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Commons Chamber

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 7 June 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 7 June 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

TRADE AND INDUSTRY

The Secretary of State was asked—

Carbon Capture and Storage

1. What factors were taken into account in choosing the date of the carbon capture and storage competition announced in the energy White Paper. (140924)

The date was chosen to allow the minimum amount of time required to design a competition that would allow a number of companies to participate, and to ensure maximum benefit and value for money.

I am very disturbed by the Secretary of State’s answer. North sea investment has to confront the fact that decommissioning is coming and the clock is ticking. The Government knew that decommissioning was coming for the Miller field. Why did they not say at the outset that the project had no chance and that they could never make a decision in time? They will have to be much speedier in creating the criteria for investment in novel industries if we are to get new investment into this country. Will the Secretary of State work to see whether anything can be rescued from this project? What hope is there for gas gathering west of Shetland—

Let me deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman made. As I said when we discussed this matter yesterday, I am sorry that BP was not able to continue operation of the Miller field, but I should point out two things. First, BP always knew that there was going to be a competition. Seven other companies are interested in working with the Government towards building a carbon capture and storage scheme and, as I said yesterday, it is not open to the Government to hand over a contract such as this to one company, when we know that others are in the field. Secondly, even if BP had remained in the competition, there was of course no guarantee that it would have been successful, because as I said, other firms are interested. I hope that BP will be able to work with us again in future, and it has said that it would like to do that. So far as Scotland is concerned, Scottish Power has publicly said that it is interested in participating in this competition in relation to either Longannet or Cockenzie.

My right hon. Friend is right to recognise the speed at which we need to work to advance these technologies. In this regard, we should take particular account of the energy technologies institute, which his Department and the Treasury are trying to foster. As my right hon. Friend knows, Loughborough university is a key bidder for one of the partnerships, which will be rolling out later this year. Will he assure us that these technologies and the various institutes that are being set up across the country will be with us as soon as possible? As we learned from the G8 this weekend, if we are to have a positive impact on climate change, we need to act within days and months, rather than years.

On the energy technologies institute, five groups of companies have shown an interest and we will be making a decision. We have set out the timetable and the short leet is being worked through. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—this is a unique venture. The public and private sectors are working together and looking at new technologies, of which carbon capture might be one. However, the process is separate from the one relating to carbon capture and storage.

A critical part of the answer to this question is the amount of nuclear power in the energy mix. What is the Secretary of State’s best estimate of the time that it would take to commission and construct a nuclear power station? Starting from now, when would he expect a new nuclear power station to be on-stream?

First, as the hon. Gentleman will know, following the court judgment in February the Government now have to consult on whether nuclear should be part of the mix. I know that some Members find that frustrating, but that is the law and the Government are bound by that decision. Once the consultation has finished we can reach a final conclusion and, as I said, that needs to be done this year. It is very difficult to estimate how long it would take between the start of the process and a new nuclear power station opening. Decisions on whether nuclear power stations are to be built will be taken by the generators themselves, not by the Government. Of course, it would greatly assist that process if we could improve the planning regime, and I hope that we will get all-party support for that.

Is not the delayed decision on subsidies being used by BP as a smokescreen? Is it really serious about investing in carbon capture and storage technology in the United Kingdom? Centrica is still pressing ahead; that sets an example, does it not? We need this technology to access the many hundreds of millions of tonnes of clean coal that still exists in this country, not least the 800 million tonnes in the constituency of the shadow Secretary of State of Trade and Industry.

I am absolutely sure that BP is serious about looking at new technology such as this. The problem that it had with the Miller field in the North sea was that the field had reached the end of its life, and keeping it going was proving quite expensive for BP, which, as a company, obviously had to have regard to that. It has been suggested in some quarters—by the nationalists in particular—that the BP project was somehow ready to go. Yes, BP had spent some money on it, but as I said yesterday, we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds over a 10 to 20-year period. That is why it was not open to the Government simply to have said to BP, “Okay. You’ve expressed an interest—let’s go with you”, when we knew that at least seven other companies—there might be more in future—are interested in working in this area.

Let there be no mistake: I hope that we can become a world leader in this field. No other Government are involved in this process to this extent. Nowhere in the world is there any commercially operated carbon capture and storage, and it is important that we should be part of that, because we can see the potential for this country and, crucially, for countries such as India and China. Let us not forget that China is building a new coal-fired power station every four days on average.

That last point is exactly why it is so important to make progress with CCS. The point about Peterhead is that it was years ahead of any other project in this country. The White Paper says that a competition will be launched this year and the full chain will start to be demonstrated at some point between 2011 and 2014. Can the Secretary of State give us some idea of when any new project from that competition will reach the stage that BP had already reached at Peterhead?

The hon. Gentleman knows that although BP had done a lot of preliminary work and spent quite a bit of money, it was still in the foothills of development of the whole process. Other companies were doing exactly the same work. I understand why the hon. Gentleman, representing the constituency that he does, and the leader of his party, as the local MP, were keen to see BP proceed, and I am sorry that it has withdrawn. However, as I said yesterday, it is not open to the Government to hand over a contract of this value without being satisfied that we have considered all the possibilities. That is what we are doing and that is the right way to proceed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer first promised a demonstration project for carbon capture at the end of 2005. We will now have a competition only at the end of 2007. We are still in the foothills and the Secretary of State ain’t much of a Sherpa on this issue. Given such a delay, can he tell the House when carbon storage will be sufficiently advanced to deliver low-carbon electricity to homes? If he thinks that there is a risk that that will never actually happen, how will he ever meet his emissions targets?

As I said two weeks ago when we launched the White Paper, I think that carbon capture and storage has great potential. However, precisely because it is not in commercial operation anywhere in the world at the moment, we cannot be certain. To all those people who say that we do not need nuclear because we have CCS, I say that until we can be sure that that technology actually works, it would be foolish to rule out possibilities such as nuclear. As of yesterday afternoon at least, that is the hon. Gentleman’s position too—

Post Office Closures

On 17 May, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the Government’s response to public consultation on the post office network. Now that the Government have announced their decision, it will be for Post Office Ltd to restructure the network strategically through 50 to 60 local area implementation plans over the next 18 months. Following initial input from sub-postmasters, Postwatch and local authorities, the plans will include closure proposals which will then be put to local consultations ahead of the final decision.

My constituents from Braunstone Town in the north, down through Blaby and Dunton Bassett to Lutterworth in the south, have contacted me about their concerns that their post offices will close. Since the Government came to power, they have had the urban network reinvention programme, which closed some 3,000 post offices, and now we are talking about closing perhaps another couple of thousand. When will the Government see the countrywide network of post offices as a fantastic opportunity for the delivery of services and goods, instead of restricting the freedoms of small businessmen—sub-postmasters—to carry out business, and undermining that business by withdrawing the Government services that they may deliver? The customers like getting those services from post offices.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have supported Post Office Ltd to the tune of £2 billion since 1999. We are committed to support it with another £1.7 billion until 2011. He neglects the fact that losses have increased from £2 million a week a few years ago to an anticipated £4 million a week this year. The Trade and Industry Committee and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters both say that that situation is unsustainable. With the new access criteria laid out by the Secretary of State, we are trying to ensure that by 2011 the network is in a much better place and we have a viable national network for the future.

I am especially concerned about the risk of social exclusion in rural areas if post offices are lost. Can my hon. Friend at least assure me that where there is a village shop with the post office, support will be given to existing shops, the encouragement of community shops and the retention of the basic postal services of cash, payment of bills and parcel postage? Will he undertake to give a clear steer to the regional development agencies to support such enterprise in shops in rural areas?

My hon. Friend raises some very good points about how the network can best be protected. In his statement of 17 May, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined a number of joint working arrangements worthy of examination. We have said that our aim is to establish ways to work even more closely with the devolved Assemblies and the Local Government Association by 2011, and that, in the restructuring programme, Post Office Ltd and Postwatch must take account of a variety of conditions over and above economic and commercial criteria, such as economic impact and local transport arrangements. The Government are committed to supporting the post office network with the commercial assistance that the hon. Gentleman seeks, and I am sure that we will get the best deal possible.

The Government have laid down all sorts of criteria, including the availability of public transport, but Post Office Ltd acts as judge, jury and executioner when it puts forward proposals and then makes the final decision. Will the Government put in place an independent referee who can look at the closures in every area to make sure that they conform to the access criteria?

Post Office Ltd has been charged with the responsibility of drafting the plan, but it will do so in consultation with local government and Postwatch. The plans will receive quite a bit of attention before they are published, so they should be quite well refined. Even so, hon. Members will be contacted about a week before the plans are published, and there will then be a six-week programme of local consultation in which local communities, organisations and individuals will be able to make their feelings known. The plans will not be solely in the gift of Post Office Ltd, as there will be a robust consultation exercise.

In my constituency, there have been some very creative ideas about how to deal with the problem of post offices. For example, the post office that has been opened in an equestrian shop has been very successful. However, one of the sub-postmasters in my area decided that he did not want to renew his licence, and his office was closed. How is the Department supporting the post office network in cases where people want to retain a post office but the sub-postmaster does not want to continue?

In his 17 May statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the access criteria that have been laid down require Post Office Ltd to make sure that the service across the UK is as universal as possible. Moreover, that service will be planned: it will not be the ad hoc service that we had before. Post Office Ltd is also developing new products to try to make sub-post offices more attractive. As has been noted in previous debates, it is offering new financial products such as foreign exchange facilities and insurance. In addition, the new saver account was opened last year, and a contract to provide broadband services has been signed with BT. I see from press cuttings this morning that Post Office Ltd is moving into the mortgage market as well. All those innovations are to be welcomed, as they demonstrate Post Office Ltd’s ambition to provide more services on top of the traditional ones that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Does the Minister agree that, in spite of the improvements made in recent years by Royal Mail’s management and staff, the company’s finances remain in a very worrying state? The financial problems facing it and the Post Office have been made worse by the Government’s failure to agree a long-term package for the future of the business. Does he accept that a decision by postal workers to strike would cause very significant damage to the Royal Mail, and that a strike would put even more services and post offices at risk? Will he therefore join me in urging all postal workers to vote against strike action for the sake of the business in the long term?

I have to take issue with the hon. Gentleman, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made several statements in recent years in which he has outlined the considerable financial support and assistance that the Government have given to Royal Mail Group. I do not agree that we have not set out a very strong business plan for the group, including Post Office Ltd, for the future. As for possible industrial action, operational matters such as that are the direct responsibility of the company’s management. The negotiation of pay and conditions is a matter for the management and the union involved, and the Government are not—and should not be—involved. Both relevant parties have the responsibility to resolve all such issues, and the Government encourage them to do so as constructively as possible. We do not want the business to be damaged; our commitment of the past few years demonstrates that we want the recent good progress to continue.

