The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 16 October—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “Post Office Network”, followed by a debate entitled “The Green Tax Switch”. Both arise on an Opposition motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.
Tuesday 17 October—Progress on remaining stages of the Companies Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 18 October—Progress on remaining stages of the Companies Bill [Lords].
Thursday 19 October—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Companies Bill [Lords].
Friday 20 October—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the following week will include:
Monday 23 October—Remaining stages of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords].
As I am sure the House will appreciate, at this time in the parliamentary year it is necessary to have some degree of flexibility when timetabling business. I will of course endeavour to give the House early notice of forthcoming business, but for the immediate future, I am afraid that I can announce business only for a week and a day ahead, because if I were to announce it for longer than that, it would only end up being changed.
I should also like to inform the House about business in Westminster Hall:
Thursday 26 October—A debate on the report from the Education and Skills Committee on special educational needs.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business of the House for the coming week. I start by congratulating him on arranging for hon. Members to be able to table written questions during the recess. However, may I also ask him whether he has assessed the value of that exercise, in particular the impact on Government accountability?
During the recess, the Modernisation Committee, which the Leader of the House chairs, published a report on the legislative process. When does he expect that any of the changes proposed might be considered by the House and introduced? When does he expect to be able to publish the calendar for the sittings of the House in the coming year?
Today is the anniversary of the Bali bombing, where a number of British citizens were among those who lost their lives. There is no system of compensation for UK citizens who are the victims of terrorist attacks abroad. Can we have a debate on that important issue?
Can we also have a debate, or a statement from the Home Secretary, on the use of figures and the compilation of statistics by the Home Office? I ask that in the light of a Home Office reply to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). He asked how many people have been arrested under anti-terrorism legislation and how long they were kept before being charged or released. The Leader of the House will realise that that is crucial to the debate on the time for which people may be held without charge and on 28 days versus 90 days.
The reply from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety was clear:
“The Home Office does not collate information on the length of time an individual is detained prior to being charged or released”.—[Official Report, 18 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 2490W.]
In other words, he does not have a clue. We know that the Home Office has trouble with its figures, but surely when Ministers come to the House to propose restrictions of our civil liberties, they ought to know the facts.
Talking of Ministers knowing facts, on Tuesday the Defence Secretary made a statement on Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), referring to the Prime Minister’s promise that the troops in Afghanistan could have whatever resources they needed, asked how many helicopters were available to go to Afghanistan. The reply from the Defence Secretary was, again, clear:
“candidly, I do not have the information to be able to answer.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 179.]
Given that this is a subject of much public debate, I would have thought that the Defence Secretary would know how many helicopters we have. Can the Leader of the House please ensure that Ministers are properly briefed before they come to the House to make statements?
Today, in figures published by the Healthcare Commission, we learn that more than half the NHS bodies in England need to improve their quality of service, and that nine out of 10 primary care trusts have been rated only weak or fair. When will the Health Secretary make a statement to the House on those results?
Will the Health Secretary also come to the House and explain how much money has been spent reorganising the NHS in the past 10 years? As Polly Toynbee, whom I do not often quote, said of the Government in The Guardian:
“minister after minister reversed direction, created then tore up 10-year plans, dismantled then resurrected a market the party inherited. It invented new primary care groups, remade them into primary care trusts, then merged them again into half the number. It demolished regional health authorities, put in 28 Strategic Health Authorities, then merged them back down to the 10 original regions”.
Money has been wasted on bureaucratic changes, and this House deserves an explanation.
On the subject of wasting money, when will the Government put before the House the money resolution needed to pay for the office of the Deputy Prime Minister? Questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) have shown that, while the Deputy Prime Minister may not have a job, he does have 18 staff and will cost the taxpayer £2 million a year. I would have said that that was money for old rope, but I think that a piece of old rope would be more useful than the Deputy Prime Minister—
I apologise for suggesting that there was any link between the Deputy Prime Minister and a piece of old rope. But when will the House have a chance to vote on the question of the value of the Deputy Prime Minister and the money necessary to pay for his office?
