The business for next week will be as follows:
The provisional business for the following week will be:
I thank the Leader of the House for the business.
May we have an urgent oral statement about the recent capture and denigration of our servicemen in Iran? Why was such an important issue dealt with only in a written statement?
Can we debate the draft Bill on regional assemblies before the recess so that the public can judge the proposals before the referendums?
Can we have a statement about new Government policy on mobile phone masts? The Bill presented by my hon. Friend Mr. Spring and that of Jim Dowd are both being blocked by the Government. My early-day motion 1231 calls for protection, as do those two Bills, to keep phone masts away from schools.
[That this House notes that on 31st March a petition from Sandra Cole and 1632 other residents of Royston, Hertfordshire was presented expressing their dismay at the decision of NTL to site a mobile phone mast in Stamford Avenue, Royston; expresses its concern that NTL have so far ignored public opinion and actually erected the mast the day after the petition was presented; and calls on the Government to give more control over phone masts and antennae to local communities through planning procedures and local councillors to ensure that councillors are able to take account of the proximity of schools and the health fears of local residents.]
If the Leader of the House agrees with that, is he able to announce a Government change in the law? If not, how does he justify Labour's leaflet in the Birmingham, Hodge Hill by-election, which attacks the Liberal Democrat as a
"mobile phone mast spin doctor" and states:
"We should do everything we can to ensure that there are no more phone masts near schools".
Why have not the Government done something about it then?
Continuing, if I may, with the election theme, when can we expect a statement, as promised yesterday by the Prime Minister, on the appointment of Electoral Commission observers for the two by-elections? The Birmingham Post today reports that a second election petition alleging postal ballot fraud against Labour councillors has been lodged in the High Court. It says:
"June 10 was a sad day for democracy in Birmingham."
Concern has been expressed in all communities, including in The Muslim News, and Mr. Godsiff has spoken out condemning the bribery and bullying involved in those elections. As I expect we will hear later today, and rightly so, Ministers are willing to condemn Robert Mugabe for not having election observers, so should they not be setting an example in these by-elections?
The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill started in the other place and since it has come here the Government have tabled a series of late amendments on a real ragbag of other matters. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman explain to his colleagues in government that they should at least have some idea in advance of what they want to put in a Bill? Could he not make that a new Labour commandment? I think it may be the 12th, after "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's job."
I do not think that any Conservative Member will be coveting the Leader of the Opposition's job, given his dismal performance recently. [Interruption.] Coveting a job in an election when there was only one candidate—that is some coveting, is it not?
What has happened in Iran is serious. The Defence Secretary gave a written ministerial statement as soon as he could yesterday, quite properly, to the House.
That is a regular bleat of Opposition Members. When the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are handling very sensitive relations with Iran, these things have to be managed carefully. The Defence Secretary's written ministerial statement made it absolutely clear that the practice and behaviour of the Iranians in this situation was intolerable.
As I have said before, the regional assemblies Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and published before the summer recess in a few weeks' time. The pre-legislative scrutiny will provide a full opportunity to go into all the Bill's details and establish any issues that Members wish to establish. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the Government's practice of providing pre-legislative scrutiny on an increasing scale so that precisely the debate that he is asking for can take place.
Local planning authorities already have powers to determine the suitability of sites for mobile phone base stations, and planning policy guidance on telecommunications is set out in the revised PPG8. The Government also strongly encourage telecoms operators and local planning authorities to carry out annual discussions about the roll-out plans in each area, especially as they affect sensitive issues such as schools.
With regard to the request to the Prime Minister for election observers, is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that what might or might not be going on in the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election is in any way comparable with the systematic rigging, violence and intimidation for which Robert Mugabe has been responsible in elections? That is a ridiculous comparison. The Prime Minister will be responding to the Leader of the Opposition's request in due course, and I might add that if there were any irregularities, they would be under the traditional election system and nothing to do with the all-postal voting pilots that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have regularly attacked in past weeks.
