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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2003

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Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked

Nuclear Industry

1.

What assessment she has made of the effects of the policies set out in the Energy White Paper on jobs in the nuclear industry in Scotland. [113323]

The White Paper sets out a framework for energy policy that will significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, with increased priority given to energy efficiency measures and to generation from renewable sources. The White Paper has no immediate implications for jobs in the nuclear industry in Scotland. Nuclear generation continues to play an important part in supplying the UK's energy needs.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but I wonder whether she will expand on what is meant by the word "immediate". Although the White Paper makes a laudable case for renewables, we have decimated the coal industry in Scotland, thereby wiping out an energy source, and we are in danger of wiping out another energy source that supplies 50 per cent. of electricity in Scotland. That will eventually have an impact on jobs and an effect on communities and workers. What does my hon. Friend have to say about that?

My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter on behalf of her constituents, particularly those who are employed at Torness, but may I just correct one inaccuracy? I know that she did not mean it, but it was not this Government who decimated the coal industry. Looking across the Chamber at the Conservative Benches, we can see who decimated the coal industry in Scotland and the UK. My hon. Friend is correct in that our renewable objectives are ambitious, but we also recognise that nuclear generation is still an important source of carbon-free electricity. However, at the moment, new nuclear build is commercially unattractive, and the disposal of nuclear wastes is obviously an important issue.

The Minister must accept that this chaotic energy White Paper will regrettably lead to a run-down in employment at existing stations in Scotland and, in our view, to a mistaken delay in commissioning replacements, not least at Chapelcross, where some of my constituents are employed. When will her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earn her place at the Cabinet table and fight for new-build power stations on existing licensed sites in Scotland to give energy policy credibility there? Or is her right hon. Friend just bored with the subject?

The hon. Gentleman is very clever, isn't he? [HON. MEMBERS: "He hides it well."] Yes, as my hon. Friends say, he hides it very well. My right hon. Friend is a strong advocate for all Scottish issues at the Cabinet table, and we certainly do not need to take lessons from Conservative Members about how to fight for Scotland, since they palpably never did. The reality is that, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, no one is asking for new nuclear build at the moment. The energy White Paper holds to the position as it is at the moment, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to be accurate about jobs, he should realise that decommissioning itself creates many jobs.

Regarding jobs, obviously, if we see the demise of nuclear power or new nuclear build, yes, we will support sustainables, but we will not meet our targets on CO2 emissions unless we include nuclear build in the policy. Will my hon. Friend push the facts in the White Paper, so that we have a discussion and debate on new nuclear build as soon as possible, as it is an important element for the nuclear industry and workers in Scotland?

:I agree with my hon. Friend that, at the appropriate time, we ought to have a wide-ranging discussion on nuclear energy and whether or not nuclear power will be needed to support our energy supply industry in the United Kingdom. The energy White Paper is very clear about the fact that we will have to begin consultations as and when appropriate.

If we are to meet the aspirations for CO2 emissions and renewables, rather than talking about new nuclear energy build, should we not be considering public investment in the infrastructure of the national grid to ensure that it is strengthened in those areas that can provide renewable energy and much-needed jobs?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, that is already being looked at and is part of the wider discussion that arises from the energy White Paper, and I assume that the hon. Gentleman and his party will participate in that consultation.

Given the vast subsidies that the Government have recently had to pay out to the failing nuclear industry, may I assure my hon. Friend that very many people in Scotland will welcome both the Government's commitment not to put any more money down that drain and their decision not to go ahead with any new nuclear power stations at this stage? Will she join me in welcoming the decision of the new partnership in Scotland, led by Labour, to aim for a 40 per cent. renewables target by 2020? Will she give the Government's commitment now to give their full backing to that ambitious but important target for increasing renewable energy, thereby providing many more jobs in the energy industry in Scotland?

My hon. Friend is correct that the new Labour-led partnership in Scotland has identified very clear targets, and as part of the development of the energy White Paper we were in constant discussion with the then Scottish Executive. This is a matter for the Scottish Executive within the overall framework of energy policy in the United Kingdom. I want to highlight one issue, however, in relation to British Energy. It was important for the Government to secure the supply element of British Energy and to support its restructuring, which was the reason why the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2003 was given Royal Assent earlier this month.

White Fishing Industry

2.

If she will make a statement on the economic viability of the Scottish white fishing industry. [113324]

The Government are committed to helping secure a sustainable future for the Scottish fishing industry. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a strategic review of the fishing industry in January. This study, which involves industry stakeholders, and with which I am personally involved, will consider all aspects of the fisheries sector and make recommendations to influence future decision making.