I am sure that the Leader of the House will have concern for the well-being of Members, and an interest in ensuring that they are properly counselled after traumatic experiences. Can we therefore have a debate in which advice can be given to those Members suffering the after-effects of involvement in a failed coup bid?
I knew that I had been missing something over the 11 weeks of the summer—it was the right hon. Lady’s jokes. A serious gap was left in my enjoyment.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her congratulations on the introduction of recess written questions. It seems that that was widely welcomed across the House—more than 100 Members asked 732 questions. We are currently analysing those, including how many were, and how many were not, answered on time. In addition, 35 written ministerial statements were made. I am in no doubt that, if we keep to the current recess arrangements, September questions are an important element. I also say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that there will be an opportunity to debate the issue of September sittings, and I intend that that should take place before Prorogation in mid-November. That leads to the right hon. Lady’s second question about the Modernisation Committee recommendations for changing the legislative process. I hope to make an announcement about that shortly. Although I cannot absolutely guarantee this at the moment, I hope that that will also be dealt with on the same day before Prorogation.
I have received many representations about recess dates. As we have not made a decision about September sittings, I cannot give all the recess dates. As I know that that is causing difficulties on both sides of the House, I hope to announce the immediate recess dates, for Christmas and the half-term holiday in February, at business questions next Thursday.
On the Bali bomb, I appreciate, of course, that today is the anniversary, as I was Foreign Secretary when I got the news of that terrible bombing. One Member of this House had a much closer and most terrible experience of that bombing. Consideration continues of the exact way in which we help victims of terrorism, abroad as well as at home, but we have sought, not least in consultation with the victims and relatives of victims of such terrible events, to ensure that we improve the support that we give.
On Home Office statistics, I will look into the right hon. Lady’s point, but I hope that she does not then start going on about the problem of form-filling by police officers, as forms are filled in by police officers to enable statistics to be provided. I make that as a serious point. She cannot have it both ways.
On defence, I sat through the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the matériel being provided in Afghanistan. He made it clear that additional flying hours by helicopters, as well as by fixed-wing planes, were being provided. I am not sure whether he judges that it is in the national interest for the exact number of helicopters to be announced, but I will take that up with him.
I am not surprised that the right hon. Lady left the issue of the NHS until low down in her questions, because I sat through the debate on the subject yesterday and it was a disaster for the Opposition. In one of the lamest Opposition speeches I have heard for a long time, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) was holed below the water line as he protested about alleged cuts. The Conservative party has had to admit in its “NHS Campaign Pack” that
“Labour have doubled spending on the NHS since 1997.”
In fact, spending has more than trebled. The Conservatives also say that there are now some “23,000 more doctors”, but they have transposed the digits, because the true number is 32,000—
A close reading of the document reveals the huge improvements that the Conservatives have had to admit that we have made in the health service. Those are confirmed by an interesting article by the independent chief economist of the King’s Fund in today’s Evening Standard, which discusses today’s report and states that, behind the headline scores, the performance of the NHS shows
“some significant improvements. In particular, the Government’s key targets on waiting times have produced dramatic reductions.”
It is about time that the right hon. Lady and other Opposition Members started to celebrate the success of the NHS instead of running it down.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have welcomed the statement made at Labour party conference by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on his intentions to give local communities and local transport authorities the powers they need to provide decent bus services. Given that watershed announcement, can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House arrange a debate, so that we may discuss in some detail the measures that are needed to reverse the 20 years of decline that have accompanied the deregulation of bus services outside London, which was introduced by the Conservatives?
I acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend raises and he will be the first to celebrate the improvements in public transport that have happened, including a vast increase in travel by rail and a significant increase in bus use in London, which makes his point. We have Transport questions on Tuesday and I hope that he will be able to make his point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State then.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. I understand the need for flexibility at this time of year. For a start, of the first four Divisions in the House of Lords since the recess, three have been lost by the Government, one by a margin of more than two to one. I fully understand that it may be necessary for matters to pass between the two Houses over the next few weeks.
Can the Leader of the House tell me, however, why we do not have a clear timetable for those Bills that are now before the House? The Fraud Bill seems to have disappeared without trace, the Charities Bill has disappeared temporarily and nobody has yet seen the Wireless Telegraphy Bill, which, allegedly, is in this House.
