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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scotland Act


When she intends to propose amendments to the Scotland Act 1998 in order to reduce the number of Scottish hon. Members. [106713]

Section 86 of the Scotland Act sets out the procedures. I have no intention of changing that.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. I know that the issue presents a problem for her and for many Labour Back Benchers, but I am trying to be helpful. Has she considered using the league table of parliamentary contributions to determine which of her colleagues should stay, given that so many of them languish at the bottom of the table? Does she believe that those who will eventually face the chop will be in good company, because so many Labour MSPs will face the chop at the hands of the Scottish National party on 1 May?

I am delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) would receive the wooden spoon for his attendance record. The question is a bit rich, given that the leader of the SNP has said that Scotland will be independent by 2007. That would mean that prior to 2006 and the completion of the boundary commission's review, we would have to introduce legislation for an independent Scotland without any consideration of the costs and consequences of that. At the same time, the consequences of an SNP vote on 1 May would be cuts to public services, with all the disruption that that would entail.

My right hon. Friend will probably not be surprised to find out that the Scottish nationalists yet again did not up for a major debate—this time a Westminster Hall debate on health and safety. They never seem to turn up for Scotland these days. One of the consequences of the Scotland Act is the list system, and the deplorable way in which nationalist list Members do their work. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do away with the nationalist-type list Member and that we have list Members who do their work properly?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He and other Labour Members know that when we considered the Proceeds of Crime Bill—one of the most significant post-devolution measures in this House that was introduced to get rid of drug dealers in our communities—the SNP could not even be bothered to participate in Committee.

My hon. Friend makes a point about the list system. I am sure that the electors of Scotland will vote Labour, Labour, Labour on 1 May to ensure that there will be precious few SNP list Members in the new Scottish Parliament.

I commend the Secretary of State for making sense of the question asked by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). As the hon. Gentleman may or may not know, no amendment is required to the Scotland Act to reduce the number of Scotland Members. It seems that the SNP's questions are just as confused as its policies.

Ordinary Scots want fewer Members of Parliament, fewer Ministers and fewer MSPs, but still the Secretary of State refuses to move quickly. Is she worried about her own seat? Does she accept that an abstention rate higher than 50 per cent. on 1 May will be a damning indictment of those who seek ever more Scots politicians and big government? Scotland needs fewer MPs and smaller, much better government.

I was being kind to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) when I answered his question because, after all, he has been in the House for only about two years, and one must be understanding. It is rather rich for a Conservative Member to talk about fewer MPs and MSPs given that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) is the "Westminster one". He should look at his party in Scotland, because the number of defections from the Scottish Tories is increasing by the day. I believe that the Scottish Parliament elections will be well represented because the people of Scotland are now absolutely clear that devolution works, that partnership between the United Kingdom Government and a Labour-led Scottish Executive works, and that the stability of our economy and the prudence of its running is so significant that more people in Scotland are now in employment than in 1997.

Airport Infrastructure


What estimate she has made of the capacity of Scotland's airport infrastructure to keep up with projected growth in passenger numbers. [106714]

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government are currently involved in a consultation exercise on the development of air transport in the United Kingdom. The closing date for representations is 30 June.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I give a warm welcome to the Scottish Executive's plans to build rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports and to the BAA's announcement of a £200 million investment plan to double the capacity of Glasgow airport over the next 10 to 12 years. However, does she agree that, in the longer term—20 to 30 years from now—the interests of Scotland as a whole would be best served by one major hub airport that would provide more jobs and services than would otherwise be the case?

I commend my hon. Friend's question and recognise his considerable interest in transport matters, not least when he was a member of the Transport Committee. He is one of the experts on transport policy in the House.

I recall that many years ago, when I was the economist for the Scottish TUC and my hon. Friend was a trade union official, there was a significant debate on a central Scotland airport. At the time, it was found to be unviable. The current consultation exercise offers the opportunity to explore that further, but it seems that the viability of a central Scotland airport has not yet been proved.

I know that my hon. Friend is proud of the success of Glasgow airport and that he has contributed to that. It is going from strength to strength in terms of passenger numbers. The Scottish Executive are committing considerable resources to a rail link not just to Glasgow airport but to Edinburgh airport as well. I am delighted that there has been a 40 per cent. increase in passenger numbers over the past five years and that the number of direct flights from Scotland has grown from 18 to 25. A large part of that success can be put down to the campaigning undertaken by my hon. Friend.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that when I was at the Scottish Office in the '70s we ruled out the central airport because of fog, and that nothing has changed since then? Does she agree that Scotland needs many budget airlines that operate from all airports, including Prestwick and Inverness? What action is she taking, in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Scottish Executive, to attract such services to Scotland?

