The business for the week after the Easter recess will be:
The provisional business for the following week will be:
I should like to inform the House that business in Westminster Hall for April will be:
I thank the Leader of the House for telling us the business. May I thank the staff of the House for all that they do for us and join him in wishing them, Mr. Speaker, the Deputy Speakers and hon. Members on both sides of the House a happy Easter?
Will the Leader of the House arrange for three statements to be made in the week after we return? First, will he arrange for Health Ministers to respond to the many letters and approaches that have been made to them—so far without success—on behalf of multiple sclerosis therapy centres about the charges of more than £1,000 that they are forced to pay for inspections by the Healthcare Commission, which are about to rise by 50 per cent. and will quadruple by 2008? Those centres are paid for entirely by donations and are the only such voluntary arrangements to be charged for in that way. A campaigner said to me yesterday, "I don't call it a stealth tax—it's daylight robbery." May we have a statement about that?
Secondly, the Leader of the House will recall that, on three occasions in June last year, I raised with him the problems associated with postal voting. I cited examples of babies receiving ballot papers, heads of families filling in ballot papers for the whole family, employers threatening to sack staff unless they voted for a certain political party and other worrying abuses. I quoted the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, calling for a "national rethink". Conservatives and the Electoral Commission have called for individual voter registration to be introduced on the mainland as it applies in Northern Ireland. We have gone further and called for Government inspectors for the coming elections in areas where abuses have been alleged. What has the Leader of the House done about that in the past nine months? May we have a statement in the light of the comments of the judge in the Birmingham postal ballots case that the system is an "open invitation to fraud" and today's Select Committee report? If not, are the Government really satisfied about this country sliding back to the worst days of personation and electoral fraud such as were seen in the 18th century?
Thirdly and finally, the Modernisation Committee has now recommended that the European Scrutiny Committee should sit in public when deliberating European documents. I have been asking the Leader of the House for more than a year to make the necessary changes to Standing Orders. What action does he intend to take—or will it be left to me to make the change after our general election victory?
I shall certainly look into the issue of multiple sclerosis therapy centres, and the Secretary of State for Health will want to pay attention to what the hon. Gentleman says.
On postal voting, the simple fact is that we did not have a pilot in the west midlands, which is where the case of serious fraud arose—I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about that. The allegations there relate to the traditional method of postal voting, not an all-postal pilot. The Electoral Commission said in its evaluation of the June 2004 elections that postal voting should remain part of the electoral process. We accept its recommendations on strengthening the penalties for malpractice involving postal voting generally—for example, by establishing new offences involving electoral fraud and personation.
The truth is that postal voting is now increasingly popular among many honest and upright citizens throughout Britain, because they find it an easier way to vote, so more are taking advantage of it. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there is a return to 18th-century fraud is pre-election hype and exaggeration, and I am sorry that he has resorted to it.
We are examining individual voter registration, but it is quite a complex matter. We must consider the situation in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that more voters are not discouraged from registering to vote, because there is evidence that the number of voters on the electoral register is declining. We should be careful not to introduce a system that is so complex that it effectively discourages higher turnout.
We will look at the recommendation to allow the European Scrutiny Committee to deliberate in public when the opportunity arises, and there is a chance to debate the Modernisation Committee's conclusions.
After raising the issue of school meals during business questions last week, I was delighted that the Government made a statement that they would do something about it. I was impressed by the wide-ranging measures that they announced. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is also obvious that many of our children lack the skills to prepare meals themselves, and there is a lack of information given out in schools about the contents of food? Should we not address the matter through the national curriculum, and will he raise the idea on my behalf with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills?
I know that the Minister concerned will want to study my hon. Friend's points closely, and I agree with the spirit of them. I strongly believe that the nutritional value of school meals should be much higher. The kind of food that many children eat is worrying. As independent studies have confirmed, that will ultimately result in serious threats to their future health, which is why we have already announced massive additional investment, tougher standards for processed food, a new role for Ofsted to inspect and report on healthy eating, and investment to rebuild and refurbish primary school kitchens. As the Government have said, we welcome the way in which Jamie Oliver has driven this subject up the agenda and made it a big public issue, as Government Ministers could not have hoped to do. That will move the whole agenda forward.
