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Commons Chamber

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 8 May 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 8 May 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


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 15 May.

Oral Answers to Questions

Church Commissioners

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

Redundant Churches

1. What the policy of the commissioners is on redundant churches for which dioceses have found no alternative use. (204051)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. With your permission, may I draw the attention of the House to the Church Commissioners’ excellent results for last year? The value of assets has grown to £5.67 billion, and £37 million more has been returned to the Church each year during the past decade. Those are figures of which the commissioners and the Church are justly proud.

In response to my hon. Friend’s question, the arrangements for settling the future of redundant churches are set out in the Pastoral Measure 1983.

To what extent will the commissioners and my hon. Friend take account of the views of Sir Roy Strong in his book “A Little History of the English Country Church” about the variety of uses that local communities would find of value to them in using redundant church premises?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Sir Roy Strong, whose work is closely followed within the Church. He is a renowned campaigner for making Church heritage live—not just preserving the heritage, but doing things with it. That is a concept with which we can all agree.

On the essence of my hon. Friend’s question, in most cases an alternative use is found for churches that have closed down, and where not, the commissioners have to decide, after consulting their statutory advisers, between preservation in the Churches Conservation Trust or demolition.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Elections (Turnout)

2. What additional measures the Electoral Commission has considered to increase public participation in elections. (204052)

In addition to its long-standing voter registration campaigns, the Electoral Commission in advance of last week’s election piloted a text message response service, extended its face-to-face voter registration activity and undertook additional work with local authorities and community groups to encourage voter registration.

Clearly, something worked to encourage participation last week. It might have been the prospect of defeating Labour candidates—[Hon. Members: “You lost out.”] Or other candidates—that is very true. Will the hon. Gentleman talk to the Electoral Commission about whether having as places to vote the places where most people go on voting day—railway stations, bus stations and shopping centres—is the logical thing to do, rather than making people go to places that, for many of them, are not on their beaten track, which means that many of them therefore decide to choose not to visit them at all?

The Electoral Commission has indeed carried out research on that general area, and rather than deal with the detail now I would prefer to write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know the overall package that the Electoral Commission has brought to bear on the issue and the extent to which it has piloted similar efforts. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and bring that to his attention.

Although it is true that the Electoral Commission has run voter registration campaigns, we all know that there are millions of people in this country who are not registered to vote who ought to be registered to vote. The non-registration rate varies between perhaps 5 and 25 per cent. in some parts of the country. What can we do to get a much more effective voter registration scheme under way across the country, so that we get the millions who are not registered on to the register so that they can vote?

The Electoral Commission runs a three-week campaign in advance of every election to encourage voter registration. The commission has previously piloted a registration week, but its view is that a three-week campaign, rather than focusing activity on a single week or day, allows more flexibility for local authorities to participate and that the cumulative effect of advertising over a longer period generates a higher response. The Electoral Commission’s main concern is that there should be individual registration. It thinks that that would encourage registration and diminish the risk of fraud.

One of the ways in which participation is supposed to increase is by campaign spending by candidates. Will my hon. Friend please pass on to the Electoral Commission something that is a surprise outside the House as well as inside it, which is that in eight years the former Mayor of London apparently had no personal donations but they were all channelled through a political party, to the surprise of most who watched?

The rules on these matters are actually quite complicated; they overlap and the rules for regulated donees are different from the rules for candidates during the candidacy period. There is a specific question on this issue and if that question is reached, I will deal with it in some detail then.

Is it not the case that the most effective way of increasing participation in any election is by having 100 per cent. postal voting? The hon. Gentleman will know that, after the parliamentary by-election on 22 May in Crewe and Nantwich, the next most important occasion in the electoral calendar this year will be 3 July when we hold a mayoral referendum in Bury. Will he raise with the Electoral Commission whether all mayoral referendums should be required to have 100 per cent. postal voting?

As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that specific issue, I will indeed raise it with the Electoral Commission as he has requested.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House appreciate that people fought and died to get the vote. Is it not about time that people took responsibility themselves? They are able to register and it is up to them to do so. Why should we always go out of our way to make it easy for people to do something when, if they believe that voting is important, not only will they register but they will go out and vote?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our predecessors who created the system of secret voting, with a possibility of tracing that secret vote in extremis, certainly knew what they were doing and developed a system that has enormous credibility and trust. Although the number of cases of fraud may be quite small, it takes only a small number of such cases to diminish credibility and trust, with a corresponding diminution in the value of our democracy.

Will the hon. Gentleman look into the situation, such as that in Chorley, where registration in rented areas is always lower than anywhere else? Unfortunately, that does not show up because the figures are calculated on a macro-level and across council wards, which have a greater rate of registration at 70 or 80 per cent. However, the figure at a micro-level can drop to something like 30 per cent. What can we do to ensure that people in rented accommodation are treated equally to those in private accommodation?

One of the advantages that the Electoral Commission sees in individual registration is that it will pick up people who are not covered at the moment by the heads of households whose duty it is to register people to vote. That might be relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Electoral Fraud

3. What steps are being taken to reduce the potential for electoral fraud and inaccurate electoral registrations. (204053)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it continues to issue detailed guidance and that it works with returning officers, electoral registration officers and the police on strategies for preventing and detecting electoral malpractice.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply but, in the light of the recent London elections and local elections, will he tell us what investigations and reviews the Electoral Commission is carrying out to ensure the integrity of the electoral process, particularly with regards to postal voting? That is of great concern to a number of people because fraud has taken place in recent and past local elections.

My hon. Friend may have seen a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust into “Purity of Elections in the UK”. It highlighted the fact that although fraud is not widespread, the system remains vulnerable. The commission is continuing to work hard with those who run elections and with the police to detect and deter fraud, but it also continues to call for the introduction of individual voter registration to make the system more secure.

Although I do not describe the practice as fraud, the widespread use of personal votes in very patriarchal communities disfranchises a lot of women because the head of the household will vote on behalf of the women in his house. Are the hon. Gentleman and the commission aware of that practice, which means that I am afraid I do not agree with the proposal to extend the postal vote?

The hon. Lady’s point is one of the reasons the Electoral Commission is very keen to press the case for individual registration and for each individual—male or female—to accept responsibility for their registration and, indeed, their democratic right to vote.

Given the inaccuracies in the electoral register, is there not a special problem that is tied in with the inaccuracy of census data? There are now rather perverse but strong incentives for local authorities to keep names on the register inaccurately in order to qualify for larger central Government grants. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that issue is dealt with as part and parcel of the reforms that are urgently needed for the integrity of our electoral system?

Indeed, and in reply to an oral question on 20 March, I spelled out the Electoral Commission’s concern about the inadequacy of data. It is not possible to measure turnout accurately because there is not an accurate list of those who are entitled to vote.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that the way to increase participation at elections is to have all-postal ballots. Why has the Electoral Commission ignored its original report into electoral pilots in places such as the north-east, which resulted in a by-election in my constituency with a 67 per cent. turnout? It found that there was no great instance of fraud and that the pilots were a good way of increasing participation. Why did the commission retreat from that and possibly bow to the pressure of some of the popular press?

The Electoral Commission takes a balanced view on that. There are great advantages in postal voting. Its view is that the postal voting system should be improved and any possible fraud removed. Central to that is individual registration.

Supplementary Vote System

4. Whether the Electoral Commission has made an assessment of the effectiveness of the supplementary vote system used in the London mayoral election. (204054)

Does my hon. Friend think there may be an argument for reforming the 5 per cent. threshold whereby extremist parties such as the British National party can gain seats with a relatively small number of votes?

The view of the Electoral Commission is that its role is to report on the administration of statutory elections in the UK and to provide information to electors on the way the electoral system works. However, it takes the view that it is the responsibility of the Government to promote and for Parliament to decide on the detail of the manner in which the vote is implemented.

Church Commissioners

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

Carbon Emissions

5. What steps the commissioners are taking to reduce the carbon footprint of activities within their responsibility. (204055)

Within their own areas of responsibility, in 2007 the commissioners increased from seven to 18 the number of fuel-efficient hybrid-power cars provided to bishops, and they aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in diocesan bishops’ houses and offices by 60 per cent. by the year 2050 in line with the Government’s energy White Paper.

I am grateful for that answer and encouraged to learn that action is being taken. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most important thing is to have an overall assessment of the carbon footprint of all the activities of the Church Commissioners and that they are all subject to a target for carbon reduction in line with the specific target that he referred to for housing?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will remember the answer that I gave him on 23 July 2007 in relation to the National Church Institutions being committed to the Church’s shrinking footprint campaign. I am sure he would agree that there is a welcome conference taking place at Lambeth Palace on 13 May, when the Archbishop of Canterbury will host the first anniversary celebration of “Together”, a climate change campaign that aims to make the practical things that everyone can do easier and more affordable. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to the cause.

electoral commission committee

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

Candidates (Declaration of Donations)

6. If the Electoral Commission will take steps to ensure that candidates for directly elected office declare donations made to them separately from donations made to their political party. (204056)

The rules on reporting donations by parties and candidates are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The commission’s role is to ensure compliance with those rules. The commission informs me that it publishes guidance for parties, candidates and agents, provides advice on request, and takes enforcement action in accordance with the Act if the rules are not followed.

It is unacceptable that a candidate for, and the incumbent of, a directly elected office, particularly that of, for example, the elected mayor in London, do not have to declare donations, especially if that person is a sole-person planning authority meeting in private. We really must have transparency to see who is funding that person. I urge the Electoral Commission to have another look at that.

The rules for declaring donations overlap and are not consistent. Donations over £1,000 made to an individual in connection with political activities must be reported to the commission within 30 days of acceptance. Donations over the value of £50 for use by a candidate during the regulated period must be reported in the candidate’s election expenses return. For the mayoral election in London, the expense return is due 70 days after the election result is declared. Meanwhile, donations over £5,000 received by a party must be reported in the party’s quarterly donation report to the commission.

Perhaps I may add that the commission received a number of complaints alleging a failure by Ken Livingstone to report donations in connection with the mayoral election. The commission concluded that there was no evidence of a breach of the donation reporting requirements.

Church Commissioners

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

Livings (Crown Patronage)

7. How many livings in the Church of England are under the patronage of the Crown; and how many of the incumbents of those livings are women. (204058)

There are approximately 650 parochial appointments in the gift of the Crown, of which patronage for around 450 is exercised on the Crown’s behalf by the Lord Chancellor. In some cases, the patronage right is shared in turn with other patrons of the benefice; 103 of those appointments are held by women.

