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Commons Chamber

Volume 406: debated on Thursday 12 June 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 12 June 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked

Economic Growth

1.

What changes there have been to his projections for economic growth since (a) the 2002 Budget and (b) the 2002 pre-Budget Report. [118657]

In the 2002 Budget, United Kingdom GDP growth was forecast to be 3 to 3½ per cent. in 2003 and 2½ to 3 per cent. in 2004. In the 2002 pre-Budget report, growth was forecast to be 2½ to 3 per cent. in 2003 and 3 to 3½ per cent. in 2004. In this year's Budget, our forecasts are growth of 2 to 2½ per cent. in 2003 and 3 to 3½ per cent. in 2004.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer downgraded his economic growth predictions in his statement last autumn and again in April. Even his new figures are out of step with those of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Why should we believe he has got it right now?

What we have got right in these uncertain times, when America, Germany and Japan have been in recession for the past two years, is sound economic fundamentals: low interest rates, low inflation and a record number of people in employment—all things that the Conservatives got terribly wrong.

May I tell my right hon. Friend on behalf of households and businesses in my constituency that the most remarkable thing about the 2002 forecast was that, despite global recession, we were able to predict and to deliver economic growth? Is it not the case that the business cycle in the UK previously worked in such a way that shocks from the outside world were amplified, often with disastrous consequences for investment, jobs and growth in the UK? Now, those external shocks are mitigated, exactly because of the framework for macro-economic stability that we have put in place.

My hon. Friend is right. We took the hard decisions in the early days to set the Bank of England free, opposed by Conservative Members, and to establish the new deal, opposed by Conservative Members. We took the decisions that were necessary in order to create the climate of stability that is the best news that business can have. That is why we are succeeding in creating jobs. Currently, we are doing better than the other G7 countries on employment and indeed doing increasingly well on investment and productivity.

Given the importance of rising house prices to confidence, consumption and growth in the UK, what lower growth forecast will be needed given the Chancellor's decision to tax the housing market into submission and to try to stop house price rises? When will the capital gains tax and higher stamp duty come in?

There is no such intention. That is a bit rich coming from the right hon. Gentleman, who served in a Government under whom Britain suffered two of the deepest and longest recessions since the second world war, during which unemployment rose to 3 million, inflation rose to almost 10 per cent., interest rates hit 15 per cent. and negative equity hit an all-time high. We will take no lessons from Conservative Members on economic stewardship. Our record is one to be proud of. His was one to be ashamed of.

Has not the substantial level of investment by the British oil and gas industry made a major contribution to economic growth over many years? Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the low level of exploration that we have had for the past two years, which threatens that continued investment at that level? I welcome the announcement in the Budget that that matter was being looked at, but will he undertake to complete that review speedily so that some proposals can be brought forward for the pre-Budget report in the autumn?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the efforts that he puts in on behalf of the oil industry and of those in his constituency who benefit from it. It was as a result of representations such as his that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took the actions that he did in the last Budget to encourage and support new investment in the oil industry. Those steps are specifically designed to promote research and development, to promote the exercises in modernisation and exploration that are the best hope for his industry and offer the most to UK plc.

Why does the Chief Secretary think that the introduction of the euro has so much reduced economic growth in Germany, with inevitable knock-on effects in this country? Do Treasury Ministers agree that the unwise monetary policies of the European Central Bank have increased the risk that the German recession will have an adverse effect on our economy?

The hon. Gentleman parades the prejudices and misconceptions of his party in relation to the euro. His analysis of the German economy is a little simplistic. He will agree that we need to ensure that we implement the reforms in relation to the growth and stability pact and the European Central Bank outlined in the Chancellor's statement earlier this week. Allied with the reforms in our own economy, those can only be good news for our economy and that of Germany and the rest of the eurozone.

Manufacturing

2.

If he will make a statement on the impact of his economic policies on manufacturing. [118658]

Manufacturing output is expected to grow by between ¼ and ¾ per cent. this year, and by between 2¼ and 2¾ per cent. in 2004. Of vital importance to manufacturing in every region of this country is our commitment to pursue policies for economic stability.

I thank my right hon. Friend, because under this Government manufacturing has been seen as a vital part of the whole economic balance. That is in contrast with previous Governments, who gave manufacturing such a hard time. Does he accept, however, that, with the recent recession in manufacturing, which has seen cuts in employment and production, we need to restate the importance of growth and the fact that a consistent manufacturing base is at the very centre? Does he agree that now that the economy is getting into balance, the preoccupation with the financial services sector—a constant feature of previous Governments—is not something that we should pursue?

I thank my hon. Friend for the efforts that he puts in for manufacturing in his constituency and the wider north-west. He will have noticed that manufacturing output was rising last month, and that our policies are designed to give this country modern manufacturing strength. In contrast to the previous Government, who preferred services to manufacturing, we want that modern manufacturing strength, and that is why we are introducing the research and development tax credit, through which £200 million has already gone to small businesses; regional venture capital funds, which manufacturing in his region is benefiting from; and permanent capital allowances, which benefit manufacturing in particular. Most important of all, interest rates in this country, which averaged 10.5 per cent. under the Conservatives, have averaged 5 per cent. under this Labour Government, and that is why we have the economic stability on which we can build. No one is complacent, but we will build on this.

Does not the future of our manufacturing base depend crucially on trade? Will the Chancellor now answer one of the many questions that he did not answer on Monday? Will he confirm that his figures for increased trade if we were to join the euro are based on studies of currency unions involving Angola and Mozambique; Burkina Faso and Chad; Vatican City and San Marino; and Tuvalu and Tonga?

What the study says—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] What the study says, and I shall read it directly, is that those conducting it discount industrialising and non-industrialised countries and that they have looked at the experience of the euro over its first few years, and whether there has been an increase in trade in the euro area. The idea that, in a single currency area, with the exchange rate barriers removed and a far freer flow of trade, no benefits are produced is quite ridiculous. If the Opposition are going to peddle the idea that somehow, with sustainable convergence, there are no advantages in trade, that reveals exactly where the Shadow Chancellor wants to take his party today, and that is against the European Union altogether.

No, no. That will not do, I am afraid. Let us look at the Treasury documents. Will the Chancellor confirm that paragraph 3.36 on page 35 of "EMU and business sectors" expresses concern that, far from trade increasing,

"In the absence of an independent nominal exchange rate, and if wage growth exceeded that in other EU countries without an offsetting productivity gain, UK export levels could fall and firms would have to reduce output and employment"?
Why did he not mention that on Monday? Do not manufacturing industry and others need to be given a balanced assessment of euro membership?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should turn to the conclusion on what EMU could mean for UK trade, where what he has been going on about for the past few days—comparisons with industrialising areas—is discounted, and it is stated very clearly that there have been gains in trading in the euro area identified by all the studies that have been carried out, which he cannot deny. Of course the issue is sustainable convergence, because we are not going to make the mistakes of the exchange rate mechanism era with which he is associated. [Interruption.] Oh, so we are to blame for the Conservatives' decision, and an apology from the shadow Chancellor is enough! It was this shadow Chancellor who said that we must punish the people who made mistakes.

I have in fact apologised for the euro; will the Chancellor apologise for the fact that he was calling for early entry into the euro a year before we joined? Is it not true that even the Treasury's documents put what it describes as potential increases in trade—potential increases—that are critically dependent on sustained convergence in a range of between 5 and 50 per cent.? So why is the Chancellor quoting just the 50 per cent. figure? Why did he ignore the fact that the Treasury's own figure for the effect so far in the euro area, to which he has just referred, is much lower? Why did he also ignore the conclusion that the

"potential benefit of fixed exchange rates to the traded goods sector may be less than is sometimes claimed",
and the further conclusion that there is some "evidence" for
"the view that euro membership would not increase UK euro trade by much"?
Is it not the case that the Government's presentation of information on the euro has been even dodgier than their presentation of intelligence on Iraq? Is it any wonder that nobody believes a word they say?

The party that has a problem with credibility on matters European is the Conservative party. [Interruption.] Let us recall the following: interest rates at 15 per cent., 10 per cent. inflation, 1 million jobs lost in manufacturing, unemployment up by 1 million, negative equity—[Interruption.]

Order. The Chancellor has been asked a series of questions and he is entitled to be able to reply without shouting.

If the shadow Chancellor, who is trying to distort the Treasury summaries, were to quote fairly from these studies, he would see that the Treasury discounted all that he said about non-industrialised countries on Monday in its assessment, and that our assessment is based on real happenings within the euro area, in which trade has increased. Of course we give a range of figures, because this issue depends on sustainable convergence. But it is absolutely the case that in a single currency area such as the United States, trade between the different parts of the area increases as a result of barriers being removed.

The Conservatives want to rewrite every part of history in this matter, but the fact is that the only reason why the shadow Chancellor fails to give us a balanced assessment is that he has no interest in joining the euro. He is against it as a point of dogma, and he would be against it even if all the proof were before him that there are indeed matters in the national economic interest that commend it to us. The Conservative party had better start thinking again about these issues.

One of the major problems facing manufacturing in the north-east is the high value of the pound against the euro. This is a particular problem in the north-east because 78 per cent. of the region's exports are to the eurozone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one advantage of joining the eurozone would be to give a boost to manufacturing in regions such as the north-east?

Our studies set out these issues in great detail, and the fact that there is open government in this regard is in complete contrast to what happened when we entered the exchange rate mechanism, when no assessment was published or, so far as I can see, even made. We have set out the advantages in trade, the advantages in exchange rate stability and the advantages in cutting the cost of currency transactions. But we also say very clearly that these advantages and this potential are dependent on there being sustainable convergence: in other words, that we are able to live comfortably with the euro area interest rate.

We have presented a balanced picture of the national economic interest in this matter, and I agree with my hon. Friend that we should look at all the issues, particularly as they affect individual regions such as the north-east, which he represents. But it is outrageous for the Conservative party to distort one piece of information and then to use it as a case not even for rejecting the euro, but for rejecting the European Union altogether.

Assuming that the Chancellor said enough on Monday to satisfy the Prime Minister on the euro, and that he therefore has no worries about the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle, could he tell us whether he accepts the advice received in the study that he commissioned from Professor Simon Wren Lewis? Over the last few years, manufacturing has seen a slump in investment and jobs, associated with the high value of the pound, but the Government have refused to clarify what they believe the right equilibrium rate for the exchange rate would be. Professor Wren Lewis suggests €1.37 to the pound; does the Chancellor accept that recommendation?

Professor Wren Lewis made that estimate on the basis of the position as he saw it a year ago when he carried out his study. It was based on his analysis of the trading relationships evident at the time. However, the present Government are not going to set an exchange rate target, which is the Liberal Democrat party policy, not ours. We believe in a stable and competitive exchange rate over the medium term, and that that exchange rate will reflect fundamentals.

As to joining the euro, if a decision were taken before the point of transition, we would deal with it, but I caution the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) about his over-enthusiasm for ignoring all the national economic interest questions in this matter. It is one thing to believe in the principle of the euro, but quite another to demand that we join it at every point in time, no matter what the exchange rate, interest rates and the wider economic picture. The summary of our assessment shows that, if we had taken the hon. Gentleman's advice in 1999, there would have been a stop-go cycle, leading to exactly the same problems that the Conservatives gave us in the early 90s.

World Debt

3.

What progress has been made in pursuit of Government strategy on relief of third world debt. [118659]

10.

If he will make a statement on the progress the G7 Finance Ministers are making in tackling world debt. [118669]

13.

What further measures he is taking with G7 Finance Ministers to tackle world poverty. [118672]

Following the Evian summit, finance Ministers will review debt relief to consider an extra £1 billion for the poorest countries. Europe will now produce proposals to match the welcome American contribution to the global health fund, particularly to deal with HIV/AIDS. In addition, G8 finance Ministers have been asked to report by September on the UK's proposal for an international finance facility, which will raise up to £50 billion annually to fund the millennium development goals. On that, I am grateful to have had all-party support.

I congratulate the Chancellor on the tremendous energy and enthusiasm that he has shown on issues of international debt, backed by one of the strongest economies this country has ever known. Specifically on non-heavily indebted poor countries and middle-income countries, will the Chancellor tell us what progress we are making, particularly in the light of G8 involvement? Finally, on falling commodity prices, drought and other issues, is the Chancellor satisfied that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund operate with criteria that are appropriate to reaching the millennium goals that he mentioned?

