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Business of the House

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 29 March 2007

The business for the week commencing 16 April will be:

Monday 16 April—Second Reading of the Mental Health Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 17 April—Opposition day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on an Opposition motion, subjects to be announced.

Wednesday 18 April—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill.

Thursday 19 April—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied—details will be given in the Official Report—followed by a debate on marine environment on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 20 April—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 April will include:

Monday 23 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 24 April—Opposition day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on an Opposition motion, subjects to be announced.

Wednesday 25 April—A motion relating to the Crossrail Bill, followed by opposed private business that the Chairman of Ways and Means has named for consideration.

Thursday 26 April—A debate on defence in the UK on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. To be confirmed.

Friday 27 April—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business, and for working with the Foreign Secretary to ensure that we had yesterday’s statement on Iran. Since then, of course, the Iranian Government have—quite disgracefully—paraded the captured British sailors on television. Given that the House rises today, what consideration has the Leader of the House given to ways of informing it of further developments?

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee says that the Rural Payments Agency fiasco will cost the taxpayer £500 million, including a fine of £305 million payable to Brussels for incompetence. The Committee said:

“A culture where ministers and senior officials can preside over failure of this magnitude and not be held personally accountable creates a serious risk of further failures.”

Will the Environment Secretary come to the House to make a further statement on the Rural Payments Agency?

We have just had the Home Secretary’s response to an urgent question on the restructuring of the Home Office. Sadly, the Home Secretary had to be forced to come to the House to give those details. He said that details of changes to the Department for Constitutional Affairs would be given by the Lord Chancellor in the other place. When will a statement on those changes be made in this House? Many of the replies that the Home Secretary gave were completely unsatisfactory. It appeared that he simply did not know the answers to many of the questions that were correctly put to him. Indeed, at one stage, the Leader of the House had to brief the Home Secretary on the answer. Perhaps the Leader of the House, as the Chancellor’s campaign manager, knows more about the future than the Home Secretary does. May we have a debate therefore on the restructuring of the Home Office, because that debate would give hon. Members —including the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—an opportunity to express their clear concerns about the proposals?

I was talking of the Home Office, and the Leader of the House once said that he hoped that the Home Secretary would run for the Labour leadership. Now, of course, the Leader of the House is running the Chancellor’s campaign and he has written to Labour MPs saying:

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Gordon is the right person”.

That is some U-turn. May we have a debate on junk mail?

In last week’s Budget, the Chancellor did not mention his Lyons review once. But under him, money raised from council tax has doubled, from £11 billion to £23.5 billion. That is the equivalent of putting 4p on income tax. The Lyons review now proposes taxes on bins, taxes on home improvement, and even taxes on beds. At least the Chancellor did mention the NHS in his Budget—once—but he did not tell us about the health service’s soaring deficits, now £2.7 billion. The Health Committee says that the Chancellor has brought “boom and bust” to the NHS. Last week, the Leader of the House said that he

“would be delighted to have…a debate”

on the NHS

“any time.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 950.]

So when may we have that debate?

It is revealing that the Chancellor stays quiet when it suits him. He once promised that

“a Labour Treasury will be open rather than secretive”.

But last week he refused to answer when I asked how many meetings he had had with trade unions. When I asked the Leader of the House the same question, he gave an honest answer. The Chancellor also refused to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) when he asked about his other appointments. When my hon. Friend asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he gave an honest answer. Clearly Labour Members face a choice between a secretive Chancellor and a more open Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Can the Leader of the House impress upon all his colleagues the importance of being as open with Parliament as he is? The public know that this Government have a record of stealth, secrets and spin, and they are sick of it. The problem is that when the Chancellor becomes Prime Minister, it will just get worse and worse—more stealth, more secrets and more spin.

The right hon. Lady was doing well until she came to her so-called peroration. In fact, I congratulate her on two rather good jokes—

Indeed. When the right hon. Lady described an excellent letter that I have sent out as junk mail, the Patronage Secretary, ever loyal, described it as spam. Incidentally, one should never believe anything that Mr. Piers Morgan writes, including stuff about me.

