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Commons Chamber

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 20 March 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 27 March.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 27 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Registration

1. What percentage of the electorate in (a) Greater London, (b) England and (c) Wales are registered to vote. (195458)

The total number that could be eligible to vote is not known with accuracy, and I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question in the form in which he put it. As of 21 December 2007, about 5.5 million people were registered to vote in local government elections in Greater London, and the other figures were 38.5 million in England and about 2.25 million in Wales. Past research by the commission suggests that the level of non-registration—for technical reasons, I must give the non-registration figure, rather than that for registration—in England and Wales was between 8 and 9 per cent., and in London it could be between 10 and 20 per cent., depending on the area.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful answer, confirming what many of us know and fear—the high level of non-registration, particularly in London, but also elsewhere. Given that it is only a few weeks before the latest date for getting on the electoral roll for the coming May elections in England and Wales, will he talk to his colleagues on the committee and in the Electoral Commission about the much-promised campaign to get people to vote, which was meant to happen each spring? Even if it has not happened this year, will he talk to his colleagues to provide some momentum in the remaining available days? People need to be encouraged to vote.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The last date to register is 16 April. He is right to ask about the commission’s campaign to encourage registration. A significant advertising campaign will be launched after Easter on television and radio, in the outdoor press and online, supported by coverage in the local media. It would help to have a larger number registered, and the Electoral Commission believes that individual registration would encourage that.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) anticipated my point; I was going to ask whether the committee had considered the implications of the Slough judgment, which called for individual voter registration. The present system does not work and is open to fraud.

Since 2003, the Electoral Commission has been urging individual registration. When giving evidence to the Select Committee on Justice earlier this week, its chairman said:

“If it’s a matter of where I’d put the priority in terms of urgency…I would choose individual registration first and consolidation of electoral law afterwards.”

The Slough judgment significantly highlighted the defects in the registration system, and the Electoral Commission has made strong representations to Government about that.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), is the problem not the non-registration of people who can vote but the registration of people who cannot vote? Have the Government given my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) any indication that following the Slough judgment they are prepared to revisit the issue of individual registration?

The commission’s view is that the registration system in Great Britain does not provide adequate safeguards against fraudulent registration and thus against fraudulent voting. Names can be added to the register by others, and not enough information is collected about those on the register to establish whether they really exist and are really resident at the address in question. Fraudsters can undermine the electoral process by obtaining and casting postal votes using falsely registered names. As its chairman’s evidence to the Justice Committee this week indicated, the Electoral Commission is making strong representations to Government. I have not yet heard their response.

Parish Ministry (Funding Support)

2. What criteria are used to determine areas of need in relation to the allocation of funds via the Archbishops Council in support of parish ministry. (195459)

Parish ministry support is targeted on low-income dioceses, their share calculated according to a formula that takes into account the income from the historic resources within the diocese, the income levels of the local population and other factors including attendance and electoral roll numbers.

The averaging of wealth and well-being results in the masking of some areas and strands of deprivation. Some dioceses that are perceived as being relatively well-off receive less than others. Chester, for example, has done well in terms of parish mission initiatives. What does my hon. Friend plan to do to maintain that creditable list?

My hon. Friend is right about Chester diocese being relatively well resourced, but it does receive less from the Church Commissioners than other dioceses do. I congratulate Chester diocese, through my hon. Friend, on its long list of parish mission initiatives. That was supported last year by the mission development moneys that the commissioners made available. I wish the diocese well in its future work.

Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the Archbishops Council allocates funds to investigate bat damage in historic churches? It is a real issue across the country, and it needs to be examined. The Archbishops Council could do that, and it should get in touch with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that we are not hidebound by foolish regulations to protect bats. I want to protect bats, but we must strike a balance between bat conservation and the needs of historic churches.

English Heritage has recognised that, in addition to the public health issues, bat droppings are highly damaging to monuments, brasses and other fixtures. When bats get into the main body of a church, fixtures must be covered and then uncovered for worship and other activities. We recognise the need to conserve the environment, and the Bat Conservation Trust must be considered, but the Church recognises the potential damage to church contents from bats in the belfry.

Women Ordinands

Is it not noteworthy that the first two people whom Jesus met after the resurrection were Mary and Martha? When will the House of Bishops make proposals that will enable the General Synod to resolve that the head of a woman is as worthy of the hands of apostolic succession as is the head of a man?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reference to those historical events. This is the first Maundy Thursday that we have had Church Commissioners questions, and I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and the House a happy Easter.

General Synod has already agreed that the legal obstacles to the ordination of women bishops can be removed, and a legislative drafting group, chaired by the Bishop of Manchester, is trying to identify possible ways of doing that, including arrangements for those who are conscientiously unable to accept the ministry of women bishops. It has consulted widely. We hope that the General Synod will refer to the matter again in its July meeting.

Church Thefts

The Archbishops Council has had extensive discussions with parishes and dioceses about the most significant type of church theft, which is the theft of lead from church roofs. This is a serious problem and the Church is working with the police and insurers to try to solve it.

I welcome the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) to his new position on the Front Bench—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is obviously a popular appointment.

Everyone who lives in a rural community has a role to play in being vigilant and trying to prevent such thefts. I am especially concerned about the financial impact on churches, and it will continue to be a problem as long as lead and other mineral prices remain as high as they are. Can the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) say anything about the impact on insurance premiums and the general life of the church, given that predicament?

Guidance on those matters can be found on the websites of Churchcare and the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, and is also available from the National Churchwatch scheme and Church House. Ecclesiastical Insurance has invented a marking product called SmartWater that can trace recovered metal to its owner and link the thief to the scene of the crime. A free security marking system is also available to parishes. We are trying to keep our churches open and to keep people coming to them, but we recognise the difficulties and dangers involved. We hope that the methods being introduced by Ecclesiastical Insurance will help to reduce theft, in both rural and city areas.

The theft of lead and other metals from churches in the Kettering constituency is a growing problem, and there was recently a theft from Wheatley parish church. At what level among senior police officers have the Church Commissioners been having discussions? What discussions have been taking place with senior representatives of the scrap metal industry to control the lead and other metal that is brought to scrap yards for recycling, and to find out where it has come from?

All thefts are reported to the police, with whom there is close liaison. I hope that it is of some slight comfort to the hon. Gentleman that, although the problem of stolen lead is getting more serious, the amount of theft of other church fixtures has declined. He asks a pertinent question about scrap metal, and we hope that the marking product being introduced will help us, with the aid of scrap metal merchants, to track both the material that has been stolen and the people who stole it.

Bishoprics (Funding)

5. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the House of Bishops on the funding of bishoprics. (195462)

Following consultation with the House of Bishops last year, a system of global budgets for funding bishops’ office and working costs was introduced at the beginning of this year. The revised system will give bishops greater discretion in how the money is spent within agreed guidelines.

It is a shame that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has left the Front Bench, as I was looking forward to hearing some straight talking for a change.

I thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) for his reply to my question. Does he agree that bishops do vital work in local communities, and will he join me in thanking the Bishops of Hereford and of Lichfield, and the two suffragan bishops who work under them, the Bishops of Ludlow and of Shrewsbury? Will he give a commitment to the House and to my constituents in both dioceses that those bishops’ funding will be safeguarded and that their valuable work will continue to be recognised?

I recognise the role that bishops play locally, nationally and internationally. It is important that they are properly resourced and it is part of the Church Commissioners’ duty to provide that support. In 2006, we spent £24.5 million on bishops’ ministries, although we have other beneficiaries and must balance our obligations. The commission recognises the work done by the specific bishops that the hon. Gentleman listed, and the work of all bishops. We congratulate them on the role that they play in their dioceses.

Bishops' Historic Residences

6. What consideration the Church Commissioners have given to the future of the historic residences of the bishops of the Church of England; and if he will make a statement. (195463)

The suitability of every see house is considered when the incumbent bishop reaches the age of 62. By way of a statement, the pre-retirement review process enables constructive dialogue with the bishop, his family, his diocese and a range of other interested parties, and helps us provide a suitable home, workplace and base for his ministry.

Does the Second Church Estates Commissioner agree that it is part and parcel of what the Church of England is that we accept responsibility for looking after the buildings in our care, be they see houses or ancient parish churches? Given that 20 per cent. of this country’s listed buildings—and 40 per cent. of all our grade 1 listed buildings—are maintained by the Church of England Christian community, would not the Church Commissioners be better employed in seeking a new settlement with the state about how the cost of maintaining those national treasures could be shared?

It may be Maundy Thursday, but I am reminded of a phrase that Jesus used: words often fall on stony ground. Any suggestion that the Church and the state might work together, with the state providing more money to the Church, will, I suspect, fall on stony ground.

In respect of work carried out in historic residences that are also bishops’ palaces, we have of late maintained Rose castle and Auckland castle. As commissioners, we provide and maintain a residence for each diocesan bishop, so we fully understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The Church will have to look after its own and not rely on the state. We shall continue to do the job we have been doing. We understand the historical context as well as the need to be up to date and to serve our parishioners, which is what the commissioners are trying to do.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service

10. What assessment she has made of the Crown Prosecution Service's response to information on crime scene profiles received from the Dutch authorities in January 2007. (195477)

The Dutch authorities submitted 2,159 crime scene profiles from unsolved crimes. When my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General became aware of issues surrounding the disk, she ordered the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct an urgent inquiry into what had happened. The inquiry has three strands, two of which will be concluded by the end of this month. I shall not be able to comment on numbers of DNA matches, or anything like that, because of ongoing operations.

The Solicitor-General has said in the past that, unlike what happened in recent cases of official negligence, the data have not actually been lost, but how does she know? If the CPS did not know it had the disk in the first place, how can it possibly reassure us that the disk was never copied illegitimately, or that something similar did not occur?