At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) asked about maternity services, and she virtually declared her interest at the time. In his reply, the Prime Minister mentioned maternity pay and leave, but for some reason he omitted to mention maternity hospitals, probably because they are being closed up and down the country. Maternity services are being reorganised to suit the bureaucracy rather than mothers. May we have a debate on the provision of maternity services, because it is an important issue that affects all communities?
I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, but we are in the unique position of having two armies in the field at present, one of which is facing probably the most severe fighting for a generation. Is it not right that we should have an urgent debate on matters relating to those servicemen who are fighting so bravely in the field, such as military medical services, equipment, overstretch and the position of reservists, who are often overlooked? We need more than the routine defence debate. The debate should be targeted at the soldiers, sailors and air personnel presently risking their lives in the service of their country.
Finally, the Leader of the House has already shown himself to be innovative, and I hope that he will introduce another innovation. We will have the Gracious Speech in a few weeks. Can he arrange to have ready in the Vote Office on that day a clear and unambiguous list of the Bills that the Government intend to introduce? The list should also present the Bills’ subject matter in broad terms, and mention the responsible Department. As things stand, armies of people have to try to decipher what the Gracious Speech might mean, and that is nonsense. We need a clear list of Bills on the day, so that we know what is to be introduced. I acknowledge that other Bills may come later and that plans may change, but such a list would be a service to the House and to people outside it.
I shall look at the respective timetables for the Fraud, Charities and Wireless Telegraphy Bills and let the hon. Gentleman know, but I assure him that the matter is in hand. Those Bills are significant, but I somehow doubt that his constituents are gagging for information about them.
I do not mean to undermine the significance of any of those Bills.
The hon. Gentleman raised an important issue in respect of maternity services. There used to be three maternity hospitals in the area that I and a couple of colleagues represent. The two smaller ones were closed when the Conservatives were in power, but we tried to ensure that public concern was balanced by the promise that the services to be provided in the main general hospital would be better. Although people had affection for the old maternity units, we argued that it would be better to concentrate the services. The key issue that hon. Members of all parties must understand is that the nature of medical care has changed, with mothers who have just delivered their babies spending much less time in hospital. There is bound to be some reconfiguration, but the important questions have to do with whether the services provide effective care before, at the time of and after birth, and whether ill babies are more likely to recover. According to those indicators, the service is getting better and not worse.
I shall discuss the matter of Afghanistan and Iraq with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Patronage Secretary. The truth is, however, that we have been able to debate Afghanistan and Iraq on many occasions.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Queen’s Speech. I know that some of the things that the Government do are a bit obscure, but the Queen’s Speech is pretty straightforward, in terms of the Bills that we are proposing. Moreover, the website that my office prepares contains details of all Bills, as well as departmental contact details.
Following yesterday’s Opposition day debate on the NHS, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on nurse education? I was unable to take part yesterday, but I note that the subject of nurse education was woefully absent from the debate. There have been tremendous advances in nurse education, and university facilities have been expanded. The Open university’s distance learning opportunities are fantastic, and the fact that it is able to place a great many nurses in jobs soon after training is something to be admired. Sadly, no mention was made of that in yesterday’s debate.
My hon. Friend has great experience and knowledge of these matters, and I am glad that she has raised that issue. I shall certainly consider holding a debate on nurse education, not least so that the House can look at the changes and improvements that this Government have introduced. The number of nurses has increased by many thousands, and their real-terms pay has risen by more than 25 per cent. above inflation.
Can we have a debate on county council road schemes? Is the Leader of the House aware that counties such as Norfolk used to be able to set the priorities for non-trunk, A-road schemes that would then attract Government grant? However, since 2004, the priorities are set on a regional basis by the East Anglia regional assembly—a bloated, unpopular and unaccountable body. That means that local bypasses, such as the Westbridge bypass in my constituency, lose out. What will the Government do about that?
Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on crane safety, following the tragic accident in my constituency in which two people died? Such a debate would allow the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to report to the House on the number of similar fatalities, and review the need for further changes in crane safety. That would benefit people who work on cranes, and those who work next to building sites and who look nervously at the cranes towering over them.
