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Commons Chamber

Volume 408: debated on Thursday 3 July 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 3 July 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

Oral Answers To Questions

Trade And Industry

The Secretary of State was asked

World Trade Organisation

1.

What action she is taking to make the Doha trade round benefit developing countries. [123219]

May I begin by wishing you a very happy birthday, Mr. Speaker? It is an especially good week to celebrate being fifty-something.

We are determined to make the Doha round work, especially in the interests of developing countries. That is why I visited Thailand, India and South Africa in the past year for discussions with other Trade Ministers. I shall visit central America with Christian Aid in September on my way to Cancun. If we could halve protectionism and trade barriers globally, we could cut the number of people in the developing world who live in poverty by more than 300 million by 2015. That would be a significant contribution towards achieving the millennium development goals.

May I add my congratulations to those of my right hon. Friend to you on your birthday, Mr. Speaker, and perhaps dare to draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that it is also my birthday today? That is a happy congruence, which my parents arranged as a tribute to you, with great prescience.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Has she assessed last week's statement on common agricultural policy reform, especially its implications for the new trade round?

I am delighted by the big step forward that we took in the European Agriculture Council last week. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Our initial assessment of last week's agreement shows that it will enable the European Union to accept—indeed, to better—the proposal in Stuart Harbinson's paper for reductions in agricultural subsidies. There is much else to be done, not least by the United States, but last week's deal in the Agriculture Council removes one of the biggest barriers on the road to Cancun.

But is not the reality that, although the CAP improvements are welcome, they will not happen until 2013? They do not include any changes to the sugar regime. Does the Secretary of State accept that subsidies are a menace, not only through the CAP but through the United States, which she mentioned? Will she use her best endeavours tomorrow, the next day and the day after that to speak to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and persuade the Department to ensure the removal of all such subsidies?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. I know that, before he became a Member of Parliament, he spent considerable time working in eastern and southern Africa and that he is committed to the agenda that I described.

The British Government have led the way and argued successfully for reform of the CAP. We have made considerably more progress than the Conservatives when they were in government. We are leading the charge against the sugar subsidies, which will be discussed in Europe later this year, because they are disastrous for some of the poorest countries, including Mozambique.

The Conservative party, especially its leader, has experienced a welcome conversion to the cause of free and fair trade. However, let me remind Opposition Members of their record when they were in government and could have done something about the matter. They were behind the intellectual property agreement that did nothing—

Order. The Secretary of State has been very nice to me this morning, but I have to stop her.

Last week, like many other hon. Members, I participated in the lobbies of the Trade Justice Movement. My constituents raised their anxieties that a World Trade Organisation agreement on investment might harm developing countries. Does my right hon. Friend share those concerns? If so, what does she intend to do about it?

The new issues we are discussing—which include investment, but also such matters as trade facilitation and Government procurement—are on the agenda because it is clear that developing countries need more investment, and that a multilateral agreement on investment could help to remove some of the barriers that result in those countries' receiving no foreign direct investment. As I made clear last week, no decisions have yet been made on the structure or content of an agreement. We will review progress in Cancun in September, and we in the United Kingdom Government will not sign up to anything that is not in the interests of the developing countries overall.

Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the complacent and arrogant attitude of the European Union's trade negotiators, Mr. Lamy and Mr. Fischler, who have dismissed the possibility of any early move to improve market access to, for instance, sugar as "unilateral disarmament"? Does that not either represent the most primitive kind of protectionist economic thinking, or suggest that the negotiators are being unduly influenced by agricultural lobbies in Europe? In either event, should they not be fired?

I normally find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman about trade issues, but I think that he is quite wrong in this instance. Pascal Lamy played a crucial role in securing the launch of the Doha development round, and Commissioner Fischler has played an outstanding role. Had it not been for his persistence, I do not think that we would have secured agreement on the reforms in the Agriculture Council last week. In the European Union—again, on the initiative of Commissioner Lamy—we agreed the everything but arms initiative specifically to help the least developed countries.

There is a huge job to be done in dismantling our sugar subsidies. That must be discussed and agreed in the European Union later this year; but I think that the agreement that we reached in the Agriculture Council last week makes agreement on dismantling these absurd subsidies more likely.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many developing countries share the anxieties of the Trade Justice Movement about any extension of the agenda to include investment? What action will she take to ensure that they have their say in the negotiations?

The developing countries constitute the majority of the membership of the World Trade Organisation, and nothing can be agreed in the round unless everyone is signed up to the package. Let me make it clear, however, that neither for the developing countries nor for us and the other developed countries are these new issues the first priority. The first priority is to obtain an agreement with the United States Government on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—TRIPS—and access to medicines. The second priority is to secure agreement on the appalling, trade-distorting agricultural subsidies; we helped enormously with that last week. We must then proceed to secure other forms of market access that will, above all, be good for developing countries.

2.

What action she is taking to meet the obligations agreed by the Government at Doha in 2001. [123220]

Trade rules must be reformed to benefit the poor. The Government have worked hard to ensure that the changes in WTO rules being negotiated in the Doha round will benefit developing countries. The recent very positive outcome of the discussions on CAP reform in the EU Agriculture Council should now act as a catalyst for other WTO members, like the US, to liberalise their markets.

Like the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward), I had meetings with the Trade Justice Movement last week in Ewell and Ashtead in my constituency. The movement is hugely frustrated by the fact that while a process is under way to require the opening of markets in the developing world, the process of opening markets properly in the developed world is progressing at a snail's pace. The movement wants action. When can the Minister deliver that action, on a short time scale?

Obviously those issues must be negotiated at Cancun. That is why we are having a meeting in September; they are part of the wider Doha round. The whole process of the negotiation is aimed at securing changes that will benefit not only the developing countries but the developed world. If we can reduce our trade barriers by 50 per cent., we will benefit world trade by creating $150 billion of extra trade in the world. That will have to happen over time, but happen it must.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position on the Front Bench. I also welcome the Government's attitude to the WTO round, as did my constituents when they came to see me at the lobby last week. Does he agree that besides pressing for good governance for developing countries, we should also press for companies that provide international investment to take on board the best guidelines for corporate social responsibility, which I know the Secretary of State has been especially keen on?

I certainly agree that corporate social responsibility is vital. We need to ensure that our own companies in this country, in particular, recognise that when they invest in developing countries we expect them to adopt the highest standards in their treatment of both their workers and the environment.

Community Pharmacies

3.

When she expects to bring forward proposals in response to the Office of Fair Trading report on community pharmacies; and if she will make a statement. [123221]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

First, I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), a happy birthday.

In respect of the OFT report as it relates to England, the Government have stated clearly that we will introduce a balanced package of proposals before the summer recess that will promote change to open up the market and improve quality and access without diminishing the crucial role that pharmacies play, especially in poorer and rural areas. In coming to conclusions, we are considering not only consumer and competition issues in pharmacy but wider health policy objectives, such as the role of pharmacists in delivering NHS objectives, and how we can improve access for patients to high-quality pharmaceutical services.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. It gives me great pleasure, as I consider him a decent, honourable and thoughtful man. We had many dealings together as Treasury Whips, and I hope that the same spirit of cordiality will characterise our exchange today—but I have two words of advice for him as a new Minister. First, he should take his time. These petitions that we are all getting—such as the ones from the Moss pharmacy in Droitwich and Badhams pharmacy in Evesham—show how seriously the general public take this matter. Secondly, he should be wary of full-blooded competition. I bear the scars of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the supply of beer from when I was a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry. Be very, very wary.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. As I have emerged from the dark arts of the Whips Office, I pay tribute to the wonderful job that Whips of all parties do in the House. I know where my bread is buttered.