There is clearly still some way to go. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it really is time that the Church of England stopped discriminating against 50 per cent. of the human race when it comes to episcopal appointments? Can he imagine this House finding it expedient to agree to any Measure from Synod that sought to discriminate against women, in the hope that it was going to allow women bishops in the Church of England—but not at any price?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He will remember that this House voted almost unanimously, but certainly overwhelmingly, for women priests way back in 1992. Given that he is a member of the General Synod, he will know that in July it will look at the options for progressing the ordination of women as bishops, informed by the recently published report of the legislative drafting group, chaired by the Bishop of Manchester. This House—in its majority, I think—supports women bishops and we urge the Church in this case to make haste less slowly.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Migrant Domestic Workers

9. How many prosecutions and convictions there have been of employers of migrant domestic workers for offences associated with abuse of their employees in the last three years; and what steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the rate of prosecution. (204034)

The Crown Prosecution Service does not hold data on prosecutions and convictions for employers of migrant domestic workers for abuse of those employees. It has prosecuted 285 people in the last three years for employing people contrary to their immigration status, which is important because employees are of course more vulnerable if they are being employed unlawfully. The CPS continues to contribute to the development of early identification and referral mechanisms for victims of labour exploitation, in the hope of improving the rate of successful prosecutions.

I have met a number of domestic migrant workers—women—who have been savagely abused. They have been raped and beaten, they have no rooms of their own, they work seven days a week—in effect, they are on call 24 hours a day—and they are terribly paid. Some of them have been trafficked. Does the Solicitor-General agree with me that the Home Office’s plan to change the domestic migrant visa so that it cannot be transferred from the single employer to another employer will actually drive trafficking underground and prevent those women from escaping the horrors of their domestic slavery, and that this Government are committed to doing something that will save those women, not make things worse? Will she say something about the Home Office’s plans, which, if they come into force, will make matters very much worse for such women and very much better for the employers?

I am not going to comment on a Home Office matter. However, I understand from ministerial colleagues that research and analysis are in place that should report this month—the hon. Gentleman probably knows that, given his role as chair of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children—on the risks associated with the exploitation of overseas domestic workers, so that in due course, once we have proper research, we can consult on the overseas domestic workers route and how best to offer protection to exploited people.

Recently—in April—there was a plea of guilty at Snaresbrook Crown court to facilitating a young girl’s trafficking for domestic servitude; those involved will be sentenced on 16 May. There will be another prosecution in June, at Harrow, under section 4 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, concerning the exploitation of overseas domestic workers. So prosecutions do appear to be coming through.

But will the Solicitor-General take away the concern of the whole House and work with colleagues to make sure that there is a whole-Government approach to ensuring an end to the completely unscrupulous levels of servitude and exploitation by employers, which are on a mediaeval scale? Will she further try to ensure that Ministers introduce measures soon to make it more difficult for such employers to bring people into this country and undercut the conditions that ordinary British people would expect as only fair and just?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As he knows, the problem with prosecuting on behalf of exploited employees is the difficulty in getting those employees to come forward. We have to work hard on that. He knows that Operation Pentameter 2, which started last October, has a focus on labour-exploited people. There have been discussions involving the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which is likely to have the ability better to recognise unscrupulous gangmasters and to be involved in identifying cases. We are taking considerable steps to tackle the issue and all suggestions will be gratefully received on that basis.

We now come to Question 10 to the Solicitor-General. Before I call the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) to ask his question, I remind him and other Members that the case involving the termination by the director of the Serious Fraud Office of its investigation into BAE Systems is sub judice and so should not be referred to directly.

Serious Fraud Office

10. What role the Law Officers play in decisions by the Serious Fraud Office on the conduct of legal proceedings. (204035)

The Serious Fraud Office exercises its case work functions independently, subject to the statutory superintendence of the Attorney-General. This may include consultation on particularly difficult cases. For certain offences, including offences of corruption, the Attorney-General’s consent is required by statute. She exercises that consent role as a Law Officer independently of Government, applying well-established principles of prosecution.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and of course I accept absolutely your very proper direction. The House may wish to consider at some later date whether it is well served by a sub judice rule that is so wide in its application that we are the only people who are not able to question the conduct of Law Officers.

Can the Solicitor-General give the House an assurance that there has been and will be no case under consideration by the Serious Fraud Office where she has intervened to prevent the advancement by the SFO of an argument in support of its position that could be politically embarrassing to the Government?

The Liberal Democrats have ears to hear, but they never do hear when I say—I have already asserted this and I now repeat it for about the 50th time to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—that the Attorney-General exercises a consent role when it is statutorily demanded of her, totally independent of Government interest. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, a series of proposals in the White Paper “The Governance of Britain” will look at all the issues that he wants to raise. It is absurd to suggest that there is no opportunity to question the conduct of the Law Officers because of course that is exactly what is going on now.

As the Law Officers have responsibility for the prosecuting authorities, will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that they are advised to ensure that, in taking fraud cases, they do not always make the petitioner the big gun in the case, as it were? In my constituency, there is a case in which a small company was a victim of fraud, as were other companies. Because the case was taken with that of a big company—the major petitioner—the small company did not get its proper recompense out of the case. Will she advise prosecuting authorities to make sure that the way they conduct cases takes into account the vulnerability of the petitioners?

My hon. Friend, in characteristically defending the rights of her constituents, has raised the issue before. She makes the powerful point that a relatively small company, for which the victimisation in the case was very serious, was not able to get the sort of compensation received by the major protagonist, the big company. The Crown Prosecution Service well understands that point, which she has made well. We have received it and passed it on.

I am not sure whether the Solicitor-General answered the question put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). He asked whether the Government were proposing sufficient measures in the Constitutional Renewal Bill to guarantee the independence of the prosecuting authorities from the Law Officers. Who is responsible, as between the Law Officers on the one side and the director of the SFO on the other, for responding to the ridiculous suggestion that I gather has come from a certain quarter that there be a “legal review”, whatever that is, of the uncompleted investigation into BAE Systems?

I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about yesterday’s “PM” programme, and about BAE senior management making some sort of proposal. It is likely that the new director of the Serious Fraud Office will respond to that, if indeed a response is merited. The position of the Law Officers vis-à-vis the director of the Serious Fraud Office is very clear. It is of course part of the constitutional renewal proposals that it should be made even clearer, and there should be a protocol, which will be a public document, to regulate the relationship between the two.

Crown Prosecution Service (Northamptonshire)

11. What assessment she has made of the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in Northamptonshire against its targets in the most recent period for which information is available; and if she will make a statement. (204036)

I am pleased to say that CPS Northamptonshire is a high-performing area. All CPS areas are monitored every quarter against 15 key performance indicators, and the hon. Gentleman’s own CPS is performing at or close to its target in 13 of those 15 areas.

In congratulating the chief Crown prosecutor of Northamptonshire, Grace Ononiwu, on being awarded the OBE in the new year’s honours list, will the Solicitor-General comment on the overall assessment of the CPS in Northamptonshire as “fair”? Will she also comment on the outcomes of cases in magistrates courts, which are assessed as being below the national average?

Yes, I understand that the CPS in Northamptonshire narrowly missed achieving a “good” score, achieving a “fair” score instead. In four of the five critical aspects of performance, the inspectors judged the direction of travel to be “improving”. I had not understood there to be difficulties in regard to the outcomes in the magistrates courts. The magistrates courts and Crown courts certainly appear to have achieved successful outcomes, as their targets require. They have reduced ineffective trials, which is another key target related to both kinds of court, and they appear to be applying their case work quality assurance satisfactorily, so I am not sure that they are failing in that regard. In fact, they have been slightly under par in the way in which they have dealt with the issue of no witness, no justice—which deals with witness care material—but they have failed by only 0.4 per cent. in that area, so they really are doing quite well and going in the right direction.

On the CPS in Northamptonshire, what measure does the Solicitor-General have of its success in tackling human trafficking?

The quarterly assessments do not break down in that way. They show performance by category of case, and show only broadly how the duties are being carried out. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to make a specific inquiry into how the chief Crown prosecutor is doing in that regard, I have no objection to doing so.

Monarchy (Male Primogeniture)

12. If she will include provisions in the single equality Bill to end the practice of male primogeniture in succession to the throne. (204037)

The equality Bill will combat discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services, in public functions and in employment. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, who has responsibility for issues of succession, has made it clear that the Government are ready to consider the arguments about primogeniture. This is a complex area, and any change in the law governing succession to the throne would require the consent of the other Commonwealth countries of which Her Majesty is Head of State. The Government will keep the position under review.

But why will the Government not let us have a discussion about the institution of the monarchy? Many of us find offensive the fact that our Head of State has to be of a particular religion. In a modern democracy, the Head of State should be able to be of any religion or none. We do not want to tinker with this matter just to suit some members of the royal family. The rule of male primogeniture is offensive, but so are the rules relating to the religious faith—or lack of it—of the Head of State. It is time for us, and the other countries that are subject to the Statute of Westminster, to be radical and to address this matter. Let’s get on with it!

I hear what my hon. Friend says. He says it loudly and he says it strongly, so he has just proved any suggestion that we do not discuss these issues to be incorrect.

I suspect that there are universal views across the House that male primogeniture is an aspect of the royal succession that could be sensibly changed. Could the Solicitor-General confirm that the major issue is that the Act of Settlement applies not only to this country but to all other Commonwealth countries that have the Queen as Head of State and that, in the circumstances, for us to move without moving at the same pace and in the same fashion as those countries would cause problems that are probably best avoided?

I was grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman’s support, but then he backslid a little bit in the last sentence. However, he pinpoints the problem, which is about the Commonwealth countries.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Milton Keynes Racial Equality Council

16. What funding the Government provided to Milton Keynes racial equality council in each of the last two financial years.[Official Report, 5 June 2008, Vol. 476, c. 11MC.] (204060)

Milton Keynes racial equality council received around £50,000 of Government funding in 2006-07 and around £60,000 in 2007-08. That represents 28 per cent. of the total amount received by all racial equality councils in the country during those years. In addition, Milton Keynes racial equality council received a grant of £45,000 from the Commission for Racial Equality in 2006-07 and another of £42,000 in 2007-08.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I know that she values the work of Milton Keynes racial equality council as much as I do. However, she did not mention that this year that grant has been cut from £42,000 to zero, so there will be no money this year. That is having a major impact on the council’s work in Milton Keynes. Is the Minister prepared to meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss the impact that the cut is having and to see what can be done in future? I hope that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) will join that delegation and come and see her to discuss the matter.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Milton Keynes racial equality council has got £60,027 from central Government, but I agree that its funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been cut this year. That is because the commission awarded £10.9 million to successful applicants in its first grants this April. That was a competitive process because, as usual, the numbers of applicants exceeded the amount of money available, and entries were rigorously assessed. Milton Keynes REC can apply again later this year for the 2009-10 programme. However, Milton Keynes council has received £105 million from the Government office for the east midlands extremism fund. The allocation of those funds is obviously a matter for the local authority, but it might be wise if Milton Keynes REC approaches it. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

Milton Keynes racial equality council has already had a meeting with Milton Keynes council, so I hope that the option of the prevention of terrorism fund has already been explored. However, there is an issue about how the EHRC has allocated grants, and I wonder whether the Minister might put pressure on it to work with Milton Keynes REC to ensure that the grant application that it puts in next year is better attuned to the criteria used by the EHRC than it appears to have been this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that considered question. The EHRC is an independent body, but I will speak to its chair, Trevor Phillips. On this occasion, the grants had to come up to a very rigorous set of requirements, and unfortunately Milton Keynes did not quite make it. I will talk to the EHRC about the help that it could give to Milton Keynes, but I also suggest that both Members of Parliament ask their local authority to give help, as I know that my own local authority has set up a grants adviser because this has become an area where expertise is needed.

