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House of Commons

Wednesday 21 March 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

Ministerial Visit (Iran)

1. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): If she will make a statement on her recent visit to Iran. [153300]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): My visit to Iran, at the invitation of the former Iranian ambassador in London, was to help to build partnerships for better co-operation between our countries to halt the flow of heroin from Afghanistan through Iran into Europe. That causes social problems on the way. This co-operation will benefit both the UK and Iran. While I was there, I signed a memorandum of understanding between Iran and the UK on drugs co-operation and pledged a further £78,000 from the UK to help Iranian drug demand reduction efforts.

Mr. Mackinlay: I fully endorse my right hon. Friend's endeavours to combat organised drug crime between here and Iran. Her visit was highly publicised, so can she tell us whether she had an opportunity to reinforce the United Kingdom's deep concerns about continued civil rights abuses in Iran, particularly bearing in mind the fact that her visit coincided with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's listing the Mujaheddin as a proscribed organisation? Were the right signals conveyed to Tehran during her visit for that important reason?

Marjorie Mowlam: I consulted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before I left. The issue was raised with me and I explained what had been done. We, as a Government, are opposed to capital punishment and the kind of human rights violations that take place in Iran. However, if we are to make progress, it is better to work with countries for change; talking to people makes change a possibility. If we just ignore and condemn, that will not bring about change. Iran has a different culture, but while I was there I raised the issue of human rights with every Minister I met and referred, in particular, to the case of the folk who went to the conference in Berlin and were imprisoned for that.

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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What assessment has the right hon. Lady made of the uses to which the Iranians have put the £2.68 million contributed by the British Government to the anti-drugs effort? How does she expect the additional £78,000 to be allocated, and is she now able to throw any light on the real reasons for the sudden resignation of the head of that country's anti-drugs headquarters, General Mohammad Fallah?

Marjorie Mowlam: General Mohammad Fallah resigned and then took up his job again. I think the explanation of why he left now becomes a secondary issue.

The money allocated from this country goes with that from other countries to the United Nations, and the UN drugs team uses the money. I saw it being used to improve the systems for night vision on the border and to assist customs and excise. It is used to help to stop the drugs moving through.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Although I appreciate the need for the memorandum of understanding to prevent drugs from coming to Europe and to the United Kingdom in particular, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a need to strike up a dialogue with the country in which the drugs originate? Perhaps we could establish a European package so that farmers who currently grow poppies are encouraged to diversify into other crops. The poppy, which has caused so much misery, could be replaced by other crops.

Marjorie Mowlam: The United Nations drugs unit has a policy of co-operation between European countries to feed into the UN's efforts in Afghanistan. The Taliban are in discussion with the Iranians, so there is some communication between them on policy. My hon. Friend's suggestion that European Union countries should be involved is valid. We have just managed to do that elsewhere, and Spain is taking that approach in its relations with Colombia. The European Union has provided 105 million ecu to help to prevent the production of cocaine in Colombia. I am sure that, in time, we will begin to understand that such countries face problems partly because of the demand in Europe, so I hope that the policy that my hon. Friend described will be followed.

Regulatory Reform Bill

2. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): If she will make a statement on the impact of the provisions of the Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords] on the regulation of business. [153301]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): The Bill will enable Government to reform whole regulatory regimes originating in different pieces of legislation using a well tried and tested parliamentary procedure. That will simplify legislation and make it less burdensome for business while maintaining the necessary protections for both the consumer and the environment.

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Mr. Healey: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. There is strong support for the Bill among businesses in south Yorkshire, including members of the Federation of Small Businesses whom I met on Friday night. Many will welcome the 51 reform proposals that are now in the pipeline under the Bill. However, will he explain how firms that want other outdated and overlapping regulations removed in the future can register their concerns, so that he can consider using the powers that he will have at his disposal under the Bill?

Mr. Stringer: My hon. Friend's experience in south Yorkshire reflects my discussions with businesses throughout the country. In addition to the 51 items that we listed, businesses are invited to use the Cabinet Office website to suggest proposals for regulatory reform. They can write directly to us at any time or inform us of their concerns in the many consultations that we hold with them, in which I will be delighted to tell them that although we want the reforms, the Opposition do not.

Public Appointments Commissioner

3. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): If she will make a statement on the work of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. [153302]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): The Commissioner for Public Appointments, Dame Rennie Fritchie, regulates ministerial appointments to public bodies within her remit. Her work and advice are highly regarded and respected by the Government.

Mr. Brady: The Minister knows that it is a year since the Government faced swingeing criticism from the Commissioner for Public Appointments about the practice of stuffing national health service trust boards and health authorities with Labour crony appointments. In the 12 months since then, they have continued that practice in their appointments to the new primary care trust boards. Dame Rennie Fritchie has been--

Mr. Speaker: Order. That does not sound like a question. If the hon. Gentleman agrees to ask one quickly, I shall allow him to continue.

