Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 11:31 am on 20th October 2005.

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Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I will do my best to follow the last answer in Question Time.

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 24 OctoberOpposition Day [8th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled "Government Handling of the Decision Relating to Railtrack", followed by a debate entitled "Licensing Laws Chaos". Both debates inevitably arise on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 25 OctoberSecond Reading of the Electoral Administration Bill.

Wednesday 26 OctoberSecond Reading of the Terrorism Bill.

Thursday 27 October—Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Friday 28 October—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 31 October—Second Reading of the Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Tuesday 1 November—Second Reading of European Union (Accessions) Bill.

Wednesday 2 November—Consideration in Committee of the Terrorism Bill.

Thursday 3 November—Continuation of Consideration in Committee of the Terrorism Bill.

Friday 4 NovemberThe House will not be sitting.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The Leader of the House will be aware of the strength of feeling engendered by the Make Poverty History campaign and the expectations raised during the summer relating to the G8 summit and other international meetings. He will also be aware that the campaign is conducting a major lobby of Parliament in early November. Will he ensure that, prior to that lobby, we have a ministerial statement on progress made since the summer, and will he schedule a debate in Government time to coincide with that lobby to ensure that Members have a chance to challenge the Government over what is being done?

Now that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has admitted that he got his growth forecasts wrong, can we have an early debate on the public finances? It seems that tax rises are inevitable. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important for the House to have an opportunity to hear how the Treasury's forecasting went wrong and what lessons can be learned for the future so that it does not happen again?

Can we also have an urgent and long-overdue debate on energy supply? The Leader of the House will be aware of the concerns being expressed about the problem, but is he aware of comments by Sir Digby Jones today? He said:

"They have accused us of crying wolf. Well now, it's five to midnight. If it is another mild winter, that's fine, but if it's a hard winter there won't be sufficient capacity for business and to keep pensioners warm. It will be back to the days of the three- and four-day weeks."

Can we have an urgent debate on energy supply before—not when—we face that reality?

Hon. Members on both sides of the House use ten-minute Bills as a means of introducing legislation on matters important to them and their constituents. However, the allocation of slots for next year has run into difficulties because we do not yet have dates for the recesses. When will the right hon. Gentleman publish the dates of next year's recesses so that the scheduling of ten-minute Bills can get back on track?

Finally, press reports last weekend suggested that one of the Leader of the House's senior colleagues may have offered to sub-let part of his official ministerial residence to a girlfriend. Those reports followed the earlier controversy about whether Ministers should be allowed to continue to occupy official residences after they have left Government. Could we have a statement on what exactly are the rules that apply to the occupation of those residences?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The Government strongly support the Make Poverty History campaign. We have put more money into international development to assist the poorest people in the world than any other Government in history—and certainly more than any recent Conservative Government. I shall therefore take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman on the support that we have given to help the poorest people in the world.

Last year, in the lead-up to the Make Poverty History campaign, we found time for a debate in Government time on these matters, and I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will want to keep the House fully informed about the excellent progress made by the Government. I shall make sure that he is aware of the hon. Gentleman's request.

As for the public finances, on a number of occasions economic pundits—usually enthusiastically endorsed by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen—have suggested that lack of growth has caused difficulties in the economy. None of those forecasts has so far proved to be true. I am much more willing to rely on the economic success brought to this country by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer than I am on attempts by Opposition Front-Bench Members to talk down our excellent economic results since 1997. The contrast between this country's economic performance since 1997 and its lamentable showing under the previous Conservative Government is remarkable. Again, I am not in the mood for lectures on that subject.

The same applies to the question of energy supply. The shadow Leader of the House is not as old as I am, and it is interesting that he remarked on the three-day week. My limited recollection of the events of that period suggests that they took place under a Conservative Government.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about Bills presented under the ten-minute rule. We have only just returned after what has been described as a very long recess, so I am afraid that he will have to be a little patient while we decide the dates of the next recesses. After eight days back, I hope that he is not already anxious for another break. I realise that Conservative Members are probably preoccupied with other matters at the moment so I shall not distract them from the internal entertainment from which they are suffering today.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

As the Leader of the House has not yet decided on the recesses for next year—

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

No, I am not, as I want my right hon. Friend to do something—I want him to ensure that Parliament sits in September, although it would not be required to legislate at that time. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Parliament should not sit only when there is legislation to consider? I want the House to sit in September for ministerial statements and parliamentary questions, and there is no reason why that could not happen. Although no votes would be held, Ministers would be required to attend and those hon. Members who so wished could probe them and find out what was going on. Those who allegedly observe us would also have to be here, whereas at present the Press Gallery is like the Marie Celeste.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

As ever, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his voluble suggestions about how we should conduct business. He makes a good point, and it is obviously important that the Executive should be held to account. The question of September sittings is something that I will have to consider before I announce the recess dates. I am a member of the ministerial trade union club, and I can tell my hon. Friend that I would be delighted to see all hon. Members participating in the House's activities next September, not simply those who would like to attend.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Would the Liberals turn up if there were no votes?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I would.