Single Equality Bill

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has made it clear on several occasions in this House that we would seek to publish some of the clauses of the equality Bill in draft when they are ready. If we are to publish those draft clauses, we want to make sure that they are as near final as possible before we do so.

I thank the Minister for that interesting answer, although if the draft clauses are “as near final as possible”, it does not sound as if minds are open to having them changed based on contributions from elsewhere. I have a very simple question: given that it is now May and the draft clauses still have not been published, is it still the Government’s intention to introduce the Bill in the Queen’s Speech in November 2008?

The short answer to that question is yes, and the slightly longer answer is that one of the reasons for the delay is that we are considering the many hundreds of replies that we had to the consultation. Policy changes have been made that we need to consider carefully.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government on the single equality Act and on how its provisions will affect devolved matters?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has been to speak to the Scottish Government and to MSPs, and I will be going there later this year to discuss the matter.

With regard to the consultations that have taken place on the draft Bill, will the Minister tell us what consultations have taken place on primogeniture and the line of succession? What representations have the Government received from those who may be affected by it?

Here is a representation for the Minister. Next weekend, Peter Phillips is due to marry Autumn Kelly; she has had to convert to the Church of England to preserve his place in succession to the throne. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the happy couple well on their big day, but would it not be better to send them a wedding present by using the equality Bill to abolish that institutional discrimination against Catholics?

I think that I will confine myself to congratulating the happy couple, and wishing them well in their marriage, which, as hon. Members know, requires a lot of adjustments on both sides at the beginning, middle and end.

The Minister may be aware that I referred the case of Lady Louise being bumped out of line to the throne to the European Court of Human Rights, and it has responded positively, supporting the principle of getting rid of male primogeniture. The Solicitor-General made positive comments about that change being in the Act, and I congratulate the Government on that and welcome it. Does the Minister agree that it is very disappointing when those on the Tory Benches slide backwards and say that because it is difficult in the Commonwealth—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not for the Minister to concern herself with Conservative party policy. The hon. Lady has been called because she is a Liberal spokesman, so she should put her question to the Minister.

You are right, Mr. Speaker, as always. Will the Minister assure me that the difficulties of working this through the Commonwealth should not stand in the way of its being done? It is right that it should be done, and we have heard from all parties that it should be done, so will the Minister confirm that view?

This kind of change in our country, which has a long tradition, is always difficult. Before any change is brought in, we will try to build a cross-party consensus, and a cross-Commonwealth consensus. Primogeniture is a problem, and it is offensive, but we have to approach the matter cautiously.

Women into Business and Enterprise Initiative

18. What discussions she has had with regional development agencies on their support for the women into business and enterprise initiative. (204062)

The regional development agencies have a vital role in tackling inequalities, as I know as Minister for the East of England, including delivery of the Government’s new package of support for women that was outlined in the enterprise strategy. That is why the Minister for Women and Equality wrote to the RDA chairs on 1 May to ask about the progress that they had made on this vital agenda.

I thank my hon. Friend for her response. Does she agree that support networks, such as Women Into the Network, which is hosted by the business school of Durham university in my constituency, have a vital role to play alongside the excellent initiatives that the regional development agency, One NorthEast, undertakes in unlocking women’s business skills? Does she also agree that that is necessary if we are to continue to grow entrepreneurship in the north-east and exceed current trends?

We women came to networking rather late. We are doing it now in politics and business as fast as we can. I am pleased with the work that Durham business school has done and the partnership that it has forged with the RDA, One NorthEast. The latter has funded Durham business school’s networking initiative and, with Business Link North East, helps to sponsor its annual awards. That is the way forward for women—getting together, mentoring and helping each other as far as we can.

All RDA chairs are charged with taking forward equalities. However, I am sorry to say that I do not know the answer to the hon. Lady’s question. I will have to write to her.

Carers (Flexible Working)

19. What steps the Government are taking to increase awareness among carers of their right to request flexible working. (204063)

The right for carers to request flexible working is important, with the number of those aged over 85 expected to increase by 50 per cent. in the next 10 years. Despite the fact that most of them will be in better health, they will need some care and support. Employers are granting many requests for flexible working, but there is a low level of awareness of the right, which we will tackle with an information campaign.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that response. My constituency of Brent, South is the most diverse in the UK. As such, it is tradition that many people look after elderly relatives. However, they do not understand that they have a right to request flexible working. Can my right hon. and learned Friend expand on what the Government will do to ensure that people are aware of their rights when caring for elderly relatives?

We want to ensure that, in every community throughout the country, people are aware of the right, which the House introduced, to request flexible working if they provide any care for an older relative. Of course, it is important to have good public services to support older people, most of whom live independently in their own homes. However, family care is very important, and the stay-at-home daughter who used to provide that care is now a going-out-to-work daughter. Flexibility for those who are working as well as caring for relatives is therefore important. That will be part of the consultation on the carers’ strategy, which the Prime Minister established and is being led by the Department of Health. It will report later in the summer.

I apologise for not being present at business questions later, but I shall be attending the funeral of that redoubtable parliamentarian, the late Gwyneth Dunwoody.

The Minister previously promised that the Government would follow the Conservative party’s policy of extending the right to request flexible working to parents of all children under the age of 18. Will she guarantee to follow our policy of flexible parental leave, which would allow parents to have parental leave that they could share and give them the opportunity to take it simultaneously?

It is important for both fathers and mothers to have appropriate leave and flexibility in their work. The Government have led the way on that, and we will take it further. That is why we set up the review under Imelda Walsh to ascertain how we could build on the legislation that we introduced at a time when the Opposition called it an example of the nanny state. I am grateful to Imelda Walsh for her work. We will publish her report shortly and, at that point, will look for all-party support. The right hon. Lady is a bit of a Jenny-come-lately on the matter.

I am delighted to hear that there will be an advertising campaign to make people aware of the right to request flexible working. However, when someone suddenly has to become a carer, they sometimes drop out of the workplace. It is then quite difficult for them to get back in, because they have to have worked for an employer for six months before they can make that request. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into that, to ensure that people with caring responsibilities are not forced out of the workplace in the first place and to make it easier for them to return?

The question of people who have been out of the workplace with full-time caring responsibilities who need to get back in is something that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is concerned to include in his contribution to the carers’ strategy, which will be published later in the summer. The key thing, as my hon. Friend said, is that people should not have to choose between giving the care and support that they want to give to an older relative and remaining financially independent by going out to work. With the growing number of older people, which is a demographic revolution, we need to ensure that that is recognised in the structure and patterns of work. As for the 26 weeks, my hon. Friend will be aware that it is the normal condition across the board under employment law, and we do not propose to change it in that respect.


The Leader of the House was asked—

Treaty Ratification Procedure

26. What consideration she has given to the modernisation of parliamentary procedure relating to the ratification of treaties. (204041)

Proposals on parliamentary scrutiny of treaties are included in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which is currently being considered by a Joint Committee of Parliament. Under the proposals, the Government would be legally required to lay treaties before Parliament for 21 sitting days prior to ratification. A vote by either House against ratification would mean that the Government could not simply ratify the treaty without further steps. In particular, the Government could not ratify a treaty that the Commons had voted against, unless they relaid the same or a revised proposal and the House did not vote against it again. The Government believe that the right of Parliament to scrutinise treaties before ratification should be based on statute. This will transfer power from the Executive to Parliament and make the rules clearer and more transparent.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer, but in a previous case where we had parliamentary scrutiny of a treaty—namely the Lisbon treaty—it was not a rip-roaring success. The Government broke their promise on having a referendum and then we were promised detailed line-by-line scrutiny in the House, which was also not delivered. If the Government are going to bring forward the proposals that the Deputy Leader of the House described, they had better listen, learn from those experiences, deliver on their promises and ensure that the House has a genuine say in the ratification of treaties, because if the Lisbon treaty process is any example, people will be left feeling let down by the Government yet again.

The hon. Gentleman has not taken account of the fact that European treaties will not be covered by the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, because they have a higher barrier to pass. European treaties must be incorporated into a piece of legislation and go through all the normal legislative processes of the House, and that is precisely what the Government did with the Lisbon treaty.

The statement by the Deputy Leader of the House on the Government’s plans for the future is welcome. However, she will be aware that even since the beginning of this Session, the UK has entered into five international treaties, including an important one on sentencing with the International Criminal Court. Will she consider a proposal to allow us to look at treaties that will come down the pipeline between now and the eventual passage of a Constitutional Renewal Bill, which could take two or three years to come into effect? All colleagues, in both Houses, would welcome the chance to see the treaties in draft and express a view on them, and that cannot be too difficult to arrange.

As the hon. Gentleman understands fully, the procedure for treaties currently follows the Ponsonby rule. The convention is that they are laid on the Table in both Houses for 21 days. Obviously that will continue until we have the Constitutional Renewal Bill. As he may also be aware, on some occasions there are time limits that make giving full notice particularly difficult. However, I will look into the suggestion that he made.

New Technology

27. If she will propose to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons that it inquire into the use of new technology to connect Parliament with the public. (204042)

The Government and the House attach great importance to promoting parliamentary engagement with the public. There are no current plans for the Modernisation Committee to examine the specific issue of the use of new technology in support of that, but the Committee has frequently examined it within its other work—for example, in the recent reforms to the legislative process.

I thank the Minister for that answer. There are many ways in which new technology can help Parliament better to connect with the public, as highlighted by my own campaign to allow parliamentary video clips to be shown on YouTube and other websites and also by the “Free our Bills” campaign to make legislation more easily accessible, searchable and understandable online. Will the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House further consider asking the Modernisation Committee to undertake an inquiry specifically on that issue, taking into account the two subjects that I have mentioned?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that television proceedings and subsequent use on Members’ websites are subject to a licence issued by the Speaker. The licence stipulates that material must not be hosted on a searchable website and must not be downloadable. The reason for that is to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of mySociety’s “Free our Bills” campaign and it is obvious that great strides have been taken recently in improving the parliamentary website. She is right to suggest that if our constituents can gain easier access to the progress of Bills, it will enable them to intervene as they wish. That work is ongoing. The specific proposals of mySociety, however, have some disadvantages. It wants to be able to provide explanatory material and to reorder some material, but before we went that far we would need to look into it in much greater detail.