3. How many (a) voluntary and (b) compulsory post office closures there will be over the next two years under the scheme he announced in May; and if he will make a statement. (140926)

The measures announced on 17 May by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will maintain a stable national network of post offices and ensure reasonable access with the right services in the right areas. This will include the compulsory closure of a maximum of 2,500 post offices. Closure decisions will not be determined by sub-postmasters' preferences although we expect that there will be cases where it makes sense to accommodate the wishes of those who want to leave the network.

I live in the constituency with the greatest concentration of senior citizens and the most centenarians, and I cannot emphasise strongly enough to the Minister what a devastating effect the closure of post offices has had on the local community. Senior citizens find it difficult to cope with new technology. Having closed 10 post offices already in Southend, West, will the Minister now give a commitment that there will be no further post office closures in my constituency?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot give that commitment. The restructuring programme is a matter for Post Office Ltd in consultation with Postwatch and local authorities. He will want to make his usual robust representations on behalf of his constituents when the time comes. I have to say, however, that the absence of a Conservative party policy on the programme leaves the hon. Gentleman in a weak position. The Lib Dems have a policy—it is not a very good policy, but at least they have one—which is to privatise Royal Mail and use the money raised for a short-term injection. They would then be back here in three years’ time with continued losses haemorrhaging from the network. We will do our best to protect the universal national network and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will play his part on behalf of his constituents.

It is no good coming out with, “It’s not me, guv” because the bottom line is that the Minister is the shareholder; he has the upper hand over the Royal Mail. I want him to use that upper hand to ensure that there will be no compulsory closures in Chorley and that more services will be offered so that we have a suitable network of the type we expect for the people of Chorley.

I could refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave a moment ago. I am sure that he, too, will make the strongest possible representations for his constituents. However, he must acknowledge that the £4 million a week losses of Post Office Ltd do not present a sustainable position. We want to protect the network, which is why we are investing a further £1.7 billion and introducing 500 outreach outlets and innovative ways of delivering services, and why we are encouraging Post Office Ltd to develop new products.

Up and down the English-Welsh border, individual post offices serve communities in both England and Wales. Will the Minister give an assurance that the consultation on the future of such post offices will include all the communities that they serve and not just those limited to the nation in which the post office is located?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that although Post Office Ltd has said it will bring forward proposals for 50 or 60 area groups, these will not be cliff edged; there will be some overlap. Common sense will have to prevail. There may be some double consultation, but I am sure that these valid issues will be taken into account.

It is our view that a strike would damage the industry, so we do not think it would be in the best interests of the company or individual staff members if there were a strike. We hope that the matter can be resolved through constructive discussions. We know and hope that discussions will take place following the Communication Workers Union conference this week. We have demonstrated our commitment by putting our money where our mouth is with additional resources for the company. We do not believe that a strike would be in the interests of the company, the employees or, for that matter, the service.

Sub-sea Electricity

The Government are working with Ofgem and industry to establish an offshore transmission regime. We have already taken a number of decisions necessary to help us to do that.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. I welcome the announcement made by Ofgem this week about island connections, but does he accept that, whatever the outcome of the Beauly to Denny proposal, a new approach will be needed to meet future transmission needs beyond that proposal? Will he give political leadership and instruct Ofgem to provide the regulatory space to enable a much more ambitious approach to developing a sub-sea transmission network to be taken in future around Britain’s coasts to allow the potential of marine renewables to be fully exploited?

The hon. Gentleman raises two separate issues. We have already taken a number of decisions along with Ofgem to encourage the offshore regime. I want to see more offshore wind farms, and of course they have to be connected to the grid. He also raises the Beauly to Denny transmission lines, which are onshore and the subject of a public inquiry at the moment. Of course we and Ofgem will continue to ask how we can help to improve matters, but there is no getting away from the fact that at some stage the transmission lines have to be built. People who say that they are in favour of renewable energy will have to face up to the fact that the energy has to be transported and that their objection to the power lines is contradictory.

Looking at the plans for the super grid, it appears that the establishment of more wind turbines is planned in the North sea, the Irish sea and the channel. As the Secretary of State has said, all that electricity has to be transported. It must be welcome that we are to have more turbines out at sea, because there is less controversy about that. Will he look into the opportunities for under-sea turbines, which could be linked into the same grid?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We can and ought to do more to find more marine-generated sources of energy. Unfortunately, at present the technology is pretty much in its infancy. Through grants, the Government support experimental wave generation and I am extremely interested in encouraging tidal generation. One of the reasons we have proposed changing the way in which the renewables obligation works is to give greater incentives for developing more difficult and newer forms of power generation, but I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I too welcome the Ofgem consultation launched yesterday, entitled “Unlocking the Renewables Potential of Scottish Islands”. May I encourage the Secretary of State to impress on Ofgem the urgency of resolving this question? Will he remind Ofgem in the nicest possible way that when it makes its calculations of transmission charges from island groups, it should factor into the equation the capping power in the Energy Act 2004?

I am sure that Ofgem will bear that in mind. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the consultation. Obviously, we need to let that run and then take the next set of decisions, as I said to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander). We all want to make it easier to generate more offshore power and to help with connections from the islands to the UK mainland.

Sellafield

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Does he agree that health and safety and security safeguards must be paramount before we give any contracts?

Yes, safety is absolutely paramount at Sellafield and at other nuclear sites. That is why the responsibility lies with the nuclear installations inspectorate and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security. I am sure that they will do everything they can to ensure that the sites remain secure.

Will the Secretary of State be very kind and clarify the Government’s proposals for the future of nuclear power? How much of the costs of Sellafield and the storage and disposal of nuclear waste will be met by the state and how much will have to be met by the private sector?

In relation to much of the waste at Sellafield at the moment, we set up the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to fund its disposal. It will almost certainly be stored in deep underground facilities. I think the hon. Gentleman was getting at what would happen in respect of waste that may come from any new nuclear plant that is built. We have said that the industry—the generators who make proposals—will have to meet the construction, running and decommissioning costs, and thus their share of the storage. There could be a joint storage facility, in which case they will have to pay their share. Although we might wish things were otherwise in relation to historic waste, the problem has been building up since the 1940s and I am afraid that it will have to be substantially dealt with by the public sector.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that in addition to Sellafield the operation of nuclear stations generally presents safety and security challenges. Is he aware that the latest figures show that staff numbers at the Health and Safety Executive, which includes the nuclear installations inspectorate, will have fallen by 17 per cent. by 2008? Will he give an assurance that the inspectorate’s staff is kept at an appropriate level and that the health and safety regime at nuclear stations, which covers workers under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, will also be maintained?

As I said to our hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat), it is important that we maintain the right safety regime in respect both of the sites themselves and, importantly, of people employed at nuclear sites. It is for the HSE to decide on the right staffing; I am told that it has held extremely constructive discussions with the Treasury on that point.

Fuel Poverty

6. What progress has been made in achieving the Government’s target of an end to fuel poverty for vulnerable households by 2010. (140929)

Projections indicate that about 2 million vulnerable households are currently in fuel poverty in England—fuel poverty being defined as having to spend more than 10 per cent. of one’s income on fuel. We certainly acknowledge a significant increase since 2004 because of energy price rises, but fuel poverty among vulnerable households is still significantly below the 1996 level of 4 million, and we have taken further steps in the energy White Paper to increase efforts to tackle fuel poverty.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that reply and I appreciate the Government’s commitment to alleviate fuel poverty, but will he introduce legislation to force energy suppliers to offer social tariffs for those in most need?

We are in discussion about social tariffs. Certainly the supply companies have a social responsibility to protect their vulnerable customers. Obviously, at present, energy prices for householders are coming down again, which will have an impact on the fuel poverty figures. There is a range of other measures to tackle the issue, from pension credit and winter fuel payments to energy efficiency programmes in the different nations. That is at the heart of the Government’s programme to tackle fuel poverty. There is no one answer, but a range of strategies, including corporate responsibility and the social tariff.

Let me press further on the issue of social tariffs, because average domestic energy costs are still more than £1,000 a year. In the White Paper, the Secretary of State said that he would require companies to put in place

“a proportional programme of assistance”

for vulnerable customers. Will the Minister tell us what that means and how long the energy supply companies will have until he finally puts in place minimum standards for social tariffs? Perhaps he could indicate what those standards would be.

Let us first acknowledge that many of the supply companies have made good progress on social tariffs in recent years, but there is more to do. We need development and coherence as part and parcel of the wider strategy that I briefly outlined earlier. There is a job for Government in that regard, as well as for the supply companies. As the hon. Lady knows, over the coming years we want to move to a situation where supply companies will no longer simply be in the business of trying to persuade us—including vulnerable households—to use more gas and electricity, but will become energy service companies that help us not only to keep warm and have hot water but to live in energy-efficient dwellings. That is where we want to go in the long term, and it is particularly important for vulnerable households.

The energy White Paper makes it clear that the 2010 target to remove vulnerable households from fuel poverty will not be met, and that 1.2 million fuel-poor households will remain in fuel poverty. At the same time, the energy companies are seeking to reduce the proportion of their energy efficiency commitment that goes towards the eradication of fuel poverty. Will the Minister give an assurance to the House that he will not entertain such a reduction? I am talking about the 50 per cent. of the commitment that is currently earmarked for fuel poverty eradication.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. He is an acknowledged expert in the field and a passionate advocate of the need to tackle the terrible problem of fuel poverty. The significant point about the 50 per cent. figure is that, with the increase in the importance of the energy efficiency commitment, even if that percentage comes down, more actual help will go to vulnerable households, because of the development of the size of the programme.

Does the Minister, on reflection, agree that in the past the Government’s expenditure has focused too much on subsidising the payment of higher bills by those on low incomes, and not enough on the fuel conservation measures that he now rightly welcomes? Could not the Government look again at the balance of their spending? Surely it is better to save people the need to spend so much, rather than to subsidise them.

I understand the issue, and of course, this is a question of balance. When the Government came to power we recognised that many of our eldest citizens—often women in their 80s, living alone—had been seriously neglected, to put it mildly, in income maintenance programmes. That is why we had to develop pension credit, which has given a good many extra resources to the poorest one third of our older households. That is also why we brought in the winter fuel payment. The situation was serious and we needed to take some early action. Of course, in the longer term—we started this straight away—energy efficiency measures to warm up the homes of the oldest people are important, not least given that all the survey evidence shows that it is often the most vulnerable who live in the most energy-inefficient dwellings. The energy efficiency commitment, Warm Front, and the equivalent programmes in the other nations are a crucial part of the strategy, and are related to the big and urgent concern about climate change.