The full facts about where the disk was and how it was handled will become clear from the outcome of inquiry. The hon. Lady should not overlook the fact that this was an excellent example of international co-operation between UK law enforcement offices and those abroad, which is capable of taking off the streets a lot of criminals who would not have been taken off the streets if we did not have our strong DNA database and excellent international relationships with our European partners.

Is not the real lesson that the Government cannot be trusted with sensitive data? They do not know the value of such data and cannot keep them safe. How will the Solicitor-General achieve a real cultural change in the way the Government handle data?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that no data have been lost in this case, so he really should take a calming pill. He should set his feet slightly more firmly on the ground and take his head slightly further out of the clouds. There is an inquiry and it will produce outcomes in due course. It should take only a moment’s thought to appreciate that when we delivered our DNA data disk to the Dutch, it was taken by an Association of Chief Police Officers officer. It was handcuffed to him and he was escorted by another officer. When the data came to the CPS, which is—as again a moment’s thought would have told the hon. Gentleman—remote from ownership of our database and not the appropriate recipient, it came with no destination except “CPS, Ludgate Hill”. The hon. Gentleman is going too far in his criticisms; he needs to wait until he knows a few facts; a little knowledge is a terribly dangerous thing.

I am a little troubled by the length of time the inquiry is taking. On the face of it, if some of the background facts that have already come into the public domain are correct, it would seem that the answers to the inquiry are probably fairly simple, yet as the Solicitor-General will appreciate, particularly from the question she has just received, some of the disquiet centres on the fact that we still do not have the inquiry report. Will she assure the House that it will be brought forward as quickly as possible? I am a little troubled about the length of time it is taking given that the facts seem fairly simple.

Probably the most important fact for me to confirm is that the results of the matching process have been returned to the Dutch. We have completed the inquiry into where the disk was at any given time, and by the end of the month it is expected that the CPS will have looked at responsibility for that. The third strand, to which I have just alluded, is the one on which our ACPO officers and the Dutch police are now able to take matters forward. We will produce the results as soon as we can.

Does that incident not illustrate a more important point about the use of the DNA database? If reports are to be believed, the incident came about because the Crown Prosecution Service could not cover the absence of a prosecutor. Does that not show that resources would be better spent on using the data that we already have more efficiently and effectively, than on endlessly expanding the DNA database to include more and more innocent people, who have less and less likelihood of being involved in crime?

We are determined to use the DNA database in the most effective way, so that it can stamp out crime that would otherwise not be detected. If that is not how the Liberal Democrats see an appropriate criminal justice policy going forward, so be it. The hon. Gentleman’s factual basis for his question is wrong. He, too, must wait until he has a little bit more knowledge than the tiny amount that he has at present.

Transnational Bribery

11. When the Government plan to introduce legislation to reform the law on transnational bribery. (195479)

Last year, the Government asked the Law Commission to undertake, as a priority, a fresh review of options for reform of bribery law and to prepare a draft Bill. Those processes are under way, and they cover both domestic and foreign bribery. The commission produced a consultation paper on 29 November, and its review and Bill should be complete by the autumn. Obviously, we will then have to look at the final proposals, but we will seek to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

When the Government published their next steps paper on reforming bribery law last year, they confirmed that the Attorney-General’s consent for prosecution for all bribery offences, including transnational bribery, was to be replaced by the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the Director of the Serious Fraud Office. That was a very wise decision. Is it still the Government’s policy?

As my hon. Friend knows, there has been a review of the Attorney-General’s role, which included consideration of the issue of consents, and until we announce our conclusions, which we will do shortly, I am not in a position to say more. However, my hon. Friend has hit on an interesting point. The Attorney-General’s consent is required under the Prevention of Corruption Acts. In 2003, it was proposed in the Corruption Bill that we retain that requirement, but the Joint Committee providing pre-legislative scrutiny, of which I was a member, suggested that it should not be retained. The Law Commission proposes that it remain in place for domestic cases, but not for cases with an extra-territorial element. I should be very glad to have conversations with my hon. Friend on that interesting theme, but I cannot comment on what the outcome of the consultation on the Attorney-General’s role will be.

But is it not entirely improper for a Minister of the Crown with political responsibilities to decide whether people should be prosecuted for corruption? Is it the case that the Attorney-General has again stayed an international corruption case on the basis of political considerations?

I cannot talk about individual cases, but I am not at all aware of the facts that the hon. Gentleman puts forward. I am aware of a number of ongoing cases, one of which awaits a decision, and one of which is coming quite close to conclusion. A number of others are being run by the Serious Fraud Office. No doubt their results will be made public in due course. I do not recognise the description of the case that he raised.

It is an offence to suborn a police officer, for instance by bribing them to provide information to a national newspaper, yet one editor of a national newspaper has admitted that she has done so, and one former editor of a national newspaper, who now works for the Conservative party, has said that he, too, has paid police officers for information. No prosecutions have ever been brought against a newspaper for paying police officers for information, yet the practice often undermines the criminal justice system. Should there not be reform of the law, so that bribery is dealt with severely?

Bribery must be dealt with severely, from wherever it emanates—and it will be. There are always headlines about cases, but then there is an important, second process called investigating to see exactly what is in the claim. Then there is a process called evaluating to see whether there is a 51 per cent. prospect of securing a conviction. I can assure my hon. Friend that those duties are carried out rigorously.

Fraud Prosecution Policy

12. When she next expects to meet representatives of the small business sector to discuss policy on prosecution of fraud. (195481)

My noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General met the Federation of Small Businesses in February, when she attended its annual dinner. Earlier, I went to a scambusters conference, which was attended by small business representatives, including the chair of the FSB, John Wright, who lives in Redcar, as it happens, and whom I know extremely well, so there is no difficulty at all about that communication. I think that the FSB is pleased that our strategy will be to engage small business in the process of disrupting, preventing, investigating and prosecuting fraud.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply. It is good news that she is engaging with small firms. Is she aware that the small business community is reporting an increasing number of internet and banking scams? The scam normally involves the firm in question receiving an e-mail from the third-world country saying that funds need to be transferred and asking whether it can help in doing that. Right hon. and hon. Members will be staggered by the number of firms that are taken in by that. Obviously they are very naive, but it is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with. What will she do about it?

One of the tasks of the embryonic national fraud reporting centre will be to perceive the nature of frauds as they develop. It will put together intelligence packages that it will then distribute to try to help businesses to spot the fraud before it happens, and to disrupt it in order to ensure that people are not taken in. The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an important point.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Domestic Workers (Trafficking)

15. If she will meet non-governmental organisations to discuss the treatment of trafficked female migrant domestic workers. (195485)

I have already met a number of non-governmental organisations to discuss the trafficking of female migrant domestic workers. This disturbing issue was also raised at a round table event with representatives of non-governmental organisations that I held in October.

Is the Minister aware that many hundreds of women come into Britain every year with unscrupulous employers who beat them, bludgeon them, scare them, frighten them into submission and say that if they go to the police they will be deported? To ensure that domestic slavery does not continue to raise its head in Britain, as I believe it already has, will she consider the Home Office’s proposal to prevent visas from being transferred from unscrupulous employers to other employers if the women escape?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which has not been aired much in the House. I also thank him for the work that he continues to do on this horrible issue. I will agree to speak to the Home Office—in fact, I speak to the Home Office quite often about the issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that the primary aim of Pentameter 2, which was launched on 3 October, was to recover victims of sexual and domestic exploitation. That work needs to go on and I welcome his support.

Women’s Representation

The law that we introduced to allow political parties to use women-only shortlists for selection has been one of the most effective ways of increasing women’s representation. On 6 March, I announced our intention to legislate in the new equality Bill to extend the right of political parties to have women-only shortlists until 2030.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. On the Labour Benches in this House, more than a quarter of our representatives are women. In Holyrood, one in two Labour MSPs are women. Those overall averages, however, are unfortunately brought down by the representation of women in other parties. Only 25 per cent. of the SNP’s representatives in Holyrood are women—

Order. A supplementary question must be short. The Minister might try to answer the question.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want improved representation of women so that the issues of concern to women in this country are reflected not only in the House of Commons but in our local councils, too, in our devolved Parliament in Scotland, in Wales, and in London. It is notable that although we have fewer Labour Members in the Scottish Parliament than the Scots Nats, we have twice as many women Members. Women in Scotland are properly represented by Labour women. The other parties say that they support women’s representation but they must get their act together and do something about it.

If it is so important for the Labour party to have more women in Parliament, can the Minister tell us how many male Labour MPs have agreed to cut short their parliamentary career to give up their seat for a woman? If, as I suspect, the answer is none, can we abandon all this political correctness regarding getting more women into Parliament and just concentrate on people being selected on merit?

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of merit. Does he think that this Chamber was meritorious and representative when it was, as it was when I was first elected, 97 per cent. men? Then, it was said that it just so happened that all the men in the country were the best people, and they had to be in this House of Commons. The fact is that we have to bring about change so that women are fairly represented. We have made progress on that in our party. We now have 96 Labour women MPs, and the hon. Gentleman’s party still has only 17. It is in the interests of everyone in this country and of our democracy that there is fair representation in this House of Commons.

In Wales, 47 per cent. of those in the National Assembly are women, which is one of the highest records in the world. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this was achieved only by the efforts of Labour in Wales, by bringing in twinning, and by being bold and acknowledging the fact that we need people who actually represent the communities whom they represent?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and there are three really important issues here. First, it is only with positive action that there has been a difference and an increase in women’s representation. Secondly, it is Labour that has taken the lead—whether in Scotland, Wales or other parts of the UK. Thirdly, women’s representation has made a difference for women in this country, ensuring that women representatives have been able to put issues of concern such as domestic violence, child care and flexibility at work on our political agenda.

