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Business Of The House

Volume 408: debated on Thursday 3 July 2003

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12.31 pm

Will the part-time Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 7 JULY—Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled "Failure of the Government to meet its Targets", followed by a debate entitled "Failure of the Government's Tax Credits Scheme". Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

TUESDAY 8 JULY—Remaining stages of the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill, followed by Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

WEDNESDAY 9 JULY—Debate on the Convention on the Future of Europe on a Government motion, followed by remaining stages of the Hunting Bill.

THURSDAY 10 JULY—Debate on Economic and Monetary Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 11 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 14 JULY—Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

TUESDAY 15 JULY—Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill [Lords], followed by Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

WEDNESDAY 16 JULY—Opposition Day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

THURSDAY 17 JULY—Commons consideration of Lords amendments, followed by motion on the summer recess Adjournment followed, if necessary, by further Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

The House will not Adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to any Act.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, then Leader of the House, made clear on 1 May, the events in Iraq had a considerable impact on the business of the House. My right hon. Friend called for the co-operation of the House to ensure that the summer recess dates remained unchanged. It is for these reasons that business may continue beyond the normal moment of interruption, allowing the House every opportunity fully to scrutinise and contribute to the business coming forward up to and including 17 July.

It may be for the convenience of the House to expect sitting beyond the moment of interruption on Tuesday 8 July, Wednesday 9 July, Thursday 10 July, Tuesday 15 July, Wednesday 16 July and possibly Thursday 17 July.

On behalf of the House, Mr. Speaker, I wish you a happy birthday.

With your permission, may I say that my mother and father are present to see their son perform at business questions? I am sure that when they were imprisoned under apartheid in South Africa in the early 1960s they never imagined being in this position, or my being in this position.

We very much welcome what the part-time Leader of the House has just said—we are getting back to business. Instead of the House being forced to bunk off early every evening, we will have an opportunity to do some proper scrutiny, which is a welcome development. The part-time Leader of the House might bear that in mind when thinking about the longer term and the hours that the House sits, and he might start to draw conclusions. However, it is indeed a welcome announcement.

Last night, the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said at column 498:
"We understand that tomorrow the Government intend to publish a White Paper that will contain major policy announcements about the future of the national lottery. We further understand that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is to give a press conference and a major speech on the matter, but given previous rulings by Mr. Speaker, I am sure you would deprecate it if such announcements were made at press conferences and on the "Today" programme, but not through a statement in the House."
Following that, Mr. Deputy Speaker said that
"Mr. Speaker has made his views on these matters very clear on many occasions".
After a modest intervention by myself, Mr. Deputy Speaker said:
"Mr. Speaker feels extremely strongly about these matters and I have no doubt that those on the Government Front Bench will have heard the points at have been made."—[Official Report, 2 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 498.]
Sadly, it appears that those Ministers either did not hear those points or casually ignored them. Indeed, a significant announcement on the national lottery was sneaked out in a written ministerial statement. A document was smuggled into the Library at 11.20 this morning, in which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport says:
"I am today publishing a document".
That document is the written statement which, according to the Secretary of State,
"proposes a radical new approach to licensing the national lottery."
Mr. Speaker, you have ruled repeatedly from the Chair that major policy statements should be made in the House by Ministers so that they can be held to account. In blatant disregard of your rulings, we have yet another example of a Secretary of State who, I am told, appeared in the media this morning, has been on the radio, toured the studios and spoke to everyone except the House of Commons about this matter. Is the Leader of the House going to instruct her, even at this late stage, to come to the House this afternoon to answer questions on this matter? Frankly, Mr. Speaker, this is a challenge for you—how often are you going to put up with this blatant disregard of your rulings from the Chair by Ministers of the Crown? It is quite unacceptable, and I hope that something will be done about it.

I should also like to ask for an urgent debate entitled "The Government's approach to child welfare", which would give us an opportunity to explore the recent extraordinary appointment of the hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) as, of all things, Minister for Children. If nothing else, that is surely an example of the Prime Minister's complete lack of judgment and sensitivity. Given the many former professional social workers on the Labour Benches, he has an ample of choice of people who know about the subject and can easily demonstrate a record of genuine care of children. Instead, he chose the former leader of Islington council. At the very least, that is an insult to the damaged children of Islington and their parents. At the very worst, it is yet another example of putting the Islington mafia before Islington children.

