The business for next week will be as follows:
It may assist the House if I confirm that the Finance Bill will be published on
The provisional business for the week after the Easter recess will be:
The details of the business are available on my office website—www.commonsleader.gov.uk. That is for technologically advanced Members of the House, which excludes several of those on the Opposition Benches.
Before I close, I want to thank a number of staff in the House for their hard work during the proceedings on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill last week, particularly the dedicated staff of Hansard, who are often here long after proceedings have finished, the Refreshment Department, the Doorkeepers, the security staff, the Public Bill Office, the Vote Office, the Journal Office and the Clerks of the House. I also thank parliamentary counsel who, in their usual way, did an outstanding job.
[That this House expresses its gratitude for the tireless commitment, hard work and assistance when the House of Commons sits long hours of its attendants, cleaning and maintenance services, clerks and assistants, doorkeepers, police, fire and security services, Hansard reporters, the Vote Office, the Table Office, the Library, office keepers, Press Gallery reporters, the Post Office, the Refreshment Department, the Serjeant at Arms Department, the Speaker's Office and all support staff; recognises the considerable demands placed upon them; and praises such professionalism which is a vital part of the Parliamentary process and without which honourable Members could not operate effectively.]
Can we have a statement about the disclosure of farmers' grants under the common agricultural policy on Monday, given the National Farmers Union's concerns about the lack of notice to farmers and the intrusion into their businesses, and to explain why they have been singled out in this way?
Can we have a statement about violent crime so that we can probe the Police Minister's statement that the crime picture in Nottingham is "pretty good"? Does not that show the naivety of the Minister and the Government at a time when the chief constable has said:
"We are reeling with murders. We are in a long-standing crisis . . . with major crime".
Would not Nottingham be better off with the 740 extra police whom a Conservative Government would provide?
Finally, has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 945?
[That this House expresses its concern that the House of Lords is having to take on more and more of the work of scrutiny of Bills now that the Government refuses through its guillotining of Bills to give the necessary time to do it in this House; notes that since the Queen's Speech, 32 groups of clauses and amendments have not been debated on the report stage of Bills in this House and in addition, in committee, 45 groups of amendments and 117 clauses and schedules have not been debated; considers that the outcome of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was a victory for Parliament; and calls on the Government not to seek to reduce the powers of the House of Lords, but instead to give adequate time for debate in this House.]
Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the anger and concern in the House that we are not given time properly to debate important Bills? More than 40 per cent. of the groups of amendments listed for debate on Report and many Standing Committee amendments, new clauses and schedules have not been debated because of severe guillotines—so-called programme motions. Important legislation should not be treated in that cavalier fashion.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement accepting the Procedure Committee's proposals for fair programming and accept that he and the Prime Minister cannot expect Bills that have not been properly debated to become law just because the Prime Minister chooses to have an early election? Does he accept that we are only one third of the way through the parliamentary year and that many Bills are simply not ready to be passed? The Prime Minister may want this place to act like a rubber stamp, but if we are made to nod through bad law, then as with the Budget the country will be left to pay the price later.
That was a well-rehearsed pre-election rant. I shall deal in turn with the points made by the hon. Gentleman.
First, I will announce the Second Reading of the Finance Bill when I am in a position to do so. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman knows, farmers' grants were brought up during DEFRA questions just before I rose to make my statement, and I know that there is an issue there.
Thirdly, on the Nottingham police, crime in Nottinghamshire has fallen by 10 per cent. during the past year with even bigger reductions in vehicle crime, robbery and burglary. Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament have been critical of the chief constable's comments, particularly as there are 102 new community support officers under Labour and the number of support staff has risen by 294 since we came to power. As for the hon. Gentleman's preposterous suggestion that more police officers will be recruited under the Conservatives when they are proposing £35 billion-worth of cuts—
"about £35 billion less per year . . . than Gordon Brown's plans provide for."