My right hon. Friend has taken a longterm interest in these matters and has led the campaign for debt relief in his own area. On debt relief, $1 billion was pledged at the last G7 summit in Canada, and that money has now been put into the World Bank trust fund. After a submission by finance Ministers at the G8 Evian summit, it was recognised that more needed to be done for countries at the point of completion. Twenty-six countries are in the debt relief process; eight have completed, but they need additional money to deal with the changes that have taken place, particularly in commodity prices, since the debt relief package was agreed. We have been asked by the Heads of Government to examine how best to improve the system so that those countries can receive the benefit of debt relief, freeing up resources for education and health rather than having to spend them on repaying debt. I am confident that the £62 billion of debt relief that we are achieving now will be increased as a result of the proposals.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need a new finance facility so that we can move forward with anti-poverty programmes to meet the millennium development goals. I believe that that issue unites the whole House and I hope that, together with other countries, we can make further progress over the next few months.

I thank the Chancellor for the international leadership that he gives on this issue. What progress is being made, specifically, to encourage other countries to sign up to the Government's proposal for the international finance facility?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking an interest in the issue and leading on it in her constituency. I am pleased to say that the G8 communiqué from Evian mentioned the international finance facility. The Finance Ministers have been asked to produce a report on the issue. The timescale is short, because we have to do it by September. It is recognised that there is a shortfall in funding to meet the millennium development goals and to maximise the opportunity given by the Monterrey agreements, in which the US and Europe agreed to pay more money. We can build on that with a finance facility that uses funds from the private sector. We are confident that our September report will be the next stage in persuading countries round the world that that is the way forward. We have also had support from African countries and many other countries that are not part of the G7.

In setting ourselves ambitious targets for achieving the millennium development goals, how confident is my right hon. Friend that all the industrialised countries will make available the resources necessary to meet the challenge? What encouragement can he give those organisations led by Christian Aid which are organising rallies at the end of this month and are campaigning for trade rules to be weighted in favour of poor people?

My hon. Friend has played a major part in the campaign on that issue in Wales, and I also applaud the work of Christian Aid, whose campaign week has just finished. During its last campaign, my mother sent me a postcard at the Treasury demanding that I took action and spent more money, so it was obviously a successful and broad-based campaign. The millennium development goals cannot be achieved without the additional finance, but I believe that we will win wider support for it. I applaud the Opposition Front Benchers, the Liberal Democrats and other parties, because it is important that we have all-party support as we take the initiative round the world.

The Chancellor will be aware of the role of private investment in stimulating economic activity in the indebted nations as a way of relieving their plight. To that end, will he consider developing a tax credit mechanism that would encourage private sector investment in the poorest countries, to help to offset the risks of investing in them but to encourage that beneficial activity?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who takes an interest in the matter as a former Treasury Minister. He may know that we have introduced a tax credit for pharmaceutical companies, which they can use in developing countries and set against tax in Britain. That started at the beginning of April and I hope it will yield results. I will also look at the proposals that the right hon. Gentleman has made for other private sector companies. If only 1 per cent. of private investment round the world is in Africa, the chance for that continent to move forward is limited. Therefore, we must stimulate far more private investment. The right hon. Gentleman will welcome the International Monetary Fund initiatives to set up centres to advise countries about obtaining such investment, and I was talking to a group of American business men yesterday about those issues. If the right hon. Gentleman sends me his specific proposals, I shall look at them.

Given that we hand over nearly £1 billion a year to the EU overseas aid package, and given that the majority of that money is spent on political purposes—as evidenced by the fact that Poland receives twice as much aid as Latin America and Asia combined—does the Chancellor agree that that money could be so much better spent on tackling world poverty if it was redirected to where it was most desperately needed?

That is a European issue on which we can agree. There is a need for major reform in the operation of the European aid budget and the European development fund. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to learn that the European development fund provided money when debt relief was provided, and that was a useful initiative on its part. As for the global health fund, the US Government have made a contribution of $3 billion and it is proposed that the European development fund make a similar contribution. I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely, because only 38 per cent. of money from the fund goes to the poorest countries and, therefore, to tackle poverty. That is not acceptable and that is why I hope he will support proposals that the Department for International Development and the Treasury have already put forward to reform that aid budget. I believe that we will win support from other countries in Europe which understand clearly that our responsibilities to the poorest countries of the world must mean that we get the best out of the European aid budget, so that it tackles poverty, illiteracy and disease.

Does the Chancellor agree that current events in Zimbabwe underline the fact that much third-world debt has been caused by the profligate attitudes and policies of dictators, which also deter people from investing in southern Africa? Does he have a mechanism for ensuring that future aid, including the aid that Zimbabwe will need when it is free again, will be directed with proper regard for ensuring that it does not fall into the wrong hands?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. As he knows, Zimbabwe is not a HIPC country and does not receive money from that initiative. The hon. Gentleman is involved in all the parliamentary get-togethers in the Commonwealth that look at these issues, and so will know that the next stage is the African initiative, the New Partnership for Africa's Development. That has got to be made to work, but the conditionality built into NEPAD is that the money will be provided only if we can be absolutely sure that there is transparency in the way that it is handed out; that anti-corruption mechanisms are put in place; that there is a welcoming environment for the investment that is needed for the future; and that policies for economic stability are being pursued. Equally, we have a duty towards all the countries in Africa that are making efforts to put those conditions in place to provide money to relieve illiteracy, disease and poverty. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree with each other on those matters, as well as on Zimbabwe.

A number of hon. Members heard from Senegalese parliamentarians yesterday about their frustration at the debt process. They said that, if the previous HIPC process had worked, there should be no need to launch another decade of poverty relief. One of their main frustrations was that the African voice was not heard clearly enough. Would my right hon. Friend support giving African countries an extra seat on the boards of the IMF and the World Bank, and reallocating shares of votes according to population rather than according to the wealth of individual countries?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does a great deal of work on these matters. Her meetings with delegations from other countries are very important indeed. We have been trying to reform the operation of the IMF, whose committee I chair. More resources have been made available for the African countries. South Africa's Finance Minister, the chairman of the development committee, has been invited to sit on the IMF committee, thus securing greater representation of the African voice. In respect of the international finance facility, we have made a point of sending representatives to explain to Finance Ministers in countries around Africa what we are doing. I appreciate what my hon. Friend says about ensuring that the voice of Africa is heard properly. The whole point of the NEPAD initiative is to establish a partnership in which the voices of the developed and the developing countries can come together.

Financial Flows (Eu)

4.

If the Treasury will conduct an analysis identifying the (a) direct and (b) indirect financial flows in and out of the United Kingdom arising from EU membership; and if he will make a statement. [118660]

The UK conducts the majority of its trade—50 per cent.—with the EU. It also receives 55 per cent. of its inward foreign direct investment from the EU, and invests 40 per cent. of its outward foreign direct investment there. In addition, 61 per cent. of the UK's inward mergers and acquisitions activity, and 54 per cent. of its outward mergers and acquisition activity, are also with the EU.

I am grateful for that answer, but it does not cover indirect fund flows from and into the UK. In a recent parliamentary answer, the Foreign Office confirmed that no such analysis, including of indirect fund flows, has been undertaken since around 1992. Will the Chancellor ensure that such an analysis is now made? Is he aware that a recent analysis by the US Treasury suggested that the net cost to the UK of EU membership was of the order of $40 billion a year—almost equivalent to a doubling of the state pension. Clearly, that finding cannot be true. No Opposition Member believes that there can be any question of withdrawal from the EU, but it is not about time that our own Treasury conducted an analysis of indirect and direct costs, so that we can know how much we benefit from the EU?

I have looked at the American authorities' analysis and I shall do so in more detail now that the hon. Gentleman has drawn my attention to it again. He says that no analysis has been conducted since 1992. He might have been more successful in persuading the previous Government to conduct it between 1992 and 1997.

The hon. Gentleman really cannot tell us that he does not want to take Britain out of the European Union. I shall read from his article in The Birmingham Post. He wrote:
"I believe that 20 or 30 years from now, far from debating the euro, we might well be out of the European Union altogether and into something far more prosperous and constructive."

If my right hon. Friend performs that analysis, will he be sure to track how much inward investment we have received, especially in manufacturing, since we became been a member of the EU? Most of the figures I have seen show the beneficial effects of membership in terms of jobs, investment and productivity.

My hon. Friend chairs the Select Committee on Education and Skills and throughout his parliamentary career has taken an interest in all matters industrial, so he knows that since 1972, when 40 per cent. of our trade was with the EU, the figure has risen to 55 per cent. It was on that basis that the figure of 3 million jobs was first used, if I remember aright, by the Confederation of British Industry about 10 years ago, and has been updated ever since. It would be difficult for any Member to deny that there has been increased trade within the EU as a result of what has happened over the past 30 years or that that is very important to the future of every region of our country. My hon. Friend is right to remind people that those who want to take us out of the European Union are making a terrible mistake.

Unlike the Chancellor, who was elected to the House on a pledge to leave the European Community, I have always been, and remain, an unwavering supporter of British membership, so I should welcome a study of the kind advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). Such a study would show that, over recent years, it has been to the benefit of this country to be a member of the EC but that as the Chancellor has shown recently, it would have been to our disadvantage to have been in the euro. Will the Chancellor confirm that there can be benefits from being in Europe yet outside the euro?

I have just said that we would have been wrong to take the advice of the Liberal party and to join the euro in 1999. When the Liberals look at our detailed studies, they will see that their 1999 proposal was wrong. Equally, however, we would be wrong to rule out membership of the euro entirely. The Conservative party is making a historic mistake. The Conservatives have turned their back on their previous position—to review membership during a Parliament and then to leave it for two Parliaments—and they are now against it altogether. I am afraid that they are in danger of moving from being not just against the euro but against Europe altogether, although I accept that the right hon. Gentleman is not.

Tax Credits

5.

What estimate he has made of the impact of the new tax credits on low-income families in Warrington, North; and if he will make a statement. [118661]

Six million families are expected to benefit from the new tax credits, including 250,000 low-income working families without children.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand families in northwest England are expected to receive the child tax credit, and 210,000 families in the region are expected to receive the working tax credit, including some who are also expected to receive the child tax credit.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she agree that, despite some of the difficulties of implementation, the new system of tax credits will provide a major boost to the incomes of many families in constituencies such as mine? However, the problems that my office is picking up result mainly from people filling in the forms wrongly or from changes in circumstances that they have notified since completing the original form. Will my right hon. Friend look into the application process for tax credits and, if possible, simplify it, and will she also consider how we can deal more quickly with changes in circumstances, so that families are not left in the lurch?

My hon. Friend is right about the benefits to families from the new tax credits; millions and millions of families have applied.

On moving to the new system, we required information to establish the claim and looked for clear ways to show simple things on the application form—name, address, national insurance number, work details, pay and number of children and their age. It was important to get all those details into the system.

Next year, the renewal of claims for those already in the system will be much simpler and the forms will be much shorter. Despite the fact that the new tax credit forms are half the size of those for the working families tax credit—its predecessor—and notwithstanding the extensive testing that we did on the original form, I agree that it would be wise to consider whether further improvements could be made.

Many people in Warrington, North—indeed, in the whole north-west—would be interested in the Paymaster General's answer. On 28 April, she promised the House that

"anyone who has made a complete application and has yet to receive money will do so by the end of this week".—[Official Report, 28 April 2003; Vol. 404, c. 54.]
Obviously that would include people from Warrington, North. That week ended on 2 May, yet, one month later on 4 June, the Government's own figures showed that, in fact, 750,000 eligible claimants across the country had yet to be paid. Why did the Paymaster General break her promise? Given what this shambles has cost people in bank charges and interest payments, will she now apologise to the many families affected and compensate all those who are out of pocket?

I appreciate that figures are challenging for the hon. Gentleman, but, to return the statement that I made on 28 April and the number of claims that we had received by that date, I told the House that those claims would be either processed into payment or claimants would be contacted where issues were still outstanding. Every day, because of the popularity of this policy, thousands of forms arrive, and the position that I stated on 28 April remains the case. It is important to check applications with outstanding queries, because I am sure the House would not wish us to pay public money to those who may not be entitled to it, but every claim received by that date is in payment or the claimant has been contacted by the Revenue to ensure that the claim is correct.

Vat (Tourism Services)

6.

When he last met representatives of the tourism industry to discuss value added tax rates applicable to tourism services; and if he will make a statement. [118662]

There have been no recent discussions on that specific subject, but whenever we receive representations on tax matters we consider them carefully.

