyer than me about that last question, but we are looking carefully at the issue of potential liabilities of any successor Government, and are discussing it with the international financial institutions as well as the United Nations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will happily deal with that in greater detail when she makes her statement.

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary said that the search for a lasting peace in Iraq began yesterday. I agree with those sentiments. However, our armed forces are still in theatre and still face dangers, so will the Foreign Secretary clarify at what point, legally speaking, he, the Government and the coalition will regard the war as over? If, as I suspect will be the case, there is no neat point, what implications does that have for the formation of a lasting civilian Government?

I doubt that there will be a neat moment. Self-evidently, there will not be a moment when a surrender by Saddam Hussein is accepted because he has taken the coward's way out, if he is still alive. Certainly, all his henchpeople have taken that way out. [HON. MEMBERS: "Henchpeople!"] Women as well, I must point out, have been actively involved in the biological weapons programme. There will therefore not be a precise moment—historians will judge it later. As for international law on occupation and armed conflict, the coalition forces will be the authority until we can transfer that authority to an interim authority in Iraq and then a full Government. There will be a phased transfer according to the nature of the governmental functions to be transferred.

In view of the commitment in the statement to protect Iraq's natural resources as the patrimony of the people of Iraq, who will represent the people of Iraq in negotiations, some of which are urgent, to determine the terms and conditions of operating contracts in the oilfields and the future of things such as the production-sharing agreement with the Russian company, Lukoil.

There is a well established and, I am told, technically very good oil organisation in Iraq. We obviously have to make a decision about those right at the top of the organisation. but I am told that most people are there because of their expertise in running an oil organisation, not for other reasons. In the early stages, we will have to do our best with the available resources and people but, over time, we will get the interim authority established, then the decisions can be seen to be more legitimate. However, we have to start somewhere.

May I take the Foreign Secretary back to the question of Syria? Is there any substance to persistent reports that Syria has been harbouring both Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and now members of the outgoing Iraqi regime, and, if so, what action do he and the United States plan to take?

I am well aware of the persistence of those reports, but I am not willing to speculate on them. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there have been conversations between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of Syria and between our ambassador in Damascus and the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As I have said already, we expect the Syrian Government not to take any action and to desist from any action that they have already taken, whether harbouring people from the regime or supplying or otherwise assisting them. We want them to co-operate fully with the coalition forces, as that is very much in their interest as a neighbour of Iraq.

Business Of The House

1.37 pm

The business for the week after the Easter recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 28 APRIL—Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Parliament (Representation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the National Minimum Wage (Enforcement Notices) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 29 APRIL—Opposition day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Title to be confirmed.

WEDNESDAY 30 APRIL—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, followed by Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, followed by Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

THURSDAY 1 MAY—Debate on Broadband on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 2 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

Right hon. and hon. Members will wish to know that the provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 5 MAY—The House will not be sitting

TUESDAY 6 MAY—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

May I welcome the Leader of the House to his new responsibilities, and hope that he finds them both enjoyable and satisfying? I am sure that he will be conscious of the role that he plays as Leader of the House in representing the interests of the House at the highest levels of government. Has he had an opportunity yet to read the document issued by the Committee on Standards in Public Life entitled "Defining the Boundaries within the Executive: Ministers, Special Advisers and the permanent Civil Service"? I hope that, if he has, he will be able to assure us of an early opportunity to debate the document, and that he will make a commitment now that the Government intend to carry out its recommendations—not least, for example, that

