Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 15th May 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 19 May—Progress on remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 2).

Tuesday 20 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 3).

Wednesday 21 MaySecond Reading of the European Union (Accessions) Bill.

Thursday 22 May—Motion on General Synod Measure, followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the Municipal Waste Recycling Bill, followed by a motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week following the Whitsun recess will include:

Monday 2 JuneThe House will not be sitting

Tuesday 3 June—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Fire Services Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business.

Yesterday in PMPs, the Prime Minister finally lost his marbles. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said in column 305 of Hansard that

"referendums on the European constitution are proposed in up to 10 European member states" and very reasonably asked the Prime Minister:

"Why cannot the British people have one, too?"

My right hon. Friend may have been inspired by the fact that a Minister of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Raynsford, no less, had said a few minutes earlier in the slightly different context of regional assemblies:

"It will . . . be for the people of each region to decide whether they want an elected regional assembly. That is democracy and choice, and we think that it is a good idea."

So the Minister of State thinks that it is a good idea to consult the people and ask them what they think about regional assemblies, but the Prime Minister was, by this time, off on another flight of fancy. In column 305, he said:

"the reason why the right hon. Gentleman"— the Leader of the Opposition

"wants a referendum is to vote no to enlargement".

In column 306, he went on to say:

"he wants people to say no to European enlargement" and

"the Conservative party is . . . against the enlargement of the European Union".

Finally, the Prime Minister said:

"the European Convention . . . is necessary to make . . . accession work."—[Hansard, 14 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 301–6.]

Of course, Mr. Speaker, as you and the rest of the House know, there is absolutely no connection between the European Convention and constitution and enlargement of the European Union. Alarmingly, the Prime Minister of this country does not appear to understand the nature of this ghastly constitution that he now seems to want to inflict on the British people without even giving them a chance to say what they want.

I remind you, Mr. Speaker, the House and the Leader of the House that on 17 October 2001 at column 1184 of Hansard, my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, no less, said of the Conservatives:

"We are the long-standing and very committed supporters of enlargement. We were pursuing enlargement in 1990—11 years ago . . . we remain strong supporters of enlargement". —[Hansard, 17 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 1184.]

What I am therefore asking is: please can the Prime Minister come to the House, beg our forgiveness, apologise for not understanding what is going in his own Government and in the European Union and set the record straight? That is a very simple request and I hope that the Leader of the House will instruct the Prime Minister to sort himself out, get his act together and tell us what is really going on.

On Monday this week, the Foreign Secretary and Clare Short contradicted each other completely on the vital matter of the advice that the Attorney General had given the Government about the post-war Iraq settlement. What we really need to know—this is a very important constitutional matter, if nothing else—is which of them was right.

The Foreign Secretary said:

"I do not agree with my right hon. Friend's"— that is, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood

"view about the position of the Government."

He went on to say:

"all the actions that we have taken have been taken strictly in accordance with legal advice."

But a few minutes later the right hon. Lady said:

"I believe that the UK could and should have respected the Attorney-General's advice".

She went on to say that she was

"ashamed that the UK Government have agreed the resolution that has been tabled in New York" and that it

"undermines all the commitments I have made in the House and elsewhere."—[Hansard, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 26, 37.]

This is a serious matter. A current member of the Cabinet and a former member of the Cabinet are saying completely contradictory things about exactly the same issue. Surely it is in everybody's interests that we get it straightened out. At the very least, the Foreign Secretary or the right hon. Lady should apologise to the House, but ideally the Attorney-General's advice should be published, because that would put the matter beyond doubt. Will the Leader of the House make arrangements for a member of the Government to come to the House as early as possible to tell us who was right—the Foreign Secretary or the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood?

This morning on the radio we heard an announcement about the latest pensions cock-up. The Pensions issue is now spiralling downwards into complete disarray, yet we still have no Minister for Pensions in the Government. So who is going to tell us what is going on? Who is going to come to the House to explain this latest insult to pensioners? Who is going to tell us the reason for this ghastly error, which will cost nearly everybody in this country a lot of money? Why have the pensioners have been sidelined by the Government? Are they so careless and casual about pensioners that they cannot even get round to appointing a representative for them in the Government? Can the Leader of the House tell us when we will get a Minister for Pensions here in this House to deal with pensions issues and to explain the latest disgrace?

A moment ago, I mentioned the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood. It is worth reflecting on what she said on 12 May when she made her personal statement to the House. She said, among other things, that we are now getting

"diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy initiatives that come from on high."