What message does it send that, of the Ministers who are women, a disproportionate number of them are not paid, compared with that of male Ministers? Should my right hon. and learned Friend not have a word with the Prime Minister, saying that there should be parity of treatment—equal pay for work of equal value—or is the real question whether Ministers should be paid at all?

The message that it sends is that, while we have made progress, a great deal more still needs to be made.

Historically and regardless of political parties, local government has attracted proportionately more women to participate in it than this House has attracted. What lessons does the Minister think we can learn from that, and why does she think that that has been the case?

In fact, the representation of women in local councils is only about the same as that of women in this House. Historically, there have always been more women in local councils than in this House, but because of the positive action that we have taken, and which has been taken in Scotland and Wales, this House has overtaken that figure. Many of the people who work for local councils are women, providing important local services, as are many of the people who depend on local councils’ services because they are caring for young children or older relatives, or are involved in schools or local social services. Because such services are so important to women in local communities, it is quite wrong that we still have so few women in local government. We need to make progress on that, too.

Domestic Violence

18. If she will make a statement on the Government's policy on assistance for victims of domestic violence. (195489)

I welcome the number of men asking questions in this House today during women’s questions. Although there are women here, none of them is asking a question on the Order Paper.

Delivering support for victims of domestic violence is at the heart of the Government’s recently published action plan for tackling violence. Over the next three years, we are committed to ensuring that they and their families have access to the help that they need, including with accommodation, specialist counselling and legal and financial advice.

Will the Minister undertake to review the assistance provided after the police attend a domestic violence incident? Although the forms and bureaucracy may be appropriate during the first visit, they are perhaps unwieldy and not particularly action-oriented if a second visit by the police is necessary.

I will look into the matter. I welcome the hon. Gentleman raising it in domestic violence month. As Minister for the East of England, I know that we have had an increase in reports of domestic violence in Essex, but I am glad to say that I would count that as a success, because it means that women are now willing to come forward, rather than suffering in silence.

Does the Minister share my concern that according to Home Office figures, domestic violence almost trebled from 241,00 to 658,000 incidents reported in the past year alone, yet the conviction rate for domestic violence is a paltry 5 per cent.?

No. As I said in response to the previous question, we count that as positive because—[Interruption.] Well, it means that people are coming forward to report such incidents. For a long time people were too frightened to report, and we are providing support. There has been an increase in convictions in Essex, as I know from my position as Minister for the East of England.

On the subject of violence against women, some women who suffer from domestic violence find support through rape crisis centres. In the past week I have visited the rape crisis centre in Newcastle and the rape and sexual abuse centre for Merseyside, both unable to provide as full a service as is needed locally because of uncertainties about their funding. On Tuesday the Minister for Women announced in a press release £1 million funding for rape crisis centres. That looked very similar to the announcement nearly two weeks ago by the Home Secretary of £1 million to tackle sexual and domestic violence. Can the Minister confirm that that will indeed be additional money? Can she also confirm over what period the money will be available and exactly how much will be available? Will she guarantee that every penny will go to rape crisis centres?

Once again, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s interest in the matter, which I share. Like her, I have been visiting rape crisis centres and, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, I am concerned to ensure their sustainability. That is why we announced the emergency fund. I can confirm that that is new money and that it is long term. We want to make sure that the centres are sustainable. I hope to improve capacity in rape crisis centres and to get them working with the new sexual assault referral centres, which I think is the way forward.

To continue the theme of uncertain funding, in my local area there is a women’s refuge which, each year, has to go out with a begging bowl to the district council, primary care trusts and so on. What more support can be given to refuge centres, and what can be done to encourage local councils to take up their responsibility and ensure that they make a major contribution to those centres, which are desperately needed?

This is where the new sub-national review gives us an opportunity. Under the local area agreements, we can perhaps influence funding, as long as the sexual and domestic violence sector is ready and able to input into those local area agreements. However, at present only 37.8 per cent. of local authorities have a refuge—that is not good enough—and only a third provide services for victims of domestic violence. In Warwickshire, which is Conservative-controlled, funding for the refuge was cut by half, and in Conservative-controlled Ealing, the funding for Southall Black Sisters is being withdrawn.

I welcome the Government’s announcement that over the summer they will consider the issue of women who are trying to flee domestic violence but who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, but will the Minister commit to putting emergency funding in place now, because abusers will not wait for Government policy and these women need urgent help right now?

Like the hon. Lady, the Government are extremely aware of the acute problems faced by this group, and that is why applications for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom made by victims of domestic violence are prioritised, and where the applicant is destitute we are now waiving fees. It is also why we will shortly be announcing details of a new scheme under which victims of domestic violence with indefinite leave to remain may be able to have their housing and living costs met, but there is more work still to be done in this area.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Drinking Water

24. What the Commission’s policy is on the provision of drinking water at meetings held in the House; and if he will make a statement. (195468)

The Administration Committee last considered the issue of the provision of drinking water in Committee and meeting rooms in March 2007 and concluded at the time that the current practice of supplying bottled mineral water should continue, but I am pleased to report that the Department of Facilities is re-examining the issue with the intention of providing further advice.

I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary and the Evening Standard on coming aboard my long-standing campaign to increase the use of tap water against the use of bottled water. The hon. Gentleman’s reply is welcome, but I urge a little more urgency on him. This is a major environmental issue and a substantial cost issue. Will he now take steps to give instructions to the administration that tap water should be available at all meetings and in all dining facilities as a proper alternative to bottled water, hopefully with a view to phasing out the use of bottled water?

I agree with the gist of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Tap water is widely available in the catering outlets in the estate, but I can assure him that this is being treated with some urgency and that the Department of Facilities is expected to report back soon after Easter.

I share a little concern about this because the water that we all drink comes from my constituency, so I hope that instead of some stringent adherence to the latest political correctness we will be presented with a choice in the future. Can we be reassured that there will be a choice? Tap water should be available, but not at the expense of choice.

I will not pre-empt the outcome of the Department’s investigation. We will have to wait and see, and decisions will be taken on the basis of cost and environmental considerations when we have the report.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

25. What assessment she has made of the completeness of information given in answers to parliamentary questions. (195469)

As I have stated in the past, the Leader of the House keeps the quality of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions under continuous review.

On the assumption that every Whitehall Department has now abandoned the traffic light system that was formerly used to filter out embarrassing questions, will the hon. Lady confirm that she will use her good offices to urge the Treasury to provide me with an unambiguous answer to questions that I have tabled today about the use of No. 11 Downing street by charities, including the Smith Institute, rather than the obfuscatory ones that I have received hitherto?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, all Ministers understand the importance of answering parliamentary questions fully, truthfully and in a timely manner. He has only just tabled those questions, so I am sure that he can expect an answer in accordance with the usual timetable.

As regards answers to questions put by Members of Parliament, the House will be aware that it is Government policy to have more out-of-hours GP services. However, when I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Health on the number of GPs who operate the service, I was told that that information was not collected centrally. The Government must have the information centrally in order to have made their policy in the first place, so will the hon. Lady urge the Secretary of State for Health to provide the relevant information, or alternatively will she confirm that the policy was made on the hoof without any supporting evidence?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is aware that questions can be answered only within certain cost limits. However, I undertake to get in touch with the Secretary of State for Health and raise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House talk to the Leader of the House to see whether we could have a much more efficient system to monitor, check, report back on and improve the quality of written answers? I suggest that either the Modernisation Committee or a sub-committee, on a cross-party basis, could do quarterly reports on what the standards should be and whether they are met.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we are waiting for a report on written questions from the Procedure Committee. It will be more appropriate for us to consider the issue that he has raised when we have received that report.

Is the hon. Lady aware that many hon. Members believe that if they table difficult questions for the Government, the Government respond to the question that they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that actually was asked? Will she confirm that in the folder with the answers for written questions is a note from the permanent secretary reminding Ministers that the answers have to be factually correct, fit the requirements of the question and be produced swiftly? That was the practice during the Major Government.

As I explained in my previous answer, the 1997 parliamentary resolution on ministerial accountability was incorporated into the ministerial code. It is absolutely specific:

“Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments and…Agencies”.

Oral Statements

26. What the criteria are for deciding to announce Government policy by means of an oral statement; and if she will make a statement. (195470)

In deciding whether to make an oral statement to announce Government policy, the Government will take into account the importance of the issue and the other business before the House.

Has the Deputy Leader of the House or the Leader of the House ever had cause to speak to the Home Secretary, since she entered the Cabinet, to discuss the methods employed by the Home Office to announce policies?

We do discuss with Ministers how oral statements are made, to ensure that the House is kept properly informed of policy developments.

If my hon. Friend is talking to Ministers about statements, she could emphasise to them that they are better made in the House than on the “Today” programme.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether he is aware of the fact that in the 70 sitting days of this Session, there have been 39 oral statements, and that we gave notice of 20 of those. That means that 20 were flagged up on the Order Paper. Obviously, that leads to media stories and speculation, which are clearly outside the Government’s control.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Parliamentary Recording Unit

The rules largely date back to the regulations that govern the admission of cameras to the Chamber. The Member may use only material featuring themselves or a reply from a Minister to their question, and contributions to the debate on an issue raised by the Member. The clip should display the portcullis logo, and the Member should acknowledge copyright and ensure that the material is not downloadable. Members may use recordings of proceedings on their own parliamentary website, but not on any third party hosting website.

Parliament should be embracing new technology as a way to reconnect with the public. Is it not about time that we ditched the ridiculous ban on parliamentary clips being shown on YouTube? Sites such as YouTube are popular and accessible; if there is a copyright issue, will the House authorities review the current contracts and bring Parliament into the 21st century?