"an independent office holder, called an Adviser on Ministerial Interests, should be established to provide advice to Ministers on compliance with those sections of the Ministerial Code which cover the avoidance of perceived and actual conflicts between their public duties and private interests, formal or otherwise."
Further recommendations include:
"The Civil Service should be established in statute."
"Special advisers should be defined as a category of government servant distinct from the Civil Service."
"A clear statement of what special advisers cannot do should be set out in primary legislation."
"The total number of special advisers should be contained in statute, with an upper limit subject to alteration by resolution approved by both Houses of Parliament."
The report also proposes that
"An Accounting Officer should not hesitate to notify his or her concerns, in accordance with Treasury guidelines for Accounting Officers, where he or she believes that the Minister in charge of the department is contemplating a course of action relating to the operation of the press office which would infringe the requirements of financial propriety or regularity."
Under the heading "Securing the boundaries", the report suggests that
"The Government should begin an early process of public consultation on the contents of a draft Bill. The Bill should receive pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament."
I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that there is some important material in this report. I also hope that, if he has not already read and absorbed it, he will do so quickly and that he will make a commitment today that these matters will be dealt with urgently by the Government, covering, as they do, important matters such as special advisers and the integrity and impartiality of the civil service.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will recall what the Chancellor said yesterday, because he was sitting right beside him. The Chancellor was recorded faithfully in Hansard as saying that
"the British economy is now better placed to recognise local and regional conditions in pay, such as the extra costs for retention and recruitment that arise in London and the south-east, especially for the low-paid. In future, therefore, we plan regional price indexes showing differences in regional inflation rates; remits for pay review bodies and for public sector workers, including the civil service, will include a stronger local and regional dimension". —[Official Report, 9 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 283.]
I am sure that the Leader of the House endorses thoroughly everything that the Chancellor said in that regard. I am sure that he is enthusiastic about it and I am sure that he will want to tell us today of the degree of urgency with which he will want to press ahead with those recommendations, and of the nature of the vehicle by which the Chancellor's excellent statement will be brought to fruition.

Finally, may I ask the new Leader of the House when we are going to see the foundation hospitals Bill?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very gracious welcome, which I believe is fairly untypical. I will take it as being a new start, and I will respond in as emollient a fashion—[Interruption.] Well, I did my homework, as you would expect, Mr. Speaker. I have never regarded the right hon. Gentleman as a "libertarian thug" or a "Scottish brute", which I understand is how one of his former parliamentary colleagues describes him. I actually felt quite relieved that a strange journalist, Mr. Quentin Letts, should have described me in much less strong terms than the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues appear to use to describe him. I have never found the right hon. Gentleman to be those things, however, and I look forward to emollient exchanges across the Dispatch Box. I should also pay tribute to my predecessor, who I know was widely respected on both sides of the House, and to my deputy, who stood in over the last few weeks. [HON. MEMBERS: " We want Ben!"] Well, given the rate at which I change jobs, you might well have Ben in the very near future.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of the Wicks report. He will be aware that it was published only on Tuesday of this week. We will, of course, consider its recommendations carefully. It is too early for us to give a line-by-line analysis of it, although the right hon. Gentleman went a long way towards doing so when he took us through it. I am grateful to him for that, as there are now large passages of it that I will not have to read, having had them helpfully dictated to me. At first glance, some of the recommendations—including some to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—have already been implemented or are already happening in practice. We will look carefully at the report, however, and give it our urgent consideration, because we take this important topic seriously. We will also bear in mind, although the right hon. Gentleman did not mention it today, his constant robust opposition to over-regulation in government.

I see that this is an exception to that rule.

On the British economy, I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to remind us of a subject that is creating its own historic headlines in terms of the lowest inflation for some three decades, the lowest interest rates—it has been announced today that they are remaining low—since 1955, the highest number of people in work, the lowest unemployment rate and the longest sustained growth in the British economy. These things not only give us a degree of certainty in an uncertain world, but enable us to combine nationwide guarantees, as exemplified by the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit, with a degree of flexibility, as the Chancellor described yesterday. We will approach that matter with a degree of urgency, as the right hon. Gentleman requested. He asked me to calibrate the degree of urgency, and I think it will please the Liberals to know that the matter will be treated with urgency in due course.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and I look forward to our exchanges across the Floor of the House, including those on foundation hospitals when we come to debate that issue.

I do not know whether it is appropriate to mention it on this occasion, but I was warned that, during business questions, we are expected to signify our stance by the nature of our ties and socks. I chose a tie today that I hope represents stability and certainty in a very uncertain world. I cannot say the same for the rather garish tie that the right hon. Gentleman is wearing today, but, unlike him and his colleagues, we do not take risks, either with the economy or with the social development of our country.