She then said:

"We do not need . . . endless new initiatives, layers of bureaucratic accountability and diktats from the centre."

She rounded it all off by saying—this is an issue directly for the Leader of the House—that

"increasingly poor policy initiatives"— are being—

"rammed through Parliament". —[Hansard, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 38.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he proposes to do as Leader of the House—the representative of this House of Commons at the highest level of Government—to prevent that? We have seen all too much of it this week with the Finance Bill, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill, and many other measures. Will the Leader of the House tell us in terms, and in detail, how he will prevent poor policy initiatives being rammed through Parliament and allow this House of Commons to do its proper job?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his normal stentorian contribution, to which I look forward every Thursday, and for his request that I instruct the Prime Minister to come to this House to beg forgiveness. He is that type of guy, is he not? I will consider that request, but I will particularly consider whether I can find anything for which he should seek forgiveness. Given the number of occasions on which the Prime Minister has come to this House to make statements and to answer questions—far more, incidentally, than has any other Prime Minister—it is not obvious to me what we should ask him to beg forgiveness for.

The hon. Gentleman—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The right hon. Gentleman.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I beg pardon. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Convention. First, there is a difference between a referendum on a national issue and on the sort of issues that he and his colleagues mentioned in the past week. They range from Iraq, which does not have the sort of established parliamentary democracy that we have, to the elections in Hartlepool, which may be interesting but are not comparable with the powers of Parliament. I am surprised because the right hon. Gentleman is normally the arch defender of the rights of Parliament rather than the arch exponent of passing major decisions out of Parliament.

Secondly, in Britain, Parliament ratifies treaties. We do not hold referendums on them, although that happens in Ireland and several other countries. [Interruption.] Well, the Tories did not hold a referendum on the Maastricht treaty or the single European issues that came before the House when they were in government.

Thirdly, the new constitutional treaty will not fundamentally alter the position of the member states of the European Union. Powers are given by member states to the Union to achieve goals that they could not attain alone. The fundamental building blocks of the European Union will remain the individual states. The right hon. Gentleman's normal position of defending Parliament's rights has been undermined by the expediency and opportunism that Conservative Members apply to everything that appears to relate to Europe, which, individually and collectively, they hate more by the day. It is another element of their extreme position.

The right hon. Gentleman does not need to take my word about the Attorney-General, who made it clear before we went into action in Iraq and subsequently that the Government have acted in accordance with international law. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong; that should be good enough. There will be a dozen different opinions internationally on any legal issue. That is the nature of domestic and international legal debate. Again, I hope that the Conservatives would tend to accept the opinion of this country's chief legal adviser rather than that of some critics abroad who take a different position.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of pensions. This morning's report was not entirely accurate. No computer breakdown has occurred. The annual notification service to people who have gaps in their contribution records was suspended in 1998 because priority was given to processing current benefit and pension claims. That was the right thing to do because it meant that those who had immediate needs were dealt with first.

As with any Government position, Ministers will be replaced in due course. Any insinuation that we have not given due attention to pensioners is wrong: the Government introduced the minimum guaranteed pension, the winter fuel allowance, the pension credit, free television licences for those over 70 and the extra £100 for those over 80. Any suggestion from Conservative Members that the Government have not paid sufficient attention to pensioners stretches the imagination.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the scrutiny of debates in the House. Programming has brought many benefits as part of a wider package, although I accept that it is appropriate to review its workings to ascertain whether they can be improved. In the past few days, I have been discussing the matter in the Modernisation Committee and we will consider a review of programming.

It is not justifiable to judge programming on this week's experience of Northern Ireland, which tends to produce the unique need for rapid legislation under all Governments. I accept that there were problems, not least because a personal statement and a statement by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary further reduced the limited time available to hon. Members, especially those from Northern Ireland. I am not for a minute disregarding that fact, but Northern Ireland tends to be a unique case. Nevertheless, a review of the workings of programming is something that we ought to, and indeed will, look at.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Does the Leader of the House recall that, this time last week, we were congratulating him on his birthday? He is therefore now one year nearer to his retirement and his pension. Surely he must take more seriously the incredible cock-up at the Inland Revenue, as well as the cover-up—because that is what it is. There was no announcement about it on the radio, as Mr. Forth suggested. It was only the sharp eyes of a representative of The Daily Telegraph and my hon. Friend Mr. Webb that discovered the fact that the Inland Revenue had failed in this respect. Is it not extraordinary that, for five years, there was no announcement, no admission and no apology about this extraordinary change of attitude? Is it not also extraordinary that 10 million people have been badly let down? Now, of course, the Inland Revenue is admitting the mistake by trying to put something in place to mitigate its failure. Surely, given the well-known humility of the Chancellor, we should have a statement from the head of the Department responsible about what has gone wrong and what is now going to be done to put it right.