Among the poorest families in my constituency are those who live in mobile home parks. Mobile homes are notoriously energy-inefficient. Does the Minister share my surprise about the limited range of products supported through Warm Front to assist people who live in mobile homes to insulate them properly? I am thinking, in particular, of measures to provide for the external insulation of mobile homes to improve the energy efficiency of the walls.

That is an extremely good question—and I wish I was more able to give an extremely good answer. I certainly recognise that although many people have mobile homes, it is often the poorest—those on low incomes, who are vulnerable in all sorts of ways—who have to resort to such homes. My hon. Friend raised the issue of what technology and devices exist. I will reflect on that and write to him.

The Minister has twice mentioned energy efficiency. Smart metering has an important role to play in achieving that, so will he explain why the recent energy White Paper opted for a programme based on clip-on electricity displays, rather than proper smart meters? Why is he going for the most basic option when real smart meters would do much more to stimulate the microgeneration industry and reduce fuel poverty?

It is not either/or: what the hon. Gentleman refers to as clip-ons are an immediate response to enable people to have a better sense of the energy that they are expending in their homes so that they can monitor it. But we also have a programme to develop smart metering and we are committed to that. It cannot be done straight away; it is an extremely expensive programme. But we are developing it and it is important. If we are to win the war against climate change, an important part of our strategy must be to have engaged citizens who understand how much energy they are using.

Royal Mail

Price controls and their associated impact assessments are a matter for the postal regulator, Postcomm. The current price controls run until 2010.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Communication Workers Union is concerned about the way in which the regime is progressing, to the extent that it believes that it is clear that if private companies are allowed to cherry-pick what they do, it will ultimately lead to the end of Royal Mail as we know it? Some 40,000 jobs have already been lost in Royal Mail; will he agree to meet the CWU as a matter of urgency to try to clarify exactly what is going on?

I do not think that we accept that argument. The price control regime is designed to allow Royal Mail to align its prices more closely with its costs. That is why Postcomm permitted pricing in proportion last year, following a specific request from Royal Mail. In March 2007, Postcomm initiated a review and public consultation on the price control of Royal Mail’s access charges. It has not yet taken a decision on whether any amendment is appropriate, but a public consultation is planned for July, and a decision will be made some time in the autumn.

What assessment have the Minister and the Department made of the impact of the price control regime on the business community? In an ever-competitive regime, what incentives are there for the business community to remain with the Post Office, and to continue to be among Royal Mail’s major customers?

As I said, that role, and responsibility for the pricing regime and the impact assessment, rests with Postcomm. It is carrying out its review, and has set a programme that runs until 2010. It made an adjustment last year, when it introduced prices in proportion, but that role and responsibility lies with it.

Nuclear Power Stations

Any new nuclear power stations will be built by the generators, and it is for them to make proposals with regard to sites, but I have said on many occasions that it is likely that new build will be on existing nuclear power station sites.

There seems to be an extraordinary mismatch between the extremely gung-ho rhetoric coming out of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing street on nuclear new build and the spin that they are putting into the media, and the paucity of information coming from the DTI and the total lack of clarity about the strategy for implementing the proposals. Will the Secretary of State at least tell the House what assessment the Government have made of the long-term impact of rising sea levels and associated coastal erosion on siting new nuclear power stations on the coast? I am thinking particularly of Dungeness near my constituency.

If he has not already done so, the hon. Gentleman might like to read the consultation document on the future of nuclear power that we published a couple of weeks ago, in which many of those issues are considered. On sites, the Jackson report, which was published on the same day as the energy White Paper, looks at the various criteria that will be considered, and obviously the suitability of existing sites is one of those. As I have said, I think it more likely than not that any new build will be on existing sites, but an assessment would have to be made on whether such an existing site would be suitable for new building in the future.

May I underline the comments made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker)? The Secretary of State said in both his responses to the hon. Gentleman’s questions that it is likely that existing sites will be used. We must adapt to climate change in this country; it is likely that by 2050 sea levels will have risen by 40 cm at least, and that storm waves will get higher. To use existing sites, most of which are on the coast, whether in the south-east or in the rest of the UK, is asking for difficulties for future generations, and I beg my right hon. Friend to examine very carefully the appropriateness or otherwise of using coastal sites for new nuclear build.

As I said a moment ago, any proposal coming forward would have to be considered on its merits. Every possibility would have to be looked at, and indeed that is what happens now, and what has happened with regard to previous building. However, if my hon. Friend reads the report that we commissioned, which was published last week—indeed, I am sure that he has done so already—he will see that a number of criteria have to be considered, although it was the report’s considered opinion that existing sites would probably be better. As I say, the merits of each proposal will have to be considered individually.

Energy White Paper

9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on issues outlined in the Energy White Paper. (140932)

The Secretary of State will be aware that his predecessor mentioned that with a new generation of nuclear power stations, the necessary investment in efficiency and renewables would not be made. What will he do to ensure that Scotland develops its full renewables potential, and that that is not put at risk by a future generation of nuclear power stations?

I want Scotland to do as much as it can to get more renewable energy—and it would be greatly assisted in that regard if Liberal Democrats would help those developments to go ahead, rather than objecting to each and every one of them.

One of the welcome proposals in the energy White Paper is for a cross-Government communications campaign to inform people in time for this winter of the steps that they can take to assist in dealing with fuel poverty. It is not clear from the White Paper whether that cross-Government campaign will apply only to England, or throughout the UK. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that it applies to the entire UK, so that this winter my constituents get the benefits of the measures proposed in the White Paper? They suffered last winter, and we do not want the same to happen this winter.

It is certainly our intention that whatever measures are put in place, they apply right across the UK. As my hon. Friend knows, the schemes to help insulation are operated differently in different parts of the UK, but the end result is exactly the same. He is right to say that it does not matter where anyone lives in the United Kingdom; they should all be entitled to whatever assistance we can make available to help them tackle problems like fuel poverty.

Gas Storage

10. What discussions his Department has had with Canatxx Ltd and its associated companies on gas storage under the River Wyre in the last six months. (140933)

Our officials meet companies from time to time to keep abreast of energy developments, and during the past six months met Canatxx Ltd once.

The Minister will be aware that Canatxx gas storage company intends to store thousands of tonnes of gas below the Wyre estuary, which is currently designated by the European Union as a special protection area. He will also be aware that current applications across the rest of the United Kingdom already exceed the UK storage requirements for gas. Is he therefore convinced that the need to avoid damage to the environment around the Wyre estuary is overridden by the national need to store gas?

May I simply record that I understand that a public inquiry has been held on Canatxx’s Preesall application, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is considering the inspector’s report. My Department is not involved in the decision, and the hon. Gentleman will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the project. More generally, however—I am not talking about that project—we recognise the need for more gas storage. Storage capacity could more than double if all planned and proposed projects go forward. In terms of our energy security, one way or another we need to increase gas storage—but I am not commenting on the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Imported Furniture

11. If he will apply the Furniture and Furnishings Regulations 1998 to imported furniture at the point of entry into the UK, with particular reference to sofas. (140934)

The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 apply to imported upholstered furniture, including sofas, destined for the domestic market. These regulations apply at the point of entry to the UK and are enforced by trading standards officers. HM Revenue and Customs liaises with trading standards bodies on furniture imports as appropriate.

From my previous correspondence with his Department, the Minister will know that we have a problem locally with imported furniture—mostly sofas—that is illegal because it does not meet our furniture and furnishing regulations, being brought into the United Kingdom from eastern Europe; as a result, the public are being put at risk. Trading standards officers and the police have a real problem keeping track of the hundreds of lorries that bring the furniture in once they are in the country, and as a result much of that furniture is disappearing into the ether. Will the Minister explain to the House why—

The Department has provided funding of some £900,000 over two years for what we are calling “scambuster” pilots to operate in a number of areas—[Hon. Members: “Scambusters!”]. You are right—it is a silly name. The scambuster projects are designed to help trading standards with a range of scams, not just this one. Although the number of deaths from fires has diminished, fire safety remains crucial, and I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We have taken action in respect of one of the countries involved: we have arranged for the Polish embassy to write to Polish manufacturers to make them aware of the regulations. When customers buy sofas, it is important that they do so from reputable dealers rather than in the informal market. The customer needs to beware, but the Government are taking action, which is also important.

Industry (Totnes)

12. If he will make an official visit to Totnes to discuss the situation of industry in the area. (140935)

I am advised that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions will be pleased to consider the possibility of including a visit to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency when she next visits the south-west region.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware that Dairy Crest, which produces milk and has done so for the last 86 years, is in danger of closing, with the loss of 200 of the work force. Can he tell me whether regional aid might be available to help modernise the plant, and will he encourage the management to produce a work plan so that the unions and I can understand what is needed if the company is to continue in business?

Obviously, there is regret at the loss of jobs at Dairy Crest and the impact that it will have on local people and the local economy in Totnes. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Jobcentre Plus is working closely with the company to ensure that employees affected receive the advice and support that they need to find alternative employment. An application for designated large-scale redundancy status is being prepared that would provide immediate access to Jobcentre Plus jobsearch and training programmes. The regional development agency is also in discussion with South Hams district council about the future employment use of the site. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions in a few days’ time.

Minister for Women

The Minister for Women was asked—

Trafficking of Women

21. When the Government expect to implement article 13 of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings for women victims of trafficking. (140946)

Action Plan, published in March, sets out the actions that the Government are taking to implement the convention. Ratification without full implementation would be an empty gesture. The inter-ministerial group on human trafficking monitors progress on both implementation of the action plan and the convention. In line with convention requirements, we already operate a 30-day reflection and recovery period for victims accepted on to the POPPY project, but we will, of course, consider whether there is a need to adopt a longer period. The convention imposes a set of minimum requirements.

May I urge on the Minister the importance of setting a date for ratification? I appreciate, as she says, that it will impose on the Government certain legislative requirements, but I remind her that the UK Borders Bill, which would be an eminently suitable vehicle for those legislative changes, is currently before the other place. The necessary changes could be made in the Bill.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman in particular, and hon. Members across the House more generally, want to know the period over which we will be able to put in place all the actions to ratify the convention. However, I am not able to give a specific date, precisely because a range of issues need to be addressed, all of which will take different amounts of time, so it is not possible to say when exactly we will reach the final point of being able to say that everything has been done. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that we take this issue very seriously. Our action plan sets out exactly what we are going to do, and we will do it as quickly as we can.