Copyright is only part of the point that I am making. Obviously, the costs of the pictures recorded in the Chamber are also part of the contract. The other issue is to do with the manipulation of pictures taken in this Chamber. That comes back to the issue of the rules that govern the admission of cameras into the Chamber. At the moment, the rule is that the clips can be streamed to be viewed in real time, but not downloaded in such a way that they could be manipulated later.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

European Union (Scrutiny)

28. What plans she has for new procedures to enable the House to conduct the scrutiny function for national Parliaments set out in the treaty of Lisbon. (195472)

As I said to the House during the debate on 26 February on the Bill to enable ratification of the EU treaty,

“We will work with both Houses to ensure that there is an effective mechanism, and we will also ensure that there is an opportunity for a decision before the Lisbon treaty comes into force.”

I also said that we would examine this alongside the review of

“the new scrutiny arrangements that we established last month.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 977.]

On 13 March, the Lords European Union Committee published a report, “The Treaty of Lisbon: an impact assessment”, setting out its views on the yellow and orange card mechanism. We will take that into account, alongside the findings of the forthcoming inquiry by the Commons European Scrutiny Committee.

I think that it is fair to say that opinions differed on the treaty of Lisbon, but the one thing that was welcomed in all parts of the House was the additional powers of scrutiny conferred by the treaty—not on the Executive but on Parliament, giving Parliament the chance to constrain some of the activities of the European Union when it did not show subsidiarity. Will the hon. Lady ensure that we have an appropriate mechanism that does not just send this to some Committee a long way away from the Floor of the House where nobody knows exactly what is going on, but gives this House and this Chamber centrality in the issue of what should be decided at European level and what should be decided by this Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points. As I said, it will be a matter for each House to decide how it plays its cards. Of course, the European Scrutiny Committee will maintain its role in making an initial scrutiny of the documents, and we anticipate that the explanatory memorandums produced by Government Departments will highlight the subsidiarity point more fully than is the case currently. Furthermore, when we come to look at this we will consider a number of issues, including the role of the whole House, what to do during long recesses, and the scope that there may be for inter-parliamentary co-operation through the COSAC mechanism.

Parliamentary Questions

29. What assessment she has made of the completeness of information given in answers to parliamentary questions. (195473)

The Minister will be aware that certain Ministers within each Department take lead responsibility for written questions. Do those Ministers meet and share best practice, and is there a document that outlines that best practice, or do Government Departments operate in silos, given that certain Departments are much better than others?

As the hon. Gentleman understands, where Government Departments have shared interests and shared policy responsibilities, of course they carry those forward together and discuss not only policy development but what appropriate announcements should be made to this House.

Topical Questions

May I urge the hon. Lady to undertake an assessment to highlight some of the problems that we are having with topical questions? For example, under the old system, in any typical 60-minute departmental Question Time each Member of this House had the opportunity to ask one question. Now, it is increasingly the case that some Members get the chance to ask two questions, while others lose out altogether.

Obviously, who is called during topical questions is a matter for the Speaker. However, I think that there was a consensus that the introduction of topical questions would help to ensure that questions that had arisen very shortly before Question Time could be answered fully. Notwithstanding the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, by and large most hon. Members are happy with the current practice.

Topical Debates

31. If she will take steps to pass responsibility for the arrangements for the selection of matters for topical debate to the Chairman of Ways and Means; and if she will make a statement. (195475)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House announced a review of the operation of topical debates in a written ministerial statement on 7 February. The hon. Gentleman can submit his views to that review. The results will be published before the summer recess.

These are my views, so I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of them. I suggested the Chairman of Ways and Means in my question because I know that you are very busy, Mr. Speaker. The point is, however, that topical debates are currently decided by the Government based on what they feel like—what announcement the Prime Minister made on Monday—instead of issues of topicality. If these debates are to be topical and useful to the House of Commons, we should have issues that can be debated seriously in this House, that mean something and that are topical, instead of some Government stooge debate. We need proper debates: ones that the House wants, not ones that the Leader of the House or the Government want.

The hon. Gentleman should take a more balanced view of the matter. On 7 February, the topical debate was on NHS staffing—a suggestion of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). We have also discussed Holocaust memorial day, Kenya, preventive health services, availability of financial services for low-income families, the health consequences of the availability of cheap alcohol, future prospects for apprenticeships and climate change. The first topical debate was also based on a suggestion from his right hon. Friend; it was on immigration.

Business of the House

The business for the week after the Easter recess will be:

Tuesday 25 March—Opposition day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Iraq Inquiry” on an Opposition motion followed by motion to approve the Local Government Finance Special Grant Report (No. 129) (House of Commons Paper No. 256)

Wednesday 26 March—Second Reading of the Local Transport Bill [Lords].

Thursday 27 March—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by motion relating to the parliamentary contributory pension fund, followed by motion relating to the Seventh Report of the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Friday 28 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 31 March will include:

Monday 31 March—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Housing and Regeneration Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, followed by motion to consider the Northern Rock plc Transfer Order 2008.

Tuesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

Wednesday 2 April—Opposition day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate on a Liberal Democrat motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 3 April—Topical debate: subject to be announced followed by motion on the April recess adjournment.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 April and 24 April will be:

Thursday 3 April—A debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Global Security: Russia

Thursday 24 April— A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on ticket touting.

The House may wish to be aware that earlier today I issued a written ministerial statement announcing publication of “Post-legislative Scrutiny—The Government’s Approach”. It will provide that three years after this House has passed legislation, there will be a process of scrutiny to enable us to be sure that an Act did what we intended.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business and I look forward to future discussions on the important subject of post-legislative scrutiny and the way in which Government proposals operate.

All hon. Members will have been concerned by recent events in Tibet. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama when he is in London, but many hon. Members still want an opportunity to discuss the issue. Can we have a topical debate on Tibet next week?

This week, the National Audit Office released figures showing that Britain’s climate change emissions are 12 per cent. higher than the levels cited in Government figures. We have also learned that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—the Department responsible for reducing Britain’s CO2 emissions—is the worst performing Department for energy efficiency. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explaining why the Government have made so little progress on cutting CO2 emissions, and why his Department is setting such a bad example?

Last year, we proposed amendments to the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007, which would have significantly reduced the scope for political manipulation of data. The Government rejected them; now we know why. The Statistics Commission has lambasted Government Departments for politically driven misuse of statistics—otherwise known as spin. One of the worst offenders was the Children, Schools and Families Department, and last week it was at it again: hiding school admission figures and attacking schools for demanding money for places based on nothing more than unverified desk research. May we have a debate on the use of Government statistics?

On Monday, Dame Carol Black’s report, “Working for a Healthier Tomorrow”, revealed the shocking true cost to the economy of Labour’s failure to tackle worklessness caused by sickness—£100 billion. After 10 years of a Labour Government, Dame Carol labelled the number of people on incapacity benefit as

“an historic failure of healthcare and employment support”,

so may we have a debate on that historic Government failure?

In 1997, the Government’s pledge card promised smaller class sizes and the Prime Minister is now promising personalised learning for every child, but it seems that no one has told the Schools Minister, who yesterday told a conference that class sizes of 70 were acceptable, so may we have a debate on Government policy on class sizes?

In the past few weeks, a number of hon. Members have called for a debate on London. This week, another scandal has hit the Labour Mayor of London. We have now discovered that Ken Livingstone has not registered a single donation with the Electoral Commission for the past seven years. His campaign team insists that all moneys raised come through the Labour party, so do not have to be declared, but his official website asks for cheques to be made payable to the “Ken Livingstone campaign fund”. What on earth is the Mayor trying to hide? May we have a debate on London?

Last night, 64 Labour MPs voted to support post office closures despite campaigning in their own constituencies to keep post offices open. Are not those double standards the very reason why so many people are turned off politics? Post offices are often the linchpin of local communities, so may we have a debate on sustainable local communities?

Finally, in yesterday’s debate on the Post Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) quoted a poem that had come into his possession from Downing street. I would like to suggest another version of that poem:

At Downing street the other day

I met a man sent on his way.

Close to Gordon for many years,

The PM’s rants brought him to tears.

But for all this he didn’t care,

He was pleased to see his master there.

He’d been important once, you know,

Now Carter told him, “You must go!”.

Misusing Government figures, wasting taxpayers’ money, reneging on promises, Ministers campaigning against their own Government, chaos at No. 10: is not that why no one trusts this Government on anything any more?

I do not know about the right hon. Lady’s constituents, but I know mine are more interested in sound money than in soundbites, and they would prefer competence to her version of comedy.

The right hon. Lady asked about Tibet, and she acknowledged that the issue was raised with the Prime Minister by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. It is a matter of continuing concern to the Prime Minister and to the Foreign Secretary, and no doubt hon. Members will have further opportunities to raise questions with the Prime Minister—and, indeed, with the Foreign Secretary in oral questions next week. I note the right hon. Lady’s proposal to make Tibet a subject for a topical debate.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Government’s approach to climate change, and I would remind her that the Government are taking unprecedented action to tackle carbon emissions. Through the Climate Change Bill, which will come before the House for debate shortly, we propose to set in law a ceiling on carbon emissions, which is unprecedented in the world. As well as Government Departments scrutinising their carbon emissions, we in the House also need to ensure that we reduce waste and energy use. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is to work with the House authorities on that, so I invite hon. Members to put to her their proposals on how the House can become greener and more energy-efficient. We, too, can make a contribution and lead by example.

The right hon. Lady talked about statistics. Public confidence in the independence of statistics is very important. The Government have made changes in that respect. The Statistics Board will be overseen by the Public Administration Committee, which will reassure her and the House.

The right hon. Lady talked about school admissions and class sizes. May I reminder her and the House that a third of children in primary school were in classes of more than 30 when we came into government? That number is now down to 2 per cent. We now have 30,000 extra teachers and 130,000 extra teaching assistants. We have the best ratio ever between teachers and children in classes. The Schools Minister did not say that he thought that there should be 70 in a class.

