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Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Conservative)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 22 March—Continuation of the Budget.

Tuesday 23 March—Conclusion of the Budget.

Wednesday 24 MarchOpposition half-day [7th allotted day] (part one). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

A debate on the Equitable Life inquiry on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 25 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by programme motion relating to the Employment Relations Bill, followed by a debate on defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 26 March—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 29 March—Remaining stages of the Employment Relations Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 30 March—Opposition Day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 31 March—Remaining stages of the Higher Education Bill.

Thursday 1 April—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

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

Thursday 1 April—Debate on the report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on by-catch of dolphins and porpoises.

Thursday 22 April—Debate on the report from the Treasury Committee on transparency of credit card charges.

Thursday 29 April—Debate on the report from the International Development Committee on development assistance and the occupied Palestine Territories.

It might be helpful if I update the House on the incident in Parliament square this morning. Shortly before 9 am, a van carrying chemicals was involved in a traffic accident. The police and the fire brigade were alerted immediately, and the square was cordoned off because the van contained two chemicals that, if mixed, might have produced harmful gas. The fire brigade took action with regard to chemical control and decontamination procedures. The closure resulted in severe traffic disruption, and both Westminster and Lambeth bridges were closed. Black Rod's Garden remained open to Members' vehicles. I should like to thank the emergency services and the Serjeant at Arms for dealing with the situation so quickly.

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Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Conservative)

I thank the Leader of the House for the business, and for that short statement on the traffic incident. I think that we are all relieved that there is no gas outside this place, although it is often said that there is quite a lot inside.

May I ask the Leader of the House about his remarks that the Labour party might need to embrace proportional representation to save its marginal seats? [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Indeed. We know that the right hon. Gentleman used to be a Liberal. What plans are there for the Cabinet Joint Consultative Committee with the Liberal Democrats to meet to discuss his proposal? Many people are saying that he is perhaps returning to his roots.

Has the Leader of the House noticed that we are not having any discussion on housing in the Budget debate? Given that that was prominent in the Chancellor's statement, perhaps the Leader of the House will tell us whether we can expect a statement on the Barker report, or at least whether we can have an opportunity to debate the Chancellor's proposals on that matter.

Has the Leader of the House seen the scathing report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, published today, in which it joins calls that I have made for much greater Government co-operation in providing witnesses and intelligence material to Select Committees? That is referred to in early-day motion 760.

[That this House expresses its concern that select committees are not able to obtain from the Government the documents and witnesses necessary in order to fulfil their role of scrutinizing the Executive; notes the comments of the honourable Member for Thurrock in the debate on the Hutton Report when he said that Lord Hutton had been able to cross-examine John Scarlet in public, but the Foreign Affairs Committee was refused access to him, and that they had been refused the drafts of the September dossier but Lord Hutton published them on the worldwide web; and calls on the Leader of the House to institute a major review into the way in which Government and ministers treat select committees and the provisions of the Osmotherly Rules and the Ministerial Code.]

The Committee describes the current practice as unenforceable, and is calling for enforcement procedures for when a Minister refuses to appear before a Committee or to supply a witness or documents. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Government have treated the Foreign Affairs Committee with lofty disdain, and that their attitude has been a disgrace? Will he announce the urgent review that is needed, in a statement today or next week?

Finally, the Leader of the House will be aware that the Home Secretary has described the returned Guantanamo detainees as posing no threat to the United Kingdom. However, reports released today by the US embassy show that one of them was trained in the use of weapons by al-Qaeda and fought the coalition in Tora Bora, and that two others were trained in the use of weapons in Afghanistan and were in that country armed and under Taliban orders. Apparently, another describes the US and the UK as his enemies and has travelled under al-Qaeda auspices. In those circumstances, are we not entitled to know why the Government say that these trained terrorists are not a threat? The Leader of the House will know that my right hon. Friend David Davis has asked the Home Secretary to come here and make an emergency statement about this vital issue. Where is he?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

First, may I say that I am disappointed that neither the hon. Gentleman nor the usual channels have been able to give us the topic for the Opposition day motion next week?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

Well, the reason is that if the topic is known, it enables Members to plan their week and their work programme. They are able to decide what to intervene on or whether to seek to catch the Speaker's eye the day before. If they do not know what the subject is, they cannot make those choices. I understand that urgent business might sometimes require a change of subject, but I would be grateful if Mr. Heald could discuss with his colleagues the common courtesy to the House of telling us what the subject will be, at least on a provisional basis.