I hope that the Leader of the House has had the opportunity this week to read "Parliament's Last Chance", produced by the Parliament First group, whose authors include some very distinguished members of his own party as well as of all the other parties. I am modest enough to admit to having made a small contribution to it. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that that report reflects the all-party concern about the way in which the House holds the Government to account. To cite a particular example to which reference has been made this afternoon, the Treasury is responsible for the Inland Revenue, and the Inland Revenue has clearly made a huge mistake, which it is now admitting. That matter should come to the Floor of the House and we should be given an explanation.

Finally, I believe that, on the "Today" programme this morning, the Leader of the House referred to Mr. Ronnie Biggs as a bank robber. Should we assume that the right hon. Gentleman's other answers this morning were equally inaccurate?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do apologise if I said "bank robber" rather than "train robber". That no doubt means that Ronnie Biggs is utterly innocent and should never have been pursued in the first place. I think that we should deal with the substance of that issue, which was that the original charges, or action taken on the basis of a decision made on evidence, should not necessarily fall merely because we do not find all the evidence after the event. A decision in the case of Ronnie Biggs, or any other matter decided in the courts, is not contingent on full discovery later.

I have already referred to pensions. When the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to pensions and the radio programme this morning, I thought that he was referring to the point that Mr. Tyler has just raised. I have pointed out that there has not been a computer breakdown, as was apparently alleged. The annual notification service to people with gaps in their contribution records was suspended in 1998 because priority was being given to processing current benefit and pensions claims. That was the right thing to do because it meant that people with immediate needs were being dealt with first. The Inland Revenue will start writing to people later this year to let them know of any gaps in their records since the last time the notices were issued. People will not have to respond immediately; indeed, they will have until April 2008 to make payments if they wish to do so.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned Parliament First. I welcome any contribution to the debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons, but I hope that hon. Members will recognise that we have just completed a series of fairly substantial and extensive changes. I would like some time—and I think the House would be wise to take some time—to reflect on the many proposals that have already been put in place and to see how they are working. One that was introduced some time ago was programming, to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred. I think that, in principle, that will no doubt remain, but we will want to look at the workings of the provision.

Both the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the hon. Gentleman mentioned general scrutiny of the House. We have tried to ensure that that takes place wherever possible. During the war with Iraq we arranged debates in the House in an unprecedented fashion. An unprecedented number of statements have been made to the House by Ministers, including the Prime Minister. Today we have announced an extensive period of consultation and discussion between Cabinet members on the euro, culminating in the announcement of a decision to the House on 9 June. We will ensure that there is adequate parliamentary scrutiny of that important issue, along with many others.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

May I return to my right hon. Friend's point about Ronnie Biggs, and about not discovering all the evidence after the event? Does he agree that there is continuing public concern about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Is it not the case that just a few weeks ago the UN weapons inspectors were working with some success there, but we were then told that there must be a war because they could not find the weapons, and were subsequently told that only American inspectors could find the weapons because they were concealed so well—and then learnt that the American inspectors were being withdrawn? This week we have been told that the weapons are so small and so well concealed that we may never find them anyway. Do we not need a full parliamentary debate, so that we can consider all the evidence?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Actually, the evidence is starting to emerge. Coalition forces have discovered two vehicles which appear to be mobile biological weapons facilities. Testing and analysis of the vehicles is continuing. I have no doubt that if they prove to be what they appear to be, someone will say "But there are no bacterial media in them at present".

For seven years the inspectors were finding thousands of litres and tonnes of evidence, but the fact that we have not found further evidence does not mean that the intervention to reduce the threat from Saddam Hussein was either illegal or improper. That is why I drew a comparison with a bank robber whose stolen money has not been found. As I have said, I am convinced, as I was when we went into Iraq, that there was a threat from weapons of mass destruction—

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That is not a very constructive contribution. Moreover, it represents my hon. Friend's view against that of the united world community. The entire United Nations accepted that there was a threat from weapons of mass destruction. The only argument was about how we should deal with the threat; it was not about whether a threat existed. That is as true today as it was six months ago, and 12 years ago.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on local government which the Prime Minister might be able to attend? On two occasions I have raised the issue of local government funding and Derbyshire Dales. Yesterday I asked

"Can the Prime Minister explain why the average increase for Derbyshire districts this year was some £570,000, yet for Conservative-controlled Dales district council it was an increase of £33,000?"