A considerable number of budget airlines operate out of Scotland. We only have to look to the success of Prestwick airport in attracting Ryanair, greatly assisted by my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr (Sandra Osborne), for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), to know that. Indeed, there are more and more every week.

I am delighted by the success of the easyJet flights from Inverness to Gatwick. I am also delighted by the improved services to charter destinations from Inverness. I met representatives of British Airways last autumn to get their commitment to continue services from Inverness to London. It is a success story, which the hon. Lady would know if she visited Scotland more often.

I thank the Secretary of State for her unstinting support for Glasgow Prestwick international airport. Will she acknowledge, however, that in spite of its great success as Scotland's fastest growing passenger airport, it has a great deal of spare capacity? Does she agree that that should be utilised before we talk about expansion elsewhere?

There is scope to expand all Scotland's airports and we want more international airlinks as our economy continues to prosper. It is encouraging to note that there are proposals for even more direct airlinks from Glasgow international airport at Prestwick. Much of that is down to my hon. Friend's campaigning. I know that my constituents greatly appreciate the opportunity to take their holidays and to pursue their business interests from an airport that is so close to home.



What percentage of Scottish residents have access to broadband services. [106715]

Almost all of Scotland's population can access broadband services, either through a terrestrial link or by means of satellite connection, if they choose to do so. The need to bring affordable services to businesses and individuals across Scotland is what underpins the Government and the Scottish Executive's work on broadband.

I thank the Minister for her reply. How soon can rural communities and small towns expect to have the same access to broadband technology as the rest of Scotland? Does she agree that it is important to look after not just the central belt but the whole of Scotland?

I am delighted to advise the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) that that is exactly what is happening in Scotland. Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Executive are rolling out a broadband expansion programme and are considering ways to solve some of the very difficult geographical challenges that we have in parts of Scotland. He will be delighted to know that that project will eventually roll out to the 250 communities across the highlands and islands, including some communities that are as small as 20 inhabitants.

Does the Minister agree that the £4.4 million earmarked to introduce broadband in Scotland is not quite enough, and will she use her good offices to try to get more money for broadband? Access to broadband for people with businesses is crucial. For example, my constituent, Mr. Glenn Watson, who has four veterinary surgeries, must pay £24,000 per annum to link up his computer services, whereas other businesses that have access to broadband can do that at a much cheaper rate.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise, however, that the £4.4 million allocation to Scotland comes out of a £30 million UK broadband fund managed by the Department of Trade and Industry. She will also be delighted to have heard the news from BT late last week that it is looking to slash its broadband rates to encourage the take-up of broadband in Scotland.

Would the Minister like to reconsider her first complacent reply suggesting that everyone can have access if they have access to satellite technology? Is not the reality that, of the 1,000 exchanges in Scotland, only 68 are asymmetric digital subscriber line-enabled? That is unsatisfactory: it is a lower level than in England, and lower than in just about any other European country. When will the Government snap out of their complacency and allow rural Scotland to have the same access to this technology as just about every other country in Europe?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman took my factual comment as complacent. I said that access can be made available. Cost is an issue, which is why I would have thought that he would support the Scottish Executive, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise projects to roll out broadband, recognising that we have major geographical difficulties. I suspect, however, that the question that he and his colleagues must answer, given that they would slash our enterprise budgets, is how on earth broadband would be rolled out and the necessary investment be made.

Would my hon. Friend mind if I were untypically nice to the Liberal Democrats, and particularly to their Scottish spokesman, for his excellent research published yesterday in The Press and Journal? It showed that, merely by accessing broadband in the House of Commons Library, SNP Members would have got all the answers to their questions, which cost the taxpayer £258,000.

As usual, my right hon. Friend crystallises the issue succinctly. I would encourage more Members of this House to use our excellent facilities, including access to broadband, to elicit information without having to table parliamentary questions, if that route is available.

Family Tax Credit


How many Scots will benefit from the family tax credit. [106716]

The estimated number of families in Scotland expected to benefit from the child tax credit in 2003–04 is 430,000. The number of families in Scotland expected to receive the working tax credit in 2003–04 is 90,000.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff of the Inland Revenue accounts office in Cumbernauld on working so hard to implement that, and in welcoming the 200 additional jobs in my constituency in that regard? Is she aware that nine out of 10 families in Scotland are eligible for tax credits? What will she do to encourage all of them to claim their entitlement?