The accident in my hon. Friend’s Battersea constituency was a terrible one. On behalf of the Government and the House, I should like to send our condolences to the relatives of those who were killed, and our sympathy to those who were injured. It will be no comfort to them to know that safety at work has improved in recent years, but even one accident or fatality is one too many. I shall of course raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I know that my hon. Friend is raising the matter with the Health and Safety Executive.
Will the Leader of the House please find time for a debate on the implications of British Airways’ proposal to close its cabin crew base at Manchester airport? The move will affect several dozen residents in my constituency and in neighbouring areas, where jobs are now at risk. It also calls into question the commitment of our national airline to regional centres such as Manchester. Does he recognise that this very serious matter deserves to be considered by the House?
Manchester airport is a fantastic airport, and the increases in passengers and services there have been huge. It is also municipally owned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds an opportunity to raise the issue to which he refers in an Adjournment debate or at next Tuesday’s Transport questions.
Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate early-day motion 2689, tabled by me and supported by a number of other hon. Members?
[That this House expresses its extreme concern at the handling of immigration cases by the Manchester firm of solicitors, Thornhills; notes that Thornhills often take up, for money, immigration application cases that do not require the involvement of solicitors; further notes that repeatedly they handle these cases so incompetently that applicants feel obliged to consult their hon. Member in order to obtain the outcome that Thornhills have failed to achieve; is deeply concerned that in one recent case whose applicants felt obliged to consult their hon. Member Thornhills refused to hand over important documents in their possession until an exorbitant bill had been paid; and warns people in Manchester to have nothing whatever to do with this firm.]
The motion deals with Thornhills solicitors in Manchester, who take on immigration cases and botch them. They charge a great deal of money for the cases, which often end up with Members of Parliament. Will he pay special attention to a case in my constituency, in which Thornhills, even though they failed to deal with it, held on to the papers until my constituents paid them an exorbitant bill?
All of us in the House who have any experience of dealing with immigration cases will recognise the seriousness of the issue that my right hon. Friend raises, and the outrageous way in which some solicitors firms behave. I hope that the appropriate disciplinary authorities will look at the very important facts that he has put before the House.
The Leader of the House told the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) a moment ago that the House had many opportunities to debate Afghanistan and Iraq. Does he agree that the situation there has sadly deteriorated since we rose for the summer recess? Would it not be appropriate to have a whole-day debate in Government time on this matter, instead of a debate about whether we should sit in September?
I acknowledge that a case can always be made for the Government to find time for defence and foreign affairs debates. It happens that five days each year are earmarked for defence-related debates, although no specific Government-time debates are earmarked for foreign policy. One matter that I am considering, in the context of the Modernisation Committee, is whether we should aim for a better allocation of subject-day debates in Government time to take account of the fact that this country is far more involved in military action overseas than was the case, say, a decade ago.
The Leader of the House might be aware that the £69 million Turner and Newall asbestos fund comes into existence today. Victims of the terrible disease that asbestos causes, and their families, can be found in my constituency and elsewhere. They can claim between 17p and 20p in the pound for their illness, which stands in stark contrast to the fact that lawyers and accountants dealing with the parent company can claim 100p in the pound of the £70 million made available to cover administrative fees. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the matter, so that the House can consider whether the cut in compensation that disease victims have had to accept should also apply to the scheme’s administrators?
Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a debate about the Post Office on a motion that is drawn widely enough for me to raise both the threat to Letchworth Garden City main post office, which it is proposed to move from the town centre to the edge of the industrial area, and also the attitude of Post Office senior management, particularly Mr. Cook, the director responsible, who has refused to meet me to discuss the matter and has not even replied personally? Does the Leader of the House agree that that is disgraceful from a publicly owned company?
I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I can give him immediate satisfaction on his request for a debate. Care of the Liberal Democrats, there will be a debate on Monday, so they were obviously listening to somebody. The Post Office is having to cope with changes quite beyond its control—[Interruption.] Of course it is. There has been a serious decline in traditional letters since the introduction of e-mail and the internet, so the Post Office has to make changes. There is no point in laughing about it; that is the situation. To cope with those changes, we have ensured that £2 billion has been put in to maintain the network, including £750 million for the rural network. That is a high level of subsidy—far higher, I suggest, than we would have seen from a Conservative Government.
