Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 1:20 pm on 3rd February 2005.

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Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 7 February—Remaining stages of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill.

Tuesday 8 FebruaryOpposition day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate on climate change and the environment, followed by a debate on tackling the causes of crime. Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. There will then be a motion to approve the third report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Wednesday 9 FebruarySecond Reading of the European Union Bill.

Thursday 10 February—Remaining stages of the Identity Cards Bill.

Friday 11 February—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after the half-term recess will include:

Monday 21 February—Remaining stages of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill.

Tuesday 22 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2005 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2005, followed by remaining stages of the Drugs Bill.

Wednesday 23 February—Opposition day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 24 February

Friday 25 February—Private Members' Bills.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. He will obviously have in mind a date for a Northern Ireland elections Bill. It would be helpful if the Bill were to be published. It may be controversial, but what is the timetable for publication?

Given the deteriorating security situation in Northern Ireland following the recent IRA statement, does the Leader of the House know whether the Secretary Of State for Defence has the intention to reconsider the cuts that he made in the number of infantry battalions based there? Are we likely to have a statement on that in the coming week? He will know that, at the time that those cuts were made, Opposition Members, and indeed many hon. Members throughout the House, pointed out that they were premature and would place more pressure on the defence budget.

The Public Administration Committee report issued today suggests giving Parliament much more control over inquiries such as that into the former Home Secretary. Can we expect an early response? Clearly, Parliament needs to be treated with more respect than has been shown recently to our Select Committees.

Will the Leader of the House make a statement about parliamentary conventions? Two weeks ago, the Government wanted to change the convention that constitutional Bills are debated on the Floor of the House, but ultimately relented. The Deputy Prime Minister was given the Environmental Audit Committee report entitled "Housing: Building a Sustainable Future" early, and subject to a press embargo for Sunday. On Saturday, however, he showed total brass neck by ignoring the embargo in order to attack the report. As The Guardian put it:

"Mr. Prescott took the unusual step of reacting to the report a day before it was even due to be released."

The Labour Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee ignored the convention that the Chairman supports the status quo when he voted to reverse that Committee's request to sit in public. The tied vote then went in favour of those who oppose open government. The Leader of the House himself told us how much he welcomed the original request. He said:

"I very much welcome the European Scrutiny Committee's decision . . . Indeed I do. In fact, I would like to see greater scrutiny". [Hansard, 15 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 970.]

Is it not time that the Leader of the House condemned those who wish to go back to the bad, old-fashioned secrecy that has cloaked European scrutiny here? Surely we can rely on him to support such a modest piece of modernisation?

Finally, can we debate the Environmental Audit Committee report itself, which is also referred to in early-day motion 626,

[That this House expresses its deep concern at the plans to impose massive house building on Hertfordshire; notes that such plans are based on the Government's Sustainable Communities Plan launched by the Deputy Prime Minister; congratulates the Environmental Audit Committee on its report Housing: Building a Sustainable Future, which attacks the Government's plans as not adequately considering the environmental impacts of the proposed increase in house building, with the environment as principal loser, as establishing the principal role of planning as being simply to meet market demand without regard to democratic accountability, as not having an adequate evidence base, as not referring to environmental protection, as making efforts towards sustainability that are little more than window dressing and as likely to result in a dramatic increase in the number of properties flooded; calls on the Government to undertake the research recommended by the Committee to amend its plans to take account of the environmental impacts and not to take forward the current misconceived proposals, which would lead to overdevelopment in Hertfordshire and other parts of the South East and East, and to traffic congestion, train overcrowding and undue pressure on all local services; and condemns the Government for pressing ahead with this plan even though the East of England Regional Assembly has withdrawn its support.]?

The report attacks the Deputy Prime Minister's massive house building plans in the south-east for ignoring the environmental impacts of such building and ignoring democratic accountability. It states that it is likely to lead to a

"dramatic increase in the number of properties flooded".

That is what that Labour-dominated Committee found. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that Hertfordshire, my own county, and other counties do not want to become a concrete wasteland to be known as "Prescottshire"?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that carefully manufactured soundbite, but that is about all that I can say for his contribution. As for the proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I can tell him that two thirds of all new dwellings in England in 2002 and 2003 were built on brownfield sites. That compares with 56 per cent. in 1997. The intention is to use existing brownfield sites wherever possible, and to protect the green belt. We also intend to proceed with more affordable housing by using Government land where possible, so that the main cost borne by homeowners is the cost of their home.