The Prime Minister replied that there had been

"a substantial increase in the investment going into education."

He went on

"That is true. We are working on school funding problems in the way that we have explained."—[Hansard, 14 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 308.]

The fact is that district councils have no responsibility whatever for education. Should the Prime Minister not understand the functions of local government before giving us answers? That answer was inaccurate.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Let us discuss the financing rather than the function of local government. Let me put two simple facts to the hon. Gentleman. I am afraid I do not know the details relating to the council that he mentioned, but I do know two things. First, since this Government came to power there has been a 7 per cent. real-terms increase in local authority funding, whereas there was a 25 per cent. cut during the final four years of the last Government. Secondly, for the first time in the country's history, every council in England has received an increase above the rate of inflation.

Photo of Mrs Anne Picking Mrs Anne Picking Labour, East Lothian

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the restrictions placed on postal services in the House recently? Some of us who work late into the night would like to have that service. Could my right hon. Friend use his good offices to improve matters?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Members on both sides of the House have mentioned the revised collection times. Having discussed the matter with Royal Mail and Postcomm, I can confirm that there has been a positive response, at least initially. Royal Mail will now discuss future arrangements for later collections with the authorities, and I will ensure that all Members are informed of the outcome. I cannot promise a substantial change, but I can prove that we are on track to secure some form of change, which I know will benefit everyone.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

It was unfortunate in the extreme that during last week's business questions the Leader of the House failed to respond to my request for a statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the arrest of Liam Clarke, the Sunday Times journalist, by a large number of armed policemen in the middle of the night. The matter is not sub judice, and it does not involve the wider issues that the Leader of the House was trying to avoid.

This will not go away. This is not Iraq under Saddam Hussein; it is a civilised democracy, and we want a proper answer.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I will not respond to the last comment. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was not drawing any comparison between the way in which we conduct business and the way in which Saddam Hussein conducted business. [Interruption.] I think that the currency of debate is slightly demeaned if we draw such comparisons.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the case is not sub judice, but it does impinge on intelligence matters. I know that this will be disappointing and frustrating for the right hon. Gentleman, but I must repeat what I said last week: a comment has been made by the Prime Minister, and I do not want to add to it.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problems involving reminders to people to top up their national insurance contributions began before this Government were elected? I seem to remember that I received reminders in 1995 and 1996, but not in 1997. We were not elected until the summer of 1997, and I think that some of the responsibility for the choice and installation of computers must lie with the Conservative party.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am not going to question my hon. Friend's memory. If it is accurate, I am sure that, as on all these occasions, the Conservative party will be only too willing to bear its share of the responsibility.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

What will the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure that there is no repeat of the nonsense that occurred throughout the Committee stage of the Finance Bill? Owing to what appeared to be an extremely unseemly and childish squabble between the two Front Benches, we found ourselves discussing inconsequential clauses and amendments, and we did not reach the Scottish National party's reasoned and considered amendment on the oil industry. Does the right hon. Gentleman not believe that when the public see the House indulging in such behaviour they rightly hold it in contempt?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I think that many important issues were discussed during the Finance Bill debates, as they always are. I think that people in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom want the Finance Bill, which affects their incomes, their outgoings and their quality of life, to be discussed as fully as possible. I very much regret that we did not manage to reach an amendment that was of particular interest to the SNP, but I do not think it right to diminish everything else that was discussed because of that.

Photo of Colin Challen Colin Challen Labour, Morley and Rothwell

In the light of this week's decision by the European Court of Justice to effectively strike down this Parliament's right to decide whether the Government should have golden shares in publicly owned companies such as Royal Mail, may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Many people will fear that the new forms of public ownership created by the Government may suffer the same fate.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I will draw that matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—I assume that she is the appropriate Secretary of State—not least because I am not entirely au fait with all the facts of the subject that my hon. Friend raises.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