I was just limbering up for it. Is the Minister aware that we need to encourage women who have been trafficked to come forward and give evidence against their traffickers? Bearing in mind that there have been only 30 convictions of traffickers in this country over the last four years, does she agree that a longer reflection period—in France, Germany and Holland, it is 90 days—would encourage more women to come forward, which they are not doing at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As I set out in my answer to this group of questions, we are considering whether a period beyond that minimum should be introduced. I also reassure him that, from my conversations with the head of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, I know that longer periods are allowed in individual situations. I take his point, however, that that may not be having the effect that he seeks because it is not known about more widely. We will certainly consider that point.

What would the Minister say to a number of groups who are increasingly concerned that women who have been trafficked are often treated as criminals rather than victims of crime? What discussions is she having with other Departments on the provisions for those women?

The point of the United Kingdom action plan on tackling human trafficking was to ensure that the focus shifted from the criminal aspects to the needs of the victims. The inter-ministerial group, which involves all Ministers concerned with this matter, meets regularly and monitors the action plan. Together, we are considering what more we need to do to provide for victims.

Child trafficking is an area of great concern, and we are doing more research on the extent of the problem and how we need to respond. The police have conducted a number of operations to deal with the matter, and we will continue to do more to address the issue.

Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to work closely with Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking across Europe, which, as she knows, is trying to develop a network of places in safe houses across the country to match the Government’s plans?

My hon. Friend is right, and I have regular contact with that organisation. We are considering how to develop facilities, services and support for victims, and discussions are ongoing in the Department for Communities and Local Government about how to make greater provision for victims in terms of accommodation and support.

Will the Minister tell the House what work is being done with the Department for International Development? Clearly one of the main issues is to address the source of the problem, so that we do not have to pick up the pieces in the UK. According to my discussions with many non-governmental organisations, more information is needed locally. Many people have been trafficked half-voluntarily, thinking that there would be something good at the end of it, so better education programmes would probably cut some trafficking at source.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am pleased to say that the Department for International Development has given the issue some priority. It has a strategy on the matter, and its actions in relation to preventing trafficking at source are integral to our UK action plan.

I accept the Minister’s point about the steps that need to be taken prior to ratification. But has the Minister considered best practice in other countries, such as Italy, which has a conviction rate for traffickers four times better than that of the UK, although it too has not ratified?

Clearly, we want to learn from best practice elsewhere. In that regard, one of the issues is how people are made aware of trafficking. From reading the information gathered by Select Committee members who visited Italy, I know that prostitution there is much more visible, which is not necessarily desirable. Therefore, although we must learn from best practice, we should also ensure that our practice is relevant to this country, and not merely lift wholesale something that works elsewhere.

The fact that so many questions about this subject are on the Order Paper shows the strength of feeling in the House, and rightly so. Fortunately, there is no need for the moral debate that took place in the times of Wilberforce, because every Member of the House hates the evil of modern slavery, and we all want to stop it. I commend the Government on what they have done so far, but will the Minister tell the House whether they are taking steps to co-ordinate the powers of the various public authorities who have responsibilities in this matter, such as those relating to police, immigration, licensing, health and safety and so on? Only through an orchestrated approach right across the board will we be able to counteract this dreadful, evil crime.

I entirely agree. That is why, when I talk about trafficking, I refer particularly to the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which brings together a range of disciplines. The hon. Lady has raised some issues that go beyond what the centre does, but I know that it is aiming for the most effective practice possible, and I believe that through co-ordination—with people working together in the same centre—we can achieve the objectives that she has rightly identified.

Homophobic Bullying

23. What assessment she has made of the Government's progress in tackling homophobic bullying; and if she will make a statement. (140948)

The Government take the issue of homophobic bullying seriously wherever it occurs. We delivered protections from homophobic bullying in the workplace in 2003, and we enforced protections in schools in the “goods and services” regulations which came into force this April. When such bullying amounts to homophobic harassment outside the workplace, the discrimination law review will consider the best way of addressing the real issues that people face.

I know that every school must have an anti-bullying policy. Will Ministers consider whether that policy should include a requirement for a specific anti-homophobic bullying element, and also whether one teacher in each school, primary and secondary, should be given responsibility for ensuring that the policy is implemented and effective?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work in raising the profile of such issues. I know that he and his party have campaigned for precisely such training and attention to the issue in schools. Clearly, homophobic bullying is serious wherever it occurs. To date the Government have decided to take a slightly less bureaucratic approach than the one that the hon. Gentleman suggests by establishing, together with Ofsted, where weak anti-bullying practices are in operation, helping schools to improve their focus on bullying of all kinds, and working with Stonewall to establish how homophobic bullying in particular can best be tackled in a school environment.

Science Careers

24. If she will meet the Engineering and Technology Board to discuss the promotion of science, engineering and technology as a career path for women. (140949)

The Engineering and Technology Board and the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology are developing a memorandum of understanding to promote the role of women in science, engineering and technology. I should be delighted to meet the Engineering and Technology Board.

I thank the Minister for that helpful answer. As she will know, engineering no longer means walking around with a heavy monkey wrench. Although when I used to go to the Soviet Union in the 1980s I would see women engineers with heavy monkey wrenches, nowadays it is much more a question of thought, intelligence and design. Does the Minister not agree that women have a particular skill in engineering and ergonomics—designing what is right for the man-machine, and woman-machine, interface—which makes this an ideal career path?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right—although, as he knows, many women do possess the physical strength to carry around various tools. We know from the latest data that 72 per cent. of women with such qualifications are not working in the science, engineering and technology professions, and I hope that everyone involved will do more to return women to those professions, because we need their skills.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 11 June will be as follows:

Monday 11 June—Opposition Day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Iraq inquiry, followed by a debate on carers. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 12 June—Second Reading of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 13 June—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the International Tribunals (Sierra Leone) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 14 June—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, followed by Committee and remaining stages of the Rating (Empty Properties) Bill.

Friday 15 June—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 June will include:

Monday 18 June—Remaining stages of the Mental Health Bill [Lords] (Day 1).

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on 21 and 28 June and 5 July will be as follows:

Thursday 21 June—A debate on the Shipman inquiry.

Thursday 28 June—A debate on the India country assistance plan.

Thursday 5 July—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on development assistance and the occupied Palestinian territories.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.

In April, after the British naval personnel were taken hostage by the Iranians, the Secretary of State for Defence ordered two separate reviews—one into the media handling of the incident, and one by Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fulton into the operational lessons learned. Yesterday, Lord Grayson committed to a debate on the Fulton report in the other place. Can we have a debate on that report in this House in Government time before the summer recess? Can we also have a separate debate on the review of the media handling of the incident?

Last night, Conservative, Liberal and Cross-Bench peers voted to create a lifeboat fund for people whose pensions schemes have collapsed. As happened with the votes in this place, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor ordered Labour peers to vote against the proposals, which would have given fair compensation to the 125,000 people who have lost their pensions under this Government. The proposals could be paid for by using unclaimed assets and a Treasury loan, as we did after the Maxwell fiasco, so can we have a debate on why the Chancellor is refusing to help people who did the right thing and saved for their pensions, but lost out through no fault of their own?

The current Prime Minister is about to negotiate a European treaty that will have to be ratified by the Prime Minister-designate. The Prime Minister wants to revive parts of the failed EU constitution, including the surrender of the veto in the justice and home affairs pillar. The French Presidents says:

“I have spoken to Blair about this and I don’t think that one country will carry the risk of blocking Europe.”

The chairman of the Home Affairs Committee says that there is no evidence to justify

“such a major transfer of power away from member states”

and that it should not be agreed without a full parliamentary debate. May we have such a debate?

Two of Labour's deputy leadership candidates want more taxpayers' money to go to the unions. The Solicitor-General said:

“We should do more to fund the trade unions”

and the Labour party chairman said:

“A Labour Government can expand the Union Modernisation Fund”.

Last year, unions received £3 million of taxpayers' money through that fund. In the rest of the year, those same unions gave £4.3 million to the Labour party. In the next few years, a further £7 million of taxpayers' money will be given to the unions, who will continue to fund the Labour party. May we have a debate on back-door funding of the Labour movement?

Finally, last month the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced that home information packs would be delayed until August, and then would not be needed for all houses. Imagine the surprise, therefore, for readers of “South West Property Magazine” when they saw an advertisement saying that

“every home put on the market now needs a Home Information Pack.”

Who is the advert from? A confused estate agent? An uninformed property consultant? No; it comes from Her Majesty's Government. Just when homeowners thought that HIPs could not get any more confusing, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing and Planning have done it again—the Laurel and Hardy of the property market. May we have a statement on how much taxpayers' money was wasted on those erroneous and misleading advertisements?

I recognise the importance of a debate on the Fulton report and the associated Hall report about the media. I cannot make a promise, but I will consider whether it is possible for there to be an occasion when those can be debated. I will also consider an oral statement on the reports.

On the right hon. Lady’s second point—the decision of the other place yesterday in respect of pensions—if it were as easy and simple as she and her party are suggesting to use the so-called unclaimed assets, I am almost certain that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor would have accepted that. The truth, however, is that it is not. It is highly irresponsible to pretend that those assets can be used in that way. As was made clear by Lord Turnbull, a Cross-Bench peer and former permanent secretary at the Treasury and a Cabinet Secretary, if the so-called unclaimed assets were used in the way proposed, that would be a fraud on hundreds of thousands of holders of with-profits schemes who typically have far lower pensions than they will get as a result of the proposals, to which we have already agreed, to bail out the failed pension schemes. What the right hon. Lady proposes is not a wise move, and it is further proof that the Conservative party is still in Opposition mode and has no sense of the sort of decisions that it must make if it is to mount a serious bid to be elected to Government.

On the European treaty, and as has been made clear time and again, any decisions made in principle in negotiations at the European Council will then be subject to a formal intergovernmental conference—as they must be as it is an international treaty and not just another European Union instrument—and after that to a full parliamentary debate in this House. The German presidency and others have already made it clear that they have no intention of seeking to revive the 300-plus pages version of the EU constitution. They are talking about amending treaties to make the EU more efficient, which is in our interest. If the right hon. Lady had read the Home Affairs Committee report, rather than just a selective quotation, she would know that it says—to paraphrase—that there could be merit in this country being involved in qualified majority voting in certain areas of justice and home affairs. That would be better than the current situation of informal groupings of countries making decisions over which we cannot have any control.