If any improvements are needed to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill as a result of the scrutiny and debate in both Houses, it is important that the Government bring them forward in the form of amendments. But let us not lose sight of the fact that this is a very important Bill. It is one of the Government's flagship Bills in this Session. With a quarter of all violent crimes taking place in the home against women and two women dying every week from violent crime, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would applaud our attempts to get the law absolutely right.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the written ministerial statement, which appeared in Hansard on Tuesday, from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the proposed closure of massive numbers of benefit offices? The matter is so serious that it should be debated in Government time—an oral statement should have been made, but that can be put right. The written ministerial statement does not inspire confidence, because it discusses developments in the Child Support Agency and the Appeals Service, which is under pressure in many areas. The whole matter should be fully debated.
I am sure that my hon. Friend supports the Government's objective of serving all our constituents better by transferring resources and priorities to front-line services. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions also intends to follow the Government's policy of transferring jobs from over-congested, overheated London and the south-east to the regions of England, Wales and Scotland, and those of us who represent such regions welcome that policy.
If, as expected, the Butler inquiry report is published on
The Electoral Commission was mentioned earlier. Will the Leader of the House examine the possibility of a statement, or better still a debate, on its role and remit in the next couple of weeks, so that we are sure about its responsibilities and how it is accountable to Parliament?
On funding and democracy, did the Leader of the House read the report in The Times on
"That could distort the whole campaign. The legislation is flawed".
I hope that the Leader of the House will acknowledge that the issue is urgent.
Finally, the Defence Committee published an important report this morning. How quickly can we expect the Government to respond to it? The report raises important issues such as command, intelligence capabilities and equipment provision, which I have drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House before. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about equipment provision, particularly in relation to actions currently being undertaken by British troops in Iraq.
On the Butler inquiry, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify matters. The Butler review press office aims to publish the review on
The Electoral Commission's role and remit is set out on a statutory basis, and I see no need to revisit it—the Electoral Commission's work is important, and we will continue to monitor it. Mr. Tyler raised an important point about attempts to manipulate elections, especially on the European issue. In the end, the people of Britain will vote according to the national interest, which is to keep Britain at the heart of the European Union, and they will not be bribed by millionaire manipulators or persuaded by propaganda. The people of Britain will vote in the national interest, and the Government will put the case in the national interest.
On defence policy, we very much welcome the Defence Committee's report on the White Paper; as ever, it makes a valuable contribution to defence issues. We need to await the outcome of the spending review on
Will the Leader of the House make a statement to clarify the position of MPs' representations and correspondence on behalf of their constituents in relation to the Data Protection Act 1998? Confusion and inconsistency still surrounds the question of whether constituents need to give written permission before a third-party body can respond to the MP. That obviously causes great inconvenience, because the constituent would not have contacted the MP in the first place if they did not want them to make that representation on their behalf. Can the position be clarified to ensure that that confusion in relation to third parties does not continue?
I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that matter, which goes to the heart of Members' rights in representing their constituents. As he will be aware, in response to such pressure the Government made a change—through an order that came into force on
Information that hospitals have about an individual's health is likely to be held in confidence—I suspect that that is where the issue has arisen in my hon. Friend's case—and disclosure to a third party is governed by the common law on confidence. However, the Department of Health has issued guidance to the effect that hospitals should accept an MP's word that they are acting on behalf of their constituent; that means that the necessary information can be disclosed and the case can be processed in the normal way. The message should go out loud and clear that every hospital and every trust is obliged to treat MPs' representations in the proper way and should not try to impose any bureaucratic obstacles.
Reverting to the question about the Butler report, will the Leader of the House set out next Thursday the detailed arrangements for publication; and can he confirm that the debate to which he referred will take place before the House rises?