Does the Leader of the House accept that simply because there is not yet any clear and irrefutable evidence that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Ministers are squabbling like ferrets in a sack about the single European currency, that does not mean that it is not happening? Does he therefore accept that it is time for the House of Commons to have a full debate on this issue, so that we can find out the truth?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That is very topical, if I might say so. We have stated publicly all along the criteria on which such judgments will be made, and that the decision will be a collective one. This weekend, 18 technical documents on the Treasury's assessment will be sent to every Cabinet Minister. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will have bilateral meetings with Cabinet members next week to discuss those documents, and an initial discussion will take place at next week's Cabinet. We will of course continue to discuss them profoundly, and on 26 May we will circulate the assessment arising from the initial documents, which will be read by every member of the Cabinet during the Whitsun break. There will be further bilateral meetings between Cabinet members and the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to look at the assessment, and there will be a special Cabinet on 5 or 6 June for a final discussion. An announcement will be made on 9 June, and I can confirm that a statement will be made in this House on that day. That is a fairly full, profound and collective approach to these matters.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

On local government settlements, does my right hon. Friend accept that this year's local government debate was severely truncated, and that as a result many of us who wanted to make representations were unable to do so? I accept his earlier comment that the level of settlement was above the rate of inflation—at the time the rate was 2 per cent., yet Hertfordshire got 3.6 per cent.—but the reality is that inflation in the education sector is acknowledged to have been running at 10.6 per cent. As a result, the further education college in my local area, which depends for funding on the Learning and Skills Council, has not implemented any increase in lecturers' wages since 2002, is making 10 per cent. of its staff redundant and is axing many of its courses. Does my right hon. Friend accept that, overall, the local government settlement and miscalculations have in some ways done a great deal to diminish the quality of life, compared with the wonderful things that the Government have done in many other areas?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It is correct that in contrast with the overall settlement—my hon. Friend mentioned a figure of some 3.7 per cent. for his area—the rate of inflation in education was higher, but it is also true that within the overall settlement there was a higher percentage increase for education than for other areas. The burdens that were put on education through increased pensions, and so on, amounted to some 11.5 per cent., but the average increase in education provision totalled some 12.5 per cent. In all, some £2.7 billion was put into education, while the inflation constraints that he mentions constituted about £2.45 billion. So the Government made adequate provision for the pressures that he describes.

I should like to take this opportunity to correct some figures that I mixed up earlier. In fact, in terms of local authority expenditure this Government have provided a 25 per cent. increase over the past few years, while during the last few years of the previous Conservative Government there was a 6 per cent. cut.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Now that the Leader of the House's constituents are set to benefit from free eye tests and dental checks, will he find time to debate extending these provisions to the rest of the country?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

In terms of general expenditure on the national health service and medical provision, there is no doubt that the entire country has benefited enormously from this Government. How that money is applied in any given part of the country will, through devolution, be tailored to the demands in a particular part. However, it is a question of swings and roundabouts: if money is spent one aspect of medical provision, it cannot be spent on another. The point of devolution is that such suggestions can be made in each area, and we can tailor provision in each to the particular demands.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on the professional duty of journalists to protect their sources? In an alarming number of cases, the courts are ordering journalists to betray confidential information given to them in the public interest. They include the case of Mr. Robin Ackroyd, on whom judgement will be made in the Court of Appeal tomorrow.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Government's response to the Victoria Climbié inquiry, in the form of a Green Paper, is eagerly awaited. It was originally suggested that we might expect that response before the end of this month, but that now seems unlikely, given the right hon. Gentleman's exposition of business. Can he give us any idea of when we might expect the Green Paper?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am afraid that I cannot do so from the Dispatch Box today, but I undertake to write to the right hon. Lady as expeditiously as I can with whatever details we can find out.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look at the recent Commission for Health Improvement report, "Getting Better", which discusses how increased investment in health in the UK and better national standards are leading to significant improvements? May we have a debate in the House on that matter?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am eager that this report be debated in every conceivable forum because, as my hon. Friend says, it is the clearly stated conclusion of this independent inspection body that the national health service as a whole is getting better. There are of course areas that we want to improve, but I note that the chairman, Dame Deirdre Hine, has said:

"The bottom line is that the NHS as a whole is getting better."