We have had the opportunity to debate all the issues openly. Nobody is attacking the work of community pharmacies, which do a tremendous amount for our constituencies, but the OFT report has shown that there may be some gaps. Our response will be measured and sensitive to all the issues that have been raised, not only in petitions but in all the correspondence that the Department has received. This is a cross-departmental matter, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and others will appreciate our response when we publish it.

I echo the congratulations to the Minister, as well as the urging of caution in responding to the OFT report. In particular, has he given attention to the fact that the report did not examine the competition that exists between community pharmacies in the additional services that they provide, especially for nursing homes, such as prescription audits, prescription packs for the homes' residents, and home delivery services?

I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome. She raises an interesting point that will be taken into consideration in our deliberations. I do not want to be drawn too far on this question, because the process is still going on, but we will make the announcement before the summer recess.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his post and wish him well in it. He will be aware of the great worry and uncertainty among pensioners. I received a petition the other days from Stockleys pharmacy, signed by 500 people in my constituency. Can he guarantee that there will be an oral statement before the recess, and will he take the opportunity to make it clear today that he will not give in to the wishes of the large retailers—many of which fund the Labour party—but stand up as a champion of small businesses?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. Clearly, we do not want the community pharmacies, which we acknowledge are doing a wonderful job, to be threatened by any outside sources. We will ensure that we have a balanced and sensitive package that meets everybody's needs.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks about organisations that support the Labour party, however, do not become him. The format of the announcement is still under consideration and we will inform him in due course.

What weight does my hon. Friend—my good friend—give to the very persuasive Health Committee report, which suggests that if the OFT recommendations are accepted there is a great likelihood of closures, and that little in the way of savings would be made to the public purse?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. We are looking at all aspects of the situation, and the Health Committee report was very helpful in that regard. It expressed some concern about the OFT report, but it did accept the need for some competition in the marketplace. The points that he raised will be considered, as will the Health Committee report.

World Trade Organisation

4.

If she will make a statement on her objectives for the forthcoming WTO meeting in Cancun. [123222]

Our immediate objectives are to secure agreement on affordable access to medicines, and on a framework for an agreement on agriculture. We shall also press for agreeing special and differential treatment for developing countries, reducing non-agricultural tariffs and increasing private services liberalisation.

On that last point, will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that in Cancun, she will not take a position that prevents developing countries from controlling their own economies or deciding on their own period of trade liberalisation and timetable for free trade? Will she ensure that the trade emerging from Cancun is fair trade, and not just free trade?

As I have said repeatedly, what we want to do within the WTO is to create a framework of trade rules that is indeed fair, as well as free. That means sorting out rules on special and differential treatment, so that developing countries can indeed pace liberalisation with particular reference to products and sectors that are of great importance and sensitivity to their own economies. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not falling into the trap of believing that the way in which developing countries should cope with agricultural subsidies in Europe and America, for instance, is by trying to match them with their own subsidies. The answer is for us to dismantle our subsidies and open up our markets to their products.

Surely one of the most important things that could come out of Cancun would be an enhanced reputation for the WTO, because it represents a rules-based trading system, which is the most effective way of reducing tariffs. In some respects, that is more effective than the granting of vast sums of aid, which can often be dissipated by all manner of incompetence and corruption in the recipient countries.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is very clear that if we can create a system of free and fair world trade, we will deliver far bigger benefits to the developing countries than aid budgets ever will. We need both, but trade is crucial. I also agree about the importance of the WTO and, indeed, of the growing capacity of developing countries, which are now using WTO rules to try to enforce access, on fair terms, to the markets of developed countries. The reality is that if we do not succeed in Cancun, we will destroy the possibility of a rules-based trading system. That understanding is growing and people are redoubling their efforts to ensure that we do indeed succeed in this Doha development round.

I fully support the Secretary of State's commitment to fair and free trade. Poorer people in developing countries would like to help themselves, and if we can give them a hand up, rather than a handout, that is a better way forward. Does she accept that our own farming community is very concerned about what the future holds, and that it is important that the Government should, at the earliest possible date, actively spell out how the proposals will affect family farms and their other impacts?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks on the negotiations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already set out the principles through which we will approach agricultural policy reform in the United Kingdom. The agreement that we reached last week was broadly welcomed within farming communities. It will enable them to receive support from taxpayers for sustaining the rural environment, but it will no longer give them ridiculous incentives to over-produce and over-farm land, which is damaging to our own environment, as well as to that of developing countries. I think that the complete transformation of the common agricultural policy will be good for our farmers and good for our rural environment, as well as for some of the poorest people in the world.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. That may have been an anticipation of your birthday celebrations. May I offer generic congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker, to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), to anyone else born on 3 July and to all the distinguished new arrivals on the Front Bench on both sides of the House? I particularly endorse the remarks of the Minister for Employment Relations, Competition and Consumers when he paid a warm and fully justified tribute to the integrity, conscientiousness and distinction of the Whips on both sides of the House—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). I am heading for an evening off one day next week.

Given that controversies over genetically modified crops may well surface at Cancun, will the Secretary of State join me in rejecting President Bush's criticism that European anxieties over the environmental impact of GM crops are not scientifically based? Will the British Government give unqualified support to proposals for a rigorous, robust and transparent labelling regime for all foods containing genetically modified ingredients, so that consumers in Britain and other countries know exactly what they are eating?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the American Administration does not sufficiently understand the depth of public concern on food safety issues, particularly GM food, in the European Union. That forms an important part of the background to our negotiations within the WTO. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made clear, we strongly support a proper and practicable labelling regime for GM ingredients. We think that there should be a full public debate on that issue and we are facilitating that, but we need to proceed on the basis of rigorous scientific evidence. That is what we are doing and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us.

Steel Industry

5.

If she will make a statement on the prospects for the steel industry. [123224]

Recent restructuring in the steel industry, together with some signs of recovery in the steel market and exchange rate improvements, provide this important sector with the opportunity to build for a sustainable future. UK macro-economic stability, low inflation and interest rates at their lowest for 50 years also provide a sound foundation.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post. She was outstanding in the Department of Health and I am sure that she will be in her new role.

It was a disaster last year when, despite the best efforts of the Department and the National Assembly for Wales, Allied Steel and Wire in Cardiff closed down, largely on account of the short-sightedness of the banks. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news that the Spanish steel company, Celsa, is reopening the steel plant in Cardiff, re-creating many of the jobs that existed before, and has pledged to produce even more steel than was produced before ASW closed?

