– in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 25th October 2001.
Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?
The business for next week will be as follows:
Remaining stages of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill.
Motion to approve the special educational needs code of practice.
The House may also welcome notice that I hope by the end of next week to be in a position to table a resolution to set up the Liaison Committee.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us notice of the business. When might we expect the Chancellor's autumn statement? The sooner the House is made aware of that, the better.
What on earth is going on in terms of Ministers failing to come to the House to give statements on important matters, so that the House cannot question them? There are a number of examples, the foremost of which has arisen today, regarding the scandalous news from the Audit Commission about accident and emergency units. It is one thing for Ministers to go on the radio in the morning, as is their habit, but why, even if that were to happen first—which it should not—cannot Ministers come to the House of Commons to answer questions, not from the Humphrys and Naughties of this world, but from Members of Parliament?
The same applies to the letter that we have all had today from the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for adult skills, John Healey, about something called the individual learning account programme. The hon. Gentleman says that
"some people are being pressed to sign up for low value, poor quality learning"— that is presumably what the programme has been about—
"and I have decided to act quickly to protect the interests of individual learners and proper use of public funds."
I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was hinting at there, but it sounds ominous. Why can we not have a statement on that? Instead, a letter has been sent to Members of Parliament saying,
"Estelle Morris has this afternoon answered a written question in the House."
Are we supposed to be satisfied with that? Giving a written answer or appearing on the radio appears to be the way in which the Government regularly sneak out these announcements,
I read in a newspaper today that an announcement about terminal 5 may be about to be sneaked out under the cover of our ground troops going into Afghanistan. We have been through this so many times in the recent past. I want a guarantee from the Leader of the House that we will have a proper statement on terminal 5 before anyone else hears about it in any other way so that the many people directly affected by the issue can be properly represented in this House by their Members of Parliament asking questions of a Minister following a statement.
Will the Leader please set an example? Will he give us a lead? Will he give a guarantee that we will not only be the first to hear about these matters but that we will have the opportunity properly to question Ministers about them?
I am delighted to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I can give a guarantee that there will be an oral statement in the House on terminal 5. No decision has yet been taken, but when it is, it will be announced in the House by means of an oral statement. The right hon. Gentleman knows the rules—no Minister will speak to the press or anyone else until there has been an oral statement in the House. I am grateful for the opportunity to make the right hon. Gentleman happy. He asked for a guarantee and he has got one. What he wants will happen and I would appreciate his welcome for that.
As for the autumn statement, it will be made in the autumn, which is, in terms of the House, liberally interpreted, although I anticipate that it will be before we rise for the next recess.
On accident and emergency departments, it is worth remembering that the figures announced today by the Audit Commission are 18 months old. In the past 12 months, the period for very long stays has halved. Today we have made it clear that we are not satisfied with the position. We want to do better—that is why we are investing in another 600 nurses for training in accident and emergency departments. It will take us time to reach our target of a maximum wait of four hours in accident and emergency departments. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will get there a lot faster than the 18 years it took the previous Government to ruin the national health service.
On the individual learning account, I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman was not present for Education and Skills questions, when the subject was raised orally. I welcome the fact that he has drawn attention to it because we are in difficulty entirely because we have wildly exceeded our target. We set a target of 1 million, and 2.5 million people have come forward to take advantage of the new ILA.
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has recognised that we have exceeded our target. We have more than doubled the figures we were aiming at. I shall try to ensure that we have more statements so that, when we exceed our targets, the House is fully aware of that fact and the right hon. Gentleman can welcome it.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill, which will be debated tomorrow, and press him to consider reforming the way in which private Members' Bills are dealt with? The Bill has widespread support from conservation groups, and wide cross-party support in the House, yet after a lot of work has gone into its preparation it is now rumoured that the Government Whips may intend to sabotage it because the wind power lobby has managed to nobble someone. Would it not be better to have a proper Second Reading tomorrow, get the Bill into Committee and have the small details properly scrutinised, rather than having Government Whips sabotaging private Members' Bills?
If my hon. Friend has evidence of sabotage by the Whips, I shall be very pleased if he shares it with me. [Laughter.] I honestly do not see what is hilarious about that. If my hon. Friend has evidence for a serious allegation I will, of course, pursue it. I do not see anything particularly hilarious in the Leader of the House wishing to pursue such a serious allegation. [Interruption.] It would assist my hon. Friend if Opposition Members took the matter as seriously as he does.