I have been remiss and I apologise, because I failed to read out some of the business for Westminster Hall. On Thursday 19 April, there will be a debate on the report from the Trade and Industry Committee on “New Nuclear? Examining the Issues”, and on Thursday 26 April, a debate on a report from the Transport Committee on “How Fair are the Fares? Train Fares and Ticketing”. Those titles may be elocution tests as well—[Interruption.] These were not my ideas, Mr. Speaker. If it had been left to the Patronage Secretary, the debates would have at least been clear in their subjects.

On a very serious note, I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary coming to the House yesterday in respect of Iran. It is a serious situation and we are all concerned. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and our diplomats, both here and there, are working extremely hard on that matter. Given that the House will not sit again until 16 April, the only way in which we can in practice inform Members about developments is through the media, but of course we shall do so. If there is detailed information that we need to transmit to Members, it can be done by a “dear colleague” letter.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this morning and asked when it can be debated. There are plenty of opportunities for the House to debate issues if it wishes. The subjects for debate on estimates days are determined by the Liaison Committee, and if the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is concerned, it may raise the issue then. Given the synthetic fury to which we are sometimes subjected in business questions, I am surprised that the Opposition do not take the opportunity—if they really think that criticism of Ministers is significant—to raise such matters on Opposition days. They used to do so, when they were a slightly better Opposition. I remember, time and again, between 1974 and 1979, motions for the reduction of Ministers’ salaries—

I am, because—like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)—it is my profound wish and desire to make the Opposition more effective as an Opposition and to keep them there for at least as long as we were there.

No, but he has the joy of working in the Leader’s team.

On the restructuring and the ministry of justice, if the right hon. Lady were to read the written statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister issued earlier today, she would see details laid out both on the arrangements for Home Office and on the new ministry.

On the health service, I frankly do not recognise the figures that the right hon. Lady mentions. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary announced about a month ago that, taking account of the use of some contingency money, there would be a £13 million surplus for this year; and there have been substantial extra funds for the health service for the new year starting on 1 April. Time and again, I listen with bated breath for the right hon. Lady to mention the huge increases in resources in her constituency, but yet again she has failed to do so. Allow me to mention the extra £39 million on top of all the additional funds that her area has had.

May we have a debate on international whaling, which is a big issue in my constituency? It was first raised by a constituent of mine. Iceland has recently resumed commercial whaling of fin whales. Those magnificent creatures can be seen in the Firth of Forth from my constituency, and it is surely outrageous that we cannot do anything to protect them.

I agree. It is not often that I can, as it were, satisfy an hon. Member immediately, but I draw to my hon. Friend’s attention the fact that we will have a debate on the marine environment on the Thursday after the recess, in which she will be able to raise those issues. I hope that she catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.

To pick up on the sedentary comment by the Patronage Secretary, it is obvious that we are in the process of transition from Camelot to Spamalot. [Laughter.]

To return to the serious issue of the changes in the machinery of government, and as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, there is a statement on the Department for Constitutional Affairs in the other place. It is not acceptable for a statement to be made about a Government Department in the non-elected House and not made to this House. I shall leave that thought with the Leader of the House.

Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the proposed changes, is not the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) right that when we have machinery of government changes that affect Departments, costings and organisation it is sensible for them to be put forward in costed form in a consultation paper that sets out the advantages and disadvantages and allows the House to have scrutiny of such changes before implementation? It is not back-of-the-envelope stuff just before a change of Administration. We ought to be able to set a precedent for this.

May we have a debate on ethical leadership? Given the Select Committee on Public Administration comments this week and those of Sir Alistair Graham, and in the context of Ministers being accused of leaning on officials for political purposes and an ex-Cabinet Minister one day being the advocate of a new policy on ID cards and two years later turning up as an employee of an ID card company, is it not time for a civil service Act and a strengthened ministerial code of conduct? Should not this House have an opportunity to debate that?