Yes, I share my hon. Friend's concern and disappointment about the regrettable demise of ASW, and I join him in welcoming the Celsa Group's plans to resume steel making at Cardiff. That is good news for many of the communities in the area, whose interests my hon. Friend has ably championed. I hope and believe that many former ASW—and, indeed, Corus—workers and former contractors will be reemployed by Celsa, thereby making use of the considerable skills and productivity of UK steelworkers. They are part of the strength of that industry.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench. I thank the Secretary of State for her recent visit to Teesside steelworks, which was greatly appreciated by many of my constituents and across Teesside; she was the first Secretary of State ever to visit Redcar steelworks. Has the Minister seen the Trade and Industry Committee report on the future of the steel industry? It made many recommendations, one of which was for the Government to set up a national steel forum. I urge her to give strong support to that recommendation, because such a forum could help to ensure that we continue to have a successful steel industry in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I know that the visit by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was welcomed on Teesside, and that she was impressed with relations locally. She was also impressed by the commitment shown by my hon. Friend himself, and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) to ensuring the future of steel in their communities.

I have had the opportunity to look at the Select Committee on Trade and Industry report, and I welcome many of its recommendations. We will look carefully at the specific recommendation about the steel forum. We have already taken action by giving Government support in respect of lean manufacturing and some of the metal technologies, for example. The intention with the steel forum is to bring together stakeholders such as businesses, employees and trade unions, who will play such an important part by working together to ensure that the steel industry has a future. We will respond to the Select Committee report, and I assure my hon. Friend that I will give his representations very serious consideration.

Atypical Workers

6.

If she will make a statement on the consultation on employment rights for atypical workers. [123225]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

Responses to the consultation are currently being analysed, and the Government hope to publish a response to the consultation later this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response and welcome him to his post. Last year, I visited the Department with a large delegation of clergy and ministers of religion who feel that they have no redress against discrimination and unfair dismissal. The delegation included members of the Anglican, United Reform, Greek Orthodox and other faiths. Given the Government's commitment to ending social exclusion, will my hon. Friend end the exclusion of the clerical profession from the employment rights enjoyed by all other professions?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I am well aware of his work in this area. The issues that he raised are sensitive and cause great concern to all involved. The consultation on this matter is progressing. I think that, in the near future, I should meet my hon. Friend and the people whom he represents to talk through the issues in more detail. I too am very concerned about employment rights, on which the Government have a proud record. I should like to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and wish him well in the fulfilment of his responsibilities. Agency workers are atypical workers, and Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands accounted for 80 per cent. of such staff in the EU. Both the Confederation of British Industry and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development are concerned that the agency workers directive could threaten to destroy up to 160,000 jobs. Will the Minister undertake to press, inside the EU, for a sunset clause in any such directive? That would allow us to look again, in due course, at whether the directive has been damaging or beneficial.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point about the agency workers directive. Clearly, a balance has to be struck. The UK position remains unchanged, in the sense that we want to make sure that agency workers' minimum rights are protected, but also that jobs remain for them to do. There is no immediate reason to believe that the European directive will change matters, but we will monitor the situation and make our opinion known in due course and in light of circumstances in the UK.

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker, even though it is not my birthday and I have not been appointed to anything recently. However, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the most atypical workers in this country—if they can be called workers—are the ones who get paid for failure? I am talking about the directors who reward themselves with hundreds of thousands of pounds even when they produce huge losses instead of profits. Surely it is about time that the Government took some firm action to ensure that such gross rewards for failure are not given out in future.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that he will be in the sunlight again in the near future. He makes a good point. The Government have already acted an unfair rewards and rewards for failure, and we will look again at the matter and try to do more. Clearly, it is difficult to tell low-paid workers to be more productive when others give themselves such large awards—23 per cent. is one figure that I have heard in that connection. It is important that we strike the right balance, and the Government will continue to monitor the situation.

School Leavers

7.

What plans she has to provide financial assistance to firms in the small and medium sectors to enable them to engage further workers, with particular reference to school leavers. [123226]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and industry
(Nigel Griffiths)

Since 1997, more than 2 million small businesses have been established creating 2.3 million more jobs, which is why no direct financial assistance is given. The House will be keen to learn what Plaid Cymru's precise budget is for that.

I congratulate everybody on both sides of the House, in case I leave somebody out.

I am not going to talk about budgets, as I am actually questioning the Minister; I do not think that he is supposed to be questioning me. He will realise that more than 90 per cent. of employees in Wales are engaged in the small and medium sectors, which are a very large part of the Welsh economy—I am sure that the same is true of England and Scotland. What incentives are there to assist those hard-pressed businesses which complain that they are under continued pressure, day in day out, from red tape, paperwork and so on? We need to alleviate the problems experienced in that sector while encouraging those businesses to take on more employees. That was the point of my question and I should like the Minister to answer it.

The hon. Gentleman has shifted from budgets—I think that financial assistance is budgets—to the wider question, which I am happy to answer. When I met the Federation of Small Businesses in Swansea recently, its representatives told me how much they appreciated the raising of the VAT threshold, which has benefited 700,000 small businesses in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A lot more work can be done, however, and I welcome constructive comments from anyone in the House that will help us to achieve that goal. I pay tribute to the small businesses in Wales.

In order to help small businesses expand and employ more people, will my hon. Friend look again at the threshold for accessing level 2 regional selective assistance funding? At present, a business has to invest £500,000 to qualify, which is beyond many small businesses. On the other hand, if they go for level 3 assistance, the pot is small and not worth much. Will my hon. Friend look again at how those funds operate?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been engaged in one of the most extensive reviews of business support. The aim is to ensure that businesses of all sizes can access both the appropriate financial expertise and mentoring. Of course, we shall take on board what my hon. Friend said; we are keen to ensure that the thresholds are appropriate, but they must also be consistent with European legislation.

As we learned only this morning that the higher national insurance contributions and extra regulations imposed by the Government have destroyed 1,400 jobs at Britain's biggest bank, does the Minister agree that giving financial assistance to small and medium-sized enterprises to encourage them to create jobs will be a complete waste of taxpayers' money unless it is preceded by a cut in the huge burden of extra tax, national insurance contributions, climate change levy and pensions tax and a reversal in the ever-increasing tide of regulation? Unless it was preceded by those moves, we should simply be throwing away good money.

Responsible employers—I understand that they made several billion pounds in profit in the past year, so they are not doing so badly—should appreciate that labour costs in Europe are far higher in the round, as the CBI unreservedly accepts, even after the increase in national insurance. They should also accept that our drive is to invest in the health service to ensure that people who are off work sick or waiting for operations can return to work and play a productive part in the work force. People benefit from the relief of pain—not a moment too soon—and employers also benefit from getting workers back to work more quickly, so it is only fair that both should pay.

I declare an interest as chairman of Solihull Business Enterprise. I invite the Minister to agree that, if in doubt, one of the most benign things that the Government can do to small businesses is to leave them alone.

I could not agree more—except some small businesses ask me for considerable help.

Post Office Card Accounts

8.

How many Post Office card accounts have been opened. [123227]

I understand from Post Office Ltd. that, by 20 June 2003, 57,000 Post Office card accounts had been opened. By that date, 430,000 people had indicated that they wanted to open a card account, so the number of accounts opened will grow rapidly in the period ahead.

