Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 447: debated on Thursday 22 June 2006

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 26 June—Second Reading of the Charities Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 27 June—A debate on pensions reform on a Government motion.

Wednesday 28 June—A motion to approve the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Code of Practice C and Code of Practice H) Order 2006, which is the order relating to the extension of the detention period to 28 days, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the National Lottery Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Childcare Bill.

Thursday 29 June—Remaining stages of the Commons Bill [Lords].

Friday 30 June—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 3 July—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on the work of the Electoral Commission, followed by a debate on human reproductive technologies and the law. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 10pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Tuesday 4 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 3) Bill, followed by the Ways and Means resolution on the Finance (No. 2) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

Wednesday 5 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

Thursday 6 July—A debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 7 July—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 and 13 July will be as follows:

Thursday 6 July—A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on the analogue switch-off.

Thursday 13 July—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on the efficiency savings programme in Jobcentre Plus.

Following is the information: In so far as they relate to human reproductive technologies and the law (Fifth report of the Science and Technology Committee, session 2004-05 (HC 7-1) and the Government response (CM 6641) and the Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, A Public Consultation, Department of Health, 2005)

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the coming two weeks. I am sure that he will have seen the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, which stated that the West Lothian question was now

“a time bomb that urgently needs to be defused”.

As he will also know, my right hon. Friend Lord Baker introduced a Bill in another place to resolve that problem. Will the Government bring forward proposals to address the issue and will there be a debate on the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee?

Did the Leader of the House see the report today of head teacher Peter Brackley, who has been praised by Ofsted for his outstanding educational vision, but is quitting teaching because of too much Government interference? Mr. Brackley is reported as saying:

“I have grown increasingly frustrated by the constant avalanche of central government policies many of which are ill-conceived and inadequately resourced. Sadly education suffers from too much interference and not enough trust”.

Can we have a statement from the Education Secretary on how he intends to reduce Government interference and restore trust in our teachers?

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) asked the Prime Minister:

“A year ago, my friend told us that a decision to replace Trident would have to be made in this Parliament. Would not it be an absolute outrage if billions were squandered on a new generation of nuclear weapons without a vote in the House?”

The Prime Minister’s response was:

“As I think I said before, there should be the fullest possible debate on the issue. I am sure that there will be and that, yes, the decision will have to be taken in this Parliament.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1315.]

He did not comment on whether there would be a vote in the House, so will the Leader of the House tell us whether the debate on Trident and the future of the nuclear deterrent will take place on a substantive motion, thus enabling hon. Members to vote on the issue? When will that debate be held?

Of course, that question of timing is more relevant given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Mansion House speech last night that he believed in retaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent in the long term. Of course, what the Chancellor said and what his aides briefed out were different. He talked about retaining the nuclear deterrent, yet the briefing referred to the replacement of Trident. The Financial Times reported:

“‘Gordon is in no doubt that if the military chiefs recommend a full replacement for Trident then that is what we must deliver,’ said a close ally of Mr Brown.”

I know that a defence debate is about to take place, but will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor to come to the House to make a statement on Trident so that he may answer questions from hon. Members about his speech and Government policy in the area?

Of course, it is not unusual for the Chancellor to deal with matters that are not in his direct remit. In the past six months, he has spoken about liberty and the role of the state, Britishness, security and anti-terrorism, and the environment. Given that the Chancellor now has such a wide-ranging role, will the Leader of the House arrange for time in the parliamentary programme for questions to the Prime Minister-designate?

Finally, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the influence of popular culture on political life? I am sure that many hon. Members will be saddened to hear about the demise of “Top of the Pops”, which has played such a role in the cultural life of the nation. Of course, pop songs can be very relevant to politics. For example, given the Home Secretary’s recent problems, I wonder whether he should listen to the U2 track “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Perhaps we could have a touch of Dire Straits for the Deputy Prime Minister with the track “Money for Nothing”. I suppose that the Chancellor might look to Diana Ross with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Perhaps the Prime Minister would like the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Talking of clashes, perhaps the Chancellor would describe his relationship with the Prime Minister with the White Stripes track “Every Day I Love You Less and Less”. Or, given the Chancellor’s commitment to new Labour, maybe his track for him and the Prime Minister should be Elton John’s “Friends Never Say Goodbye”:

“There isn’t much I haven’t shared

With you along the road…

Who’s to say who’s right or wrong

Whose course is braver run

Still we are, have always been

Will ever be as one”.