The Minister is right: the Government probably consider such representations carefully, but they do not do very much in this sector. May I remind the House that hotel accommodation in the United Kingdom is very expensive in comparison with other European countries? For example, France has a 5.5 per cent. VAT rate; Spain, 7 per cent.; and Ireland, 12.5 per cent. Would it not be a boost for the tourism industry, which is a very large employer in the UK, to look again at the VAT rate?

It might not offer the boost that the hon. Gentleman imagines, and let me explain why. We have the highest VAT registration threshold anywhere in the European Union, so half the hotels in this country do not fall within the system and therefore do not charge VAT. The type of measure that he proposes would cost the Exchequer about £650 million, most of which would benefit the major hotel chains and luxury city hotels. So the blunt measure that he proposes may not have the effect that he would wish.

My hon. Friend may not be aware that tourism is one sector that we are trying to develop in north Staffordshire, precisely because of the difficulties in our manufacturing industry and the urgent need for regeneration, so I welcome the Chancellor's Budget commitment to regionalism, but may I ask all my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench whether—as well as supporting our diversification efforts, including tourism—they would be receptive to a bid from north Staffordshire for Government agency jobs that will relocate from London and the prosperous south-east in future?

I welcome the efforts that my hon. Friend and those with whom he is involved in north Staffordshire are making to promote tourism. I know how beautiful the area is, and there must be a lot of potential to develop. On the specific point that he makes, the movement of civil service jobs out into the regions of England is being considered at the moment, and we will report on any plan in due course.

Will the Economic Secretary clarify the legal situation, bearing in mind our EU obligations? Do the Government, in this Parliament, have the right to abolish VAT on tourism services, for example, or to move the rate from the higher band to the lower band? What freedom of action is available to the Government?

VAT in this country is governed by European rules. We have long-standing formal agreements with other European states that we cannot introduce new zero rates or extend or introduce new ones, to which the hon. Gentleman refers. In relation to reduced rates and tourism, the Government considered the matter in 1998. No persuasive economic case existed for moving, as I have indicated, and there was not a strong fiscal case for doing so either. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that little has changed since then.

Pensioner Incomes

7.

What the average income of pensioners was in 2002–03. [118663]

The latest information available is for 2000–01. In that year, pensioner couples had an average income of £301 per week, and single pensioners had an average income of £160 per week.

Does the Chief Secretary accept that the highway robbery of £5 billion a year from pension funds through advance corporation tax by the Chancellor and his partner in crime, the Prime Minister, is a major cause of the devastating failure of final salary pension schemes?

No, that analysis is as misleading as it is inaccurate. The truth is that ACT was part of a wider package that involved reductions in corporation tax—long overdue reforms addressing a distortion that was not promoting investment in the British economy, which ought to be widely welcomed on both sides of the House.

When calculating pensioners' income, does my right hon. Friend set aside expenditure that pensioners incurred previously but no longer have to incur—in particular, expenditure on eye tests, bus travel and, for older pensioners, television licences? Is not the true income of pensioners even greater when that is taken into consideration, showing that pensioners are much better off under this Government than they were under the Conservative Government?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. He might have added to it the reduction in VAT on fuel, concessionary travel for pensioners and the introduction of a 10p starting rate of tax, all of which have benefited pensioners. All of those are things that we have done, and that Conservative Members failed consistently to do during the years in which they had stewardship of the economy.

On the issue of pensioner incomes, does the Chief Secretary recall reading recently about the agreement between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister a number of years ago to sign up to something called a fairness agenda? Under what part of the fairness agenda should the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who earns about £140,000 per year, pay the same council tax as many poor pensioners on far lower incomes?

The hon. Gentleman's point fails to address the real benefits that have accrued to pensioners. The reality is that the fairness to pensioners comes from an average increase for the poorest third of pensioner households of £1,600 a year in real terms, amounting to more than £30 a week, from October 2003. That is the real fairness for pensioners. With the minimum income guarantee, and with 400,000 fewer pensioners living in relative low-income households than in 1996–97, pensioners are really benefiting from the measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Will my right hon. Friend accept congratulations from many pensioners who live in Wallasey and elsewhere on the magnificent record in ending pensioner poverty, with the introduction of the minimum income guarantee, and in dealing with the terrible legacy of pensioner poverty left by the previous Government? Will he also look forward to the introduction of the pension credit, which will build on that, in October?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I want to pay tribute to the contribution that she made as a Minister in the Department of Social Security, as it then was, to alleviating pensioner poverty. The reality is that, as a result of the pension credit, we are currently spending £9.2 billion extra in real terms on pensioners, which will be £5.7 billion more in 2004–05 than if the basic state pension had been linked to earnings since 1998. Those are real benefits in tackling pensioner poverty.

Private Finance Initiative

8.

What the current total is of PFI debt guaranteed by the Treasury; and what the mechanism is for reflecting this in the national accounts. [118664]

PFI debt is not normally guaranteed by the Treasury. A letter of comfort has, however, been issued in relation to the debt issued by London Underground. A guarantee is in place in relation to the bonds issued for the public-private partnership development of the channel tunnel rail ink. Contingent liabilities for both have been laid before the House.

Many people will be surprised that the total PFI figure is not larger, but is that not because the Government exclude from their PFI calculations the debt of Network Rail and London Underground? Can the Chief Secretary tell the House what the total PFI figure would be if it included the debt of Network Rail, as the National Audit Office says it should?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman exactly: £28.9 billion. All our PFI deals are subject to audit by the NAO or the appropriate audit body. The rules for accounting for PFI are drawn up by the independent Accounting Standards Board, not by the Government. We have a record of transparency and accountability that far exceeds the record of the previous Administration.

Will the Chief Secretary confirm that total Government PFI liabilities have risen some 17 per cent. to £109 billion, and that those gross liabilities, payable over 25 years, are now equivalent to 12.5 per cent. of GDP or, if discounted at 5 per cent.—a high level in today's interest rate environment to 9 per cent. of GDP? On the figures that he has just given, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if one adds to those the liabilities guaranteed by the Strategic Rail Authority, the figure is 15.5 per cent. of GDP, or 12 per cent. of GDP, which the Government have off balance sheet, resulting from PFI and PPP liabilities? [Interruption.] The Chancellor, who is chattering to himself, has not commented that no other EU country has off balance sheet PFI or PPP liabilities of that size. Do the Government propose to harmonise or reduce their PFI liabilities as part of their convergence agenda?

The hon. Gentleman made rather a mess of that one. He makes precisely the opposite point from that made by his hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). The figures are as I gave them to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle. The rules that we use to account for PFI are no different from the accounting treatment used by the previous Government. If anything, the accounting standards have become stricter since 1997 because of our adoption of FRS 5. The only figure that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) need bear in mind is the 20 per cent. cut in public services—which are currently being improved by PFI—that would be imposed were he ever to gain the stewardship of our economy.

Biofuel Duty

9.

If he will make a statement on the level of duty on biofuels. [118668]

In his Budget statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that, from 1 January 2005, we would introduce a duty incentive for bioethanol, set at 20p per litre below the rate for sulphur-free petrol. Biodiesel already benefits from a duty incentive of 20p per litre below the rate for ultra-low sulphur diesel.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's continuing interest in the matter. Has he had an opportunity to read the recently published Sheffield Hallam university report, which concludes that the rate of carbon dioxide reduction is greater than previously thought? Given the clear environmental gains and the new biofuels directive that is coming, will he and his colleagues re-examine the rate of duty in time for the next Budget?

I am indeed aware of a Sheffield Hallam university study. It was designed to give us better evidence to make such judgments in future. For the moment, we judge the duty rates that we have set to be appropriate to reflect both the potential environmental benefits of biofuels and what is affordable and good value for public money to achieve those environmental gains.

Over the years, the Chancellor has consistently advocated in his Budgets the role of the Treasury in promoting good environmental practice and given us lectures on joined-up government. Is there not an inconsistency between the policy of rebates for biofuels that the Minister has just announced and the determination of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the crops cannot be grown on land set aside and otherwise wasted?

Although we are conscious of the potential of the duty rate cuts for farming and non-food crops and support diversification across government in other ways, the incentives for biofuels are not targeted at supporting farmers or subsidising agricultural production. I offer the hon. Gentleman a word of caution: if we introduce these biofuel duty discounts too fast or they are too large, we will increase the incentive to import biofuels, decrease the prospects of our own UK-based production industry growing and increase the risk that farmers in countries other than our own will benefit.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, despite all he has said, changes are taking place with regard to the widening of the European Union and the common agricultural policy, and will he assure me that we will keep the policy in mind so that we can make it possible for people to continue to grow biofuels in a sensible way?

As with all taxation, we monitor the issue very carefully and we are prepared to review the appropriate rate, particularly if new evidence and analyses are presented to us.

Tax Credits

11.

If he will make a statement on the administration of tax credits. [118670]

I can confirm that tax credits are now being paid to 3.8 million families, in addition to the 1.3 million families with children on income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance who are receiving the increased levels of support now through their benefits. The Inland Revenue is deciding more than 100,000 cases a week on average. All the claims that are yet to be decided are incomplete or require further checks to verify information, or involve applications that have arrived at the Department in the past few weeks.

Will the Paymaster General ensure that those of my constituents who have incurred bank overdraft charges and mortgage interest penalties purely as a result of the non-arrival of tax credits on the dates when the Treasury was due to pay them are compensated? Given that she has made allegations that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said on the Floor of the House that he would scrap tax credits, will she give me the Hansard reference? She will no doubt be aware that, although the Opposition have considerable criticisms of the complexity and implementation of tax credits, we have at no point said that we would scrap them.

Clearly, it is difficult to comment on the specific cases that the hon. Gentleman raised with regard to compensation without all the details—something that we would not do on the Floor of the House. Each case will turn on its own facts, but the most important thing is to ensure, as he is encouraging me to, that families get the service to which they are entitled. Where the Inland Revenue was unable to deliver the level of service that might have been expected, I will certainly consider what action, if any, may be appropriate. With regard to the second question, I regret that I did not hear—

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many of my constituents work on the tax credits helpline. Will she take this opportunity to thank them for the very hard work that they have put in to deliver this very important new tax credit? Will she also acknowledge that many of those staff throughout the country need continuing support? They need support from their management and appropriate training, and access to the computer systems to get the information that they need to answer the questions asked by the people who are ringing them up.

I am more than happy to congratulate on the Floor of the House the staff of the Inland Revenue, who have worked so splendidly to ensure the delivery of the new tax credits, at times under extreme pressure, with which we are all familiar.

Families are desperate to get the money that they can see the Government are now prepared to pay to them through the new tax credits; many of them are getting it for the first time. My hon. Friend is right that the Department needs to ensure that it provides proper training—which it has done—and updates training to give support to those who are in the front line, both in the contact centres and the Inland Revenue inquiry centres, and who see members of the public face to face. That work will continue.

Business Of The House

12.30 pm

May I ask the present Leader of the House if he will please give us the business for next week? [Laughter.]

Very good.

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 16 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Licensing Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 17 JUNE—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on "A fair deal on tuition fees", followed by a debate on "A fair deal for community pharmacies". Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

WEDNESDAY 18 JUNE—Debate on "European Affairs" on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 19 JUNE—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day]. Subject to the approval of the House, there will be a debate on the conduct of investigations into past cases of abuse in children's homes, followed by a debate on the future of waste management. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

FRIDAY 20 JUNE—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 23 JUNE—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced. Followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No 2) Bill.

TUESDAY 24 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill.

WEDNESDAY 25 JUNE—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 26 JUNE—Motion to approve the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life "Standards of Conduct in the House of Commons".

FRIDAY 27 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. Can he tell us yet whether he will be with us next Thursday? We should all like to know that, given his well-known enthusiasm for his present job, not least his chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee.