The Government will, of course, express a view in the debate tomorrow; a Minister will take part, as is normally the case with private Members' business. A number of concerns must be addressed if the Bill is to become an Act. They are wide ranging, and cover access to wrecks, the development of water sports and a range of economic interests such as wind farms, access to ports, and shipping. The House can consider all those issues tomorrow, and come to a considered and balanced view.
I suspect that you, Mr. Speaker, may share my delight, amazement and surprise that the Leader of the House has been able to promise us that no statement will be made to the House that has already been pre-empted by a media appearance. Has the right hon. Gentleman checked that out with Mr. Jim Naughtie and Mr. John Humphrys—because I suspect that he has now cancelled the "Today" programme for the foreseeable future?
May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the statement made on the radio this morning by the Secretary of State for Health about the Audit Commission report was far from full, and was certainly not subjected to the sort of inquisition that he would have received in the House had he decided to make a statement here? The Secretary of State referred to bed blocking, which he said had been dealt with in a statement earlier this month. That statement, too, was made outside the House, a few days before we resumed after the summer recess.
May we have a statement by the Secretary of State for Health no later than Monday? Clearly there are wide concerns about accident and emergency departments, which are not improving as fast as has been suggested either here this afternoon or on the radio this morning. The announcement about bed blocking that was made just before the House resumed does not deal with some of the problems, so can we be assured that we will get that statement?
When does the Leader of the House expect to introduce, and in what form, the legislation to deal with media moguls? He may have noticed that there was a serious escalation this morning in the hostilities between The Mirror and The Sun. Will he—having served in the Foreign Office so long—use his best endeavours to try to prevent hostilities being resumed on that front? Does he believe that his intervention through the new legislation will deal with that problem as well?
It does not lie within my power to cancel the "Today" programme—and it would probably be unwise to disclose what I would do with that power if I had it.
On the question of statements to the House, the House has to retain some perspective. In the past week we have had three major statements from Ministers, and I am sure that next week we will also have major statements, and we will continue to make sure that major developments in policy come before the House. At the same time, the House has other business, and we have to ensure that we achieve a balance. The hon. Gentleman would be among the first to complain if the net result were to reduce significantly the time available for the scrutiny of legislation in the House.
As for the hon. Gentleman's last point, it would take a braver man than me to try to end hostilities between The Sun and The Mirror.
Will my right hon. Friend make available dedicated time within oral questions— I suggest 10 minutes—during which Members could question the Minister for Women, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? If a Member wishes to put a question at present, that has to be done within DTI questions. Responsibility for women is a big, important area, and if we wish to put a question on trade and industry we cannot also put one to my right hon. Friend on her duties as Minister for Women. There is an issue of accountability here, so will the Leader of the House consider making time available, in much the same way as we have just seen for questions to the Solicitor-General?
My hon. Friend raises a point that has been raised by a number of Members, and we are considering the issue. It is not entirely straightforward because, of course, the effect would be to diminish the rest of the time during which the Secretary of State is accountable. We shall certainly consider the idea, and I hope that we will be able to reach a satisfactory solution.
The Leader of the House will probably welcome the fact that my question about the need for a debate on pedestrian-friendly vehicle fronts—an issue that will come up in Coreper—has been tabled for written answer. However, as this is specific to the House, I ask him now whether we can have the opportunity to debate whether the House of Commons Commission is inadvertently breaking any of the guidance from the Commissioner for Public Appointments by the way in which it is handling the possible replacement of the present Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin?
I would be fairly confident that we were not, because we received full advice before proceeding as we are doing. I stress to the House that—contrary to what I have seen in the press—Mrs. Filkin has not been sacked or dismissed. She has been given an undertaking that should she decide to apply for the next contract, she will be placed on the shortlist. As a Commission, we have taken the decision that it would be right to proceed by open competition. I hope that all those in the House who have argued for greater openness and transparency would want us to use an open and transparent system, rather than make a closed reappointment.
I welcome the undertaking by the Leader of the House that there will be a full statement if and when a decision is taken on terminal 5. May I urge him to lean on his right hon. and hon. Friends not to hurry with that decision, because there are changed circumstances, both in the market for aviation and in the security implications, of which cognisance was not taken at the time of the inquiry? I urge him to persuade his colleagues to reflect long and hard before granting permission for terminal 5. The decision will raise a number of issues about the disproportionate clout and influence of the big battalions in this country, such as BAA and British Airways, to influence key decisions in their interests, in contrast to the little influence of the ordinary simple objector.