The first question that the right hon. Lady asked me was about the West Lothian question and the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, which I have indeed read with interest. We have no plans for an immediate debate on the issue. It has been debated at great length. What the Conservatives—who used to be called the Conservative and Unionist party and were concerned about the break-up of the Union—need to think about is that however superficially sedulous the West Lothian question may be, it is a very dangerous idea to argue that Members of this House should not be able to vote on issues that affect the whole of the United Kingdom. We determine in this House, with a vast majority of English MPs, total spending in the Scottish Parliament, because we decide the block grant. We decide many other issues for Scotland. It was we who decided to vote, again with a majority of English MPs, in favour of the Scotland Act 1998 and of the Government of Wales Act 1998. We are a unitary country and we remain so. I am proud to have been a member of an Administration which, with support from the Liberal Democrat party and others, ensured a good measure of devolution to Scotland and Wales, while preserving the Union.

The right hon. Lady’s second question was about the head teacher who is mentioned in one of the newspapers. Of course I am very sorry, as I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is, about that particular head teacher and his concerns about education. However, we should not generalise from the concerns of one individual. Anybody who goes into schools across the country can see the dramatic improvement that is shown by many indicators. It is shown in the salaries of head teachers and in the professional support now given to head teachers. Above all, it is shown in the fantastic increase in standards being delivered by those head teachers to our schoolchildren. It is reprehensible of the Opposition to seek to denigrate the fantastic performance of teachers across the country in raising standards for all our children.

The right hon. Lady then asked me about Trident. Our manifesto at the 2005 general election stated that we—the Labour Government—are

“committed to retaining the independent nuclear deterrent”.

In speaking about the longer term, as well as this Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was fully consistent with that manifesto commitment put before the British people at the last election. Decisions on Trident’s replacement have yet to be taken. When they have been taken, they will be put to Parliament in a White Paper. I cannot anticipate at this stage the most appropriate form of debate, but it will be in a form that shows proper respect for the House. I hope that by the time of our White Paper and the debate, the Conservative party will have determined not just what its policy is on Trident, but whether it has a policy.

If that is the policy, why was it not mentioned in the Conservatives’ 2005 manifesto? The 2005 Conservative manifesto was completely silent on the issue of Trident’s replacement.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Prime Minister-designate. I am glad to know that she believes that the Prime Minister-designate is the Chancellor, not the Leader of the Opposition. Finally—I congratulate her researchers on their efforts—she came up with some laboured quotations from titles of various pop songs. I will not try and compete with her—I apologise for that—except to say that, like her, I deeply regret the passing of “Top of the Pops”, which connected me, and no doubt her, to our youth.

My right hon. Friend will aware of the Friends of the Earth’s Big Ask campaign, which is about trying to get a Bill on climate change into the Queen’s Speech. It is a big issue—I had a huge meeting at Lambeth Friends of the Earth last week—and we want to set targets year by year. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on climate change before the end of the Session so that Members who have been involved with the campaign might influence what goes into the Queen’s Speech?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the issue, as I know of her constituents’ great concern and of the work that she has done. She, in turn, will know that it has become a major priority not only for the Government but, through our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, for the G8, and it will be followed up at the forthcoming G8 summit in St. Petersburg. I cannot promise a debate before we rise for the summer recess, but I promise that I will do my very best to see whether we can have a debate this Session before the Queen’s Speech.

What are the right hon. Gentleman’s intentions regarding a welfare reform Bill? The consultation paper from the Department for Work and Pensions makes the process clear:

“The timescale is now pressing (given that we intend to have the new Employment and Support Allowance in place from 2008). We therefore hope to introduce a Welfare Reform Bill in this Parliamentary session and to seek Royal Assent by Easter 2007.”

Is it the intention to introduce a Bill before the summer recess, and is it the right hon. Gentleman’s intention that it should be carried over to the next parliamentary Session, which is the only conclusion that we can draw from the statement in the White Paper?