The Leader of the House said that the Mental Capacity Bill would return for its remaining stages a week on Tuesday. May we have sufficient time to consider that Bill, because he will know that the Government tabled important amendments in the other place, especially one relating to the Bournewood judgment—an important European Court judgment? I tabled amendments to close the Bournewood gap in Committee, and we will need time for a proper debate on the Government amendments.
Additionally, the Leader of the House will recall that on Report and Third Reading in this Chamber, there was considerable confusion and anxiety about the interpretation of the Bill in respect of euthanasia. The Minister concerned was incapable of answering straight questions on the Floor of the House. Will we have sufficient time to address that important aspect of the Bill? Many people want the Bill, including myself, but while the caveat that it may represent euthanasia by the back door hangs over it, it will continue to cause great concern outside this place.
The hon. Lady makes several important points that will be borne in mind, but I must ask her to withdraw the accusation that the Bill represents euthanasia by the back door, because that is simply not the case. She knows that the Bill was subject to extensive pre-legislative scrutiny—
Indeed, and she performed a valuable role.
Are any other hon. Members queueing up to admit to their positive role? [Interruption.] Ah, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House was not on the Joint Committee. The issues are difficult, but the Bill is important, as the hon. Lady says. We want to get it through as quickly and consensually as possible.
Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that when we return after the Easter recess, the Prime Minister himself will make an oral statement, and respond to questions from hon. Members, to substantiate the Government's response to the recommendations of the Butler inquiry? All hon. Members will be staggered by the mind-boggling cheek of producing such a short written statement on the response to such an incredibly important report yesterday—the day before the House rises for the recess. There has been media questioning, but Members of the House have had no opportunity to question the Government on important matters, including the machinery of government. What could be more important in a parliamentary democracy than the accountability of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to Parliament?
The Butler report found sloppy decision making and inadequate lines of responsibility. It was a devastating attack on so-called "sofa politics". It defined precisely the corrosive tendencies to which that has led and highlighted yet another reason why the public are disillusioned with, and disengaged from, the political process. I shall quote a specific conclusion from the report:
"we are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the Government's procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgement. Such risks are particularly significant in a field like the subject of our Review, where hard facts are inherently difficult to come by and the quality of judgement is accordingly all the more important."
Last night's statement was a totally inadequate reply to that conclusion, and the apposite and well-informed criticisms made about the way in which Ministers used their judgment on intelligence issues. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were in the Chamber today. Were they too scared to answer questions from parliamentarians about such vital issues at the very heart of our political system?
As the hon. Gentleman says, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were here this afternoon to answer questions from both sides of the House. I simply do not accept the picture that he paints. A full statement was provided to the House in the proper way in response to the report, and its lessons will be learned. I do not understand why he has got into such a fuss about it.
I have to agree with my hon. Friend. It is pretty obvious that if you take 35 away from some number, you have less, do you not, Madam Deputy Speaker? If one has a number minus 35, one ends up with a lower figure—that is the point. I would have thought that even a primary school child taking the most basic maths class would understand that any number minus 35 is 35 less—so in other words, £35 billion of cuts are being suggested.
The Leader of the House was present when the Foreign Secretary answered a question asked by Clare Short. He said to her that there had been opportunities to ask questions on the statement made by the Attorney-General, but as she sat down, she said that that did not happen, and that there was no opportunity to ask questions in Cabinet. The Leader of the House was present during that Cabinet meeting—so who was telling the truth and who was telling the lie?
I was indeed there, and there was no question of lies or the rest of it. Frankly, between "he said" and "she said" we might as well leave it at that.
May I take the Leader of the House back two weeks? On
I have great admiration and considerable affection for my hon. Friend, but I cannot promise him a statement on that matter.
Will the Leader of the House replace the debate on defence in the UK with a debate on the Floor of the House on the important subject of international development? I put it to him that the Government's tendency, whenever they have nothing better to table, simply to lob on to the agenda an Adjournment debate on Wales, the European Union, defence in the UK or defence in the world, is unsatisfactory. There are huge issues in the international development debate, including effective aid, good debt relief, the pursuit of trade justice and the fight for improved governance in Africa, and there is a compelling argument to debate those matters on the Floor of the House.