I am sure that the factors to which my hon. Friend has referred will be taken into account by my colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. He is right to say that such issues raise questions about decisions that may have been taken before
Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the article in this month's issue of The Parliamentary Monitor entitled, "Labour Blows Cold on Scots' Reduction", questioning the implementation of the boundary commission's proposals for Scotland? Does he share my concern at the blatant gerrymandering in the print and broadcast media by his colleagues at the Treasury and the Scotland Office? Given his personal interest in the matter, will he arrange for an early ministerial statement on how and when the Government will complete the changes in constituency boundaries that will be required by the Scotland Act 1998?
I advise the hon. Gentleman not to believe everything he reads in the papers. The fact is that the boundary commission for Scotland has commenced its review of boundaries, and has indicated that it intends to report early in 2002. The result will be subject to the usual process of appeal, discussion and consultation, and we will make all speed thereafter. There is no decision, no suggestion, no idea and no intention of preventing the boundary commission from proceeding. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am in a position to know, because, as a Scottish Member of Parliament who has a personal interest in the matter, I take a close interest.
May we have an early debate on regional government? That would give us an opportunity to consider the implications of a statement made recently by the Deputy Prime Minister of his determination that there should be a referendum during this Parliament, at least in the north-east, and perhaps for other regions that required it.
I am happy to tell my right hon. Friend that the Deputy Prime Minister is working on a White Paper on regional government and I anticipate that it will be published in the near future. At that time, the House will of course want to ensure that it, too, has an opportunity to participate in the national debate that we expect the White Paper to spark.
I am tempted to ask for an early debate on what constitutes autumn.
Does the Leader of the House agree that it is wholly inappropriate for the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to make an announcement on what the new Railtrack will be—namely, a company limited by guarantee—in a written answer to Mr. Hendrick on a day when that Department answered both oral questions and an Opposition-day debate on such subjects?
It merely confirms how active my right hon. Friend was on that day. The answer stated that my right hon. Friend proposed setting up a company limited by guarantee and I have heard him say that at least half a dozen times at the Dispatch Box. Of course it is important that Ministers should make major statements to the House and it is also important that the House should have adequate opportunity—as it did twice on that day—to put questions and comments to the Secretary of State, but the House is becoming a bit precious when it suggests Government business cannot be done through written answers and that the technical details of strategic statements should not be followed through by written answers.
May I ask my right hon. Friend a question of which I gave his office notice this morning? May we have an assurance next week that no weapons, such as land mines, that would be banned by convention for use by British forces are being used by the US or the British in the campaign from British bases, in particular Diego Garcia? May we have a statement on the use of Gator anti-personnel weapons systems and cluster bombs? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Halo Trust and others who have undertaken brave, long, hard and sustained work over years in Afghanistan to clear existing mines are extremely concerned about the amount of unexploded ordnance raining down?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks: no weapons will be used by British forces, or approved for use from British territory, that break any of the international conventions to which we are a party. No land mines have been dropped during the present military campaign, and those cluster bombs that have been used against military targets—one against an al-Qaeda training camp and four against Taliban military installations—were all designed to explode on impact and not for delayed action.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his announcement today that he intends at an early date to table a motion to set up the Liaison Committee—a most important Committee of the House. It is essential that it begins its work as quickly as possible.
My question relates to the statement yesterday by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Although the conscience of the House is very much on the campaign against international terrorism, does the Leader of the House agree that it would be appropriate to hold a full debate in the House on the implications of the Secretary of State's statement. Northern Ireland is an important part of the United Kingdom and many people think that the decommissioning statement by the IRA is merely about a transfer of weapons from the IRA to Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. There are severe implications for the security of the United Kingdom.
The rules drawn up by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, supervised by General de Chastelain, are quite explicit: the weapons have to be put beyond future use. The commission has stated that it has seen that happen in the case of ammunition, weapons and explosive. There is no question of any of that material being handed over to any terrorist organisation. To that extent, I want the House to appreciate that there has been real destruction of weapons under the rules provided by the decommissioning body.
As to a debate in the House, I appreciate that there is considerable interest in the matter both in the House and in the country at large. I am sure that the House will have adequate opportunities to explore it. After all, there was an historic statement on the issue this week and I am sure that the whole House welcomes the progress that the Government and our friends are making in moving forward the peace process in Northern Ireland.