Once again, can I ask for a debate on post offices? I accept that this is a well-worn track, as the issue has been raised by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, but it remains a pressing need. I will receive two petitions this weekend from constituents who are concerned about the future of their local post offices. I did not organise those petitions—they were organised by my constituents, who are worried about the future of their local post office. There is a pressing need to hold a debate, because the termination of the Post Office card account has been announced, and sub-post offices have lost the right to issue the BBC television licence. I understand that, next year, the contract with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for the issuing of the road fund licence is to end. Before a decision is made to give that contract to someone else, can we have a debate in the House on the future of the Post Office?

Finally, as the nights are now drawing in, may I set the scene for our consideration late in the evening and ask for a debate on the conundrum of ministerial responsibility, which puzzles all of us? Yesterday, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) asked a question about the new post of liveability Minister. The Prime Minister did not deny that he was going to make such an appointment, but he did not confirm it, nor did he give any indication of who would be the liveability Minister. However, he said:

“Liveability is the ability of local communities to be free from crime and fear”.—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1315.]

I take the old-fashioned view that making sure that communities are free from crime and fear is the job of the Home Secretary, so is that a responsibility of which he has now officially divested himself?

On a welfare reform Bill, we hope to introduce such a measure. It is a candidate for carry-over, on which there will be consultations with the usual channels. The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on post offices, implying that there had not been any debates on the financing of rural post offices. However, there have been a great many, not least on the Adjournment and in Westminster Hall. He will know that because of changes to the way in which people communicate with one another and in banking practice, the Post Office operates in a more commercial environment. No, I cannot promise a debate before a decision is made by the Post Office—and not by Ministers—on whether it can win a contract with, for example, the DVLA, because that is a matter between the DVLA and the Post Office. Of course, issues of public service will be taken fully into account. Notwithstanding the closure of some post offices, 99 per cent. of people in urban areas—I accept that the figure is lower in rural areas—live within a mile of their local post office, and the network of post offices is still substantial. In addition, the level of subsidy from the public purse to support the network in rural areas is still very high.

On the interesting issue of ministerial responsibilities and liveability, we are all responsible for making sure that our communities are liveable, but I wish that a different word had been chosen—

The English language is always developing, but sometimes developments take place that we may not appreciate.

The Home Secretary remains fully responsible for our law and order policy. Government policies on health, housing, the built environment and education all contribute to whether an area is congenial, peaceful, quiet and enjoyable—in other words, liveable.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the present debate about Thames Water, which has decreased its capital spending while increasing prices enormously? May we have a debate on the whole saga since privatisation of the water companies by the Conservative party? The public not only in the Thames region, but across the country, feel that they are being ripped off by companies that shove up the salaries of their senior operatives—the chief executive and so on—and shove up prices for the consumer, but do not invest in order to provide the water supply that we need.

I will do my best. My hon. Friend is reflecting widespread concern, particularly on this side of the House, about the original water privatisation conducted by the Conservative party. Something has gone wrong with the balance between investment and profit. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has witnessed the huge waste of water that pours from an unending series of leaks which, after years and years of claiming to have put them right, Thames Water still allows to happen.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the United States Senate is this week considering American policy in Iraq and that the House of Representatives had a similar opportunity quite recently. Does it not remain a disgrace that, in more than a year since the previous general election, the Government have not provided any time in this House for British Government policy on Iraq to be fully debated? Will the Leader of the House give us a categorical assurance today that such an opportunity will be provided before the House rises for the summer recess?

With respect, that is simply incorrect. Today’s main debate is on defence. [Interruption.] The most important priority for our defence forces—[Interruption.]

Order. We must be temperate in our language. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman asks a question, he must remain silent when the answer is given.

There is an Adjournment debate today on defence, when those issues not only can be raised, but will be raised and have been raised in the past. Our policy on Iraq is of fundamental importance to our defence forces, because they are implementing it. Furthermore, there will be a debate on armed forces personnel, which is another opportunity to raise the issue. I do not accept the premise of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question.

Before I ask my question, I should point out to the House that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was incorrect, because “Every Day I Love You Less and Less” is sung by the Kaiser Chiefs, not the White Stripes, which demonstrates that in popular culture, as in other things, the Conservative party has got it completely wrong. With reference to the right hon. Lady, I am tempted to refer to the Artic Monkeys’ song, “Mardy bum”, but I shall be more gracious, and say, “I bet you look good on the dance floor”.