Is the Leader aware of early-day motions 1401,
[That this House deplores the fact that the Labour honourable Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Falmouth and Cambourne, Erith and Thamesmead, West Bromwich West, West Ham, Rother Valley, Leeds West, Aberdeen South, Bootle, Kingswood, Leeds North West, Sheffield Attercliffe, Waveney, Birmingham Northfield, Cambridge, Blyth Valley, Wimbledon, Gower, Morley and Rothwell, Barnsley West and Penistone, Peterborough, Cynon Valley, Putney, Islington North, Tooting, Dagenham, Keighley, CoventrySouth, Workington, Crosby, Linlithgow, Bristol West, Caerphilly, Llanelli, Lancaster and Wyre, Burton, Gloucester, Cunninghame South, Stroud, Monmouth, Liverpool Riverside, Sunderland North, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Birkenhead, Newport West, Stevenage, Aberavon, Ilford South, Bridgend, Midlothian, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, Newcastle Upon Tyne North, Jarrow, Wirral West, Knowsley North and Sefton East, Doncaster North, Blackpool North and Fleetwood, Barnsley Central, Ogmore, Tamworth, Stafford, Liverpool Walton, Rugby and Kenilworth, South Dorset, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Edinburgh North and Leith, Brighton Pavilion, Manchester Central, Wrexham, Dundee East, Western Isles, Birmingham Perry Barr, Amber Valley, Blackpool South, Medway, Glasgow Shettleston, Calder Valley, Hayes and Harlington, Glasgow Maryhill, Kingston upon Hull North, and Blaydon voted against the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition on post office card accounts on 11th June, despite having supported the same motion when it was tabled by the honourable Member for Ochil as Early Day Motion 572; notes that had those honourable members voted for the motion then it would have been carried; calls on them to explain why they voted against a motion designed to protect the interests of vulnerable pensioners and benefit recipients and to save post offices; and condemns the Government for its dismissal of a motion which, as an Early Day Motion, secured the support of a clear majority of honourable Members of the House.]
and 1403?

Those early-day motions should be entitled "Dodgy, Devious Labour MPs", because they arise from the rather disgraceful episode in which a large number of Labour Members rushed to sign an early-day motion, then, when the Opposition tabled a motion with the same wording, voted against it. How are they going to explain that to their constituents, Mr. Speaker? Perhaps you should give them another opportunity next week to explain how they can first sign an early-day motion, then effectively vote against the same motion. Does the Leader of the House deprecate that behaviour, will he do anything to discourage it, and how will he explain it to the Members' constituents?

Can we have a debate next week on the details and the consequences of the Chancellor's statement on the euro? It contained some intriguing and tantalising references, including:

"interim reports on the step changes we need in the planning and supply of housing and on the market for long-term fixed-rate mortgages."
It would be helpful to our constituents to know what the Chancellor had in mind on the supply of housing.

Those few Labour Members left who are sponsored by trade unions must be interested in an urgent debate on the Chancellor's statement that
"almost all pay remits for public sector bodies will include a regional or local pay dimension."
I am sure that many Labour Members would want to participate in that debate to give the Chancellor a piece of their mind on the subject and act as legitimate spokesmen for their trade union sponsors.

We should also explore the Chancellor's statement that
"we will seek reform of the European Central Bank."
How will the Chancellor explain himself if he gets no such reform? He made the typically bumptious assertion that,
"we will continue to pursue successfully our objective of tax competition and reject tax harmonisation in Europe."—[Official Report, 9 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 414.]
We wish him well with that, but I admire his overconfidence. It is important to give maximum time in the House next week to explore further the references in the Chancellor's statement. I am sure That he has worried many people about their housing, mortgages, pay and many other matters that he tells us are essential to get us in the right shape, as he perceives it, for a referendum on the euro.

What is the status of the mental health Bill? It was published in draft more than a year ago and there were more than 2,000 responses to it. Most were from people who were anxious about its content. It has been suggested that there will be pre-legislative scrutiny of the measure. Will it be on the original Bill or the amended version after the earlier consultation? Can the Leader of the House guarantee adequate time not only to conduct the pre-legislative scrutiny, but between the end of that process and laying the Bill before the House?

The Leader of the House and his predecessor placed much stress on pre-legislative scrutiny and we want it to work properly and well. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can give us an absolute guarantee that, on a Bill as important and, so far, controversial as the mental health Bill, the process will be conducted properly, do justice to the measure and reassure those who take a close interest in it that Parliament will do a proper job on their behalf.

We have not yet made a decision on the mental health Bill. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman said and we shall, of course, attempt to give as much time as possible to scrutiny of what is an important issue. I shall come back to him as soon as possible on that point.

The right hon. Gentleman made speculative comments on the events of the day, about which most people have already been proved wrong. I shall not attempt to second-guess my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I merely say that, in my short time in the post, I have grown to love not only the job but Opposition Front-Bench Members. I look forward to being here for a long time, in the full knowledge that, as Professor Stephen Hawking reminds us, time is relative.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the early-day motion on Post Office accounts. The Government have been trying to give not only time but maximum flexibility while modernising Post Office accounts and services to consumers. The right hon. Gentleman referred to another failed Conservative initiative to try to embarrass the Government. He gets upset when others will not join in. I shall not deprecate any hon. Friends who are consistently loyal to the Government on all issues.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the euro. That is important, as is Europe. Clear dividing lines are forming, and he can rest assured that we want to allow as much time as possible for people to discern the difference between the approach to Europe of the Labour party and that of the Conservative party. I do not believe that any Labour Member could quite match some of the views that have been expressed in the Conservative party. As one hon. Member has said, there are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted, and they need to be represented. [Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman recognises his own phrase on this matter. I do not think that the anti-foreign, anti-EU attitudes of people on the Labour Benches, however critical they might be, come anywhere near the xenophobia displayed on the Conservative Benches.

Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman—rather like another charge of the Light Brigade—apparently seeks yet another debate on European matters. We look forward to every such occasion, and there will be one next Wednesday. I hope that it will be only the first during which we can discuss European affairs, the euro and the contrast between the Government's rather pragmatic approach of putting Britain's economic interest at the centre of our considerations, and the dogmatic approach that says, "Never, whatever the advantages to Britain", or the Liberal Democrat position of saying, "Yes, tomorrow, whatever the disadvantages." I believe that the British people prefer a flexible, thought-through approach to a dogmatic approach, on either side.

Assuming that the right hon. Gentleman is not about to become Secretary of State for Health or Defence, or even Lord Chancellor, may I ask him to reflect for a few minutes on his role in the House and to make a statement on that matter as early as possible? Will he give urgent thought to the primary responsibility that his title and job description confer? It is not a responsibility to the Government, to the Cabinet or even—dare I say this today?—to the Prime Minister; it is to the House.

Will the Leader of the House look into two matters of current concern? First, is it not extraordinary that the Prime Minister can dramatically change the geography—the structural architecture, if you like—of Whitehall without any reference to the House at all? We find major Departments of state changing their responsibilities with major implications for the way in which we can hold such Departments to account. Would it not be right for the appropriate Select Committee to have before it any new Secretary of State as soon as they were appointed, so that it could investigate whether its remit and objectives had changed? Is it not critical for the work of the House, of which the right hon. Gentleman is the representative, that we should be able to hold to account the Departments of state?

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) yesterday, the Prime Minister said that "convention" and precedent dictated that he and Alastair Campbell could not come before a Committee of the House to explain what information had been given to the House on the war with Iraq. In the very same breath, however, the Prime Minister said that he had broken with precedent—quite creditably; I think we all welcome this fact—to come before the Liaison Committee. When is a precedent not a precedent for this Government? Why are this modernising Government not prepared to dispose of a precedent when it is in the interest of good government and accountability in the House to do so? Before he perhaps moves to pastures new, will the Leader of the House give some thought to these matters and give us a statement?

Yes, indeed. I reflect on them constantly. The first time I came to the Dispatch Box in this capacity, I tried to give the House a rough rule of thumb as to what I thought was the role of the Leader of the House. It was partly to be the Government's man in the House, because I am a Cabinet Minister, but also to be the House's man in the Government and to try to protect the rights of Parliament as a whole, irrespective of party, in terms of its balance and its scrutiny of the Executive.

The hon. Gentleman raised two specific points. The first related to the role of the Prime Minister in the restructuring of government. Everyone in the House, whatever their views on any particular piece of restructuring, would accept that the Prime Minister, as leader of the Executive of the country, has a grave responsibility to ensure the efficient conduct of Government business and of the Executive. In doing that, he has a role from which he cannot withdraw.

Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman's second point was that the Prime Minister had been prepared, in a quite unprecedented fashion, to introduce efforts on the part of the leader of this country, the Prime Minister, to explain and to be accountable to the House. Specifically. I am thinking of issues such as the introduction of debates on Iraq and the war, and his attendance before the Liaison Committee. That, of course, is complemented by his efforts to make himself even more scrutinised and accountable outside the House through the on-the-record Lobby briefings that he has done, sometimes for an hour or two hours. The one thing that cannot be said of the Prime Minister is that he has been reluctant to hold himself up for scrutiny and accountability.

I do not have much to add on the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee, except that the Prime Minister has obviously already appeared before the Intelligence and Security Committee. I am sure that the more these matters are looked into, the more it will be seen that the allegation that there was some form of deceit involved here is completely and utterly untrue. I suppose that I had better answer the question, "When is a precedent not a precedent?" When it is done for the second time.

As my right hon. Friend did not mention it in his statement of the business for the next two weeks, will he now give me a categorical assurance that the remaining stages of the Hunting Bill will be taken before the summer recess? Will he accept it from me that those of us who have gone into the Lobby to support the Government on contentious issues that were not in the Labour party election manifesto will not accept a Government failure to complete fulfilment of this manifesto commitment?

Obviously, I pay great attention to what my right hon. Friend says, as I did yesterday, incidentally, when he raised the matter in another forum. Today, I have announced the detailed and specific business for the next two weeks. I cannot give a guarantee on detailed and specific business beyond that, but I can assure him that the points he has raised are not ones that I or others in the Government have missed.

At the time of independence for Zimbabwe, a clear pledge was given in the constitution of that country that public service pensions would be honoured. Many Members have constituents who are Zimbabwe public service pensioners. They have been put in a position of extreme difficulty, because the Government of Zimbabwe have suspended payment of those pensions. Can we have an urgent debate on the plight of those pensioners and, in particular, a Government response as to why we are continuing to pay international development funds to Zimbabwe when that country is depriving our constituents of their income?

I am aware of the general problem that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I do not know of the specific measures that have been taken on it. This matter is important not only to the potential beneficiaries of such payments, but as a general principle. I shall certainly see that it is brought to the attention of the relevant Minister.

Could it be that the night mail will no longer bring

"Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door."?
Given that the Strategic Rail Authority has a specific duty to promote the carriage of freight by rail, can the House have an early opportunity to debate Royal Mail's decision to switch from rail to road?

I have some sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend makes, largely because my father was a sorter—a PHG, or postman higher grade, to be precise. I take the view that some of those things would have been better left unchanged. Nevertheless, the Government have made the commitment that we will allow the Post Office maximum freedom for its operational business. While I regret that, we have to stand by the decision.

I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), because the Rhodesian police pension of my constituent, Reg Vincent, is now worth nothing. May I ask the Leader of the House to consider the recent visit of the Catholic Bishop of Bulawayo. Pius Ncube? When he visited the United States, he met Mr. Secretary Colin Powell; when he came to this country the other day, he was first stood up for a meeting by Baroness Amos and then ended up meeting Liz Lloyd from the No. 10 policy unit. Surely that says a lot about the Government's attitude to Zimbabwe.

I do not think there is a great deal of difference between the hon. Gentleman's and my views on some of what is going on in Zimbabwe. As for the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, I understand that it was discussed at some length during Foreign Office questions 48 hours ago, and I do not intend to cut across the answers given then.

Has my right hon. Friend been given notice of a statement to be made next week on a consultation document on domestic violence? When draft legislation is produced, will it be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee?

As the matter my hon. Friend has raised is still under discussion, I cannot specify a day next week. That in no way diminishes the importance of a subject which, as my hon. Friend knows, has been at the centre of a great deal of what the Government have done over the past few years. I am not in a position to reveal any detailed scrutiny plans that we have, but last year's modernisation plans committed us to increasing the number of Bills that are subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. I think there were four during the last Session, and that number will be increased considerably in the next Session.

The modernised sitting hours have effectively meant that on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays only London Members' constituents can arrive at the House in time for a tour before sittings begin. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will be concerned to know that tours to take place on Mondays, the only days on which the House does not sit in the morning, are now being booked six months ahead. Many Members appear to be taking advantage of their ability to book tours far in advance to secure bookings for constituents—particularly those from London, oddly enough. That means that many Members no longer have an opportunity to invite their constituents to visit the House.

First, will the Leader of the House investigate this? Secondly, will he consider applying the same sort of allocation scheme that is applied to tickets for Prime Minister's Question Time? Thirdly, will he come back to the House and allow us to revisit the whole issue?