I appreciate that the next two weeks are, rightly, dominated by the measures to counter terrorism, but may I suggest an innovation for a week when the Home Office does not have a queue of new legislation with which to deal? Could we institute a countryside week, which would allow those of us who represent rural areas to have a fair share of parliamentary time? On Monday, we could have the first debate in five years in Government time on agriculture, including the parlous state of the dairy industry and the problem of bovine tuberculosis. On Tuesday, we could debate a Bill to amend the Licensing Act 2003 to do something to stop the costly chaos that is enveloping village halls and small shops. On Wednesday, we could discuss the lack of rural housing, the effect of the iniquitous planning policy guidance note 3 on rural areas and the lack of public transport. On Thursday, we could discuss the unequal funding of public services in rural areas, including policing, our schools and our health service. Would not that be a useful way of spending a week?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting his press release out early. He made an interesting suggestion. At the time, only two Liberal Democrat Members were in attendance—one was just inside the Chamber—so I was going to say that it was a little rich for Liberal Democrats to talk about attendance, but I now see he has a recruit, so I will not make that observation.

Countryside issues are enormously important to the House and to the Government. Certainly, we believe that they should be debated regularly.

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth

Will the Leader of the House organise an early debate on the role, powers and responsibilities of the coroners courts, which seem to be beyond the pale, and their relationship with the other parts of the criminal justice system? Such a debate would allow us to explore the variable competence that coroners bring to the exercise of their duties and may inform the legislation that I understand is being prepared in one of the Departments.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I shall certainly take that as a representation to the Lord Chancellor, who I assume is the Minister responsible for coroners and their courts. It is an important issue that is not always well understood. I will ensure that my hon. Friend's views are passed on to the Lord Chancellor.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

May we have a debate on the health service, in which I could highlight the fact that, according to ministerial answers to my questions, more than 100 hospital beds have been cut in recent years in Basildon and Southend hospitals? In that debate, we could try to ensure that money is spent on front-line services, so that our constituents get the health care that they deserve.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

As I told the House last week, the Government would be delighted to debate health. Last week, hon. Members were very concerned about the need to have a debate on health. The Opposition have a day on Monday and what have they chosen to debate—licensing. That demonstrates perhaps that the priorities of Opposition Members are not shared by their Front Benchers. I suggested last week that Opposition Members should put pressure to debate health on their Front Benchers rather than on the Government. It is important that we debate health because we would like to make it clear that the amount of public investment in the NHS since 1997 has doubled, and will treble by 2008; that we have 79,000 extra nurses, 27,000 extra doctors and 100 new hospital building projects; and that, compared with 1997, the NHS does 500,000 more operations each year. That is a remarkable achievement.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

My right hon. Friend will know that yesterday, on a deferred vote, the House voted for a European-wide marketing consent for a genetically modified corn, despite hon. Members knowing that the vast majority of people in this country seek not to eat such foods and despite there not being a single debate on the issue on the Floor of the House. He may not share my opposition to GM foods, but does he agree that our arrangements to scrutinise European matters are in great need of modernisation?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

Certainly, I believe—not least as a former Member of the European Parliament—that it is important to look carefully at the way in which the House scrutinises European legislation. I am of the opinion that we could do better and that we could engage in the debate about such legislation rather earlier in the process. Certainly, I know that it is something that particularly interests the Modernisation Committee.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

May we have a statement on the Floor of the House so that Ministers can be questioned about the decision to reinstate immediately to Sinn Fein its Assembly allowances worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and the intention to reinstate allowances and privileges in the House? Is not it wholly unacceptable that that should be announced in a written ministerial statement? Should not it come before the House? Will not people in Northern Ireland note the fact that the Government are proceeding contrary to the recommendation of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which states that the IRA is still involved in criminality? Will not any future attempt to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they should abide by IMC recommendations be rejected on the basis of the way that the Government are acting?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