I am not called Tyler for accidental reasons. May I reiterate the congratulations that I and my colleagues have already given to the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion? May I draw to his attention early-day motion 1048, which relates to the UK Gulf forces trust fund?

[That this House welcomes the establishment of the UK Gulf Forces Trust Fund to channel charitable public support for members of the UK Armed Forces and attached civilians involved in the war in Iraq; notes that the fund will also benefit their dependents; congratulatesthe National Service charities The Army Benevolent Fund, King George's Fund for Sailors and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, and The Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and other service charities, on establishing and promoting the new fund; and calls on the Government and honourable and Right honourable Members to urge the public to give generously to the UK Gulf Forces Trust Fund.] I am sure that, in his previous capacity as a Defence Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will have recognised what the British Legion has also told us, which is that once the focus of public and media attention has moved on from the hostilities, it is much more difficult for such a trust fund to raise the necessary sums of money from the public. As we must all hope that we are now moving into such a phase, will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to say, on behalf of the Government, that they enthusiastically endorse that trust fund for the UK Gulf forces and their dependents?

May I also draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1018? Will he take this opportunity to reiterate his personal commitment to removing outdated religious discrimination?

The Parliamentary Secretary will recall that, at last week's business questions, I raised the question of the Wicks Committee, and I am delighted to have gained the support of the Conservative party on that issue, albeit a week late. Will the Leader of the House now consider urgently whether the proposed civil service legislation is appropriate for pre-legislative scrutiny, either by both Houses together or by this House, because there is clearly going to be a great deal of discussion about its contents? I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that the Wicks Committee's recommendations are very far-sighted. I think he would also agree, however, that they require careful scrutiny by the House. Will the Government therefore bring forward a draft Bill, and can we have pre-legislative scrutiny of it?

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's last point first. He will be aware that we are attempting to use pre-legislative scrutiny more and more for the legislation that comes before the House. Indeed, it was one of the advances—sometimes referred to as "modernisation", although it is actually a more rational way of looking at these things—introduced by my predecessor. I cannot give a commitment regarding the specific Bill, but I will certainly give a commitment to view the matter sympathetically.

I must confess that I am not familiar with the detail of either of the early-day motions mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall work through as much as I can by next week. I can say this about the first EDM: I think that anyone who has observed developments over the past few weeks will recognise that, notwithstanding all the vagaries of politics, the people who have really taken the risks—as they always do in such circumstances—are the young men and women of the British armed forces. Earlier today someone spoke of the possibility of honouring them, and I dare say that that will be considered; but I think no better honour could be bestowed on them than the expressions on the faces of some of the people filmed yesterday confronting their first few days of freedom. The confusion, anticipation, relief and joy reflected on those faces did indeed constitute such an honour. But any initiative, through trusts or otherwise, to raise money or look after our armed forces in some other way is to be encouraged.

As for the general issue of religious discrimination, I can only say that I am against such discrimination on any grounds—as would be expected from someone with my background, who, it seems, is prohibited from marrying the monarch or the monarch's daughter. That is a great pity for monarchs' daughters; but I personally have never had such a proclivity, and I do not want anyone to read too much into the information!

Again, the question is one of priorities. Given the range of business before the House, it may take a little time to get rid of many things that are objectionable but largely irrelevant in the modern world.

Order. I hope I can engage the sympathy of the House. We have a crowded business schedule, and I cannot guarantee that I will call everyone who wants to question the Leader of the House. Another important statement follows, and we must then proceed to the Budget debate, to which a great many Members wish to contribute. A great many Members also wish to go home at 6 pm. There are difficulties for the Chair, and I would appreciate very brief questions and very brief answers.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment to what I believe is the most enjoyable job in the Cabinet. I hope he has as much fun at the Dispatch Box on Thursday afternoons as I used to.