Commissioner Fischler has made it clear that the cod recovery programme could last between five and 10 years, by which time there will not be a Scottish white fish fleet, further devastating coastal communities both economically and socially. Can the Secretary of State say why the Commissioner is so confident of success, bearing in mind the fact that environmental conditions for cod are deteriorating in EU waters and that there is a continuing shortage of food in the British sector owing to industrial fishing?

The hon. Lady summed up, in her final clause, the issue regarding declining cod stocks. The important thing for the long-term future of the white fishing industry in Scotland that we have a sustainable and coherent strategy for the future, which secures the long-term supply of fishing stocks. That is the purpose of the Prime Minister's strategic review. The issue should have been addressed years ago, but it was ducked by the Administration whom the hon. Lady supported, and now we have to ensure sustainable long-term supplies of white fish. I have been involved in extensive discussions with the industry as recently as two weeks ago, and will continue to have those discussions. Scaremongering and populism, however, will not resolve the problems of the white fish industry.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the son of one of my constituents is a fisherman on Barra and is currently travelling through Europe with some other fishermen from Barra and Vatersay? What advice would she give to them if they happen to travel to Seville and meet up with some Spanish fishermen?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I hope that one of the first things that these fishermen from Vatersay and Barra would point out to their Spanish colleagues is the importance of the fishing industry to Scotland. I know that they will have many opportunities and that they will be great ambassadors for Scotland. The most recent dispatches have it that the fishermen from Vatersay have now reached Madrid and that the Vatersay Boys are turning the town over. On behalf of every Member of the House, we hope that all the 50,000 Scots who have travelled to Seville, fishermen or not, have a very good time. If I may echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I hope that the Celtic team bring back the UEFA cup and that the Vatersay Boys have a very good time convincing their Spanish colleagues—[Interruption.] The House will be able to tell how in touch Opposition Members are with the people of Scotland.

While wishing any Scottish sporting team success, may I say that it will be a surprise to people in fishing communities that the Government are making light of the crisis that they are going through at this time. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the European Union has had an underspend of more than €7 billion? Can she tell the House how much of the €7 billion-plus will come back to the UK, and how much in terms of extra resources will go to crisis-hit communities? How much extra, in terms of the extra resources that have been put on the table by the European Commission, is she fighting to secure in Cabinet?

The hon. Gentleman always gives just part of the story. I do not know whether he does so deliberately or whether he is merely ill-informed. The whole issue of fisheries support is on multi-year programmes. Until the multi-year programme is finished, it is impossible to comment on it. I should have thought that the election a couple of weeks ago would have taught the Scottish National party some lessons. Quite frankly, a party that lost eight seats—

I have just returned from Andalucia, which I visited with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. Its fishing industry is suffering a downturn and many of its fishermen face the same problems as we do in north-east Scotland. I understand that the first meeting of the No. 10 strategy unit took place this morning. Will my right hon. Friend give us a progress report and tell us how the strategy will be worked out in the future and how that will help the Scottish white fish industry?

My hon. Friend takes a coherent and reasoned view of the difficulties facing the fishing industry and does not indulge in scaremongering, unlike Members of some other parties. Official-level contacts in relation to the Prime Minister's strategic review have begun. I met several of the representatives two weeks ago when I was in Brussels at the sea fish exposition and I know that the fishing industry greatly welcomes the review. It will take some time before we know the review's conclusions because considerable issues must be addressed. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, shares the view that the review represents the most coherent way ahead to recognise the scale of the problems. Hard decisions might have to be taken but at least we will then know how to secure a proper future for the fishing industry and the fish processing industry, which is so important in her constituency.

The right hon. Lady is trying to imply that she is an active participant in discussions on the crisis. Her reply to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) did not make it entirely clear whether she was at this morning's meeting with the Prime Minister. Has she discussed the crisis in the fishing industry with the Prime Minister? Does she have any plans to meet the new Scottish fisheries Minister? Has she held discussions on the issue with the UK fisheries Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), in the past seven weeks?

Let me begin with the hon. Lady's last point. I discussed the situation of fisheries in Scotland in general with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary as recently as last Wednesday. I left the Prime Minister half an hour ago, and I have regular extensive discussions with the fisheries industry—as recently as two weeks ago at the sea fish exposition in Brussels. I recognise the difficulties faced by the white fish industry but we must remember that there are other fisheries in Scotland. For example, considerable action, some of which has been extremely hard, has been taken on the pelagic fleet and that sector of the industry is consequently showing considerable strength. The hon. Lady should not indulge in scaremongering. The issues are serious and must be dealt with seriously.