He repeated that on the "Politics Show" on
The hon. Gentleman sat on the Modernisation Committee which produced the report on programming on which the House voted, so he knows that there never was a golden age of parliamentary scrutiny. Prior to programming, whole shoals of clauses would often fly past in Standing Committee or on Report. If he was so concerned about programming, why did the Conservatives this week not vote against two programme motions?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much.
On Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform Bill this week, virtually no Conservatives were present and they gave no serious scrutiny to the Bill because they are just playing games, as Mr. Heald knows. He also knows that consistently—[Interruption.] On the question of scrutiny, if he is really concerned why did the Conservatives not even turn up to debate the private Member's Bill on self-defence against burglary, which resulted in the Bill falling? The truth is that under this Labour Government the Prime Minister is more accountable than ever, makes more statements and takes more questions from Parliament. The suggestion of rubber-stamping is nonsense.
On the hon. Gentleman's points about forthcoming Bills and what may happen to them in the event of an early election—if there is one—I hope that the Charities Bill, the Disability Discrimination Bill, the Identity Cards Bill, the Child Benefit Bill and a whole number of other crucial Bills of interest and concern to the public will be subject to constructive negotiation so that they can become law, as everyone in the country wants.
Albeit that the late Robert McNamara metamorphosed from Lyndon Johnson's aggressive Defence Secretary on Vietnam to president of the World Bank, could we have some sort of statement on the British Government's attitude to the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz? I am not necessarily saying that it is a bad appointment, but were the British Government consulted and do they think that it should simply be in the gift of the Americans?
I am happy to explain the Government's position on that and I am grateful that my hon. Friend has asked the question. It is for the bank's board to take a decision on the appointment of the president. We should wait and see whether there are any other candidates and wait for the outcome of the process. Obviously, we would be involved in consultations with the US and others about the appointment and we would look forward to hearing Mr. Wolfowitz's views on several issues that concern us, such as debt cancellation, free basic education and other crucial development questions.
Can the Leader of the House investigate and make an early statement on the Chancellor's Budget leak to the Evening Standard yesterday? The Leader of the House will be aware that a very early edition of the paper, which was certainly printed before the Chancellor rose to his feet in the House, contained considerable detail, including—extraordinarily—details about the Queen Mother's memorial. That information may not be market sensitive, but the Leader of the House will know that on previous occasions Mr. Speaker has had to ask the Chancellor to come and explain what went wrong. Can the Leader of the House investigate that matter?
As the Leader of the House is responsible for the orderly dispatch of business through Parliament, will he review, during a quiet time in the Easter recess, the scrutiny process in and between the two Houses? Is he really satisfied with the way in which they work at present? Does he accept that the major concessions eventually made by the Home Secretary last week on the house arrest legislation clearly demonstrated that the original proposals were flawed? In the end, the Home Secretary accepted major improvements. Is the Leader of the House satisfied that such vital concessions should be made in the other place, and in night-time wrangles in the other place and between the two Houses?
May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about the extraordinary position of Lord Birt, who seems at one and the same time to work for a global media consultancy firm and to advise the Government, with paid civil service support, on the future of public service broadcasting?
The Deputy Leader of the House made an interesting statement on Tuesday about the role of the Law Commission in the particular circumstances of pre-legislative scrutiny. May we have a fuller statement on that important issue?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raises that last point. The Law Commission has accepted our request to look into the issue. As Leader of the House, I have been anxious to promote not only pre-legislative scrutiny, which has taken place on a scale never seen before in the past few years, but post-legislative scrutiny to examine how laws are implemented and what lessons can be learned.
On the question of the Evening Standard report, there was no leak from the Treasury. Yesterday's article was entirely speculative and Ministers will address the real issues arising from the Budget statement. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not raise the important issue of the battle lines that have been drawn up on the future direction of the country, between a Labour Government committed to more public investment and maintaining economic stability, as the Chancellor did yesterday, with even some fiscal tightening on the eve of an election—possibly—and the Conservatives, who had pre-election Budget sprees that doled out lots of money and plunged the country into exactly the cycle of boom and bust that we are determined to avoid. The choice is between £35 billion of cuts under the Conservatives and continued investment in economic stability under Labour.