That approach compares with Conservative proposals to cut the funding for housing massively, as part of the £35 billion in cuts that they hope to make. The hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on that, as voters in the south-east and elsewhere will have to decide between a Labour Government who invest in new housing, mostly on brownfield sites, providing opportunities for new homeowners, and a Conservative party that would cut all that support, and take it away from first-time buyers in particular.

On the Northern Ireland elections Bill, we would like to publish it as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is a matter for discussion through the usual channels, and that it is being discussed in the House of Lords at present.

I agree that the IRA's statement is very regrettable, but it would be "premature"—to quote the hon. Gentleman—to start reconfiguring the infantry in Northern Ireland. It is very important to keep the peace process on track, and I hope that Opposition Front-Bench Members, for once under their current leadership, will back the Government in that regard. That would contrast with their usual practice of continually undermining and sniping away at the peace process.

On the Public Administration Committee report, the Government will give a response in due course.

The hon. Gentleman will know that there was an argument about the Constitutional Reform Bill, but that that was resolved satisfactorily in the end. Indeed, he and I had a constructive conversation about the matter. However, I remind him that, on the second day in Committee, no Conservative Member was present at one stage of the debate. It is therefore very hard to tell quite why there was such a hoo-hah about providing extra time, given the sheer indifference among Conservative Members to that important matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the European Scrutiny Committee. He will know that the Committee reconsidered the matter last week. I understand that the vote was tied, with 12 hon. Members voting. After that, the Chairman voted and it was decided that the Committee should meet in private—at least for some sittings. The Committee meets in public when it takes evidence, and I have attended in various capacities to give evidence to the Committee. The evidence that I gave was always on the record, and given in public.

However, the Committee's vote needs to be respected by the House. It involved 12 hon. Members, whereas previously just five had voted. That was against the wishes of the Chairman, who thought that there should be proper representation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Environmental Audit Committee report, and suggested that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister had transgressed the normal protocols. As I understand the matter, that did not happen. I am advised that he was responding to a report of a leak when the question to which the hon. Gentleman referred was put to him. I think he is entitled to do that. If he or any other Cabinet Minister is challenged on the record by journalists, of course they cannot remain silent in the middle of any story that is beginning to run. It is interesting that instead of concentrating on the substance of the policies and arguing their merits—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is asking about policy issues in the context of a lot of processy stuff. It is interesting that Conservative Front Benchers are always obsessed with process, never the issues or the policies.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

Yesterday, we had a very good debate about the excellent local government finance settlement for next year, but a number of issues require further explanation, so could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate in which I could ask about a possible £4 billion cut in local government expenditure? As police, education and social services are protected, a cut would surely mean that houses would not be repaired, potholes would not be filled in, litter would not be collected, street lights would be left off, sports centres closed and libraries shut down. That may be the world that the Opposition want to live in, but I am sure that it would find no favour among Government Members.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am absolutely sure that my hon. Friend is right. Whether it is cuts that would devastate communities such as his own and others across the country, or the £35 billion of cuts that Conservative Front Benchers are triumphantly proclaiming, everyone understands that they would destroy public services and take us back to high unemployment, economic risk, high interest rates and all the devastation that that would bring.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

In relation to the business announced for next Thursday, does the Leader of the House recall his eloquent plea last week for a full working day on Thursdays? He said:

"By sitting an hour earlier on Thursday, we will make it again a day on which major business can be scheduled".—[Hansard, 26 January 2005, Vol. 430, c. 333.]

That is not yet in place, so how does he justify the inclusion of the Identity Cards Bill next Thursday? Is it not major business? Just because there are deep divisions in the Government and among the Conservatives, that is no excuse for truncating the debate to little more than four hours.

Today, urgent questions were raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Will the Government reply in detail before the debate? He will know that the Chair of the Committee, Jean Corston, wrote to the Home Secretary with 14 extremely important questions, and specifically asked for answers before next Monday. Can we be certain that we will have those answers before the debate? The Leader of the House will be aware from reports in both The Guardian and The Independent today that both inside and outside the House there are extremely serious concerns about the way in which the legislation appears to conflict with our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Will he therefore reschedule the debate for a later date, so that we can have a proper, full debate on a day that even he recognises as suitable for major business?