That last comment demeans the shadow Leader of the House, but I will return to it later and answer directly the points that he made.

Before I do so, however, I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on his appointment as shadow deputy Leader of the House. He is widely respected and even liked in the House, which is not the case for all of us. I assume that the leader of the Conservative party put him in that position so that he could act as a minder for the shadow Leader of the House. After the performance that we have just witnessed, he will have a lot of minding to do. I hope that the hon. Member for Witney can influence the shadow Leader of the House to look more closely at the reshuffle announcements made by the leader of his party before continuing to criticise the Government's reshuffles.

For example, we have heard regular calls from the shadow Home Secretary—[Interruption.] I am responding to the use of the term "part-time Leader of the House" and other comments from the shadow Leader of the House. The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted a heavyweight Minister for homeland security. What happens? When the appointment is made earlier this week, the shadow Minister is not even a member of the shadow Cabinet. How can he be a heavyweight shadow Minister dealing with homeland security if he is not even in the shadow Cabinet?

On the business of the House and the hours, the House took a view on the hours and that was for the rest of the Parliament. If hon. Members wish to make representations to me on that matter, we can consider that for the future, but the House took a decision and we have operated the present system for only six months. We will need to consider how it beds in and what we do for the future.

On the point about a statement to the House, over the past months and years the Government have made more statements to the House than almost any Government in recent memory. As for the nonsense about a statement being sneaked out and smuggled into the Library, I do not know whether the shadow Leader of the House smuggles himself into the Library in order to consult its contents, but that is just rhetoric. The truth is that the two written statements to the House were made by the Secretary of State in the usual way. She acted absolutely properly on an important announcement, which I should have thought even the right hon. Gentleman would welcome, about renewing and regenerating the lottery, particularly with the Government's intention of making an Olympic bid in mind.

I turn to the right hon. Gentleman's rather disreputable attack on my hon. Friend the Minister for Children. I refer to her excellent work over recent years, which I am sure every Member of the House would support. She has carried forward a policy that has provided free part-time early education for all four-year-olds and established a growing child-minding sector, with 647,000 new child care places being created. She helped develop the sure start programme, which provides a range of family and health services to local young children and their families in disadvantaged areas, and she took forward a neighbourhood nurseries policy. That is an excellent curriculum vitae for a children's Minister, and the shadow Leader of the House should withdraw those remarks.

First, Mr. Speaker, may I wish you many happy returns of the day? I hope your day will not be spoiled by yet another Secretary of State deciding that the media is the right place to make a major announcement. The Government cannot have it both ways: they cannot say that it is a great statement of new policy and a radical departure, and at the same time refuse to come to the House of Commons.

When does the Leader of the House expect the House to be able to consider the Lords amendments to the Communications Bill? He will be aware that last night there were some extremely important exchanges in the Lords on that Bill in respect of cross-media ownership and the need for plurality. As we understand it, the Secretary of State is to produce some sort of statement about the precise terms in which the new regulator can insist on proper plurality before considering any cross-media ownership changes.

Has the Leader of the House noted this morning the way in which the Italian media have treated the outrageous statement by Mr. Berlusconi? The Berlusconi blunder was not reported in any of his own media, of course, nor on the state television programme, although the independent papers in Italy covered it in full, and rightly so. Does he not recognise that that is an appalling example—an awful warning—of the dangers of monopolistic tendencies in the media? Does he accept that one of the reasons why we can claim to have a free society in this country, in contrast to Saddam's dictatorship in Iraq, is that we have a free media? Does he accept that Alastair Campbell's attack on the BBC and its freedom of editorial control, the weapons of mass distortion and distraction that he is deploying, and the bullying of the BBC, demean the Government rather than the BBC? Does he accept that we need a full debate on these matters when the Communications Bill returns to the House?

The hon. Gentleman says that we cannot have it both ways. Actually, he and Conservative Members are the ones who want to have it both ways. When Ministers come to the House and make statements, they complain about the time that that takes, especially on Opposition days. They cannot have it both ways. There is already going to be a statement following business questions this afternoon.