He did not say that; he just remarked on an innovatory way of dealing with—[Interruption.] Well, I am just telling the right hon. Lady and the House what he said. He has been misquoted. Government policy is to have more teachers and teaching assistants, smaller class sizes and more investment in education, and we have been getting on with providing that.

The right hon. Lady mentioned worklessness. We have been concerned to ensure that we have a strong and stable economy with more jobs, and I am glad to report to the House that the figures published yesterday show a record number of jobs in the economy. In the last quarter, the number of jobs in the economy went up again, but there is a problem in terms of those who are on incapacity benefit, who perhaps want to and could work. For many years, when her party was in government, people were encouraged to go on to incapacity benefit to conceal rising unemployment. Although the number going on to incapacity benefit is reducing, a large number have been on that benefit for a long time. Therefore, through jobcentres and private and voluntary organisations, we must look to every individual, ask what their capacity is and see whether the many programmes available can help them into work.

The right hon. Lady threw around some allegations about the Labour Mayor of London, which gives me the opportunity to say that I am confident that all the declarations have been properly made. I seem to remember that the Tory candidate for Mayor of London—despite the fact that he represents an Oxfordshire constituency—was on one of the Electoral Commission lists of people who had not made declarations and had to make them late. I might be wrong, but that is my recollection.

The right hon. Lady mentioned post offices. As she will know, we had an extensive debate on that subject yesterday on an Opposition motion, which gave everybody an opportunity to discuss the issue. Were we to follow her Government’s policy of not providing a subsidy to the Post Office, we would not have 11,500 post offices continuing in business as will now be the case; we would have only 4,000. If the country is to have 11,500 post offices, it is important that the right ones stay open. That is why the consultation is so important, and that is why I have put forward the case to the Post Office that the Gibbon road post office in Nunhead should be one of the 11,500 that remain open.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that although investigations and decisions are already taking place on party political expenditure and many suggestions are being made about curtailing Members’ expenses, there is one big gap in the programme? It is high time we took the opportunity, possibly through a statement, to make sure that Members of Parliament have one job and one job only. There are more than 100 Tory MPs lining their pockets on the side, including some on the Front Bench. It should be one Member of Parliament, one job, with no conflict of interests. The climate is right and the press will deal with it, so let us get on with it.

My hon. Friend has made a good point. Being a Member of Parliament is an important job, and our constituents expect us to give it our committed attention. I expect my hon. Friend’s point to be the subject of debate in the House, and I am glad that he has raised it.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. A Bill is about to be presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) calling for an inquiry into what happened in Iraq, and next week a debate using Opposition time will raise the need for such an inquiry. Will the Leader of the House talk to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that after next Tuesday’s debate it will be announced, in the light of the views expressed by Parliament, that we can have—in a way that will meet the wishes of Parliament—the sort of inquiry into the events of five years ago and since that I think the country deserves and needs?

May we also have a debate on a separate but linked issue, that of coroners’ inquests generally and inquests into the deaths of service personnel in particular—not least in order to ensure, on behalf of the families of people like the late Private Jason Smith, that the Government do not seek to intervene to prevent coroners from speaking as they find, and that the relatives of the victims of events such as the 7 July bombings do not discover that the inquests into their loved ones’ deaths took place behind closed doors without the possibility of public and general knowledge of how their relatives died?

Yesterday we had what I thought was an excellent debate on post offices to which 83 Members contributed, and since the Queen’s speech there have been six Adjournment debates, more than 70 oral parliamentary questions and nearly 250 written questions on the subject. As Members are still hugely concerned about the failure of their local consultation processes to deliver the right results, will the Leader of the House establish whether the topical debate the week after next could deal with post office closures? The time allowed for yesterday’s debate was clearly not sufficient. Given that the Government lost 19 of their supporters, who voted with the Opposition, and that the majority is now down to 20, will she also establish whether they can come up with a more satisfactory response to the widespread concern that exists through the House?

I support the request from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for next week’s topical debate to deal with Tibet, but may we have a debate on China generally before long? In this of all years there is a huge interest in relations between the United Kingdom and China, which really ought to be aired on the Floor of the House.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) confirmed earlier that according to the best available figures, one elector in 10 in England and up to one in five in London may not be registered. Six weeks before the elections in England and Wales, we also know from the judge who disqualified a Conservative councillor in Slough on Tuesday that the postal vote system is

“lethal to the democratic process”.

May we please have an urgent debate in the next couple of weeks so that, once and for all, we can not only encourage people who should be on the electoral register to put their names on it, but change a system that allows widespread abuse because we do not have individual voter registration in this country?

The hon. Gentleman asked about Iraq. As I announced, there will be a debate on Iraq next week, in which Members will be able to put their points about inquiries. I remind Members, however, that we have already had four inquiries into the events leading up to the use of force in Iraq, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that an inquiry will be held when we have completed the process—which is well under way—of withdrawing from Iraq, on the basis that its security forces and police are able to provide security for the people of Iraq. As well as bearing in mind the very regrettable loss of life, I ask Members to remember the sight of people queuing to vote in elections, which were made possible by Saddam Hussein’s removal. Members should also recall that there was a 70 per cent. turnout, showing the enthusiasm of the Iraqi people for their new democracy.

The hon. Gentleman asked about coroners’ inquests. It will be possible to raise questions about how inquests deal with material that has national security implications in the Second Reading debate on the Counter-Terrorism Bill on 1 April.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned post offices. That will remain an important issue right up until the end of the consultation process when the Post Office announces its decision. As he reminded us, there was a full day’s debate on the matter yesterday, so I cannot say that there will be further parliamentary time to discuss it, especially as there are a number of important Bills coming forward that the House must be able to scrutinise.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Tibet and China. He will have heard that the shadow Leader of the House suggested it as a subject for a topical debate, and we will consider that.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important point of the number of people who are eligible to vote but who are unable to do so because they are not on the electoral register—he mentioned the statistics that show that one in 10 electors outside London and as many as one in five in London may not be registered. He will know that we passed the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to place a duty on electoral registration officers to do everything they can, including using data that they hold, to ensure that everybody in their area is properly on the electoral register. The question he raised, however, was whether enough has been done to ensure that everybody is entitled to vote. I know that he shares my concern that the people who are least likely to be on the electoral register are those who are young, those who are black, and people who live in rented accommodation or in inner cities. We cannot have the continuing unfairness in our democracy that people are more likely to be on the electoral register and able to vote if they are over 50, live in a non-metropolitan area, own their own home and are white. That is a problem.

I will continue my discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to see whether we can tackle the twin problems of under-registration and bogus registration, and whether measures can be put in place to use the data that Government and local government hold. I know there is a lot of concern about the cross-use of data, but it can be used for good purposes, such as to ensure that those who are entitled to be registered are registered, and that nobody who is not entitled to be registered gets themselves on the register for the purposes of electoral fraud.

May we have a wider debate on the Coroner Service? A draft Bill on the subject was presented in the last Parliament, followed by a Select Committee report on that Bill. The issue is high on the political agenda, particularly for many military families who are suffering long delays in getting the answers they need. Those delays are the result of an archaic system that is long overdue for reform.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to improve the Coroner Service so that bereaved relatives can get answers to their questions, particularly when those relatives have died abroad. I also agree that improving the Coroner Service is part of our military covenant. We will publish our draft legislative programme at the end of May setting out what will be in this year’s Queen’s Speech, and I know that my hon. Friend will be hoping and expecting that a coroners Bill will be included in that draft legislative programme.

The 100th anniversary of the formation of the Territorial Army falls on 1 April. I for one am very proud to serve in the TA and would resist any efforts by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to make me leave it. May we have a debate to celebrate its 100th anniversary, because this House has a long association with it—not least, for example, through Colonel Macnamara, to whom there is a memorial on the wall here, and who was the commanding officer of the Royal Irish? May we have such a debate to send a clear message to the TA that the House of Commons supports it?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister paying a heartfelt tribute to the Territorial Army in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s proposal for a debate on the TA, and I will consider it as a subject for a topical debate.

Will the Leader of the House consider making time available for a discussion of the recently published Network Rail document on the rail utilisation strategy, so the House can welcome the inclusion in that document of the Leamside line, recognising the social and economic benefits that that line, as part of an expanding UK rail network, would bring to the constituencies of many Members representing the north-east?

My hon. Friend underlines the importance of the economic regeneration of the region in which his constituency lies. Transport links are crucial to that regeneration. He has mentioned one of them, and I will raise that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. He might also apply for an Adjournment debate on the issue.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I am very small and insignificant—who am I?

On Monday, a group of six non-governmental organisations launched a document relating to grandparents’ rights and how they tend to be excluded from family proceedings by the rules in both private and public law. May we have a debate on the operation of family law, and specifically on the role of grandparents and members of the extended family, such as great-grandparents, uncles and aunts?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might ask his parliamentary colleagues to put that forward as a subject for an Opposition day debate, as his party has one coming up. I strongly agree with what he says, and we should recognise that many families could not cope without grandmum and granddad pitching in. When in the past we have provided support for families with children, we have been criticised by some as the “nanny state”; as we are putting much greater emphasis on, and giving more recognition to, the role of grandparents, I hope we are subsequently called the “granny state” and I would be proud if that were to happen.

Instead of having a debate solely on Tibet, may we have a wider debate on UK relations with China, which would of course cover Tibet, but also how we might engage constructively with the Chinese on a range of issues from climate change to their activities in Africa and their support for the Burmese regime?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I will see whether there is an opportunity for such a discussion. As he says, UK relations with China are very important in many contexts such as our concern about Darfur, the global economy, climate change and our relations with it as an emerging and strongly growing economy. I will raise this matter with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement to the House on the future of Operation Stack, the wretched and ill-conceived system that parks thousands of lorries on the M20 whenever there are problems at the channel ports, not only thereby causing huge misery to my constituents and everyone else in Kent, but blocking one of the principal freight routes into this country? Kent county council has made a suggestion for a new lorry park, which would help alleviate the situation, but that will not happen unless the Department for Transport takes a positive view. Therefore, it is important that we hear that the Secretary of State will get behind the idea, and for once take some effective action to get the traffic flowing.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman table a written or oral question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, if he has not already done so. In any event, I shall raise the matter with her and ask her to write to him.