Following the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to this House last week, and given the hugely significant events in the middle east, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the Floor of the House in Government time on the peace process in the middle east? Recent Adjournment debates on that subject have been absolutely packed—

Thank you. Given the UK Government’s vital role in the peace process, such a debate would allow hon. Members to discuss the issue, Government policy and future prospects for peace in the middle east.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his corrections in respect of the poor research by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I say to her affectionately that that shows the danger for those of us of a certain age—[Interruption]—I am speaking for myself—in trying to pretend that we have knowledge of the younger generation.

I understand the concerns about the need for a wide debate on middle east foreign policy. The programme until the summer recess is under considerable pressure, but we will do our best.

The House has a genuine problem. The Chancellor of the Exchequer regularly makes speeches on issues beyond his Department, such as Trident, Northern Ireland and sub-Saharan Africa. You, Mr. Speaker, would rule us out of order if we were to ask the Chancellor about those subjects at Treasury questions, so we need a mechanism for the Prime Minister-elect, as I think that he would like to be known, to come to the Dispatch Box. Will the Leader of the House relieve the Deputy Prime Minister of his Question Time—which the Deputy Prime Minister, who no longer has any responsibilities anyway, clearly dislikes—to allow the Chancellor to come to the Dispatch Box to answer questions beyond his Department, which we would find very interesting?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity. We all make speeches that range more widely than our immediate responsibilities, and we have always done so.

If the right hon. Gentleman were to come to Blackburn town centre on a Saturday when I am doing my soapbox sessions, he would see that I range across Government policy, which I hope that I remember correctly.

Will the Leader of the House bring forward the date for the next energy debate? Energy security should be at the core of the debate because it is the most important issue. Incidentally, “Keep on running” by Spencer Davis would have been a better response to the shadow Leader of the House.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead has started something. Perhaps we will keep it going next time.

Energy security is of fundamental importance, and it is one of the reasons why we are currently conducting a full review of energy policy. A White Paper will be presented to the House in due course, and once it is before the House, it will be debated.

The Leader of the House knows that yesterday Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor called for a review of abortion law in the light of the fact that most babies born at 24 weeks now survive and that last year there were more than 3,000 abortions at or after 20 weeks. Will the Leader of the House facilitate a Committee of both Houses to examine the matter in measured and considered terms and then make time for a debate on that Committee’s conclusions?

I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman, His Grace Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and many others have about this, but he will appreciate that equally strong views are held on the other side of the argument. The hon. Gentleman requests the establishment of a Joint Committee of both Houses. Joint Committees are sometimes established, but usually for specific purposes. I have not yet heard a good case made for establishing a Joint Committee for this purpose. We have a very adequate arrangement in this House called the Select Committee on Health, which, if it wishes, can establish its own inquiry into the matter. Then, depending on the weight of its recommendations, we would consider whether to provide time on the Floor of the House. I think that that is the appropriate way to proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and I have different perspectives on the middle east situation, but I fully endorse his request for a debate in Government time on the Israel-Palestine situation. His Westminster Hall debate was very well attended by hon. Members from both sides of the House with widely differing opinions, and it was exactly the same story a few months ago in a debate called by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), when more Members wanted to speak than there was time available. If my right hon. Friend looks at the Order Paper, he will see an early-day motion that already has 93 signatures, calling for both sides in that conflict—not one side, but both sides—to renounce violence, and for a return to a negotiated settlement, not unilateral actions. This is a matter of great concern to Members on both sides of the House, and I endorse the call for an early debate to give everyone a chance to express a view on this key matter for world security.

I note what my hon. Friend says. I understand his deep commitment to the issue, which is widely shared, from different perspectives, across the House. I will consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Chief Whip. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but in turn I ask him, and the House generally, to understand the pressures on the parliamentary programme.

Is the Leader of the House aware that on Tuesday the Northern Ireland Grand Committee had one of its shortest meetings, following a protest by several Members about the Government’s failure to resolve the issue of permitting the Grand Committee to meet in Northern Ireland, which left only three of Northern Ireland’s 18 Members of Parliament present in the Committee? On 8 June the Leader of the House wrote to me indicating that he would not be surprised that there remains an absence of consensus on this issue. The Conservatives have said that they would like the Committee to meet in Northern Ireland, and the Liberal Democrats have done the same. The Government have said that they are content that it should meet in Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists have said that they want it to meet in Northern Ireland. That leaves only the Social Democratic and Labour party. Why should three Members of this House be able to veto what more than 640 others might wish to happen? On the BBC website this week, the SDLP’s leader is quoted as saying that his party was not opposed to the Committee meeting in Northern Ireland. If there is now a consensus, will the Leader of the House give us a firm undertaking that the next meeting of that Committee will be in Northern Ireland?