I share my hon. Friend's pleasure at the number of jobs created in her constituency and at her constituents' efficiency in processing applications for tax credits. Last weekend, like a number of Members—certainly Labour Members—I was out in my constituency encouraging people to take up the working tax credit and the child tax credit. People were astonished to discover that they would benefit even if they had an income of up to £50,000 a year, and that those with a child under one year old would be eligible for tax credits even if their income was £66,000. That is a significant move forward, not only in terms of taking people out of poverty but in terms of making sure that children throughout Scotland get the best possible start in life and families are given a huge boost to allow them to operate in a way that gives them pleasure as well as sustenance.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, of a possible 5 million recipients of the new child tax credit, only 3 million have so far responded, so some 135,000 families in Scotland could lose out? I put it to her that a credit or benefit that has an application form 12 pages long with 47 pages of notes is bound to be a deterrent. I ask her to seek to have that simplified with her colleagues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) was very kind to the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that we now have to play good cop, bad cop. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that his party opposed this system of tax credits, but I take the point about the complexity of claiming. None of us likes filling in tax forms—they are always difficult, which is very painful—but hon. Members have a role, and my parliamentary colleagues have been taking up that role in ensuring that people are aware of the tax credit system and that they receive assistance to ensure that they can claim the tax credits. I commend that activity to all hon. Members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the method of paying the child tax credit directly to the main carer, who is usually the mother, is indeed a more effective and efficient way to ensure that those resources are best spent in the right direction?

I accept what my hon. Friend says. I was in his constituency yesterday, where a number of people referred to the tax credit system, and I was very encouraged by the extent to which men, in particular, said that they feel that it is right that the money should move from the wallet to the purse because, by and large, the mother is the main carer. Indeed, that fact is replicated throughout the country, where more than two thirds of men acknowledge that the money should go directly to the main carer. That is a real way to move children out of poverty.

Many Members have tried to elicit from the right hon. Lady what percentage of families in Scotland are eligible to claim tax credits. I understand that such figures are not published regionally. What work is she doing with the Treasury and the Office for National Statistics to persuade them to publish regional eligibility figures?

I am surprised at the hon. Lady's question—the figures are actually quite clear. More than 90 per cent. of families with children in Scotland are eligible to claim the tax credits. She is not in a position to be around and about in Scotland, but if she were, she would find that there is considerable take-up and interest, and my hon. Friends are trying to ensure that there is even greater take-up. Of course, that is very different from the position of the Conservative party; it wants to cut public expenditure by 20 per cent., which would lead to a cut in the money available to families as well.

May I give a piece of advice to the Minister? One thing that does not happen—I do not understand why—is using the facilities available to us. Local authorities administer nurseries and primary and secondary schools. Surely a way can be found to use the education system to let people know about their entitlements?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Many Members have accessed their own databases to ensure that schools, community groups, the Churches, and so on, are aware of the tax credits, but it would be very useful if all local authorities in Scotland were to take that on board to ensure that everyone knows—I make the point again—that families are entitled to the tax credits even if they have an income of up to £50,000 a year, or £66,000 if there is a child under one in the family.

Will the Secretary of State investigate suggestions north of the border that people who are being passported from income support to the new working tax credit are losing out on free schools meals as a result of a deficiency in some secondary legislation that the Scottish Executive have not yet got round to implementing? Will she make it her business to ensure that that defect is remedied as soon as possible on the grounds that free school meals have a significant budgetary effect on weekly incomes, particularly for low-income families with many children?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and I will certainly look into the issue as soon as possible and try to ensure that the necessary action is taken.



When she will next meet representatives of poverty support groups to discuss poverty in Scotland. [106717]

I met the Poverty Alliance in September 2002. I have no current plans to meet representatives of poverty support groups, but am happy to discuss at any time the Government's record in combating poverty.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she agree that guaranteeing child care for all children aged two and under, day-care provision for three and four-year-olds and setting up additional after-school and breakfast clubs throughout Scotland would be a huge step towards combating the scourge of poverty throughout our country? Does she accept that setting up such things in areas of greatest need should be a priority for the Government and the new Scottish Executive?

I might be prepared to accept some of that if the hon. Gentleman were prepared to accept that the cost of independence would undermine all of it. Significant measures have been taken on poverty in Scotland, covering children, pensioners and low-income families. Dare I remind the House that when the national minimum wage was being enacted, the one party that failed to send a representative on lifting people out of poverty was the very party that the hon. Gentleman supports?

When my hon. Friend meets members of the Poverty Alliance in Scotland, will she ask them what effect they think that the increase in the national minimum wage to £4.50 this year and the further increase to £4.85 will have on poverty in Scotland?

I will indeed. Members on both sides of the House know that the national minimum wage is one of the most significant measures introduced by the Government to lift people out of poverty wages. Every Member should realise, from the experience of their constituents, that the national minimum wage was a centrepiece of the last Parliament. In this Parliament, it will continue to be a centrepiece of our policies to tackle poverty.