It is important that I set out for the benefit of the House the precise legal position on allowances. Allowances for parties represented at Westminster have been available for some time. Obviously, the position of Sinn Fein was considered very carefully and that led the Government to propose a motion suspending Westminster allowances for a 12-month period, but that was contingent on the way in which Sinn Fein was operating and behaving. In the light of the IRA statement of 28 July, including the indication that the armed struggle was over, the situation is clearly different and one to which we are bound to apply the relevant legislation, which requires those payments to be made. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has concluded that he should lift the suspension of the allowances with effect from 1 November. That is a perfectly straightforward situation and it is wholly consistent with the relevant legislation as it affects the House.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Health to end the uncertainty about the Government's policy on banning smoking in enclosed workplaces in England by making a statement next week? Does he agree that such a statement should preferably announce the intention for a complete ban in enclosed workplaces in the whole of England or, if not, support for the Liverpool City Council (Prohibition of Smoking in Places of Work) Bill? Has he noted that the lives and health of non-smokers at work are now to be protected in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and does he agree that the lives and health of workers in England, especially those who are non-smokers, is equally important?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue, which affects many people throughout the country and about which many people feel strongly—rightly and understandably. The Government have made it clear that they intend to introduce a Bill in this Session. Obviously, the details of that Bill are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. Over the summer, there was extensive consultation and a large number of people responded, as did a considerable number of organisations. At present, Health Ministers are considering the results of that consultation, and I assure my hon. Friend, as I assure the House, that at the first opportunity my right hon. Friend will bring the results to the Floor of the House and will set out the Government's position.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Is the Leader of the House aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution found that relationships between the House and the Scottish Parliament— and, indeed, between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Executive—were based purely on good will rather than on any proper and identified procedures? Will he make a statement about that, setting out how the Government intend to deal with the matter?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

As someone who once struggled, perhaps unsuccessfully, to teach constitutional law in a British university, I recognise that a great deal of our constitution is based on good will and is not codified. We do not have a written constitution. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the very good relationship between the Scottish Parliament and this Parliament. I am regularly involved in discussing arrangements between the two Parliaments; they seem to work extremely well and I am sure that that was the effect that he intended to convey in terms of his question, but certainly if particular and practical problems arise I shall be pleased to look into them.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

May I join the shadow Leader of the House in calling for a debate on the success of the British economy? At least I think that that was what he was asking for. In that debate, I would be able to point out that 20 years ago in my constituency we had one factory closure after another, one redundancy after another, that there were acres of dereliction and rubble nominally zoned for employment, and that in contrast since 1997 we have seen thousands of jobs created and major regeneration of derelict areas, to the point that last year unemployment in my constituency fell below the national average—

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am sure that the House is grateful for your intervention, Mr. Speaker, although I was rather enjoying the excellent account set out by my hon. Friend. Clearly, Conservative Members have very short memories. They have conveniently erased from their minds the record of the last Conservative Government: inflation peaking at more than 10 per cent.; interest rates at 15 per cent. for a whole year and over 10 per cent. for three years; social security spending doubling; and unemployment doubling—twice hitting 3 million. I could go on and on, Mr. Speaker, but I do not want to test your patience.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

May we have a debate on investment in residential property through self-invested personal pension schemes—SIPPS? The Government intend to change the rules from April and that has given rise to fears of an unsustainable bubble in house prices, particularly in rural areas and in holiday areas such as mine. In addition, because the selling of SIPPS will be unregulated there are fears of mis-selling, as voiced by Mr. Iain Oliver of the Norwich Union. Might we have a debate on that?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I have seen newspaper articles expressing similar concerns to those properly raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I emphasise that what is important to the Government and, I hope, to all Members, is that we encourage people to take greater responsibility for their pension arrangements. Any incentives to make better provision for pensions must be welcomed. I certainly take account of his concerns.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

This afternoon we have set aside about five and a half hours for a debate on the Thames Gateway. I do not deny that that is an important issue, but I question whether it sets a precedent for debates on other parts of the country. The M66 corridor, for example, which goes through my constituency, the M65 corridor and the M60 corridor are all very important to people in the north-west. I question whether debates on essentially sub-regional issues are the best use of the time of a national Parliament.