Mr. Brady: I shall indeed be quick. Dame Rennie Fritchie's inquiry into the practice as it relates to primary care trusts will be concluded at the end of the month. Will the Minister ensure that the report is produced very early in April, so that the Government cannot sweep it under the carpet?

Mr. Stringer: What an extraordinary statement from a party that appointed a three-times failed Conservative candidate as chairman of the Yorkshire health authority--that was its approach to public appointments. The Labour party has co-operated with the Commissioner for Public Appointments and accepted her recommendations. If the

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hon. Gentleman reads the text of the report, he will see that the Government's appointment of local councillors reflects the proportion of councillors on the ground.

Mr. Brady indicated dissent.

Mr. Stringer: That is what the report says, unlike when the Conservatives were in government and they put their friends and their friends' wives into every appointment going.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I think it is recognised that the Commissioner for Public Appointments is doing a good job and I hope that she will soon be reappointed. However, what matters is which public bodies are covered by her remit. Will my hon. Friend ensure that new public bodies automatically come under her remit unless there is a good reason why they should not?

Mr. Stringer: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government have extended the number of appointments covered by the commissioner to more than 30,000. We always consider whether new bodies are appropriate for the Nolan process. However, bodies that are established quickly for specialist purposes and last for only two or three months are not appropriate for it.


4. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If she will make a statement on her role in interdepartmental co-ordination of Government policy on regulation. [153303]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): I chair the panel for regulatory accountability that looks at new regulations in the pipeline. We have also appointed a regulatory reform Minister in each Department; and on Monday, the Regulatory Reform Bill, which was introduced in December, had its Second Reading in the House.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer. In her role as the regulator of Departments, is she aware that this morning--on top of everything else--the Foreign Secretary admitted that he had leaked documents to a BBC journalist, even though he had previously denied that? Is she further aware that, less than four years after being elected, the Government are characterised by hype, no delivery--and now sleaze?

Marjorie Mowlam: I am not sure that that has anything to do with the nature of the questions being asked today, and it shows how panicked the Conservative party is by the prospect of an election. It is trying to hide the previous Government's record of sleaze.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): In the co-ordination to which she has referred, will my right hon. Friend make it an absolute responsibility of all Departments to ensure that the public know that the Government are committed to better regulation, whereas the Conservative party is committed to deregulation, particularly if it erodes conditions for working people?

Marjorie Mowlam: That is a central aim of the Government, but we will not achieve it in the unbalanced

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way the Conservatives did. The Regulatory Reform Bill is an example of balance in legislation. It aims to ensure that basic rights--unlike the Tories, we will not apologise for them or portray them as excessive and costly--are upheld. I am not going to apologise for the minimum wage, for improving maternity leave, for bringing in parental leave, for giving millions of employees the right to paid holiday for the first time, or for tackling discrimination against the disabled. We will be proud of those changes, but we will not forget the needs of business and never have done. This morning, five draft Bills were published which will make 51 improvements and save business £40 million. The Regulatory Reform Bill is balanced to protect workers' rights and to help business.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): In the course of her discussions on regulation with colleagues, what did the right hon. Lady discuss with the Foreign Secretary in relation to the Stockholm summit this weekend? What attitude will the Government take to the proposal from UNICE--the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe--and Eurochambres for introducing a rigorous programme of business impact assessments?

Marjorie Mowlam: We are working not only across Departments but with the Commission, the European Parliament and other member states to improve and simplify the European regulatory environment. As part of that we participate in the Mandelkern group on better regulation, which has produced a very good report on specific, practical recommendations. Last week, I talked to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office before his departure for Stockholm, and he addressed issues relating to the summit report. The development of a system in the Commission to assess the costs and benefits of all proposed European legislation is one of the key elements that we are working towards.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that reply, but I am afraid that I was looking for something more specific. Can she say that it will be the intention of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary at the Stockholm summit this weekend to secure a Council agreement requiring the Commission to undertake immediate discussions with business organisations on introducing an business impact assessment system, and to commit the Commission to do so within a maximum of 18 months?

Marjorie Mowlam: Yes.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Given that the usual Tory reaction of approving a Bill in the other place and opposing it here was evident on Monday night when we debated the Regulatory Reform Bill, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that she will continue to make proposals that will deal with inconsistencies and anomalies in a whole raft of regulations in different areas, rather than the individual cases that can be dealt with under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994?

Marjorie Mowlam: I was as surprised and disappointed as my hon. Friend by Conservative Members' reaction to the Bill, given that the Opposition

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in another place supported it in principle. The Conservative party has a very poor record of regulatory reform in government, having introduced no fewer than 13 times as many regulations as were repealed under the deregulation initiative between 1994 and 1997. Conservative Members are now opposing legislation that could bring £40 million in benefits to business and the community in just five early reforms.

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