If the right hon. Gentleman is demanding that we should sit beyond 17 July—

So it is the official Conservative position that we should say to all the House officials who have booked their holidays, "You should stay on, boys and girls, and forget about your holidays." Is he really saying that?

Well, I think that he would find that he faced a revolt on behalf of officials in the House, let alone Opposition Members. I notice that Members on the Back Benches—[Interruption.] No, I have not booked my holiday, as it happens. I notice that Opposition Back Benchers are looking particularly glum about the way in which their Front-Bench spokesman is behaving and about cancelling all their holidays.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) asked me specifically about the Communications Bill. I would have thought that he would welcome the fact that the Government are listening to Parliament's opinion about the Bill and, as a result, will table Government amendments in the House of Lords. As I understand it, provisionally, the Third Reading of the Bill is on 8 July. Of course, it will then come back to us in the normal fashion.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Italian Prime Minister. As I understand it, Prime Minister Berlusconi is talking to the Chancellor of Germany at this moment; at least, he was scheduled to do so. No doubt, that will prove to be a very interesting conversation. Perhaps he will follow Basil Fawlty's dictum, "Don't mention the war."

On the question of the BBC and the Government's attitude and complaint to it about the stance taken by its defence correspondent, may I commend the statement made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who said overnight, as I understand it, that it was totally and entirely untrue that the Government had interfered with the flow of secret intelligence? The hon. Gentleman was a respected Defence Minister and talked, as I understand it—he can confirm whether this is the case—very recently to the head of intelligence and knows that it was not true that the Government, Alastair Campbell or anybody else in Government circles sought to distort intelligence information. That would be an entirely improper thing to do and I think that the BBC should bear his comments in mind.

May I say how much I welcome the Government's proposals to end age discrimination in employment? I hope that we can have a very early debate about this matter, as it is important to discuss employment practices in this House and the civil service. Please can we have an early debate about those issues?

I am not sure whether it will be possible to have a very early debate, but, as my hon. Friend knows, the Government have issued a consultation paper and the Secretary of State for Trade Industry has taken that forward. The initiative will be very important, as what we are talking about is giving people a choice. That is what the policy is about—the moment at which people retire. I would have thought that the whole House would welcome that choice and join the Government in clamping down on age discrimination.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the answer that he gave to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House in respect of the Prime Minister's appointment of the new Minister for Children? Does he not accept that it is not enough to point to improvements that she recently made in an earlier job when that is set against one of the most atrocious periods of local government in London, during which she was responsible for homes in which there were some of the most serious cases of child abuse that have ever been seen in this country? Does he really believe that such a person is truly suitable for a job of this type?

I am sorry to have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because he is highly respected in this House, and I share that respect, but he really cannot take this argument to such extremes. My hon. Friend has a very good record in Government of supporting children at all levels of life and taking forward such policies. I think that with hindsight the hon. Gentleman will regret those remarks.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that one of the many reasons his mother and father have to be proud of him is that he consistently voted for modernisation of the sitting hours of the Commons?

I have always recognised that there is a sound argument of tradition for keeping the old hours, but there can be no argument at all for the business managers pocketing the early starting hour and keeping the old finishing hour. Can I therefore invite my right hon. Friend to look beyond the dates in September to which he referred and give the House an assurance that when we resume after the summer recess he will in good faith implement the decision of the House to stop at 7 pm? In the course of the current discussions on the legislative programme, will he tackle the root cause of the problem, which is Whitehall's tendency to keep putting before us more legislation than we can properly scrutinise in any one Session?

I have already made it clear that I regard the decision of the House in respect of hours as one for the rest of the Parliament, because that was the spirit of the decision that was taken. Of course, I am open to representations from all Members of the House if they think that that is unsatisfactory, think that adjustments should be made, or have views on the policy thereafter.

In respect of the legislative programme, my right hon. Friend has a very good point. He will be aware, since I follow in his footsteps, of that problem. Indeed, I have been wrestling with it overnight and talking to Cabinet colleagues about it. We have to ensure that the legislative programme fits in with the hours that the House works and that there is opportunity for proper scrutiny. I do not intend to make it a practice to go beyond the moment of interruption, because that is not within the bounds of the House's decisions. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend appreciates that in some circumstances it is necessary to do so for orderly business to proceed, and that it is for the convenience of Members and staff of the House to know when the recess is coming.