The right hon. Lady’s point about the trade unions was an example of the old Tory party, as it was a wholly unjustifiable attack on the movement—[Interruption.] I am glad to note that the rest of the Tory party is equally unreconstructed, because there are millions of trade unionists who do not pay the Labour party levy but who are keen on their union. To offend those millions of people, as well as those who voluntarily pay the political levy, is an error by the Conservative party. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was one partisan attack after another on the trade unions. The Conservative party is the only party that has ever sought to change adversely the funding of another party without doing anything about its own funding. I had thought that there was a general consensus to leave things where they were following the 1992 decisions. I am sorry to note that that is not the case.

On a lighter note, I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for drawing to my attention an advertisement in the “South West Property Magazine”. I had not seen it because I live in SE and we do not get that magazine posted through our doors as we are on the wrong side of the tracks—SW starts just down the road.

All the more reason why I have not seen it. Now that the advertisement has been drawn to my attention, I will examine it, and I rather feel that a south-west Member of whatever party might ask a parliamentary question about its cost.

May we have a debate in Government time about protection for temporary and agency workers? Last month, in the pages of my local press, I asked people who believed that they had been discriminated against because of their temporary or agency status to get in touch with me. I have since been contacted by a number of constituents who want and, indeed, need such protection. This is not a small or unimportant issue, and I think that we need a serious debate.

I recognise the importance of the issue, not just to my hon. Friend but to many people, and I will certainly give consideration to whether there should be a debate on the Adjournment in Westminster Hall.

It is a good to have confirmation that for the Government “south-west” means south-west London and no further. I note that a statement by the Home Secretary is to follow. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that means that a terrorism Bill and, probably, a criminal justice Bill will not now be introduced in this Session? Will he give the House an assurance that if they are introduced very late this Session, they will not be subject to the carry-over procedures?

Revelations in The Guardian today and further evidence in “Panorama” next week on the al-Yamamah affair suggest that we need a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on whether his Department connived in breaches, or potential breaches, of corruption legislation and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Will the Leader of the House ensure that that statement is made and will he ensure, too, that the extant National Audit Office reports are published?

May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about his current view—I say “current” because it is evolving—of the generous tax relief afforded by taper relief on capital gains tax, which enables private equity entrepreneurs to pay as little as 10 per cent. tax on their very generous income while their cleaners, on little more than the national minimum wage, pay 20 per cent.? Is that really Labour party policy? Lastly, may we have a debate on the Government’s attitude to freedom of information? For once, that does not relate to the private Member’s Bill, but to the decision by the Office of Government Commerce to destroy the gateway review documents on the cost of identity cards and other misdirected and mismanaged IT schemes, in defiance of the Information Commissioner and the information tribunal. One gateway reviewer said that the order to destroy the reports was

“odd and a little sinister”.

That applies to many aspects of government, but we need clarification of precisely whether the Government support their own legislation on freedom of information.

First, I abjectly apologise to the House—[Interruption.]—and to the south-west. I made the error of thinking that because the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) represents a constituency not far from south-west London, but a very long way from south-west England[Interruption.] I used to be expert on the counties of Britain—and I still am—but I am happy to have a geography lesson.

On the second point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about Bills, I am sorry that I cannot give him the precise undertakings for which he asked. Let us wait and see what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has to say. If appropriate, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

On the hon. Gentleman’s third question about BAE and the al-Yamamah contract, I repeat that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said this morning, namely, that he was

“not going to comment on the individual allegations and a lot of this relates to things that go back to the 1980s”.

I endorse what he went on to say:

“This investigation, if it had gone ahead, would have involved the most serious allegations and investigation being made of the Saudi royal family and my job is to give advice as to whether that is a sensible thing in circumstances”.

My right hon. Friend explained why he thought that it was not.

I say to the hon. Gentleman—and to the House, too—that it is worth the Liberal Democrat party, in particular, noting the judgment in the administrative court at the end of last week by Mr. Justice Collins, who, in respect of an application for judicial review of the decision to suspend that investigation, said that the application was “wholly unarguable”, and he dismissed it.

I note what the hon. Gentleman had to say on taper relief, and I will refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On freedom of information, my understanding is that the gateway reviews have not been destroyed, but given that the hon. Gentleman and his party supported the Freedom of Information Act 2000, they need to bear in mind that it does not say that anybody who wishes to get information from a public authority may automatically have it made available. The Act provides a whole series of exemptions, which are there, among other things, to ensure the proper functioning of government. In the unlikely event of the Liberal Democrats ever—ever—being in government, they would find the same thing, too.

May we have an urgent debate on funding for training in prisons? When Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons last visited Woodhill prison in my constituency, she was very critical of the lack of training and workshop provision. She is due to visit again this September, but she will find that the new workshops, which were planned for October 2006, are unlikely to be funded until April 2008. That is a wholly unsatisfactory situation and means that prisoners in Woodhill are not receiving the training that they need for rehabilitation.

I will give consideration to such a debate and ensure that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice is made fully aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns.

The Leader of the House will be aware that many of our constituents are anxious to visit London and often make an overnight stay, particularly if they are coming to see this place, but the cost of such stays is pretty high. They—and, indeed, Members—may have noticed, however, that a campsite seems to have been established in Parliament square, which now comprises no fewer than nine tents. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether that campsite is authorised by Mayor Livingstone and the Greater London authority, and if so, can he advise on how Members can help their constituents to get permits to camp there and join that happy band of campers? If they are not available, can he arrange for an early debate on the subject?

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is of great concern in most parts of the House with his characteristic light touch. Sadly, I know much too much about the ownership of that land, that piece of grass, opposite Carriage Gates. When I was Home Secretary, the “stop the city” demonstrations took place and the arguments between Westminster city council, the Metropolitan police and others—including, I think, English Heritage—as to who owned not the whole thing but the strip at the front, who was responsible for it and whether the Queen’s writ extended there, almost burnt my brain out. Some would say that the signs are still showing. In any event, the situation is complicated, but, if I may speak for you, Mr. Speaker, I know of your and the House of Commons Commission’s concern that we need some clarity on this issue. It is not about taking away the right to protest, but it is worth pointing out that under previous Sessional Orders, which were always observed, demonstrations within a particular range of Parliament were not permitted for very good reasons when Parliament was sitting.

The Leader of the House will be aware of next Wednesday’s ten-minute Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), which proposes to extend the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to the construction industry. Can we have a debate on that issue as soon as possible, so that Members can highlight the terrible impact that gangmasters are having on the construction industry in the north-east in terms of violence, intimidation, illegal deduction of earnings and dangerous working conditions?

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) will raise that issue in discussing his Bill, and we wish him well. I understand the concern that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) has expressed. I will ensure that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and in the construction industry’s sponsoring Departments are informed about it, and I will look for an opportunity to debate it further.

The Leader of the House knows that, on many occasions, I have raised the question of the future of Hemel Hempstead hospital. I and many thousands of my constituents have been given assurances that there were no plans to close it. However, yesterday plans were announced to close it and sell it for redevelopment in 2008, resulting in 750 job losses, including those of nurses, doctors, porters and other very important people who work within the hospital structure. This is not a Victorian hospital but a brand new one, in which huge investment has been made under both the previous Government and this one. How can be it right that my constituents will lose such an important facility, and can the Secretary of State for Health come here and explain these actions?

Because the hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in raising this matter, I have gone into it in some detail. I understand the concerns in his part of Hertfordshire about the reconfiguration of the health service, and I know that such reconfigurations, which happen across the country, can be difficult. However, he will be aware that Professor Graham Ramsay, medical director of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, said:

“It’s increasingly clear that if we consolidate key services and bring specialist clinicians together into specialist teams their skills improve and the outcome for patients is better.”

I know that that is not the hon. Gentleman’s view, but it is the view of Professor Ramsay and other senior clinicians. Secondly, any Government, including one that the hon. Gentleman supported, would have to face some quite difficult decisions in his part of Hertfordshire about the configuration of the hospital service. Whether or not it would mean that there would be no hospital in his area is another matter.

May I strike a note of cross-party consensus and raise an issue that Members in all parts of the House are very concerned about, including no less a figure than the Leader of the Opposition? The cost, quality and coverage of services provided by the health service is a really serious issue. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the quality of services provided by the NHS for people who are delusional?

That would be extremely helpful. The legislative programme is tight, but we are going to give active consideration to that matter. Usually, we are representing our constituents and talking about the problems that they face, but on this occasion we have the word, no less, of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition that many of his own Members are themselves delusional, so they can be exhibits in this regard. Moreover, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), has just published an extremely interesting, if highly controversial, pamphlet, in which he says,

“It is time to get rid of this Stalinist system”—

the NHS, and that—

“the way forward is compulsory insurance”.

I hope that we can debate that issue, too. It may well then become clear whether he is one of these “delusional” Conservative Members of Parliament.

Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement to this House on exactly what “rural affairs” means within that Department’s definition, and on what it is doing to work with other Departments? Other Departments are not providing transport to or social housing in rural areas, and are about to cut more post offices in rural areas. By and large, such areas get a fairly short deal from the Government.

What the hon. Gentleman suggests is simply not the case. He is as well aware as anybody else of the definition of “rural”, which is perfectly obvious, and he knows very well of our commitment to rural areas. For example, we have pumped hundreds of millions of pounds into rural post offices. The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they are never willing to face up to any decision that is remotely to do with their going into government; theirs is simply a party of protest.

Will the Leader of the House join me and Sunderland city council in welcoming the regional transport board’s recent decision to approve the new central route in my constituency? It is a major transport corridor that will have a big impact in relieving congestion and opening up access to the Rainton Bridge industrial site, where thousands of new jobs will be created. Will he use his good offices with the Department for Transport to ensure its full co-operation and the early completion of that major route, especially in former coal mining areas?

Yes, I will. Of course, I can say from my constituency experience that I have seen for myself the economic benefits to the whole area of east Lancashire from opening up such routes.

I apologise for my earlier outburst on the EU constitution, but the people should be consulted.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his personal intervention which led to children’s hospices receiving interim funding of £27 million and the commissioning of an excellent report on palliative care services for children. I know that the Leader of the House is a great supporter of children’s hospices, so may we have an early debate to encourage the Government to publish their response to the report so that we may better co-ordinate palliative services for children, including hospices, and provide better funding for them?

I know of the hon. Gentleman’s longstanding concern about that issue, and I will follow up what he has requested and write to him.

Does my hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members will be disappointed that he has not agreed to my previous request for a debate on the future of grammar schools? That debate will not go away and we would be grateful for a debate in Government time. Perhaps the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) could also have his own debate.