May we have a debate on rural housing? The establishment of a new rural housing advisory group has been announced, but we have not yet had a Government response to the affordable rural housing commission that reported only last year. That is a serious issue for many people in rural areas.

Finally, last week the Leader of the House showed that he is adept at studying rail timetables for Milton Keynes and I applaud him for that. I have to repeat my request, however, for a debate on rail services. To quote one of my favourite books:

“Man is born free and everywhere is in trains.”

TravelWatch South West said:

“The Government does not seem to care about public transport in the South West”,

and points to drastic timetable cuts, plummeting reliability and chronic overcrowding. This is a serious issue for the south-west, as it is in many other places, and it is time that we had a debate not only on the narrow issue of rail fares, which the Leader of the House has announced, but also on the wider issue of what is happening to our rail services.

When the hon. Gentleman asked about today’s announcement on splitting the Home Office, he included the words,

“Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the case”.

That is classic Lib Demory. They have two views, one in favour and one against, and they cannot make up their mind which, so they leave aside the merits. I take seriously some of the points raised by the Opposition because they have a view about the merits of the case, but, although I listened with great care to what the shadow, shadow Lib Dem home affairs spokesman had to say, I was none the wiser at the end of it, nor was I any better informed of the Lib Dem’s position. The matter has been the subject of detailed consideration and of a detailed written ministerial statement. Although there may be a debate about whether some time in future such matters should be handled differently, the truth is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister handled it more openly today than was ever the case in the past. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, in 18 years of Labour Opposition there were repeated examples of changes to machinery of government without any announcement to the House.

I am always very happy, if time allows, to have a debate inside or outside the Chamber on ethical leadership. However, it does not do the reputation of politics any good for the hon. Gentleman week after week to come to the House and in one way or another try to denigrate the standards of public life. I accept that there are falls from grace, but our standards are higher and better than in almost every other country in the world, and that is shown from independent monitoring. If any of my former Cabinet colleagues are taking business appointments, they will be doing so only in circumstances where they have been vetted and approved by the Appointments Commission.

We all accept that rural housing is a serious matter. I happened to listen to a radio programme the other day about ways in which planning controls are being used more effectively now to ensure a parallel market for local people. That is an important issue and I shall certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

I made myself expert on the train services to and from Milton Keynes only because I had to, not because of any affection for that timetable. We recognise that there are problems with train services as a result of overcrowding. The timetable changes introduced by First Great Western, a private company, and its failure to ensure sufficient rolling stock inconvenienced a great many Members of this House, including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and me. Spending on track support has increased by 55 per cent. in the last 10 years, rail passenger journeys are up by 35 per cent. and, to combat overcrowding, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently announced that an extra 1,000 rail carriages are to be purchased.

As chair of the all-party group on smoking and health, I welcome the recent anniversary of smoke-free Scotland and I look forward in four days’ time to smoke-free Wales and in four weeks and four days’ time to smoke-free Northern Ireland, and on 1 July to smoke-free legislation in England. May I draw attention to my early-day motion 1233?

[That this House looks forward to the introduction of smokefree legislation in England on 1st July this year, following Wales on 2nd April and Northern Ireland on 30th April; applauds the protection from proven health risks of secondhand smoke which this will afford to smokers and non-smokers alike in the vast majority of workplaces and public places; notes the successful passing of the first anniversary of smokefree Scotland; further applauds the 46,000 Scots who used NHS Scotland to support their attempt to stop smoking; recognises that a huge surge in demand is expected for Stop Smoking Services in England, running up to, on and following 1st July; welcomes the £10 million additional funding for 2006-07 and 2007-08 provided by the Department of Health to primary care trusts (PCTs) for increased provision of Stop Smoking Services; regrets that there is evidence that many frontline services are being cut at this vital time despite the additional Government funding; and urges the Government to ring-fence the funding to PCTs for the provision of Stop Smoking Services in 2007-08 to ensure that the unique opportunity presented by Smokefree England to make a dramatic cut in smoking prevalence is not wasted.]