On the Guantanamo returnees, the Government are absolutely alert to the risk that we face from international terrorism—we saw in Madrid last week the terrible impact that it can have. So, in dealing with those returnees, the police have been very anxious to assess the risk. They have done that, and they are dealing with the matter fully aware of all the dangers that the country faces from international terrorism and in the knowledge that they are able to utilise in full the powers of the anti-terrorism legislation. Those individuals have been dealt with in accordance with those facts.

On the question of proportional representation, I am going to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by saying that I have never been a supporter of it. I have, however, been a long-time supporter of the alternative vote, which is opposed root and branch by the Liberal Democrats and many others. I believe that, whatever reforms we make to the electoral system governing the election to the House of Commons, the single Member seat is the cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy. The issue is whether we should have the system that we have now, which is first past the post, or whether we should have a system in which we vote 1, 2, 3. I have always favoured the latter, but that is my view. We are having a big conversation about this and other issues—[Interruption.] It is important for people to express their views if they have strong feelings about retaining the first-past-the-post system. Others have feelings about opting for a fully proportional representation system. I do not agree with the PR system, because it would break the link between the individual Member elected to the House of Commons and the constituency, which could reject him or her if it did not like what that Member was doing. All PR systems destroy that link.

On housing, and the Barker report, we are very concerned about the difficulties that people—particularly first-time buyers—are having, which is part of the problem that ought to be addressed by the Barker report. That report was published in association with the Budget and can therefore be discussed at any time during the Budget debates. I hope that it will be, and the hon. Gentleman can arrange for his colleagues to put questions to the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers on housing matters if he wishes to do so. I would also say to him that we would welcome his tabling a motion on housing, because we would then see the clear dividing line between the Government, who intend to invest more in housing, and the Conservative Opposition, who are going to cut housing provision through cuts in the local government budget amounting to £2.5 billion. That savage cut would also, incidentally, result in council tax rises.

Finally, I do not accept for one moment that we have treated the Foreign Affairs Committee with, in the hon. Gentleman's words, "lofty disdain". On the contrary, the Government have co-operated in detail with the Committee, and we will be considering its report and obviously responding in detail to the representations that it has very properly made.

The Prime Minister also made it clear during his recent evidence session with the Liaison Committee that the Government would review the Osmotherly rules, which are at the heart of the matter. We intend to remain supportive of that commitment.

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Mr Paul Tyler (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons; North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

May I refer the Leader of the House to the announcement he has made today that we are to have only one day for all the remaining stages of the Higher Education Bill? It is clear to Members on both sides of the House that this legislation is still extremely controversial, not least, of course, because of the lack of representation in Committee from a number of his colleagues who have concerns about important aspects of the Bill.

Will the Leader of the House look again to see whether he can find extra time for those remaining stages? Can he also give an absolute guarantee that there will be no Government statement on that day, if we have to remain with just one day for consideration? Will he also consider the special case for allowing extra time to replace any time taken for Divisions during the debate, because there may be a number of them, which could take up precious debating time?

Can the Leader of the House confirm the report in today's edition of the Financial Times that the plans for the reform of the House of Lords have become "absolutely shambolic"? No doubt he was involved in the meeting of the Cabinet Sub-Committee that took place this week and where, we understand, the whole issue was shunted up a siding. Can he tell us when and if the Bill will ever appear—he has previously referred to it in the House—and can he, at long last, confirm that, if it does reach the House, consideration in Committee will be taken in full on the Floor of the House, as was the case with the last reform Bill, which took the bulk of the hereditaries out of the House of Lords?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

The Higher Education Bill was debated on Second Reading in great detail and it had a full airing in Committee, where, I understand, detailed and good-quality debate took place. I will certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's comment about there being no Government statement on the day, which is a fair point, subject, obviously, to the emergencies of the day. I will also look at the point he made about Divisions, but we have set sitting hours and I think it is important to keep to those.