Somewhere in my right hon. Friend's in-tray will be a brief setting out the agreement that most Bills to be dealt with in the next Session should be published in draft during the current Session. Many Members think that the best way of strengthening scrutiny here would be to let Parliament comment on Bills while they are still in draft, before being frozen in their final form. I should warn my right hon. Friend, however, that—I know this from experience—Departments will only come up with the goods if he continues to nag them to meet the deadlines. May I assure him that he will have my full-hearted and enthusiastic support, and that of many Members on both sides of the House, if he maintains the pressure on Departments to deliver the drafts before the summer recess?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his advice. I assure him that I will do as he suggested. No doubt that was only one of the valuable pieces of wisdom that he will pass on when we have our discussions this week. Let me repeat, on behalf of the whole House, grateful thanks for all that he did for the Government in this and indeed other positions.

As the House no longer has an opportunity to debate private Members' motions, and as certain issues can be decided only on substantive motions, will the right hon. Gentleman—whom I welcome warmly to his new task—give us an opportunity before the end of this Session to debate, at the very least, the new Tuesday sitting hours? Many Members whose votes secured that narrow majority of seven have changed their minds.

There are many routes to the same destination. We covered some of them a few days ago during questions to the President of the Privy Council, when I said that, whatever my own views, I did not want to be coming in with some agenda to reverse everything or anything. I also said, however, that I had an open mind, and that the House could take stock as things developed. I think it would be best to allow a reasonable time in which to try out the arrangements in practice, regardless of our original views, and to deal with issues as they arise—but only in the event of substantial and genuine practical problems. As I have said, I have an open mind. It will depend on what evidence of problems there is.

As my right hon. Friend will know, a Standing Committee meets from time to time to discuss the Convention on the Future of Europe. Unfortunately it was difficult to secure a quorum at its last meeting, one reason being a clash with another European Standing Committee. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that everything possible is done to avoid such clashes in future?

It is up to Committees to decide when they meet, and Committees are rightly jealous of their powers in this and many other respects, but I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will do anything I can to facilitate a more convenient agreement.

Will the new Leader of the House tell us when he expects the Report stage of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill to take place? As he will know, at least three months elapsed before it was rushed through its Committee stage, during which only a small proportion of its provisions were discussed. I am sure that the Minister responsible will confirm that there was no attempt at filibustering. This seems to me to be an unnecessary and inefficient way of dealing with an important measure: the inadequate time allowed in Committee means that the other place will have to deal with most of the Bill.

Although I was not centrally involved with that Bill, I know that it was widely regarded as important, indeed urgent. I am afraid that I cannot specify the exact timelines at this stage, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman as soon as possible.

Yesterday I learnt that someone in the Home Office had leaked the information that the Government's response to the Home Affairs Committee's report on historical sex abuse would be published on Friday for Merseyside police authority. I had no objection to the leak other than on the grounds that the Committee's Chairman did not have that information, and neither did I, as chair of the all-party abuse investigations group.

I assume that the information was leaked for a number of reasons, not least to enable the police authority to defend itself in an indefensible position, but I strongly object to the leaking of the information before it was given to members of the Select Committee. I also resent the fact that the document will be issued on what is essentially the last Friday of this term, which means that the subject may well drown in the proliferation of press reports on Saturday. Will the Leader of the House instigate a Home Office inquiry immediately to ascertain how such a thing can have happened?

I share my hon. Friend's concern. This is a serious issue, which I know has affected a number of her constituents. A number of groups and stakeholders have been involved in the process. I assure my hon. Friend that any information in the public domain did not come from Ministers. I have no authority to initiate an inquiry into the leak, but I want to make that plain. The Government's response will be published tomorrow; in the meantime, as I have said, I share my hon. Friend's concern.

Will the Leader of the House acknowledge the importance of the approaching enlargement of the European Union to agriculture in this country? Given the Doha round and the mid-term review, is there not a case for an early debate on agriculture and its future in the United Kingdom?

