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Legislation (Programming)

47. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): What assessment he has made of the implications for legislative scrutiny of the experimental arrangements for programming of legislation. [41561]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I am delighted that anticipation of my answer to the question seems to have filled the Conservative Benches. When hon. Members from all parties have worked together constructively, I believe that programming has achieved its objective of providing a more robust framework for scrutiny of legislation.

Mr. Brady: Does the Parliamentary Secretary share my concern that under the new programming arrangements, Committees are all too often denied the opportunity properly to scrutinise legislation, especially through the operation of what have become known as knives, used by Government Whips? Are not important aspects of legislation undebated by hon. Members? The Education Bill, which has gone to the House of Lords, included powers for the Secretary of State to form companies, powers for school governors, provisions for forming federations of schools and for admissions, exclusions and attendance. All were undebated by the House of Commons and we now have to depend on another place to do our job for us. Is not that regrettable?

Mr. Twigg: We shall, of course, keep the progress of programming under review. Flexibility is built into the programming regime. For example, an additional day was provided for discussion of the Education Bill on Report. Programming can benefit all hon. Members, but the Opposition have a choice about whether they want to use it for delay and obstruction or for genuine scrutiny and debate. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the memo that the shadow Leader of the House sent last September. It stated:

The Opposition have a choice about how to handle their tactics. Better programming gives an opportunity for better scrutiny, better debate and therefore better law.

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3.31 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the war in Afghanistan.

Yesterday's announcement by the Secretary of State for Defence about the deployment of a British battle group of 1,700 soldiers for combat operations came as a surprise and represented a major escalation of British combat operations in Afghanistan. It was inevitable that yesterday's exchanges only touched on some issues, such as complications arising from the split chain of command, the intended length of 45 Commando's tour and the fact that it is unusual to deploy such a large force in combat operations without dedicated air support. The House is entitled to discuss such urgent matters fully before 45 Commando is deployed; it will already be deployed by the time we return from the Easter recess on 9 April. The subject cannot wait until after Easter.

Yesterday's statement also compounded the uncertainties that surround the future of the peacekeeping force under British command. On 10 January, the Government led the House to believe that Turkey had made a firm offer to take over the leadership of the international security assistance force. We expected the Turkish Prime Minister to confirm that at 4 pm our time yesterday, but no announcement was made and the question continues to hang in the balance.

The matter is also urgent because by the time we return from the Easter recess Turkey may have refused to lead ISAF. The House has had no opportunity to discuss that eventuality. We should hold such a discussion before decisions are made in our absence.

Moreover, yesterday I asked about the financial contribution that Britain is being asked to make to support Turkey's leadership. I understand that Turkey is now demanding $300 million for a six-month operation to be funded by the United States and the United Kingdom alone. If ISAF's mandate is to be extended, we should discuss it before it is a fait accompli. The Government should account to the House before entering into any unforeseen financial commitment on our behalf.

Let there be no doubt that we shall continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government in the war against terrorism. As I said yesterday, we support the decision to accede to the US request for 45 Commando. However, that does not absolve the House of its obligation to debate all the urgent issues. We have only four sitting days before we rise for the Easter recess. Without such a debate, we shall fail in our duty to hold the Government to account.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman seeks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 24 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter, which he believes should have urgent consideration, namely the war in Afghanistan. I am satisfied that the matter is proper to be discussed under the Standing Order.

The leave of the House having been given, the motion stood over under Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) until the commencement of public business tomorrow.

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Points of Order

3.35 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am afraid that I have to draw your attention to one more case of Parliament being bypassed on a very serious matter.

Yesterday afternoon, there was a break-in at Castlereagh police station in Belfast. A number of people broke into the Special Branch office and subsequently made good their escape. It is not known what they took, or what information they obtained, but it will be clear to the House that any breach of the security of special branch, particularly in Northern Ireland, is an extremely sensitive matter. The information held by special branch, and the identity of the people who may have made that information available, is crucial to policing operations.

I understand that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said this afternoon that the operations of Special Branch are

The trouble is that he made that statement not here in the House but to the press. He has answered questions from the press, but he has not made himself available to answer questions in the House.

This is not the first time that I, or other colleagues, have had to bring to your attention, Mr. Speaker, abuses of this kind by this Government over the last few months. Under the powers available to you, can you do anything to bring home to the Government their responsibilities to Parliament? Given that I cannot see on tomorrow's Order Paper any question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that would provide the opportunity for us even briefly and superficially to get to grips with this serious matter, can you do anything to give Members a chance to ask vital questions about the unfortunate situation following the break-in?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has put the matter on the record; the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will therefore be aware of his concerns.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I bring to the House's attention the fact that the break-in at special branch's office at Castlereagh occurred on Sunday evening, not yesterday? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was in America at the time, and returned only this morning. In the interim, there has been extreme speculation about the origins of those who committed the break-in. The Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Constable this morning—it was the right thing to do in the circumstances—and ordered that a review be conducted in conjunction with the criminal investigation that had already been ordered by the Chief Constable.

In his press interview, the right hon. Gentleman declined to give details of the break-in, saying:

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He will have an opportunity to do so at Question Time tomorrow, and I hope that you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that that would be an appropriate time for him to address what he has acknowledged to be a very serious breach of national security.

Mr. Speaker: I heard what the hon. Lady had to say, and it is not a matter for the Chair. Once again, however, I am sure that the Secretary of State will take note of the concerns that have been expressed.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is clear that this break-in represents a catastrophic failure of security. It is not an everyday occurrence, or one of those ordinary run-of-the-mill situations in Northern Ireland that we have learned to live with over the past 30 years. It is a total failure of security in the most sensitive area of Government policy in Northern Ireland.

I understand your situation exactly, Mr. Speaker, but would it not be possible for you to issue—even in the most veiled terms—a direction to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss the matter when he comes to the House tomorrow?

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