On the Financial Times report, I ask the hon. Gentleman, in the nicest way, to contain himself on this matter. When we are ready to say how we are proceeding on the House of Lords questions, we will do so. An announcement will be made and he will need to wait until then.

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Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

Will my right hon. Friend have words with the Treasury to see whether it is possible to organise some training on interpretation of the massive Budget documents that we get every year, aimed at avoiding confusion of the kind that occurred yesterday in relation to green fuels? The Conservative party issued a press release that was so factually inaccurate that it misled the motorist. [Interruption.] This is important, although I am sure that the press release was not intended to mislead. Can we have some training?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

Training for Opposition Members in all sorts of things would be a great advantage to the House, but I take my hon. Friend's point. For example, we would not have imagined that to get to the same level of duty as applies in Germany, fuel duty incentives for liquefied petroleum gas in the United Kingdom would have to rise by about 200 per cent. As he rightly says, the picture painted by the Opposition is extremely misleading, though no doubt that was inadvertent.

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Mr Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire, Conservative)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement next week on the proposed title for the so-called presiding officer in the House of Lords? Is he aware of early-day motion 444?

[That this House notes the report prepared by the House of Lords' Select Committee on the Speakership of the House of Lords and its recommendation that the senior Lord presiding on the Woolsack should be known as the Lord Speaker; further notes that the Committee recognized the argument that this might lead to confusion with the Speaker of the House of Commons, but dismissed it; respectfully consider that there would be considerable scope for such confusion to occur, particularly in respect of Mr Speaker's role in representing this House at home and overseas; and calls upon the Government to facilitate consultations between both Houses about this important and sensitive issue.]

It has attracted 139 signatures against the title of Lord Speaker.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I will certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request, because I know the strong feelings of the House on this matter. As I have said before, Mr. Speaker, we have one Speaker—that is your good self. We intend to ensure that our Speaker is above all others, not just in this country but in the world.

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Mrs Alice Mahon (Halifax, Labour)

The Leader of the House will have seen that there has been a further outbreak of violence in Kosovo, which has come as no surprise to anyone who has visited it recently, because it is a mono-ethnic state run by the mafia, with ethnic minorities living in guarded enclaves. Those who constantly hail Kosovo as a success are deafeningly silent about the 170,000 refugees living in Serbia and Montenegro. Can we have an urgent debate on the situation in Kosovo, and on the very urgent need to get those permanently ethnically cleansed minorities back to Kosovo?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I acknowledge the close interest that my hon. Friend has taken in Kosovo, and I pay tribute to her for continuing to do so. The Defence Secretary will make a written ministerial statement on Monday about the situation, but I can tell the House that we agreed this morning to the deployment to Kosovo of the 1st battalion, the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, which is the unit assigned to the role in question after NATO requested the deployment of the operational reserve force. Today, 120 troops have gone out, and up to 600 will be made available if necessary. The situation is very serious, with many deaths and injuries, and we want to help to stabilise it. Kosovo has suffered far too much from ethnic conflicts and genocide, and it needs to be stabilised and have peace established as soon as possible.

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Mr Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield, Conservative)

May I follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about a debate on housing? I raise this not as a party political point but as a constituency point. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has put a moratorium on any further house building in my borough—the borough of Macclesfield—which, clearly, is having an adverse impact. While there are exceptions in relation to affordable housing, affordable housing is often only part of a larger development in which normal houses partially subsidise it. Could the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to respond during the Budget debate on matters relating to housing? If not, could he find the opportunity for a debate on this important matter, preferably in this Chamber, or, if not, in Westminster Hall?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I will certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request. I can vouch for the fact that he consistently makes good constituency points, and very rarely are they party points. He is known to have that reputation.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

He is indeed. Clearly, the issue that he raises about his constituency is important, and I know that the Minister responsible will want to take a close interest in it.