I will act on the hon. Gentleman's first two requests. I am not aware of the details, but I will investigate the matter and, perhaps, write to the hon. Gentleman. As for his third, general point, I am well aware of the strong feelings that exist on all sides. I am also aware that when a change like this takes place it gives rise to a number of practical difficulties, in relation to Select Committees—some Committee Chairmen have brought those difficulties to my attention—and in relation to the visits mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. We should first consider whether the difficulties are insurmountable, or cannot be surmounted without considerable inconvenience. Then, after a reasonable amount of time—I do not think it can be done in the near future—we should establish whether, in view of the difficulties, the House has changed its mind.

My right hon. Friend may be aware of early-day motions 1296,

[That this House is deeply concerned by recent reports of the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi by the Burmese Military Junta in Rangoon; and calls on the Government to lead the international community in redoubling its efforts to stop the Burmese regime's human rights abuses, to do more to assist Burmese refugees and to seek the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi], 1311.

The motions, signed by 259 Members from all parts of the House and all parts of the United Kingdom, express concern about the taking into protective custody of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. I know that our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has invited the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign Office, and we in the all-party Burma group are trying to arrange a visit to the ambassador to express parliamentarians' concerns.

Given the atrocious record of the military junta in Burma, the extensive cultivation of drugs to raise finance and the continued presence of British companies such as BAT in Burma, will my right hon. Friend either arrange an emergency debate or arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on a matter that is of grave concern to many Members?

I agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments, which I will not repeat because he expressed them as eloquently as I could have done. We do condemn those grave offences. The Government are very sympathetic to early-day motion 1296; we fully support the call for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and condemn the continuing human rights abuses in Burma. We seek every opportunity to draw attention to those abuses, not least during foreign affairs debates and Foreign Office questions, which took place yesterday. My hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to raise the issue again today, and I will encourage others to do so on every possible occasion.

May we have an early debate about the House's role in the ill-fated Scottish Parliament Holyrood building project? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it was this House that signed the contract, it was this House that chose the wrong site, it was this House that commissioned the architect and chose the design, and it was this House that established an open-ended project with no cost-control management whatever. May we have a debate to find out why those decisions were made, and who is ultimately responsible for this shambles?

It had slipped my notice that it was all our fault. I suppose that as there are more English than Scottish Members present, we can blame them.

On any other occasion, the hon. Gentleman would be quite properly telling us to keep our nose out of the Scottish Parliament's affairs. The whole point of devolution is passing down the ability to make decisions, and I thought that the hon. Gentleman supported that. It seems that he supports it only when no one has to take any responsibility for their own actions. That is not in the Scottish national character: we face up to our own problems.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on housing? The euro support paper published on Monday proposes profound changes in the housing market, involving house price stabilisation—which will be welcome in my constituency—and interest rate stabilisation, which would mean that those who currently pay enormous sums in interest would not experience the massive increases and the misery that they suffered under the last Government.

That is an important issue. It would probably be appropriate to raise many aspects of it during a forthcoming Westminster Hall debate on affordable housing.

May I return the Leader of the House to a remark that he made about 10 days ago, to the effect that there was an element in the security services seeking to undermine the elected Government? Assuming that the remark was made in good faith, and assuming that there was evidence to support it, it is a very serious allegation. It amounts to saying that this elected Government were being suborned by unelected officials. That being so, may we have an early debate so that the right hon. Gentleman can tell the House what his evidence was and we can discuss what we should do about it?

I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not present for last week's business questions, when we dealt with this matter in some depth. I have nothing to add to what was said then, other than to correct, yet again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman's misapprehension, and the misrepresentation he is making, that I alleged that the security services were undermining the Government. What I alleged was that one or two individuals were undermining their own leadership and the intelligence and security services themselves. In other words, I was defending the security services against the calumnies that were being spread and the impugning of their own propriety with the suggestion that they were involved in acts of deception. I was on the side of the intelligence and security services; it was not the other way around.

Can my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on the activities of the militant tendency in the Church of England? He will know that it is currently campaigning to overturn the appointment, carried out duly and legitimately, of Canon Jeffrey John as the next Bishop of Reading.

I am afraid that my enforcement credentials do not extend to the theological sphere, but I note the point that my hon. Friend has made. I am informed that it is a serious point, not a trivial one. There are occasions on which matters relating to the Church of England can be raised here, and I hope that my hon. Friend will use those opportunities, but I know she will accept that it would not be propitious or proper for me to express a view on such matters.

I wonder whether the Leader of the House has taken on board your comments yesterday, Mr. Speaker:

"I would prefer it if. on Opposition Supply days, we do not have Government statements."—[Official Report, 11 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 701.]
Does the Leader of the House agree that the statement yesterday on pension funds was very important but that it was not time-sensitive and that it was wrong to have it on an Opposition Supply day? Can we have an assurance that, next week and in future weeks, when there will be more Opposition Supply days, except in extreme and emergency circumstances, no statements will eat into our time?

In general, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I ask him to accept that we try to do that. Yesterday, there was an important statement on pensions. Its importance was exhibited by the fact that the time was elongated by the participation of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Let explain and give some background. We were under pressure to make a second statement yesterday. I will not go into the details, but we were also under pressure informally from some Conservative Members to make a statement on the deployment of British forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I insisted, and my colleagues agreed, that we did not have a second statement, precisely for the reason that it was an Opposition day.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept in good faith that we do not do that intentionally. We try to avoid it wherever possible. Like anyone else, we can get things wrong. We must try to balance the proper demands from the Opposition for scrutiny of important decisions such as that on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the statement on which will be made today, and, at the same time, the Opposition's right to put forward their views in Opposition day debates.

In view of the tragic events unfolding in the middle east, where it appears that Hamas is successfully derailing the peace process, will the Leader of the House consider arranging an urgent debate on the activities of Hamas in this country, the activities of leading members of Hamas in the Muslim Association of Britain and the activities of Azam Tamimi? Will my right hon. Friend consider that in the light of the possibility that such people may be attempting to recruit British citizens to become suicide bombers in Israel and in Palestine, and in view of the fact that those same people have called the suicide bombers martyrs?

First, my hon. Friend represents the views of the whole House when she refers to the tragic loss of life in the middle east over the past 24 hours. It is a vicious circle of tragedy. It would be a double tragedy if we allowed those who wish to destroy the present peace initiative through such acts of terrorism to have their way. That leads me to the second point, which is on the activities in this country of people who are allegedly connected with terrorist organisations or encouraging terrorist activity. I will not make any specific comment on any specific case, but the Home Secretary, politicians as a whole and our intelligence services are very well aware of the need for co-ordinated appraisal of and intelligence on such matters. All hon. Members appreciate the need for that.

Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the Hunting Bill, over the next week or two, the Leader of House will be finalising the shape of next year's legislative programme. Against the background of the shambles this year, with unprecedented delays between the Committee stage and Report stage of Bills, with some Bills at short notice being zoned for carry-over, and with unprecedented programme motions curtailing discussion, will he urge restraint on his colleagues and ensure that next year's legislative programme is of a manageable size?

Working backwards, I hope that I can make the legislative programme of a manageable size. There is always a combination between the importance and priority of getting business through, giving it adequate scrutiny and managing it well. I hope that the level of difficulty we have had with a crowded programme has not been unprecedented. I dare say that the right hon. Gentleman can think of previous years under previous Governments when there were such difficulties; but we are bringing in new methods. Some of them are unprecedented, including carry-oven and pre-legislative scrutiny on such a scale. That brings difficulties. Part of my job is to make my life easier by making next year's programme manageable in size as well as content.

With the possible exception of you, Mr. Speaker, and my right hon. Friend, very few with influence in the House or indeed the senior circles of Government can proudly say that they have been through the university of industrial life. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to use his good offices to remind those in positions of power that people born with a screwdriver in their hand are of equal value to the country's prosperity, and that their views should be accurately reflected in the House and in the senior positions of our political structures? After all, many in our society have claimed to be under-represented and have subsequently been recognised. There is a general perception among the general public that the academics have taken over the asylum.

I admire the gusto with which my hon. Friend defends the position, which he has done for many years. I thought at the beginning of his remarks that a timely reshuffle bid was being made but, as he knows, I agree with him. I attempt to maintain that tradition, although devious and mischievous forces are at work even now, trying to pretend than I am posher than the Queen, if what I read in the Sunday Times last week is to be believed. That came as a surprise to me. I understand, although I should not reveal it, that it came as something of a surprise to her Gracious Majesty, too. I agree entirely with the points that my hon. Friend has made.

I advise the Leader of the House never to read the newspapers.

At a time when the national health service is building a new hospital in Lichfield that has fewer facilities than we currently enjoy, may I express my personal regret at the departure of the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) from his position as Secretary of State for Health? Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that he realised that structural change is needed in the NHS. May I ask that, at some time, a debate be held on foundation hospitals and their future?

On the last point, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be time for that and I look forward to it. I thank him for his comments. They are courteous and in character. I agree entirely. It was with deep regret that I found out that my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) decided to resign from Government. It is shocking in the short term, but I believe that in the long term it will be seen to be a correct judgment on his part. There are many reasons, had he given me them, that I would have argued ferociously against, but the choice of his family over his future career does not cause me to argue against him. I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Whatever difficulties remain, and there are great challenges in the health service, the fact that there are some 50,000 more nurses and 10,000 more doctors is testimony to the work that my right hon. Friend put into the health service. In the same gracious way as the hon. Gentleman thanked and paid tribute to my right hon. Friend, I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday on behalf of the whole House.

May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to the collapse of the Accident Group, a company that had its headquarters in my constituency and that employed and has now sacked 2,500 people nationwide? Inevitably, major issues arise from that. Employees were not paid. The claims of many people are still lodged with the company. There is uncertainty about where those claims stand. Many of the claimants are poor and seeking just compensation.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions to seize themselves of the urgency of this matter, so that we can have an early statement on the investigation into the company. I allege no fraud because I know of no evidence, but can we have a guarantee that, if the company went out of business because of a lack of activity by the directors, they will be brought to account?

I think we were all shocked by the scale and abruptness of the events to which my hon. Friend refers. There are provisions to make certain payments to ex-employees when businesses fail, and my understanding is that officials from the DTI have been in contact with the administrators to find out about the events surrounding their appointment on 30 May. I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

May I follow the reference by the shadow Leader of the House to a mental health Bill? The Leader of the House will be aware that for some time we have been seeking to amend the mental health regulations in Northern Ireland. Would it be possible for them to be subsumed into the main legislation? Will he discuss that with his colleagues, because some of us are concerned about the conditions and care of those with learning difficulties, and that needs to be looked at?

Obviously the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to give a definite yes today, but I undertake to discuss the matter with my colleagues.

On Saturday, thousands of Luton Town football club supporters crowded into the ground to express their extreme anger, which I share, at the secrecy surrounding the sale of the club and its future. I congratulate the fans on the unprecedented move of setting up a supporters trust. Can we have an early debate on the appalling lack of accountability and powers to ensure that football clubs, which are community assets, are protected from, variously, egos, asset strippers and dodgy dealers?

I know how passionately my hon. Friend feels about this, and it has happened in a number of areas, including that of the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). That is one of the reasons why the Government have set up Supporters Direct, which can help supporters in this situation. Perhaps the issue is an appropriate one for an Adjournment debate; I am sure that it would be of widespread interest. It only remains for me to wish Luton Town supporters and the club well for the future.

Is it possible for the Leader of the House to arrange for a debate on the process of call-out for reserve forces? I have a constituent who is a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, and has indeed fought for his country on two occasions, who is deeply concerned about the process of call-out for the Iraq conflict. Under section 54 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, the Secretary of State must satisfy himself that

"it appears to him that warlike operations are in preparation or progress".
My constituent believes that there should be a parliamentary debate on the issue, and I agree.

Continual discussions and debates on military call-up have been held on the Floor of the House, specifically in relation to Iraq, but there are further opportunities for them—indeed, the hon. Gentleman has such an opportunity almost immediately, because I noticed, marching in step towards us as I was speaking, almost in anticipation of his temerity in raising such a point, two colleagues from the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that if he raises the matter, they will deal with it in their usual delicate and emollient way.

This year sees the 15th anniversary of the P&O ferry strike in Dover, which resulted in 2,000 seafarers being sacked, simply for campaigning for safe work practices on the channel—something that would not happen under Labour's new reformed trade union law. Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 100 Members have subscribed to my early-day motion fighting for justice for those sacked workers, many of whom are still out of work and have been blackballed for all those years; and will he find time for a debate on this important subject?