During the summer recess, my right hon. Friend will no doubt have been contacted by constituents who were charged severe penalties by banks, even when they were only slightly overdrawn. Despite such charges being clearly disproportionate to the costs incurred, all banks seem to impose them, so may we have a debate to determine what steps the Government can take to stop that blatant profiteering by high street banks?
I understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises. There are questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry next Thursday, and I hope that my hon. Friend will raise the matter as it is of profound concern to constituents across the country.
The Leader of the House will well remember those bright days of “Your Right to Know”—the Government White Paper of which he was a signatory; indeed, he steered the freedom of information legislation through the House. Has he had an opportunity to read early-day motion 2699?
[That this House welcomes the finding of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (HC991) that the Freedom of Information Act has ‘already brought about the release of significant new information and....this information is being used in a constructive and positive way' and the committee's conclusion that it sees ‘no need to change' the Act's charging arrangements; views with concern reports that the Government is considering changing these arrangements to permit an application fee to be charged for all requests or to allow authorities to refuse, on cost grounds, a significant proportion of requests which they currently must answer; and considers that such changes could undermine the Act's benefits of increased openness, accountability and trust in the work of public authorities.]
The early-day motion was signed by Members on both sides of the House, and is in respect of the strong rumours that the Government are considering changing the present fee arrangements, which will have a deleterious effect on access and on the objectives that the Government stated in their White Paper and in its support through legislation.
It is not rumour but fact. When we began operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, 18 months ago at the beginning of 2005, we said that we would review its operation after it had been in force for a year. That is what my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has been doing, in consultation with colleagues. Subsequently, a report was produced by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, to which, as is entirely proper, my noble Friend, in consultation with his Cabinet colleagues, is considering the Government’s response, so that we can put our views before the Select Committee and the House. That is the appropriate way to proceed.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could find time for a debate on human trafficking. I was a member of the Council of Europe for six years so I am well aware of the problems arising from that terrible trade. I am also well aware of the fact that the Government are concerned and that last week they opened a new centre in Sheffield. What I am not sure about is the fate of women so trafficked. It may be demonstrated that, yes, they have been trafficked but it may also be demonstrated that they are in this country illegally. I should like to know just what their fate will be.
I thank my hon. Friend for all the concern she has shown about this very difficult issue; it is a serious matter. I will certainly pursue her concerns with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We have all heard of harrowing cases of that kind, where women subjected to enforced trafficking end up in this country, but they have no papers and no right to remain, so decisions have to be made on compassionate grounds to allow them to stay. We have to ensure—as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does—that the interests of the women in those very distressing cases are high on the list of considerations.
May we have a debate not only on compensation for sufferers of mesothelioma but also on their care and treatment? The Leader of the House will remember that just before the summer recess I raised the case of my constituent, Mr. Harward, who was unable to get the only drug licensed to treat mesothelioma, as it had not been funded by his primary care trust. He died because he did not receive treatment, but it is still not too late for the Government to take tough action to ensure that treatment is available for surviving sufferers of that terminal condition. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to hold a debate and to rattle the chains of the Secretary of State for Health so that she is slightly more proactive on the topic than she was during the summer when I wrote to her on several occasions?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responds promptly to a very large number of understandable concerns. I am sorry to hear of the death of the hon. Lady’s constituent. Without commenting on that case, I am glad that yesterday the parties were agreed on at least one thing in respect of the national health service—that the arrangements of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which gives independent judgment about the efficacy of drugs, should stand. Yesterday, when pressed—very heavily—from the Back Benches by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the Conservative spokesman on health, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), made it absolutely clear that he would not disturb the arrangements for NICE, as he was being requested to do.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2081?