I thank the Minister for those, in fact, disappointing figures. May I say, because he is a nice chap, how much I regret the fact that he has been unable to unload the role and responsibility for the Post Office on to some other unfortunate Minister, as it really is a disaster and an absolute black hole? Can he explain to the House how his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions have estimated that there will be 3 million Post Office card accounts, but the Post Office has calculated that there will be 5 million? As the Post Office has done the 5 million calculation to ensure the viability of those sub-post offices that survive the present savage cull, what will happen to them if Ministers at the Department for Works and Pensions are right with their 3 million figure? What will the Minister do to ensure a 5 million take-up of Post Office card accounts to make sure that our sub-post offices—those that are left—survive?

The Post Office is progressing extremely well. Large numbers of Post Office card accounts are being opened, as I have said, and they are proving particularly popular among pensioners. Everyone who wants a card account will get one. My hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions have indicated that they now expect the number to be above the 3 million figure, which was the initial working assumption.

It is very important not to miss the bigger opportunity. From this week, Lloyds TSB current account holders can use their cashpoint cards to obtain cash at any post office in the country. I tried that on my way in at the Members' Post Office, and I am pleased to say that it worked extremely well. With Alliance and Leicester and Barclays already offering that service, that brings to 19 million the number of current accounts now accessible at every post office in the country. That is a huge commercial opportunity for the post office network. It is half as many again, for example, as the total number of state benefit and pension recipients, and the Post Office can now make a success of that opportunity.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, because of the difficulties that some people still have in gaining access to the Post Office card account, there should be a clear understanding—obviously, he will have to talk to those at the Department for Work and Pensions about this—that, if people choose not to open a bank account, the Post Office card account should be the failsafe system, so that post offices would be guaranteed that anyone who chose not to have a bank account should have a Post Office card account?

I agree that all those who do not want a bank account will be given a Post Office card account if they decide that they want one. That has been built into the process, so I can give absolutely that assurance to my hon. Friend.

Broadband

9.

If she will make a statement on her strategy for enabling residential customers to benefit from the provision of broadband internet access in publicly-funded organisations. [123228]

The public services between them expect to invest £1 billion in broadband connectivity over the next three years. Our intention is to aggregate demand to maximise the chance to extend broadband availability to users outside the public services, as well as to obtain the best value for the public services themselves.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but will he be more precise on timing and process? A school in the village where I happen to live will get wireless broadband because it is too far away from the BT exchange. Lots of people live near the school, and they are asking me when they can benefit from the school's broadband. The Minister has set up a task group and is spending £1 billion, but when and how?

I am delighted to hear that broadband is being extended to the hon. Gentleman's local school. Every school in the country—primary and secondary— will benefit from broadband over the next three years. I am not able to tell him precisely when the service will be extended to others in his local community, but he makes a very important point. Of course, particularly with wireless broadband, once that facility is available to the school I can see no reason why others should not benefit from it as well. In fact, there are examples of schools around the country that have become the hub for community-based wireless broadband services, and I very much welcome that development.

Can the Minister help with villages in my constituency that are also bereft of schools, and in which broadband provision is therefore an important way of helping them to retain liveliness? Can he give us some hope that we will be able to help specifically the very remote areas that many of us represent?

Yes, I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of that. We can be optimistic about the prospects. He will know that the East of England Development Agency has been active in supporting broadband, and a number of rural communities in Suffolk and elsewhere in the east of England are benefiting as a result. We recently completed successfully an auction of wireless spectrum, which will be available for wireless broadband, and I expect that that will be advantageous to rural communities, too. We can therefore be hopeful about the prospects in the months ahead.

Smaller Enterprises (State Promotion)

10.

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of state-funded promotion of smaller enterprises. [123229]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Nigel Griffiths)

The best assessment of the effectiveness of our DTI small business support programmes is contained in the reports of the Small Business Council, whose 24 members are all successful entrepreneurs. I know from my ministerial visits to the north-east that there are many success stories, and I want to work with my hon. Friend to achieve even more.

I very much welcome Labour's new economic policy for small businesses, and I am extremely disturbed to learn that the Conservative party would want to scrap it completely. That support, however, must be clear and effective. Is my hon. Friend the Minister as concerned as I am by the statement of the chair of the regional development agency in the northeast that there are no less than 200 different organisations trying to support small business within fives miles of the centre of Newcastle? Does he have any proposals to rationalise that, to get some clarity and to establish robust, clear support that new and small businesses can understand and with which they can work?

Indeed. One NorthEast, the regional development agency, has conducted its own review of business support to ensure that all funds for the purpose are held in one pot, to get a strong focus on start-ups and to meet the needs of SME customers who choose the service that they want. I also pay tribute to the £13 million being spent in Tyne and Wear on business support, which is being co-ordinated by Business Link Tyne and Wear. Those two important agencies are cooperating, and I am sure that they will take the advice of my hon. Friend on board.

I declare an interest as an unpaid director of Ormeau enterprise park. Does the Minister accept that small businesses need help when they start up? Unfortunately, those who may fund some of those businesses may have a mindset that, when they have failures, they cannot be relied on to go forward in the future. Do we not need to change that mindset, bearing in mind that even large firms with enterprising inventions have had to repeat their experiments to succeed?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was in Belfast a couple of weeks ago discussing this issue with Bill Jeffrey of the Federation of Small Businesses, I stressed to him that the changes in the insolvency provisions that we have already made, which take the focus away from the honest failures and allow us to concentrate on the small minority of dishonest failures, will help to introduce a culture into Britain that to start up in business, to run a business, and to fail because the wrong product or service is being offered at the wrong time is not something of which to be ashamed. I encourage all Members of the House and the press to take that approach and to ensure that people are given encouragement to start business again. In the United States of America, people are not a success in business unless they have had at least one failure.

Objective 1

11.

Whether she has made a recent assessment of the effectiveness of objective 1 programmes in the UK. [123230]

The DTI and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are co-financing an evaluation of the added value and costs of EU structural funds in the UK, including in the objective 1 regions. That is expected to be completed before the end of 2003.

In addition, as required by the EU regulations, managing authorities and programme secretariats are currently carrying out mid-term evaluations of all structural funds programmes for the current programming period. Those will feed into the mid-term reviews, which will provide a basis for adapting the programming documents if necessary.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know that the largest objective 1 programme in the country is in west Wales and the valleys. That programme is proving to be effective for the regeneration of communities and the creation of jobs. Does she agree that there is a strong case to be made for simplifying the grant application process for the structural funds?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I understand that the specific objective 1 programme to which he refers is on target to deliver its important improvements for jobs in west Wales and the areas that it covers. I agree that we need to ensure that while getting the best out of the funds, we eliminate bureaucracy and reduce burdens whenever possible. It was, of course, during the 1999 renegotiations on the current programme of structural funds that the Government were able to push for, and make, improvements to the bureaucracy surrounding the administration of the structural funds. That will certainly have a significant bearing on our current work on improvements for the next tranche.

Minister For Women

The Minister was asked

Women Clergy

18.