I hear has my hon. Friend says, and I know that he has been a doughty fighter for working people on a whole range of issues. I cannot promise him a specific debate on the Floor of the House, but there is a whole range of opportunities to raise such important matters. The framework of legality within which trade unions now work has been considerably strengthened since this Government came to power. I am sure that my hon. Friend has the ingenuity to find ways of raising the matter on numerous occasions.

Further to the timely inquiries of my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), may I beseech the Leader of the House to find time next week for a debate on the desperate and deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe? Given the appalling effects of the land-grab policy, the grotesque denial of human rights, the severe financial losses that individual citizens have suffered and the fact, which is of great importance in this context, that we provide substantial international development assistance for worthy projects in Zimbabwe, does he agree that it is time that we had a debate to highlight the fact that President Mugabe—that murderous thug—is a pariah in the international community, and to underline the importance of his either mending his ways or walking the plank, in the interests of his own people?

Forceful and robust though the hon. Gentleman's words were, I think they will strike a chord with people throughout the House. The feelings and criticisms that he expressed are entirely legitimate. Of course I will draw them to the attention of colleagues in both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I cannot promise that there will be an immediate debate on that one subject, but there are regular opportunities to raise it on the Floor of the House. I know that, with his skills of advocacy, he will ensure that those ways are found.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that this is carers week. Does he agree that this is a good opportunity for us to acknowledge our debt to millions of carers throughout the country and to reflect on the long hours that they devote, for little or no pay, and often in addition to a full-time job, to caring for others? Is this not a good time to reflect on the support that they need and the help that we can give them in the wonderful work that they do?

I endorse that without hesitation. There are 6.5 million such people throughout the country, who, unheralded and unsung, do an immense amount of good work. My hon. Friend mentioned carers week, which is a national annual event run by Carers UK and other groups—Contact a Family, Crossroads and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. Its aim is to raise awareness of carers' contribution. It is doubtful whether we can ever reward them enough, but my hon. Friend will be aware that we have, for example, raised the carer premium in income-related benefits from just over £14 a week to more than £25 from April 2003. That shows the importance that the Government attach to the work of carers.

Now that the dust has settled on the right hon. Gentleman's comments last week about rogue elements in the security forces, will he be very kind and give a clear answer to the question that I asked him last week, which is, simply: have the security services launched an internal leak inquiry, what are its terms of reference, who is undertaking it, when is it expected to report, does he expect disciplinary action to ensue, and, most importantly, will he make the conclusions available to the House? A clear answer, please.

The hon. Gentleman got upset, as did one of his favourite columnists last week, because he did not think that I gave him a clear answer. He may not know this from experience, but the intelligence services do not always come along to the House with a report on everything that they are doing. Secondly, if they did, they would do it through either the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary, or the Ministry of Defence, depending on which intelligence service we are dealing with. Thirdly, I answered the point about the allegations earlier on. My criticism was of those who were claiming that, on the basis of their sources, which they claim—

I do not know who they are. The whole problem is anonymous, uncorroborated reports impugning our security services. I said last week and I say again that, when we get uncorroborated, anonymous and misrepresentative stories impugning our intelligence services, I hope that, the hon. Gentleman will be on my side of the fence attacking them, rather than constantly trying to make party political mischief.

Further to the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), I respect and understand the answer that my right hon. Friend gave: that Royal Mail's decision was of a commercial nature and that the Government cannot and should not get involved in it. However, Royal Mail has indicated that it may return to using rail freight at some point in the future. Unfortunately, EWS, the rail freight company responsible for delivering this service, has surrendered the train path needed to provide it. Can my right hon. Friend commit himself to having a debate in the House which the Secretary of State for Transport could attend, explaining what pressure he—or she—could exert on Network Rail to ensure that these train paths are reinstated if and when necessary?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to raise this issue either in an Adjournment debate or during Transport questions, which I believe will be held next week. I cannot respond in detail, other than to say that, in terms of an objective and making it a reality, the Government have had some success in transferring freight from road to rail. Anything that tends to shift it back would be deleterious not only for the Government but for the millions of motorists in this country who are trying to travel a little more freely on our roads.

I hope that the Leader of the House will take this opportunity to set the record straight in respect of Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions of a couple of days ago. It was Professor Welshman Ncube, the secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change, who was discussed, not Bishop Pious Ncumbe, who is the Bishop of Bulawayo. I hope that the Leader of the House will therefore look much more seriously into the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), and hold the debate on Zimbabwe that is so badly needed.

The answer to both points is yes. I will take this issue seriously, and I stand corrected if the hon. Gentleman feels that I have mistaken the subject under discussion; however, I think the general matter was fairly close to the point that was raised.

Does my right hon. Friend share my horror at figures released by the International Labour Organisation—on this, the world day against child labour—suggesting that 1.2 million children are being trafficked into labour across the world: in mines, in conflict zones as soldiers, and, indeed, into the sex trade? Does he agree with me that the House should take the opportunity to have an early debate on this subject?

I do agree that the protection and enhancement of children's lives is of the highest priority; indeed, I find it hard to think of any other subject that should be a greater priority for us. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are committed to helping to eliminate child labour, particularly in its worst forms, such as child slavery. The Department for International Development is supporting an entire range of programmes aimed at eliminating child labour in a number of countries. And international programmes are being assisted, such as UNICEF's work on the rehabilitation of child soldiers, and the ILO programme for the elimination of child labour. I thank my hon. Friend, on behalf of the whole House, for raising an issue that should not separate us in party terms.

In view of the current concern about and interest in European affairs, and of the immense concern that is being expressed about European Community directive 2000/68/EC, will the Leader of the House give consideration to a debate on subsidiarity? The directive states that by the end of 2003, every horse must have a passport. Although no photograph is required on these passports, the markings must be identified in English and in French, and the form must be completed in either red or black ink only.

The forms will cost between £20 and £30 per horse, and one can imagine the immense damage that that will do to riding schools in constituencies throughout the country. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate, so that we can bring greater public attention to this ridiculous measure, which is causing significant concern in the horsey community?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue—as the wider horsey community will undoubtedly do when they discover that he has done so. Not being a member of the horsey community, I am not familiar with the details, but I will try to acquaint myself with them. However, I take the point that we must always be careful that there is no unwarranted interference and unwelcome legislative intervention at a European level. That is why I was surprised to read certain comments on the Conservative website, which I bring to the hon. Gentleman's attention. The Conservatives' simplified alternative convention and treaty is being prepared by Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, MEP. The website also says that

"Timothy has put together his amendments and drawn on his discussions with colleagues in the European Parliament"—
Conservative ones, that is. Under article 1-19 of that alternative treaty is included the astounding opening sentence:
"The European Parliament shall, jointly with the Council, enact legislation".
I did not know that this was the Conservative party's policy until I read that. [Interruption.] To judge by the look on the hon. Gentleman's face, I suspect that he did not, either. However, the website does make interesting reading.

Has my right hon. Friend read early-day motion 1160, on legal professional privilege? It states:

[That this House is concerned that Government Ministers invariably seek to withhold legal advice received within their Department or from Treasury Counsel under the blanket of the provisions for legal professional privilege, even in instances where the drafted legislation or regulations are designed to protect the public from unfair treatment; believes that the ending of the use of legal professional privilege over measures intended to protect the public interest would facilitate the fuller understanding of the implications of legislative and regulatory proposals so that more relevant amendments could be tabled; and further believes that such an approach would be in keeping with the general intentions of the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the code of practice on access to Government information.]

Legal professional privilege is used by Government Departments to refuse to provide legal advice that they have received from Treasury counsel and others. That is done even when the legislation concerned involves protection of the public. Would it not be in keeping with data protection and freedom of information legislation, and the code of practice on access to Government information, for this advice to be made much more readily available?

May we have a debate on this matter, which would enable me to discuss a case that I have been dealing with for some time? The Department of Trade and Industry persistently refuses to give information on the non-use of the trading schemes exclusion regulations in respect of Chem-Dry, which imposed barriers in respect the operation of its franchisees. It is clear that the DTI should have taken action and prosecuted, and it is very important to my constituents that they be aware of the legal advice provided.

As my hon. Friend has illustrated, this is a very complex issue. However, my understanding is that once the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is in force, although correspondence covered by legal professional privilege will continue to be exempt, decisions on its disclosure will be covered by the public interest test and be subject to the jurisdiction of the Information Commissioner. So the issue is not as black and white as perhaps some commentators have led us to believe. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I am afraid that I cannot comment on the specifics of this case. I know that he is a dogged and determined pursuer of his constituency interests, and that he will continue to raise this case on every possible occasion.

A multi-million pound construction and engineering project in my constituency has just been completed. The main contractor was a European firm that submitted the lowest tender. It has gone, but many small businesses and sub-contractors in my constituency that supplied services and carried out work for this company have not been paid in recent months. May we have a debate on this issue in the House, and seek legislative change to give protection to all sub-contractors? In particular, we should consider this issue in terms of our responsibility when public money is being spent.

Obviously, I am not familiar with the details of this case, but I am sure that it is an important one. I know that, like my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), the hon. Gentleman assiduously follows his constituents' interests—and, indeed, the wider interests of Northern Ireland. If he would like to write to me, I shall try to pass the information on to my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, or to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Indeed, I shall do what I can in the coming days. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing everyone next week.

Democratic Republic Of The Congo

1.30 pm

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on a British contribution to a multinational force for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I advise the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is attending a NATO Defence Ministers' meeting in Brussels, which is why he is unable to present the statement today.

The House will be aware of the serious situation in the Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly in and around the town of Bunia. There has been a resurgence of fighting, particularly between Hema and Lendu militia, and tens of thousands of people have fled from their homes. Some are in refugee camps around Bunia; others are scattered in the surrounding countryside. There is a risk that renewed violence and disease could lead to many deaths.

The United Kingdom is wholly committed to supporting the United Nations peacekeeping effort in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Ituri province and elsewhere, good work has been done, but UN troops are faced with a new situation, which they do not have sufficient numbers to deal with. Recognising that, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan requested the creation of a multinational force to stabilise Bunia. UN Security Council resolution 1484, passed on 30 May, provides the mandate for the force, and on 5 June, the EU decided that the operation would be under European security and defence policy auspices.

As framework nation, France will provide the military commander and the majority of the force. Several EU member states and some non-EU nations are likely to contribute. We expect the Council of Ministers to agree today formally to launch the operation—the first EU-led operation outside Europe.

I can now tell the House how the UK intends to contribute to this EU-led force. We have offered to provide an engineer detachment and Hercules transport aircraft to help deploy the multinational force. The exact numbers of personnel needed will not be known until we have completed further detailed analysis of the engineering tasks required in Bunia. Bearing in mind the importance of co-ordination between the United Nations and the multinational force, and to assist with planning, we will also provide five staff officers to the force headquarters and a liaison officer to work with the UN.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members are concerned that our armed forces have too many commitments. I understand that concern, but I can assure the House that this is a modest, realistic and sustainable deployment. In making the commitment, we are clear that there can be no military solution to the problems in the region. The multinational force is an interim measure, deployed to help the UN with a limited and short-term mandate and will begin to withdraw when UN reinforcements arrive later in the summer.

We hope that this force will help stabilise Ituri province and that it will assist the wider discussions in Kinshasa on the establishment of a transitional national Government. We call on all parties in Ituri, Kinshasa and the surrounding region to play a full part in achieving peace and stability in the region. I am pleased that the EU has responded quickly and decisively to the situation in Bunia. It is exactly how we envisage the EU's security and defence policy developing—as the practical expression of a common foreign and security policy.

The UK takes its commitments to global security seriously. The operation fits into our own and wider EU objectives in the region, including support to the peace process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I trust that the House will recognise that, through that contribution, we are taking practical steps to help resolve a difficult situation. I commend the statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. Before responding, I would like to correct the record. I do not believe that the Leader of the House deliberately misled the House, but we never insisted on having an oral statement "tomorrow." We were always perfectly happy about an oral statement today, but we believe that it is important that we should always have an oral statement, as a matter of principle, in respect of any new deployment into any new theatre. I am sure that the whole House would agree.

Nobody could possibly object to the proposition that the Congo crisis is crying out for international intervention. That country that has been racked by tribal civil war and has been plundered for decades by neighbouring states for oil, gold and diamonds. We fully support intervention by the international community to stem the latest bloodshed. However, the conflict has claimed some 4 million lives since 1998 and the Minister has not explained what such a small intervention can truly achieve. What he did say is, "It is exactly how we envisage the EU's security and defence policy developing—as the practical expression of a common foreign and security policy." The deployment raises many questions about the assurances given to the House and to President Bush that NATO would always have first refusal over EU operations and would always be involved in the planning. Is this statement on the serious crisis in the Congo really the occasion to experiment with new and untried EU military structures and for the Minister to make political points about their highly controversial European security and defence policy? The crisis demands our best effort, because this small but complex operation may put at risk our servicemen's lives.