[That this House notes the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain of Leeds who holds dual British/Pakistani nationality and is facing the death penalty on 3rd June; further notes that he was 18 years old when he travelled to Pakistan in 1988, has been accused of murder and robbing a taxi driver, that these claims have not been verified beyond reasonable doubt or to the standards laid by the European and Human Rights Commission and that in 1992 and 1996 the High Court quashed the sentence and acquitted him of all charges; and urges the Government to petition the President of Pakistan to prevent the execution of Mirza Tahir Hussain.]
Mr. Mirza Tahir Hussain from Leeds has been imprisoned in Pakistan since 1988 on what is widely regarded as an unsafe conviction. Since May, when the early-day motion was tabled, his execution has been postponed five times, but it is widely rumoured that he will be executed at the end of this month. I urge my right hon. Friend to get the Government to step up demands to stop that death sentence and I urge all colleagues to sign the early-day motion, as it could help to save the life of someone who has been unjustly convicted.
I am all too well aware of the circumstances of the case, not least from my time as Foreign Secretary. Representations at the very highest level of the British Government have been made to His Excellency President Musharraf and to other appropriate Ministers in his Government. We shall continue to do everything we can to ensure that the stays of execution are turned into a reprieve from the death sentence.
May we have a debate on restoring face-to-face interviews as the normal provision for pensioners and disabled people claiming social security benefits, as there is much dissatisfaction with the current telephone system? Now that the Leader of the House has asserted his right to face-to-face interviews, will he do the same for that most vulnerable group?
Speaking from my own constituency, I have few complaints about how the Department for Work and Pensions deals with the concerns of pensioners. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but I think the current arrangements, whereby initial contact is by telephone and, if necessary, there can be a home visit, are probably appropriate. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman has specific cases of concern I will see that they are followed up.
There was yet another tragic death this summer of one of my constituents from a suspected deep vein thrombosis following a long-haul flight—that of Mr. Les Rogers, aged 38, who was flying out to Australia to represent his country in the Commonwealth bowling championship. Although I welcome the provisions in the Civil Aviation Bill, which will come before the House today, will my right hon. Friend find time to debate in the House the need to place exactly the same duty of care in law on airlines for the health and well-being of their passengers as exists for all other passenger carriers?
Our hearts go out to the relatives of the gentleman who died as a result of deep vein thrombosis. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have taken some steps better to ensure that the incidence of that condition is lessened. I will certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I remind my hon. Friend that Transport questions are coming up next Tuesday.
Following the remarks made by the Leader of the House about discouraging Muslim ladies from wearing the veil, will he help to clarify for the House some confusion in Government policy? He must be aware that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport suggested during the summer that the BBC should be encouraged to use more TV presenters who wear Muslim headgear, so that we can all get more used to the idea. Can he help to clarify what the Government mean on this issue?
Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate miscarriages of justice? Last night, my constituent, Mr. Michael O’Brien, accepted £300,000 in an out-of-court settlement with South Wales police, but there was no apology and no acknowledgement of the events that led up to that decision. Sadly, today is the 19th anniversary of the death of the murder victim, Phillip Saunders—a Cardiff newsagent, who lived in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan)—and I want express my sympathy to his family. The investigation into his murder still goes on. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on those issues?
I hope very much that my hon. Friend can find an opportunity for such a debate—for example, in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment. I understand her concern. In the past 10 years, as a result of legislation initiated by the previous Government in 1996, and the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, as well as other improvements, under this Administration, there has been a significant improvement in dealing with alleged miscarriages of justice. However, that does not in any sense undermine the profound anger that will be felt by that person at the miscarriage of justice perpetrated on him; nor, above all, does it reduce the deep concern of the victim’s relatives about the fact that, so many years on, no guilty person has been brought to justice.
The Leader of the House has said that the future of the Post Office depends on the uncertainties that it faces, but many of them stem from the Government. Will he ensure that Ministers use Monday’s debate to respond to today’s publication by Postcomm, the postal regulator? Paragraph 19 of its foreword says:
“A decision is urgently needed from the Government on the future of the Post Office network.”
If the many sub-postmasters throughout the country who provide vital services to rural areas are to make a decision about their future, they need to know what the Government have decided that that future should be.