I agree that all those things are important. Indeed, before the headlines were diverted to the Iraq conflict they featured in our discussions with our European colleagues. I am sure that they would indeed benefit from further discussion; Westminster Hall might provide a useful vehicle.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the current European structural fund programme ends in 2006, and that consultation is taking place between this Government and our European partners. Will he find parliamentary time for discussion of this important issue?

My hon. Friend will undoubtedly be aware that we are obliged to report on progress made against economic performance measures by 2006. I am pleased to say, however, that my hon. Friend's constituency has benefited by almost £20 million under the current structural fund programme. Economic performance will be examined in due course, and although matters may be difficult, let us hope that next time, we get as much benefit as we possibly can from the structural fund for my hon. Friend's constituency, and for the whole country.

I am sure that you will share, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the appreciation of all hon. Members for the work carried out by the House of Commons post office and its staff. You will also know that the Royal Mail Group has now curtailed its evening collections from the House, and as a result the last collection is at 6 o'clock. Given the new sitting hours, that makes life very difficult for Members, who now find it necessary to process mail in the early evening to send to offices for onward work. The Royal Mail Group has written to me today, saying that this is not directly a result of its wishes, but is an imposition of Postcomm under the terms of its licence.

The House appears to be being treated as a business, rather than as part of the democratic process. May I ask the Leader of the House to make representations to Postcomm, and to explain the difference as subtly as he knows how, in order that the postal service that the Royal Mail Group would like to provide for us can be restored?

I will look into this issue, which has been raised before. If the authority that the hon. Gentleman mentions is indeed involved, I shall try to convey his views, which are shared by all Members.

My right hon. Friend will probably be aware that 28 April is workers' memorial day. Given that 28,000 serious accidents and more than 300 fatalities occur in British workplaces every year, will he give close consideration to having an early debate on the Floor of the House on how to revitalise health and safety legislation?

I am aware that my hon. Friend is promoting a private Member's Bill on health and safety at work, and I have a great deal of sympathy with and support for that, as do the Government. I know that he will raise this issue for debate at every opportunity, and rightly so. It should be a matter of concern for all of us, and perhaps he might like to apply for an Adjournment debate on it as well.

I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in the execution of his new responsibilities. Given the growing coverage of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which was highlighted in an important letter to The Times last Thursday by Mr. Malcolm Rees, a lecturer in health economics at the University of Buckingham, which is in my constituency, may we please have a statement or a debate, in government time, on the epidemiology of the disease and the possible development of a vaccine against it, and on the advice proffered by the Department of Health to those who think that they might suffer from the disease?

I will make the hon. Gentleman's views known to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, because this is a very important issue. In many cases, the less that is known about such issues, the more frightening they are to the public. The Government have certainly tried to do what we can to put information in the public domain. The Department of Health issued information and advice to all general practitioners, trusts and public health authorities as early as Thursday 13 March, and on Monday 7 April it issued advice to the public, and to those travelling to south-east Asia on this specific subject. Partly as a result of this timely response, to date we have had, I think, only five probable cases in the United Kingdom, compared with a total of some 2,722 in other countries.

Obviously, my thoughts are with anyone who has suffered in this way, including the hon. Gentleman's constituent, and their families. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that the Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency are continuing to monitor the situation, and we will try to put as much information in the public domain as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a debate in Government time on the current Competition Commission inquiry and the recent Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the future of the retail supermarket industry? In particular, will he acknowledge the concern of many of my constituents in the north Harrow and Pinner districts about a possible future closure programme in respect of any new owner of the Safeway store chain, given the importance of Safeway stores to the economic health of other businesses in those district centres?

My hon. Friend will know that we take the issue of competition very seriously, and he may also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has referred four of the five proposed acquisitions of Safeway to the Competition Commission. The commission will report by 12 August, so it should not be that long before we have a response. Of course, we keep competition in all aspects of industry and commerce under constant review.

May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role as Leader of the House, on behalf of my Ulster Unionist colleagues? We may not always have seen eye to eye when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but we hope that this new beginning for him could be a new beginning for us all. I should also pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary for his work as acting Leader of the House; he confirmed to us all that he will be a greater star one day.