Some weeks ago, I asked the then Leader of the House when the Government would publish their Green Paper on the Victoria Climbié inquiry. I later received a letter from him telling me that it would be published before the House rises for the summer recess. Would the Leader of the House like to confirm that that is still the case? If it is not, can he explain why the publication of the Green Paper is to be delayed? Could it have anything to do with the controversy surrounding the new Minister for Children? If so, is it not disgraceful that the Government are more concerned with stifling a controversy than with the needs of vulnerable children, two of whom die from abuse each and every week?

I am a little unsighted on this matter. I shall deal with the hon. Lady's question in next week's business questions, if the opportunity arises. May I just say, however, that there is no connection at all between the Green Paper's publication date and the position of the Minister for Children, and that I regret that the right hon. Lady repeated the linkage that was made earlier?

I welcome my constituents, the parents of the Leader of the House, and join in their pride that a former Labour candidate for Putney is now Leader of the House of Commons.

May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 1413?

[That this House notes that Professor Sir Roy Meadow give pivotal expert evidence in the murder trial of Sally Clark, who was subsequently cleared by the Court of Criminal Appeal; further notes that Professor Meadow discovered Munchausen's syndrome by proxy and might therefore be expected to diagnose that syndrome more readily than other, more sceptical experts; deplores the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to field Professor Meadow in the trial of Trupti Patel; and calls for an urgent review of all cases in which Professor Meadow has given evidence, including those in the Family Court.]

Professor Sir Roy Meadow has a role in many cases—not only in the criminal court, but many thousands in the family court—and there is a need for a full legal inquiry into those cases. Could there be a debate on that or a statement from the relevant Minister as to how such an inquiry can go forward?

I had many happy days tramping the streets of Putney knocking on doors, although I must say that my hon. Friend is a much better representative for that community than I proved to be, because he actually got elected.

The early-day motion concerns important issues. I commend him and his colleagues for placing it before the House, and we will bear in mind his request.

I listened carefully to the answer that the Leader of the House gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). This is too serious a matter to be dismissed in such a way. We all understand that he has not been in post for long, and that there are some matters on which he is unsighted. He may not be aware that representatives of Downing street made it clear this morning that Lord Laming's report on the protection of children following the tragic death of little Victoria Climbié has indeed been delayed because of the difficulties facing the new Minister for Children.

Order. The hon. Lady must take her seat. There seems to be a regular and concerted attack on the Minister for Children. The House should know that when an hon. Member is being attacked in such a way there should be a substantive motion before the House. I will not allow such matters to come up in business questions. I therefore ask the hon. Lady to be seated and inform other hon. Members who have this line of questioning that I will stop them.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is some time since the publication of the Budd report on gaming. Will he look into how soon a new gaming Bill can be introduced to the House, because it would be of great benefit to seaside resorts and generate many jobs in the economy?

I am aware of the impact of gaming on the economy, especially in seaside resorts. Careful thought is being given to creating an opportunity to introduce a Bill in the legislative programme that is now under consideration.

Happy birthday, Mr. Speaker.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is a substantial grouping of opposition to World Trade Organisation policies for so-called free trade and open markets across the world. He will also be aware of the Trade Justice Movement's opposition to those policies. I myself took part in a demonstration against them last Saturday. This week, the World Bank acknowledged that its policies have not helped the world's poor. Will my right hon. Friend make space for a major debate on the Floor of the House on future trade policy?

In respect of the world's poor, I share my hon. Friend's ambitions to conquer world poverty. This Government have the best record of any British Government in taking forward a massive increase in our overseas aid and development budget and in leading the international campaign to lift the dreadful burden of debt from the poorest countries in the world.

Along with many other Members, I received a delegation from the Trade Justice Movement in my surgery last Saturday morning, and I was very pleased to be photographed with them and to identify with their ambition. [Interruption.] They asked to be photographed with me, as it happens. I entirely share their goals. The Government are committed to taking forward an international trade round that truly frees up trade so that the poorest countries of the world, instead of being exploited by the rich part of the international community's trade protectionism, are able to get their produce into the markets of the richer world, including Europe. There will soon be an opportunity—next week, in International Development questions—for those issues to be raised.