I am sure that Scottish fishermen would not consider the situation in which they find themselves to be indicative of scaremongering. I am delighted to hear that the right hon. Lady has met the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Will she assure us that she has discussed the UK Government's proposals regarding €150 million compensation for the white fish industry? Struan Stevenson, the Conservative MEP who serves on the Fisheries Committee, has secured the European Parliament's agreement to set that sum aside as compensation for the industry.

The Scottish Executive have already set aside £50 million for transitional assistance for the white fish industry, and that is already working its way through the system. I shall hold early discussions with the Scottish fisheries Minister as soon as he or she is in place. On the point on funding for fisheries, the state aids regime is being analysed by the European Commission. No money can be paid out, as I am sure Mr. Struan Stevenson knows, until the Commission reaches a conclusion on state aids.

Hepatitis C

3.

If she will discuss the issue of hepatitis C sufferers in Scotland at her next scheduled meeting with the First Minister. [113325]

I expect to discuss a range of issues at my next meeting with the First Minister.

I thank the Scottish Secretary for her answer. Surely the key issue is whether she will fight for the right of the Scottish Parliament to pay compensation and for a 100 per cent. exemption from the benefit clawback rules. If she will not do that, will she explain to hepatitis C sufferers in Scotland why on earth Scottish taxpayers are paying £7 million for the running costs of her office?

I should have thought that the hon. Lady would have learned a lesson when she saw the majority in her constituency plummet: scaremongering does not work. There are serious legal and policy-based issues in relation to hepatitis C. There have been extensive discussions between the Scottish Executive and the Department for Work and Pensions, not least on whether payments should be taken into account as capital or income when someone claims income-related benefits. Those discussions could not continue because of the Scottish Parliament elections. As soon as the Minister for Health and Community Care is in place in the Scottish Parliament, those discussions will continue. The issues are not superficial and the hon. Lady should not treat them in a superficial manner.

During the Secretary of State's next meeting with the First Minister, will she make clear this House's unequivocal opposition to proportional representation for local government?

As my hon. Friend is aware, those matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that he voted in favour of the Scotland Act 1998, which sets that out quite clearly.

Given the changes in public health laboratories and what might be happening both north and south of the border, can the right hon. Lady assure us that diseases like hepatitis C will be considered on a national basis and not broken up and devoluted to any part of the nation?

I read some strange words over the weekend, the origins of which I had never seen before, and "devoluted" falls into a similar category. I think the hon. Gentleman means devolved. However, he makes a valid point in relation not just to public health laboratories but to the Medical Research Council and its work, not least on diseases such as hepatitis C. There is a need for clear co-operation and clear guidelines to deal with such problems. Places like Edinburgh are world leaders in that type of research. Both the UK Government and the Scottish Executive are proud of that. We aim to ensure that such bodies are well funded and have the resources that enable them to make a proper contribution. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is very valid.

Winter Fuel Payments

4.

How many pensioners in Scotland will benefit from the £300 winter fuel payment for the over-80s. [113326]

We estimate that around 200,000 pensioners in Scotland will benefit from the £100 additional payment attached to the winter fuel payment.

All our Government's measures to help people cope with winter cold are particularly welcome in northern Scotland. Does my hon. Friend consider that those central Government policies will be valuably supplemented by the plans of the recently re-elected Labour-led Scottish Executive to extend free central heating to pensioners?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The partnership of the UK-wide winter fuel payment and the implementation of local initiatives, such as the warm homes initiative, has made a difference to people in Scotland, especially pensioners, hence the Labour-led Administration in Holyrood.

The increase in winter fuel payments for pensioners will be most welcome if they are received on time. In that regard, is the Minister aware of the complete shambles that accompanied the introduction of the working tax credit and the hardship that that caused? What assurance can she give Scottish pensioners that winter fuel payments will not suffer from the same bureaucratic incompetence and create similar hardship?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that winter fuel payments are going into their sixth season, if I can put it that way. As far as I am aware, there have been no major difficulties with their distribution. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has addressed some of the issues in relation to the transfer to the new working tax credit.

The March report for 2001–02 stated that there are £4.5 billion of unclaimed benefits in the UK, £500 million of which are in Scotland. Of the 11 most deprived areas in the UK, four are in Glasgow. Will the Minister approach the Chancellor to ring-fence all that unclaimed benefit so that it can be given to the poor?