I will certainly try to comply with the right hon. Gentleman's first request, which is very reasonable. It is an independent report and, as with the Hutton report, we are reliant on Lord Butler and his team to make the arrangements that they deem appropriate, with which we will fit in. I will certainly give details next Thursday if I am able.
We will try to have a debate as soon as possible, because it is in the House's interests to do so. I note, however—I do not know whether it will happen on this occasion—that the clamour for a debate on the Hutton report before its publication was followed by a rather subdued whimper afterwards. Relative to the massive series of attacks and allegations that took place before the debate, virtually no serious interest was expressed subsequently.
May I draw the Leader of the House's attention back to the proposed loss of tens of thousands of civil servants' jobs? If 550 out of 650 local benefits offices close, they will not be in London, but in Leeds, Liverpool, York and possibly Halifax. In view of the devastating effect that that will have on employees, who will almost certainly be made compulsorily redundant, and the effects on our constituents as vital services are lost, can we have a full, at least one-day debate in Government time before the recess?
I reassure my hon. Friend that, as I said to my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes a moment ago, the intention of this whole exercise is to devolve more resources and front-line opportunities to staff in the Department for Work and Pensions, including in benefits agencies, precisely to provide the face-to-face contact and assistance that our constituents need. It is simply not the case that wholesale benefits agency closures are planned. No decision has yet been made on the precise configuration. Full consultation is occurring and will continue to occur with the trade unions. I assure my hon. Friend that the intention is to enhance local provision and use new technology and efficiency measures to switch priorities from backroom operations.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House next week, will the Leader of the House ask him to incorporate in his statement details of how he will manage the United Kingdom's economy in future when there is an European Union constitution? When the Prime Minister made a statement on
The hon. Lady and her colleagues have an obsession with attempting to show that the new draft constitutional treaty is a threat to Britain's interests when the rest of the European Union views it as a triumph for Britain and our negotiators. Only the Conservatives and their allies in the media and elsewhere cannot recognise that.
On tax and the central economic decisions that the Chancellor makes, this Government are the sovereign body. On co-ordinating economic policy, we have been responsible for driving forward an agenda for economic reform in Europe that was determined at the Lisbon summit some years ago. It included liberalisation of energy policy, so that our companies, which were previously denied the opportunity to get into markets such as France and Germany when their companies had access to ours, were given free access on a level playing field under single market rules. That is co-ordination of economic policy. Such matters are normally decided by unanimity at the European Council. All decisions at that level are made by unanimity.
We read in the newspapers about the likely huge expansion in city technology colleges. The Times cited 500 and there have been other estimates of 200. Will the Secretary of State for Education and Skills make a statement about that next week? May I encourage my right hon. Friend to schedule a full day's debate on that major policy announcement?
My hon. Friend must be referring to press reports about city academies, not city technology colleges. When the Secretary of State for Education and Skills comes to the House to report on his five-year departmental plan, my hon. Friend will appreciate the huge focus of resources on inner-city areas where youngsters have been denied the opportunity for far too long to benefit from educational advance. The academies are designed to assist them. Where they have been established, they have an excellent record of improving standards and opportunities. Throughout the country, we are providing improved opportunities, choice, standards and outcomes. When the Secretary of State makes his statement, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the programme is exciting and radical, and designed to raise standards for people from all backgrounds, not only those at the top of the income bracket.
My hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House has already mentioned the lack of concern of Liberals in Birmingham, Hodge Hill about an important matter to many people who live in the Birmingham area—the siting of mobile phone masts. Will the Leader of the House consider a more general debate on mobile phone safety issues, following the jailing last week of a Sutton Coldfield man for grooming a 13-year-old girl through text messaging? A massive growth in mobile phone sales, especially to youngsters, has occurred. The industry should help parents and children to promote the best possible safety practices in the use of mobile phones. Will the right hon. Gentleman seriously consider holding a debate on the matter so that hon. Members of all parties can stress to the industry the importance of promoting children's safety?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's work in bringing to the House's attention the important issue of the use of mobile phones and the text messaging system to groom vulnerable youngsters. I hope that he continues to campaign on the matter. I shall ensure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is aware of his anxieties. He has tabled many questions on the matter and he can be satisfied that the Government take it seriously. I hope that mobile phone operators will take it much more seriously—that is partly the cause that he is prosecuting.