May I refer the Leader of the House back to the subject of next Thursday's debate—international terrorism? He will fully understand that millions of people in this country are deeply uneasy about the continued bombing of Afghanistan and his confirmation of the reported use of cluster bombs by United States forces in that country? Does he agree that many people in this country find it incomprehensible that British military forces should be involved, and that we should endorse an American-led operation, with no vote in the British Parliament? Does he not think that, in the interests of democracy, the Government should table a substantive, amendable and debatable motion so that Members of Parliament are required to take a position on whether they think Britain should be involved in this military action against Afghanistan?
I have sat through many of the debates that we have held on this matter. We should recall that the Government have ensured that the House has had adequate opportunity to debate the international coalition against terrorism. There were three recalls and a further debate will be held next week. There have been plenty of such opportunities for the House to debate and explore the issue and to question Ministers.
In the course of those debates—to much of which I listened—I was impressed by the degree of support throughout the House for the action being taken by the Government. It is unreasonable for my hon. Friend to pretend that the House has not had an opportunity to express a view, or that the House has not made its will clear during those debates. It is of course open to the small number of Members of Parliament who disagree with that action to express their view, and my hon. Friend has done so, but he cannot deny that the clear will of the House is to support the action.
Given the likely and necessary changes to the Government's legislative programme in the light of the events of
The Scottish Executive and the Government share the same view: it would not make practical sense to try to ban advertising in one part of Britain and not in another. We share the view that our policy is to take forward a tobacco ban and that it should take place at the same time throughout the whole United Kingdom. That is what we shall seek to do at an appropriate time.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite his reply, disquiet remains about the position of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is not to be reappointed as a matter of course? Indeed, frankly, it is unlikely that in the circumstances she would be reappointed if she applied. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a feeling—perhaps not shared by everyone—on both sides of the House that the commissioner has carried out her duties in an impartial, conscientious manner? Indeed, it is because she was so conscientious that she was told, in effect—in the words used in an earlier exchange—that she should not continue her present duties. That was a deplorable decision and I hope that it can be reconsidered.
I put it to my hon. Friend that there is no provision for the commissioner, as he suggests, to be reappointed—I think I use his words advisedly—"as a matter of course". Ms Filkin was appointed on a fixed-term contract—[Interruption.] No, she was appointed on a fixed-term contract. Moreover, that fixed-term contract was for precisely the same period—the same term of office—as was held by her predecessor. No commitment was given that she would be, as my hon. Friend put it "reappointed as a matter of course". I deprecate my hon. Friend's comment that she was told that she cannot be appointed. That is most certainly not the case and I hope that Ms Filkin will not believe that. She will be considered on merit, along with other candidates, and if she is the best candidate she will be appointed.
I draw attention to early-day motion 248.
[That this House notes with dismay the unethical behaviour of Jo Moore, a ministerial special adviser, in seeking to exploit the terrorist atrocities in America to 'bury' news stories damaging to the Government; agrees with Charlie Whelan, the former aide to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that her action was 'sickening'; and calls on the Right honourable Member for North Tyneside to remove her from his staff forthwith.]
That motion, signed by many hon. Members, concerns the exploitation of terrorist atrocities by new Labour spin doctors.
I had intended to ask for a debate on the motion, but as we have recently held such a debate in Opposition time, may I ask instead for a statement from the Secretary of State for Health or the Minister for the Cabinet Office, on the availability of counselling services for civil servants receiving e-mails from obnoxious special advisers, and for Labour Back-Bench Members following interviews with the Government Chief Whip?
That is the least persuasive bid for a statement that I have heard all afternoon.
My right hon. Friend will know that last week Michelin announced its closure in Burnley, losing about 450 jobs. Since then, we seem to have had redundancies every day in the aerospace industries or other industries dependent on aerospace. My right hon. Friend will recognise that the situation in the industry has changed greatly since
My hon. Friend raises a very serious issue—the fact that the impact of
No, I would never dream of treating redundancies in that way. Redundancies are a serious matter, in whoever's constituency they arise. The Government will certainly continue the work that we are doing to try to restore faith and confidence in and business for the aviation industry. That is why today the Minister responsible for aviation—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson—is visiting four of the major airports in order to restore the confidence of the travelling public in their security arrangements. In restoring that confidence lies the best hope of a way forward for the aerospace industry.