My hon. Friend is well aware that the Government have never hidden benefits under a bushel, but have advertised them and encouraged people to pick up their benefits. The Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have consistently made it obvious that we want people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. I appeal again to the 71 Members of Parliament, each of whom is considered to be a leader in their community, to ensure that as much publicity as possible is given to benefit take-up, complementing the work done by the DWP and the Treasury.

Advocate-General

The Advocate-General was asked

Devolution

14.

What devolution issues have been raised since 8 April. [113337]

15.

What devolution issues she has dealt with since 8 April. [113338]

Since 8 April, 39 devolution issues have been intimated to me. They concerned a range of matters including delay in criminal proceedings, solitary confinement under the prison rules, offences that involve the narration of previous convictions, the requirement on the defence to lodge notice of intention to lead sexual history evidence in trials, and the use of evidence from now-deceased witnesses.

The Advocate-General will be aware that in my constituency there is a great deal of interest locally in the position of udal law, particularly as it relates to ownership and control of the seabed. That has led to the establishment of a website, www.udallaw.com. Has the hon. and learned Lady considered the position of udal law in relation to the seabed, and if not, will she do so, and offer appropriate advice to her Government colleagues?

I remember being taught about udal law at university, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman was. No doubt it has come in extremely useful to his constituents. He raises an important matter. Udal law has an important history in the Orkney and Shetland isles, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his legal background and training in a Scottish university, will be of great use to his constituents in that regard. With respect to the specific reservation in the Scotland Act, udal law is not reserved. I do not know whether I am pleased about that or not. In general, land law is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I enter the usual caveat: it all depends on the specific circumstances of the problem raised. Obviously, individual property owners must take legal advice on the extent of their own proprietorial interests.

I should be grateful if my hon. and learned Friend could explain the basis for the requirement on the defence to lodge a notice of intention to discuss sexual histories in trials.

A new requirement was introduced by the Scottish Parliament in the Sexual Offences (Procedure and Evidence)(Scotland) Act 2002. As a result of that Act, a number of devolution issues have been intimated to me. I mentioned one of them in my answer a moment ago. As yet, there has been no authoritative determination of the point that was challenged. I undertake to keep my hon. Friend advised when there is such a decision.

Human Rights

16.

What issues relating to human rights she has considered since 8 April. [113340]

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

Will my hon. and learned Friend get together with the Attorney-General and the Foreign Office lawyers to consider the legal situation of two groups of people: Iraqi diplomats like Dr. Amin, who may have done nothing wrong, and is paid by nobody, with family consequences; and those like Tariq Aziz, who may have done a great deal that is wrong, but are nevertheless entitled to some kind of trial? We had better be careful about victors' justice.

I thank my hon. Friend for his advice. The general matters that he raises are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I am sure my hon. Friend will find an appropriate opportunity to raise the matter directly. As regards meetings with the Attorney-General, my hon. Friend is aware that the matters that we discuss are generally confidential.

Devolution

17.

What devolution issues have been raised since 8 April. [113341]

Again, I refer the hon. Lady to the reply that I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

What difference does the Advocate-General believe her office has made in furthering the interests of the Scottish legal system and, indeed, the Scottish people, during the last couple of months?

It is important that the devolution settlement works well in legal terms. As the hon. Lady knows, one of my statutory functions is to look at Scottish Parliament legislation and deal with challenges to the acts of Scottish Ministers. I do so with the interests of the UK Government in mind, but it is in the interests of the UK Government, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people that the legal boundaries are properly dealt with. I try to do that as best I can.

Lord Chancellor's Department

The Parliamentary Secretary was asked

Legal Advice (Debt)

19.

What steps the Lord Chancellor is taking to increase the availability of legal advice on debt. [114232]

Assisting vulnerable individuals and families on debt issues is one of the key priorities for the community legal service. Through the work of more than 200 community legal service partnerships and with the support of initiatives such as the partnership innovation budget and the Legal Services Commission's methods of delivery pilots, we are devising new ways of delivering front-line debt advice services to local communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. Does she agree that some of the most intractable problems that hon. Members meet at our advice surgeries relate to debt owed by severely disadvantaged people? Such debt is often multiple and is owed by people who not only have limited incomes, but do not have the access to mainstream credit facilities that many of us enjoy. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a serious role for organisations that form part of the legal service partnerships, such as the Wandsworth and Merton law centre and the Merton money advice service, to which I often refer people? Those bodies need to be well known and easily accessible, and people need to have confidence in them. Only too often, people's response to debt problems is to stick their heads in the sand and not deal with them. What are the Government doing to involve such organisations in improving the services that are provided?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that issue. In particular, I wish to praise the work of the Wandsworth and Merton law centre, not least because of the presence of Bob Nightingale, who chairs the Law Centres Federation. My Department produced a pamphlet with the Law Centres Federation that highlighted not only debt problems but the fact that people who have such problems may also face housing and social security problems—a spiral of decline that can lead to social exclusion. The way of getting out of that is to ensure that good legal services are available. Through the community legal service partnerships, we want to work with organisations such as law centres and others to ensure that we improve the availability of that advice.