What representations she has received about amending the law to give women clergy protection against discrimination. [123239]

I know that this is an area that my hon. Friend has actively pursued, not least earlier in this Question Time. Although we have received no specific representations about amending the law to give women clergy protection against discrimination, we are obviously pleased, as a Government who are keen to promote equality for women, that 2,000 women have been ordained in the Church of England since the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 was introduced.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the two women who were ordained into the Church in Wales by the Bishop of Monmouth last Saturday? Does she agree that although an increasing number of women have been ordained in the Anglican Church and other denominations, many face discrimination when seeking appointments? I urge her to ensure that women clergy get the same rights as other women in other occupations. They should be included in anti-discrimination and equal opportunities legislation.

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the recently ordained women to whom he referred. I was pleased that a woman priest presided in the House of Commons during our own Prayer session before Question Time. It is an important step forward for the Church. I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns about particular restrictions, such as those in section 19 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Although we have no plans to reform that, we will continue to keep the law as it applies to religious bodies under review in the light of developments in EU law.

Mr. Speaker, I wish you and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) many happy returns of the day. If anyone wants an additional birthday, I volunteer mine—I am in the mood to give them away.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I welcome her to the Dispatch Box in her new role and wish her all the best. I bring to her attention a worrying report entitled, "They shoot children don't they?", which focuses on child victims of paramilitary punishments in Northern Ireland. Will she speak to her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that women clergy in Northern Ireland who have condemned, and voiced their abhorrence of, paramilitary intimidation in their communities and congregations will not be discriminated against? I would appreciate that very much.

I have no doubt that the fact that the hon. Lady raised the issue in the House will have been important enough to highlight it. I undertake to ensure that the report to which she referred is brought to the attention of my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.

May I put on record my support for the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards)? Is the Minister aware of an organisation called the group for the rescinding of the Act of Synod? It organised a meeting two weeks ago at which I spoke, and many of the women in the group are angry because of the discrimination from which they still suffer 10 years on from the date when women were ordained into the Church of England.

I know that my hon. Friend also pays close attention to the issue. I am not aware of the group to which she refers, although I am certainly willing to consider its concerns if she passes them on to me. However, the very fact that she mentions the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, passed by the Synod of the Church of England, gives an idea of where the responsibility lies. I reiterate that I welcome the progress made by the Church of England. Despite the possibility contained in the measure of opting out of the welcome ability to ordain women, fewer than 1,000 parishes out of more than 13,000 have chosen to do that, although I do understand my hon. Friend's concerns.

Women's Pensions

19.

What recent discussions she has had with (a) the Treasury and (b) the Department for Work and Pensions on women's pensions. [123240]

The Department is in regular contact, at both ministerial and official level, with colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions about women's pensions. I welcome the commitment of the Department for Work and Pensions to consider this issue further in the light of the responses it received to its pensions Green Paper.

Given that pensioner poverty is highest among women, with almost three quarters of pensioners on income support being female, what action will the right hon. Lady take with other Departments to ensure that that does not get worse? Some 1.5 million women in their 40s and 50s are about to receive derisory pensions as low as 7p per week because they followed the Government's advice and paid the lower national insurance rate for married women.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the poverty of many women in retirement. We, of course, have made a great difference to those women with the minimum income guarantee, the pension credit and the increase in the basic retirement pension.

On the issue of the married women's stamp, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. When that option was available to them, women made their own decision whether to pay full contributions or the reduced rate. If they paid the reduced rate, they still receive 60 per cent. of their husband's pension. In today's terms, the husband gets a pension of £77 a week; the wife, having paid no contributions of her own, receives a pension of £46 a week. It would grossly unfair to give someone who had paid no contributions—[Interruption.]—who had paid the reduced married women's stamp, which was not designed to pay for a pension, the full single person's retirement pension. That would give her the same pension as a married woman who had chosen to pay the full stamp, thereby reducing her earnings when she was in work. That would be grossly unfair and I am astonished that it is the position of the Liberals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason why women are poor in retirement is that they have caring responsibilities and take time off to look after children or elderly parents? What does she intend to do to address that issue?

My hon. Friend is right. I know that she, like me, will welcome the fact that the second state pension, which we are introducing, will for the first time allow women and men who have taken time out of employment for caring responsibilities to build up a proper second pension on top of their basic pension. Over time, that will benefit millions of carers, the vast majority of whom are women.

Will the Minister confirm that women with broken national insurance records will not benefit in full from the Government's new pension credit? Will the Government follow the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that those women should be able to buy back the missing years?

I think that the hon. Lady is wrong about the pension credit, although I will check that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and write to her. It has always been possible for people to make additional contributions to fill broken records or missed contributions. Indeed, the Department for Work and Pensions and its predecessor have, on several occasions, written directly to married women who had chosen to pay the reduced contribution to draw their attention to the consequences that that would have for their pension provision.

National Insurance (Married Women)

20.

What discussions she has had with women's groups concerning the operation of the married women's national insurance stamp. [123241]

I have discussed the issue of women and pensions with a number of women's organisations, including the Women's Budget Group, the Women's National Commission, the National Black Women's Network and the National Federation of Women's Institutes. Of course, that included the operation of the married women's national insurance stamp.

Is the Minister familiar with the Support Women Against Poverty network, which we helped to establish, which brings together women throughout Britain who have a variety of concerns about the way in which the pension system works to the disadvantage of women? Would the right hon. Lady be willing to meet me and a group of these women from around Britain who have a range of concerns about the way that pensions are bad news for women, and listen to what they have to say?

Of course. However, I stress that in the steps that we have already taken on the state pension scheme, we have made a real difference for women pensioners in particular, including the proposals recently announced, for instance, to simplify pension splitting in divorce and to enable people to take the full pension value out of their occupational pension scheme, even if they have less than two years' service. We are taking further steps to improve pensions provision for women.

In the meetings, will my right hon. Friend include representations from those women who believe that their title of common law wife affords them legal protection, but who discover on the death of their invariably long-term partner that that is most certainly not the case in terms of pensions and the sharing of pensions?

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important point. Like her, some of my constituents discovered too late that being a common law wife has no status in law. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality has agreed that my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will consider how we can better inform women in this position about the legal risks that they are running should their relationship break up.

Business Of The House

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.

Iraq (Humanitarian Situation)

1.25 pm

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to repeat a statement made in another place by my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. She was in Iraq last week, in both Basra and Baghdad, and met representatives of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the United Nations, the military, Iraqi administrators, non-governmental organisations and UK civilian staff. She also visited a prison and a water treatment plant in Basra, and the British office in Baghdad.

Progress has been made in Basra. Days after the end of the conflict, British troops took off their flak jackets and helmets and talked to civilians, which set the tone for a progressive return to normal life, with the military presence now relatively unobtrusive. Life has regained an air of normality: people are out in the streets; the markets sell fruit and vegetables; cars are on the streets; and shops and restaurants are open.

Quick impact projects, implemented by British forces, together with the UN. NGOs and local authorities, have made a visible difference. Basic services, including water and electricity, have been restored to pre-war levels. The prison has been rehabilitated. The courthouse has been refurbished, and cases are now being heard. Work is under way to clean the city of solid waste and other health hazards. Medical services are functioning, albeit with localised shortages of specialist drugs and oxygen.