The most important way in which the public can access the parliamentary system is by accessing their MPs. I want to commend those who organise the IT system, or—as it certainly went through difficult times—those who are now running a much better system. Will my hon. Friend make it clear—it may have to be done through parliamentary procedures—that we really should not be shutting down the system? When we are trying to work through remote access, it is very annoying when neither our constituents can access us nor we them.

Like my hon. Friend I have a rural constituency, so I understand the particular difficulties faced by Members whose IT access collapses, if only temporarily. I will take up my hon. Friend’s points with the Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology department.

Draft Legislative Programme

28. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s publication of a draft legislative programme. (204043)

May I first apologise, like the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), for the fact that because I will be attending the funeral of my good friend and doughty parliamentarian, Gwyneth Dunwoody, I will be unable to remain in my place for the conclusion of these questions I will leave the business statement in the competent hands of the Deputy Leader of the House.

Following the publication of last year’s draft legislative programme on 11 July 2007, the Government published in November a summary of the consultation carried out and the comments received in “The Government’s Draft Legislative Programme— Taking a Wider View”. As Leader of the House, I contributed to the Modernisation Committee’s inquiry on the draft legislative programme. That Committee reported in January 2008, and the outcomes from those exercises have informed the consultation process for this year’s draft legislative programme, which will be published shortly.

While the Government are now apparently full of empathy and listening, does the Leader of the House recall the fanfare greeting of last year’s draft legislative programme, which said that it was all about

“improving the public’s opportunity to have a say in that process”?

How many members of the public actually had their say and what difference did it make?

Last year, for the first time, instead of merely producing the list of Bills that would comprise the Government’s legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, we published our programme in draft in advance, in order to make transparent a process that had hitherto been carried out only behind closed doors. That allowed people to see what we were doing and to have their say. We conceded that we did that late in the day because it was brought in by the new Prime Minister, who had only taken up his office in June. We thus undertook to do it earlier this year in order to allow people more of a say, and that is what we intend to do.

Are we going to have a special referendum Bill relating to the future of the United Kingdom? I remind the right hon. and learned Lady that my constituents and hers have as much ownership of, and interest in, the future of the United Kingdom as do people in Edinburgh or Glasgow. If it is true that the United Kingdom Cabinet has not discussed this matter, then it should. Its failure to do so would be an abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, and this House has a duty, for the sake of the future of the United Kingdom, which needs to be addressed.

The contents of the draft legislative programme will be announced shortly. However, on scrutiny by this House of English regional issues, my hon. Friend will know that the Modernisation Committee is conducting an inquiry into English regional Select Committees and will make its proposals shortly.

The Leader of the House said that the draft legislative programme would be published shortly. The Modernisation Committee report of January supported the proposal that she had put forward that the draft legislative programme should be published at Easter. I note she said that that would provide enough time for the Government to have sensible measures to put forward. Are we to read into the fact that the programme has not been published at Easter this year that the Government have nothing sensible to say?

The right hon. Lady will have to make up her mind, along with everybody else, when we publish our draft legislative programme, but perhaps she will also remember that Easter was very early this year.

House of Commons Commission

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

Crèche Facilities

29. What recent consideration has been given by the House authorities to the provision of crèche facilities for staff and hon. Members. (204044)

There are no current plans for a crèche, but if there is an unmet need or demand, this can be looked at again. Members’ staff and staff of the House are eligible for child care vouchers. The Members Estimate Committee has recently considered extending the voucher scheme to Members, and will return to the subject shortly.

Will the hon. Gentleman talk to the Commission about undertaking a survey of staff and Members to establish whether there is a demand for a crèche? Also, as an immediate measure, would it not be possible for staff and Members to be able to pay to use nearby departmental crèches as and when the need arises, given the nature of their jobs?

I am sure that the possibility of using nearby departmental facilities could be investigated. I will refer the hon. Lady’s remarks about having a more general survey to the Administration Committee. A survey was conducted in 2003, which led to the conclusion that it was more convenient, particularly for members of staff, to have child care vouchers that did not have to be redeemed here at Westminster, but which could be used nearer to where they lived, such as in outer London boroughs—or, indeed, in the constituencies, because Members’ constituency staff are eligible for the vouchers and can redeem them in the constituencies.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Topical Debates

As set out in the written ministerial statement of 7 February announcing the review, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has asked for comments to inform the review by 23 May. The results of the review will be published to the House before the summer recess. This will help to inform any decision of the House on whether to make permanent the Standing Orders that introduced topical debates on an experimental basis for the 2007-08 Session, or whether any changes to the Standing Orders may be necessary.

The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that the Procedure Committee is undertaking an inquiry into this matter, in addition to the review by the Leader of the House. Will the Deputy Leader of the House not concede that the current method of choosing topical debates is not transparent, and that it appears to be the decision of the Government when it should be the decision of Back Benchers—and would it not be sensible to have a Committee set up, under the chairmanship of a Back-Bench Member?

I will take the hon. Gentleman’s remarks as his contribution to the review. I have seen the Procedure Committee report on this question. I would like to point out to him that topical debates are held in Government time, and that if he were to look through the subjects that we have addressed over the past six months, he would see that they have been suggested by Members from across the House, including many Back Benchers. Therefore, until we have examined the matter, I cannot promise him that we will change the way in which the choice is made.

Private Members' Bills (Westminster Hall)

31. If she will propose to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons that it inquire into using Westminster Hall as well as the main Chamber for debate on Private Members’ Bills on Fridays. (204046)

The House has, from time to time, looked at the time made available to private Members’ Bills and the best ways for them to be considered. The issue is complex. For example, it includes the question of how much time hon. Members want to spend on parliamentary business at Westminster, and within that, on private Members’ business, and the place of that time within the working week.

I understand my hon. Friend’s proposal to involve parallel Friday sittings in the two venues so that more Bills can be considered. I am not aware that that specific idea has been proposed before, but it is clearly one that any Committee examining this issue could consider.

I am very glad to hear that the issue may get consideration. Private Members have brought some very important legislation through the House, legislation that Governments of the day have been too frightened to introduce—one thinks of the abolition of the death penalty or the abortion law reform. Legislation on more of these difficult issues, including, perhaps, legislation to deal with the question of primogeniture, could be brought through by a private Member if more time were available. I urge the Modernisation Committee to examine my proposal seriously.

I agree with my hon. Friend that much private Members’ legislation has been extremely important and groundbreaking. I know that an hon. Member could apply every year for 10 years and still have only a 50/50 chance of being selected in the ballot, but sometimes issues that initially appear in private Members’ legislation find their way into Government legislation in the end.

Royal Assent

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

Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 12 May will be:

Monday 12 May—Second Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 13 May—Remaining stages of the Education and Skills Bill, followed by motion to consider the statement of changes in Immigration Rules Order 2008 (HC 321).

Wednesday 14 May—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled “Pensioner Poverty”, followed by a debate entitled “Vehicle Excise Duty”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 15 May—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Friday 16 May—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 May will include:

Monday 19 May—Consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 21 May—Second Reading of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [Lords].

Thursday 22 May—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

Following is the information: The 41st and the 42nd, and the 46th to the 65th, reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2006-07, and the Treasury Minutes on these reports (Cm 7275, 7276 and 7322); and the 1st to the 4th, the 6th, and the 9th to the 13th reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2007-08, and the Treasury Minutes on these reports (Cm 7323 and 7364).

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that information.

During yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that Wendy Alexander, the leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, had not called for an immediate referendum on Scottish independence. However, on Tuesday evening, she was asked on Scottish television:

“Is Gordon Brown endorsing your decision to call for a Referendum?”

She replied, “Yes.” She was asked:

“He is endorsing it and he has told you that?”

She again said, “Yes.” They cannot both be right, so which is it?

Today, the Health Committee published a damning report on the junior doctors recruitment crisis last year. It described the Government’s handling as “inept”. May I suggest a topical debate on the Government’s treatment of junior doctors?

During Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, the Prime Minister claimed that the Government had lifted 1 million children out of poverty. However, during Cabinet Office questions earlier, the Minister for the Cabinet Office cited the figure as “600,000”. Where did the Prime Minister’s extra 400,000 come from? May we have a statement from the Prime Minister to explain his exaggeration?

Sir Ian Blair has admitted that when giving evidence to MPs in support of 42-day detention without trial he gave misleading figures regarding the number of serious terrorist plots disrupted by the police since 2005. This is a matter of grave concern, as is the fact that the Government have asked both Sir Ian and Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick to argue the case for 42 days. Politicising the police in that way is unacceptable. It smacks of desperation and further undermines the Government’s position. We need a statement urgently from the Home Secretary on her manipulation of the police for political gain.

Last week, the Government chose the day before the local elections to slip out a written statement on the backlog of inquests into the deaths of our brave servicemen and women. It confirmed that, despite numerous assurances from the Leader of the House and others, the Government have failed to reduce the backlog significantly. This issue deserves an oral statement from the Secretary of State for Justice.

The Government have spent more than £1 billion on trying to tackle truancy. But data released this week show that more than 40,000 children are missing at least two days of school every week—an increase on the previous term. So if the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families can find the time to break away from his usual plotting and scheming, perhaps he would like to make a statement explaining why the Government are failing to tackle truancy.

The Government continue to dither instead of taking decisive action, they are incapable of giving straight answers to straight questions, and their Back Benchers are in open revolt over their policies—

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should take more note of what the newspapers are saying about his colleagues, instead of making unnecessary interruptions from a sedentary position.

Is it any wonder that the Deputy Leader of the House said in the Northern Echo that

“it is unacceptable to have policies like the 10p tax rate coming from a Labour Government.”

Last week’s council elections showed that voters from Sunderland to Southampton agree with her. The question is, does the Prime Minister?

The hon. Gentleman began by asking about Scotland. I do not know whether he is aware of the letter that the Prime Minister has sent to the Leader of the Opposition, but to clarify matters for the House I shall quote from it. The Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition that his letter showed

“that you do not understand this important issue relating to Scotland and the Union. Today you suggested there were plans to have a referendum now. As Wendy Alexander has said this afternoon, there is nobody seeking legislation at Westminster to have a referendum. The procedures of the Scottish Parliament mean that even if the SNP or anyone else introduced a Bill at Holyrood it would take up to 12 months to complete.”