I am sorry to say that the fundamental uncertainty faced by the Post Office arises from the extraordinary pace of change in the introduction of information technology. [Interruption.] That is absolutely true. It is affecting post offices all over the world. There is a dramatic change both in the number of letters posted and in the payment of benefits, which is a core business, particularly for sub-post offices. I repeat that we have recognised the fact that the Post Office faces a very big transitional problem. That is why we have put in £2 billion to help to maintain the network, including £750 million for the rural network. Of course my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—who represents a Scottish constituency, albeit an urban one—is well aware of the problem in far-flung rural constituencies in Scotland and elsewhere, and he will ensure that there is an effective response to the motion that is, no doubt, being tabled by the Liberal Democrats.
Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent, definitive and clear statement from the Home Secretary on whether the Government will impose employment restrictions on the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania when they join the EU in 11 weeks’ time? As a champion of enlargement, my right hon. Friend will know how important it is that we consult our potential EU partners and that we are clear about whether there will be such restrictions to avoid a repeat of the hysteria of the tabloid press before the last enlargement process on 1 May 2004.
I accept my right hon. Friend’s point. As we have made clear, Romanians and Bulgarians will be subject to restricted access to our labour markets, once their countries join the European Union on 1 January 2007. We believe that a gradual approach is required, and more details of our approach will be given to the House by the end of this month.
I congratulate the Leader of the House on having the courage over the summer to raise the issue of veils and say something that many people in the country think, but that no one has previously dared to say. Will he consider a debate on forced marriages? Legislation to outlaw that practice was dropped by the Government just before the summer recess. I am sure that he cannot believe that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear veils, but should be able to be forced into marriages against their will. May we have a debate to judge the mood of the House and to bring back plans to legislate to outlaw that outrageous practice?
We are all agreed on the need to outlaw forced marriages. During my period as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary and during that of my successors, the Government have taken a great deal of action to ensure better enforcement against forced marriages and to provide far better support—especially in Pakistan, where the main problem arises—for the victims of forced marriages. I am always happy to ensure that we do more.
My right hon. Friend will have noticed this week how warm it is in the Palace of Westminster. His ministerial colleagues are for ever, rightly, urging us and our constituents to conserve energy in our private lives. Will he have an urgent discussion with the House authorities, so that we can practice what we preach and do out bit in this place?
I think that we have all lost a few pounds this week, as a result of the fact that the atmosphere in the House has been even more sweltering than it has been outside, where it is unusually warm. My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is a debate on climate change today, and she may wish to put her remarks in that debate as well.
Might I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it would help if we could have an earnest statement from the Home Secretary about the operation of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, especially with regard to the two cases of MK and Abu Doha? The right hon. Gentleman will know that many of us are very concerned about the secretive nature of the proceedings and the risk of injustice. He will also know that, in the case of MK, the judge has found that false information was supplied by the Home Office to the tribunal and, furthermore, that there was wholly inadequate disclosure, and the Home Secretary was criticised. Can we please know what the Home Secretary will do to meet the criticisms made of the Home Office by the trial judge?
Of course the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises a very serious matter, but it was the subject of an exchange between the shadow Attorney-General and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General just before I stood up to speak. My hon. and learned Friend said that what had happened was unacceptable—it certainly is—but it is a very unusual case.
On the overall issue of the standing of SIAC, the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is extraordinarily difficult to set up a forum that is both fair and necessarily protects the intelligence that must be protected in such cases. SIAC, as I remember, was originally a creation of the previous Government, with our endorsement. We have developed it, and it has worked satisfactorily. As he will accept, one hard case should not be allowed to lead to a general change in what, overall, has been a satisfactory arrangement.
Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the policies that the Royal Mail is pursuing? I am thinking, in particular, of the decision to announce the closure of both the Gloucester and Reading sorting offices and to centralise those services on Swindon. Will he ask, through his good offices, for the report on which that decision is based to be made available to us? Dare I say—on a day when environmental concerns are uppermost in all our minds—that it is not very bright to have a letter that is posted in Stroud possibly taken to Swindon and then perhaps via Bristol back to Stroud. That is not the way forward. Would he care to comment on that?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There are questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry next Thursday and I hope that he can raise that matter then. Meanwhile, I will certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are all concerned. What he is talking about applies not only to the Post Office, but to supermarkets: goods travel huge distances around the country, apparently for no great purpose.