The House will, I am sure, want to pay tribute to UK forces for their very significant contribution, often working in difficult and at times dangerous circumstances, as the tragic deaths of the six Royal Military Police in Maysan last week all too clearly demonstrated.

The expectations of ordinary Iraqis are very high. The south suffered particular neglect under Saddam's regime, and was starved of investment for years. We need to do better than just restore services to their prewar levels. People expect and deserve more.

The situation in Baghdad is more difficult. Threats to security remain a significant obstacle to progress. Regrettably, attacks against the US military by ex-Ba'athists and criminals appear to have become more organised, as has sabotage of newly restored infrastructure, and there are worrying signs of threats to international personnel and Iraqis working with the coalition, which could undermine the developing links between the Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraqi Ministries. Worries over personal safety keep many Iraqis in their homes, rather than at work or school, and impact particularly on women and girls. Cuts in electricity and water supplies also disrupt everyday life. We are working to tackle these.

Some progress has been made on security: 30,000 Iraqi police officers have reported back for duty, a legal system is beginning to be re-established to control criminality, and the CPA has decided to pay stipends to ex-soldiers, which should help. We are working to put in place the conditions for Iraq to be seen, by its own citizens, to be policing itself rather than being controlled by Coalition forces. We attach a very high priority to the effective reform of the security sector.

Rapid and visible progress towards fully representative and democratic government is central to the future of Iraq. Iraqis must regain political control of their country as quickly as possible. While Iraqi-controlled local authorities are already working in a number of provincial towns, the process of establishing an Iraqi-led governing council is much more complex. This has to be done quickly, but it also has to be done right. The governing council needs to be representative, involving all the main parties and religious and ethnic groups, as well as providing for the effective involvement of women. The CPA is making progress on developing consensus among Iraqi representatives on the way forward, and importantly, the United Nations is closely involved in the process.

Much has been made of shortcomings in the CPA. That criticism has in many cases been overstated, but things clearly could improve, and the CPA's leadership, with UK support, is working hard to improve the authority's performance. That includes establishing better communications between headquarters and the regions, and—even more vitally—between the CPA and the Iraqi people. It is essential that the people understand what the CPA is doing and why, and that the CPA can understand their wishes.

Almost 100 secondees to the CPA from a wide range of UK Government Departments are now in partnership with Iraqi ministries, our US colleagues and the humanitarian agencies, helping to get the Iraqi civil administration back up and running. The Department for International Development now has 27 advisers in Iraq, including the CPA's recently appointed director of operations.

DFID is also making a substantial financial contribution to humanitarian agencies working on the ground. Our total financial commitment now stands at £154 million, most of which is channelled through organisations with the capacity and expertise to mount humanitarian operations quickly and effectively. I have today placed in the Libraries of both Houses details of the reconstruction work that has been undertaken so far by the agencies that we have been funding.

We are also working to support the longer-term reconstruction of Iraq. Much of the finance for that will come from Iraq's own oil revenues—initially through the development fund for Iraq, and subsequently through Iraq's own budget—but the international community also has an important role to play. In New York last week, informal meetings, which included Iraqi representatives, began preparations for a donors conference that is expected to take place in October. Details were also agreed on the assessment that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations will carry out in the intervening months. DFID will consider how best we can contribute to that longer-term reconstruction effort in the light of this work.

Years of sanctions and mismanagement by the Saddam regime have left the Iraqi economy very weak. Even before the conflict, only about half of the Iraqi work force were in full-time employment. Iraq's oil wealth and its relatively well-educated population should enable it to grow rapidly, once security has stabilised and a representative government are in place who can take long-term economic policy decisions.

Humanitarian agencies, with our support, returned to Iraq quickly after the conflict ended and have helped the country to recover from that conflict and the subsequent looting. The ability to do so was strengthened by good preparatory work, in part financed by DFID, and supported by our armed forces. But continued threats to security, particularly in Baghdad, remain a very significant constraint. The coalition is working urgently to address that in order to build on the progress achieved so far, and to make real, lasting and visible improvements to the lives of the Iraqi people.

Following her visit, the Secretary of State is urgently discussing with the Prime Minister and Cabinet colleagues what more we need to do to address the key priorities on the ground. We will continue to keep the House fully informed.

Does the statement's sanitised description of life returning to normal really match the reality for ordinary Iraqis? And why is there no apology for the failure to plan properly? On 3 February, the Prime Minister pledged to Members of this House that there would be

"a humanitarian plan that is every bit as viable and well worked out as a military plan."-[Official Report, 3 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 36.]
But on Monday, the Secretary of State admitted before the International Development Committee that the planning was poor. I understand that in the statement that has just been given in another place, the Secretary of State—how we wish, with no disrespect to the Minister, that she was in this House—said that she blames the chaos mainly on looting, which she said was impossible to predict. Since when, in the aftermath of a war, has looting been impossible to predict? The Secretary of State also denied that the Government were unprepared.

The director of Save the Children said in his evidence to the Select Committee:
"We were told that as much priority would be given to the humanitarian dimension as to the others. That could not have been the case, given where we have ended up."
So what confidence can the public now have in the Prime Minister's assurances? Why do the Government appear to be responding to events, rather than anticipating them? And where is the road map to a stable and secure, self-governing Iraq?

There are humanitarian problems, and it is the serious lack of security that is hampering attempts to return life to normal. Women and children do not feel safe on the streets. People are being forced to drink dirty water because water facilities have been sabotaged. Electricity is still intermittent, hospitals are still short of drugs and people are being operated on without anaesthetic. Yet all that we heard in the statement is that there are "localised shortages".

Can the Minister set out now how the Government hope to mange security in Iraq? Do we need more troops; did our Government support the de-mobbing of the Iraqi army; and what does the coalition plan for ex-soldiers, beyond the provision of a stipend? The visible presence of coalition troops on the main roads may give the impression of security, but the side-streets are still haunted by the shadow of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist militia. And what of the new threat of 10,000 Iranian-trained Shi'a militia, who are increasingly militant?

What matters from now on is that there is a clear, well-defined road map for how to get from occupation to Iraqi self-government, which needs to be laid out and shared with the Iraqi people. The Minister said that we need to communicate much more clearly to the Iraqi people what our intentions are. Will he set out how he intends to improve communications with ordinary Iraqis? How much money does the coalition administration need to run the country, and what is the strategy for raising it? He said that much will come from oil revenues, so why are there reported plans to sell off Iraqi national assets? Would this even be legal?

This statement does not reassure us that there is a clear plan for securing the future of Iraq. Although the Minister acknowledges that security is a problem, he does not say how it will be addressed. He says that Iraqis should run Iraq, but he does not say when or how this will take place. Aspirations are no substitute for a clear strategy. Does this not leave the UK's armed forces in an increasingly invidious position?

Yesterday, the nation paid respect to the six gallant men of the Royal Military Police, and we do pay tribute to all of our armed forces.[Interruption.]

But if we are to continue to risk our soldier's lives to prevent terrorists and weapons-proliferators from threatening us from that land again, why is there still no clear plan that can show how to bring peace and security to Iraq?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady began her comments by referring to my statement as a sanitised version. I do not accept that description at all; indeed, I regard it as a balanced account of the difficult situation that exists in Iraq, but which also recognises that progress has been made since the end of the conflict.