Given that in the last Parliament, the Government legislated to establish the principle of the levy of interest in cases of late payment of commercial debt and that, periodically, large numbers of citizens in this country fall into debt precisely because of late payment by Government agencies of benefits or other entitlements, does the hon. Lady concede that, in principle, there is a compelling case for establishing, as a matter of course, that when the Government have erred and are late in paying people their dues, they should pay them not merely the sum, but interest on top of it?

That matter has been looked into not only by this Government but by previous Governments. I rather think that responsibility for it lies with the Department of Trade and Industry, but I shall certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments are passed on.

Law centres and citizens advice bureaux play a vital role in assisting people who get into debt and face financial exclusion, yet for the first quarter of this year, I spent much of my time fending off the possible closure of my two law centres. Only with the assistance of the Association of London Government were we able to pull those centres back from the brink. Even so, the Association of London Government does not have sufficient funds to ensure that the whole of London has adequate financial advice services.

Has my hon. Friend discussed with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister whether the "futurebuilders" programme offers us an opportunity to resource voluntary organisations and law centres in providing financial advice and debt counselling across London and the country as a whole?

I am aware of the work that my hon. Friend has put in on behalf of her local law centres, which she has raised with me before. Overall, contract funding for law centres from the Legal Services Commission has risen. She makes an important point about "futurebuilders". Some £125 million is available over the next three years to assist the voluntary and community sector in improving service delivery. Most of that money is for capital expenditure, but in view of my hon. Friend's comments I shall consider whether there are ways in which we can assist law centres, and let her know the outcome.

Magistrates Courts

20.

When he next expects to meet representatives of the magistracy to discuss recent court closures. [114233]

Magistrates courts closures are a matter for local magistrates courts committees. Where there are appeals, I am always happy to meet representatives of the local magistracy before taking any decision. I have received no requests to meet magistrates about courts that have already closed.

A few years ago, there were active magistrates courts in my constituency at Fakenham and Hunstanton, but they are now being concentrated in King's Lynn. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important for local justice to be seen to be done, and that for that to happen courts need to be close to the community? Surely, at a time when there is a need to restrain and control the increasing numbers of hooligans who are terrorising communities, there should be no further closures of magistrates courts.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is for local magistrates courts committees to take decisions about the courts estate. They have always done so, under previous Governments and under this Government. In the last year of his party's Government, there were 21 court closures; last year, there were six. It is right that magistrates courts committees should take decisions on the basis of a wide range of issues, including not only geographical access, but disability access, the availability of appropriate facilities for victims, and the state of the courtrooms.

Is it not the case that there is a continuing shrinkage not only of the number of local courts, but of the number of lay magistrates to serve in them? Several schemes for the closure of local magistrates courts are in abeyance, awaiting the outcome of the Courts Bill that is passing through Parliament. If the Government are successful in getting that Bill through Parliament, will the Minister give an undertaking that she will make it Government policy to maintain local, and particularly rural, magistrates courts; and will she give instructions to that effect to Her Majesty's inspectorate of courts administration, which is established by the Bill, so that it can inspect for locality and ease of access for those who need to use the courts?

It is important that decisions about local courts be taken in local areas. It is important not only to weigh up local needs, but to consider the facilities that are available for victims and other factors. As the hon. Gentleman will know, under the current arrangements appeals come to Ministers, and I recently overturned a decision to close Kingston courtrooms. I will always take decisions on the merits of the case. For example, unified administration offers the opportunity for the Court Service and magistrates courts to work together, which may increase the viability of courthouses in certain areas that are able to share facilities, but do not do so.

The Magistrates Association, of which I am a member, welcomes the recent Government amendment to the Courts Bill, which will require direct consultation with local benches on court reorganisation and other matters. Does the Minister believe that that will slow the steady flow of courthouse closures; and can she update the House on the continuing struggle between her Department and the abolitionist Home Office, which seems to dream of low-cost courthouses in remote regional locations that are utterly detached from the communities that they serve?