Would it not have been better, for example, to have had a debate on an issue about which there is huge interest—the future of Britain's weapons of mass destruction? Now that the Prime Minister has opened up the debate on Trident, is it not essential that we do not allow Conservative interpretations of what constitutes national security or commercial confidentiality to limit the spirit of freedom of information about Trident in which the debate must take place? Is it not important—

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

This is my final flourish. Is it not important that all the evidence is on the table?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

As each week goes by, my admiration grows for my hon. Friend's ability to ask ever more ingenious questions. I try carefully to note the issues in order to answer. The first half of my answer was going to be about the importance of debating other parts of the country. I recognise that the Thames Gateway is a highly important wealth-creating area of the United Kingdom and it is right that we should have this afternoon's debate, but I share my hon. Friend's view that other parts of the country are important—I look at my hon. Friend Mr. Skinner, who, I am sure, would agree on the importance of having a debate on the M1 corridor and other parts of the country.

However, as it turned out, that was not the purpose of the question asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it quite clear that there will be an opportunity to debate the replacement of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. That is of vital concern to Members and in the course of this Parliament it will be arranged.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

Our prisons are dangerously overcrowded, reoffending rates are at record levels and our probation service is overstretched, yet for two years the Government have been handling a botched reorganisation of the prison and probation services without giving this House the opportunity to scrutinise their proposals. We learn today in a written statement that the legislation will be delayed yet again and that there is to be yet another consultation on abolishing probation boards. I would like to know from the right hon. Gentleman when this House will have an opportunity to scrutinise the complete incompetence of the Home Office in handling changes in the prison and probation services.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

As I am responsible for the Government's legislative programme, which seems to be packed with Home Office Bills that allow an opportunity to debate such issues very regularly, I am slightly surprised at the hon. Lady's observations. Perhaps she was confining her remarks more precisely to the effect of sentencing and the consequences for prisons and the legal system. We certainly take very seriously the importance of providing appropriate arrangements for both prisons and probation. That is one of the reasons why we have been looking carefully at future reforms of the system. I make it absolutely clear to the hon. Lady that we take the issue extremely seriously.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

On the anti-terrorism Bill, which is to be debated next week, I want to ask my right hon. Friend a question that I more or less put to the Prime Minister yesterday. Would it be possible to hurry up compensation to the seriously injured victims of 7 July? Perhaps there will be an opportunity on Second Reading for that to be included in the measure. There is great anxiety, as I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, about continuing delays and final payments—I mentioned this yesterday and I am sorry for repeating myself—that are simply inadequate. I think, for example, of those who have lost both their legs or one of their legs and have their whole adult life in front of them.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue once again. It is an important, sensitive issue that we must get right. I do not want to add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, as he set out the Government's vision very clearly. I emphasise to my hon. Friend that the purpose of the interim payments is obviously to provide short-term compensation for victims to allow them to adjust to the terrible injuries, from which I know many have suffered. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to take a little longer to determine longer-term questions of compensation simply to clarify the longer-term effects of such terrible injuries. I appreciate the fact that that is not always a sufficient answer for the victims or their families, but it is important that we get the figures and sums right.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his rather light-hearted response to the question asked by my hon. Friend Chris Grayling about energy supplies? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the previous Energy Minister, Mr. O'Brien, has on at least two occasions in this House said that there could be a gas shortage in this country were there to be a cold winter either this year or next? Is he also aware that the Government's report on energy supplies in July— for which provision was made in the Energy Act 2003 simply because of Conservative pressure—was rather flimsy on gas supplies? Is it not time for that debate to take place?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I apologise if I gave the impression of not taking that important issue seriously—I certainly do. My constituency is a former coal-mining area, as the hon. Gentleman will know well having spent a very short time there once during an election campaign—[Interruption.] I knew that some Members would eventually get there.

The Government take the issue extremely seriously. It is vital that we have appropriate supplies of energy. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out in his recent speech at the Labour party conference the importance of securing sufficient and effective supplies of energy for the future.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the genuine concerns expressed by the trade union movement and employer organisations about the future of manufacturing in this country. Although the Government have a proud record of low unemployment, we are still losing too many jobs in the manufacturing sector. I therefore ask for an urgent debate on manufacturing because there is a perception among people outside the House—rightly or wrongly—that we do not give the priority to manufacturing that it deserves.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, not least because, as he rightly observed, there is a perception that somehow manufacturing in this country is not a success. It is an outstanding success. The truth is that it is so successful because we are able to deliver the same levels of output—indeed, greater levels—with a smaller number of people. The challenge for the country is to continue to support manufacturing effectively and efficiently, to allow the industry to continue to compete successfully around the world. We should certainly go on discussing and debating those issues to give them the right priority in the country.