The Prime Minister and Wendy Alexander are agreed on the importance of exposing the hollowness of the SNP’s position.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the recruitment of junior doctors last year. As he knows, the Health Committee produced a thorough report that examines the detailed management structures and makes suggestions about how they should be improved. As he may also be aware, the system for recruitment has changed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned child poverty. He should recall that in addition to the reductions in child poverty that the Government have already achieved—unlike the increases that we saw under the previous Administration—the recent Budget will take a further quarter of a million children out of poverty.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about terrorist plots. As he knows, the Government take the subject very seriously. That is why we introduced the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which is upstairs in Committee. As he also knows, additional resources have been provided to the police to facilitate their work on this matter.

The hon. Gentleman talked next about inquests. As he knows, the Government have produced a draft coroners Bill. He also raised the question of the 10p tax rate. The Government are considering the need to review that situation and will come forward with proposals. Finally, he talked about truancy. As he knows, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has a positive action programme to reduce truancy among children.

On the 10p tax rate, will the Deputy Leader of the House give us an early indication of when the Report stage of the Finance Bill will be? Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Question Time the Prime Minister yet again refused to give any indication of the time scale over which an attempt to deal with the problems of doubling the 10p tax rate would be made. He told my party that we should be willing to wait for the Chancellor. It is not only parties that have to wait for the Chancellor, but our constituents. The 10p tax rate was doubled in April and it hit them in the pocket then. They want to know how to budget for their bills. They will be able to do that only if they get the details of what the Government will do. By definition, as the lower earners in our country, they are the most unable to cope with sudden cash flow hits. We need details of what the Chancellor will do, and we need them before Report. Will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us when the Bill will be debated on Report, as that is the last chance that the House will have to address the issue through this Finance Bill, if the Government fail to do so?

Will she ask the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to make an early statement on the closure of post offices? On 28 May, the north-east of Scotland will hear the fate of its post offices. We need the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs to announce a suspension of the closure programme so that he can make concrete proposals to bring new business into post offices.

Following the hon. Lady’s answer on referendums, we need an early debate on communication between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster so that we can clear up the Government’s exact stance on referendums and the strategy for taking the issue forward. Clearly, the confusion created by Wendy Alexander and the Prime Minister does not help us to tackle the agenda and does not bring clarity to the future of our constitution.

Later today, the House will have the opportunity to pay tribute to the courageous work of our armed forces in Afghanistan. The hon. Lady will know that the Government’s reply to the International Development Committee’s report on Afghanistan was published last week. Will she therefore arrange a wider debate on Afghanistan? I am a member of the Committee and when we visited Afghanistan we saw the work that is being done by Department for International Development staff on the ground, not just in Helmand but throughout Afghanistan. A lot of essential development work is being done and it is important for the House to see and hear about the work and to focus a debate on our priorities for Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman began by asking when the Finance Bill will be debated on Report. I am afraid that I do not have that information at the moment, but, as he knows, provisional business is always announced two weeks ahead, so he will get good notice of the debate. He will be aware that the Treasury Committee is looking into the issue, and it is aiming to publish a report that will inform our debate.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that, in the past six months, there have been 16 debates on post office closures. The debates have mainly been specific to communities, but there will be a general debate in Westminster Hall next week. In addition, the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has produced a report, and all Select Committee reports can, of course, be debated in Westminster Hall.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned communications between London and Scotland. As he knows, when urgent matters arise, as they did over Grangemouth, practical solutions can be reached. What he is trying to get at is a political disagreement, to which I cannot respond in business questions.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the serious issues facing our armed forces in Afghanistan. Those issues could be raised in this afternoon’s debate on defence in the world, but he rightly states that there is an overseas aid aspect, which, of course, can be raised with the Department for International Development.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for us to debate the Corston report in this Chamber? It was published months ago, yet there has been no opportunity for a full debate on how the Government will implement the report’s very sensible recommendations on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.

My hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience as a former Home Office Minister, and she is quite right: the Corston report is important and the Government have welcomed it. I will take back her suggestion of holding a topical debate on the report.

May we have a debate on the rising cost of living, in which we could debate the cost of fuel? It was abundantly clear yesterday that the Prime Minister had absolutely no idea how much it cost to fill up a family car in his constituency. Why are the Government so out of touch?

I do not accept for a minute that the Government are out of touch on fuel prices. We delayed the 2p a litre fuel duty increase precisely because we are aware of the needs of ordinary families and the increase in the cost of filling up a car, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should exaggerate the situation. Since 1999, the cost of fuel duty—both petrol and diesel—has in fact fallen by 16 per cent. The reason petrol prices have gone up is that oil prices have increased. I take it that he will use the opportunity of the Opposition day debate next week to make the points that he wants to.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1280, which looks at pay-day lending?

[That this House notes that the global credit crunch is now impacting on the ability of UK consumers to obtain access to affordable credit; notes that high cost and irresponsible forms of lending such as pay day lending, which charges in excess of 1,000 per cent. APR and traps people on lower incomes in a cycle of credit dependency, are now expanding rapidly as a result; further notes that Dollar Financial, one such US pay day lender, now has over 200 Moneyshop stores providing these loans in the UK; regards this development as extremely worrying for the Governments ambition to eradicate child poverty; and urges the Treasury, the Department for Business and Regulatory Reform, the Office of Fair Trading and the Financial Services Authority to conduct a joint inquiry into the growth of high cost lending, including pay day loans, in order to inform future regulatory action against irresponsible and high cost lenders and to contribute to the Governments aim of ensuring greater access to affordable credit.]

Such lending, which is common in the United States and Canada and is becoming increasingly so in this country, involves someone having to pay out a post-dated cheque on the basis that they will borrow a lesser sum. But, of course, we are talking about much higher rates of interest, and it is really the fault of the legitimate lenders, who have a responsibility to lend to those who have lesser means. The worry is that, if that lending in the formal sense begins to dry up, people will have to go to—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not make a statement but ask a question. There was no question at the end of that, but I dare say that the Deputy Leader of the House will fish something out of it.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that saver protection is as important for those on low incomes as it is for those with large amounts of money. That is why the Government introduced the Consumer Credit Act 2006, but if there are loopholes in some parts of the financial sector I will draw his remarks to the attention of colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

May we have a debate on crime? Despite the valiant efforts of Superintendents Beautridge, Hogbern and Gladstone, antisocial behaviour that in the past would have been dealt with by the police in Gravesham is now not being dealt with. It is almost as though the bar on what is acceptable behaviour and what is not has been raised.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, overall, crime has been falling, although there are problems with some kinds of crime and, indeed, with antisocial behaviour. He can always make the points that he has made with Home Office Ministers in Home Office questions.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1488?

[That this House welcomes the proposal by the Russian Government not to require British fans to apply for visas when they visit Russia for the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United on 21st May 2008; notes that this is an excellent way to celebrate the positive spirit of competitive football; recognises that the British Government is unable to waive visa restrictions in return in respect of the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester between Zenit St Petersburg and Glasgow Rangers on 14th May; and calls on the Government to waive visa fees as a goodwill gesture.]

Will my hon. Friend arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make an urgent statement in response to the Russian Government’s proposal to waive visa fees for British fans who travel to Moscow for the European cup final? Would it not be appropriate for the British Government to reciprocate by waiving fees for the Russian fans who will attend the UEFA cup final in Manchester? Unfortunately, Leicester City is in neither of the finals.

As all hon. Members know, those football matches will be played very soon, so I am not sure whether it will be possible to organise a debate within a time scale that would make a difference, but I will draw my right hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of colleagues in the Foreign Office.

The hon. Lady will be aware that, yesterday, a High Court judgment denied the Home Secretary any further right of appeal in her endeavours to maintain the proscription as a terrorist organisation of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran. The Government are therefore now in clear breach of the judgment of the European Court of First Instance. So, first, when will the Home Secretary come to the House to make a statement and, secondly, when will the Government lay the necessary orders to lift the proscription?

As the hon. Gentleman clearly understands, the judgment was received only yesterday, and the Home Office is actively considering what its response should be.

(Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the ongoing problem of the exploitation of migrant workers? My hon. Friend might be aware of reports in the papers today that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has withdrawn the licence of a company called Timberland Homes Recruitment, which supplies flowers to high street shops the length and breadth of our country. That company has been accused of 15 breaches of regulations, such as those on transportation, accommodation and minimum wage requirements. The families back home have also been threatened by the company. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging a boycott of the company’s products, so that we can clearly demonstrate that the exploitation of workers—whether they are migrants or otherwise—will not be tolerated in this country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The behaviour that he describes is totally unacceptable. That is why the Government are engaged in negotiations at European level on new measures to strengthen the rights of temporary, agency and migrant workers.

The rightly popular Deputy Leader of the House had the good grace to smile and laugh when she was reading out the Prime Minister’s response to the Leader of the Opposition, so I hesitate to ask this question, but I think that I ought to. Should not the part-time Defence Secretary and sometime Secretary of State for Scotland come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement next week because the Prime Minister did not clarify the situation regarding a referendum in Scotland? The hon. Lady and I are very well aware that Wendy Alexander was talking about a referendum initiated by the Scottish Parliament, not this Parliament, and it was disingenuous of the Prime Minister to say otherwise.

I do not accept that the Prime Minister was disingenuous. He was energetically defending the Union, and that is what I would expect Opposition Members to do too.

Will my hon. Friend be able to find time for a debate on the importance of a co-ordinated approach to future land use? One part of Government is looking at the challenge of flood defence, with a making space for water strategy that includes more use of washlands; another is looking for more land to build on; and another is looking at the challenges of food security and the fact that we will have to produce more of our own food in future. Clearly each issue cannot be considered in isolation, so can we have a debate so that all hon. Members can contribute to the discussion on the important challenges that we face?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. These are important long-term issues. Although there have been a number of debates recently about flooding and although a major piece of legislation—the Planning Bill—is going through the House, I will take his proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate.

On 7 April, in response to a freedom of information request, Kettering General Hospital NHS Trust stated:

“The Trust’s occupancy is currently at 92% for the last 12 months as reported nationally.”

On Tuesday, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), said that

“the bed occupancy rate in Kettering general hospital in the latest year for which figures are available was 81 per cent.”.—[Official Report, 6 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 557.]

Bed occupancy rate is an important measure of hospital performance. Clearly, either the freedom of information request response is wrong or the Minister of State is wrong. Will he come to the House next week to clarify the situation?

I will ask my colleagues in the Department of Health to look at the figures that the hon. Gentleman has raised. However, he should set the issue in context. In the NHS east midlands area since 1997, the number of people on waiting lists has fallen from 30,000 to two, and the number of people receiving cancer treatment within two weeks has now reached 96.3 per cent. When he makes complaints, he should contextualise them as well.

I am delighted to hear that there will be a debate on pensioner poverty, but can we have a debate specifically on the state pension? My hon. Friend may be aware that tomorrow sees the centenary of Winston Churchill being elected as a Liberal MP in Dundee. Political historians suggest that he was elected at least in part because of the introduction of the old age pension two days before—in other words, 100 years ago yesterday. A debate on the state pension would allow us to determine where each party stands on this very important issue.