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on police service reorganisation? Earlier this week, Humberside police authority backed its chief constable’s plan in the next few years to reduce the number of police officers by 300 and to increase the number of support staff by 400, thus, he says, releasing 20,000 hours of extra policing on to the streets. That is clearly a complex formula, and I shall be meeting the chief constable to discuss it. He says that it results from the Flanagan review, which the Home Office undertook earlier in the year, so I think that the formula will go to other police forces around the country. All hon. Members would find a debate on it most opportune, so can the Leader of the House arrange one?

I shall bring my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. A great deal more has been invested in the police, with the sole purpose and intention that neighbourhood policing should be rolled out from 1 April in every community in this country. Obviously, we want good police community support and good civilian back-up in police stations, but that is no substitute for good neighbourhood policing, and I shall bring the matter to my right hon. Friend’s attention.

Earlier this week, stung by well-argued and widespread criticism, the Government announced by means of a written statement and a White Paper that they intended to abolish the Learning and Skills Council. They are to replace it with a series of other quangos and bureaucrats. That has not been debated in the House, but it certainly should be, so that the case can be made for a deregulated system of further education that can raise skill levels in this country, elevate practical learning and give better life chances to millions of the people whom we represent.

Obviously, we are concerned to ensure that every young person—and, indeed, every adult who wants the opportunity to continue their education—in every part of the country is given the opportunities that they have not necessarily had in the past. That is why we are increasing the education leaving age to 18—I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that—and why we are dramatically increasing the number of apprenticeships. I shall look into the specific points that he made and ask the relevant Secretary of State to write to him.

The Leader of the House will be aware that in excess of £8 million has been spent on upgrading the press facilities in this House. Will she inform the House what evidence there is to suggest that taxpayers are getting value for money?

The amount spent by this House on facilities for the Lobby is published on an annual basis, so on the basis of that transparency, it is for the public to judge whether they are getting good value for money.

May I tempt the Leader of the House to be a bit more enthusiastic about having a debate on Tibet? She merely says that she notes that it might be a subject for a topical debate, but that is not very enthusiastic. Can she tell me any subject that is likely to be more topical next Thursday than what is going on in Tibet?

The important thing is to give the House the opportunity to debate something that is of absolute topicality in the week in which it is to be debated. It would not be right for me to announce today the subject of next week’s topical debate. I deal with the question of Tibet with absolute seriousness, and the Prime Minister set out the approach yesterday. I note that the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) has joined the other hon. Members who have expressed their concern and proposed it as the subject of a topical debate.

May I follow up the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about electoral fraud? We have heard about the case involving the Conservatives in Slough, but this affects all political parties, including the Liberal Democrats and even the Labour party. I make a plea that we urgently address the concerns of the Electoral Commission and Sir Christopher Kelly, the newly-appointed chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, because the issue will not go away. May I also make a plea for individual voter registration?

Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. It is fundamental to our democracy—both our local democracy and the legitimacy of this House—that everyone who is eligible to vote is able to do so because they are on the register and that nobody who is not entitled to vote is on the register and thus able to corrupt the system.

On 24 October last year, a special debate took place in Westminster Hall on illegal immigration. The Home Office Minister present in that debate made a commitment that the Border and Immigration Agency was liaising with chief constables to ensure that when illegal immigrants jumped off the back of a lorry they were not simply asked to make their own way to Croydon to get their claims processed. Yet in recent weeks incidents have taken place in both Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire in which illegal immigrants have been set free. Can we have a Home Office statement about what the Government policy is on these lorry-drop immigrants?

I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman and place a copy of her letter in the House of Commons Library. As I said last week, the allegations made about the Cambridgeshire case were simply not true; I do not know about the Bedfordshire case, and shall raise it with my right hon. Friend, but those other allegations, which were so concerning, were simply not based in fact.

Is the Leader of the House aware that Sheikh Hasina Wajid, a former Prime Minister of Bangladesh and leader of the Bangladeshi Awami League, has been languishing in jail for the past eight months on trumped-up charges without the prospect of any kind of trial? In addition, she is seriously ill and has been refused hospital treatment. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the British Government make appropriate representations to the Government of Bangladesh and get Sheikh Hasina Wajid released as soon as possible?

The issue that my hon. Friend raises is a matter of concern to the Foreign Office and it is being kept under consideration. I believe that it has been raised with the Bangladeshi authorities by this Government.

I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House that we will have a topical debate next Thursday, but it is the first one for some time. Last Thursday, I was told that we could not have one because of the Budget debate, which ended early, and that we could not have one today because of the Commonwealth debate, which I hope will run until 6 pm. Should the question whether or not we have a topical debate really rest on the whim of the Leader of the House?

Topical debates take place in Government time, so this is not about a whim. We did not have a topical debate on the day when the other business was the Budget because the Opposition, and indeed a number of other hon. Members, said that they would rather the Budget be the subject of the whole day’s debate and that we should not take an hour and a half out of it for a topical debate. The right hon. Gentleman points out that that debate went short, but it is not always possible to predict these things. When the Opposition ask us not to have a topical debate and instead to devote the time to the Budget debate, we take the suggestion seriously.

The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned international women’s day, when we did not have a topical debate. We did not want to take one and a half hours out of the debate on international women’s day, in which many speakers contributed to a very good debate. Many hon. Members have asked for issues associated with Commonwealth countries to be the subject of a topical debate, so it would seem counter-productive to cut into the Commonwealth debate with a topical debate lasting an hour and a half.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am reviewing the question of topical debates. If we decide to suggest any change, we will make the proposals before the summer. This is not an exact science, but I assure him that my concern is to do what the House wants in respect of ensuring that there is an opportunity to debate something topical that the House has not had the opportunity to debate in a given week.

May we have a debate on the oleaginous and supine approach of BBC news editors to BBC management? Did my right hon. and learned Friend notice this morning, in bulletin after bulletin, how they went on about Formula 1 being won by the BBC? The question that they did not ask was how much the licence payer would have to pay for something that could and should be provided on commercial television, with the licence money being diverted to promoting real, competitive sports, rather than the wealthy industry that is Formula 1. Is it not time that BBC news editors were brought to book? They should be probing BBC management rather than crawling to it.

I will raise the points that my hon. Friend makes with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I am sure that the top brass will have heard those comments loud and clear.

Perhaps I should observe that hon. Members should make some effort to relate their question to next week’s business.

Local shops and businesses produce a huge amount of waste that usually does not get recycled. Local councils, including Haringey, are not taking up that issue. The Government have not considered it since 2003, and it might be useful if the House had a debate about how we support local councillors in addressing the huge swathe of business recycling that is not being done.

Many local councils, and certainly Labour councils, have been working very hard, with the support of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to increase recycling rates, but I will raise the points that the hon. Lady makes with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement about Tibet yesterday, and I am especially pleased that he will meet the Dalai Lama when he comes to the UK in May. I had the honour of meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala towards the end of last year, and I am sure that we all admire the peaceful lead that he provides in this difficult situation. I echo calls for a debate, but will my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House have any role in helping to arrange for the Dalai Lama to address both Houses of Parliament when he comes to this country?

I will look into the point that my hon. Friend makes, because I am sure that it will be of interest to many hon. Members. If there is any outcome, I will write to her and place a copy in the Library so that all hon. Members can see what the arrangements are.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the grave concern across the House about the expansion of Heathrow and the third runway. It certainly has great implications, both good and bad, for my constituents. An interesting independent report, which was published this week, questions the economic assumptions made by the Department for Transport, and environmental groups have also expressed grave concerns about the detailed evidence that the Government are using. I raised this issue with the Leader of the House about three weeks ago, when she said that there had been a large number of responses to the consultation. Can she give us an assurance today that there will be a debate in Government time about this important issue?

I cannot make an announcement at this point about how the response to the consultation will be dealt with, but as I said there have been a very large number of responses to this consultation, and they are being carefully reviewed by Departments.

My right hon. Friend may have seen the report prepared for the TUC by tax expert Richard Murphy, setting out the case that £33 billion is lost through tax fiddles. She may also have seen a report by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, showing that VAT losses from fraud are £14 billion and that losses from tobacco smuggling alone are £3.5 billion. Could we have a full debate on all the losses to the Treasury and how the public purse is being ripped off, so that we can address ways to counter that?

I know that this issue was raised in the Budget debate earlier this week. The Treasury is very concerned to make sure that taxes are fairly applied and that those people who are in a good position to pay them do not avoid doing so.

May we please have an early debate in Government time on night flights into and out of East Midlands airport in Leicestershire? Last year, there were 20,000 night flights, between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am, and that figure will increase to 27,000 by 2016. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) not to hold his breath, because there has been a marked lack of interest from the Government and the Department for Transport in that issue, despite the fact that there has been huge public disquiet about the activities of East Midlands airport and the disturbance and environmental damage caused by night flights there.

There is certainly no lack of interest in the Department for Transport in the question of noise from airports. If the hon. Gentleman requires further responses from the Minister concerned and the opportunity to debate further, he can apply for an Adjournment debate on the subject.

Next week is the last week in the Government’s financial year, and it looks as if the York Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust will end the year by clearing its deficit and the North Yorkshire and York primary care trust will have reduced its deficit and achieved a recurrent balance. However, I remain concerned that the financial pressures in the NHS mean that some treatments will be less available to NHS patients in York and North Yorkshire than in other parts of Yorkshire and the Humber. May we have a debate at the end of the financial year to consider the financing of the NHS in Yorkshire?