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Mr Harry Barnes (North East Derbyshire, Labour)

I note that the debate on Equitable Life is to be on the Adjournment, but can we not have it on a substantive motion? That would allow some of us to put forward a version of early-day motion 827.

[That this House notes that Lord Penrose's report finds extensive evidence of operational failures by Equitable Life and regulatory failures by previous Conservative governments; yet recognises that Labour governments are often called upon to deal with the failings of financial capitalism and of a Conservative free market inheritance; and calls upon the Government to find ways and means for either the Parliamentary Ombudsman or Lord Penrose himself to examine the situation in order to make recommendations on compensation.]

That motion recognises that the problem arose from within Equitable Life itself and as a result of the lack of regulation under the Conservatives. Nevertheless, we often have to clear up the mess that has been created, and a case exists for compensation on the basis of need. We need an opportunity to debate the matter fully, which a substantive motion would allow.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

There will, of course, be an opportunity to debate it fully in the time that we have allocated. It is an important issue, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are having to clear up a mess that has badly hit many people as a result of the collapse of their financial provision for the future. We are addressing the matter, and there will be an opportunity to debate it, as he knows, but I am afraid that I cannot satisfy his request for a substantive motion.

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Mr Richard Younger-Ross (Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions; Teignbridge, Liberal Democrat)

I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary can make a statement on the present situation in Syria, where a number of Kurds have recently been shot and killed, a number injured, and a number arrested. I was told this morning that a number of villages are still cut off from the outside world. Can the Foreign Secretary make a statement on that, and in particular say what representations the Government have made to Syria, and whether the ambassador has been asked to explain the current situation?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

Those at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said. He is right to draw the matter to our attention. I hope he will take the opportunity to table questions to the Foreign Secretary by next Wednesday, so that it can be addressed.

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Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff North, Labour)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern felt by my constituents who work for the Inland Revenue in Llanishen, at Companies House and the Department for Work and Pensions in Gabalfa, and in other civil service outlets about the proposals announced by the Chancellor yesterday for civil service job cuts? Will he convey that concern to his colleagues, and press for early clarification of the position? Will he also ask them to bear in mind the losses that will be experienced in Cardiff, and particularly in my constituency, when deciding where to relocate the civil service jobs that are being moved from London?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

The Ministers responsible will have noted my hon. Friend's points on behalf of her constituents. I can reassure her that the proposed reorganisation of the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Department for Work and Pensions results from efficiency savings, principally the introduction of new technology. It will now be possible to divert resources from backroom staff who were needed before the introduction of IT and other efficiency savings to front-line services, so that we can recruit more police officers, nurses, teachers and others—including pensions staff—and those services can be delivered to our constituents.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

As the hon. Gentleman has heckled me on the matter, let us consider the front-line services that would be cut by the shadow Chancellor's Budget. The number of police officers would be cut by at least 3,500. Council tax would go sky-high because of raiding of the local government budget, which would mean cuts of £2.5 billion. Transport budgets would be cut, as would be—astonishingly, given that the shadow Chancellor is a Conservative—the defence budget.

As for the Lyons report—

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Mr Michael Martin (Speaker)

Order. I do not think that this is about business for the coming week, which is really what we should be discussing.

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Mr Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst, Conservative)

I am sure we all look forward to being nursed by tax inspectors. It is an intriguing thought. But will the Leader of the House please list the occasions on which he has participated in the big conversation?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

Those are primarily party events, although on behalf of a Labour Government. I have taken part in about half a dozen, including one in Birmingham last week.

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Mr Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green, Labour)

May we have an early debate on the modernisation agenda? Will my right hon. Friend look in particular at the issue of parliamentary questions? As well as ministerial Question Times, could we not have an Opposition questions slot? Would that not be good for democracy—and would it not allow me to demand legitimately to be told how much money would be siphoned out of the NHS and state schools if the Tory policies for passports ever came to fruition?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I must say that I am very tempted by my hon. Friend's proposition. On a series of issues, the Conservative Opposition say one thing and then contradict it with something else. They say, for instance, that they want to cut crime, yet their proposed cuts in the Home Office budget would cause a reduction of up to 3,500 in the number of police officers. They speak of health investment, and then propose policies that would result in fewer nurses. Their education proposals would lead to a reduction in non-school budgets. The House, therefore, might well be enlightened by the holding of an Opposition Question Time.