The hon. Gentleman raised important points about the relationship between the two Houses, how scrutiny can take place and how it can be improved. The behaviour of the House of Lords, with its big "C" and small "c" Conservative majority, calls into question the primacy of the House of Commons. We need to consider the matter. In an age of electronic mail, I cannot explain to members of the public, who find it mystifying, how it took hours and hours between the Lords making a decision and this House being able to transact the subsequent business, and vice versa. We need to speed up our procedures and subject them to a more modern scrutiny processes.
At a time when there is so much emphasis on tackling world poverty and disease, as shown, for example, in the excellent report by the Commission for Africa, would it not be appropriate for the House to have an opportunity to comment on the US nominee for the presidency of the World Bank? Do we take it that the UK will support that nominee? Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mr. Wolfowitz makes his current boss, the US Defence Secretary, seem quite moderate by comparison? We should debate the issue at the earliest opportunity.
As I said to my hon. Friend Mr. Dalyell, the Father of the House, the nominee will be subject to the normal process. We will want to know, as a Labour Government who are leading the world on debt relief, on international finance facilities—so far resisted by the Americans—and on doubling overseas aid and development budgets throughout the world, where Mr. Wolfowitz stands on those issues. They will be crucial to the World Bank playing a progressive role to eliminate world poverty, rather than a regressive one.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for announcing what he has about the Finance Bill. Is he likely to be able to say any more about the way in which the House might take the Bill forward, and what might need to be agreed in the event of the Prime Minister announcing a general election?
Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance—despite, I think, his unsympathetic and, I hate to say it, ill-informed view about programming—that whatever the outcome of the election, the House should have an early opportunity to debate programming? With about 40 per cent. of clauses and schedules in major Bills not being debated, surely this cannot be the way in which the House should proceed, leaving such heavy responsibility upon the House of Lords to do the work that this House should do.
On the specific question of what work should be done in the House of Lords compared with the House of Commons, I accept the principle that the hon. Gentleman is expressing. Obviously, we should be in pole position. The hon. Gentleman will understand the difficulties that we have because of emergency legislation and the need to get that through Parliament quickly. I would have liked to give more time for consideration of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which was emergency legislation, if that had been possible. In future, I would still like to do that.
I accept—we have repeatedly debated this in private and in public—that the hon. Gentleman and I take a different view on programming. I respect his view. The Modernisation Committee produced a report on the matter. We voted on it and implemented the necessary motions last autumn. The Procedure Committee has also considered the matter under the hon. Gentleman's expert chairmanship.
I still think that there is a big advantage to the House and the public of knowing when chunks of business concerning any particular Bill will be taken and where everybody stands. For example, interested members of the public or groups know that they can go to a Committee on a particular day and a particular time and will hear the subject that especially interests them debated, rather than never knowing whether the debate will take place in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning, as happened consistently in the past. It is a matter of getting the balance right. There were big failures under the previous system, but I am always happy to keep the existing system under review.
Can my right hon. Friend possibly find the time to squeeze in a debate on the important issue of the £200 council tax rebate for pensioners that the Chancellor proposed yesterday in the Budget, and on the pie-in-the-sky, cash-limited, means-tested amounts that others are proposing? It is important that the House should have the opportunity to discuss these proposals, so that people know exactly what is on offer.