It draws attention to the fact that the Government have allocated a fair amount of money to boost stop-smoking services, which is what some people are doing at the implementation of this legislation. May we have a debate on how we can protect such funding? Research shows that that extra funding is being used—snaffled, even—by primary care trusts for other services and that smoke-free services are being reduced in scale. May we have a debate on public health and how we can protect finances and give high priority to that aspect of our health policy?

I take note of what my hon. Friend has to say. I am glad that he acknowledges the big increase in resources that we have put into it. I hope that he is successful in raising the matter, for example, in Westminster Hall.

Given that the Home Office continues to remove to Khartoum failed asylum seekers from Darfur, even though the safety of such an approach is being contested in the Court of Appeal, can we please debate the matter urgently in Government time on the Floor of the House, because many of us believe that the Government are breaking their international commitments and putting opponents of the Sudanese Government at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I know of no case and I do not believe that there has ever been a case of someone being sent back as a failed asylum seeker unless and until all the avenues of appeal have been exhausted, including appeals before independent immigration judges and possibly even the immigration appeal tribunal. It is well established case law in this country and internationally that it may well be safe to send an individual back to a part of a country although it may be dangerous in another part of that country. That is particularly true of Sudan, which is twice the size of France.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that many of the great campaigns in this House start from an injustice to a constituent? Would he think of an early debate on the behaviour of Swiss banks operating in London outside of European Union regulation? Constituents of mine have lost £2 million through fraud. The fraudster used Pictet and Cie—a French bank—and Pictet Asset Management to back the fraud being perpetrated. My constituents can get no justice because Swiss banks operating in London are outside the normal parameters of European Union protection. Can we have a debate about what is going on with regard to Swiss financial services operating in this capital city of financial services?

I take note of the seriousness of my hon. Friend’s point. I will draw his profound concern to the attention of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the chairman of the Financial Services Authority. I hope that he can raise the matter in debate here.

The Government must be alarmed by the criticism in the report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and by the level of fines. Will the Leader of the House make time, as soon as possible after the House’s return from the Easter recess, for a debate to consider two particular aspects of the criticisms? The first is the fact that the level of the fines means that the farm budget has been raided. In addition, the rural development fund, which would otherwise have been used for flood alleviation schemes, is no longer at the level that it would have been without the fines. Secondly, as the Government are so keen to look into restructuring Departments and to consider the level of ministerial responsibility, will he please ensure that the Minister with responsibility for farms is a House of Commons man or woman, and is in this House to answer questions and receive correspondence? If that had been the case, the Government would have been aware of the difficulties much earlier.

I take note of the hon. Lady’s last point about ministerial responsibility. I would just say that my noble Friend, Lord Rooker, has very much made himself available to this House. I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but he has done what he can to make himself available. On the hon. Lady’s wider point, of course we always take seriously any Select Committee report. My right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary has apologised to farmers for the debacle in the Rural Payments Agency, and I have done so to the House. There have been changes at the head of the agency, and everybody is seeking to learn the lessons from that very unfortunate episode.

Congressional committees in the United States ordinarily take evidence on oath, and my friend the Leader of the House told me yesterday in a written answer that it is open to Select Committees to require witnesses to give evidence on oath. Given the controversy over the remarks of the previous Cabinet Secretary, and the fact that my friend is now campaign manager for someone who has been described as a Stalinist, I am interested in my friend’s views; would he encourage Select Committees to take evidence on oath on appropriate occasions?

I have no particular view about that, because even if evidence is not given on oath, there is a high expectation that those giving evidence will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think that I am right in saying that even if the evidence is not given on oath, if it transpires that the witnesses have given false evidence, they can be brought before the House.

Sadly, far too many small shops are falling victim to crime. A survey by the British Retail Consortium showed that shop theft was up 70 per cent. in 2005, and theft costs shops some £2 billion a year. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on shop theft, either in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House, and will he support my call for such a debate?

