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Business Of The House

Volume 402: debated on Thursday 3 April 2003

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1.34 pm

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 7 APRIL—Commons consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Industrial Development (Financial Assistance) Bill, followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the High Hedges (No. 2) Bill.

TUESDAY 8 APRIL—Second Reading of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill.

WEDNESDAY 9 APRIL—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

THURSDAY 10 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 11 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

MONDAY 14 APRIL—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

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

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

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks in May will be:

THURSDAY 1 MAY—A debate on the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the Financing of Terrorism.

THURSDAY 8 MAY—A debate on the report from the Public Administration Committee on the former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for that business statement.

Is it not about time that we had a debate on political donations? Would the Parliamentary Secretary confirm the recent story that Lord Sainsbury has apparently given £2.5 million to the Labour party? Is it any coincidence that a ministerial reshuffle is coming up? We know that, because the Parliamentary Secretary told us last week. Is it a coincidence that a Minister has given the Labour party £2.5 million just ahead of a reshuffle? Could it be anything to do with consolidating his position? In any case, does that mean that the Labour party is now the party of the rich? It would seem that such matters deserve immediate attention in the House and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us an urgent debate on them and related matters.

On 27 March, the Parliamentary Secretary said:
"I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to report back to the House at the earliest opportunity on his important discussions with President Bush and the Secretary-General of the United Nations."—[Official Report, 27 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 454.]
By my calculations, four parliamentary days have passed since then, but we have not yet had a statement from the Prime Minister. So something is wrong there, not least because the Prime Minister told us yesterday:
"I intend to make a further statement on Iraq before the Easter recess."—[Official Report, 2 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 908.]
There are seven parliamentary days until we rise for the Easter recess on 14 April. Has the Parliamentary Secretary had a chat with the Prime Minister about the meaning of "earliest opportunity"? Is the Parliamentary Secretary as let down and disappointed as I imagine he must be that the Prime Minister has failed to honour the commitment that the Parliamentary Secretary made to us on the Prime Minister's behalf only last week? Will he tell us when the Prime Minister will honour us with a statement on Iraq; or is the Prime Minister too busy organising his reshuffle to come to the House and tell us about Iraq? While we are on the subject of the reshuffle, where the devil is the new Leader of the House?

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, I should be delighted to have a debate on party political funding—although I think that we shall he unable to find time for it—because it would enable us to remind the House and the wider public that we have actually reformed the system of party political funding. The only reason that we know where political parties get their money is because of what the Government have done. We still have absolutely no idea where the Conservative party got any of its money during the 18 years when it was in power. Such a debate would also give me and others the opportunity to congratulate Lord Sainsbury on his public-spiritedness. I made an interesting calculation overnight: Lord Sainsbury has set the rest of us a good example but, if the reports are true, he is contributing a lower proportion of his wealth to the Labour party than I am. If the right hon. Gentleman is accusing me of trying to curry favour with my ministerial colleagues, he is barking up the wrong tree.

On the question about the Prime Minister, the shadow Leader of the House may be interested to know that during the six weeks of military action in the last Gulf war, under the then Conservative Government, seven oral statements were made to the House. In the first two weeks of the present campaign, there have already been six statements. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made it clear that he intends to make another statement before the Easter recess. The right hon. Gentleman may like to know that during the previous Gulf war, under his Government, the then Prime Minister made only two statements during the whole six-week duration of the conflict.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He constantly complains that there has been no reshuffle, and he now accuses the Prime Minister of spending too much time organising one. I do not know whether his speculation is true, but I draw his attention to the words of the Prime Minister's official spokesman, who, when asked yesterday when there would be a new Leader of the House, replied "Shortly."

I would welcome a debate on political party funding, because it would give the Minister an opportunity to repeat the information that he gave me the other day about the amount of state aid that has been given to the Conservative party since its defeat in 1997. If I recall the figure correctly, it is some £15 million. Now that the leader of the Conservative party is in the pay of the Government, the House should be given an opportunity to decide whether we are getting good value for public money.

May I endorse a point made by the Conservative spokesman? I am delighted to have his support, because two weeks ago, he and his colleagues seemed to pooh-pooh my suggestion that we needed a new Leader of the House.

Will the Minister please give us an indication of when he expects to receive the Wicks committee report on the politicisation of the civil service, with special reference to special advisers? Can we have a statement and debate? Has he seen the very interesting day-to-day chronicle in The Independent today, headed "How the deafening noise of war 'buried' Labour's bad news"? Does he agree that we do not have to accept the Jo Moore conspiracy theorists' approach to those matters to recognise that some very important decisions and announcements have been made in recent weeks and buried quietly—very low-key announcements.