The hon. Gentleman may have a point about defence. We are obliged by convention and tradition to hold five debates on various aspects of defence policy. If the Conservative Front-Bench team is making representations to me that that should be handled differently—
No, I am making the representations.
I have noticed that. If the Conservative Front-Bench team were to support the hon. Gentleman in that endeavour, that would be very interesting, and I would consider any such representations very sympathetically.
I understand that the Parliamentary Communications Directorate, which provides our computer equipment, is going to put out to tender the contract to provide hand-held devices for Members. Can the Leader of the House tell us what consultation has been conducted among Members? I am quite unaware of any.
I certainly have not been consulted on this matter, and although I have been advised that there have been some discussions, I am not satisfied that proper consultation has taken place. I hope that the House authorities will look at the matter carefully and consult in more depth to ensure that any decision will be made in the full knowledge of Members, and in the best interests of the House.
Many loyal and hard-working public servants in my constituency have written to me to express concern about possible changes to their pension schemes. They would expect a change of that nature that affects a large number of people and has significant impact on morale in the public services to be at the heart of the parliamentary agenda. However, if such matters are debated at all, it is done through statutory instruments. Can the Leader of the House ensure that when proposals are introduced to change public sector pension schemes they are given the due prominence in the business of the House that people would expect?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. He will welcome the statement following the discussions between the Deputy Prime Minister and the local government unions that resulted in consensus on the way forward. Everyone accepts that the existing method for funding public pensions, particularly an unfunded scheme such as the local government one, is not sustainable and that we must find a way forward in the new circumstances created by an ageing society. If there is an opportunity for the House discuss these matters, we will obviously seek to use it.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of widespread concern about the draft guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence on drugs to treat Alzheimer's and related diseases. Sufferers and their families believe that medical advances can alleviate these heart-rending conditions and give people hope. Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate before a final decision is made?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter. I cannot promise him an early debate, so he may wish to take advantage of the normal opportunities to try to secure one himself.
May we have a debate on today's controversial report by the Science and Technology Committee on human reproductive technology and the law, to ensure that the House makes it clear that it rejects the extreme libertarian and deregulatory thrust of that report in favour of a precautionary, gradualist approach that respects the dignity of all human life?
I realise that there was controversy surrounding the report, which raises crucial and sensitive issues—which is why the Government will study it very closely indeed.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the joint report on electoral registration published today by the Select Committees on Constitutional Affairs and on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? I doubt whether it would be fruitful to have a debate about electoral registration before
It is outrageous that my hon. Friend's points should have been ignored. He has raised an important issue which, as I said earlier, Ministers are looking into. Extra business has not been announced for the week after
Further to the observations of my hon. Friend Mark Tami, in the nine years in which I served on the Information Committee, all key changes to the provision of services for Members and the development of the network in the House became subjects for our reports, which were laid before the House. Has there been a change in that practice, and if not, can we insist that PCD does not go ahead with any procurement until such a report has been laid before the House?
I have received conflicting advice and information on the subject. I am advised that the issue has been discussed by the Information Committee and by the Speaker's advisory panel. On the other hand, it is clear from my hon. Friends' questions that there is still considerable concern about it. It is such an important matter that we would benefit from a little further consultation so that everyone can be satisfied that the right decision has been made.
When we return from the Easter recess, would my right hon. Friend organise a short debate on the problems facing English football? I draw his attention my early-day motion 914 on the need to protect referees:
[That this House notes with regret and concern the growing tendency for football players to seek to intimidate and influence the decision-making of match officials during the course of a game; and calls upon the English football authorities to punish most severely any player who verbally or physically abuses the match referee or his or her assistants.]
I also draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 956 on the extraordinary attacks by UEFA, the European football governing body, on Chelsea coach José Mourinho. Whether or not we have a debate, will he make sure that the business on
I would love to have the opportunity to watch Chelsea secure another fine victory over a leading European club, but whether that is possible depends on my right hon. and hon. Friends. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Whip is discouraging me, but I will talk to him with my hon. Friend Mr. Banks. As for the UEFA attack, I would call it a full frontal assault on José Mourinho. I find it extraordinary. The football authorities ought to conduct themselves with a little more dignity in these matters. When I look at the politics around international football, the politics around Government seems positively sombre and boring by comparison.