The Advocate-General was asked—



What devolution issues she has dealt with since 11 March. [106707]


What devolution issues have been raised in the last month under the Scotland Act 1998. [106708]

Since 11 March, 31 devolution issue minutes were intimated to me. They concerned a variety of matters, including delay in court proceedings; challenges to confiscation orders; the requirement on the defence to lodge notice of intention to lead sexual history evidence in trials; and the fixing of punishment-part life licence hearings. In the civil sphere there was only one case, which concerned a challenge to the decision of a planning reporter.

If the Office of Fair Trading report into pharmacies were to be implemented, we should see the closure of many high street chemists and their replacement by pharmacies in supermarkets. I was therefore delighted when the Scottish Executive rejected the report. However, there is widespread concern that supermarkets may be able to use UK competition law to overrule the Scottish Executive's decision. I hope that will definitely not be the case and I should be grateful if the Advocate-General advised the House on the legal position.

As I have said time and again, I cannot advise on such matters in the abstract. If proposals are made by the Scottish Executive, and intimated to me in due course if they are to take the form of legislation, I shall do my usual job and look into them. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that such matters are difficult; they must be seen in the context of the complicated structure of the Scotland Act. He cannot make wide, sweeping assertions about any of them. In general terms, competition policy is, of course, reserved, while health matters are devolved, but the situation can be extremely complex when those matters meet and intersect. That is why the Executive have a Law Officer to deal with them.

Perhaps we could try again!

Was the Advocate-General consulted by the Scottish Executive before their announcement in March of their rejection of the OFT report on pharmacies? Does she agree that the Scottish Parliament has the power to take such a decision, irrespective of what the Department of Trade and Industry may do south of the border, or was that just another meaningless statement from new Labour during the election to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the Scottish electorate?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady still does not understand the devolution structures. The Scottish Executive do not consult me as a Law Officer. I am not the Law Officer to the Scottish Executive; I am the Law Officer to the UK Government. The Scottish Executive can, if they wish, consult their own Law Officers—the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General. Those are the devolution processes. I shall deal with any proceedings that are proposed in due course.

What thought is being given to the all too real but complex problem of delay in court proceedings to which the Advocate-General referred?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. As I have told the House, some hundreds of cases of delay have been intimated to me as devolution issues. Some quite complex legal problems have surrounded some of these issues, and we have taken a number of test cases. The most important of these was the case of R, which was dealt with in the Privy Council, and in which I appeared personally. That helped to clarify the law in respect of delay. The main point was that where there is a breach of the convention on human rights in relation to delay in proceedings under article 6, the Lord Advocate is not entitled, because of the operation of the Scotland Act, to proceed with such a prosecution.



What devolution issues have been raised since 11 March. [106709]

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid).

May I refer the hon. and learned Lady to my question and her answer on 11 March at column 151 of Hansard, in which she said that she would have four weeks in which to give her opinion on the Agriculture Holdings (Scotland) Bill? Will she share with the House whether she has reached an opinion within that time, and the content of her opinion?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this interesting issue, which came up in debate on an amendment. As I explained, it came before me as part of the Bill, which has now been passed. The four-week period expires tomorrow. It is not my practice to advise on this, but I will write to the hon. Lady tomorrow, once the four-week period expires, to explain to her whether I have decided to make any referral.

Lord Chancellor

The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Magistrates Courts


If she will make a statement on the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority consultation on court closures. [107456]

The GLMCA is the magistrates court committee responsible for the running of magistrates courts in London and for the opening and closing of court buildings in the capital. Ministers are involved only where there are appeals from local authorities. I can today announce that I have accepted the appeal against the closure of Kingston magistrates court.

I thank the Minister on behalf of others for her decision. I look forward to the possibility of further appeals in the process of court closure reviews by the GLMCA. I ask her to consider the accountability arrangements for the GLMCA, not least the fact that it is not clear how it is held to account for decisions that it takes in private, it refuses to release information to Members about the basis for its decisions, and it thus makes the consultation process a mockery. Will she explain how I, as a Member, can gain access to this organisation, can hold it to account and can ensure that the public can be confident that its decisions are based on sound grounds?

I am happy to look into the hon. Gentleman's specific concerns if he wants to write to me. It is right that the GLMCA should take a strategic view in respect of court buildings throughout London. He will know that because appeals come to Ministers it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases before the appeals are heard. I agree that we need to improve the accountability of local decision making. That is one of the reasons why we want, as part of the unified administration, the courts' administration councils not simply to have local magistrates on them but a wider range of members from the local community.