The big question is whether there is a consensus. The hon. Gentleman spelled out why that is not the case at the moment. Of course I would like there to be a consensus—but what he describes is not a consensus but a disagreement. I will pursue the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see whether further steps, to which he is very committed, can be taken to reach the consensus that so far has proved elusive.

In 2007, it will be the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, led by the Hull MP, William Wilberforce. My hon. Friend the Minister for Culture is visiting Hull next week to see what celebrations we are planning. Will my right hon. Friend say what plans there are for the House to mark this important anniversary?

I accept that the anniversary is extremely important. During the visit by the United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, we went to the slavery museum in Liverpool, which was a poignant time for her, just as I had visited the civil rights museum in her birthplace of Birmingham, Alabama, which for me raised the issue of slavery very powerfully. I cannot make an announcement at this stage about plans by the Government or for this House, but I promise to talk to my hon. Friend. I accept the importance of ensuring that this 200th anniversary is appropriately marked.

The Leader of the House may be aware that I have served as chairman of the campaign for defence and multilateral disarmament, the object of which is to promote an informed dialogue about the nuclear deterrent. Does he agree that that subject is not only of profound importance to this country, and indeed to mankind, but complicated? May we have an early debate in Government time on the nuclear deterrent and its replacement? It is far too important a subject to leave to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to throw away in a reference—or career move—in a speech at Mansion house, which was subsequently denied by his staff.

I have already said that there will be a debate, and there will be a White Paper. Our manifesto was clear on this issue, while the hon. Gentleman’s party’s manifesto, despite having been drafted by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who is now Leader of the Opposition, was completely silent on whether the Conservatives would continue with the nuclear deterrent if they were to be returned. What my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in talking about the long term was entirely consistent with our manifesto commitment, which states:

“We are…committed to retaining the independent nuclear deterrent”.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s interest and expertise in this field. As he said, it is not only an issue that generates a lot of emotion but a complicated matter, and the more debate there is, the better.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2391, on the International Whaling Commission’s decision to lift the 20-year moratorium on the killing and slaughter of those beautiful mammals?

[That this House notes with concern the fact that for the first time the pro-whaling alliance won a majority of support at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voting to end the 20 year old whaling moratorium; recognises that to end the moratorium a majority of 75 per cent, is required and that the 51 per cent, majority secured is a major shift in the IWC stance; condemns the actions of Japan and other whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland who have campaigned to secure the votes of small African and Caribbean countries in exchange for multi-million dollar foreign aid packages; and calls on members of the IWC to put the interests of many and often rare species of whale ahead of narrow self-interest.]

May I ask my right hon. Friend to use his good offices to work with the appropriate Department and Minister to get that decision changed, or to explore ways in which we can ban the sale of products derived from the killing and slaughter of those poor mammals?

As the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), is the only female representative on the Conservative Benches, perhaps “Only the Lonely” would be an appropriate song for her—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, “Man, I Feel Like a Woman”. [Interruption.]

The question was about the International Whaling Commission and what was described as the disgraceful position taken by it. I have a helpful note here headed “Government position”, which is completely blank, and another headed “Lines to take”, which is also completely blank, so I will make it up myself—as I usually do.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). He will know that the British Government’s position has been consistent in trying to preserve and maintain those beautiful mammals.

May I support the call for an early debate on the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility, which seems to have taken some punishment recently? Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to take part in that debate and explain what he meant by what he is reported to have said in today’s edition of The Times, when asked what would happen if he failed to improve the Home Office:

“What happens when any Cabinet minister fails at the Home Office? I think we’ve lost four.”