I am intrigued by the way in which Conservative Members are desperately trying to fight the Liberal Democrats for second place in the Hodge Hill by-election. Both parties are trading propaganda and attacks on the Floor. Long may that continue.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the list of Standing Committees on page 2070 of the Order Paper? Will he consider—and perhaps hold discussions through the usual channels and with Departments—whether longer notice of delegated legislation Committees can be given? That would improve deliberations because it would allow people to volunteer to the Whips to serve on Committees. The current position means that Whips, including my hon. Friend Mr. Ainger, have to muster Back Benchers to serve on Committees in which they are not especially interested when other Committees in which they have a specific interest could be meeting simultaneously. For example, I am interested in landfill tax but horse passports do not exercise me, although some hon. Members consider them to be important. Cannot we have square pegs in square holes and get Departments to give longer notice so that hon. Members of all parties could volunteer to serve on Committees? That would lead to meaningful deliberations rather than hon. Members doing their correspondence in Committee.
Indeed, he cannot answer back so I shall attempt to do it for him. My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay made an interesting point. He is a doughty defender of parliamentary rights and I shall look into the matter.
The Welsh Grand Committee and the Scottish Grand Committee have met outside the House. Does the Leader of the House agree that there should be no reason why the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, which will probably hold its last meeting of the Session next Thursday, cannot meet in Northern Ireland? It has never met there but there should be no impediment to that happening. Is it necessary for me, as a Whip of my party, to table a motion to get a democratic decision that will make it possible to meet in Northern Ireland? Or will one party, which seldom participates in the Grand Committee, be permitted for ever to prevent that from happening?
The hon. Gentleman knows that, in the case of the Welsh Grand Committee, which met outside the House—and, indeed, in Wales—several times, an Order was required to effect that. If he wants to pursue the matter, he would have to persuade the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the usual channels that meeting in Northern Ireland would be a sensible thing for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to do. I suggest that he raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
People seem to be putting in bids for debates before the recess, so I shall make mine for the reintroduction of a Bill to ban hunting with dogs. We are getting perilously close to the recess and we have other important matters to discuss. I therefore suggest reintroducing the Bill shortly and considering all stages in one day. When does my right hon. Friend expect to make such an announcement?
I will make an announcement when I am ready to do so. There are two more business statements before the recess; we shall see what transpires.
May I suggest to the Leader of the House that we have an early debate on the timetabling of business and, in particular, of Bills? He has been in the House a long time, as have I, and he will know that this Session has been pretty light. We have sometimes had early nights, and the debates have often been on subjects that were not particularly pressing, yet it remains a fact that many clauses of many important Bills went wholly undiscussed because of the timetable. That is quite wrong, and the House needs to look at the matter again. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
Given the right hon. and learned Gentleman's long experience in the House, I think that he will agree—as will others with longer experience than me—that, in the past, not every clause was always discussed, even before programming came in. On the contrary, I remember some Standing Committees in which, owing to all sorts of Opposition manoeuvres—some by our party, some by others—or to agreements with the usual channels, we would spend a ridiculous amount of time on one clause or another, then race past others. This has always been the case; it is not particularly down to the programming system or the timetabling consequences of it.
On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's wider point, one of the reasons this happens is that the House of Lords is a law unto itself. It has no proper procedures, and is in many respects anarchic in the way in which it conducts its business. It is very difficult for business managers to plan for the return of Bills from the Lords for further consideration. That is why I have just announced a whole series of days for further consideration of Lords amendments.