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

The Leader of the House knows the Peak district very well, but is he aware of the great concern about planning applications for quarries? An inspection was due to start in September, but it has now been postponed for six months. The authority was ready to make its case, but the planning inspector decided that insufficient time had been set aside. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Deputy Prime Minister makes a statement, perhaps next week, because the Peak district has the largest number of quarries—more than 70 active or inactive sites—of any national park in the country?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am familiar with the issues, and I recognise that there has been concern for many years about the planning process as far as the Peak District national park and our other splendid open areas are concerned. If the right hon. Gentleman has suggestions for improving the planning process, I anticipate that my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would be pleased to hear them.

At this stage, I am not able to comment in detail on the inquiry. I understand, however, that the Peak district representative did not object to the delay at the time.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

Given the imminent publication of the chief medical officer's response to the recommendations in Dame Janet's fifth report on Shipman, will my right hon. Friend ensure that we have an urgent debate in the Chamber on the issues arising from the report?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

Until the report is published, I cannot anticipate what time will be available. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue, however, and once the report is published I will consider the matter again.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Liberal Democrat, Teignbridge

The Leader of the House's response to the question from Joan Ruddock about European scrutiny is welcome. Will he give us a timetable, however, for when the European Standing Committees will meet again, given that, since the general election, we have been without such Committees, which probably weakens our scrutiny? Will he consider having an annual debate on the Floor of the House in the light of the Council's published annual programme, and a quinquennial debate over two or three days on the Commission's five-year programme?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

On the hon. Gentleman's latter observations, there are regular opportunities to debate European matters. My experience of such debates is that they are not always the best attended, but perhaps I could offer a deal whereby we would table opportunities for such debates if we could ensure that a reasonable number of Members were willing to participate in them. I would be delighted to hear the five-hour speech that the hon. Gentleman is offering, but having occasionally sat through speeches of a similar length from certain Opposition Members I do not anticipate that it would necessarily be the best use of parliamentary time. I am grateful for his observations on European scrutiny, however, and I believe that the current ad hoc arrangements provide effective scrutiny. He is right to say that we will need to establish permanent arrangements in due course.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Deputy Chairman (Candidates), Conservative Party

Following the Leader of the House's response to Mr. Dodds, may I ask him to reflect on the fact that it was unfortunate, to say the least, that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not come to the Dispatch Box yesterday to make a statement? In the light of the Independent Monitoring Commission's recently published report, which makes it clear that it is too early to be certain about the Provisional IRA's welcome declaration that the war is over and states deliberately that it has no recommendation to make on allowances, will he assure us that he will not rush to the House to change the allowance regime for Sinn Fein Members until we are all totally satisfied that the war is really over?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The right hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience and knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland, so I will not trade my more modest knowledge with his. Given the long history of difficulty, trouble and violence in Northern Ireland, it seems to me—I am not offering my judgment in place of the judgment of those with greater experience—that, at this stage at any rate, in the light of that historic announcement it is not inappropriate that the House and the Government should respond modestly to try to encourage greater confidence on all sides in Northern Ireland, in the hope of moving towards a more permanent settlement. If we all sit back and say, "There is no change, and can be no change," there will be no change. We have a responsibility to try to make some progress in this difficult area.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

May I press the Leader of the House on his answer? Although it might be true that the action taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland might be consistent with legislation, surely it is morally wrong that, after one month of the IRA's declaration, and while the Government promise that they will test the intentions of the IRA, the Government have now moved on this. Surely the Leader of the House realises that concessions to known gangsters and murderers drive back the possibility of the early restoration of devolved government rather than press it ahead. We need a debate in the House.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