Such as a major U-turn by the Deputy Prime Minister on capping council tax rises and, not least, the issue that has just been raised about donations to the Labour party. Could we please have an opportunity to discuss the role of those responsible for communications in the civil service as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the generous increases which the Government have ensured that both Opposition parties receive from the taxpayer to help fund their offices. I am glad that he would welcome a debate on party political funding, as would I.

I am afraid that I cannot answer his question on the Wicks committee, but I shall endeavour to find out and write to him.

I saw the report in The Independent today, and I found it a rather desperate piece of newspaper spinning. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that there has been lots of news that people have not paid very much attention to because of the conflict going on in Iraq, including a continued rise in employment, which is at record levels since records began, and a very big rise in the minimum wage, which has been criticised by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—something which I am sure all my colleagues will wish to remind the electorate in the run-up to May's elections.

Does not the statement that we have just heard from the Secretary of State for Defence reveal the need to hold a debate on the reconstruction of Iraq after the war? For example, if the Iraqis are to run Iraq, will they determine the contracts for the reconstruction of their country? Will there be a role for the labour movement in Iraq? There is a big tradition of trade union activity in the docks in Basra and the oilfields, often suppressed by regimes, and 1 million people turned out in demonstrations on international labour day in Baghdad way back in 1959. However, there might be a problem with President Bush, as the leaders of those activities, often at the cutting edge of the labour movement in Iraq, have always come from the Iraqi communist party.

As I said, the Government have an unprecedented good record of coming to the House to make statements on that issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has already made such a statement and I expect that she will wish to return as time goes on to update the House and give hon. Members an opportunity to question her on that. I cannot promise to find time for such a debate on the Floor of the House before the Easter recess, but it is the sort of subject about which hon. Members may wish to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall. However, my hon. Friend's questions emphasise the importance of moving as quickly as we possibly can to ensure that post-Saddam Iraq is run by the Iraqi people for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

The Secretary of State for Defence has been very good in coming to the House to give statements; but, by contrast, the Secretary of State for International Development has been noticeable by her almost complete absence. One way in which the Opposition can usually address the failure of Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box is by using Opposition Supply days. We are now nearly halfway through the parliamentary year and, so far, we have been allocated only four out of the 17 Opposition Supply days. Would it not be fairer to have a more even allocation of Opposition Supply days throughout the year; otherwise, in May or June, or sometime later this year, we will have not Opposition Supply days but Opposition Supply weeks. That seems very unfair.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am sure that he understands that there are sometimes periods of very heavy Government business, with the inevitable consequence that Opposition days sometimes get bunched up. That has happened in the past under all Governments. I appreciate his appreciation of the regularity with which the Secretary of State for Defence has come to the House. Today's statement was his fourth in just two weeks since hostilities began, and, as I said, there have already been as many statements in two weeks under this Government as there were in six weeks during the previous Gulf war under the Conservative Government.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, but I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that he will know that there has been very heavy fighting in Najaf, Karbala and Nasiriyah. No one knows the humanitarian consequences of that fighting, and the International Red Cross is asking when it will get access. Will my hon. Friend discuss that with the Secretary of State for International Development and ensure that she comes to the House for a further discussion of the humanitarian situation?

I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend's request and those of other hon. Members for the secretary of State for International Development to come to the House to make a further statement before the Easter recess. I would simply point out to my hon. Friend that the Red Cross and Red Crescent are already doing an excellent job in those parts of Iraq—

I know that they do not have access to everywhere, but I would point out to my hon. Friend that the Iraqi regime has given them no access to our prisoners of war, which is an absolute scandal, and she may like to draw attention to that as well.

When the acting Leader of the House receives representations, as he undoubtedly will, from the Liberal Democrats for greater shares in debate, more parliamentary time and so on, will he bear in mind that the Liberal Democrats' so-called effective opposition is represented here today at this important business statement by not a single Liberal Democrat Back Bencher and that, apparently, none is here either to take part in the important debate on the Adjournment, when hon. Members have the opportunity to raise matters of importance to their constituents?

Perhaps Liberal Democrat Members are out in the country, worrying about their local council seats.