In his statement, the Leader of the House said that he hoped that we would have enough opportunity to scrutinise the Government's legislation between now and the summer recess. I am sure that the servants of the House would respect a decision by the House to sit beyond the announced date if we felt that it needed to do so in order to hold the Government to account. May I ask him about Tuesday's business, specifically the remaining stages of the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill? Is he aware that 54 clauses of that Bill were not discussed in Standing Committee, and that since it left Committee the Government have tabled a whole range of new clauses about GP contracts? Should we not spend all Tuesday on that business instead of combining it with Lords amendments to other Bills?

I have considerable respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I hope that we shall work together, as we did last week on the Wicks committee. It was a good try at going beyond 17 July, but I shall not comply with that request. In any case, the decision has already been made.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill. There has been plenty of opportunity for scrutiny of the measure, which has been well debated. I cannot agree with his point on that.

Will there be an opportunity for hon. Members to know the Prime Minister's response to Mr. Berlusconi's intemperate remarks yesterday?

I do not know whether the part-time Leader of the House or his deputy will reply to the summer Adjournment debates. The last debate of term takes place in a holiday atmosphere, and I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman will outline his attempts to persuade his Cabinet colleagues to holiday in the United Kingdom, perhaps in Wales. We would be worried if any member of the Government, including the Prime Minister, accepted Mr. Berlusconi's hospitality.

That was an attempt to link so many issues that I shall not respond in detail to it. However, Prime Minister Berlusconi and his remarks bring into focus the Government's argument, which the Opposition consistently attack, for a stable presidency for the European Council. We have argued that a six- monthly, rotating presidency, which means that a new country with a new Head of Government takes charge and goes off in a specific direction, is not a good advertisement for the European Union's leadership. The presidency should be full time and for five years. That would mean a stable presidency, and everybody would know who represented Heads of Government in the European Council and the international community. I should have thought that even members of the Conservative party would support that commonsense approach.

My right hon. Friend may know that Allan Leighton, chairman of Royal Mail, attended a meeting in the House yesterday at my invitation to answer hon. Members' questions about Royal Mail's decision to shift mail from rail to road. As far as I know, that was hon. Members' only opportunity to question that serious decision. Given that Royal Mail is a wholly owned company of the Government's, does my right hon. Friend share my view that hon. Members should have a proper opportunity to scrutinise the decision? Will he arrange a debate or a statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?

I am not sure whether there will be an opportunity for a debate or a statement, but I agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments. I am worried about the decision. Obviously such matters are for Royal Mail, but the night mail has long been part of its tradition. I remember the W.H. Auden poem "Night Mail", and I shall read the first few lines:

"This is the Night Mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door."
There are lots more verses, but I shall leave it at that.

It was important that Allan Leighton attended the meeting in the House. I hope that he will continually address anxieties that hon. Members of all parties have expressed about the decision.

I am sure that the Leader of the House knows that, as part of the recent joint declaration of the British and Irish Governments in Hillsborough, it was agreed to establish a new ceasefire monitoring body. That will require legislative authority. Do the Government intend to introduce a Bill before we rise on 17 July—or perhaps not on 17 July? The right hon. Gentleman should please not be encouraged to go beyond that date, but will he confirm that legislation will be introduced and when that will happen?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's support for not going beyond 17 July; I think that view is shared by hon. Members of all parties.

We are aware of the need for legislation and of the importance of the matter, which will be addressed as soon as it is sensible to do so.

Will the Leader of the House arrange to hold a debate on the affairs of Westminster city council, especially its former leader, Dame Shirley Porter? Is he aware of the Law Lords' unanimous judgment two years ago that she was guilty of deliberate, blatant and dishonest abuse of public power, amounting to political corruption? She is subject to a surcharge of £40 million, which increases by £5,000 a day in interest. Westminster city council is currently run by those who were her acolytes when she pursued her reign of terror. So far, they have collected £3,000 and a gold-plated toilet seat. My right hon. Friend will also know that the "Today" programme revealed that she is in contempt of court. A debate would allow the Government to set out the means whereby they intend to bring her to justice, perhaps including extradition from Israel. It would also allow Conservative Members, for the first time in the seven years since she was condemned—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his two penn'orth.