Again, the hon. Gentleman has far more experience in these matters than I have. Sometimes, however, perhaps we should stand aside from the strong feelings and emotions in Northern Ireland, and surely this very modest proposal is a way of continuing to test the so-far successful approach of Sinn Fein to peace in Northern Ireland. By making this modest adjustment, we are not risking gangsters or further violence. All we are doing is trying to provide a modest degree of encouragement to a peace process that we all want to succeed.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Leader of the House looks a pretty slim and fit sort of guy, but is he aware that if, God forbid, he were to have a heart attack, the best place to have it would be Staffordshire because ambulance service response rates are the fastest in Europe, which is what saves lives? Is he also aware, however, that under Government proposals to merge Staffordshire ambulance service with West Midlands ambulance service response times will be reduced? May we therefore have a debate in Government time on the future of Staffordshire ambulance service, given that it is Government proposals that are jeopardising the safety of Staffordshire residents and possibly even of the Leader of the House himself?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I regularly visit Staffordshire, although I hope that I will not require the services of Staffordshire ambulance service. I have considered the proposals for more efficient arrangements for the ambulance service, however, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that ambulances will still be located in the same places—they are not all moving to Birmingham or the west midlands. They will still be in Staffordshire and will still have the opportunity of making the same response in the same time. I commend the excellence of Staffordshire ambulance service, and I see nothing at all in the proposals to change that.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

Could a Minister make a statement to the House on the Government's management of IT projects? The key background documents, the gateway review, are barred to us under commercial secrecy provisions, and some of us have been informed by constituents that major systems, particularly the Inland Revenue's PAYE system, are in a state of complete collapse.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

That is not my understanding, but there are significant opportunities for Parliament and, indeed, for the Public Accounts Committee to scrutinise, as it does carefully, major Government IT projects. The hon. Gentleman will know from his background and experience that such major projects—public or private sector—take time to come to fruition because of their complexity. I am confident, however, that the Government's record is no worse or better than that of anyone else who embarks on such big IT projects.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Given that the Foreign Secretary has stated that the world has a collective responsibility to protect all citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, is it not now right that the House should have the opportunity in Government time to debate how that important doctrine should be applied to stop the serial slaughter in Darfur?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised that and related issues on a number of occasions. This is something that the Government take extremely seriously. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is at the forefront of world leaders in emphasising the importance of our international obligations and commitments as well as translating them on the ground in places such as Darfur. The Government have consistently raised those issues and will continue to do so.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

May we have a debate on Zimbabwe, where the situation goes from very bad to disastrous? Hunger and disease are now rampant. Day after day, opposition supporters are imprisoned without trial and face brutality, yet only the other day President Mugabe defied an EU travel ban to go to Rome. Why are the Government not taking Zimbabwe seriously? Why is the travel ban not being enforced?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The Government do take Zimbabwe extremely seriously. Right hon. and hon. Members have had opportunities in the recent past to debate the appalling situation in Zimbabwe. The Government were at the forefront of the countries that ensured that the travel ban was implemented, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that every country has international obligations to the United Nations that override the travel ban. That is not in the United Kingdom Government's hands or, indeed, those of the EU Council; it is a pre-existing treaty obligation.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

Following a question put to the Prime Minister by Mr. Winnick, who is no longer in his place, the Prime Minister suggested that there might be a possibility of extending compensation to victims of terrorism wherever such attacks happen. May we have a debate or, even better, a statement on the Government's true intentions? Only three days ago, on 17 October, I received a letter from the Prime Minister saying:

"Although I understand that there will be other families who share your view, I do not think that extending the territorial scope of the CICS to provide compensation for British victims of terrorism is the right way forward."

We live in dangerous times and terrorism recognises no borders. I believe that protection for British citizens should not face any border either. A double standard exists on the Government's support for British citizens, depending on where such attacks take place—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a new Member. Questions should be brief—I know that more senior Members do not set a good example—but I think that that is enough to go on with.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I think that I got the general sense of the hon. Gentleman's concern. He is right to raise what I described earlier as a sensitive and sometimes very difficult issue, and it is obviously important that the Government get it right. We want to provide appropriate compensation to the victims of those appalling incidents. However, I suggest to him, in the light of Mr. Speaker's helpful intervention, that next Wednesday there will be a debate on the Terrorism Bill, the scope of which will, I am sure, allow him to make those points and Home Office Ministers to address them.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

The Leader of the House will be aware that any question of restoring allowances at Westminster is a matter for the House. Equally, however, the restoration of allowances in Northern Ireland is a matter of ministerial judgment, and it is perfectly appropriate that we should probe that ministerial judgment in a debate, especially as no Assembly is sitting in Northern Ireland. May we have that debate?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am confident that the arrangements available for Ministers to be accountable to the House, not least a regular Question Time at which Members can raise a wide range of issues concerned with Ministers' responsibilities, will afford the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members ample opportunity to pursue that matter.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