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Dr Bob Spink (Castle Point, Conservative)

May we have a debate on hospices? Adult hospices are funded poorly, but children's hospices are in a funding crisis. Little Haven hospice in my constituency receives less than 2 per cent. of its funds from the Government. That is why it has recently had to launch a bond. It is an excellent way of raising funds, and I am delighted that so many local people support it, but we really do need to look again at the funding of the hospice movement.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I know that the movement regards the hon. Gentleman as one of its champions, and the House is indebted to him for that. I also know of his concern about the local situation, and the Minister responsible will have noted his comments. I remind him, however, that we have indeed provided more funds for the hospice movement—as he is kind enough to acknowledge with a nod. We will continue to do so, because the movement performs a vital role in our community.

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Mr Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West, Labour)

I understand that in his Budget statement yesterday, the Chancellor encouraged financial institutions to give any orphan funds they might have to charity. Would it not be a good idea for the Government to use any orphan funds they have in the National Savings bank, for example, to compensate Allied Steel and Wire and other workers who have lost their occupational pensions through no fault of their own?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

It is, in the main, for the Chancellor to respond to that question and establish whether there is scope to explore it further, but I know that my hon. Friend saw the Prime Minister earlier this week to discuss the matter. I also know that every member of the Government, from the Prime Minister down, wants to resolve the situation and is considering all sorts of possible avenues.

The injustice suffered by the ASW workers and others is grievous and terrible: they were robbed of pensions that were deferred wages. The issue has always been how to resolve the situation in a way that allows justice to prevail without a read-across resulting in a potential cost of billions of pounds to the taxpayer from other claims. That is the problem. If a solution can be found, I know that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Prime Minister will want to find it.

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Mr Tim Boswell (Daventry, Conservative)

I know that the Leader of the House is concerned about the fate of three Britons, one of them a constituent of mine, who have been imprisoned in Cairo for two years without a verdict. As their next hearing is fast approaching, will he have a word with those at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ask them to put all reasonable diplomatic pressure on the Egyptian authorities to ensure that this time the matter can be concluded once and for all with a verdict?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I am happy to agree to the hon. Gentleman's request, because I know the matter has been of great concern to him for some time.

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Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly, Labour)

May we have a debate on the new deal as soon as possible? In my constituency, 3,600 young people and some 2,440 lone parents have benefited from it. People are very worried about what would happen to the programme in the event of a public expenditure cut of £18 billion.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

There is enormous concern about that in my own constituency and nearby. I have visited the Shaw trust, a marvellous project funded partly by the new deal, which gives partially sighted and blind people the opportunity to work. It is incredibly moving to see that going on. If funds for the new deal were cut, as the Conservatives propose—

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

Indeed. If that happened, the Shaw trust and other new deal projects up and down the land—including some in my hon. Friend's constituency—would be for the chop. That would deal a terrible injustice to the long-term unemployed, those with disabilities, and those who want the opportunity to work that the new deal has provided.

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Dr Andrew Murrison (Westbury, Conservative)

Only last week I tabled a number of named-day questions to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Miss Johnson, for answer on Monday. They concerned multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and the TB action plan that was supposed to be launched at the beginning of last year. I was fobbed off with the response that the hon. Lady would reply to me as soon as possible. Does that not constitute an admission that she simply does not have a clue about a very important matter on which she should have data at her fingertips? Will the Leader of the House do what he can to extract a proper answer from his hon. Friend?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I really cannot accept that. The Minister will want to give a serious, proper and full reply to the hon. Gentleman's question, and I think he should have the patience to wait for it rather than asking for a pre-emptive answer when the necessary investigation and assessment have not been carried out. He will want an answer that satisfies him, and that is what the Government will want to provide.

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Mr Gordon Prentice (Pendle, Labour)

We welcome my right hon. Friend's promise to bring back the Hunting Bill in this Session. Can he give a date, so that the Parliament Act may be used if necessary?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

My hon. Friend has long been on my tail and that of the Government in respect of that measure. We remain committed to resolving that issue.