The hon. Lady makes a very fair point about the question of planning. As she will be aware, DFID, the UN and other agencies made considerable preparations for a range of eventualities, including the possibility of prolonged urban warfare, large-scale movement of the population and considerable disruption to the infrastructure, which in the end—thank goodness—did not transpire. That is one reason why the UN and other agencies, with financial support from DFID, were able to get up and running relatively quickly.

The truth is that we then found ourselves dealing with a different set of challenges as a result of the swift collapse of the regime: looting, and the subsequent initial breakdown in public services. The House needs to recognise and acknowledge that in a society on which the lid was kept for 25 years by fear and terror, a very different approach is required, particularly to policing, to which I shall return in a moment. In this case, the sensible action for DFID to take was to fund the agencies on the ground and support the reconstruction work. As I said, I have put the details in the Library today. What matters is not whose flag is on the activity, but whether the work gets done.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) asked specific questions about the water supply. Our funding has helped to pay for repairs to 40 sewage pumping stations across Iraq and for the delivery of drugs and medical supplies to 11 hospitals, 15 health centres and 37 clinics—part of an attempt to get the drug distribution system in Iraq back up and running. Those who visited Iraq and reported what they found told us that part of the problem was an ineffective distribution system to get the supplies from where they are held in warehouses to where they need to go. That is why the Department funds the distribution system. In many respects, the position has improved. Food distribution, for example, is working again. Of course lessons are to be learned from the process, but the most important consideration now is to get on with the task of reconstruction.

The hon. Lady also asked about the political process. She is absolutely right that, to complement the work on security, we need to get the political process working. As she knows, that is a twin-track process. We first set up a governing council that is broadly based and representative. Sergio de Mello, the UN Secretary-General's special representative, will report to the Security Council when the council has been established, after which it will appoint Iraqi Ministers. The second track is to set up the preparatory commission, whose job will be to provide a timetable for the constitutional process that will eventually lead to elections and Iraqi self-government. I accept that that is important, but it is for the commission to decide—[Interruption.] It is not for us or the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) to decide the timetable. The governing council wants it to happen during the course of this month. It must indeed be an Iraqi-owned process.

Finally, on policing, 30,000 Iraqi police are now back at work. As the hon. Lady will be aware, joint patrols have been stepped up and the chief constable of Hampshire led a team and produced a report on security sector and policing reform, which is now being taken forward by the CPA. The hon. Lady is absolutely right and we agree that security is the foundation on which the reconstruction of Iraq will be achieved.

It is absolutely clear to everyone that there was no coherent plan to deal with what is currently happening. The attacks on US troops are seriously worrying. We have heard warnings from two ayatollahs, one of whom issued a fatwa opposing the US plan for choosing who should rule Iraq, because Iraqis should themselves be able to choose. I have spoken to two soldiers who have returned from Basra and been debriefed. Their message to me was that the Iraqi people do not want us there. The Iraqis are utterly bitter about the number of civilians—now estimated at 7,000—who have been killed, with a further 15,000 having been injured. Is it not time for the full involvement of the UN? It is now for the UN to come up with a plan to take over the organisation of elections, which should be solely for the Iraqi people.

I do not accept my hon. Friend's description of an absence of preparation, and the whole House acknowledges the extent of the difficulties that we face. The whole House also fully understands the desire of the people of Iraq to speed up the process that will allow them to take decisions about the future of their country. If we had not taken action, we would not be having this discussion about the possibility of a new future for Iraq, a constitutional process and a governing council, because Saddam Hussein would still be in power. We should acknowledge that fact. Whatever people say about the difficulties in which Iraq currently finds itself, very few wish for the return of Saddam. That should be acknowledged as a starting-point within the process. I nevertheless accept the spirit of what my hon. Friend says about the need for the process to proceed speedily. I accept her point about UN involvement, which is why Sergio de Mello's contribution to overseeing the process of political reconstruction is so important.

I thank the Minister for the statement, even though it was second hand. I share the doubts expressed by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about the Secretary of State's assessment, following a two-day whistlestop tour of the country, of the position in Iraq. I happily acknowledge, however, that progress has been made in Basra, mainly because of our own armed forces. I saw at first hand in Kosovo how hard our soldiers work to restore services and the whole House should congratulate them on their work in the south of Iraq.

As we have heard, the real position in Iraq is much worse, and it is difficult for those who were against the rush to war from the very beginning not to say, "I told you so". It is all very well for the official Opposition to complain about the lack of progress to date, but, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, they voted for it all so they must accept the consequences.

The key to reconstruction, as everyone accepts, is security and the establishment of the rule of law. How long do the Iraqi people have to wait for sufficient peacekeepers to bring law and order to their land? The Iraqi people do not trust many of the civilian police. Is it not time for the UN to take over the security function and the building of a civilian Government who will have the respect of the Iraqi people?

When will water and electricity supplies be reliable enough for hospitals to function, and when will those same hospitals become secure enough to be administered under proper management, with proper equipment? Will the Minister comment on the incidence of cholera in Iraq, and on the very disturbing reports, following the looting of the nuclear plant, of radiation sickness among Iraqi people? When will criminal and religious violence against women be controlled, and how many women will be in the governing council of Iraq? Will the Minister also tell us how Iraq's enormous debt is to be dealt with?

Finally, does the Minister agree that the chaos and suffering in Iraq, following the reckless rush to war, was—as suggested by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) in a written statement on 13 March—due to insufficient planning by the US?

I do not accept the hon. Lady's last point, but I thank her for her acknowledgement of the contribution of UK forces, which is felt throughout the House. She is absolutely right about the primacy of security and the rule of law. Clearly, the release of 75,000 criminals has not helped, and I described earlier the steps taken by the CPA to deal with the problem.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, particularly among those who opposed the action in the first place.[Interruption.] I repeat that, if Saddam was still in control, we would not be having this discussion about the possibility of a new future for Iraq. Let us all recognise the importance of the achievement in removing him. The key point is that this is a very difficult task, and those who tap their watches and ask why it has not been done yet fail to understand the scale of that task. We are dealing with the consequences not of three weeks of conflict, but of 25 years of destruction of the country's politics and culture. That is what created the difficulties with which we now have to deal.

The hon. Lady asked about the cholera outbreak. There was an outbreak, but it has been managed and, thankfully, no deaths have been reported. It was a matter of considerable concern, but the system has responded reasonably effectively to it.

I concur with the hon. Lady about the importance of women's involvement in the political process. She will be aware of the meeting that took place in May in preparation for the women's conference planned for later this month. The British Government continue to press strongly for the view that the position of women should play its proper part in the governance of Iraq—though, in the end, it is for the Iraqi people to determine under the new structures.

On debt, the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) will be aware that the Paris Club has indicated its willingness to look at Iraq's sovereign debts. The assessment being made by the IMF, the World Bank and the UN will feed into the donors conference in October. That will give us the opportunity to take a wider and longer-term view of the debt position in Iraq.