Will the Leader of the House request an urgent statement from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs to explain why her Department gave accreditation to DNA Bioscience for court admissible paternity tests, despite the fact that it has no laboratory in the United Kingdom and other firms have been told that a UK laboratory is essential? The press speculate that that apparent inconsistency could be due to the fact that, for a brief period, one of the firm's directors was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Surely there is no truth in that suggestion whatsoever. May we have an immediate statement to clarify matters?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman's last observation—there cannot possibly be any truth in that suggestion—but as for the other matters, again, there is regular opportunity for hon. Members to raise such issues with the relevant Ministers. To the best of my recollection, there was a Question Time this week for Ministers from the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not raise that issue with them then.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement from his colleague, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? A constituent raised a matter with me this morning during questions, which is why I was unable to raise it then, about the impact that avian flu is having on the UK chicken market and the fact that products are flooding in from Italy, among other countries. I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is already concerned about that fact, but if action is not taken in the very near future there will be some very serious welfare issues in the UK poultry industry, about which the Secretary of State could perhaps update the House.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I was not present during DEFRA questions. I was attending a Cabinet meeting, where both my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs raised that important and serious issue. The Government are ensuring that our preparations are among the best in the world, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made clear earlier this week. I know how seriously my right hon. Friend who has responsibility for agriculture takes the impact of the threat on the agriculture market and the people who work in it in the United Kingdom, so it is certainly a matter that we have in hand.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

As a member of Amicus and a former director of an employment agency, I was concerned that the unions mounted an anti-employment agency day on Friday. Will the Leader of the House assure me that the Government are committed to maintaining a vibrant and strong temporary employment industry that lubricates this country's competitiveness? May we have an urgent debate on the agency workers directive, so that we can be reassured that the Government will protect our economy from the directive's worst predations?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I urge the hon. Gentleman to make his presence felt in his trade union and use his considerable influence as a Member of Parliament with trade union members. I am sure that they would be intrigued to hear the views of a Conservative Member of Parliament—from which, I suspect, they do not benefit regularly —but I advise him to be perhaps a little careful when he talks to them about the importance of employment. They have long memories of employment in this country under Conservative Governments. They can reflect, however, on the fact that 2.3 million jobs have been created in our economy since 1997, and on the fact that the Conservative party's scare tactics about the success of a Labour Government simply have not worked.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a crisis in NHS dentistry in Kettering and that there simply are not enough NHS dentists for the local population? Will he arrange a debate on NHS dentistry in Government time? Given that the Secretary of State for Health has declined my invitation to visit Kettering to discuss the issue and that the Leader of the House passes through Kettering station on his train journey home to his constituency, will he accept my invitation to visit Kettering to discuss the issue with local dentists and patients?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

In travelling to Conservative Members' constituencies to look at the excellent state of the health service across the country, I might risk not being able to devote my full attention to my responsibilities in the House. As I made clear last week, 1,000 more dentists have been recruited in recent times to deal with a problem that we recognised was affecting NHS dentistry. Those efforts in recruiting and training new dentists will continue. If there is a problem in Kettering, I hope that we can persuade a few of them to live in that wonderful town.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Does the Leader of the House share my appreciation of the Labour manifesto's commitment to community hospitals? If so, does he share my dismay at the fact that, while a primary care consultation is being conducted around the country and a White Paper is in preparation, beds and minor injury units are being closed at community hospitals throughout the country? The minor injuries unit at Hornsea in my constituency is to be closed and the aim is to cut beds, despite the fact that a pandemic is possible.

Will the Leader of the House also allow time to review the Environment Agency's approach to planning for rising tides, as it has outrageously suggested the abandonment of Kilnsea in my constituency, thus leaving people—including a lady who bought a house there as recently as September, her having been told it was a low flood risk area—with blighted houses that could be lost. We urgently need to debate the coastal erosion issue.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I struggle to see the connection between the two subjects—perhaps it is my lack of understanding. We all recognise the tremendous work that community hospitals do. My constituency office in Ashfield is across the road from a community hospital that does tremendous work and I, for one, will not accept any criticism of what it does. However, it is important to emphasise the fact that community hospitals exist for a specific purpose. It is useful from time to time that they have beds available and can treat minor conditions and ailments, but the reality of modern medicine is that we want the best treatment to be available for all our patients free at the point of demand through the national health service, which sometimes means that there must be appropriate adjustments to the facilities and the provision available through community hospitals.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes rising tides seriously and we will continue to look at that carefully.