Bearing in mind what the Solicitor-General said, which my right hon. Friend was listening to, would it be possible for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement next week on the UK citizens in Guantanamo? So far, I have not heard a single Member of Parliament on either side of the House approve of what the United States is doing at the moment. Is it not necessary for the voice of Parliament to be heard very strongly? Whatever criticism there may be about those being detained without charge in Britain on suspicion of involvement in terrorism, they are certainly not being treated in the same way as those in Guantanamo. I saw for myself, with one or two colleagues, that whatever the situation at Belmarsh may be and however concerned those people are that they should not remain in prison, their conditions are very different indeed.
The Leader of the House will be aware of concerns in my constituency and throughout the country about the health implications of Tetra masts. Can we have a full debate in Government time to consider in detail all the research and evidence, and to address the issue of imposing a moratorium on new Tetra masts being put up until the research into their health implications has been fully carried out and reported?
Obviously, the health implications of these masts are very important and they are continuously borne in mind by the Government. We are monitoring the situation, and we draw on such fresh research as is available, but I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
My right hon. Friend may have seen the report in The Times today that the Department of Health is planning to abolish the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. Even if that report is not accurate, clarification is now needed. Given the difficult but ultimately positive work that was put into creating the replacement system for community health councils over many years, will my right hon. Friend secure a debate on this matter so that Government policy can be clarified, and so that we may discuss how the interests of patients and the public in the national health service may be best served, and how patients forums may continue to be supported?
I can assure my hon. Friend that those reports are purely speculative. The Department's review of its arm's-length bodies is due to report later this month, and no decisions have yet been taken on this matter. The Government remain committed to giving patients a strong voice, and to giving the public a stronger voice in the patient-centred national health service which is being driven forward day by day.
The Secretary of State will have noted the hon. Gentleman's points with some concern and interest. Obviously, I do not know the details, but on the account that he has given me, I would say that it is important that MPs are consulted on all these matters—or given the opportunity to be consulted, at any rate.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are 28 strategic health authorities in England, each of which has a different way of demarcating the gap between personal care and nursing care. Does he agree that it is desirable for the House to debate this issue, with a view to influencing the Department of Health so that the system can be clarified, and so that those of our citizens, both young and old, in the most tragic of circumstances, will not have to go to law to get the support that they need for their condition?
I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a sensitive area, and it has been a difficult one to manage for a very long time. The Secretary of State for Health is very exercised about it and is working continuously with other Government colleagues, local authorities and the health service generally to improve the situation. I know that he will take careful note of my hon. Friend's point.
Can we have a debate on the performance of the Highways Agency? The Leader of the House will be aware of the terrible accident that took place in my constituency, because I drew it to the attention of the Prime Minister. In his reply to me, however, the Prime Minister failed to mention that the Highways Agency had taken more than two years to report on the A49. That is two years too late for the people who lost their lives in that accident.
The Secretary of State for Transport will obviously take careful note of the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which is obviously an important constituency matter for him and for the people who were tragically involved in that accident. I know that my right hon. Friend will want to consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate as soon as possible on the findings of the Clywch inquiry, which came out in Wales at 12 o'clock today? Does he agree that this has been an important inquiry that will have far-reaching consequences, and that it shows the value of having a Children's Commissioner in Wales?
I very much agree that this shows the value of having a Children's Commissioner in Wales. Indeed, as a result of that pioneering step, the principle is being spread into England as well. The Children's Commissioner has made 31 important recommendations as a result of the dreadful case of child abuse at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen, a school in south Wales, involving the appalling behaviour of John Owen, a drama teacher who was really a serial sexual pervert who indulged in repulsive and horrific abuse over an extended period. What was awful about the case was not only the suffering of the children concerned but the way in which those involved in the school and the wider educational establishment pretty well turned a blind eye to all the protests and complaints that were made. This is a very valuable, if disturbing, report to read, as I found out when I did so.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the genuine concerns expressed by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, and other trade unions representing workers in the construction industry. There are about 80 untimely and unnecessary deaths in the construction industry each year, and that is forecast to increase with the increase in the number of migrant workers who can neither speak nor understand English coming into the industry. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an urgent debate on this issue? Thankfully, we do not have the same number of fatalities in the police or fire services or in the armed forces. If we did, there would be calls from Members and from our friends in the press and the media for immediate action. In my view, a life is a life, regardless of where we work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: a life is a life. That is why the Government are committed to improving health and safety at work, including on construction sites. I applaud the work that UCATT, the builder workers' union to which he referred, does in highlighting this problem. We will continue to work with it to try to solve it.