My hon. Friend will have received a letter from Mr. Speaker about the courtesies that Members of the House should extend to one another. Can we have a debate about ministerial courtesies to Members of Parliament? I was informed only yesterday that the Minister responsible for community and race relations would be visiting the city of Leicester. That gives hon. Members absolutely no time to make arrangements to greet Ministers warmly when they come into their constituencies or when they see constituents. I do not blame the Minister himself, but he has a vast number of civil servants who could perhaps drop a note to hon. Members to tell them well in advance that they are coming, so that we can be prepared for those important visits. Will my hon. Friend either provide time for a debate or write to Lord Filkin and remind him of those responsibilities?

I will happily write to the noble Lord to remind him of the usual conventions of the House.

Will the political funding for the Conservative party be affected by the grave news that 12.5 per cent.—one eighth—of its entire parliamentary party in the Scottish Parliament has defected in the past two days to a new party of some kind?

One eighth of 16 is two, but I am more concerned about the staff resources available to the Cabinet Secretary, who, despite having the entire home civil service at his disposal, has not managed to answer the letter of 14 March from my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), which demonstrated how holding a Budget in an election period broke the Government's own rules of guidance on political announcements. Will the acting Leader of the House arrange for a debate on that? Will he examine the staff resources available to Sir Andrew Turnbull, because we would not like the suspicion to be created that it is embarrassing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be trying to do that and fiddle an election campaign—a point that has already be deprecated this week by the Electoral Commission?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, because today's Financial Times reports that his party was making much about a letter that it had received from the Electoral Commission, which it has also written to me. It makes it quite clear that decisions on the Budget

"fall outside the remit of the Electoral Commission"
and that there was
"no reason … why a budget should not be presented during an election campaign".

The single biggest issue that is raised in my constituency is the miners' pension surplus. Will my hon. Friend consider securing a debate on that matter, as it would be very welcome in mining communities such as mine?

I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will be able to secure time on the Floor of the House for such a debate. I know that the issue that she raises is of great concern to her constituents, and it would make an excellent subject for a debate in Westminster Hall. As she knows, the share of surpluses taken by the Government is the contribution that schemes pay for a guarantee of pensions, which is looking increasingly valuable for the schemes' members given the current difficulties in the financial markets, particularly for pensions.

All of us in the House would accept the democratic right of people to protest. However, a number of impromptu protests have gone through the west end every weekend. They are causing great difficulties to traders, particularly in Oxford street, Regent street, Piccadilly and the Strand, all of which are in my constituency. Will the Minister ensure that the Home Secretary or another Home Office Minister comes to the House to make a statement to ensure that Government policy contains a fair balance between the interests of public protest and those of traders in central London? Will that statement place particular emphasis on the policy for weekend protests and the expected protest on 1 May?

I am not sure that I will manage to persuade a Home Office Minister or my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make a statement on that issue. However, if the hon. Gentleman cares to provide me with the details of the disruption that has been caused, I will happily pass them on to my right hon. Friend for his consideration.

Will the acting Leader of the House cast his mind forward? The House adjourns on 14 April for 13 days. The Government are pursuing a war against the people and the Government of Iraq, and there are large numbers of military and civilian casualties. Instead of having such an Adjournment, could the House not meet continuously through that period to receive reports and be able to debate this important and serious issue?

I would have more sympathy for my hon. Friend's request if he had not said that we were pursuing a war against the people of Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are pursuing a war to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction and to liberate the people of Iraq so that they can get on and build a new country for themselves in their own interests.

My hon. Friend is right, however. There are no plans at the moment to recall Parliament during the Easter recess. The Government keep the situation under constant review and, as we have with statements and debates, we have an extremely good record of recalling Parliament when that is necessary.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware of the number of the petitions signed in my constituency and up and down the country by the customers of small high street pharmacies who are concerned about their closure? Could we have a debate on the Floor of the House to explore the way in which the range of services provided by high street pharmacies could be expanded to assist over-burdened GPs and accident and emergency departments, and to increase customer choice?

I am sure that there will be a chance to debate these issues further before the Government come out with their final response to the report. Like the hon. Lady, I have received masses of signatures and petitions from my local pharmacies, and I know that it is an issue of great concern. I think that I am right in saying that she attended the recent cross-cutting debate in Westminster Hall that was supposed be about issues concerning elderly people. Because of the interest in community pharmacies, the debate was almost totally dominated by that subject.

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 257 that is in my name and is entitled "Low Income Debtors and Poverty"?