In fact, I can update my hon. Friend on the fact that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office have been working together on proposals around community justice centres, which are outlined in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. It is important that local communities feel that they have a strong stake in the local criminal justice system and the courts in their area. He is right that we have tabled an amendment to the Courts Bill to require consultation with magistrates. I am aware from discussing the small number of appeals that have come to me about magistrates courts closures that the local bench often makes representations, even though the magistrates courts committee and the committee of magistrates in that area have, in theory, made the decision.

The Parliamentary Secretary speaks about working together. Does she accept that that has resulted in a staggering 96 magistrates courts closures throughout England and Wales since 1997, with more expected? Home Office statistics reveal that public confidence in the manner in which we deal with the criminal justice system has plummeted under the Government. Against the clear backdrop of threat to local justice under the Lord Chancellor's regime as more and more magistrates courts, many in rural areas, are shut, how does the Parliamentary Secretary propose to shore up faltering confidence in the system?

Frankly, the hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. He should consider history. I know that he enjoys discrediting the history of Conservative Governments, but his previous party—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] That was a Freudian slip. In the last year his party was in government, three times as many courts closed as under this Government last year. Rural court closures in the last year of the Tory Government included Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove and so on. Between 1993 and 1996—

Order. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that when I stand, the lady sits. It is as simple as that.

Ethnic Minority Families

21.

What assistance the Department is giving to support family and personal relationships in ethnic minority communities. [114235]

This year, the Department made available £5 million to the marriage and relationship support grant programme. Out of the total grant programme, £800,000 is being spent on work that directly supports family and personal relationships in ethnic minority communities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and for the close attention that she pays to the issue. She knows that conferences have been held throughout the country, including at the Kirklees domestic violence forum in my area in Huddersfield and in the House last week, when the all-party groups on domestic violence and on children met. At that meeting, the point was again made that ethnic minority women are much less likely to come forward for help, despite their being at least as likely to experience problems. What can my hon. Friend do to help local groups that want to support women in their communities, create new groups and help people through the grant system, which they currently find difficult?

My hon. Friend is right to ask how we can improve access to the grant fund process. Every year, the Department, through application forms and feedback forms, looks for ways in which to ease the process. I would be more than happy to hear about any difficulties that specific groups, especially from ethnic minorities, have experienced, and about examples of how we can improve the system. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the fact that many people from ethnic minorities will not gain access to all the necessary information on, for example, remedies for domestic violence. We are considering a series of issues and methods of improving matters. Not least, we have translated into many different languages a guide that we recently produced about legal remedies for victims of domestic violence.

Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that support for family support groups, in focus and funding, does not sit comfortably with the Department's overall functions, and that it is not well done? Is it not time the Government modernised the entire procedure for support for ethnic minority families, and more widely, moved it to a Department that is primarily focused on supporting families in this country and ensuring that the support is properly given?

I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the delivery of service is poor. I think that, in terms of the number of people who are given adult relationship support, our record is impressive. The hon. Gentleman had a point, however, in saying that our support should be tailored to support for other things such as parenting. I assure him that I work closely with other Departments, particularly the Home Office, to ensure that happens.

President Of The Council

The President of the Council was asked

Sitting Hours

26.

What plans he has to propose that the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons review the sitting hours of the House. [114242]

:None at present.

I understand why that is, given the commitment from the former Leader of the House. I voted for the change in the hours with some enthusiasm, but like, I suspect, many other Members I feel that they have not turned out quite as we anticipated then. I understand that the Minister may not wish to return completely to the old system, and I would not support that, but will he consider, for example, returning to a 2.30 pm rather than an 11.30 am start for question time, while retaining the present starting and finishing times?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would welcome any specific points that any Member may wish to make about how the current hours could be made to work better, but as my right hon. Friend said when the issue was last discussed during questions, he is in no hurry to revisit it, given that only six months ago the House expressed its settled will on a free vote.

May I join those who do not think that the new hours are working very well? Indeed, I think that they are working against the democratic process.

May I also ask why, when I take junior schoolchildren on to the Terrace, I need a letter of permission from either Black Rod or the Serjeant at Arms to take a school photograph? That rule serves no useful purpose—and surely we, as elected Members, are as trustworthy as appointed Officers.

I imagine that the rule was established to protect Members from unwanted photography, but I will take up my hon. Friend's point because it has also affected me when I have entertained school parties here. I see no logical reason for such a formality.

We must all hope that the hon. Gentleman is protected from unwanted photography at all times.

Will the hon. Gentleman take careful note of the point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which reflects the extreme concern felt by many Members throughout the House about the dismal failure of the new arrangements? They have allowed the Government to get off scot free too often.