I am not sure whether there will be an opportunity for a debate or an early statement. However, my hon. Friend has raised an important matter. The district auditor issued a damning report about the behaviour of Dame Shirley Porter, who has parked herself abroad, and the way in which she made it more difficult for Westminster city council and its council tax payers to recover the £40 million. It will have our full support in doing that because the sort of political corruption in which she indulged should not be allowed to go unchecked.

Could we have an early debate on the decision to replace the Connex South East rail franchise? Whatever the merits of the decision, will the Leader of the House clarify the way in which hon. Members representing the constituencies affected can properly scrutinise the Strategic Rail Authority's decision-making powers?

I understand that an Adjournment debate on a related matter will take place next week, so perhaps the point can be raised then. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

What provisions are the House of Commons authorities making to respond to threats of civil disobedience, unlawful activity and other stunts by the Countryside Alliance to disrupt the workings of Parliament after the failure of that organisation to convince the House of the case for continuing the practice of hunting with hounds?

I understand that the police dealt promptly this morning with the matter to which my hon. Friend referred. I understand his concerns, which hon. Members of all parties have expressed, including those about gaining access. Obviously, we need to balance the right to protest with the orderly transaction of business in the House. Those matters will be kept under continual review.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is being sent back to Committee and that it is being revised. Will he give a categorical assurance that if the revised Bill is sent back to Committee in the second and/or third weeks of September, it will be printed before 17 July?

I shall look into the matter because I understand the hon. Gentleman's points. I shall get back to him as soon as possible.

When will the House be afforded a debate in Government time on post-conflict Iraq? I am aware of the statement after business questions, but my constituents' concerns are not limited to the humanitarian situation in Iraq, and it is time the House examined in detail what appears to be a marked failure to deliver on the promises to the Iraqi people.

I know and respect my hon. Friend's close interest in this matter. She referred to the statement that will follow on the humanitarian situation, which is related to her point. And the Foreign Affairs Committee is due to report on general issues next week.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the deteriorating financial position in the nuclear power industry, and especially on the Government's role in negotiating a contract with the new head of British Energy, which is being bailed out by the taxpayer, that awards him £800,000 if he fails and the company goes into administration? That is completely contrary to Ministers' strictures on fat-cat pay.

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's points to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

May we have an early debate on transport in London, and in particular on the Government's attitude to the business case for Crossrail, which I understand is currently being considered by Transport Ministers? Hopefully we shall soon hear an announcement of a decision that is vital to the regeneration of east London and the improvement of east-west transport links in the capital.

In that context, may I point out that there have been serious problems on the underground this week? There have been staff shortages—I am not sure why—and delays and overcrowding on the Central line. Given the current temperature, that is not at all satisfactory for millions of people in London, including my constituents.

I sympathise with what my hon. Friend says about the underground, especially in the light of the hot weather. Travelling in crowded trains can be intolerable, and the relevant authorities must deal with the problems.

I hear muttering from the Opposition Benches. Record amounts are now being invested in rail and underground services, after nearly two decades of persistent underinvestment by the Conservatives. That underinvestment is one of the main reasons why London commuters are having to put up with the present conditions.

I am well aware of the importance of Crossrail. I believe that nearly £200 million has already been spent on the project, and I hope that it will proceed with all speed.

The Leader of the House will know of the serious breach of patient confidentiality in the Royal group of hospitals in Belfast, where tens of thousands of patients' records have been accessed. The breach of trust is all the worse for having been perpetrated by a terrorist organisation for intelligence-gathering purposes. May we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on what he plans to do to restore confidence among the tens of thousands of families who have been affected? He might also give us an update on other intelligence-gathering activities. We have yet to hear any detailed response from the Government on, for instance, the Castlereagh break-in, which occurred on St Patrick's day last year, and the Stormontgate affair.

I know that the Secretary of State is addressing all those issues with his usual diligence and urgency, but I shall draw his attention to the important matters raised by the hon. Gentleman.