In the meantime, through our regional development agencies—which the Conservatives opposed—and through the Government offices we are doing all that we can to cope with the impact of redundancies on local communities.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall last week giving sympathetic consideration to the suggestion by my hon. Friend Mr. Tyler for a debate on farming and the countryside? Will he now regard that as a matter of urgency, given the continuing and deepening crisis in agriculture and in the rural economy and, coupled with that, the conduct of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
The Department increasingly appears to have turned its back on agriculture, refuses to answer letters from hon. Members and does not answer parliamentary questions. I tabled a written question for a named-day response on
I shall take up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about parliamentary answers and see whether we can get an answer to his specific question. On the issue of the debate, I would be surprised if, sometime in the near future, we did not hold a debate involving that Department. He will understand that I have many conflicting demands to balance, but I know that the Department is keen to have a debate on the countryside.
What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that legislation is properly scrutinised before it goes to the House of Lords?
The right hon. Gentleman says that I am doing the opposite. I was surprised, given his commitment to scrutiny, that his memorandum to his leader suggested that they should ensure that Bills left this place imperfectly scrutinised, in order to discredit the Government.
I will ensure that there is adequate time for the scrutiny of Bills in the House. I hope that the Opposition will take that opportunity. If they choose instead to conspire to leave Bills imperfectly scrutinised, it is not us but themselves whom they will discredit.
May I press the Leader of the House further for a debate on the crisis in our care homes? He rather brushed aside the issue when it was raised a few minutes ago. Will he ensure that that debate not only takes account of the inadequacy of the ministerial press release about the funding for care homes, but considers the catastrophic effects that there would be if the Government's proposed changes to the way in which care homes are managed come into effect next spring, which would make the situation even worse?
I am not aware of having brushed aside a question on care homes; indeed, I am not aware of having been asked a question on care homes this afternoon. However, I fully understand the importance of the role that they play; I said as much last week. Only this month the Government have taken action to ensure that everyone is entitled to free nursing care. We shall certainly do all that we can to ensure that care homes can play a full part. We need them to play a full part, to ensure that hospitals can focus on those acute cases that require hospital intervention.
May I raise with my right hon. Friend a matter that requires urgent parliamentary attention? It concerns the role of some, if not all, landlords, especially across northern cities where there are areas of very low demand for property. Those landlords, by failing to take any responsibility for their properties and the tenants whom they move in, are having a very serious impact on the quality of life and, of course, on the asset value of the properties of other owners in the area.
The Government have consulted on the need for a licensing system for private landlords. May I urge my right hon. Friend to tell the House that we can move forward on that licensing, which would have the impact of allowing local authorities to take away access to housing benefit for those landlords who will not act as good citizens?
My hon. Friend raises an issue of concern to the Government. That is why we have issued a consultation document on the selective licensing of private landlords. It was issued as recently as this week and it will obviously be some time before we are able to give a considered response, but we hope that it will enable us to deal with some of the problems that my hon. Friend has identified.
The Leader of the House said that the Government would shortly introduce legislation to deal with matters of terrorism and extradition. Will he ensure that it encompasses a situation where British nationals leave these shores to participate in military action against this country and our allies, and the consequential action that will be needed if they then seek to re-enter this country?
The hon. Lady raises an issue that I wrestled with in the Foreign Office in a previous role in relation to a previous conflict. The legal issues involved are extremely difficult, but I understand the point that she raises and I am sure that my colleagues at the Home Office will consider it.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate, or at least a statement, on the treatment of deaf and hard of hearing people in the national health service? I have particular concerns about the availability of digital hearing aids, which constitute a major technical advance but the availability of which is very patchy. There are long waiting lists in my area, among others, and I have many constituents who are waiting desperately for a digital hearing aid.
I cannot promise my hon. Friend a statement, but I will draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ensure that he receives a response from the Department.
Will the Leader of the House further consider granting an emergency debate on British Airways' decision to withdraw its Belfast-London Heathrow service? A debate on that matter would enable us all to consider the options, and especially the slots vacated by British Airways and the possibility that one of several other carriers might use them. Thousands of people from Northern Ireland, who work and live in London, expect a good service, and they are already concerned about arrangements to enable them to get home to their families over the Christmas period.