Can the Leader of the House find an opportunity for the House to vote on the principle of making the other place more democratic and representative? He will be aware from today's papers that he and his Cabinet colleagues are being blocked by the Prime Minister on this issue.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

That is the only support that the Prime Minister has in the House on this matter. In an extremely important article, The Independent points out that

"supporters of change have warned Mr Blair that Labour will be outflanked by the Tories and Liberal Democrats, who back a mainly elected chamber".

Is it not time to have that vote? Even the Prime Minister, when answering a question from me last week, admitted that it was a matter for the House on a free vote. When will the House have that free vote?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

A free vote on precisely what? The last time there was a vote on the composition of the House of Lords there was no agreement on any of the options put before the House. The debate was the result of considerable consultation and preparation. As for the hon. Gentleman's objective of a reformed and democratically constituted House of Lords, I share the general principle of that objective, although not necessarily the details. I am on record as doing so, and have voted accordingly. There is therefore no surprise about the proposal or anything new in it. If we are to achieve a consensus, as the Prime Minister wants, that will allow us to move forward and resolve the matter, we must work at it rather than simply springing a vote on the House. I therefore advise the hon. Gentleman to wait and see how matters progress, especially after the general election.

As to whether there is time to consider the remaining stages of the Identity Cards Bill on Thursday, that was discussed by the usual channels, and it was agreed to hold the debate then. There is no question of truncating the discussion. How could the Government seek to truncate a discussion about the Bill, when it has been raging in the media? The Bill itself has been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and detailed consideration in Committee. It is a major item, and it has been agreed on this occasion, as we have agreed on other occasions, to discuss it on a Thursday. Indeed, we are taking the legislative stages of another major Bill today. It has not been possible to secure agreement to hold Opposition day debates on a Thursday—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman would agree to that—but it is possible to make progress on major pieces of legislation.

As for the report on identity cards published by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we will obviously study it in full. We welcome the Committee's view that article 8 of the European convention on human rights does not prevent the issuing of any form of identity card—that is the key point. Currently, 21 of the 25 European states have identity cards. It is only the United Kingdom, Ireland, Latvia and Denmark—which has a national identity register—that do not. That underlines the point that there is no incompatibility between the Bill and the convention. People have concerns about identity cards, and the Home Secretary and the Government as a whole will wish to consider some of the issues raised by the Joint Committee. I do not, however, accept the hon. Gentleman's central proposition.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller PPS (Team PPS), Department of Trade and Industry

I welcome the review of road traffic offences published by the Home Office. It is an excellent document and will be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House who wish to deal with the tragedy of death on our roads. Can my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that primary legislation will be introduced after the consultation? More particularly, bearing in mind the fact that the consultation ends on Friday 6 May, if there is a general election in the meantime, can we be sure that enough work will have been done to introduce primary legislation at an early stage in the new Parliament?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The House is grateful for the consistent attention that my hon. Friend has paid to these matters. He welcomed the Government's introduction of the Road Safety Bill, and he will be aware of the written ministerial statement by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Caroline Flint today. The consultation paper sets out tough new proposals to reform the framework of offences dealing with bad driving, and seeks to address public concern, which he has ventilated, about the courts' ability to deliver justice, particularly when a death is caused by careless driving, death occurs involving a driver who should not have been on the road in the first place—such drivers may be disqualified or may not even have a licence—or when serious but non-fatal injuries are sustained by victims. We are addressing all those issues, and we will continue to do so, I hope, with my hon. Friend's input in the debate.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Will the Leader of the House alter slightly the business for the week of 21 February, and table a motion so that the House can debate removing the privileges that Sinn Fein's so-called Members of Parliament currently enjoy? Surely he agrees that they are no longer entitled to them.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

That is similar to a point made by the shadow Leader of the House. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is part of the context in which we are seeking to get the peace process back on the rails and secure a permanent democratic settlement to the difficulties in Northern Ireland. I do not think that it would be right for us to address this matter prematurely, although I understand the point that he is making.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, West Renfrewshire