This is the second time that I have to apologise to the House—first I had to apologise for the confusion over the south-west and now because I have not arranged a debate on grammar schools. Although the Conservative party occasionally uses its Opposition days for important issues—as it will do next Monday—it often chooses worthy but rather dull subjects, made worse by Opposition Members’ speeches. The result is that the debates get no coverage. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is talking about making Parliament more central today, but I guarantee that if the Opposition were to use their day for a debate on grammar schools, the Press Gallery would be packed, as would their Benches. If they will not do that, we will certainly consider doing it ourselves.

May we have a debate on the costs of Government and the number of Ministers? For the past month, a fifth of the Cabinet has been away from their desks promoting their candidacy for the deputy leadership of the Labour party and the Prime Minister has been largely absent on a world tour. The Leader of the House seems to be running the country on his own, but can he assure the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to run a more streamlined and economical Administration?

I am sorry to disabuse the right hon. Gentleman, but after my hour of glory I have turned back into a pumpkin, and so I will doubtless remain. The British Government give good value for money in terms of ministerial work load. For example, at least twice, if not three times, as many written questions are dealt with by the same number of Ministers as under the Conservative Administration, of which the right hon. Gentleman was an adornment.

The Government this week published “Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century: The way forward”, their response to the consultation document on the issue. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on that subject? Unless we make it a duty on local authorities to provide facilities to bury the dead locally, my constituents will have to bury members of their families in adjacent local authorities at double the cost that the council tax payers of those authorities pay. That will mean an extra charge for residents of those local authorities that are not doing their duty.

I understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has rightly published that consultative document and will certainly give consideration as to when and whether that can be debated.

May I bring the Leader of the House back to the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the BAE situation? Is not the trouble with what the Leader of the House said the fact that the Government called off the prosecution for reasons of national security, but it now turns out that the threat to national security was the threat of the withdrawal of co-operation from the very same quarter that was subject to the investigation for corruption? Is it not simply shameful and dishonourable to give way to that sort of pressure?

I know that the Liberal Democrats live in a dream world, but the world is not perfect. The Government faced the prospect of co-operation on national security being withdrawn, and rightly made the judgment—and I am glad to say that the Conservative Opposition accepted the explanation—that that had to override other considerations. That is leaving aside the fact that, to paraphrase the comments by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on 16 December last year, in his judgment the evidential tests would be unlikely to be fulfilled. The hon. Gentleman needs to read the full judgment by Mr. Justice Collins, who said that the case being put forward was unarguable. He also said that

“it is clear that national security must always prevail, and no State could be expected to take action which jeopardises the security of the State or the lives of its citizens.”

The Liberal Democrats have to understand that there are difficult choices to be made, but we face a serious terrorist threat. We vitally need—and have received—co-operation from, among others, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right to seek not to jeopardise that, and he has the endorsement of a senior High Court judge for that decision.

My right hon. Friend has answered two questions already on the role of trade unions and their lobbying through Labour MPs to protect workers subject to gangmasters and the abuses of temporary and agency working. He will know that there is a profound case for democratic trade unions in Britain and throughout the world. Given that he has faced what can only be described as a malign slight from Opposition Members on trade unions, would it not be a good idea to have a debate on modern trade unions in Britain, so that people can learn whether the Tory party is still viscerally anti-trade union?

The Leader of the House will be aware that Edinburgh university has decided to remove an honorary degree from Mr. Mugabe of Zimbabwe. American universities are about to take similar action. Is it not a pity that more action was not sought by the Prime Minister in his recent visit to South Africa, because the people of Zimbabwe are starving and brutalised and the economy is deteriorating rapidly? After all the assurances that the Leader of the House has given me in recent months, can he now tell me that we will have a debate on the issue on the Floor of the House so that we can explore what can be done about the tragedy in what was one of the most prosperous and improving countries in central southern Africa?

The whole House shares the profound concern about Zimbabwe and the horror at what is now happening. I do not wish to make this a partisan issue, although the hon. Gentleman started to go that way, so it would be unseemly to remind the House that it was a previous Conservative Administration who awarded Robert Mugabe an honorary knighthood—[Interruption.] Well, it is not possible to take it away, otherwise that would have been done. We are indeed promising to have a debate and I hope to be able to make an announcement shortly.

Could the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the local government code of conduct, especially on the duties of council officers towards Members of Parliament who raise issues on behalf of constituents? I ask because I have experience with the new chief executive of Warrington borough council, who has failed to reply to several letters that I have sent her on behalf of constituents or has sent replies that were not worth the paper they were written on. She now claims never to have received some letters about very serious antisocial behaviour in my constituency. The suspicion is that she is backed to the hilt by the council’s Liberal leader, that she is not interested in issues in my constituency and that she feels that she is under no duty to treat Members of Parliament with the same impartiality that she shows to different groups in the council. For the sake of all hon. Members, is not it time that we had a debate on this matter? We need to be sure that the concerns of constituents will be treated seriously by all local authorities, regardless of their political colour.

My hon. Friend raises a matter of very serious concern, and the simple fact is that all chief executives—who often are returning officers as well—are expected to be impartial and to offer to MPs the same high level of services as they do to councillors. We will certainly look for an opportunity to hold a debate on the matter.

Further to the Leader of the House’s comments about the al-Yamamah deal, many of our constituents will be feeling great uncertainty about the deal as a result of the impending “Panorama” programme and of the exposé in today’s edition of The Guardian. Is it possible for the right hon. Gentleman to arrange for a statement to be made clarifying what was legitimate under the first, Government-to-Government al-Yamamah arrangement, which did not directly involve BAE Systems as the company soliciting business? Secondly, may we have a statement about when the Serious Fraud Office will come to some conclusions, one way or the other, about the remaining investigations into the activities of BAE Systems?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House about the history of the al-Yamamah deal. It was a Government-to-Government deal, negotiated originally by Margaret Thatcher, with support from both sides of the House. I am unapologetic in saying that it has greatly benefited the country, and Lancashire too. On his second point, we will of course look for an opportunity to give the clarification that he seeks. However, as he will know—although others may not—the Attorney-General in the House of Lords and my right hon. Friend the Solicitor-General in this House made statements on 16 December that set out the facts with great clarity. There was no dubiety—and I direct this at the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—about what was said, and there is no inconsistency between what was said then and what is being said now. It may be sensible if I bring to the attention of the whole House the judgment that was made by Mr. Justice Collins on 29 May this year, and issued earlier this week.

The shadow Leader of the House referred earlier to yesterday’s exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about occupational pensions. Given that that is such an important subject, does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that it deserves a reasoned and mature debate? If one is held, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the wording of the motion dispels the myth that everything was hunky dory before 1997? In fact, the Pensions Act 1995, which was pushed through by senior members of the current shadow Cabinet, singularly failed to provide pensioners with adequate protection when the companies that employed then went bust—something that seemed to happen quite a lot when the Tories were in power.

It would be great to have the debate that my hon. Friend seeks, but unfortunately there is little chance, given the readiness of Conservative Members simply to make partisan points and to suffer amnesia about what happened before 1997. He is right to say that the 1995 Act did not give people adequate protection, but I remind him that the Conservatives encouraged people to opt out of public and state-funded schemes. That was a scandal, and it caused large reductions in the pensions to which people were entitled.

Could the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry to make a statement next week about what is becoming a very unsatisfactory consultation process in respect of closing or moving Crown post offices, such as the one in Chelmsford? That Minister should explain why the consultation is not about decisions to close or move an office, but only about the services that any new office will offer, and where it will be sited in a building. Such decisions will affect a great many people, in my constituency and elsewhere, who believe that they should have an input into the siting of new offices, as well as into the services that are offered.

There have been plenty of opportunities to debate post office changes, including during the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and during yesterday’s Opposition day debate about the DTI. All hon. Members are affected by the changes, but they have not been occasioned by either the Government or the Post Office: rather, they have been caused by changes in people’s practices, and above all by the increasing use of the internet. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues must answer the following question: what better alternative is there to the policy being pursued by the Government, which has cost £2 billion already? In addition, he and his party must decide whether they want the Post Office to be controlled directly by Ministers, or whether it should be given a degree of commercial freedom.

I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1644:

[That this House condemns the actions of Greenbelt Group Ltd with regards to the customers it serves, whilst recognising that it provides over 750 estates across the UK with open space maintenance, serving some 50,000 homes; notes that it is frequently failing to meet the standards as set out in the title deeds of each property it serves; further notes that whenever a customer contacts the company to lodge a complaint - including on health and safety issues - that customer service is consistently unsatisfactory; and believes that charging each household up to 180 per year is an abuse of customer trust.]

May we have a debate about the actions of Greenbelt Group Ltd? It is a factoring company that purchases common land when builders have completed an estate. It charges a nominal fee of £40 to £50, but very quickly raises that to £180 to £200. The company provides a very poor service to 750 estates and nearly 50,000 houses throughout the UK. A lot of money is involved, and we need a debate on this subject.

My hon. Friend has been assiduous about raising this matter, which is of great concern to his constituents and many other people. We shall certainly look for an opportunity to debate it.

Returning to the subject of President Mugabe, is the Leader of the House absolutely certain that honorary knighthoods cannot be taken away? If so, perhaps I should put my ordinary one on the transfer list pretty quickly.

No, I am not absolutely certain about that. My remark was met with much head shaking among people I trust, even on the Conservative Front Bench. I shall have to look at the matter again.

May we have an urgent statement from the appropriate Minister about the Olympic logo? The visuals in the advertisement have had a major impact on people who suffer from epilepsy. In Great Britain alone, the advert has adversely affected 15 people already. Surely that is unacceptable, given how much we want to be proud of the games.

I was told this morning that discussions are under way with the British Epilepsy Association about this problem, and the part of the logo that featured in a film has been withdrawn. I understand that the logo has not received universal approbation, and that it will continue to be the subject of some discussion.

Given the answer that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), will he acknowledge the growing consensus among colleagues that we made a dreadful mistake when we accepted the Procedure Committee’s daft recommendation to replace the Sessional Orders with a dismal homily from you, Mr. Speaker? It would meet with everyone’s approval if one of next week’s Order Papers contained a motion to reverse that decision.

May I, Mr. Speaker, from a position of total sycophancy say that you are absolutely right? However, I can tell the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) that I wish that the matter was that simple. The truth is that all the problems that I faced when I was Home Secretary arose—[Hon. Members: “Look behind you!”] I see that my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary has arrived, but the difficulties that I faced when I was in that post arose even though the Sessional Orders were still being passed. The problem is deeply frustrating for all of us: we all want an end to it, but the question is how we find a way through.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that for the past three years local government workers have been trying to negotiate their future pensions with no success? Can we have a statement about exactly where the Government stand on this?