Perhaps I could suggest to my hon. Friend that he too apply for an Adjournment debate. He will be well aware, as will the whole House, that we have more than doubled the investment in the national health service. We want to ensure that not only are the finances well run but services are continuously improved for people, wherever they live.

May we have a debate on tourism, given that this is Easter weekend, when roads are clogged and people are going on their holidays? There is an enormous differential in funding between Scotland, England and Wales for tourism, but there is also a problem with funding all the way up. Every level of local authority except parish councils has funding for tourism. If we want to encourage more tourists—we have the Olympics coming in a few years’ time—we should discuss the best way to provide what people want, which is an experience of Britain. We need to provide that in a proper and sensible manner.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is focusing on the tourist industry in this country and, in particular, his welcome for the increased investment that the Government have put into the tourist industry and our focus on seaside towns. I will raise the points that he has made with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Leader of the House will be aware that today is the fifth anniversary of the commencement of the invasion of Iraq, and that this year it will be seven years since the war started in Afghanistan. I appreciate that we will have a debate next week on the inquiry into the events leading up to the war in Iraq, but will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a serious debate on our foreign policy objectives as a whole, including the war in Afghanistan, given that the Ministry of Defence predict that we will be there for another 30 years? Have we not taken a wrong turn with both those conflicts, and should we not be looking for a more peaceful, just world in the future, instead of one of eternal wars led by Bush?

I point out to my hon. Friend that there will be a debate on Tuesday 25 March in Westminster Hall on our mission in Helmand province. Perhaps that might provide an opportunity to develop his points further.

May we have a debate on policing? The great improvements in police performance in Gravesham are largely due to the outstanding leadership of the area command team, but the bar for serious crime and antisocial behaviour is rising. For example, police are often unavailable to deal with shoplifting incidents.

I shall take on board the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we should make policing the subject of a topical debate, but he will know that police numbers have been increased, in Gravesham and elsewhere. Local government and the police have been focusing on antisocial behaviour, which is something that all local authorities and agencies are working together to tackle. However, I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.


Iraq War Inquiry

Mr. Edward Davey, supported by Mr. Nick Clegg, Nick Harvey, Willie Rennie, Sir Robert Smith, Mr. Don Foster, Paul Holmes, Mr. Paul Keetch, Mr. Michael Moore, Mr. Charles Kennedy, Mr. Alan Reid and Sir Menzies Campbell, presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of an inquiry into the war on Iraq; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 May, and to be printed [Bill 91].

royal assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Appropriation Act 2008.

The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

I am delighted to open this debate on the UK and the Commonwealth. I intend to set out the continuing importance of the Commonwealth to this Government and this country.

The House will know that last week was Commonwealth week. I want to thank the members and staff of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for their work and for hosting the 57th Westminster seminar. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the Commonwealth. Indeed, this month the Prime Minister highlighted the Commonwealth’s importance to a meeting of all the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s heads of mission.

The Commonwealth is an extraordinary global network of countries big and small, rich and poor, and it represents more than a quarter of the world’s population. If it works together, the network has the potential to shape a better world for us all.

This House of Commons was bombed in 1941 and rebuilt after the war. The Dispatch Box on which the Minister is leaning was a gift from New Zealand, the Table in front of which she is standing was a gift from Canada, and the Chair in which Mr. Deputy Speaker is sitting was a gift from Australia. Given that the Commonwealth has played such a central part in Britain’s heritage, why are the Government advancing proposals to get rid of the ancestry visa that is so important to people in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Canada and elsewhere around the world?

First, I salute the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the Chamber. That he has learned all that in his relatively short time in the House is a credit to him. The Government’s proposals in connection with visas are exactly that—proposals. I understand that the consultation closed on 10 March, and that representations were received from Commonwealth countries. Representations were also made to me, and they have been passed on to the Border and Immigration Agency.

I shall make a little progress, but I assure the House that hon. Members will have plenty of opportunity to contribute to the debate.

The UK is by far the largest contributor to the Commonwealth secretariat budget, and we are proud to remain so. In addition, we spend seven times that amount supporting other Commonwealth programmes on development, youth and education. I think that hon. Members on all sides of the House are looking forward to hosting the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in 2014.

Don McKinnon steps down in the next two weeks as Commonwealth secretary-general after eight years in the job, and I want to record the Government’s gratitude for his deft stewardship of the Commonwealth secretariat. He has modernised its working practices, developed links with other international organisations and dealt with some very tricky political situations, not the least of which is that in Zimbabwe. We look forward to welcoming Kamalesh Sharma as his successor.

One of the Commonwealth’s great advantages is that it is able to cut across traditional alliances and regional blocs. We should like to see it develop a more active role in identifying and helping to defuse potential conflict situations. It can also be a very positive force on important world issues, such as tackling radicalisation and climate change and advancing human rights and good governance.

Last year, when I was Minister for Women and Equality, I had the honour to represent the UK at the meeting of Commonwealth women’s affairs ministers. The meeting looked in detail at issues of gender equality and provided an opportunity for countries with shared values to learn from each other’s experiences and to support each other’s development.

It struck me at the time that it is not necessarily the richer countries in the Commonwealth that are in the forefront on gender equality. For example, many of the newer democracies have much better records on women’s representation. As I look across at the Opposition Benches I am sorry to say that, with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), only men are present for this debate.

The Commonwealth plays a vital role in giving small and poorer states a voice on the world stage. The Commonwealth-sponsored Office of Small States in New York, to which the UK is a major contributor, is a fine example of that. It gives a number of very small countries a presence next to the UN headquarters that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

Our historic links to many of the smaller nations remain important and are reinforced by our membership of the Commonwealth. As the Minister with responsibility for South East Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean, I know how much those countries value that relationship.

Given the region for which she has responsibility, will the Minister tell the House what the Commonwealth secretariat and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are doing to address the deteriorating situation in the Maldives? Democracy there is fragile, to say the least, and campaigning for the elections to be held later this year is not allowed to be based on either the Copenhagen or the Commonwealth-Harare criteria. Will the Minister ensure that our mission in Sri Lanka has a more impressive presence in the Maldives than it does at the moment?

The Maldives are the responsibility of Lord Malloch-Brown, but he has discussed the matters that my hon. Friend raises with that country’s president. The Commonwealth has offered technical assistance to help to bring all sides together so that the reforms are kept on track. My hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns, and I shall ask my noble Friend to give him further information.

The Minister will know how much I welcome this debate, which I hope will become a regular annual event. She identified how the Government support activities such as those undertaken by the Commonwealth secretariat, but does she agree that the Foreign Office’s decision to withdraw money for Commonwealth scholarships has been sorely felt? That budget has been cut by £10 million, and many scholarships are now unavailable. Will she go back and discuss that cut with the Foreign Office to see whether the programme can be restored?

I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman, who, if he is unhappy with my answer, can return to the question later.

We have reviewed our funding for scholarships and fellowships to ensure that it is in line with overall foreign policy goals. We are proposing a smaller and better organised programme that will focus on those people from a wide range of backgrounds who will be the leaders of tomorrow. The Commonwealth scholarships and fellowships plan has been used to fund awards for the eight most developed Commonwealth countries—Australia, the Bahamas, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Malta, New Zealand and Singapore—but they are not the countries that need the money the most.

Meanwhile, the Department for International Development is increasing its combined contribution to that fund and to the Commonwealth shared scholarship scheme by £1 million, which means that its total contribution for 2008-09 will be £15.93 million. The money will go directly to fund scholarships for developing countries—that is, those countries that will really benefit.

I want to say a brief word about the candidates from the eight countries that we were funding previously. Candidates from Cyprus and Malta come under the European Union’s Erasmus programme, but candidates from the other six nations are eligible to apply to the Chevening scholarship scheme. Several are also eligible for Chevening central partnership scheme scholarships, co-sponsored by an outside organisation and a UK university. I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that there will be continuing support for countries where students can least afford to study in the UK.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was delighted to meet Caribbean Heads of Government at Kampala in November, where they held positive discussions on trade, among other issues. Meanwhile, we look forward to hosting the UK-Caribbean ministerial forum in London in July. It is a key event for the UK-Caribbean relationship. The agenda will include security, climate change and economic development in the Caribbean.

The Commonwealth is unique among international organisations in having the Commonwealth ministerial action group, of which we are a member. The group has the power to suspend members who have breached the Harare principles of democracy and good governance that guide all member states. We are hopeful that in future the group will do more as an early warning mechanism, providing peer pressure and mediation support in conflict situations.

The Minister has just referred to good governance, and earlier she talked about the UK’s powerful influence in the Commonwealth, so why is the UK not doing more to put pressure on South Africa to deal with the terrible situation in Zimbabwe?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I am sure other Members will want to talk in more detail about Zimbabwe during the debate. We talk regularly to South Africa about the issue. South Africa is experiencing directly the problems arising from the situation in Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans are coming across the border to South Africa and they have to be supported there. South Africa is taking part in the process to try to resolve things in the region. I freely admit that there has not been as much progress as we want, but we talk to South Africa; it is not a failure of our Government.

Last November, the Commonwealth ministerial action group responded to the state of emergency in Pakistan by setting five conditions to be met within a given timetable. When the conditions were not met, it suspended Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth. I think that was helpful in Pakistan. The attempt by violent extremists to derail the democratic process was faced down by the Pakistani people. They showed courage, and in doing so have given Pakistan the chance to build a stable, secure and prosperous future. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that Pakistan should return to the fold of the Commonwealth and I hope we can see that process through in the coming weeks.