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the statement made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on encouraging people off incapacity benefit and back into work—especially those who have the important skills that our country needs. As there is a perception that the policy is Treasury-driven and an attack on vulnerable people, will my right hon. Friend, in a spirit of fairness and equality, ensure that the Chancellor comes to the House to assure us that the same focus, resource and importance will be given to those who avoid paying tax in this country and whose tax burden falls on honest taxpayers?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

Obviously, the Chancellor, laser-like, constantly seeks to get rid of tax avoidance or tax fraud and has devoted considerable attention to that. However, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the proposals on incapacity benefit are meant not to be punitive but to provide people who have been on incapacity benefit—some for a long time—with the opportunity to work, which everybody wants, and to fulfil their duty to society in some cases. In the south Wales valleys, I have seen for myself examples of exciting pilot programmes. In many cases, hundreds of people have come off incapacity benefit and gone into jobs, which they never imagined having the opportunity to do. With that individual support, which is costly, and with the incentives to come off IB and go into work, everybody is better off: society, because the benefit bill is lower; those individuals, because they gain the dignity and opportunity of work; and businesses with vacancies, which have those vacancies filled. That is win-win for everybody concerned, which is why we are so determined to take this forward.

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

I read in the papers that the Leader of the House has just come from a political session of the Cabinet at which no doubt an imminent general election was discussed. May I ask a business question in relation to that and hope for a less dismissive reply than I received last time? The Electoral Commission has proposed new and higher limits for expenditure by constituency candidates, to reflect the extra costs that now have to be reported. Those limits can come into being only when a statutory instrument is laid by the Government. When will they lay that statutory instrument?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am sorry if I was dismissive to the right hon. Gentleman. I never try to be dismissive, to him in particular, as he is a senior and respected parliamentarian.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

Some Conservative Back Benchers invite a dismissive response, although it is always done in a gentle and smiley frame of mind, especially to the hon. Gentleman who is a great participant in the theatre—sorry, serious business—of business questions.

We shall obviously consider the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot tell him what went on in the political Cabinet, but it was most interesting.

Photo of Ms Julia Drown Ms Julia Drown Labour, South Swindon

Despite all the ceasefire agreements, violence in Sudan continues, with the African Union reporting that the Sudanese air force bombed a village a few days ago killing 100 villagers. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on Darfur and the violence in Sudan so that we can call for more action, to ensure that those people receive not only the humanitarian aid but the protection that they need.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has raised this matter. She is right to keep bringing it before the House. It will of course be discussed in the Security Council shortly. We are providing active support to the African Union monitoring mission to ensure the safety of civilians in Darfur—vehicles, money and plenty of planning support. We have also encouraged the monitoring mission to deploy fully as soon as possible. So far about 1,500 personnel, from a total force of 3,000, have been deployed, and we expect a further 500 to be deployed soon, but that is not really enough, and it is imperative that the Government of Sudan fulfil their responsibilities in compliance with United Nations requirements and end the attacks on innocent civilians in that devastated area.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Will the Leader of the House find time before Easter to hold a debate on the collecting and collating of Government statistics, especially those on the measurement of economic growth and productivity? Is he aware that some people in the Office for National Statistics are expressing concern about the issue? There is suspicion that political pressure is being applied to come up with convenient numbers. As I know that the Government—and not least the right hon. Gentleman himself—want to be transparent, will he find time for this important issue to be raised on the Floor of the House?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

It is indeed important, and I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. I state most emphatically that there is no attempt to rig or in any sense manipulate the statistics provided by the ONS. Indeed, because of some anomalies that have crept in—I shall refer to them in a moment to explain where I think we are—the decision was taken to launch the independent Atkinson review. That decision was taken by the national statistician, not the Government: he himself said that he needed some independent advice. For example, under current measures of productivity, if we decrease class sizes, increase the quality of teaching and improve exam results, the statistics show a fall in productivity. If someone dies, that shows an increase in health productivity. Furthermore, 40,000 fewer people dying early from cancer and heart disease do not show up in the statistics at all. We have to try to make those assessments impartially, and the ONS, especially under its current leadership, is renowned for that robust independence. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, would want to maintain that.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Labour, Birmingham, Hodge Hill