I appreciate that although, overall, crime has come down, one crime is one crime too many, and the statistics are no comfort to the victims of the crimes that continue to occur, so I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We are doing everything that we can to cut shop crime and we will look for an opportunity for him to raise the subject on the Adjournment, or in Westminster Hall.

May we have a debate on information technology developments in primary schools, and will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Members to encourage participation in the competition that is being run by the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee and e-skills, and which is being promoted in the all-party Whip? It is a great way of getting Members to engage with the young people in their constituencies about something that will really affect their future.

I congratulate PITCOM and e-skills, which is the sector skills council for IT and telecoms, for their initiative, and I encourage Members to involve their primary schools in that competition.

I still have constituents who have not been paid their single farm payment for 2005. The Leader of the House underestimates the spectacular language in, and the importance of, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report. Paragraph 3 says:

“This was a catastrophe for some farmers, and a serious and embarrassing failure for Defra and the RPA. A key part of the Government’s sustainable farming policy was in collapse.”

The majority of Committee members were Government Members, and the report was passed unanimously. The right hon. Gentleman’s replies are not good enough. We need to debate the subject on the Floor of the House, with Ministers present, in Government time. Fobbing us off with estimates days is just not good enough.

Order. May I say to the Leader of the House that he will have to imply a question from the statement that we have just heard?

I will do my best, inadequate though I am. I do not think that I downplayed the gravity of the criticism that was made; it is palpable and it has been well-rehearsed in the newspapers, and on the radio this morning. I do not have much to add to what I have already said. As I said to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), if Members really think that a criticism made of a Minister is serious, there are many opportunities available to them, and particularly to the Official Opposition, to raise the matter on the Floor of the House.

I wonder when we can have a statement from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the arrangements for scrutiny by the House of the Home Office and the new ministry of justice. In particular, what arrangements does he intend to propose on the organisation of Select Committees? Given the division of responsibilities, how can the House ensure seamless scrutiny of the criminal justice system?

That is something on which we will have to consult the usual channels, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and, of course, the Chairmen of the Select Committees concerned. I say to my right hon. Friend that however uncomfortable it may be, the general principle—now enshrined, I think, in the Standing Orders—is that the departmental Select Committees are there to monitor the work of Departments, and that principle is important in making the Select Committees as effective as they can be in fulfilling their role. We have to take that into account.

Looking at the future business, it seems that the Leader of the House and I have failed to secure an Act of Union debate prior to the Scottish elections. I have to say that I am disappointed. I wanted to hear Ministers once again make their positive case—the black hole of the issue of border guards, the brutal language, and so on. When the Leader of the House observes the 10-point Scottish National party lead, does he believe that the current approach is working?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not mention that there has been a 20-point reduction in support for independence in Scotland since the SNP started wittering on about it.

Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister stated, in relation to NHS operations:

“now virtually no one waits more than six months.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1495.]

The House of Commons Library informs me that official figures show that there are currently 7,851 patients who have waited more than six months for an NHS operation. After the recess, will the Leader of the House make a statement on the accuracy of ministerial answers to oral questions, and will he say how they might be corrected if they are found to be wrong?

I think that what my right hon. Friend said is accurate, and I echo what he said, because virtually nobody is waiting more than six months. The number is down by 284,000 since 1997, and is now relatively small. Of course, that is still too many people who are waiting, but the hon. Gentleman needs to make up his mind about whether he supports the extra money that we have put into the health service—it alone has made the improvements possible—or whether he opposes that spending, as he did at the last election, and the one before that.

A major industrial plant in my constituency has suffered terrorist attacks in the past, and thousands of my constituents travel to London every day to work. May we have a debate to explore, in plain language, how the Home Office changes will improve the on-the-ground protection from terrorism for my constituents? That will not be clear to them from the statement made by the Home Secretary this morning.

The purpose of the changes that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced this morning is to strengthen the framework for counter-terrorism and to ensure that our work on local policing continues, so that the good people of Castle Point, including those on Canvey Island, can, with a bit of luck, sleep even easier in their beds than they have been able to since that halcyon day, 1 May 1997.