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Mr Paul Goodman (Wycombe, Conservative)

While I do not agree with the analysis of Mr. Barnes in relation to Equitable Life, is the Leader of the House aware that many Conservative Members agree that there should be a full debate, to provide the opportunity to express the extreme dissatisfaction felt by many constituents at the recent Treasury statement on Equitable Life?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to express his views when there is a debate in Government time at the Government's initiative. I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's point. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire was making a different point about a substantive motion. If the hon. Gentleman can persuade members of his Front Bench to initiate a debate on a substantive motion, the Government will be happy to debate it—and to oppose the motion, if we cannot agree with it.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

Today's Order Paper for the House of Lords contains two motions on co-operation and carry-over. We are content with that situation and hope that on Monday, those motions—which have been tabled by agreement through the usual channels—will be carried. Then the Bill can be debated in the House of Lords and return to this House. That will deliver the Bill in a sensible fashion—rather than the position on 8 March when, in an unprecedented move, peers from all walks of life from all over the country, were bussed in by the Conservatives to defeat the Government and long-grass the Bill. The only precedent for that manoeuvre saw the measure never return to the Floor of the House or the matter resolved.

Rather than employ tactics to wreck the Bill, there is now the opportunity for proper scrutiny that will deliver the Bill because the Opposition, through the usual channels, have committed themselves. That arrangement will allow us to move forward but also raises the question of which is the supreme House of Parliament. That must be the House of Commons. It is good that the lordships involved in the negotiations have now agreed to deliver a Bill after a plea by the Leader of the Opposition, after previously saying—in the words of one Opposition Front Bencher—that they should bin the Bill. They are not going to bin the Bill. They will discuss it in a serious fashion and the will of this House shall prevail.

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Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk, Conservative)

Can there be a statement on the extraordinary state of affairs in Zimbabwe involving the arrest of so-called mercenaries—including a British citizen, Simon Mann, who is a former SAS and Scots Guards officer? He may be an adventurer but if he intended to launch a coup against Equatorial New Guinea, he would hardly have started in Zimbabwe. Mr. Mann is currently imprisoned in squalid conditions and possibly faces the death penalty. Has the high commissioner been to see Mr. Mann? Have consular officials offered him any support?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I am not aware of the detailed consular arrangements but British citizens are entitled to full consular access and support, whatever their situation and whatever they might have done. I am sure that the Foreign Office will take a close interest in the hon. Gentleman's request. That situation is rather bizarre but almost everything that happens in Zimbabwe is not just bizarre but more serious. The situation to which the hon. Gentleman refers will have to be investigated and I am sure that the Foreign Office will provide the hon. Gentleman with the assurances that he seeks.

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Mr David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

Following the terrorist atrocity in Madrid last Thursday, does my right hon. Friend agree that the role of the police in anti-terrorist work is more important than ever? Greater Manchester police are fortunate to have a record number of officers in post. The House has many opportunities during the year to debate defence policy but there are few debates specifically on policing policy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Opposition are finding it difficult to identify a subject for debate next week, that occasion would provide a perfect opportunity for the House to discuss the funding and role of the police—particularly the impact of any cuts in police spending on anti-terrorist work?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

Government policy is to increase police numbers, whereas Opposition policy is to cut police numbers as a result of big cuts in the Home Office budget. The Conservatives have done that before. When the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary, police numbers were cut by more than 1,000. Conservatives talk about wanting to fight crime but cut police numbers. The people of this country ought to know that there is a clear dividing line between Government and Opposition policing policy.