I did not know of the centenary, but my hon. Friend is obviously a worthy successor to Winston Churchill—and he is right to say that tackling pensioner poverty is extremely important. That is why the Government have introduced the pension credit and the winter fuel allowance, and lifted 1 million people out of poverty. I hope that he will have further opportunities to describe that in more detail.

It is worth pointing out that Winston Churchill was then booted out of Dundee by the people, after an unpopular war. There may be a lesson there as well.

Given the confusion yesterday on the Government Benches with regard to constitutional referendums, as witnessed not just by the very odd answers and by the very strange letter to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), which spoke about a Westminster referendum when none had been called for, and as witnessed by the failure to keep the manifesto promise on a referendum on Europe, would it not be possible to have a debate in Government time so that we can tease out the 57 varieties of opinion on the Government Benches with regard to referendums—and, indeed, to tease out just how little dialogue and discussion actually exists between the Prime Minister and the leader of his party in Scotland?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is extremely interested in this subject, but I do not know why his party have been putting back the referendum that it said it wanted. As he also knows, the Calman commission is reviewing the progress of devolution over the past 10 years and, when we have the results of the commission, that will be the time to consider these matters fully.

May I drew my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1357?

[That this House believes that the creation of a new bank holiday is justified; further believes that such a bank holiday should be created to celebrate and commemorate the contribution of all members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, past and present, in defending United Kingdom democracy and freedom; and considers that such a bank holiday should be known as Veterans Day.]

She will be aware that there is growing support on both sides of the House for a fresh new bank holiday, and that we have fewer public holidays than most other countries in Europe. If we want to build on the popular appeal of the Government, surely now is the time to introduce a new public holiday. I suggest that my hon. Friend study my short early-day motion, and that we have an early debate on that subject.

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important matter. The number of bank holidays to which people are entitled in addition to their statutory holiday has already been increased by four days, and will increase by a further four days in April next year. However, his suggestion is now clearly on the table.

In the spirit of modernisation, may we have a joint statement from the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)—explaining why he wants a referendum that he would almost certainly lose—and the Prime Minister, explaining why he wants to stop a referendum which, unlike one on the Lisbon treaty, he would almost certainly win? If they have difficulty producing that joint statement, I am sure that Wendy Alexander will be happy to help in the drafting of it.

I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. As he knows, oral statements are made by members of the Government, and only one of the people he mentioned is a member of the Government.

(Wycombe) (Con): As the hon. Lady knows, Lord Patel of Bradford is undertaking a review of the effectiveness of the Government’s strategy for the prevention of violent extremism. Has she received any notice that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will come to the House to make a statement about the outcome of that review? If she has not, will she be able to write to me with whatever information she may be able to glean?

I do not know what the timetable is for that piece of work, but I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and ask her to keep him informed.

Could we have an early debate on last night’s astonishing revelations about airport security? Given that the Government have now said that criminal record checks for those working airside apply only to criminal records in this country, and that wider security checks apply only to those specifically involved in security jobs, can the hon. Lady now confirm that there is no barrier whatever to somebody who has committed a serious terrorist offence abroad working airside in a British airport?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and important matter. I do not think the situation is quite as he describes it. As well as physical security, we already run counter-terrorists checks, which are more detailed than a criminal record check, for all airside workers engaged in security roles. We have also asked Stephen Boys Smith to review whether we should do more in this area. In addition, the Government are taking forward proposals on EU data sharing, which will help significantly on this front, and we are introducing biometric identity cards for foreign nationals and prioritising airside workers. Given that the issue is so important, I simply ask the hon. Gentleman why the Conservative party is not supporting those measures.

Could the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on offender management, and specifically on the chain of bail hostels being established around the country by a private company called ClearSprings Management Ltd on behalf of the Ministry of Justice? In Colwyn Bay in my constituency, at least one such hostel is proposed for a residential area without any consultation whatever with residents, the police or the local authority. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would be concerned that, as a result of the Government’s failure on offender management, criminals are being introduced into their communities. Members would appreciate the opportunity to express such concerns.

I understand the concern of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. My understanding is that the chain of housing for people on bail is discussed with the police and local authority before it is agreed to. However, because there is no change of use, from housing to hostels, proposals do not go through the planning system. Given the importance of the matter, I will of course take it back to my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

Today the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph is launching an important campaign to persuade its readers to install home smoke alarms, because of the 463 homes that had fires in Northamptonshire last year, only 247 were fitted with smoke detectors, and people are twice as likely to die in a fire if they do not have a smoke alarm fitted. May we have a statement from the Minister responsible for the fire service, or a debate in Government time, on home fire safety?

I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on to the Minister responsible. He is right, in so far as the fire service saves many more lives when it does preventive work, and its work is currently being reoriented in that way.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has brought out a report on flooding, which says that there are major structural problems with flood defences. May we have an early debate on that as soon as possible, because my constituency will have problems if the flood defences fail?

There have been debates in Westminster Hall recently about both flood defences and flooding. As the hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, aware, the Government are increasing spending on the flood prevention infrastructure to £800 million by 2010—and so far this year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made three written ministerial statements on the subject.

Order. In the absence of the Secretary of State for Defence—[Hon. Members: “International Development!”] In the absence of the Secretary of State for International Development, who I understand is on his way, and the Secretary of State for Defence, who has the business after that, I have no option but to suspend the sitting for five minutes.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State for International Development is not here. Could it be that he has been detained advising his sister on the mess that she has got the Government into, and he is now getting the Government—and, indeed, this House—into another mess?

Sitting suspended.

Burma (Cyclone Nargis)

I begin by apologising unreservedly to the House for my delayed arrival and for the delay in making the statement. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to inform it on the response being taken to cyclone Nargis.

The cyclone hit Burma on the night of 2 May. It has had a devastating impact on the people of Burma: at least 22,000 people have been killed. Unfortunately, we expect this number to rise very significantly in the coming days. Some estimates already range as high as 100,000 dead. At least 42,000 are still missing. The Government estimate that 90 to 95 per cent. of buildings have been destroyed in the low-lying delta region. One million are estimated to be homeless and 1.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the delta region and around Rangoon. Preliminary assessments indicate that the most urgent needs are for shelter, food and clean water.

The full scale of the disaster will become apparent only over the next few days, as relief teams are able to reach remote communities in cyclone-affected areas. Assessments by the UN and other international agencies have been delayed by difficulties with communications and access. The situation is becoming increasingly perilous, with relief capacity inside the country already severely stretched. There is, of course, an ongoing crisis for the Burmese people, and we are working hard with others in the international community to do all we can for the relief effort.

We should not underestimate the challenge of the relief effort in Burma. The cyclone struck five states and divisions of Burma: Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Bago, Mon and Kayin. Damaged infrastructure and communications are posing major logistical problems for relief operations. Access to some of the worst affected areas is extremely difficult and will hamper relief distribution. Much of the affected region is accessible only by boat, and many of the boats in that region were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone. It is therefore vital that aid workers get access to areas affected by the cyclone to help to co-ordinate the emergency response and deliver aid to those in need.

We are currently receiving mixed signals on the question of access to Burma for international staff. There were widespread media reports only this morning of UN flights being unable to land in Burma. The latest information available to my Department suggests that the first flight, with 7 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, landed around 0730 on 8 May, UK time, and the biscuits are being unloaded.

It is too soon to have a view on the unloading and Customs processes, but the World Food Programme is expected to report back to us early this afternoon. The second flight, with 18 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, has landing rights in Yangon and is currently in Dhaka. It is expected to depart today. Delays to these first two flights were due to delays in obtaining clearances. The third flight will leave Dubai today with a range of items; it too has clearance to land in Burma. The fourth flight, due to leave from Italy, is on hold while a view is taken on the capacity of the airport equipment and staff in Burma. The UN does not want to overwhelm this capacity. The first Red Cross and NGO flights will seek access shortly. We do not yet know whether the Burmese Government will allow free access for international agencies to the areas affected by the disaster.

We, as well as the UN and the NGOs, are continuing to urge the Burmese authorities to ensure rapid access for international humanitarian staff to Burma, and for access, in turn, to the worst affected areas within Burma in order to manage our assistance effectively. Representations are being made at both multilateral and bilateral levels. I have spoken personally to John Holmes, the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator, who is also appealing to the Burmese authorities to allow UN agencies and international workers access. I have spoken to our ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning, who raised the issue of access with both the senior general and the Burmese Prime Minister. I have also spoken to the Burmese ambassador here in London to urge him to facilitate rapid access for international humanitarian staff.

Alongside working to secure access to the affected areas, the UK has made an immediate contribution of up to £5 million—the largest single contribution made by any one country—to help the UN, the Red Cross and the NGOs meet urgent humanitarian needs, including shelter and access to clean water, and food and other emergency items. We have readied stockpiles of emergency supplies such as tents, water containers, blankets, and plastic sheets, and sourced additional logistic equipment and relief supplies to be delivered by the same agencies. We are working closely with agencies on the ground to determine exact needs, and we expect to be able to allocate these funds in the coming days as needs and access become clearer. The UN flash appeal is expected by tomorrow. Yesterday, 7 May, I met UK-based NGOs to discuss potential DFID support. We are ready to deploy an emergency field team to help co-ordinate our assessment and response to the disaster as soon as visas can be obtained from the Burmese Government.

The UN humanitarian co-ordinator will meet the Burmese authorities later today to provide an overview of international commitments and to discuss the progress of the response. Already, more than $20 million has been pledged by donors to the relief effort. In addition, the UN has announced that a minimum of $10 million will be released from the central emergency relief fund, to which the UK is the largest contributor. The Red Cross and NGOs that have a presence in Burma, including World Vision, Save the Children and Médecins sans Frontières, are undertaking emergency assessments and have begun distributing basic emergency items such as food and water supplies. Co-ordination mechanisms are in place between the UN, NGOs and donors on the ground.

Domestically, the Government of Burma have pledged some $4.5 million for relief and have established an emergency committee headed by the Burmese Prime Minister. The Burmese Government have reiterated their readiness to accept international assistance, but they are only just starting to allow in UN aid. The challenges of the relief effort would daunt even the most developed country, and it is important that the Burmese Government accept all offers of international assistance offered to them.

As the House will be aware, as well as our initial pledge of up to £5 million for the relief effort, the UK is one of the few countries providing long-term humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma. In October 2007, the UK announced that it would double its aid for the poorest people in Burma from £9 million per year to £18 million per year in 2010. Our support is delivered in accordance with the European common position—either through the UN or other reputable NGOs. None of it goes through the central Government.

This is a very grave crisis, on a scale not seen since the tsunami of 2004. I want to assure the House that the British Government will continue to work to bring assistance and relief to the suffering people of Burma.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. Our thoughts and prayers are with the many thousands who have lost friends and relatives in this tragedy, and those who are struggling to survive the aftermath of this terrible disaster.