I fully understand the great importance of the matter to Northern Ireland, and to those in Britain who wish to visit and travel to Northern Ireland. There is a wider debate about what happens to slots that are vacated in the present difficult times for the aviation industry. That issue, in its generality, is receiving close attention from my colleagues, which is why the aviation Minister is today on a tour of four airports in Britain. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention so that he may consider this point.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the publication on
I cannot promise a debate, but some of those issues will be reflected in the forthcoming emergency legislation, which is likely to provide increased scope for the actions by Atomic Energy Authority police. I am sure that some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised could be ventilated in the course of debate.
The Independent reported this morning that the news about terminal 5 will be announced
"at the very moment when Britain appears to be about to join a land war against the Taliban".
How on earth is that statement compatible with the answer that the right hon. Gentleman gave earlier? Will he now give a firm guarantee, which he failed to give to the shadow Leader of the House, that an announcement on terminal 5 will be made to the House before any news of it is released to my former colleagues in the media?
Of course that statement will be made to the House. Indeed, I said precisely that to Mr. Forth. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the decision and the announcement should be delayed until a time that he regards as appropriate. The longer that it is delayed, the more probable it is that any decision will be leaked by one means or another—not necessarily by ministerial action, as it is not only Ministers who will be privy to such a decision. Frankly, it is in the interests of the House that that statement comes as soon as possible after the decision is taken. We have to recognise that we cannot put on hold all the important decisions that need to be taken for the running of Britain because we are engaged in a very important struggle against international terrorism.
Further to my right hon. Friend's response to my hon. Friend Joan Ryan on the reorganisation of Department of Trade and Industry questions, will he look at the official record for the Session 1997-98? He will find that the then Secretary of State for Social Security, my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, and I regularly answered questions about women during Social Security questions. We had the time, but it was not for the convenience of the House and it interrupted the good flow of questions and debate. I strongly recommend that my right hon. Friend considers allocating a separate 10-minute slot. Perhaps he could tell us when he might report on that matter.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her advice and I will certainly take it into account when making my decision.
I appreciate that not every hon. Member considers Solicitor-General's questions the most riveting event that takes place. Nevertheless, with 10 minutes we get through only two or three questions. Will the Leader of the House restore Solicitor-General's questions to its former glory of a quarter of an hour?
I also wish to endorse the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Heath. We not only have outrageous delays from DEFRA on parliamentary answers; there are also delays with correspondence from Ministers to Members. It is just not good enough and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make the appropriate point to the Minister concerned. We must have swifter replies to Members' questions from DEFRA.
I shall certainly ensure that DEFRA is aware of the comments that have been made. In saying that, I in no way necessarily endorse the criticisms of the Department.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his enthusiasm and interest in Solicitor-General's questions. He makes a modest bid for five minutes more. It sounds modest when it is an add-on to those questions, but I am not sure that it will necessarily appear quite so modest when it is taken out of someone else's time.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are consulting on the Budd report on gambling. It could have a far-reaching impact on many constituencies, and on mine in particular because several hundred people are employed making penny fall machines, of which he may be aware from his visits to the seaside. Some of the recommendations threaten the sale of those machines.
I have been trying to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject—so far without success, but I will continue. Will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of a debate on the report in Government time, possibly in Westminster Hall one afternoon?
One of the regrets of no longer visiting the Winter Gardens is missing out on the opportunity to play the penny fall machines. The allocation of Adjournment debates goes beyond my remit, but I am sure that my hon. Friend's observations will have been heard by those who have control over them.
May we have a debate on the ploy whereby Cabinet Ministers who do not want to answer oral questions simply shuffle them off to be written answers given by colleagues? The Cabinet Office guide to ministerial responsibilities clearly states that the Deputy Prime Minister has responsibility on behalf of the Prime Minister for negotiations on climate change. Indeed, as recently as
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responsibility for our contribution towards meeting our targets on climate change. The Minister for the Environment is fully engaged in that process and is perfectly competent to answer questions. I know from the work that I used to do at the Foreign Office of the excellent work done by the Deputy Prime Minister and the high respect in which he is held throughout the world for it. He should be held in the same high respect in the country on whose behalf he speaks.
Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the services provided by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service? As I understand it, the director of operations left two months after the new service was set up earlier this year and the chief executive is away sick. A judicial review recently ruled that CAFCASS acted unlawfully in the way it gave contracts to the children's guardians. I also understand that a large number of managers have left throughout the country.