I do not accept that. Question time has become much more topical, and there are the new crosscutting questions in Westminster Hall. Taking the package as a whole, we see that the amount of scrutiny of Government has increased, not decreased, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to imply.

Does the Minister not accept that large tranches of very important legislation are leaving the House without being debated? There is not even the fallback of allowing some sections of the Finance Bill to be discussed up the passage in another place. Will the Minister urge the Leader of the House to review the position at a relatively early date? We want to know about experience with the new sitting times. Could we not use the time available on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to ensure that the House does its proper duty, and that legislation is scrutinised adequately before going on the statute book?

As I told the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the suggestion of a review is interesting. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—as a member of the Modernisation Committee and as Chairman of the Procedure Committee—has a specific proposal, he will wish to pursue it further. I think there is potential for use of Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to good effect, but to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the overall modernisation package means less scrutiny of Government—

It seems that I have impugned the hon. Gentleman. I am glad he accepts that scrutiny has become better rather than worse as a result of the package.

Cross-Cutting Questions

27.

What assessment he has made of cross-cutting question sessions in Westminster Hall. [114244]

:My right hon. Friend has as yet made no assessment of the cross-cutting question sessions in Westminster Hall, but I have attended most of them and my impression is that they are a useful innovation welcomed on both sides of the House, and that they are working well.

:The Minister says that the sessions are a useful innovation, but situations still arise in which Members table questions affecting a number of Departments, and those questions are referred to an inappropriate Department. Will my hon. Friend look at the issue of ordinary parliamentary questions on crosscutting issues?

I will certainly look at that issue. Perhaps my hon. Friend has a specific example of a question that he has tabled which he feels has been directed to the incorrect Department. I would say to him that this issue is usually handled with great expertise and knowledge by the Table Office, but I will take up any specific examples that he has with the Table Office.

House Of Commons Commission

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

Broadcasting Rules

28.

What assessment the Commission has made of the effects of changes to the rules on broadcasting within the parliamentary estate. [114246]

The Commission is advised on these matters by the Administration Committee, which has approved a trial for this Session involving giving broadcasters access to live interview points in Central Lobby and the Committee Corridor, and to two areas in Portcullis House. The Committee will review the experiment at the end of this Session, taking into account all the views expressed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that response. As he will be aware, most of the coverage of this place by the media covers the theatre in this Chamber. As someone who is about to descend into—and who is looking forward to—several weeks on the Finance Bill Committee under the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and others, and who has served under his chairmanship in a Select Committee, I am keen that people should understand that a lot of work goes on Upstairs.

Is it the hon. Gentleman's understanding from the experiment so far that we are getting more coverage of Select Committees and Standing Committees, or is it just being used to give coverage to what the media might consider to be gossip in the Westminster village?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I believe that the experiment has improved public understanding and accessibility. Some 658 booked interviews have occurred during this Session; that is quite a lot. There are very strict rules under which these interviews must be conducted: they are supposed to be specific interviews with Members of the House on specific issues that are before the House. Those rules need to be carefully monitored and established, in order that we keep control of what I think is an important part of our attempt to explain—rightly, as the hon. Gentleman says—what goes on here. This also gives me the opportunity to say that the Committee would welcome any views, positive or negative, on how the experiment has worked to date.

President Of The Council

The President of the Council was asked

Government Amendments

29.

If he will make a statement on the number of Government amendments made to each Government Bill passed by this House in this Session. [114247]

The number of Government amendments made to each Bill is not held centrally, but the information is available from the Official Report, and from the Votes and Proceedings or the Standing Committee proceedings.

I was a member of the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill, which was one of the most excellent Standing Committees on a Bill that I have ever had the privilege to serve on. The Bill is now back before the House yesterday and today, and, unfortunately, about half of it is new to the House and to members of the Standing Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful!"]—although Opposition Members who are always crying wolf do not do us any favours when there is a genuine problem about parliamentary accountability.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether he feels that pre-legislative scrutiny of all Bills will help the House to scrutinise Bills effectively and to reduce the unacceptably high number of Government amendments that are made to all Bills these days?

Yes, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He will probably know that we have already published four draft Bills this Session; we expect to publish several more in the next few weeks. I am confident that significantly more Bills will have been published in draft this Session than ever before. On my hon. Friend's specific point about the Criminal Justice Bill, I am please that his experience on the Standing Committee was a positive one, and I would remind the House that the Government have given an unprecedented amount of time to the Report stage in the Chamber—

:Yes, they have. No previous Bill has had three full six-and-a-half-hour days on Report on the Floor of the House.