Given the Government's commitment to NATO and NATO's proven and tested abilities to plan and command operations of this sort, the Minister should explain why we did not press for NATO to lead the operation, just as NATO is leading peacekeeping in Kabul without any direct US military involvement.

A European security and defence policy operation is clearly more risky. The German former chief of NATO's military committee, General Klaus Naumann, has warned of the "casual approach of politicians", and that "soldiers risk dying" because of politicians' "ambitious decisions". Furthermore, a French military briefing paper obtained by The Guardian described the operation as
"politically and militarily high risk; very sensitive and complex",
but that has been ridiculed by an EU military planner who said:
"This is the most cynical military briefing I've read in my entire life. Everybody is just laughing at it."
Have the UK Government seen that paper, and what was their reaction?

In order to allay any concern, can the Minister set out the military mission for the operation? He seemed keener to talk about the ESDP, but said nothing about the military mission. What are the benchmarks for its success, and what are the key risks? Realistically, what impact can 1,400 soldiers have in a country the size of Europe? How can a mere 1,400 soldiers avoid being overwhelmed by the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Bunia? What humanitarian aid will be available to support military operations there? What are the provisions for reinforcement, if necessary, and what are the means of extracting the force in an emergency?

The French briefing paper is reported to confirm that the deployment will have negligible impact on the tribal conflict. Francois Grignon of the International Crisis Group has written:

"This intervention is, on the face of it, totally insufficient to meet the needs of Ituri's pacification."
Let nobody doubt Britain's concern for the people of the Congo and of the whole African continent, but I am sure that the Minister would agree that there is no point in hand-wringing gestures for ulterior political motives. Our armed forces have proved themselves in Africa time and again. There is no doubt that they will do an excellent job, whatever they are asked to do, and we certainly wish them well.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's initial comments about full support for the intervention, but the thrust of his comments was that it would have been better done under NATO than under ESDP. Of course, NATO could have become involved if it had wished, but it did not. The ESDP process was then triggered. That was always envisaged when the process was set up.

I take exception to the hon. Gentleman's comment that the very nature of the deployment would place additional risk on the lives of our personnel. There is not one shred of evidence for that and when the hon. Gentleman raises such scares, he has to recognise the possible impact on morale. It was a wholly unacceptable approach to adopt.

The potential humanitarian crisis and other threats that may exist—such as people pouring in to safer areas or outbreaks of major diseases and pestilence—have all formed part of the force planning that has been undertaken, in recognition of the fact that it will be a small deployment. The hon. Gentleman asked under what mandate we act and what approach we will take. I suggest that he reads the UN Security Council resolution, which states that the Security Council:
"Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations … Authorizes the deployment until 1 September 2003 of an Interim Emergency Multinational Force in Bunia, in close co-ordination with MONUC,"—
which is still there and has been strengthened—
"in particular its contingent currently deployed in the town, to contribute to the stabilization of the security conditions and the improvement of the humanitarian situation in Bunia, to ensure the protection of the airport, the internally displaced persons in the camps in Bunia and, if the situation requires it, to contribute to the safety of the civilian population, United Nations personnel and the humanitarian presence in the town … Stresses that this Interim Emergency Multinational Force is to be deployed on a strictly temporary basis to allow the Secretary-General to reinforce MONUC's presence in Bunia and in this regard, authorises the Secretary-General to deploy, within the overall authorised MONUC ceiling, a reinforced United Nations presence to Bunia, and requests him to do so by mid-August 2003."
That is a very specific mandate for a specific time, laid down by the United Nations while it builds up its force to deal with all the other attendant problems. Our force is not going out there to deal with those problems. We are putting in place specific enabling capabilities to enable the force to be deployed.

I hope that I have answered the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. He is clearly concerned because the ESDP is involved, but that does not diminish the quality of the personnel who will be put in place. They will do a thorough and professional job, as they always do, no matter which flag they are doing it under.

Albeit that the House is relatively empty, let us understand that this is a momentous statement. With trepidation and foreboding, I support the Government's actions. I was chosen by Mr. Speaker Weatherill as the leader of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Zaire in November 1990 and I just hope that Ministers understand the bitter tribal divisions in that place. We will be going into a morass, and it is not a place for a token force to achieve anything. The Minister says September and refers to strict dates. I hope he is right, but let us not mistake the momentous nature of what we are doing.

Not for one moment do the Government, or any other country involved, underestimate the scale of the problem, which is long-running and will not be easily resolved. That is why I said in my opening statement that a military solution is unlikely. We have to move forward on a range of fronts. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. In one sense, the decision is indeed momentous, because it shows a clear commitment in Europe to take on difficult tasks that we have been requested by the UN to address. We understand wholly the deep, bitter tribal divisions that exist, and that could fragment even further. The scene is constantly shifting, with supporters moving from faction to faction. The UN has to understand that, and it does. It has to tackle it, and it is trying. We will give it support in what it is trying to achieve.

I thank the Minster for advance warning of his announcement. We do not believe that today is the day to rehearse arguments about European integration. We welcome the positive response by the Government to the request for troops to be sent to the Congo, under EU authority. I am sure that it is with some discomfort that our armed forces face yet another commitment in the present circumstances, but the Minister is right to point out that the strategic defence review acknowledged that as a permanent member of the UN Security Council Britain has a responsibility to contribute to international peacekeeping missions.

The shadow of Rwanda will fall over this mission. There is a need for many more troops than those on their way to the Congo. According to, a leaked French military document—as the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said—the force will not be able to disarm the militia or stop the war, merely protect civilians. While it is right that we should not know the exact rules of engagement, can the Minister assure the House that they are sufficiently robust to protect our troops in the field, and the civilians in their care?

What efforts are the Government making to convince other nations to contribute, both from within the EU and outside it? Will there be a reserve call-out associated with this deployment? Can we learn the lessons from Sierra Leone? Can we ensure that all personnel on their way to the region receive appropriate protection against diseases? Will the malaria prevention issued be the same as in Sierra Leone? As with Sierra Leone, we need to know what the exit strategy is—as the Father of the House said. The French have said they will commit only to 1 September, after which they will hand over command to the Bangladeshis. Do we leave with the French, or wait for the Bangladeshis?

We could leave in advance of that. When the recce has returned, it will define exactly what is required. We do not yet know the extent of the engineering requirements in the field, and other Departments and non-governmental organisations are there and may be able to undertake some of the tasks. The scale and scope of the operation has not been fully defined, other than that it will take place within a tight parameter. We could leave earlier, although the likelihood is that we will withdraw as the UN reinforcements enter the region.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's acceptance of what we are doing. I was thrown a wee bit, because we usually get some confusion about whether to support a deployment from the Liberal Democrats—

Well, I think of a recent conflict on which they tried to face both ways. They are now picking and choosing which parts of the world they wish the UK to become involved in, and yet at the same time they say that we have obligations under UN Security Council commitments to seek to do what we can to deal with those issues.

The hon. Gentleman also said that there was a need for more troops. I do not know whether he is asking for more UK troops to become involved—

Well, at least that is clear. I can give him assurances that, as I said in my statement—he had an advance copy of it—other EU and non-EU nations are being spoken to by the French, as the framework nation, to try to assemble a package.

On the rules of engagement, the deployment of our personnel and of the multinational force will take place under chapter VII of the UN charter. The hon. Gentleman should understand precisely what that means. We do not discuss details of the rules of engagement, but our troops will be armed and will use their weapons for their own defence, if required.

The Gentleman asked about the reserve call-out, and I can tell him that we have no plans in that regard. This important deployment will be small. The precise numbers have not yet been determined, so I see no need for a reserve call-out. However, the purpose of having reserves available is that they can be called out in certain circumstances, if there is a need to supplement the work of the regular forces in meeting the demands placed on us under the UN charter. No such call-out is planned on this occasion.

I welcome today's statement, which has been inevitable for many years. Like everyone else, I welcome it with apprehension because of the scale of the problem that exists.

I have two points to make. First, there must be a fierce intensification of the diplomatic effort to prevent neighbouring states from interfering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to get their forces out of that country. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government are playing their part in that? Secondly, I suggest that my right hon. Friend read "A Nation Betrayed" by Linda Melvern, which deals with Rwanda. We must not betray the Congo in the same way that Rwanda was betrayed. Every member of the UN Security Council must play its part, which means an application of forces way beyond what is being talked about today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been very active in highlighting this issue. He takes a close interest in this and other parts of the world, and I know that he has been raising this issue over a considerable period of time. He asked for more military intervention and for more intensive diplomatic efforts. I assure him that the diplomatic effort is being intensified as a result of the assessment that a military solution is not the way forward. However, we must always take matters on a case-by-case basis. The UN approach to the issue has been carefully constructed, and we must recognise the primacy of the UN in the matter and accept its assessment. The UN has asked for support, and adopting the EU-led approach of the ESDP will give confidence in the interim period, ahead of what we hope will be a much more substantial presence on the ground through MONUC, the UN force in the area.

I do not know how many troops my hon. Friend thinks should be involved, given the scale of the problem, but it would be a failure of our thought processes if we were to adopt a military approach to the matter. As he said, we must adopt a diplomatic approach. All our efforts, through the UN and through NGOs, must be aimed at finding the best solution. The problem is complex and has existed for some time. We are all aware of the terrible experience in Rwanda in 1994, and I do not think I need to read the book "A Nation Betrayed". All of us remember in some detail what went on at that time. Lessons have been learned, and I hope that we can find a solution on this occasion.

Although I recognise that the deployment is a small one, does the Minister understand that many of us oppose it? Britain has no historical responsibility for the Congo, and our economic and political interests there are very small. As the Father of the House said, the risks involved in the deployment are very great. In those circumstances, does the Minister accept that the risks to British servicemen are such that we should not commit them in such a venture?

No, I do not. There is no question but that there is a risk attached whenever we deploy our armed forces. However, our forces know what they are being asked to do. They are professional, dedicated and highly trained people. On this particular occasion, they have a specific role within a specific and tight mandate that has a specific time frame. There is also a humanitarian element to the deployment. If we can solve this problem by means of EU and UN action, I am sure that the British people will be on our side, and British forces will have done a great job once again in the name of this country.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and his clear declaration of the Government's logical and realistic response to an extremely serious problem.

I turn now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington). Those of us who were part of an all-party group that had the privilege of visiting Rwanda towards the end of last year recall that the President of Rwanda warned that he would not hesitate to send troops into the Democratic Republic of the Congo if he perceived a threat to his country's borders. It would be absolutely wrong for Britain to stand by and watch a repeat of the genocide that has taken place in the region, especially when the UN has invited us to contribute and we have the support of the EU.

Therefore, I again welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. In the circumstances, if it becomes necessary for the Government to add to Britain's contribution, we should not hesitate to do so.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is another Member with a very close interest in this particular part of the world. I can tell him that the Government of Rwanda welcome this initiative, as do neighbouring states. All those countries are very keen to resolve the very deep problems in the area, as they realise that the problems could spill over their borders. That is why there is tremendous international support for the deployment, as my right hon. Friend's remarks have underlined.

The Minister of State should hang his head in shame at this statement. We are making a token contribution to a token force that is going into a boiling cauldron of a situation. If the international community was even half serious about dealing with the matter, the deployment would involve a properly organised UN force with a properly organised UN mandate. What we have instead is a confusion that involves a multinational force sitting alongside UN forces. The forces involved are wholly inadequate for the confusion of tasks that have been set. Nothing that the Minister of State has said can disguise the fact that the deployment is simply a little gift from the Prime Minister to the President of France that will allow the EU to strut its stuff on a stage that it should not even contemplate. The sooner we can get out of this disastrous engagement, the better.

The hon. Gentleman is applying his usual judgment in coming to his conclusion—although he may change his mind tomorrow, as he has done in respect of other matters.