Does the Leader of the House regard that as a comradely remark?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was not referring only to Cabinet Ministers when he mentioned losing four Home Office Ministers—it was four in aggregate. I am happy to say that that excludes me. I was at the Home Office as Home Secretary for four very happy and successful years—some say. There was the most intensive engagement in respect of Home Office issues—law and order, asylum and immigration, passports and much else. During the 2001 general election, I was pursued—almost literally—by the ever-vigorous right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who was then shadow Home Secretary. Despite the Opposition’s campaign, or perhaps because of it, and perhaps because of my record too, I am pleased to say that we won the election, not least on Home Office issues.

Last Friday, I received a welcome letter from the prisons Minister confirming that child sex offenders will not be placed in the bail hostel in my constituency, in response to a request that I made to the Home Office more than two years ago. This week there have been interviews with a chief constable who is not, and has never been, connected with my constituency, but is trying to put a different spin on the subject. May we have a debate on whether chief constables should stand for election if they are to be allowed to comment on things outwith their immediate purview?

Chief constables are entitled to their opinions, but they must accept that if they go into matters of great controversy, others will criticise them. It is the Conservative party that is currently considering whether to have elected police chiefs.

As a result of provisions in the Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act 2000 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003, police and probation services have the right to disclose information about sex offenders to the public or other bodies on a selective basis when they consider it appropriate. My hon. Friend’s experience of knowing about offenders and making representations, and the subsequent decision of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, all suggest that that policy is working. However, my right hon. Friend has announced that a Home Office Minister will go to America to consider the current application of what has been called Megan’s law. As I have said publicly, six years after the murder of Sarah Payne and the measures that we originally introduced, it is appropriate to consider whether we can draw on experience from overseas.

May we please have a debate in Government time on the loathsome scourge of human trafficking? Given that the Council of Europe convention on the subject was tabled in May 2005 and that so far no fewer than 24 of the 46 Council members have signed up to it, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a debate would allow the Home Secretary to explain why the Government still feel unable to sign it? After all, it would guarantee minimum standards of protection and treatment for all trafficked people.

The Government are not only committed to dealing with what the hon. Gentleman rightly describes as the scourge of human trafficking, but have taken many practical steps to tackle it. I am not immediately familiar with the reasons why we have not signed up to the convention so far. I promise to write to him as well as taking up the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. If there is a case for a debate, of course we will arrange one.

My right hon. Friend, more than anyone, knows about the continuing tragedy in Darfur. There was some optimism a few weeks ago, and I give due credit to the Secretary of State for International Development for managing to put together a peace agreement. However, since then there has been nothing but obstruction in Khartoum of the attempt to move from African Union to United Nations troops coming in to enforce the peace. Sadly, there is much evidence of small arms flooding into Darfur, especially from China, as the rebel groups splinter. Is not it time that hon. Members had a genuine opportunity to discuss in the Chamber what is happening in Darfur? It is a huge problem, and the eyes of the world are on it, but progress remains slow.

I accept my hon. Friend’s case. I am familiar with the continuing tragedy and outrage that is Darfur. I was more optimistic when, in January, I spoke firmly to all parties involved in the peace process in Abuja. Not least because of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, we have got the agreement, but as my hon. Friend says, too many in Khartoum still resist implementing it.

I accept that we should have a debate if we have time. On arms flooding into Sudan, one of the reasons for the Government’s commitment to obtaining and implementing an international arms trade treaty is that once it exists, we can take genuine measures against not only the ballistic and nuclear weapons that are there but small arms and light weapons, which are all too readily available and fuel all conflicts, especially in Africa.

I wonder whether time could be found for a debate on the so-called private finance initiative to fund public buildings, services and facilities, which often ends up with the public paying considerably more for less. The scheme for the expansion of Colchester general hospital through PFI collapsed last week, leaving the NHS with a bill of £3 million wasted and the private sector with a bill of £7 million wasted, which it is trying to claim back from the NHS. The result is £10 million lost, no new facility and the voluntary sector in the town, which provides so much support for the health service, being denied its revenue because the NHS says that it cannot afford it.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apply for an Adjournment debate on that issue; it is obviously a good subject for one. I do not know the details of what has happened in Colchester, but I stress that the PFI has generally been successful in ensuring much earlier investment in hospital services than would otherwise be the case. I waited 25 years for promises that the previous Government made to build a new hospital in my constituency to be fulfilled. It never happened, but as a result of a PFI decision in 1998, we now have a brand new district general hospital almost completed, up and running.