My hon. Friend encourages me to see whether I can re-jig the business of the next few weeks, because I would relish the opportunity to debate the Conservatives' fantasy island proposals on council tax, which would actually help the wealthiest pensioners in the homes of greatest value who pay the highest council tax to get the most benefit. Pensioners who pay only partial council tax will get the full £200 council tax refund, tax free, under Labour—
Well, obviously for the first year—[Interruption.] The Chancellor never ever announces future programmes unless he is in a position to do so, and this is an example of that. We are putting money in to help the poorest pensioners while keeping economic stability constantly in mind. In addition, my hon. Friend Mr. Pike and the public will want to know that, under Labour's plans, 3.7 million more pensioner households will get a council tax refund than under the Conservative plans. That shows that Labour is delivering for pensioners on council tax, and not the Tories.
Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the vote on the war in Iraq. A motion of impeachment is before us, and there is compelling evidence that the Prime Minister misled the House in taking us to war. Is it not high time that we held him to account—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw that remark.
Then I ask the hon. Gentleman to leave the Chamber.
My friend will know that responsibility for enforcing parking regulations has been transferred from the police to local authorities. There is huge disquiet in my area about the aggressive way in which Parkwise, which is run jointly by the county and district councils, enforces parking regulations. It is very inflexible indeed. Would it be possible to invite someone from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House and give us an update on how these arrangements are bedding in across the country?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend raises, and I know that this has caused his constituents particular discomfort. The Ministers responsible will want to take a close interest in the matter, and perhaps to respond to him so that his constituents can be better satisfied.
On the previous question, I do not think that the debate on Iraq is assisted by stunts that are deliberately contrived to get a headline. The future of Iraq is about building a democracy and not succumbing to terrorism, and I wish that Adam Price had made that point, rather than engaging in that particular stunt.
Does the Leader of the House realise the extent to which we now have more proper parliamentary scrutiny carried out by the House of Lords—working more days and longer hours, without timetabling by the Government—than, sadly, is carried out by the House of Commons? Is he ashamed of the fact that he and his colleagues have now reduced the role of the House of Commons to that of a Government lapdog, leaving the unelected House of Lords to do the real parliamentary work? When is something going to be done about this, or is the Leader of the House going to continue to allow this shameful parliamentary position to carry on indefinitely?
Just because the Conservative party and its allies have a majority in the House of Lords, with which they are able to try to thwart the will of the elected House of Commons, he now wants to invoke the House of Lords in the Conservative party's aid rather than rely on democratic decision making and debate here. On his point about less scrutiny, I just do not accept it at all. I do not accept that the House of Lords subjects legislation to better or more scrutiny. I find that very rich indeed coming from the right hon. Gentleman, who is the biggest filibusterer of all time in the House of Commons and who has no interest in real scrutiny—
Order. I am going to call for temperate language. I have never known Mr. Forth to filibuster. Any time I have been in the Chair, he has always kept within the rules of the House.
May I press the Leader of the House on the issue that my hon. Friend Mr. Pike raised? The Leader of the House referred to the Conservatives' policy on council tax as a fantasy, but it is worse than that: it is a nightmare. When the Chancellor made his very welcome statement yesterday, he may have noticed that Conservative Members raised not two but five fingers, to signify the £500 rebate that they are proposing. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on this issue, so that we can examine these policies? If the Conservatives were to implement their proposed freeze on local government funding for two years, followed by a 1 per cent. increase, it would create a £4.2 billion deficit in local government funding. That would lead either to savage cuts in services, which would affect pensioners and others, or to huge hikes in council tax, which would mean that pensioners would probably have to pay £500 more than they are paying today, rather than receiving £500 back.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The Conservatives are spraying new policy commitments around like confetti. They are committed to £35 billion of tax cuts—or they would like to be committed to £35 billion of tax cuts. As Mr. Redwood has said, the initial commitment is just a down payment—I think those were his words. But they cannot deliver, and this is frankly not an honest basis on which to go to the electorate.