As someone who managed a guardian ad litem team, I am aware of the very important work that children's guardians do in helping to advise courts about the future of vulnerable children. I would be grateful if he could find time for that important issue to be discussed.
I cannot promise a debate, but I read with interest the early-day motion on the subject, which expresses views similar to those of my hon. Friend. I will be happy to draw it to the attention of the Lord Chancellor's Department in the hope that it will alert it to the widespread and understandable concern among hon. Members about the impact of the service in their constituencies.
Flooding is of particular pertinence in my constituency and those of other hon. Members. In Bishop's Stortford and the surrounding villages there has been a severe crisis this week. My worry and that of other hon. Members is that we hear comments by Ministers on the issue and occasionally, if we are lucky, get letters from them, but we do not have statements in the House. It is important, particularly at this point in the autumn, to know exactly where the Government stand. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have an early statement on the issue?
The hon. Gentleman cannot complain that sufficient attempts have not been made to show where the Government stand. We have increased investment in flood defences and greatly increased the number of residential properties covered by flood warnings. We will continue to give that matter priority. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Morley, is active on that matter today.
I think that I have received seven demands for statements—possibly more, but certainly not less—and unless the Chamber is to become a place for the receipt of statements it will be impossible to meet all those requirements. The House must recognise that it is important that strategic and major policy announcements are made on the Floor of the Chamber, but if everything is announced here, we will do nothing else.
Has not manufacturing industry been traditionally denied its fair share of attention by the House, in spite of the fact that it still contributes 20 per cent. to the English economy and 27 per cent. to the Welsh economy? The events of
I share my hon. Friend's recognition of the importance of manufacturing industry and its significance for the whole economy. That is why we are pleased that manufacturing exports have increased by 25 per cent. since 1997. I assure him that the Government remain fully committed to building on that success.
Following on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, may I urge the Leader of the House to seek from the Chancellor a firm date for the autumn statement, given the £5 billion black hole in the Chancellor's spending plans found by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Home Secretary's announcement on the "Today" programme on Monday that things look bleak on the spending front?
In fairness to the IFS, the hon. Gentleman would wish me to tell the House that, of course, we are dealing with figures that can only possibly arise in 2003, and even then we would dispute them. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will, of course, make an autumn statement during this parliamentary term.
I cannot recall us having an autumn statement before November, and we are not yet into November.
If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to dispute that fact and to hold a debate on it, I cannot promise that a ministerial statement will be made, but I do not think that we are into November. When the appropriate times comes, there will be a statement.
The Leader of the House may remember that on
Does the right hon. Gentleman think it seemly for Ministers and other Members to be seen to grab benefits for themselves and their unmarried partners, but not to agree that the wider population should have them? In the light of that, will he consider providing Government time for that private Member's Bill, or will the Government introduce their own policy to end the discrimination against people who are not married or who cannot be married?
First, by convention, Ministers do not take part in ten-minute Bill Divisions for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman suggests—it is important that Government approval, or disapproval, is not read into the actions of individual Ministers. On the other issue that he raises, perhaps in a spirit of humility, I gently remind him that it was his amendment that extended to Members of Parliament the right to pensions for their unmarried partners, and it does not lie well with him to accuse the rest of us of having double standards now.
May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate this autumn on the principle of ballistic missile defence? He will remember that in response to a question asked yesterday by my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis, the Prime Minister said:
"I do not agree with those who are opposed to it."—[Hansard, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 273.]
The Leader of the House will be aware that a large number of Labour Members have signed early-day motion 23, which opposes ballistic missile defence.
[That this House expresses concern at President Bush's intention to move beyond the constraints of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in developing missile defence; and endorses the unanimous conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which recommended that the Government voice the grave doubts about NMD in the UK, questioned whether US plans to deploy NMD represent an appropriate response to the proliferation problems faced by the international community and recommended that the Government encourage the USA to explore all ways of reducing the threat it perceives.]
May we have such debate so that those Government Back Benchers can put their views to those on the Government Front Bench, and those of us who, on this issue, support the Prime Minister—indeed, we would like him to go further—can express our views, too?
I am sure that my hon. Friends will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his solicitude in suggesting that they should have an opportunity to express their views. May I remind him that no decision on the matter has been taken, that no decision can be taken until a question is asked of us and that, in those circumstances, it would be rather odd for us to debate it?