I thank the Minister most warmly for her statement, especially the excellent news that Kingston magistrates court is not to close. The hon. Lady knows the strength of feeling on this matter in my constituency, not least because of our correspondence and our meetings. I am delighted that she listened to the strong arguments that were so skilfully marshalled by the chairman of the bench, Ian Rathjen. Will she accept our thanks for this welcome decision and accept my open invitation to her to visit the local courthouse whenever she has the opportunity to do so? Will she say a little more about the future options for building on Kingston's growing reputation as a regional centre of excellence for the bench?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He has made representations to me, as have some of my hon. Friends. We had serious concerns that Wimbledon court would not have the capacity to take all the additional cases if Kingston court closed. We also took into account the convenient location of Kingston court, which is so close to the Crown court and the police station, as well as the convenience for local people. Of course, every individual decision must be taken on its merits. I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's invitation to visit Kingston.

Sheriffs Courts


If she will make a statement on the Lord Chancellor's review of under-high sheriffs', under-sheriffs' and sheriffs' High Court enforcement functions. [107457]

The Courts Bill, which is currently progressing through the other place, includes proposals to relieve sheriffs of their legal obligations in connection with High Court writs for the enforcement of judgment debts by the seizure and sale of debtors' goods and High Court writs for the possession of land. The Bill also introduces a new regime under which individuals will be authorised by the Lord Chancellor to act as enforcement officers for the purpose of executing those writs.

The Lord Chancellor's review of under-high sheriffs, under-sheriffs and sheriffs proposes that a writ may be addressed only to a member of the Sheriffs Officers Association. If, for any reason, an under-sheriff is unwilling or unable to become a member of that body and is therefore disqualified from receiving a writ, will there be compensation for that individual?

In the system that we are adopting, under-sheriffs and sheriff officers will be authorised by the Lord Chancellor or the person to whom he delegates responsibility for that authorisation, to carry out creditors' wishes to have a debt enforced. I therefore think that the problem that the hon. Lady has highlighted will not arise, because there will be an authorisation process, so sheriffs officers or enforcement officers, as they will now be called, will be able to carry out the process.

The removal of high sheriffs from any rolling High Court enforcement will, as the Minister said, break the link between the high sheriff and the under-sheriff. In the past, the under-sheriff has offered the incoming high sheriff an indemnity against any litigation that might be brought by aggrieved debtors. Will the Lord Chancellor's Department indemnify high sheriffs in any outstanding period between Royal Assent and the point when the statutory limitation becomes legally effective?

The issue that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted is one of the reasons for the change, because it was felt that it was unfair for a volunteer to be under certain legal obligations and carry such a responsibility. As for the time between Royal Assent and the continuation of the indemnity, that is certainly something that we shall look at and consult on.

Magistrates Courts


What recent representations she has received on the distances witnesses have to travel to reach magistrates courts in north Yorkshire. [107458]

None recently, but I know that North Yorkshire county council has lodged an appeal against recent decisions by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee. I have not yet received all the representations and have not yet considered the appeal.

Is the hon. Lady aware that since her Government have been in power more than 200 magistrates courts have closed, which has led, particularly in north Yorkshire, to witnesses having to travel long distances in a sparsely populated area with limited public transport between villages and the places where magistrates courts meet? Could members of her Department turn their attention to facilitating travel arrangements for witnesses, enabling them to get to court, and to do so on time?

The hon. Lady's figures are incorrect. It is certainly the case that there were magistrates courts closures under the previous Administration as well as this one. Those closures vary from year to year—last year, there were seven magistrates courts closures, but in 1996, the last year of the Conservative Government, there were 21 court closures, including rural court closures in Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove, Bedale, Easingwold, Leyburn, Ingleton, Thursk, Colwyn Bay, Llangollen, another Welsh place that I cannot pronounce, East Dereham and elsewhere. I could go on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"]

The hon. Lady ought to check her facts before making such points. However, she is right that there is a serious issue about ensuring that victims and witnesses can travel to court. Magistrates courts committees need to take account both of other facilities for victims and witnesses, including facilities available in the courthouse, and resources. This year, north Yorkshire will get 23 per cent. more in cash terms for magistrates courts committees compared with last year. Under Conservative plans, they would receive a 20 per cent. cut.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the private finance initiative bid by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to build six new courts to serve the people of the York and Selby area? In view of the large travelling distances between parts of Selby and York, will she take due account of the strong local feeling that, if the bid is approved, at least one of the courts should be based in Selby?

I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on that issue, which he has raised with me before. He will be aware that it is the responsibility of the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to determine the location of the proposed new court houses. Clearly, if any appeal is made to Ministers, I will certainly meet my hon. Friend and consider all the issues that he wants to raise.