I am aware of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and a number of trade unions, particularly Unison. As he knows, discussions are continuing, involving my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, local government associations and trade unions on what we hope is a more positive way forward.

I want to take the Leader of the House back to the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the debates on the two Iran inquiries. Lord Drayson has already said in the other place that the Government will make an announcement to Parliament—I presume to both Houses—later this month. He made the point that the Secretary of State for Defence took full responsibility for the event. I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that it is an oral statement to give Members the opportunity to question him. It is important, as my right hon. Friend said, that the debates on those inquiries are separate because they raise different issues about media handling and operational issues. It would be for the benefit of the House if we could discuss those matters separately.

As I said to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), I am sympathetic to those points. I am giving active consideration to the announcement being by oral statement, which is appropriate. I do, however, have a disagreement with him. As the two inquiries arose from exactly the same incident, albeit with different implications, it would be for the benefit of the House for them to be debated at the same time. Many colleagues on both sides of the House will wish to make comments about the operational aspects as well as the media handling.

May we have a debate on mobile telephone communication systems for our brave young men fighting in Iraq? Two weeks before going to Iraq, Private Jones, one of my constituents, took out a mobile phone contract with 3, only to find that it did not operate in Iraq. Nevertheless he is expected to pay a standing charge, despite not being able to communicate with his family at a time of great stress and difficulty. Can we look at how we can support our young people and make sure that companies sell them products that are fit for purpose in Iraq?

My hon. Friend raises an important matter and I shall certainly pursue it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence as well as with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who could perhaps talk to the telecommunications companies concerned.

Yesterday from the Dispatch Box the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health claimed that over 3 per cent. of the NHS budget in 2005-06 was spent on IT, but on 5 March his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said in a written answer that the figure was 2.02 per cent. comparing like for like. The difference, which is getting on for £1 billion, may be a mere trifle to Ministers, but could the Leader of the House ask both of his hon. Friends to attend the House and say which of them is correct?

That is probably not necessary. Often the answer to these apparent inconsistencies is found to be different definitions and different questions. If the hon. Gentleman wants to take up the matter with me, I will follow it up and write to him.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have been concerned about the use of restraint in secure training centres following the death of a boy in Northamptonshire. Is he also aware of concerns that the Youth Justice Board might shortly be considering changing the rules on the use of restraint? If so, will he ensure that a ministerial statement, either written or oral, is made to the House about the rules, the changes and the reasons for them so that we can apply proper scrutiny and understand exactly what is going on in secure training centres?

I know that my hon. Friend has been very concerned indeed about this tragic case and its implications. I will certainly follow it up. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in his place as we speak and has taken note of this. We will give consideration to a written ministerial statement on the matter.

Returning to next week’s business, can the Leader of the House ensure that there are no deputy leadership hustings outside London on Monday so that each of the candidates for the deputy leadership of his party can be here to vote for our motion which they have been supporting during the hustings, namely to have an inquiry into the war in Iraq? Their absence might be misconstrued by Members of his party who have to vote for a deputy leader.

I will draw the right hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of those who are standing for this position. I am happy to say that I am responsible for many things, but not for the release of members of the parliamentary Labour party for other duties.

May we have a debate on the double standards of the BBC? [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear.”] My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent criticism of the Deputy Prime Minister’s trip to the Caribbean by the BBC and, indeed, others, yet that same organisation agreed to send one of its favourite political daughters to the Caribbean to retrace her roots and teach her to play the piano. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is not a proper use of taxpayers’ money? If rich, middle class yuppies want to learn the piano, they should pay for it themselves. I have written to the BBC on this issue, but have yet to receive a reply.

As we all know, the BBC is a special kind of public corporation at arm’s length from Government, but all of us who are responsible for spending public money, including the BBC, must do so wisely. I will certainly draw to the attention of the director-general what my hon. Friend has just said.

Following today’s announcement of 225 job losses at the Faslane naval base in my constituency, can we have an urgent debate on how the Government allocate work to naval bases? Although there is a gap in the work load at the moment, in a few years’ time the work load will increase when the new Astute class submarines require maintenance work. These job losses are short sighted because they will lead to a shortage of skilled workers when that work needs to be done. An even flow of work is required, so may we please have an urgent debate?

I obviously understand the concern of the hon. Gentleman and any hon. Member when there are job losses in their constituency. I hope that he takes into account the fact that the defence budget has increased considerably, including in terms of building warships, ancillary vessels and like equipment. I hope that relatively shortly there will be an opportunity to debate defence generally, in which he can take part.

My constituent Mr. White is currently in a long-running dispute with Ryanair, which I am sure is not unusual. So far Ryanair has not responded to the representations that I have made on my constituent’s behalf, which I am sure is not unusual either. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate on enforcing consumer rights for air travellers and does he agree that if airlines repeatedly refuse to respond to customers’ reasonable complaints, we should take measures to ensure that they do?

As my hon. Friend says, this is not unusual, sadly. I note that Ryanair’s results were not good either, which may mean that potential customers have noticed the same. We shall certainly give consideration to a debate on this.

Today every household in the country on average pays £4,280 a year to fund the NHS. That is a staggering 175 per cent. increase since the Government came to power. Yet, the number of patients treated has increased by only 29 per cent. Is it not time that we had a proper debate on this extraordinary and shameful financial mismanagement of the NHS by the Government?

We have had many debates on the health service. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on leading with his chin. He has published a terrific—if that is one’s point of view—pamphlet describing the NHS as a “Stalinist system”. He wants compulsory insurance of the kind which, I suggest, has done so much to collapse health care for millions of people in the United States. What he forgets are the international studies which have just come out showing that the NHS, which he so derides, including the hundreds of thousands of nurses and doctors who work in it, is delivering the highest standards of health care among OECD countries at very good cost indeed.

Early-day motion 1609 draws attention to the Divisions that took place after my private Member’s Bill, Grammar Schools (Ballots and Consultation) Bill, some time ago.

[That this House recalls that in division 368 of the 2003-04 parliamentary session, the hon. Members for Havant and Witney opposed the introduction by the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire of his private members' Grammar Schools (Ballots and Consultation) Bill which, among other things, proposed the ending of a grammar school system which the hon. Member described as the ‘response to the needs of a vanished society which required a small educated class and a large number of manual workers'; notes and welcomes the recent public resilement from their original position on this issue by those two hon. Members of Her Majesty's Opposition; and keenly anticipates a similar change of heart by all other Conservative hon. and right hon. Members who spoke or voted against the Bill at that time.]

It welcomes the fact that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) have recanted their original position. Can the Leader of the House find time in a packed parliamentary schedule for perhaps a Minister for truth and reconciliation to open a debate that will allow a solemn and formal recantation by the rest of the Conservative party in Parliament and they can fall behind their new policy?

My hon. Friend raises a very, very important issue. I am certainly, with my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, looking anxiously to find time for a full debate in Government time if necessary on the future of grammar schools and the delusional policies that many Conservative Members have now been subject to. I hope that in the course of the debate we are able to recount, for example, the Daily Mail editorial of a couple of weeks ago, which said that the position of the Leader of the Opposition

“has about it the reek of political positioning, without a whiff of real conviction.

It's all part of an attempt to capture that illusory 'middle ground', and to counter the perception that Mr Cameron's team are a bunch of Etonian elitists.”

The Leader of the House and the Home Secretary may have seen a press report last week following the coroner’s report into the death of a young constituent of mine who was a gifted and bright student but appears to have taken his life after looking at suicide websites. Will the Government bring forward urgent measures to close down websites that encourage or assist suicide and may we have a debate in the House on this evil and disturbing practice?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue in the way that he does. I hope that he is able to obtain a debate on the matter. He will also be aware that closing down websites in a democratic country like ours is very difficult, but of course we will have a look at it.

If the Leader of the House accedes to the request for a debate on extra funding for delusional services, can I make a bid for some of that funding for myself? Like a lot of people, I was deluded into thinking that we were going to get a referendum from the Prime Minister on the European Union constitutional treaty. Everyone knows that Angela Merkel is driving it forward and Nicolas Sarkozy is supporting it. She does not care about the nuancing of language. We understand from leaks that major constitutional issues will be at stake, including home affairs. Surely we do not want a tidying-up exercise or to delude people into thinking that nothing has happened. Surely we should trust the people, and we can do that only if we have a referendum.

The hon. Gentleman is anticipating what may or may not be in any amending treaty. There will be a full opportunity to discuss the forthcoming European Council before it takes place. If proposals have to go through the intergovernmental conference that require changes in legislation, which any change in treaty will do, they will be the subject of the greatest consideration by this House and judgments will be made at that stage. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to anticipate this.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on naming himself as delusional. Indeed, he fits the category exactly, given what he has told the Lancashire Telegraph about his 100 per cent. support for grammar schools, even after Tory party chiefs’ decision to ditch them.

Counter-Terrorism

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on counter-terrorism. The House will know that we face an unprecedented threat from terrorism. It is the duty of the Home Secretary to ensure that our response provides the best possible protection against that threat, on a personal, local and national level. That is why we have already increased spending on counter-terrorism to £2.25 billion in 2007-08. It is why our security services have never been better resourced. Since 2001, MI5 has doubled the number of people it employs. We have given greater powers to the police, such as increasing the length of time they can detain terrorist suspects from 14 to 28 days.

Furthermore, in April we refocused the Home Office to concentrate on more effectively protecting the public and securing our future. The new Home Office brings together responsibility for managing the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, including the new Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. In pursuit of the same objectives, we have now completed a comprehensive review of potential counter-terrorist legislation. Legislation forms a relatively small but vital part of our response to the terrorism threat. It sends a signal to those who wish to plot terror and turn people towards violent extremism that their actions will not be tolerated, as well as offering substantial protection. This threat is continuously evolving. It is crucial that our responses evolve with it, to include legislation that is effective and proportionate, to provide the maximum possible security and liberty for the law-abiding majority.

In approaching this, I have tried to incorporate three elements. First, I want to strengthen our capability to counter terrorism and protect this country from acts of terrorism. Secondly, I want to try to ensure that as we increase these powers we also, where appropriate, increase the parliamentary, judicial and sometimes public scrutiny to ensure a counterbalance against any arbitrary use of these strengthened powers. That is essential in a democratic society. Thirdly, it is my intention, wherever possible, to proceed to build national consensus on national security—in other words, to build, wherever possible, cross-party and cross-Parliament support for the measures being introduced. That is why I shall spend some time today explaining the process that I envisage as well as the measures. It is in that context and spirit that we will bring forward new counter-terrorism proposals in a new counter-terrorism Bill later this year. Today, I want to outline our approach and the main areas of the law that it might strengthen.