It is clear that the situation in Burma is a massive humanitarian catastrophe, the like of which, as the Secretary of State said, has not been seen since the Asian tsunami of December 2004. People to whom I have spoken on the ground in the past few days are clear that the death toll will rise much further, and that as of now, hundreds of thousands of people are beyond the reach of the relief effort. The danger now is that hunger, disease and the lack of access to clean water and shelter will add to the suffering.

I welcome the actions that the Secretary of State outlined in his statement. The staff at the Department for International Development are some of the finest development professionals in the world; their compassion, commitment and expertise have a vital role to play in this crisis. In particular, I salute the work of Rurik Marsden, who leads DFID’s efforts in Burma, whom I met in Rangoon during my visit to Burma last year, and of our ambassador, Mark Canning, whose knowledge and insight are second to none at this time.

It is already clear that British charities and NGOs are at the forefront of work on the ground. The outstanding British charity Save the Children, led in Rangoon by Andrew Kirkwood, has 35 offices and 500 staff on the ground in Burma. They have already been able to get help to 50,000 people. ActionAid, Merlin, Oxfam and World Vision are also extremely active.

It is deeply regrettable that the Burmese Government have consistently run down and undermined the UN mission in Burma, not least by forcing out Charles Petrie, the impressive former head of the UN mission there. His experience and dynamism are sorely missed at this time of crisis. The Burmese people and the international relief effort are both the losers from that misjudgment by the Burmese junta. It is a scandal that five full days following the disaster, only a trickle of aid is getting in from the outside world. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Burmese Government are still insisting on onerous visa restrictions for aid workers—and even if they get a visa, what guarantees have been received that they will be allowed to leave Rangoon without waiting up to two weeks for a travel permit? After the Bam earthquake of 2003, Iran waived visa restrictions on foreign relief workers for five days, letting in even people from America and Israel. This spirit should prevail again now.

The Burmese Government must give unfettered access for the international humanitarian relief effort. A key lesson from the tsunami is the need for the international response to dovetail with the local relief effort; trying to go against the grain does not work. We need to persuade the Burmese authorities to be as co-operative as possible. This House can assure the Government of Burma today that the aid workers are there for non-political humanitarian reasons, to save lives, rather than for political positioning. What steps has the Secretary of State taken to make this clear to the Burmese Government?

As the Secretary of State said, the key requirement now is for a comprehensive needs assessment by the UN, and a well-funded, professional and highly competent relief operation centred on food, clean water, shelter and medical relief. As we saw with the Asian tsunami, we need to know that the aid we give is exactly what is needed. Inappropriate aid can be worse than no aid at all.

There are reports that the Burmese Government have finally decided to accept some of the United States relief flights. Can the Secretary of State update the House on this point?

The regime’s suspicion of outsiders is well documented, but we must also seek the support of Burma’s cosy friends—China, India and Thailand, with whom the regime has worked closely. In the run-up to the Olympics, many eyes will be on China to examine the role that it plays in helping to ensure that the Burmese Government open up immediately to the international relief effort. What discussions has the Secretary of State had in recent days with the Chinese ambassador in London, Madam Fu Ying, and the representatives of India and Thailand, to underline this point?

There are reports that the Burmese Government intend to impose taxes and duties on planes that bring in aid supplies. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether that is the case, and what representations the British Government have made to the Burmese Government to suspend these tariffs? In the aftermath of the tsunami, concern was expressed about the operation of gift aid tax relief on donations to the humanitarian appeal. At this early stage, what steps are the Government taking on this matter?

It is impossible to talk about good coming out of this terrible event, but we saw in the Indonesian province of Aceh, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, that the shock and turmoil of a natural disaster can, in some circumstances, lead to movement and progress on thorny political conflicts, for the greater common good. Can the Secretary of State confirm that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose compound in Rangoon is vulnerable, overgrown and snake-ridden, is safe and well?

Clearly all of us who have been vocal critics of this pariah regime will put politics to one side as we strive for an effective humanitarian response. Once again, I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making his statement. In the same spirit, I hope that he will continue to keep the House informed through written and oral statements.

Of course I am happy to give the final undertaking sought by the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the House is updated as the situation develops on the ground.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks about the staff of my Department. I match him in those remarks; if anything, I would say that they are quite literally the best in the world, not just among the best. I have spoken to Rurik Marsden, our head of office in Rangoon, in recent days. He is playing a key role in helping to co-ordinate our efforts on the ground along with his staff in that office.

I am also grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for his remarks yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, when he made clear the consensus that reaches across the House in support of the British and international effort to bring an end to the humanitarian suffering of the people of Burma. It is always helpful in these circumstances where there is genuine cross-party consensus in support of a humanitarian effort.

I also join the hon. Gentleman in recognising the contribution made by British-based NGOs. There are already a number of teams on the ground in Burma who are taking forward important work.

Let me turn to the other specific points made by the hon. Gentleman. I raised the issue of visa restrictions directly with the Burmese Government ambassador here in London. I urged him to ensure the expeditious passage of visa applications that are presently with the embassy, including those from DFID assessment staff, and made it clear that, given the number of applications that will be received from the international community, there was a strong case for a visa waiver. He undertook to reflect that in his correspondence with his Government.

I also raised with the ambassador the concerns expressed to me at a meeting that I held with the British-based NGOs regarding access in-country. Effectively, an in-country domestic visa regime has been imposed in Burma for some time. Again I urged him to consider ensuring not simply that there is expeditious passage into Burma for humanitarian workers, but that there is free and ready access to those areas affected by the cyclone for workers within the country. Clearly, whether the Burmese Government deliver on the requests that I and others have made will be tested in the days to come, but that is a matter on which the House can be updated in due course.

We have raised the matter directly with the ambassador here, and with Mark Canning, our ambassador in Rangoon. Representations have been made both to the senior general and to the Burmese Prime Minister. We have also activated our Foreign Office posts across the Association of South East Asian Nations region to ensure that those regional partners, who often can exert influence within Burma, are made aware of the points that the British Government have raised on free access for the humanitarian effort.

I should inform the House that the best advice that we have in DFID is that a number of ASEAN nations have visa-free access to Burma. One of the conversations that we have had with British and international NGOs has been about encouraging them to consider whether they have staff based in the ASEAN countries who can readily access the country while visa applications are processed for others.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about relief flights, I have updated the House as to the best information that we have. It is encouraging, for example, that the recent World Food Programme flight that arrived saw its supplies unloaded today to the WFP warehouse, given that there were concerns that the army would commandeer the relief as it came in. On his specific point about contact with the Chinese Government, we have already initiated, through the UK mission to the UN, a discussion with the Chinese delegation to the UN, making them aware of the points that we have discussed here.

The issue of duties being levied on incoming humanitarian supplies has been raised and my understanding is that the Government of Burma have made it clear that duty will not be levied on humanitarian aid and assistance. Again, that will be tested in the days to come and we shall see whether that undertaking is delivered on.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final two points, we have no indications of difficulty affecting Aung San Suu Kyi in terms of her residence. On gift aid, we will assess the requirement for any future changes to the Government’s position in light of the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal that has been launched.

We are all shocked by the horrific scenes of destruction in Burma caused by cyclone Nargis—the massive loss of life, the homes swept away and the tide of chaos left in its wake. I very much welcome the Secretary of State coming to the House to give his statement and I thank him for prior sight of it.

The Secretary of State outlined the problems of getting aid into the country, and these are causing us huge concern. There seems to be a small piece of positive news with regard to flights getting in and landing, but obviously that is not enough to deal with the scale of the problem and, indeed, it is much too late. Is the delay linked in any way to the constitutional referendum that was due to be held this weekend and the worry of the military junta that it would lead to foreign criticism if foreign nationals were allowed in? Is that the case? Is the referendum still planned to go ahead? Does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely unacceptable for the internal political concerns of the Burmese junta to stand in the way of getting aid to the thousands of people who are suffering?

There are many political problems in Burma and we have great fears about the humanitarian situation; those are often raised in the House. Does the Secretary of State agree that the sole priority at the moment is to get the aid and the emergency response to the disaster? Indeed, it is important that we get the message out if that helps the military regime to allow the aid workers to get in.

I very much welcome the £5 million of aid pledged by DFID. Is that additional to the current aid programme? Will that figure be under review, so that if the situation develops as we expect it will and the scale of the problem becomes greater, it could rise? It is also important that the aid be co-ordinated well. What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with our EU partners on encouraging them similarly to donate, and also on working together on that aid?

I was interested to hear the point about visa-free access for nationals in the ASEAN countries. Is the Secretary of State having discussions with our teams there to encourage those countries to provide aid workers and to give aid? Clearly getting the regional powers involved is very important.

There was no mention in the Secretary of State’s statement of the number of UK nationals affected; I believe that the FCO says there are currently 17 Britons unaccounted for. What support is being made available for their families? Is there a helpline for those in the UK who are concerned about family or friends in Burma? Is there a central point to which they can go for information?

The Secretary of State mentioned the tsunami. The British people were amazingly generous in donating to that appeal in 2004. Many of our constituents will be appalled by what they see on the television and by the pictures they see and will want to help. Is there a central appeal to which they are able to donate?

Let me seek to address each of those points in turn. First, my understanding is that there are now indications that the constitutional referendum will be suspended in the areas affected by the cyclone, but if I am circumspect in my remarks today, it is merely to echo the sentiment that the hon. Lady expressed, which is that our sole priority today needs to be to get humanitarian aid to those directly affected by the cyclone. It was Condoleezza Rice, the United States Secretary of State, who said that this is not about politics but about getting humanitarian aid to those who require it. As the hon. Lady indicated, that needs to be the overriding sentiment behind our remarks today.

There are and have been plenty of other opportunities for the House to discuss political developments within Burma. It is of course a matter to which we will all return, but if I am circumspect today, it reflects our determination to ensure that the message that we send to the Burmese regime is clear: the first priority today needs to be to ensure access to the international relief effort that is so urgently required on the ground.

I can assure the hon. Lady that the £5 million is additional to the programme for Burma. Is it under review in the light of the developing situation on the ground? I can give her that assurance; yes, it is under review. On the extent to which we are co-ordinating our efforts, there are established mechanisms. We have been in touch with ECHO, the co-ordination mechanism for humanitarian assistance at a European level, and with John Holmes, the UN emergency co-ordinator.

In relation to work being taken forward with ASEAN countries, we have been in touch with each of our Foreign Office posts in the ASEAN countries and they are in dialogue with the respective Governments.