I do not hang my head in shame about this. I think that we can hold our heads up in relation to the commitment that we are making. That commitment is being made on the basis of what we have been asked to do by the UN, which has identified a shortfall in its current force strength in that part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has asked us to do something, and we have decided to do what we can. Our participation will be for a limited period. We recognise the dangers that exist, and we do not undertake the deployment lightly. All the matters involved have been properly assessed, and we have studied the rules of engagement to determine the basis on which our people will be deployed. We have also assessed the force protection that will be required when we deploy our personnel. If the hon. Gentleman thinks otherwise, he has not understood for one moment the way in which this Government—and previous Governments—arrive at conclusions when deploying forces. We do not make this deployment lightly, but we recognise that we have international commitments. I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that those commitments must be understood and adhered to.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will be gratified to know that Labour Members recognise that the role being taken by the Government is an honourable one. The crisis in the Congo has existed for many years and it has, alas, been too much ignored by the world community. I therefore welcome today's announcement.

It is clear that the operation involves very limited numbers of personnel, as has already been noted. Opposition Members who have spoken about a force that could solve the problems in the Congo simply do not understand the politics, geography and nature of the conflict taking place in that enormous country.

The real issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) earlier. We must be engaged diplomatically to make the military intervention worthwhile, and that means bringing pressure to bear on our friends in Uganda and Rwanda, who allowed the rape of the Congo by their own troops, and on President Mugabe in Zimbabwe—nowadays our less good friend. Intervention from other African countries must be brought to an end to allow the Congo to reconstruct itself. As my hon. Friend said, in the end, the solution cannot be only military.

I can add little to what my hon. Friend said. I recognise that he fully supports the gist and thrust of my statement and of my responses to other questions. I am grateful for his comments. He understands that the deployment is for a limited period, that it has a clear objective and that the wider objectives must be met by other means. There must be intensive efforts, not just from the UK alone but through multinational approaches; where people have influence on countries in the region every effort must be made to find the diplomatic solution that is required. It will not be easy and it will not happen quickly, but we must at least try.

As someone who has had friends working in the region for years, I share the concern expressed by the Father of the House; the Minister referred to 1998, but the situation has existed for a long time. How can we intensify diplomatic efforts when the problems have been going on for so long? In recent weeks, we have seen pictures in the papers and on television of French troops who can do nothing because they are not strong enough. Does the Minister agree that such pictures do not give us great hope that the force will be effective if it takes only a peacekeeping role? I should like to think that chapter VII gave us more facility for movement within the law.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examines what chapter VII is about; a different role is accorded to MONUC, the current force, which operates under chapter VI. The rules of engagement could be different under a different UN mandate.

I cannot disguise the fact that the force is small. That is clearly the case. However, that is what the UN requested in the mandate under resolution 1484 and we are responding accordingly. We are a small part of a small multinational force, with a specific purpose for a short period.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we could intensify the diplomatic effort. We shall do so in the usual way. We have to try to encourage people in the region to take on ownership of the problem, and we must have confidence in their ability to do so. We must help them with security reforms and other aspects so that they can deal with the threats that could knock them off course. We are making a major contribution to achieve those objectives, both through the UN and unilaterally through the Department for International Development and other means. We have a clear view about what is required in the region, but we need to encourage others to come along with us. We have shown that we can achieve progress elsewhere in the world and, hopefully, we can deliver that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and the engagement of British forces and the international community in the area. As he is aware, the current mandate is restricted not only as to the length of time but as to the geographical area that the force will cover—a small area around the town of Bunia. In the past few weeks, 70 per cent. of the population has fled the town as a result of violence. This week, there have been reports of further violence in North Kivu. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the mandate of the MONUC forces, which will be reconsidered by the UN this month, should be extended to include the entire Ituri region and that their number should be strengthened so that they can adequately protect the population of the whole area and not just of Bunia itself?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for the statement. She is right: the mandate restricts us to a small part of the DRC. As we know, the country is 10 times the size of the UK. It is extremely difficult to police such a sizeable area and to deploy troops as meaningfully as some people might want.

On the future mandate for MONUC, the number of troops to be engaged, their role and the way in which they will deal with related problems beyond the immediate area and elsewhere in the DRC is a matter for the UN as the situation develops. We can move forward to achieve our objectives only when we have co-operation from other countries. We shall probably return to that issue in the future once the new mandate has been determined.

Although we appreciate the wise and timely caveats of the Father of the House, we fully support the intervention. However, with hindsight, does the Minister not think that it was highly inappropriate and unwise for the Government to have sanctioned arms sales to all five combatants in the Congo less than two years ago?

An arms embargo has been in place since 1993 and new rules now apply on the sale of weapons to surrounding nations, which may or may not intervene. Tight rules apply and they are constantly under review. If any of those nations were able to contribute positively, or required weapons because they faced a threat to their borders or were working under the auspices of the UN or other African nations, they would need to be equipped.

It would be nice if there was a simple solution, but there is not. The situation is complex and the scene is shifting all the time. If the hon. Gentleman has a simple solution, perhaps he would let me know and I shall certainly pass it on to those at the UN who are discussing the way forward. I do not think that his remedy would solve the existing problem.

May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? The intervention is long overdue. Does he agree, however, that history shows that intervention, especially in Africa, is often too little, too late? What has happened to the proposal floated at the UN some years ago for a rapid reaction force to which developed countries and some developing countries would contribute? Such situations will always get worse unless there is early intervention. No one wants to put British troops at risk, but we need to recognise that we have both humanitarian and security obligations to take early and serious action to ensure that the combatants know where we stand.

My hon. Friend makes some good points. However, the UN has identified a problem; it has asked for a rapid response, which has been given—albeit within a tight framework. That is the best assessment of what is required of the interim force in assisting the UN to build up to the larger scale force that it judges will be able to deal with some of the problems faced in Bunia—where we are sending our personnel—and the surrounding area.

We cannot rewrite history. There is no point in saying that we can undo the mistakes of the past. We can only face up to the current reality and that is what we are trying to do. I repeat: the situation is complex and fraught with many dangers, but we are determined to assist in the best way that we possibly can.

Several hon. Membersrose—

Order. A number of hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye; shorter questions will allow me to call as many of them as possible.

As a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union trip to Rwanda, ably led by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), may I say that we saw the results of the genocide in 1994? We literally walked through the skulls and bones of some of the people who were murdered during that genocide, which took place while the world looked on. Although I totally support sending a UN force to the area, for the reasons that I have given, it is important to remember that the situation is very complex. We ought to remember that the genocide in Rwanda was extended, unintentionally, by the French backing the wrong side.

We can all revisit history and find many lessons about what different countries, including our own, have done in the past. That is why I make the point that there are undoubtedly, lessons to be learned, but the scenario is different on this occasion. There may well be a threat of genocide, but it has not yet manifested itself. By acting as we have done, at the request of the UN, I hope that that threat can be dealt with, so that the problem is avoided, but there is no certainty in any of this. If such things happen, the world has to react accordingly to that new threat. The approach to this matter has been measured and focused. Decisions have been made on the best assessment that the type of results that we are looking for will be delivered to stabilise the situation and to allow the UN to move forward on the basis of that stability and deal with the key issues, so that the possible threat of genocide and all the other risks that flow from that can be avoided. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments, and I am sure that he learned a lot on that visit.

As a young officer, I was taught that any operation that starts without a crystal-clear mission is likely to start and probably end in chaos. May I bring the Minister back to one of the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)? What is the military mission on which our soldiers are being sent?

I shall not reiterate the basis on which the multinational force has been put together. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is the mission?"] I shall come to the mission precisely in a moment. In relation to the parameters of what we have been asked to do on the mission, a recce team is currently finding out the scale of the problem, so that we can then direct our resources at it. I indicated in an earlier answer that we have representatives of other non-governmental organisations as well as of other Departments out there who may be able to take on some of the engineering tasks, if they are so defined.

There will be an engineering and airlift capability to allow the deployment of the force. To get the aircraft in, the airfield needs to be secured and made safe and workable. That is the basis of the mission; it does not extend beyond that. Our forces are not involved in peacekeeping duties and, therefore, they will not be engaged in the manner that some hon. Members fear. They will not be sucked into something else. Their mission will be precisely as I set out in my opening statement and as I have said in my answer now.

The Minister mentioned in his statement that the force will help to stabilise Ituri province. If it is only mandated for self-defence at the moment, how will it effect that stabilisation?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that we are talking about a multinational force and the way in which it will carry out its role. The rules of engagement under chapter VII are very clear.

I wish the hon. Gentleman would stop heckling every answer that I try to give. He has had his opportunity, and he will have other opportunities to respond.

Of course the way in which the multinational force deals with the situation will be defined in the terms of the mission set out by the contributing nations, and its role, which comes under the chapter VII of the UN charter, will be precisely to stabilise that area, to ensure that there is a peaceful environment and to lower the temperature in the area. If there is conflict, that must be dealt with by those who have to meet those responsibilities and, of course, in the interim, that will be the multinational force.

We have not had a clear mission statement, and I would rather trust the judgment of my hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer), for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who were all Regular Army officers and know a great deal about such situations. In Sierra Leone, we committed troops on the ground and, in Zimbabwe, we had a British military advisory and training team. Unlike those areas, where Britain had a responsibility, both historical and current, there is no current or historical British interest in Congo. It is Francophone-zone country, so surely we should be looking to France and Belgium to shoulder responsibilities and to look after their own interests.

Increasingly, in dealing with matters of global security, small or large, international coalitions are put in place. This mission will be EU-led, with the French as the framework nation. The Belgians are already committed to it. Other EU nations have been asked to become involved and some, probably with less historical engagement in Africa than we have, are considering putting in support. Non-EU nations are doing the same. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that willingness to broaden the international approach to such issues, rather than seeing them as the problem of one nation or a simple, straightforward group of nations. This is about internationalising the solutions to such problems. That is what the UN was originally set up for and, of course, the European security and defence policy is now taking a small part of the ownership of that role.

I lived and worked out in Beni and Bunia in the Kivu region in 1991, and I have the greatest reservations about this mission. The Father of the House was absolutely right when he mentioned that our troops will be exposed to malaria. In fact, it is probably the most virulent strain in the whole of Africa, particularly cerebral malaria, which I was unfortunate enough to catch out there. The people there are good people, and, to some extent, I welcome what the French and the Belgians are doing. Why are we not doing the same in Zimbabwe?

Well, that is an interesting development. Is the hon. Gentleman asking for military intervention in Zimbabwe?

Well, I really do find that surprising. The whole thrust of most of the questions and my responses to them has suggested that although there should he a military presence to try to stabilise the region, the longterm solution is diplomatic. That is precisely what we are seeking to do in Zimbabwe, by doing all that is required so that that country is held in opprobrium not just by Europe and elsewhere, but by Africa, to make people understand the scale of its problem. Most people are now seized of that, which is why there is an intensive effort for change in Zimbabwe, but the hon. Gentleman suggests that military intervention is required. How many troops?

How many troops would be required? The facetious way in which the hon. Gentlemen approach this shows that they have no understanding of international affairs. If the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is now saying that we should opt for assassination, that is a very dangerous road to go down, and I am not so sure that those on the Conservative Front Bench would support him.

:I am afraid that I have to tell the Minister that, despite repeated questions, he has been very vague about the ultimate mission that this recce is designed to support. France is described in his statement as the framework nation, providing the military commander. Can he please explain to the House what will be the command and control relationships above that level? How will they interrelate with the UK Ministry of Defence?

The likelihood is that we will have a lieutenant colonel in command of our deployed forces, under a French brigadier. A command and control structure will then be established in Paris, to which we are sending six officers, so we will have an input into that. We will have a liaison officer with the UN MONUC forces. The command and control structures that apply are those that normally apply in such circumstances. Of course reporting back is a process that happens in every engagement. What the forces do must be clearly defined, and there must be clear reporting mechanisms in that overall command and control structure. That is no different from what happens in Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq, so there is nothing new about this. Opposition Members may have ESDP up there in lights, but the command and control structures are as robust and well-tested as they have ever been.

I hope very much that our officers on the ground out in the Congo are able to articulate the military mission more clearly than the Minister was able to do today to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). In the event that, before September, there is a significant escalation in fighting or a major deterioration in the security situation out there, will he look to extract this small force or to reinforce it?

If the situation changes, the planning changes, and the decision changes accordingly. It is no different from any other mission into which—[HON. MEMBERS: "Wait and see."] I do not know whether Conservative Members want us to be there or not. It is clear that they have taken on the mantle of the Lib Dems—they are trying to face both ways. We have gone from assassination in Zimbabwe, as suggested by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, to a fulsome welcome for the intervention—but by NATO, not by ESDP—to the demands of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). What is he saying? If he is saying that, if the situation deteriorates, do we carry on with our planning assumptions, the answer is if the situation deteriorates and changes dramatically, that must be taken into account in all the planning assumptions.

Armed Forces Personnel