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Mr Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North, Labour)

I have urged my right hon. Friend before to make time for a full debate on all aspects of housing beyond the Budget debate. I welcome the excellent report by Kate Barker, which identifies the fact that many more houses are needed. It is clear that the private sector is not prepared to build the number of houses, houses in the right places or types of houses required. There is a strong case for reinventing local authority provision of first-class, quality housing. A debate could encompass, for example, the abandonment of stock transfer schemes, transferring stock back to local authorities, and the re-establishment and expansion of direct labour organisations for house building and housing repairs, which worked so well in the past.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I have always been a great admirer of council housing programmes, especially since the war. The role played by Labour Governments over many decades was exemplary. We want to encourage opportunities for more social housing, whether provided by local councils or housing associations. The Barker report points up severe problems—in particular, the lack of affordable housing. We are seized of the need to do something, which is the reason for the Chancellor's positive welcome to the Barker report and to its recommendations for encouraging the relaxation of planning regulations and identifying different locations by changing the regime and encouraging the use of more brownfield sites. At least the public—especially first-time buyers—are confident that under this Government, mortgage rates will remain low because of the economic stability locked in by the Chancellor and endorsed by yesterday's Budget. Under Conservative Governments, mortgages went sky-high and were treble what they are now, creating uncertainty in the housing market and a nightmare for many first-time buyers.

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Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East, Labour)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to review the local government electoral systems in England and Wales? I respect my right hon. Friend's long-held views on the alternative vote but does he share the view of many right hon. and hon. Members who believe in the first-past-the-post system that electoral reform in favour of proportional representation for local government in Scotland would be a disaster?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I acknowledge and respect my hon. Friend's long-standing commitment to first past the post. I have been a long-standing opponent of proportional representation, which destroys the relationship between the Member of Parliament and his or her constituency, which can judge its MP and get rid of him or her if it wants. There are all sorts of anomalies and contradictions in PR systems. We fought the election on a commitment to undertake a review—which will be interesting because it will point up many of the anomalies that apply in existing PR systems. In Wales, for example, somebody can stand in an individual constituency and be defeated but get elected under the list system, then set up as a rival to the member who beat them.

In Clwyd, West in north Wales, three such candidates stood, were defeated, then got elected under the list system and campaigned against the winning Assembly member.

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

I plead guilty. I took through the Government of Wales Act 1998 together with the then Secretary of State for Wales. The way the system operates has proved seriously anomalous and unacceptable—one reason for its operation being reviewed by the commission under Lord Richard. I hope that a much more sensible situation will emerge in future. I look forward to discussing those matters with my hon. Friend Mr. Watson.

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Mr David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde, Labour)

On 6 April, during the Easter recess, the provisions of the Sunday Working (Scotland) Act 2003 will become law. My right hon. Friend will recall that I was fortunate enough to introduce that legislation as a private Member's Bill. It extends to shop workers in Scotland the right not to work on a Sunday should they choose not to do so—a right already enjoyed by shop workers in England and Wales. Will he take this and every opportunity to promote its provisions, so that shop workers in Scotland who are following the proceedings of this House will know that, from 6 April, people in my constituency will enjoy the right not to work on a Sunday that those in his constituency have enjoyed for many years?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the marvellous way in which, through legislation for which he was responsible, he has championed the cause of those workers. Indeed, the whole House is indebted to him, as are those shop workers who can be required to work on Sundays against their will.

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Mr Patrick Mercer (Newark, Conservative)

I was interested to hear that the Leader of the House believes that the Government are fully aware of the dangers of terrorism, but I am less than reassured to discover that the civil defence grant has been cut in real terms, that no public information campaign is being mounted to alert people to the dangers of terrorism, that there is no particular campaign to ensure that people are trained to know what to expect, and—most intriguingly of all—that the Civil Contingencies Bill seems to have stalled. Will the Leader of the House ask whichever Minister happens to be currently responsible for homeland security to explain the position to the House, and in particular to explain why the Bill is making no progress?

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Mr Peter Hain (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Neath, Labour)

The Secretary of State and the Ministers responsible will want to study carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman raises before responding. I remind him, however—I am entitled to do so because he makes an important point—that the policy announced by the shadow Chancellor would lead to a big cut in homeland security budgets, and as a result our security would be infringed and threatened. That is exactly why the Chancellor announced yesterday a continuation of investment in infrastructure—including in homeland security—in our education system and in our other public services, so that this country can provide high quality services, and that the security issues about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned can be properly addressed. Those issues would not be addressed if the Conservatives won the next general election. Orders of the Day