Fathers' Rights


What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received concerning the rights of fathers in family law cases. [107459]

My officials and I have regular meetings with groups representing the interests of fathers. As part of the Department's work to ensure safe contact for children and their families after relationship breakdowns, members of fathers and mothers organisations contribute to policy development.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but would she consider reviewing the law in this area? An increasing number of articles and reports demonstrate that fathers are concerned about what they view as an inequality in the decisions made. They are also concerned about anomalies in the law, such as the differing treatment of older children in further and higher education, in respect of maintenance and the common law. In view of the sensitivity surrounding such cases, might it not be worth reviewing the law on the respective rights of fathers and mothers, to establish whether the complaints are fair and accurate and to settle the concerns that have been expressed so publicly?

We are well aware that emotions run deep in such cases. It is almost impossible to please every party. Inevitably, the cases that come before the courts are high conflict cases. I believe that we should examine other methods of reducing the conflict. We must remember that the courts will always take a decision that it is in the best interests of the child: that is at the heart of the process of decision-making. However, we could develop parenting plans, in-court conciliation and mediation. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but many children are in a difficult position and it is important to take the best decisions for them rather than focus on the point of view of one parent.

Will the Minister reflect carefully on the evidence provided this morning by the president of the family division of the High Court to the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)? Concern is widespread that fathers are not being treated fairly in family law cases, particularly in respect of the operation of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, because social worker reports do not put forward a balanced view between fathers and mothers. Does my hon. Friend know about those concerns, and will she seek to deal with them when she looks at the problem carefully?

I will not only look at, but listen to, the evidence. When the problem was raised this morning, the judges before the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department acknowledged the perception, but felt that it did not conform to reality. As to the role of CAFCASS, it can provide alternative means of help. The judges also said this morning that the CAFCASS reports were of high quality and that they did provide fair assessments of the position. The other ways in which it could help include in-court conciliation, and a greater role in mediation and support for contact centres, which can help to ease the difficult problems that families face.

Court Administration


If she will make a statement on the role of the Department in court administration. [107460]

The Court Service, an executive agency of the Lord Chancellor's Department, runs county courts, Crown courts and higher courts other than the House of Lords. Magistrates courts are run by 42 independent magistrates courts committees.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that despite recent reforms, access to the civil courts in this country can still be very slow and prohibitively expensive for many of our citizens? Does she agree that that process could be immensely speeded up if it were overseen not by the arcane Lord Chancellor's Department, but by a modern Ministry of Justice that is fully accountable to the House of Commons?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Ministers from the Lord Chancellor's Department are here in the House of Commons answering questions on the business of the Court Service and the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

There have been significant improvements in waiting times for civil trials. Fast-track trials have seen waiting times fall by 20 per cent. in two years and by 12 per cent. in respect of small claims. There have been improvements in civil cases, but it is clearly important to tackle delays throughout the justice system in respect of both civil and criminal cases.

Under the plans of the Lord Chancellor's Department, will the Government be able to guarantee that the courts of this country will be separate from the police service, so that people can clearly see and know the difference? Will the Minister and her colleagues be answerable in future, under the new plans, for court openings and closures—answerable to Members of Parliament, local councillors and members of the public?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the proposals for the unified administration, which would keep the courts very much separate from the police, because the latter are accountable through the Home Office, while the courts would remain accountable through the Lord Chancellor's Department. The unified administration will set up local courts administration councils and will be an executive agency that is accountable to Parliament. We envisage that the courts administration councils will take decisions or views on local court estate use, while the appeals process would be very similar to the current arrangements in respect of magistrates courts closures. Certainly, Ministers will ultimately be accountable to Parliament for decisions.

President Of The Council

The President of the Council was asked—



If he will ask the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to consider the use of laptop computers by hon. Members in the House. [107446]

I hope that the Modernisation Committee will look at the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion as part of its work on how Parliament can be made more accessible and the work of MPs more effective.

I am most grateful to the Minister once again for his very positive response. He will recall that, towards the end of last year, we exchanged correspondence on this subject, and I am anxious now, some four months later, to find out what has happened. He will also be aware that technology has moved on and that some forms of computer, even without keyboards, have already been successfully pioneered to assist in the work of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I hope that he can assure me that it will not be too long before the Modernisation Committee can consider all those matters further to aid the work of the House.

I should like to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, by contrast with some of his hon. Friends, who have just shouted from a sedentary position the word "shocking", on the leading role that he has taken in his Select Committee in encouraging the use of laptop computers in open session for the first time. We look forward very much to the report of his right hon. Friend the Member for 'Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the Chairman of that Committee, which I believe we are expecting by Easter and which will deal with how that experiment has gone. I am sure that the Modernisation Committee will take notice of that report.