It is the role of Members of Parliament to ascertain what difficulties, or even injustices, their constituents are encountering, and to judge the extent to which Government initiatives and activity might correct the position. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on identifying one such problem: a number of my constituents with low incomes are paying the higher tax rate. Has his appetite for initiating debates—which is an important part of the process I have described—been lessened, or will he continue to raise issues which I believe to be of the utmost importance to my constituents?

I am about to answer.

I welcome my hon. Friend's generous question. I think that enlightened debate on all matters of Government policy is a good thing.

May we have an early debate on the Government's long-delayed fallen stock collection scheme? Against the background of a general crisis in agriculture, on Tuesday it became illegal for farmers to bury dead livestock. Most of the local abattoirs have now closed, and the Government want to close down hunts as well. Will they stop messing about with surveys asking farmers, some of whom do not even have livestock, whether they want a scheme, and get on with introducing one?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter has been raised on many occasions, but I will certainly remind the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about it.

On Tuesday we shall have an important debate on foundation hospital trusts, but many aspects of the governance proposals are still very opaque. Must people pay a pound to vote in the election of a board of governors, or must they merely pledge to pay a pound? How big are the catchment areas for specialist hospitals? After hours of debate in Standing Committee, thousands of questions about the trusts remain unanswered. Will the Leader of the House speak to the Secretary of State for Health, and will he produce a memorandum—an explanatory note—about the governance proposals on Monday, before Tuesday's debate?

I shall certainly inform the Secretary of State of what my hon. Friend has said; but I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes the speech in which, earlier this week, the Secretary of State spelt out a Labour vision of a national health service free and available to all and receiving record investment—in contrast to the Tory policy of charging, privatisation, cuts and running down the NHS. For that is what the Tories did so effectively, from their own destructive viewpoint, during their many long, bitter years of power.

Given the fulsome tribute that the right hon. Gentleman has paid to his most recent predecessor but one—the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), whose noble attempt to democratise the second Chamber was sabotaged by the rather cackhanded and brutal intervention of the Prime Minister—will he confirm in a statement, very soon, that his own commitment to an elected second Chamber remains absolute? Will he also confirm that he is determined, within the lifetime of this Parliament, to present legislative proposals to allow that objective to be achieved, in the interests of parliamentary legitimacy and democratic scrutiny alike?

I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman's hyped-up rhetoric. He is very good at it.

I have paid tribute to my immediate predecessor as well as the most recent but one, who was present earlier.

No, equally warmly. He was a very good Leader of the House, albeit briefly.

As for future legislation, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, he will have to wait for the Queen's Speech to see what transpires.

Today the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Home Secretary are citing Sweden as the basis for evidence of why residential rehabilitation for drug addicts under 18 works and should be introduced in this country. I visited Sweden recently. This year, the Swedish Government are reducing such residential rehabilitation by two thirds. Given that inconsistency, will the Leader of the House consider a debate giving the Leader of the Opposition an opportunity to apologise to the Swedish Government and people for so blatantly misrepresenting the Swedish policy?

Members will have a chance to table questions to the Home Secretary next week, and my hon. Friend will be able to raise the matter then. I pay tribute to the work he has done in his constituency and the lessons he has drawn to the House's attention on tackling the drugs problem, especially in former coalmining areas such as those that he and I represent.

The policy announced by the Conservatives is a recycled version of a policy that they first announced at their party conference nine months ago. It involves nicking £465 million from the health service budget. The Conservatives are, of course, in a terrible dilemma. They have imposed a policy of 20 per cent. cuts across the board. They are, indeed, cuts addicts—a party that is high on cuts. No one will take their anti-drugs policies seriously until they are prepared to come clean about where their cuts will fall.

Order. I do not like the word "nicking". I am not sure of the implications, but I do not think that the Leader of the House should go too far down that line.

In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will say "borrowing from the health budget". The net effect, however, is the same: a cut in overall health spending and a refocusing of that spending, on top of 20 per cent. cuts across the board. Every time the Conservatives announce a new policy—

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the Leader of the House again, but he is not here to answer for Opposition policies.