The report concludes that waiting times are falling, that the NHS has made significant progress in respecting a person's right to be fully involved in decisions in the health service—that is very important—and that the service people receive from the NHS is different, and better, today than the service they would have received even a few years ago. I hope that we can deliberate on some of those findings at every conceivable opportunity.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

May we have a ministerial statement and a debate on the seemingly becalmed regional airport consultation, given the recent BAA proposals and, more importantly, that some of my constituents are having difficulty in obtaining copies of the questionnaire from the advertised distribution centre? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could get me a thousand copies or so, and I will distribute them myself.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The consultation is ongoing, but I will do what I can to look into the specific problem that the hon. Gentleman mentions if it is inconveniencing or in any way prohibiting his constituents from participating fully in any consultation.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Will the Leader of the House reconsider that part of his answer to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Tyler, that related to the Parliament First document, "Parliament's Last Chance"? In particular, will he recognise that there is an important distinction between modernising the procedures of this House and reforming its politics? Will he also give consideration to the several recommendations in that pamphlet about strengthening the role of Parliament in scrutinising and monitoring the Executive? They are very much in line with the Liaison Committee's report of a couple of years ago, entitled "Shifting the Balance". If put into practice, they would greatly strengthen the role of this House in relation to government—to the benefit both of government and of Parliament as a whole.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As I said, I welcome any contribution to this debate; we want a lively democracy and a lively debate about the means of it. I cannot say that I welcome a particular aspect, because I have not read the pamphlet. Obviously, scrutinising the Executive is a very important role for the legislature in this country, but we are all aware that arrangements here are not like those in the US. It is not as simple as having a legislature and an Executive: we have an Executive who are embodied in the legislature, and it is the Executive by virtue of the fact that it is part of the legislature. The relationship between Parliament and Government is very important, and I welcome all contributions as to how the relationship can be conducted to the benefit of our democracy and of the people of this country in the future.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

We anticipate that announcements will be made later today that billions of pounds are to be invested so that the Olympic games can be held in the UK in the near future, yet we in Northern Ireland do not even have a national stadium. When planning our business, will the Leader of the House try to arrange for a debate on the matter? It could be held in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, which is still to meet in Northern Ireland. Will he undertake to consider the matter and, I hope, arrange such a debate before too long?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I would not wish to pre-empt anything that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has just taken her place on the Front Bench, is due to say. However, during my period as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I gained some understanding of and sympathy with the point of view expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Anything that brings people in Northern Ireland together in recognition of what they have in common is to be supported and encouraged. Although I think that it is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to decide when and if such a debate should take place, I shall, of course, draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention.

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth

On the European Convention, my right hon. Friend is right to remind the House that the country is governed by Parliament and not by plebiscite, and that the right place for such debates is this House. However, does he share my concern that there is a widening gulf between the people and the political elites—the ones who make the decisions—about the future of Europe? If he does share my view, will he ensure that adequate time is found for discussion on the Floor of the House of any constitutional implications of the European Convention? That would also allow Labour Members to have the pleasure of seeing the continuing civil war among Opposition Members.

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Yes, any time spent with the dual objective and purpose of clarifying the Government's position on the matter, and of magnifying the deep divisions among Opposition Members, is time very well spent.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee, Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

Further to the reply that the Leader of the House has just given, will he now answer the question posed by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth about the Prime Minister? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said in terms that, if there were to be a referendum on the new European constitution and the country were to vote no, that would block enlargement. Was the Prime Minister right, or wrong?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am not sure that the Prime Minister[Interruption.] I am trying to reflect on the words used by Sir George Young. I am not sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister used the words attributed to him. The case that I set out earlier was quite simple—that, in this country, Parliament ratifies treaties. That is what happened with the Maastricht treaty, when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Cabinet that supported the decision that Parliament should determine whether that treaty should be ratified. Moreover, as I pointed out, the basis for the Convention and constitutional changes is mainly consolidation, and not the introduction of new elements.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a statement next week on the discussions that he is having with the Israeli Foreign Minister today? Such a statement should cover the position of foreign nationals working for aid agencies in the Gaza strip and other occupied territories. My right hon. Friend will know that it was reported last week that foreign nationals were being asked to sign a waiver authorising the Israeli military to shoot them. He will be aware also that many Governments, including our own, have received a letter this week from the aid agencies, which states that visa restrictions and other restrictions make it almost impossible for them to enter the Gaza strip, or continue their vital aid work there. Does he agree that that is against the spirit of the road map? Given that levels of poverty in the area are equivalent to those in sub-Saharan Africa, is not it time for the international community to act?

Photo of John Reid John Reid Lord Privy Seal, Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will have heard the specific comments that my hon. Friend makes. With regard to the general issue of the middle east peace process, I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that the House has spent some time discussing the matter, despite considerable time pressures, and that the Government, from the Prime Minister down, have done all that they can to bring the parties involved together, and to ensure publication of the road map so that there can be a viable state for the Palestinian people and a secure future for the state of Israel. Eventually, both sides will need to talk, and to reduce the tension in the area. Presumably, that means that they will have to deal with some of the matters raised by my hon. Friend.