Given that hon. Members are already positively festooned with electronic devices in this place and that I have seen the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) twitch in the same way as other hon. Members when their pagers go off—

Perhaps it is a natural twitch.

Does it not make sense that in Committee in this day and age, hon. Members should, as in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, have the opportunity to access information through a laptop computer?

It never ceases to amaze me that many hon. Members who purport to have Neanderthal attitudes to modern and electronic devices are the first to resort to them for their political use.

Programming Of Bills


What proposals he will bring forward to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on programming Bills. [107447]

My right hon. Friend has no plans to bring forward proposals on programming Bills. He notes that the Modernisation Committee has said that it will keep the operation of programming under continuing consideration.

As someone who does not oppose timetabling Bills in principle, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary and the new Leader of the House, whom I know to be a reasonable man—[Laughter.] I may have got that wrong. I ask them to examine the process of tabling amendments in another place which revert to the House of Commons on Report. There is often insufficient time to scrutinise them in the elected Chamber. That cannot be right. What will the Parliamentary Secretary and the new Leader of House do to deal with that serious difficulty?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's welcome in principle for programming. I am glad that he agrees that it is a good step forward from the position under the previous Government. I am happy to consider any specific case that he wants to raise to ascertain whether programming can be improved in future.

I am a member of the Modernisation Committee and I also serve on the Chairmen's Panel. There are sometimes difficulties when a knife falls and guillotines are also operating on the Floor of the House. Will my hon. Friend undertake to examine that and perhaps invite all the members of the Chairmen's Panel to submit their views on flaws in the timetabling system, which I currently strongly support?

I am well aware of the specific difficulties to which my hon. Friend refers. We would be happy to consider them. As a supporter of programming in principle, he knows that it has worked extremely well when there has been good co-operation between the parties.

Will the deputy Leader encourage the new Leader of the House to apply his no-nonsense approach to the Government's legislative programme? It is seriously over-congested and the guillotining regime is far too aggressive. Cannot we use the opportunity to have a less frenetic approach to legislation?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that we have a heavy legislative programme. The Government want to introduce many important laws for the benefit of our country. He is wrong to use the term "guillotining". That system was used under the Conservative Government, often a long way into consideration of a Bill. It allowed no debate on some of the important aspects of a measure. The difference between that and programming is that if the Opposition co-operate properly, the latter should be a method of sensibly scrutinising Government Bills, especially their most controversial aspects.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary convey our congratulations to his right hon. Friend the new Leader of the House on his promotion? In his discussions with his right hon. Friend, will he emphasise the importance of achieving all-party agreement? Will he discuss with his right hon. Friend whether he believes it appropriate for someone who may not be committed to the modernisation of Parliament to chair the Modernisation Committee?

I ask the hon. Gentleman not to rush to judge the way in which my right hon. Friend will act if he becomes Chairman of the Modernisation Committee. In last April's report from the Chairman of Ways and Means, he stated that he acknowledged that

"the Opposition has to share a degree of responsibility for this disappointing outcome. The stated refusal of many Opposition Members to support almost any aspect of the modernisation agenda or even to engage in constructive discussion about them was a discouraging background to the Committee's inquiry in 2000."

New Sitting Hours


If he will make a statement on the operation of the new sitting hours of the House. [107448]


Whether he plans to review the sitting hours of the House at the end of the Session. [107449]


This could be almost as enjoyable as being chair of the Labour party.

The House voted last October for new sitting hours until the end of the Parliament. As you might expect, Mr. Speaker, I have come to this job with a reasonable, no-nonsense approach and an open mind. I have no plans for a sudden reversal of the decision to change the sitting hours. However, it will take time for the effects to be realised and to decide whether some modifications may be necessary. The House will have ample opportunity to discuss all those matters in the coming months, and to decide whether to recommend a review before this Parliament ends.

May I welcome the President of the Council and congratulate him on his new post? We all look forward to his contributions. Does he realise that the mood of the House has changed significantly since the vote on this matter was taken? Will he now accept that we should not wait until the end of this Parliament, and that we should bring forward the review to the end of this Session, particularly so that we can review the operation of Tuesdays?

Sorry about the delay—I was in reflective mode there, Mr. Speaker. First, it would be only fitting, as this is my first time at the Dispatch Box since my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) left his post, to put on record my appreciation of the work that he put into the modernisation and many other aspects of the House. I am well aware of how highly he was regarded in all quarters and on both sides of the House.

Furthermore, so far as I can see from reading Hansard, I have to say that my deputy, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, also put on a superb performance following that of my right hon. Friend. I could only hope to emulate them, certainly not in all spheres, but perhaps in one. You will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that on Saturday, I had £10 each way on Monty's Pass, so perhaps there are ways in which I can emulate the former Leader of the House.