On UK nationals, I, too, have seen some of the media reports indicating the number of people who have not yet been contacted. I would not wish to heighten the anxiety of anybody who may have relatives whom they know are in Burma. Mark Canning was clear that we had not yet received any indications that individual British citizens were in difficulty, of which we were aware very quickly following the tsunami. He emphasised that the British population in Burma—people travelling in Burma as well as those resident there—is relatively small but widely dispersed across a country that has limited communications. It will therefore inevitably take time to account for even the limited British population there, but I can give the House an assurance that that work is under way from our post in Rangoon.

On how best to provide information to anyone who is concerned about relatives, I would make a plea for them to contact the Foreign Office. Their first port of call should be the Foreign Office website. Historically, people have come to trust its advice to travellers, and I undertake to raise this matter with my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office following this statement.

On the question of how our constituents can reflect the generosity of spirit that was so evident at the time of the tsunami in relation to this particular disaster, the Disasters Emergency Committee has launched an appeal today. I understand that there are adverts for the appeal in British newspapers today, and it is anticipated that there will be broadcast advertisements this evening. So there will be publicity on how members of the public can register their support for the efforts being made by the British Government and British NGOs.

Is it not clear that tens, possibly scores, of thousands of Burmese have died in the past two days because of the failure of the Burmese dictatorship to allow aid workers in and to allow the navies of the world to go to help? This issue must be raised at the highest level. When such things happen in Darfur or Rwanda, we call it genocide, and that is what I accuse the Burmese junta of organising this week. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign Secretary to support the French Government at the United Nations in invoking the right-to-protect article of the UN charter, which states that when a country ceases to protect its citizens, the international community has a right and a duty to intervene? Will he also make that clear to China, Thailand and India?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware, as a distinguished former Minister in the Foreign Office, that the responsibility to protect was conceived to address four defined situations in which Governments have failed to protect their people: war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. I am not going to echo his sentiments in relation to the Government of Burma. A great deal of work is being done to assess exactly what access is being made available, and I can assure him that representations are being made to the Government of Burma through multilateral and bilateral channels. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to recognise the overriding importance of securing access, rather than securing headlines. It is important that we gain access to Burma to provide the humanitarian assistance that is urgently needed. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to assess the performance of the Government of Burma and of the wider international community. As we stand here today, the priority is to ensure access for the humanitarian supplies, and I can assure the House that that is my overriding priority.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement, and I very much appreciate the work of DFID staff in providing the support that he has described. Will he acknowledge, however, that many people will die—and have died—because they have already been weakened by the lack of support from their own Government? Surely we must stress to that Government that people are dying daily because of their inaction. This is the moment when that regime must finally recognise that it is dependent on the international community. If it cares for its people at all, this is the time for it to demonstrate that by giving full and free access. If it fails to do so, it will stand indicted of precisely the accusation that the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) levelled against it.

I find myself in complete agreement with the measured remarks of the distinguished Chair of the International Development Committee. As I said in my statement, there is a continuing crisis afflicting Burma. The tragedy that has unfolded over the past five days shows that that continuing crisis has now been compounded by a natural disaster. The right hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that many of the people in the Irrawaddy delta are desperately poor as a consequence of the range of factors affecting their lives, not least the conduct of their Government over recent decades. While there is an opportunity to say more at this stage, I believe that the priority must be to ensure the access to which he has referred.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that when people are starving, have no access to clean water and have lost their homes, the most important thing is to get support to them so that they can achieve a decent life. However, there is a political reality involved. Surely it would be wrong if a single penny of British international development money went into the pockets of the army or into supporting a corrupt and despicable regime that has killed many people. Should we not adhere to the vital principle that the money should go directly to ensuring that people have the opportunity to live, rather than ensuring that a general has the opportunity to stay in his chauffeur-driven car?

I share the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. This is why, historically, we have worked not only with the United Nations but with credible and accredited international partners. That is the approach that we will adopt in relation to the expenditure of the up to £5 million that we announced immediately after the disaster. Of course it is vital to ensure that people have confidence that the money that they are contributing individually, or that their Government are contributing, to the humanitarian effort reaches the people who require assistance. That has been our approach to Burma, it is our approach to Burma, and it will continue to be our approach to Burma.

The Secretary of State is clearly right to say that the highest priority is to gain access for humanitarian aid. As it is obvious that the Chinese Government have considerable influence over the dictatorship that is preventing the aid from coming in, should not more be done to persuade the Chinese? Should we not also take bilateral action, with the Secretary of State speaking to the Chinese ambassador in London and with the Prime Minister making direct contact with his opposite number in Beijing? The Chinese must be the key to getting aid in as a matter of great urgency in the next 24 hours.

There is no single silver-bullet solution to ensure the kind of access that Members on both sides of the House want to see, but I will certainly consider the points that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and discuss the matter with the Foreign Office.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and DFID in general, and in particular Mark Canning, whom we had the opportunity to meet in the House about a month ago. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the minority peoples in Burma, particularly the Karen and the Karenni, are able to access aid? More particularly, will he ensure that the despicable regime does not use this disaster as an opportunity further to attack those people, using the pretence that they could be responsible for instability?

We have worked for many years to secure relief efforts and humanitarian support for a range of groups in Burma, including those that my hon. Friend describes. It will continue to be our guiding principle that we should get the aid to those who require it, regardless of their ethnic origin or of the view that the Burmese regime holds of any particular group in that country.

I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his measured statement today. However, the inescapable reality is that the crisis caused by the cyclone has been greatly exacerbated by the additional reality that the people of Burma continue to languish under one of the most tyrannical and callous regimes to be found anywhere on the face of the earth. On my understanding, six days on, there are but four representatives of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the ground in Burma, while, despicably, no fewer than 100 disaster relief teams are waiting at the borders but have not yet been given visas.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is now a compelling case for Britain publicly to get behind the French position at the United Nations Security Council, to invoke the responsibility to protect and to say to the Government of Burma, “If you want us to help, it will be on the basis that we are protecting people on humanitarian terms.” They should let us in, or we will go in and do what is necessary to prevent the genocide, as the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) so rightly described it.

Let me deal with both those points in turn. In relation to the OCHA assessment teams gaining access to the country, it is for exactly that reason that I raised the issue with the Burmese ambassador. I have also spoken directly to John Holmes of OCHA. When I spoke to him yesterday, he was keen to ensure that, while representations were being made, a careful and measured assessment should be made of what is actually happening on the ground. In that sense, of course we will continue to stay in touch with OCHA and of course we want OCHA assessment teams to have access. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will continue to liaise with OCHA to ensure that that access is forthcoming.

On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had discussions with Bernard Kouchner. I understand that an article that appeared in a French newspaper this morning about the urgency of getting humanitarian relief to Burma was co-authored by my right hon. Friend and the French Foreign Minister. However, I repeat that the first priority has to be to get humanitarian access: in the days, weeks and months to come, there will be plenty of opportunity to assess both the steps that need to be taken and Burma’s position in the international community. The priority now is international access.

I want to pick up on what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) said about the possibilities for the future. What understanding does the Minister believe that the Burma regime has that access is not a short-term exercise? Our experience of other disasters such as the tsunami suggests that the need for free access will continue for a long time. Is the regime aware of that? Is that access being negotiated now, in the immediacy of the present situation?

I sincerely wish that I could give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks, but I am not in a position to do so. We have made it clear that the requirement for immediate and free access means that we need visas to get into the country and then be able to travel freely to the affected areas. We will be able to judge in the days to come whether that access is forthcoming, but the hon. Gentleman is right that the scale of the devastation inflicted by the cyclone on the southern part of Burma means that it is inevitable that there will be very significant reconstruction requirements. Those requirements would test an environment that was far more prosperous and stable than Burma is today, but the immediate priority is to get the assessment teams on the ground. We will be in a better position to have the dialogue to which the hon. Gentleman refers—whether through interlocutors or directly with the Burmese Government—once we have the response of the assessment teams presently endeavouring to get into the country.

In humanitarian emergencies, access to clean water is often one of the most pressing problems. Water is heavy, bulky and difficult to carry by air. Sometimes, inadequate road networks mean that it is even difficult to carry by lorry. What priory is DFID giving to ensuring that clean water is provided as soon as possible to those in difficulties? Are teams of water engineers on stand-by to go to Burma, if necessary?

That effort would require more than my Department’s support. We have an assessment team ready to travel to Burma, and we have staff at the Burmese embassy in London at the moment trying to secure travel visas. As soon as the visas are secured, the assessment team will travel. The team’s principal responsibility will be to join other international assessment teams already on the ground in Burma, and they are largely made up of people from various countries who were in-country when the cyclone hit the coastline. We will use the assessment that we receive to judge the most immediate humanitarian requirements.

The hon. Gentleman is of course right to recognise that water—along with food, shelter and medicines—is likely to be one of the immediate requirements. However, we need to get the assessment teams in to make the sort of judgments that he suggests.

I want to reinforce the message that hon. Members of all parties have put across: that the Burmese regime has greatly weakened the country, but that this major natural disaster has left it in an even more perilous state than before. Clearly, urgent and immediate action is needed. On a practical level, the Secretary of State will know that the International Development Committee was concerned about the reduction in the size of the Bangkok office. What role has the British presence there played in co-ordinating the response in the region before we get access to the country?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very valid point, but this is a work in progress. A senior member of the DFID staff is on the point of travelling to Bangkok in the days to come but, until we know where the international effort will be co-ordinated from, it is unclear what our staffing requirements will be. It is likely—although this will be resolved in the days to come—that many international agencies will be based in Bangkok. If so, the size of our staff complement in Bangkok, as distinct from Rangoon, will be based on the judgments that we make. I have already discussed with senior departmental officials the possibility that we may need to supplement our teams in the region, whether in Rangoon or Bangkok. However, the international community will decide in the days to come where the co-ordination will take place.

Defence in the World

[Relevant documents: Thirteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2006-07, on UK Operations in Afghanistan, HC 408 and the Government’s response (Thirteenth Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 1024); First Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, on UK land operations in Iraq 2007, HC 110, and the Government’s response (Second Special Report, Session 2007-08, HC 352); and the Ninth Report, Session 2007-08, on the future of NATO and European defence, HC111.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of defence in the world.

I welcome this opportunity to debate the role of defence in the world. Given the limits that we have imposed on ourselves for these debates, I do not have time to go into detail about how all our assets are working together to prevent and resolve conflicts around the world. I will therefore focus my comments on those areas that are most pressing and which have rightly attracted the attention of many hon. Members—namely, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Time and interventions permitting, I shall also address directly the issue of ballistic missile defence.

In his leadership campaign, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) promised to drag me to the Dispatch Box—that may be a paraphrase, but I do not think that it does him an injustice—to discuss ballistic missile defence. I have waited and waited, however, but he has done no such thing. Then again, the Liberal Democrats have been promising to do that for the best part of two years now, and the issue has warranted only one or two interventions from them in any debate, so I suppose that a Liberal Democrat promise is made to be broken.