May we have a statement on airport development in the south-east, giving Ministers an opportunity to withdraw the now dead-in-the-water and outrageous Cliffe airport proposal, to apologise to the people of Kent and Essex for presenting it in the first place, and to congratulate Members such as my hon. Friends the Members for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who worked together so successfully to ensure that the disastrous scheme was stopped?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. Whenever there is a proposal for a new airport or an airport extension, there is obviously local concern, but the Government have to address the serious problem of rising demand for air travel and inadequate airport capacity. Either we allow Britain to fall behind, which I am sure he would not want to do, and certainly the Secretary of State for Transport and the Government will not allow to happen, or we must consider all options, and that is exactly what is happening. I have had representations about Severnside airport, for example, suggesting that it could be an alternative to extra capacity in the south-east. The Secretary of State is considering a range of options, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand why.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the future of NHS Direct, which was described by the National Audit Office as a very safe service and which generated a 97 per cent. satisfaction rate among those who used it? It would also be useful in giving the Conservative party the opportunity to explain, belatedly, its position on NHS Direct and whether it intends to abolish it. That information would be helpful not only to the House but to the 500,000 people who use the service every month.

Obviously, I will not attempt to answer for the Conservative party, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I can confirm that NHS Direct has been a huge success, with more than 95 per cent. of those who used it registering satisfaction. It has handled more than 18 million calls in the five years since it was established. It would indeed be helpful for the House to know what the Conservatives propose to do with it—and if they abolished it, how they would handle those 18 million inquiries.

Can we have a debate before the recess on the recent ombudsman's report on the situation at Equitable Life? There cannot be a single Member of the House who does not have some constituents who have been affected. There has been at least negligence on the part of both Equitable Life and the Financial Services Authority—a Government agency—and it is the ordinary policyholders who are supposed to pay. Surely, equity demands that these people should be properly compensated for other people's negligence.

I fully recognise the legitimate anger that the hon. Gentleman is articulating on behalf of many, many people. The matter must be resolved, and he was absolutely right to raise it in this way.

The chief medical officer has today highlighted the threat posed by West Nile fever. Given the importance that Sir Liam Donaldson attaches to this issue, will the Leader of the House encourage the Health Secretary to make a statement to the House on it, so that it can be properly aired and debated?

Again, I understand the concern on this matter, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will take note of the hon. Gentleman's comments, which I will draw to his attention.

Is the Leader of the House aware of answers that I received to parliamentary questions to the Department for Work and Pensions that show that thousands of pensioners in my city of Edinburgh, and tens of thousands throughout the country, are eligible for but not claiming minimum income guarantee, falling below the Government's basic income level? Will he find time for a debate in the House, so that we can discuss how to improve take-up, especially as we will be only a few weeks away from the new pension credit when the House returns?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are lots of opportunities for hon. Members to secure debates on such matters. It is an important subject, and we attach great importance to the minimum income guarantee. For the first time, poor pensioners are being lifted up to around £100 a week, and that gives them some form of security. It is important to ensure better take-up. The Government cannot force people to take advantage of their entitlements, but we continually do more and more to ensure that more and more pensioners realise their rights and the opportunities before them. The pension credit, which as he said, will be introduced in October, is a huge boost for hard-working pensioners who have saved a bit and have a small pension, but not a decent enough one to take them into secure living.

The Leader of the House invited representations on the issue of hours, so perhaps he will allow me to offer him one. I refer him to early-day motion 607,

[That this House regrets the revised sitting hours; notes that the business of the House has been adversely affected; and calls for a review of the arrangements.]
The motion has almost 200 signatories, and I suspect that it would have more if Ministers, many of whom are unhappy with the system themselves, were allowed to sign EDMs. As the Government's principal selling point for the change of hours was that the House would finish regularly at 7 o'clock, and as the past few weeks have patently shown that that is not the case, can the House not vote again on this matter and change its mind?

The House decided on this matter, even if the hon. Gentleman does not like it.

No, for the rest of this Parliament, which is exactly the point that I have been making.

I regard myself as a custodian, along with others, of the decisions of the House. If the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) disagrees with our decision, he can mobilise more supporters of his EDM, and no doubt that will form part of the coming debate and the climate in which any future decisions are made after the next general election.