On my hon. Friend's specific point, the House might be interested to know the difference between the Conservatives' policy and ours. Under Labour, a household with even just one pensioner will get the £200 tax-free refund. Under the Conservatives, both occupants would have to be of pensionable age to get the proposed refund. That is why many more households will benefit under Labour's policy. Let us take the example of the 40,000 over-65s caring for an adult or disabled child. They would also fall foul of the Conservatives' small print, which states that everyone in the household would have to be over 65 to qualify. The public will make up their minds on this matter shortly.
The Leader of the House will be aware that, later today—St. Patrick's day—President Bush will be receiving the McCartney sisters at the White House and expressing strong condemnation of the vicious murder of their brother by members of the IRA in Magennis's bar in Belfast. Members of Sinn Fein were present during the murder. Will the Leader of the House make Government time for a full debate on this matter in the House, on the basis that strong words from President Bush and the Prime Minister are not enough to defeat the criminal conspiracy which is Sinn Fein-IRA, and which is contaminating the body politic in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic?
The extraordinary bravery and determination of the McCartney sisters could well, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said, unleash a change in the Northern Ireland situation and create the positive prospect of the peace process being permanently cemented in, in a way that we have not seen for a while. We need to encourage that process.
Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to look at early-day motion 938, which concerns the increase in car parking charges at the Leicester royal infirmary, despite the millions of extra pounds that the Government have given to the health service in Leicester?
[That this House notes with grave concern the proposal by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust to increase the parking fees for hospital staff, patients and members of the public; further notes the increase of £1 for up to an hour, £1.50 for one to two hours and £2 for three hours—up to a maximum of £10 are too high; and calls on the health authority to reconsider this drastic and unnecessary proposal.]
Only this morning, one of my constituents had to rush his daughter to the accident and emergency unit at the infirmary. When he went out to collect his car, he found that it had been clamped. This is an important issue, as it affects the ability of people to visit their relatives in hospital. Could we please have a debate on it?
It is an important issue, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising his constituent's concerns. I am sure that the Department of Health and the health authority will want to take a close interest in the matter.
The Leader of the House said earlier that we were "on the eve of an election—possibly". Will he confirm that no controversial legislation will be rushed through before then? There is a tradition in the House that, as we approach a general election, only non-controversial Bills are dealt with. Did I hear him correctly when he said that the Identity Cards Bill would be rushed through? Does he not understand that that is a highly controversial Bill, both in this place and out in the country, and that it will not be possible to rush it through because there will be many of us to stop it?
It is not a question of rushing things through. The right hon. Gentleman knows that, in such circumstances, there are negotiations between both sides of the House—he may well have been involved in them in the past. The interests of the country need to be put first. I believe that the Identity Cards Bill fits that criterion, as does the Consumer Credit Bill, which protects against loan sharks, and the Charities Bill, which the charities community wants. I am happy to go into a general election, whenever it might be called, with the Labour party advocating an identity cards measure and the Conservatives opposing it. I relish that opportunity.
Has my right hon. Friend followed the Jamie Oliver BBC programme on school meals? If so, does he believe, as I do, that too many of our children eat high-fat, low-quality meals? Is it not time for tighter standards? Will he ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to come to the House and make a statement about what the Department intends to do about the poor eating standards in our schools?
In the absence of that, may we have a statement from a Law Officer or a Constitutional Affairs Minister on the more serious subject of sentencing policy and some of the awards made by courts? Does the right hon. Gentleman share my astonishment and dismay at the 18-month sentence that was passed on two louts who threw a boy from a bridge to his death by drowning in a river? Does he also share my dismay about the £567,000 award—50 times more than the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority could award to the family of a murder victim—that a court made to a boy who had trespassed on factory premises, fallen and suffered a brain injury? Does it not sometimes appear that the law has gone mad in this country?
Many members of the public would share the hon. Gentleman's view and we need to keep the matter under review. The two cases that he mentioned were of course different, and different schemes were involved. However, he may find an echo of his views not only among his constituents but among many others throughout the country.