May I add my voice to those who have already called for an urgent statement on Northern Ireland? May I also call on the Leader of the House, given this afternoon's news that the visit of the Prime Minister and Taioseach to Hillsborough has had to postponed due to yet more republican intransigence, to allow an urgent debate in Government time—so that we can reflect on this issue—on the need to move on without Sinn Fein-IRA if it refuses to carry out the very necessary acts of completion that ought to have been carried out long ago?

On the latter subject, I am not completely up to date on the past hour's news, because I have been on the Front Bench. However, as promised, the Prime Minister will make a statement on wider matters before we rise, on Monday, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will wish to take the opportunity to raise certain issues with him. To judge from my limited but hopefully valuable experience of Northern Ireland—it was certainly valuable to me, as well as enjoyable—it would be a great boon to everyone if we were to draw to a conclusion the decades, and in some cases centuries, of terrible factional fighting and pain in what is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, and in particular for what he said about my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am familiar with the refrain of the "Star of County Down", but I understand that we now have a star of the office of the Leader of the House, as well.

In his letter to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, the deputy Leader of the House acknowledged that business managers would make more time available for a debate on the European Convention "if need arises". Will the Leader of the House accept my assurance that the need and the opportunity have arisen, and that a good time for such a debate—on the Floor of this House—would be after the Praesidium has finished its discussions on 25 May, and before the resumption of the Convention in early June, so that Ministers can explain their position, and all hon. Members can explain, in a high-profile debate in Government time, their concerns to members of this House's representation to the Convention?

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific commitment today, but he will know that we have devoted considerable time to debating this issue in various forums, including Westminster Hall.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I lack many qualities, but I can hear and understand English, despite my accent. We will keep that issue, and many others, under review.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government suffered an effective defeat when they failed to secure a majority in this morning's delegated legislation Standing Committee considering the Sea Fishing (Restrictions) Order, which would restrict days at sea? Liberal Democrat Members prayed against the order and forced a debate, largely because the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments found the order to be "defectively drafted". Will the Leader of the House ensure that time is found for a full report on the matter, and for a debate on the Floor of the House?

I understand that, unfortunately, there were two errors in the way that the order was drafted, but also that neither was significant or substantial. The errors related to limited aspects of the scheme and did not create any real problems for enforcement, nor jeopardise the entire vires of the order, as has been suggested. Therefore, the basic days at sea provision, one of the substantial matters addressed by the order, is not affected.

We will shortly introduce an amendment to correct those errors, and to include any adjustments necessary as a consequence of the recent agreement in the European Agriculture and Fisheries Council on amendments to the EU scheme. I cannot give the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) a specific guarantee that that will happen on the Floor of the House, but the amendments will be brought forward shortly to remedy the errors that I have outlined.

I am an officer of the all-party group on abuse investigations, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). I endorse the hon. Lady's remarks earlier, as there is a real worry that miscarriages of justice may have taken place and that people may be in prison who should not be there. Does the Leader of the House agree that one thing at least could be done to make a positive contribution to dealing with the embarrassment caused by the publication of the report just before Easter, and the real situation that is continuing, and that that would be to arrange for an early and full debate so that the matter can be thrashed out?

I am not sure that the release of the report before Easter is an embarrassment in itself, although, as I have said already, I have considerable sympathy for, understanding of and agreement with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) about the leak. Obviously, I shall reflect on the matter to see whether there is anything more that I think can be done to compensate, but I do not think that the necessary investigative powers are part of my remit or vires.

May I, on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, also welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position? A consensual figure such as he is exactly what is required as the new Leader of the House. In that spirit, will the right hon. Gentleman follow the example of his predecessor in making sure that the interests of the minority parties are looked out for? Specifically, will he continue to make progress in ensuring that we have our rightful and fair places on Select Committees, and that a member of the minority parties gets a place on the Liaison Committee?

Not only do I have reputation for being emollient and consensual, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I am also a long-time guardian of the interests of the Scottish National party. He can be assured that I shall do everything that I can to continue that tradition.