In the state of New York, the Batson inquiry into fraud at Enron has heard evidence that both the Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays worked with Enron executives in a way that allowed the company to hide the true state of its debts and contributed to its later bankruptcy, throwing thousands of employees out of work. Now that the evidence is on the record, when will we find time for a debate about the steps that the Serious Fraud Office is taking to ensure that our banks are clean and do nothing to encourage company directors to breach their fiduciary duties or their duties to their employees?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

This is obviously a serious point, and given my hon. Friend's expertise and background, I am sure that the House will want to take particular note of it. He has the opportunity to apply for a private Member's debate on the issue, and I hope he will avail himself of that opportunity. I cannot promise him an early debate, but it is vital that such issues are addressed.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Defence)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the state of British manufacturing industry? In my constituency on Monday, a manufacturer of trailers, Crane Fruehauf, closed its doors. The administrator was brought in and 345 employees were made redundant. As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, that has had a devastating impact on the small market town of Dereham. Obviously, that situation came about for many reasons, but is there anything that the Government can do in the short term, through the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Trade and Industry, to help the workers who have been made redundant?

Secondly, it seems that the company, like many others, was having great difficulty exporting, owing, among other things, to the high level of fuel tax on lorries. It seems to me that that is unfair competition, compared with many of our European partners.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will want to pay careful attention to the hon. Gentleman's point, especially given the importance of the matter in his constituency. For the benefit of his constituents and the House, I remind everyone that Jobcentre Plus provides an enormous range of support for those who, unfortunately, face redundancy. There is also a rapid response service when additional support is necessary, which has made its services available to more than 112,000 people facing redundancy. Unfortunately, manufacturing, more than almost any other sector of the economy, is subject to enormous global pressure and a certain amount of churning and changes in jobs. However, it is important to put it on record that last year manufacturing created £150 billion of our wealth; 3.5 million people earn their living directly from the sector; and it accounts for more than half our exports and three quarters of our business research and development.

There is a thriving manufacturing sector and it is important that we continue to invest in science, skills and other support for it, but obviously I am disappointed about what has happened in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and trust that the requisite services will be provided as soon as possible.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

Has the Leader of the House had time to look at early-day motion 579, signed by 77 Members,

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Local Government Pension Scheme (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2004 (S.I., 2004, No. 3372), dated 17th December 2004, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd December, be annulled.]?

The motion reflects deep concern about the local government pension scheme regulations. He will be aware of the huge concern among public sector workers who believe that they are being given very little time for debate. May we have an urgent debate on the matter?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, which she is not alone in expressing. The changes that she describes, which will come into effect in April, are necessary as part of a wider package that the Chancellor announced to reduce pressures on local authority budgets, thus helping to protect front-line services and, crucially, to keep council tax increases—which she is concerned about, as we all are—under 5 per cent. in the coming year. If those changes are not implemented, local government would face increasing pension costs of about £300 million per annum over the next three years, which could involve cuts in services, front-line jobs and pressure on council taxes. These are difficult matters, but her concern is being taken into account.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Following last night's statement by the Provisional IRA, does the Leader of the House feel, as I do, that we have heard just about everything from that organisation—an organisation that has butchered our fellow citizens for 25 years, rejected the Government's comprehensive agreement and instead carried out the biggest bank robbery in British history, and now has the bare-faced effrontery to say that the Government have tried the IRA's patience to the limit? Has he seen early-day motion 463, which calls for the withdrawal of privileges from Sinn Fein-IRA in the House,

[That this House notes with concern the statement by the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland that the IRA were responsible for the raid on the Headquarters of the Northern Bank in Belfast when in excess of £26 million was stolen; recalls the Prime Minister's assertion that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked; believes that this act of criminality proves that Sinn Fein cannot be treated like a normal democratic party; and calls upon the House to immediately withdraw all privileges from Sinn Fein honourable Members.]?