My hon. Friend the Minister was just asked about the civil nuclear facility at al-Tuwaitha. I want to follow up on that question, as 500 radioactive barrels were looted from that site, and used by local villagers for water storage. Is he aware that the US is offering only $3 for each returned barrel, whereas a new barrel costs $15? Will he congratulate Greenpeace, which is collecting contaminated barrels and giving out new ones free? Equally importantly, or even more so, will he press for the International Atomic Energy Agency to be given the full mandate that it is seeking to tackle this serious humanitarian and radiological crisis?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and I apologise to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) for not responding to her point on the same issue. The House will be aware of the reports that the population in the area of the alTuwaitha nuclear facility had taken drums and containers and that they had emptied low-enriched uranium from them and taken them off for use as water storage. I was not aware of the steps being taken by Greenpeace, although it sounds like a commendable initiative.

To date, the World Health Organisation has not received any reports of suspected radiation sickness in local hospitals, although it has received reports of possible exposure to risk. Consequently, it has sent a team to the area to assess local health facilities and patterns of admission, and whether there have been any reported cases of exposure locally. It would be sensible to reflect on what that teams report, but I shall bear in mind the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).

I recognise that real progress has been made in difficult circumstances, but is not it worrying that the mood of the average man in the street seems to be changing? It has gone from relief to disillusionment and now—worryingly—to resentment. Will the Minister share with the House the strategy that exists to win back the hearts and minds of ordinary people in Iraq?

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point. Two things need to be done: we must make progress on security and get the political process moving as quickly as possible. There has to be clarity about the timetable, as the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) noted earlier. Improving people's day-to-day lives and providing clarity about how long it will take for the Iraqi people to have the chance to take decisions about their country's future are the best things that we can do. We must continue to work hard at that to overcome the frustration that of course people feel. There is a great wish, especially after 25 years of trauma, to get on with establishing a new future for the country. The responsibility on the coalition is to make sure that those two things can be achieved.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) spoke gently and politely, but I have seldom been so angry with an Opposition statement. What on earth did the Opposition think would happen? The shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Defence Secretary goaded the Government into this folly. You are all in it together—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing Member of the House. He knows that he must direct his questions and remarks to the Minister who is making the statement to the House today.

My question is very precise. It concerns British troops. The first wave became gradually acclimatised, and that is all very well, but we are now sending members of the services straight into the sweltering heat of Basra, where temperatures reach 52 degrees. Given the security position in which our forces find themselves, how on earth can they be expected to keep their cool throughout? We are asking a heck of a lot of the Army. I ask the same question as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon): for how long do we delay bringing in the UN? The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is right to say that things are turning sour. People are moving from acceptance to outright hostility. Our forces are seen more and more as an occupying army, and not as a liberating army. We ought to understand the consequences of that.

My hon. Friend will be aware that there is agreement across the House on the need to make progress as quickly as possible to address the points that he raises. He asks specifically about how the British forces who will be arriving in Iraq shortly are meant to cope. My answer is, simply, that I would expect them to cope with exactly the same professionalism and dedication to their duties as those who will leave shortly have demonstrated. As I think all hon. Members will recognise, their work has made a great contribution to the improvement that has taken place, especially in the south and particularly in Basra.

Does the Minister recall that on 4 June the Prime Minister crowed to this House that those who said that Iraq might turn out to be his Vietnam had been proved wrong? Given the continuing level of allied casualties, would not the Prime Minister have shown less hubris if he had simply said that he did not know what lay ahead in Iraq, but that he would be resolute in seeing the task through to the end?

We certainly do need to be resolute and to see the task through to the end. I believe that those who choose to make analogies with Vietnam are mistaken, principally because the starting point was the overthrow of Saddam's regime. A majority in the House voted for that, although I recognise that there are hon. Members who did not support the decision. I repeat that we would not be having this discussion about a new future for Iraq if the action had not been taken, but the scale of the task facing us is very considerable. We owe it to the people of Iraq to see it through.

Rebuilding Iraq and establishing democracy there would be greatly facilitated if the UN were in charge, but will my hon. Friend say what role the new and developing free trade union movement will play? Trade unionists are united by common interests, rather than being divided into sectarian and ethnic groups. They will form the bulk of voters in a new Iraq, and they will also be the workers who will accomplish the reconstruction and rebuilding of the country. If the unions are to have a role, what will be the attitude of the US towards them?

The UN plays a very important role in the political process, particularly because resolution 1483 has given Sergio de Mello special responsibility for overseeing the establishment of the political process. His contribution and report to the Security Council on that process will be very important in taking the matter forward. I agree about the importance of supporting the establishment, in all aspects of Iraqi life, of the institutions of a functioning democracy. The trade union movement has suffered enormously, and the Government certainly wish to encourage that and other aspects of civil society. They will all contribute to the process of enabling the new democracy to be more than just a constitution and words on a document. We want it to be a living and breathing entity that enables the Iraqi people, over time, to take control of the destiny of their country.

I may be accused of benefiting from hindsight, but the Minister will accept that at an early stage I expressed concern about the consequences of the war. Does he agree that searches need to be conducted sensitively, especially when men burst into houses in which women have normally been sheltered? We must understand the views on Islam on that issue. When the Minister spoke about there being three months before the donor countries conference is held, I could not help but think that that was a bit like the waiting lists in the health service. Given the magnitude of the task they face, is it not possible to call the countries together sooner, so that they can start their planning earlier?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he is right about the importance of being sensitive to local culture and custom. I know that UK forces are acutely aware of the need for that sensitivity, and it is something that they hold dear to their hearts when they carry out their work.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, we have already made progress on bringing the donors together for the UN flash appeal. A further meeting was held in New York last week, which included representatives from Iraq who discussed what they felt would be needed for the future of the country. That has brought forth additional funds to support the money that has already been pledged. It is right that we should allow the World Bank, the IMF and the UN to make the detailed assessments. In one sense, three months is a long time, but we are talking about long-term reconstruction, so it is right that we should give them the chance to do that work as we shall have a more informed donors conference in October once that work has been completed.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) that any objective observer must conclude that there was a near total lack of preparation for the post-war needs of Iraqi society. However, I also agree with the Minister when he says that we need to do more than restore services to pre-war levels. When will services be restored to even those minimal levels, to cater for humanitarian needs and, for example, broadcasting and communication? What action is being taken to distinguish between those Ba'athists who are loyal to Saddam Hussein and those who joined the Ba'ath party only from expediency, who do not have a record of corruption and abuse and can, therefore, contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq?

In answer to my hon. Friend's first question, progress has been made in Basra in reaching pre-war levels with, for example, the electricity supply, although we need to go further. In Baghdad, progress had been made but the situation worsened last week as a result of acts of sabotage, which reinforces the point about security. A lot of money, investment, time and effort have gone into restoring the electricity supply and some people are setting out to undermine that. We have to deal with that problem to ensure that the electricity supply is constant, because people need it; it is needed to pump the sewerage system and so on.

My hon. Friend's second point, about de-Ba'athification, is important. It is vital that those who played a leading role in the old regime, and all that flowed from that, should be removed from their positions but, at the same time, the de-Ba'athification policy should be sensibly applied because we need to ensure that services can continue to function. The CPA is extremely conscious of the position and needs to reflect on it as it takes the process forward.

Adam Price
(East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)