Now that we have a Lord Chief Justice who pursues an agenda by posing as a criminal on community service and who makes a speech comparing present-day sentencing to barbaric past practices, may we have a debate on the Government’s policy on the protection of the public from violent crime now that the prisons are full?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is totally unacceptable for any of us to start parodying the position taken by as distinguished and senior a judge as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips? I happen to know the Lord Chief Justice, as I knew his predecessors, and he is as concerned as anybody in this House or the other place about protecting the public. [Interruption.] Of course he is. There is no suggestion whatever that he or his Court of Appeal criminal division are going to go soft on violent offenders. That has never been part of what he has been talking about. What he has talked about is what successive Home Secretaries and Governments have talked about: a balance between custodial and non-custodial sentences for non-violent offenders, and ensuring—this is necessary under any Government—that the available prison places are used sensibly and the prisons are not full to bursting point. It certainly does not lie in the mouth of any Opposition Member to start complaining about the number of prison places now, because there are many, many thousands more than there were in 1997 and there were very few plans for any increase in the last Budget of the last Conservative Government.
Those of us who recently visited RAF Odiham heard at first hand of the courage of our air crews who are flying Chinooks in Afghanistan. Bearing it in mind that and other sources, many of us were greatly surprised to hear the breezily uttered comments by the Prime Minister on the British Forces Broadcasting Service that all the equipment that the armed forces need would be made available. May we have a debate on what extra equipment the armed forces require, what actually exists and what the Government propose to do about the shortfall?
First, like the hon. Gentleman, I pay tribute to the service personnel and civilians operating from the air base in his constituency, as well as those around the country. They show extraordinary bravery and skill, as I know personally. I said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) earlier that I acknowledge the case for a debate on these important issues and I hope to ensure that there will be an opportunity for such a debate to be provided.
Does the Leader of the House think that it is right for a spouse or a partner of somebody serving a prison sentence to be eligible for council tax benefit, if a spouse or a partner of somebody who is serving their country in a war zone such as Afghanistan, Iraq or the Balkans is not? If he agrees that that is wrong, will he arrange for a Minister to make an urgent statement in the House next week?
Will the Leader of the House place on the Order Paper next week the necessary motions to put an end to the scandal in a free Parliament of the European Scrutiny Committee meeting in secret? That is for the fourth time of asking.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there are actually quite good reasons, in a free and democratic Parliament, for the Scrutiny Committee to meet not in secret, but in private. He knows that plenty of Select Committees hold meetings in private. There are good explanations in the report of the Modernisation Committee on European scrutiny, and much else besides, as to why that practice is sensible.
When I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Skills earlier about the paucity of core skills, you will have been surprised and disappointed by his answer, Mr. Speaker. He ignored the fact that one in three employers now have to provide remedial training to teach staff how to read, write and count. The skills crisis is affecting our economy and we need a debate on it. I hope that the Leader of the House will treat that as a matter of some urgency.
There are plenty of opportunities to debate our excellent record on skills training. We can always do more, but we have invested hugely in further education vocational training and that is showing in the increasing number of young people on modern apprenticeships, as well as much else besides.
May we please have a statement or debate next week on the continuing crisis in Darfur, western Sudan? Given that murder and rape continue unabated and that foot-stamping by the Sudanese Government has already effectively vetoed a vital United Nations troop deployment to the region, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be timely for the House to debate whether the responsibility of the United Nations to protect is a serious attempt to avert genocide or simply a rather futile exercise in vacuous moral posturing?
Ensuring that the United Nations always practises what it preaches is an enduring challenge for all of us who are, or have been, involved in international diplomacy. The issue is really serious. I hope that it can be debated in the House and that the concern that everybody feels on the issue of Darfur is made very vocal. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, the United Nations committed itself last year to intervening under its responsibility to protect. I am sorry to say that one permanent member, at least, of the Security Council was very reluctant to ensure that that happened. The result is that that member of the Security Council is effectively protecting the regime in Khartoum.