Does the Leader of the House recognise that if he takes the attitude that he expressed in response to an earlier question, many will see that the Government do not have the bottle, the political backbone and the moral courage to take on those gunmen and gangsters?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I understand the force behind the hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he really want to describe the Government as lacking in bottle, backbone or moral courage when the Prime Minister put his entire reputation on the line in negotiating the Good Friday agreement and has paid consistent attention to trying to get the peace settlement entrenched permanently and achieve a permanent democratic settlement? The discussions that my right hon. Friend has had with the hon. Gentleman's party are part of that. That is where we should focus. I agree that the events of the past few weeks have been deeply unfortunate and the behaviour concerned unacceptable, but instead of a blame game we must concentrate on really getting down to securing the future of a democratic Northern Ireland.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

I raised with my right hon. Friend some weeks ago ATM charging in poor areas of the city of Glasgow and areas with a high elderly population. I have subsequently found more information on that subject. Is he aware that a charge is made at 78 per cent. of all ATMs in post offices throughout the country? Those charges are made only in areas with low employment and a high elderly population where many people are on benefits. Is it not time that he called a debate in the House to try to get the banks—in particular, the Alliance & Leicester and Hanco, which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland—to stop the disgraceful act of charging the poor and the elderly, as well as those who live outside a main city or town?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I represent a constituency with many outlying former pit villages, so I absolutely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. It would be very helpful if he could secure a private Member's debate, in which other hon. Members could express their view on the matter and the banks and other institutions responsible could be held to account. As he says, the poorest and some of the oldest citizens, who do not have cars or the ability to go to a free ATM, are most punitively hit by such behaviour. I would certainly welcome the opportunity of a private Member's debate, but I cannot promise him one in Government time.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Minister (Defence)

May I ask the Leader of the House a question of substance and policy that relates to the disgraceful situation of the electoral registration of members of the armed forces? Is he aware that the Government have effectively disfranchised four out of five servicemen and women, while they are willingly sending them to risk their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is he aware that, perversely, under regulation 23 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2003, each member who is not registered is liable to a fine of up to £1,000? Is he further aware that the Ministry of Defence website is still more than four years out of date on the issue and gives entirely the wrong advice? That is scandalous. What will the Government do about it before the impending general election?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I endorse the principle that the hon. Gentleman expresses: our armed forces, especially those serving in some of the most dangerous conditions, which he knows of at first hand in Iraq, should have the opportunity to vote at the general election. The Secretary of State for Defence is looking into the matter—

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

On a day when my only personal political hero is addressing a rally on world poverty in Trafalgar square, will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on world poverty, particularly to support us next month when we launch fair trade fortnight?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I very strongly endorse the campaign against world poverty in 2005 and the way that the entire world's attention is being focused on it, not least by Nelson Mandela's address in Trafalgar square today and by the action of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in making poverty in Africa the central agenda item of Britain's presidency of the G8 and the European Union. I know that that is widely welcomed right across the House.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Next week, I hope to attend an important conference on the future of Muslim youth in Europe. Does the Leader of the House accept that constructive events such as that are not helped by the use of racial or religious stereotyping in election propaganda campaigns? May we therefore have a debate on that subject on a free vote? The debate could be opened by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the script could be written by the secret committee that includes Alastair Campbell and various close friends of the unlamented Jo Moore. However, by allowing a free vote, people like the right hon. Gentleman and his deputy, who I am sure are quite disgusted at what was done, would be able to vote with us and ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

No one on Labour's side has any time for racial or religious stereotyping. The hon. Gentleman did not make this charge, but for the record I should have thought that that is the last thing that he could accuse me of, given my record on this matter. As he knows, the matter was raised in the House a day or two ago.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Jane Kennedy, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

My right hon. Friend will know the importance of miners' compensation to our communities, especially as he represents Neath, and the role that the Department of Trade and Industry has in administering the scheme, which has now paid out more than £51 million in Ogmore alone. However, the DTI also has a bigger role in supporting small businesses in my constituency, so will he please find time for a debate on the role of and the possible efficiency savings in the DTI, bearing in mind Digby Jones's statement in respect of the James review:

"The DTI must have the resources to do its job. There is a world of difference between streamlining a department and cutting it to the bone to the point of emasculation."?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

Both my hon. Friend and Digby Jones make the case very eloquently for a DTI that provides continuing support to sick miners, retired miners or their families or widows, rather than axing from underneath them all the billions of pounds that our Labour Government have paid out to those miners in his constituency, mine and many scores of others across the country. That brings into sharp focus the whole nonsense of pretending that there can be £35 billion of cuts without affecting such absolutely vital services or abolishing the DTI entirely and, with that, all its programmes, as the Liberal Democrats propose. We need a serious debate and I am keen to find an opportunity to have one, so that the way in which those policies simply do not stack up can be exposed.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I am sure that the Leader of the House sees himself as a man of honesty and integrity. Given his eloquence in the past and his readiness to say how unhappy he is with the European food supplements directive, why on earth last week did his put his name to a Government motion that wholeheartedly supports it?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I always find that I become a little suspicious when I am accused across the Floor of possessing honesty and integrity, because I wonder what is going to happen next. The hon. Gentleman knows that the issue has been long debated and I have expressed my concerns about it. The other day's decision was taken on a different, although related, matter.

Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is just over a year since cannabis was reclassified and that there is growing medical evidence of the effect of its use, especially on young people. May we have a debate in Government time on the effect of cannabis resin on individuals as soon as possible?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am sorry to have to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I cannot promise time for such a debate. However, he is free to apply for one himself in the usual way.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

Earlier today in the Chamber, the Foreign Secretary said that he hoped that there would be a debate on the middle east peace process very soon. May we please have that debate before the Easter recess?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I will certainly think about that. The shadow Leader of the House asked me about that because there is a lot of interest in, and concern about, the situation, given both the opportunities and the problems that exist in the middle east. I shall continue to bear the request in mind, but I cannot offer the hon. Lady any encouragement that there will be an early debate, given the current heavy legislative programme.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

In Treasury questions earlier today, concerns were again raised about the enormous tax gap. Additionally, my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan touched on the iniquity of tax evasion. Given the enormity of the tax gap and the revenue problems that could be solved if it were closed, will my right hon. Friend make space for a debate during which we could discuss the possibility of perhaps increasing the number of tax officers, introducing new and higher penalties for tax evasion and taking other steps to close the tax gap? Could we not also consider what we might spend the increased funds on, because such measures as free long-term care for the elderly could be paid for by closing a tiny fraction of that tax gap?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the matter. The Chancellor is just as aware of the issue as my hon. Friend, and he and his Ministers have been bearing down on it. Indeed, although there are several reasons for merging Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue, one of them is to make the operation to target tax avoidance and fraud more efficient. I think that my hon. Friend will find that such measures will be pursued with increasing determination.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

A few minutes ago the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the Iranians have been withholding information about their nuclear development programme from the British, French and Germans. Given that last night President Bush said:

"Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror—pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve", may we have an urgent debate on the subject of Iran and precisely what action the United Kingdom would take if there were military intervention there?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I was encouraged by President Bush's statement:

"We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium re-processing, and end its support for terror."

Such joint action between the USA and Europe—and others throughout the world—can bear down on the problem, as the Foreign Secretary has continuously explained.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

My hon. Friend Jim Sheridan earlier referred to the important statement made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on enabling people who are disabled to get into work. That was an important element of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which was put forward in the House by Lord Morris, my hon. Friend Mr. Berry and me, although it was kicked into touch by the then Conservative Government.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that medical examiners necessarily have a key role on incapacity benefit and thus the new proposals? However, there are many problems with medical examinations because some people who are not entitled to benefit receive it, while others who are clearly entitled to it are refused. May we have a debate about medical examiners so that we can find out who examines the examiners and ensure that we get this key issue right?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I cannot promise him an early debate, although he might wish to apply for one in a private Member's capacity. The Government's policy of providing more opportunities for those who have been on incapacity benefit, or are coming on to it, is vital to cut economic inactivity and provide more hope and opportunity for such people. I have seen in my constituency—I am sure that my hon. Friend has, too—the way in which such intensive and quite costly work is liberating individuals who are otherwise trapped at home.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Scottish National Party, Angus

The Leader of the House might be aware of reports in Scotland this morning that the Ministry of Defence is planning another disgraceful assault on the local ties of Scotland's regiments by forcing the closure of individual regimental museums, which would cause great anger among veterans. Will he ensure that a Minister comes to the House to make a statement on the proposals for the future of those individual museums?

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am not aware of the detail of the hon. Gentleman's question, but no Minister in the Ministry of Defence—especially not the Secretary of State—would make a disgraceful assault on any part of the armed services or their heritage. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to withdraw that comment, on reflection, and I am equally sure that the Secretary of State will take notice of what he said.

Several hon. Members:

rose—