The Leader of the House knows that the European Union is keen on using taxpayers' money to pump out the most appalling and nauseating propaganda on its behalf. Only yesterday, I heard that even Learning and Skills Council conferences are being used for distributing free baubles covered in EU symbols and mythology. Is it not time that we had a debate on the way in which the EU uses money for distributing propaganda, especially since the EU is shy about revealing such figures?
I have no problem with subjecting that issue to scrutiny. All EU finance should be subject to good scrutiny.
May we have a debate on the link between hard drug addiction and violent crime? Given that many people who commit violent crime are high on drugs at the time or committing crime to feed their sad addiction, does the Leader of the House agree that such a debate would provide a welcome opportunity for hon. Members to celebrate Conservative proposals to provide drug rehabilitation courses for 50,000 people, thus giving them a chance to turn away from addiction and crime and lead more constructive lives?
The hon. Gentleman makes some fair points, apart from those about Conservative spending plans, which nobody believes. He knows that there is a Drugs Bill currently before Parliament. It is due to get its Second Reading in the House of Lords. Let us hope that that measure, which deals with many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, can be speeded through in the event that that proves necessary.
Last week's shenanigans in this place left many of my constituents bemused and brought home to them, as the fox hunting debate did not, that an unelected House of Lords can block the will of an elected Government. However, they would be angry if the Identity Cards Bill and the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill are blocked by the House of Lords before a general election. Contrary to the comments of Dr. Lewis, identity cards are not controversial in my constituency. People want them and they want the legislation to be passed quickly. Will my right hon. Friend use whatever power he has to ensure that those Bills come back to this place so that the elected House can pass them? Will he stop an unelected House, which is controlled by the Conservative party, blocking such vital Home Affairs measures?
As the first week when we return after Easter seems a bit thin legislatively—I cannot work out why; perhaps I am a little slow and something is happening that week about which I do not know—would it be possible to squeeze in a debate on education so that we can discuss the problems that my constituents are experiencing? They want their youngsters to go to grammar schools but, if their children fail the exam, they are unlikely to get into the second choice on their list. Several parents fear that happening and therefore put the grammar schools as their second choice but still enter their children for the exam. When their children pass, they are told that they cannot go to the grammar school because they must stick to their first choice. Clearly, if the children fail the exam, they cannot go to their second choice and are told that they must travel many miles outside their area to finish their education. That is clearly an injustice and we must have a full debate on the matter.
There are two Second Readings in the week after Easter. That means that it is quite heavy legislatively and cannot be described as thin. Notwithstanding the important problem that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, his constituents will be more interested in his party's plans for £35 billion of cuts.
Four years ago, you gave me the opportunity, Mr. Speaker, of asking my first business question. I chose as a subject the possibility of banning all air weapons. Yesterday in Glasgow, the funeral took place of two-year-old Andrew Morton, the latest victim of an air rifle attack. Does the Leader of the House agree that the time for consultation and consideration has long passed? Will he give a commitment to introduce primary legislation to allow us finally to outlaw those lethal weapons?
Indeed. I commend my hon. Friend for the campaign that he led on air weapons and the danger that they pose to his constituents and those in the rest of the country. Air rifle attacks are reprehensible and must be curbed. I am sure that anything that can be done will be done by the police and the Home Office. The Home Secretary will want to pay special attention to the points that he has made and the campaign that he runs.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the proliferation of nerve gas and chemical weapons? Does he know that yesterday, an event was held in the House to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the bombing of Halabja in Kurdistan? Appalling images were shown of the effect of nerve gas on women and children. Does he appreciate that some of us who voted against the war in Iraq welcome the elections that have taken place and the fact that the Iraqi Parliament has met, and do not indulge in pointless exercises to chase headlines in The Western Mail?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, especially as that awful, horrific attack on the Kurds at Halabja was mounted by Saddam Hussein—the very person who would still be in power and able to mount similar attacks had he not been deposed. Adam Price seems completely oblivious to that. He would presumably have been happy for Saddam to stay in power.