[That this House notes the extent of debt amongst those on a low income with over three million people entering into debt on their doorstep through extortionate lending; believes tackling debt and financial exclusion must be given priority in the Government's anti-poverty strategy; and calls for coordination of the current fragmentary approach setting departmental policies and actions within complementary strategies to tackle financial exclusion and eradicate poverty, focusing on reforming the Social Fund, tackling extortionate lending and promoting affordable credit through credit unions.]

The motion has received the support of 212 Members on both sides of the House, and highlights the plight of 3 million people in Britain on low incomes. Every day, unscrupulous and massively overcharging moneylenders on the doorstep draw them deeper and deeper into debt. Although I welcome the Government's efforts and actions to tackle poverty and social exclusion, a full debate in this Chamber—we have had one or two in Westminster Hall—would provide Ministers with an opportunity to give us a proper joined-up plan of action to end this rip-off, so that we get better financial support to the poorest in our society.

My hon. Friend raises an important subject. I know from experience in my constituency that this problem causes misery to a great many people. I cannot promise him that we will be able to find time for a debate on this subject alone before the Easter recess, but he should be able to work the subject into a speech that he might like to make in the debates on the Budget. We will then be able to debate as a whole not just that issue, but all the other measures that the Government are taking to tackle poverty.

Following the highly pertinent inquiry from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), may I reiterate the call for an early debate on the subject of effective opposition and participation in elections? Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that such a debate would provide a first-class opportunity for the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to explain why, as has been reported to me today, those two parties have failed to find candidates to contest no fewer than five seats on Aylesbury Vale district council against the excellent Conservative candidates who will be seeking election?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so disappointed that some of his local Conservative candidates will not face excellent opposition in the local elections. I am sure that that will come as a disappointment to all the Labour voters in that area. All parties do what they can to attract as many candidates as possible, and I know from my experience that there are plenty of places in the country where the Conservatives have difficulty finding enough candidates.

My hon. Friend will have noticed that al-Jazeera, the Arabic channel, has been having some problems in Baghdad recently. I have several times over the past week made representations to the House authorities asking that at least one Arabic channel should be placed alongside the 24 channels at our disposal in the House. It is important to see the images that the Arabs are seeing, so that we can better judge the progress of the war and assess why certain people react in certain ways. Does he have any news on that?

I have no news for my hon. Friend, because this matter is not within my responsibility; it is a matter for the Serjeant at Arms. I know that he is aware of my hon. Friend's request and, if other hon. Members feel the same as she does, I urge them to make a similar request. These decisions tend to be made on the basis of the strength of feeling among Members of the House.

Will the acting Leader of the House consider the case of PowderJect and the possibility of a debate on that subject? Will he also consider the case of another Labour donor, Paul Drayson, who has just been put on the final shortlist for a contract for the latest batch of smallpox vaccines worth more than £50 million? Is he aware that PowderJect is currently being investigated by the National Audit Office for possible irregularities in a £32 million contract for the first batch of vaccines after the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), revealed to me in a written answer on 15 October 2002 that the Government could have gone straight to the ultimate manufacturers, the east German company, IDT, and probably saved the taxpayer £20 million? When will the NAO report be published? Can the Parliamentary Secretary confirm that it will not be published and therefore buried on Budget day?

No, it will be published. If the implication of the hon. Gentleman's question is that a decision on something as important as the smallpox vaccine would be based on a party-political donation, that is a preposterous thing to suggest. His point would carry more credibility if his party had declared a single one of the donations that it received in the 18 years that it was in power.

Has my hon. Friend had a chance to study the press release that was put out by my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury this morning, indicating the determination of the European Union to take action over the proof of origin of produce coming from the illegal settlements in the west bank? Will he arrange for a debate, in the Chamber or elsewhere, to allow us to consider that EU agreement, which was entered into in June 2000? We suspect that the Israelis have been breaking one part of it ever since.

I am not aware of my hon. Friend's last point. However, as the Minister who used to be responsible for that part of the world, I am aware of the general issue and of the great work that he has done to raise these matters. I am pleased—I hope that he is as well—that we do at last seem to be making progress, thanks in part to the work that he has done and the lead taken by the British Government.

Did not last summer's crisis demonstrate that exam marking is a somewhat inexact science? Does not today's publication of A-level league tables perpetuate the myth that schools can readily be ranked by results? Will my hon. Friend try to find time for a debate in Westminster Hall to investigate these matters and perhaps to expose the rather sad but obvious truth that using league tables as performance indicators can be educationally erroneous, statistically specious and politically pointless?