May I ask the Leader of the House to bring forward a draft protocol or indicative guidelines for his colleagues on what would constitute the requirement for a written statement, an oral statement or a full debate? To use the example of the statement by the Department for Work and Pensions this week, he has told us that the important statement means that there will not be service cuts, job cuts or closures of jobcentres or advice centres. In fact, the written statement says that there will be 550 centre closures, and that there will be job cuts, because that is part of the Chancellor's 40,000 job cuts. He has also informed us today that there have been trade union consultations, yet we met the trade unions yesterday, and there have been no consultations. All this confusion could have been clarified had there been an oral statement from a Minister who would have been able to respond to questions. Will he consider this matter urgently?
The Secretary of State will have listened to and noted carefully my hon. Friend's points. He has continued properly to make representations on behalf of the unions and workers involved. I am sure that he will welcome this in two respects: first, we are devolving these jobs to the regions of England, out of the south-east and the London area, where jobs and job opportunities are more plentiful; and secondly, those jobs are going to the front line.
In respect of written statements and oral statements, we have adopted written statements, as everyone is aware, instead of planted questions, which was the tradition of previous Governments. That is much more transparent, up front and clear. Obviously, the balance between written and oral statements is a matter for the Secretary of State to judge initially. Of course, if Members have any complaints, they are entitled to apply to the Speaker for an urgent question in the normal way.
My private Member's Bill, which would afford compensation to those people who have their gas or electricity supply switched against their will and without their consent, is unlikely to become law because of pressure on parliamentary time. In the absence of further legislation on this matter, can the Leader of the House assure me that the Government will continue to take a dim view of those utility companies that send door-to-door salespeople around the streets of our constituencies, hoodwinking elderly and vulnerable people into switching their gas and electricity supply, and getting away scot-free?
Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to remind us that the practice continues whereby high-pressure salesmen are going around, preying particularly on elderly and vulnerable citizens, and seeking to bamboozle them with an offer that often turns out in practice not to have been as advantageous as the one that they were getting. We must make sure that that is stopped. The Secretary of State will have carefully noted his comments.
With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, may I thank my right hon. Friend? Last week, at business questions, I drew to his attention the fact that the Government office for Yorkshire and the Humber was holding up a major inward investment in my constituency. On Tuesday, just a few days later, there was an announcement that that obstruction had been removed, and that there will now be a £100 million investment by Polestar, creating 1,000 jobs. I thank him for any influence that he brought to bear.
Can we therefore have a debate on another success story? In March this year, in Sheffield, fewer than 10 people were waiting more than nine months for an operation. The target is that by the end of next year, no one will be waiting longer than six months for an operation. By comparison, only a few years ago, people used to come to my surgery complaining that they were waiting two years and longer, particularly for orthopaedic operations. It would be good to have a debate on that important subject, and I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House is not at the forefront of those who are asking for it.
It is interesting, as my hon. Friend points out, that that is not one of the Opposition day debates. The Government's policy of bringing waiting times down progressively to 18 weeks over the next few years is very exciting and is giving massive opportunity to patients and those in need of health services. In respect of his constituency matter, his experience over the last week is a great advertisement for the value of business questions, and for the power of Back Benchers to ask business questions and to change practice and policy, almost miraculously, within days.