With reference to the point raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), it is true that a fairly large number of right hon. and hon. Members have registered their objections in the form of an early-day motion. I think that that motion was tabled within 14 days of the original vote being taken, however, so it is perhaps not to be taken as a judgment made after reflection. Nevertheless, as I said, while I do not commend any agenda to reverse in any sudden way the modernisation of the hours of the House, this is up to the House itself. We all note that the intention of the House was to wait until the end of this Parliament, but the House being sovereign, it can decide, if it so wishes, to take a decision earlier.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his present position. For me, after due reflection, the difficulties of the new hours include the potential for the increased departmentalisation of Ministers, the collapse of the informal workings of the House in the evenings owing to our shutting up shop at that time, the operating difficulties for Committees, the inability of my constituents to follow Line of Route visits except on Mondays, and the limited ability to hold meetings with outside organisations during the daytime. I could go on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"]—but I will not. Suffice it to say that I encourage my right hon. Friend in his flexibility, and I repeat the hope expressed by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that our review should take place sooner rather than later.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, the first item that he mentioned—the social and political intercourse of the House, involving morale and bonding, and Ministers relating to Back Benchers—was a very important issue in my mind. That is why I partly voted against these changes in the first place. Nevertheless, whatever my individual views may have been, a decision has been taken by the House and we have to allow a reasonable time to see how the experiment has worked before we take a decision. If modifications arise from specific issues—including, perhaps, issues raised by the Procedure Committee—it will of course be possible to make those modifications earlier than we anticipated when the House decided to have a review at the end of the full term of this Parliament.

I welcome the Leader of the House to his position. We on this side of the House hope that he will have a longer tenure in it than he has in his previous jobs. He is the most travelled Minister in the Government, having been at Defence, Transport, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as having been party chairman. We hope that he will be Leader of the House for a little longer than he was party chairman.

As the President of the Council has realised today, a number of people would now welcome a review of the sitting hours before the end of the current Parliament—which is what the motion originally said. May I draw his attention to early-day motion 607, supported by a number of Members who originally supported the changes and now want a review? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind and give us a review. Although he says it is for the House to decide, it is of course for the Government to decide to find the time for us to discuss the matter.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gracious welcome and his congratulations. It is true that during this Parliament I have accumulated—I sometimes think—more titles than Idi Amin. That has, in fact, a number of advantages: a moving target is always easier to hit, I suppose.

I will be here at the behest of my Prime Minister, my Government and the House to serve as best I can.

I do not think I can usefully add much to the answers I have given, other than to say that I note that the large number of Members who signed the early-day motion include some who have changed their minds pretty quickly. Nevertheless I think that all of us, whatever position we took, would accept that we should allow a reasonable amount of time for the experiment. I am sure that we will pay attention to any issues, problems and modifications that may arise, whether or not they concern private Members' Bills—particularly if they emanate from the Procedure Committee—and will be willing to adopt measures where appropriate, even before the expiry of the deadline set by Parliament.

House Of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—



What representations he has received on the stability of the PDVN for remote users; and if he will make a statement. [107450]

Although the Citrix service has coped well with increasing levels of demand, it is clear that it has not kept pace with the changing needs of Members and their staff. The Parliamentary Communications Directorate has been working on a new faster service built around a virtual private network. Work on the project is now well advanced, and the virtual private network will be available to Members later this year.

Over the last six years the power and performance of the PDVN on the parliamentary estate have become reasonably acceptable, but in the third year of the third millennium the speed and stability of information technology systems for non-metropolitan Members have become wholly unacceptable. I am pleased to learn that the IT strategy is not, for those of us who live beyond the M25, out of sight, out of mind. Is the hon. Gentleman confident that the new timetables will be deliverable?

I am confident that the technical trial of the private virtual network that we started last July has been a success. We are about to begin a user pilot, and I hope that if the results are acceptable and can be analysed, the new network will be available to Members before the summer recess.

The one qualification that I would make—one that is of interest to all Members—is that the network will be available only to compliant machines provided by the PCD. Those with non-compliant machines will have to stick with the old Citrix service, which will continue to he provided. Those wishing to take advantage of the new service in the new year, however, would be well advised to obtain new compliant machines from the PCD if they do not already have them.

Bill Presented

Community Prosecution Lawyers

Mr. Frank Field presented a Bill to establish the post of Community Prosecution Lawyer for each parliamentary constituency in England and Wales; to provide for the direct election of such Lawyers; to make arrangements for the role of such Lawyers in the prosecution of offences relating to anti-social behaviour; to establish the relationship between such Lawyers and the Crown Prosecution Service; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed. [Bill 90.]