It is not in my power to allocate time in Westminster Hall. It is within my hon. Friend's rights to apply for a debate there, and I urge him to do so if he feels so strongly about this subject. It would have been nice if in his question he had reminded the House that last year's A-level results were the best ever.

I return to the question of former mining communities. My hon. Friend might be interested to learn that in Featherstone there is not one Tory candidate in the elections this year.

The largest compensation packages in history are being given to those miners suffering from industrial diseases caused by the negligence of the previous owners of the mines. Will my hon. Friend try to find time for a debate on the matter? In my constituency, more than 3,000 former miners have submitted claims, and well over £70 million in compensation has already been paid. However, a debate would allow us to congratulate the Government on this settlement. We could debate the way in which the scheme has been rolled out, and perhaps air the case of those few constituents who sadly, but increasingly frequently, find that they were offered an interim statement that turned out to be larger than the final settlement. That causes frustration and disappointment. A debate would provide a great opportunity for us to discuss those problems, which are important to the families. However, given the scale of things, it is still a fantastic and welcome scheme.

I will take up the specific point of interim payments with the Ministers responsible and ask them to write to my hon. Friend. I am pleased that, overall, he is happy with the way that the scheme has worked. Perhaps one of the reasons why his part of the world is now a Tory-free zone is the disgraceful way in which the previous Tory Government treated the miners to whom he has referred.

Can my hon. Friend arrange for a statement from a Foreign Office Minister on protection and treatment of UK nationals living and working in the middle east? Two of my constituents—one is a relative working and living in the middle east—have been either the victims of harassment by members of the population of the countries that they are living in, or have witnessed it.

We understand that there is a great deal of anger in the Arab world about the action that is being taken. However, the citizens of Arab countries do not have the right to vent that anger on British citizens living and working in those countries, who have made a valuable contribution, both economically and socially, over many years. It would be good to hear what correspondence or dialogue the Foreign Office is having with other countries in the Arab world to ensure protection for British citizens during this difficult time.

If my hon. Friend has not already given the Foreign Office details of those incidents, I am sure that it would be interested in receiving them. It is generally my experience, as a former Foreign Office Minister for that part of the world, that the Governments of those countries themselves are extremely sensitive to such stories coming out because it affects their reputations and impacts on tourism and so forth.

I suspect that those incidents are still very isolated. I think that the experience of most Members and of ordinary members of the public when travelling in the Arab world is that the levels of hospitality and friendship, in spite of what is going on, are still extremely high. One is treated extremely well. If my hon. Friend can let me have the details, I will certainly look into the incidents to which he referred.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the eyes of both the Arab and the Muslim worlds are on the House during these difficult times. Will he use his good offices to ensure that, in the event that our troops, as is hoped, are successful, magnanimity will be the order of the day and any unnecessary jingoism will be discouraged by the House?

Yes, I think that, given the way in which our armed forces are already conducting themselves in Iraq, especially in those parts of southern Iraq which they are making safe, there is already proof in their behaviour that they are doing exactly that. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence mentioned earlier, despite our armed forces being fired at from holy shrines in some of the holy cities, they are not firing back. That is another example of the intense sensitivity—it is due partly to the experience that our forces have had in places such as Northern Ireland—with which our armed forces approach the difficult situation that they face in Iraq.

May we please have a debate, not in Westminster Hall but on the Floor of the House, and in Government time, on the situation for a post-conflict Iraq and the transition to it? Grave concern is being expressed, not only within the House but in the country and the wider world, that the driving force should be the United States exclusively. Despite the statements of our Government, there is still deep disbelief that the United States will pay any attention to the United Nations.

If my hon. Friend is attempting to create a statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development on the potential humanitarian crisis now in Iraq, perhaps he could point out to her that the UN has called for corridors of peace, which UNICEF successfully established during the first Gulf war, both in Lebanon and Sudan, to ensure that as the aid comes in, it does not just sit on the dockside but is distributed to the people who need it most. This clearly requires agreement on behalf of the combatants, but it is not enough to wait until the conflict is over because a real humanitarian crisis is brewing.

If shall certainly pass on that further request from my hon. Friend for a statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. I would point out that in the statement this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, in Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday and in Defence questions on Monday, a great deal was said and many questions were asked about a post-Saddam Iraq. It is important in that context that we do not get ahead of ourselves. Our armed forces are still involved in a dangerous military conflict, which, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said earlier, people should not assume is about to come to an end. Perhaps the moment of greatest danger is still ahead of us. I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity in the House to debate the future of Iraq, which I hope my hon. Friend agrees will be much rosier when Saddam has gone.