Today's running order for the Criminal Justice Bill—by the way, it carries the words, "By Order of the Speaker", although that should read, "By Order of the Government", if I may say so, to protect you, Mr. Speaker, and your impartiality—shows, by my calculation, that the Government are allowing the House of Commons two and a half hours to consider 16 new clauses and more than 30 amendments, an hour and a half to consider three new clauses and more than 100 amendments, and a further hour and a half to consider four new clauses, one schedule and one amendment.

How on earth do the Government expect the House to discharge its responsibility for proper scrutiny of legislation when they are imposing such a timetable on our deliberations? Are not the Government yet again trampling gratuitously all over the House of Commons and denying Members of Parliament the opportunity to discharge our responsibility to our voters by properly scrutinising legislation? When is the Minister going to do something about it?

The right hon. Gentleman's fake outrage might carry more credibility if the Opposition had used the full six and a half hours that we gave them yesterday. They did not; the business ended early.

I am dumbfounded by that comment from the Minister. The fact remains that nearly 500 amendments and 28 new clauses have been tabled to the Criminal Justice Bill, dealing with the most crucial issues of life and liberty. The Government have effectively introduced a new Criminal Justice Bill on Report, so should there not be a process whereby the Bill is automatically referred back to a Standing Committee to receive proper consideration before going to another place, which, I might remind the Minister, is not elected and therefore does not have the same credentials as this House to examine those essential issues?

Many of the changes to that Bill came out of the 32 Standing Committee sittings to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) referred. [Interruption.] Yes, they did. Others have been introduced as a result of legal necessity, because of judgments in the courts outside this place. Would the hon. Gentleman like to suggest which other important measures, such as those on getting to grips with the scandal of killer drivers who get off with lenient sentences or the problem of firearms, his party does not want on the statute book?

Does the Minister believe that two and a half hours is adequate for talking about life sentencing, road traffic offences and firearms offences? Is it sufficient for the House of Commons? Will he assure us that, if the House of Commons gets that time, the House of Lords will get something similar?

The Opposition did not use their full allocation of time yesterday when we were debating the Bill, and the hon. Gentleman's false outrage would be more credible if they had. As I said in answer to an earlier question, no previous Government allowed nearly 20 hours on Report on the Floor of the House for any Bill. This is unprecedented.

House Of Commons Commission

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

Child Care

30.

If he will bring forward proposals to increase child care provision in the House of Commons. [114248]

The House provides help with child care through a child care voucher scheme for staff of the House, and also makes places available in a subsidised holiday play scheme for children of school age during the summer recess. This is open to children of Members, their staff, and staff of the House. The Administration Committee, however, is reviewing options for the possible extension of child care provision on the parliamentary estate and off site. The Commission expects to receive the Committee's findings before the summer recess.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply, but I am curious as to whether the Commission has considered the use of allowances to pay for such child care. Could Members do that?

I understand that Members can use allowances for child care for members of their staff, but they cannot do so for their own children. If the hon. Gentleman has any other suggestions to make about such matters, it would be helpful for the Administration Committee to have access to his views so that they can be taken into account in the finalisation of the review before the report comes to the Commission.

What objection is there to the establishment and maintenance of a crèche?

There are constraints on the House. There is no space available for the proper provision of child care facilities on site or immediately off it. However, phase 2 of our review of space is being undertaken by the House authorities, and I confidently expect that the provision of such accommodation for child care facilities can be taken account of in the review.

Modernisation

31.

What recent representations he has received on the modernisation of the House of Commons. [114249]

I am grateful to be called again, Mr. Speaker. May I—

That is what happens when one gets two bites of the cherry. In the past month, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has received four letters on modernisation of the House of Commons, one of which was from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Modernisation issues have also been raised with my right hon. Friend in informal conversations in the House and elsewhere, including during meetings of the Modernisation Committee, of which the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is a member.

I am grateful for that reply, but bearing in mind the Minister's response to earlier questions relating to the Criminal Justice Bill and the huge number of additional clauses and amendments introduced by the Government, a very good case clearly exists for the House's finding additional time. Is it not sensible that the Modernisation Committee should give early consideration to this matter, to ensure that Parliament can do its proper job of adequately and fully scrutinising legislation that is of critical interest not only to this House, but to the people outside? I shall certainly use my good offices as a member of that Committee and as Chairman of the Procedure Committee to ensure that that happens.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished member of the Modernisation Committee, will use his position on it to make that very point.