I start from the position that it is desirable to reach a consensus on national security wherever possible, so I want to ensure that there is extensive consultation before any legislation is introduced. Today’s announcement is only the start of that process. For good reasons, previous counter-terrorism legislation has been fast-tracked through Parliament. We have an opportunity here to do things differently. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter Terrorism and Police and I have already met members of the Opposition.

Today, following these meetings we will outline the main areas and direction of measures that we wish to pursue. We will then conduct further discussions and consultation, after which we will produce further detail, including a full Bill content paper, which will inform further discussion. It has been said to me, and I accept, that the devil is often in the detail of proposals, so we will then share draft clauses before introduction and seek the scrutiny not only of Opposition parties but of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights on key areas of the legislation.

I have also today asked Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, to undertake a report on what is proposed. In addition to discussions that we will have in Parliament, with colleagues on my own Back Benches and in the Opposition, I am also committing the Government to discussing fully with those organisations that have an interest in the proposed legislation—the police, representatives of the judiciary, civil liberties groups and communities. I hope that the House will accept that this is a more comprehensively consensual approach than we have ever taken before. It is the best way to approach establishing national security measures. To begin the consultation, I have today produced a short document; copies will be placed in the Vote Office and it will be available on the Home Office website.

I now turn to a number of specific areas, of which the first is pre-charge detention. The decision to increase pre-charge detention limits from 14 to 28 days has, I believe, been justified by subsequent events and means that we have been able to bring forward prosecutions that otherwise might not have been possible. For our part, we have made it clear that the Government’s position is that we believe it is right for terrorist cases—I stress terrorist cases—to go beyond 28 days, where necessary; but I want wherever possible to build broad agreement on the way forward. I would, therefore, like to begin discussions now on how we might do that. I am not being definitive, but one way might be to legislate now to extend the current limit while making it clear that there would be extra further judicial and parliamentary oversight if such measures were ever implemented. That would obviously continue to include judicial approval every seven days for any request to hold suspects. It might also, for instance, include further detailed annual reports to Parliament on the pattern of use of such events, with an accompanying parliamentary debate. That is one example, but we will discuss it further with all interested parties, including the Opposition.

Beyond that, there are other measures—for instance, on post-charge questioning. We are planning to legislate so that in terrorist cases suspects can be questioned after charge on any aspect of the offence with which they have been charged. With regard to adverse inferences drawn from that, we would apply the same rules for post-charge questioning as those that currently apply to pre-charge questioning. In addition, we are considering notification requirements, similar to those already in place for sex offenders, for convicted terrorists who leave prison.

Where terrorists are charged with general offences, we believe the sentences should be enhanced to reflect the additional seriousness that terrorist involvement represents.

The House will know that I do not consider control orders to be our best or most effective option in countering terrorism. However, having said that, we need to make what we can of them, so we are proposing a number of changes to control orders, including measures relating to fingerprinting, DNA and powers of entry that do not exist at present, but need to exist to enhance the effectiveness of not entirely satisfactory measures that would benefit from strengthening. However, we do not want to propose any amendments at this stage that might pre-empt forthcoming judgments from the House of Lords.

I accept that measures on data sharing and DNA are always difficult and controversial for the House, but we would also like to legislate to place data sharing powers for the intelligence and security agencies on a statutory basis, and put the police’s counter-terrorist DNA database on a similar statutory footing to the national DNA database. I stress that neither of those measures will alter the powers of the police and agencies to collect material.

On the subject of intercept as evidence, the Government’s position has consistently been that we would change the law to permit intercept evidence only if the necessary safeguards could be put in place to protect sensitive techniques and to ensure that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. I have not personally been persuaded that this is the case, but I accept that the right approach is to address the issue carefully and fully before deciding whether to use intercept as evidence. That is what we are, and have been, doing. However, we believe that we now need to reach a conclusion on the issue. Therefore, subject to further discussions to agree the structure and time scale, I am today confirming and announcing to the House that we will commission a review of intercept as evidence on Privy Council terms.

There has been some discussion of stop and question outside in the press. Consideration of powers to stop and question, currently available to police in Northern Ireland and suggested for introduction across the UK by the Northern Ireland Office, is at a very early stage and is currently subject to a process of internal Government consultation, and we will report the outcome of that in due course.

I believe that terrorism remains the greatest threat to the life and liberty of this nation and the many individuals who make up this country. It is the greatest challenge we face and it is important that our legislation continues to evolve to meet that threat, just as the terrorists will continue to evolve and advance their means of constituting it; but I firmly believe that any legislation to deal with that threat to national security should be taken forward with the full support of the House, where possible. I hope that the process I have outlined today will enable us to do that to the greatest effect.

I thank the Home Secretary for sight of his statement. The Leader of the Opposition and I have been in consultation with him and the Prime Minister on these matters before today. We made a number of proposals to them and we can support a number of the Home Secretary’s proposals today.

On issues of security, I agree with the Home Secretary that the national interest is best served when we can proceed on the basis of consensus, so it is very regrettable that during the consultation process the incoming Prime Minister pre-emptively made announcements through the media about matters that should be above party politics. On our side, we will continue to try to achieve consensus where possible.

We can support, in principle, several of the current proposals. First, we can support the proposals on sentencing, subject to proper judicial process. Secondly, I see no objection in principle to a number of the other measures, including one that the Home Secretary did not mention today, but which was in today’s press, and has been called the “terrorist offender register”—the travel notification arrangements.

I have to tell the House that there have been serious failures in the equivalent operation of both the sex offenders register and the control order regimes, to which the Home Secretary referred, with large numbers of escapes from control in both cases. We should remember that no legislation will work if the Government do not implement it properly—a key issue in this area.

Thirdly, we strongly welcome the intervention to lift the ban on post-charge interview of terrorist suspects. We first proposed that two years ago.

Fourthly, we have been calling for some time for the Government to lift the ban on using intercept evidence in terrorism cases. The Leader of the Opposition recommended to the Prime Minister that a Privy Council Committee should come up with a proposal for the use of intercept evidence, although the Home Secretary referred to it in slightly different terms. For that to work, the Committee has to produce its recommendations in time for the Government to incorporate them in the terrorism Bill in November, so I urge the Home Secretary to make those last two measures his first priority. They would have the greatest impact, by enhancing our ability to prosecute terrorists, which is at the end of the day the only sure way to protect the public.

When the Government previously tried to insist that 90-day detention without trial was essential to the security of the nation, the House did not believe them, and rejected the idea. Since then, the evidence is that the House of Commons was right. We are told, for example, that the 28-day limit did not handicap the complex investigation into the alleged Heathrow terror plot last August, which is presumably why the Minister for Security, Counter Terrorism and Police told the shadow Attorney-General yesterday that there was no pressure from the police for an increase beyond 28 days. Many counter-terrorism experts fear the reverse: that such a move will cause resentment in the Muslim community and damage our ability to gather intelligence—the critical weapon in our battle against terrorism.

At 28 days’ detention, we are already the most draconian of the common law democracies. America, with all its sensitivities on the subject, allows only 10 days’ detention before indictment. In December, the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor said that there was no evidence for extending the 28-day limit. Will the Home Secretary tell the House what has changed since then?

I have set out several proposals that we can support. Our priority must be to prosecute and convict terrorists—nothing less. That is the only way in which a liberal democracy can ensure that terrorists remain locked up until they no longer pose a threat to public safety. It does not require the House to undermine the ancient rights that millions died defending. We do not defend our way of life by sacrificing our way of life; we cannot protect our liberties by sacrificing our liberties.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for a number of the proposals and for his general approach and the manner in which we have been able to conduct our discussions, which augurs well. I extend those comments to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). I will not deal with all the points the right hon. Gentleman raised, but I will deal with two big ones.

On intercept, I can confirm that the idea of looking at the matter in Privy Council terms arose from a suggestion made by the Leader of the Opposition in discussions with the Prime Minister. I was happy to accept that and I announced today that, in principle, we will do that. I am also aware, as the right hon. Gentleman will be, that the Leader of the Opposition has written to the Prime Minister in the past 24 hours to carry forward those discussions. The sooner that can take a concrete form, through the usual channels, the better. We can leave that to them, but we have the basis for proceeding and seeing whether we can examine the matter again. In the last instance, Governments cannot abrogate the responsibility to make decisions when they believe that that is in the national interest. That is why I used the words “wherever possible”. But I also believe that there is an obligation on us to try to find some way of resolving apparent impasses.

Let me deal with the issue of 28 days. The right hon. Gentleman raised two questions: the first was about what has happened in the past year and the state of the evidence, and the second was about the view of the police. On the evidence, I have said that I do not think that there is an open-and-shut case for going beyond 28 days. I do not believe that we are talking about something that is self-evident. However, the experience in the course of the last year—particularly in relation to the events of last August and the charges that followed—suggests that the evidence for going beyond 28 days has strengthened. For instance, in one or perhaps even two cases, charges were laid at the 28-day limit. Combined with the statement from the police that they can envisage circumstances in which it might be necessary to go beyond 28 days, that means that we ought to reconsider that possibility—I have not said how far beyond 28 days we should go.

On the police view, the police have not put pressure on us in the sense of saying, “This must be done, or there will be a crisis.” However, it would be untrue to infer that they have not asked me to consider the matter and to raise that consideration inside and outside Government, because they have. They have said two things: first, they can envisage circumstances in which they might have to go beyond 28 days and, secondly, that they would like me to raise the matter for discussion again, which is precisely what I am doing. I hope that that is a balanced way of presenting the issue. I personally believe, as do the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—the next Prime Minister—that it is necessary to go beyond 28 days. However, we accept that others have reservations and we therefore want to see whether we can achieve any consensus on the matter.

Finally, it is one thing to say that we should prosecute and convict. That is our earnest desire and our key priority. It is what our whole legal system is geared towards. We all agree on that, but that is not the question. The unavoidable question that confronts us all is: what should we do when there is sufficient information to suggest that there might be the possibility of murder on a massive scale through an act of terrorism, but the evidence does not reach the threshold required to allow us to bring charges? Whatever we do on intercept or post-charge questioning, it will not be a magic solution. We will still face the question of what we, as a responsible Government, should do if there is sufficient information to convince us that there is a chance that there will be murderous mass slaughter in a terrorist attack, but we cannot get the level of evidence that would enable us to bring a charge within 28 days. That question will not go away, whatever we do on the other issues.