In November, the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kampala acknowledged that climate change is rapidly becoming a defining global issue of our times and a natural focus for the organisation. It was appropriate that the theme of this year’s Commonwealth day was “The Environment—Our Future”. The states comprising the Commonwealth are enormously significant, bringing together a critical cross-section of countries—major greenhouse gas emitters, emerging economies, energy producers and poor and vulnerable states. Climate change affects the member states differently. Some perched only just above sea level, such as the Maldives, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has already mentioned, find that their very existence is at stake. Others, including many African states, face higher energy and transport bills, together with the loss of agricultural production measures that will threaten their economic future if they remain unaddressed. In the Pacific island countries even minimal sea-level rises could cause conditions that are likely to force people from their land and create a generation of economic migrants on Australia’s doorstep.

Last October, I took part in the Pacific island forum in Tonga. Like so many Commonwealth member states, the people of Tonga and those of neighbouring islands are directly on the front line of climate change. As they live on low-lying islands their whole way of life is threatened, and some fear they may have to abandon their homes if sea levels rise or catastrophic weather events become more frequent.

As the Lake Victoria declaration recognises, climate change threatens the vital national interests of all Commonwealth countries. We all face the same dilemma: how to grow and develop our economies while not destabilising the climate and thereby wrecking the foundations needed for our growth, stability and development. The Commonwealth Heads of Government at Kampala committed to helping each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, to carry out an assessment of the impact of climate change on their economies and development. The assessment is to include how we integrate climate resilience, as well as the transition to low carbon, in our development plans.

The Government believe that the Commonwealth’s very diversity has a role to play in combating radicalisation. The UK supports, and helped to fund, the Amartya Sen report “Civil Paths to Peace”. We think that the countries of the Commonwealth can take forward ideas from the report and continue and expand work in communities to prevent radicalisation from taking hold.

The secretary-general was asked to form a small group of Commonwealth Heads of Government to discuss international institutional reform and make recommendations before the next Commonwealth Heads of Government in 2009. The UK was one of the member states that encouraged that initiative. Effective international institutions are vital in establishing the rules, predictability and norms that underpin multilateralism. The Commonwealth, representing as it does such a diversity of global interests, is a natural forum in which to forge new thinking about how to adapt governance and its functioning to new times.

We believe that the Commonwealth can go from strength to strength. The interest from prospective new members is an indication of the continuing dynamism of the institution, and the UK welcomes the membership report that was adopted at Kampala. Rwanda in particular is keen to join, and discussions about membership have already begun with the Commonwealth secretariat. We welcome the prospect of Rwanda joining.

The Commonwealth matters greatly to Britain. Last November, when the next secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, accepted his appointment, he described the Commonwealth as a “great global good”. That is certainly the view of the Government.

What a pleasure it is to be opposite the Minister again. These little meetings across the Dispatch Box on Thursday afternoons make a middle-aged Conservative MP’s life a little lighter. I am sure that is also true for my male colleagues on the Benches behind me—they may lack femininity, but I suspect that they make up for it with robust style.

As the Minister said in her introductory remarks, Commonwealth day was last week, on 10 March. The Commonwealth is a unique body; it is a voluntary association of states that does not rely on geographical links, treaties or constitutions to hold it together. Its 53 member states—African, Asian, Pacific, European, Caribbean and North American—vary in geography from island to landlocked, and in size from India, with more than 1 billion people, to Tuvalu with just over 11,000. As the Minister has said, one of the Commonwealth’s great strengths is that it gives a voice to smaller countries that often are not heard or that are unable fully to bring their voices to bear in various international forums.

The Commonwealth is not just governmental. It is underpinned by a myriad weave of informal and non-governmental links that can often do much more than official hierarchies and intergovernmental structures. In the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), it is a “kaleidoscopic institution”. With its unique global, multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious nature, and its emphasis on consensus and multilateralism, it has a key role to play in fostering peace and good relations over a large part of the globe.

I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, listened with great interest to the Minister’s comments—all 16 minutes of them—so he will probably share my surprise that not once did she mention the contribution being made by Commonwealth citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that he will join me in commending the fine work of those soldiers. He may also share my surprise that 635 Commonwealth citizens were serving in the British Army in 1998, but that today the number is 7,615. Although those soldiers are excellent, does he agree that it is surprising that the British Army has failed so badly in recruiting UK nationals to serve in our Army?

Having served in the senior service, my hon. Friend has much experience of such matters, and he makes a good point. As the Minister is from the Foreign Office, she may not have believed that the point is relevant, but I think it important and will touch on it later in my remarks.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is significant virtue in incorporating members of the Commonwealth in the British Army? It gives Commonwealth members valuable experience that they may not have had, as they may have small armies in-country. Also, we want to learn more about the challenges that individuals face in Commonwealth countries, and that is a very good means of doing so.

There are two aspects to consider. The recruitment of Commonwealth citizens to the British armed forces is a necessity, and there is no doubt about that. At the moment, we cannot recruit into the British armed forces, and particularly into the Army, enough people to meet our combat requirements. I agree that Commonwealth men and women undoubtedly make a contribution to the British armed forces and take that contribution back to their country. When I was an instructor at Sandhurst, I experienced the contribution that Commonwealth personnel made there and at our other training establishments. That is not to resile from the fact that we face a manpower problem, to put it crudely.

The Commonwealth covers a quarter of the habitable surface of the Earth and accounts for 30 per cent. of its population. The population of the enlarged EU is about 497 million; the population of the Commonwealth is 2 billion. Members of the Commonwealth do not just speak the same language—English—but share a language of institutions, Parliaments, and legal and educational systems, a point made forcibly by the last Commonwealth secretary-general. As the Minister has said, the Commonwealth is still expanding and developing. There have been five new members since 1990, and others want to join, including Yemen, Algeria and Rwanda.

When looking back over the history of the Commonwealth, I came across two or three small historical facts, and being an old historian—or at least a long-in-the-tooth historian—I thought that I would lay them before the House. First, Ireland was, of course, a member of the Commonwealth until it became a republic in 1949. Although I can understand the sensitivities of the Irish as regards Great Britain, the monarchy and so on, it is open to the people and Government of Ireland to become members of the Commonwealth. Many hon. Members would regard such an application, if Ireland desired to make one, with a great deal of warmth. The Republic of Ireland would contribute massively to the Commonwealth.

I hope to catch the Speaker’s eye later and develop that argument. The tragedy is that the British Government, from pride or other considerations, will not take the initiative to invite Ireland to join. As it is a shared Commonwealth, Britain could act with the big players—the Prime Ministers of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and so on—and take the initiative on the sensitive but sensible idea of welcoming Ireland back into the Commonwealth.

It is obviously a two-way process, and I am sensitive to Irish public opinion, but I am sure that the Minister will take that point on board. Given what my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) have said, we should recognise the tens of thousands of Irish citizens who serve in the British armed forces, and we should recognise that Irish citizens made an important contribution in both world wars to defending democracy and developing the Commonwealth.

The second example that I want to raise is the United States of America. It obtained its independence in 1776, but parts of what is now the USA were effectively within the British empire until about 1846. By every criterion, the United States of America could become a member of the Commonwealth. If it did, it would certainly contribute something, and joining would be useful to it in its attempts to view the world on a multinational basis, as members of the Commonwealth come from the four corners of the world.

If the House will indulge me, I will set out another little-known historical fact. If the United States of America had not been established and the colonies had not sought to secede, or if the British generals had been more competent and the French had not stabbed us in the back—[Interruption.] I see that the Whip, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), is nodding his head in agreement. He comes from the educated side of the Whips Office—I know that he can read and write. If the United States of America had not obtained its independence, slavery would have been abolished long before the civil war and much loss of life would have been prevented.

We should be aware that the American ambassador to NATO recently invoked Washington and Lafayette as the basis for a potential Franco-American relationship. In that regard, is it really possible to imagine a future President Clinton, Obama or McCain bending the knee to a British Head of State? I think not.

There are other republics in the Commonwealth, and the issue does not pose a problem for them. I thought for one moment that my hon. Friend, who normally responds to any mention of France or the EU, was going to mention the French. Another interesting point about membership of the Commonwealth is that in 1940, Winston Churchill, then the newly appointed Prime Minister, suggested fusion with the French empire as a way of keeping the French in the war. The French decided not to go down that path. In 1955-56, the French considered becoming members of the Commonwealth, so there is an interesting link there. The Commonwealth is a dynamic organisation. It is not particularly restricted, and it is in many respects unique.

The United Kingdom allows Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections. I think that that is anomalous; I would like to see UK citizens voting in UK elections. As a master of little-known facts, does the hon. Gentleman know whether any other Commonwealth countries give the franchise to Commonwealth citizens?

Yes. I cannot list them, but there are a number of them. The Commonwealth is partly a uniquely English institution—

When I was a Whip, Whips kept quiet, but now all they want to do is talk—I have been told that it is called “doing an Ed Balls”. I take the point made in the sedentary intervention—of course I mean British. I apologise for offending the sensitivity of the Scottish Whip.

On the intervention by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I understand, from briefings that we have been given, that Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Christopher and Nevis, Guyana, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, New Zealand, Malawi and Namibia allow citizens of other Commonwealth countries to vote in their elections, so about a fifth of Commonwealth countries have a reciprocal arrangement.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those details. The Commonwealth is a great asset to the United Kingdom. All the member states except Mozambique have experienced direct or indirect British rule, or have been linked administratively to another Commonwealth country. The Commonwealth is one of Britain’s three key relationships or circles of influence—Europe, the transatlantic relationship and the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said at the Conservative party conference in 2006:

“Our country enjoys a unique position—the place where America, Europe and the Commonwealth meet.”

More than 7,000 individuals from Commonwealth nations have served in the armed forces since 2007, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury.

Given my hon. Friend’s comments about Britain’s unique position in the Commonwealth, does he share my concern that there is a danger that Britain is taking its position in the Commonwealth for granted, and does he agree that we must forever be vigilant to ensure that we continue to cultivate our relationships with other Commonwealth countries? If we do not do so, countries such as Canada and Australia will try to take that pivotal role away from us.