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6.41 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): Like the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I apologise if I fail to respond to all the points made during the 17 Back-Bench and two Front-Bench speeches. At least 50 issues have been raised during a five-hour debate—matters ranging from mountain rescue in Somerset to the best way to wash carrots. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) reminded us of the origins of the control of supply and the English civil war. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) even referred to the spectre of the Prime Minister getting on his bike in search of a post office close to Chequers.

I have been impressed by the Conservative party's new-found concern to learn lessons from other European Union countries. It even has a new-found concern for the vulnerable, although I felt that perhaps the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) could not quite keep a straight face as he expressed that concern at the beginning of his remarks.

Let me address the issue that has been raised most often during the debate—the Post Office's future. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the fact that we need to ensure that the Post Office is successful and that it gives our constituents the service they deserve. I do not believe that that would be a party political issue in an ideal world, but it has been raised as such during the debate, so it is worth reminding ourselves of the Conservative party's record of post office closures. Post office closures did not start with this Government; there were very many such closures previously. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) laughs, but during his time as a Minister the Conservative party seriously contemplated the full privatisation of the Post Office. Those proposals were defeated only because of a very sustained and popular campaign, which had some support from Conservative Members.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), the Father of the House, referred to Lockerbie, as he has done on several occasions in the House, and sought careful reflection from the Government. I certainly take note of his concerns and his long-standing involvement in seeking to get to the truth of that dreadful episode. He will not be surprised to hear that the only response I am able to give him today is to say that he has had the opportunity to ventilate that issue. He will be aware that most of the issues that he mentioned are devolved; they are matters for the Scottish Executive. I will ensure that the Lord Advocate is made aware of the points that my hon. Friend has made and seek an answer from him.

The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) referred to the Krishna Maharaj case, and I am aware, from media coverage of his involvement in that case, of the work, commitment and dedication that he has shown in seeking justice in that case. He will be aware that I am not able to comment on the detail of what he said today, but I am grateful to him for his kind remarks about the support that he has received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On the broader issue, I look forward to the day when no country has the death penalty. Many of the miscarriages of justice in different corners of the earth are greatly compounded by its existence.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised a number of issues about organophosphates and VAT on church repairs and conservation. Although the advice issued by the Food Standards Agency states that washing or peeling fruit and vegetables is not required as a protection against pesticide residues, it also says that it is sensible to wash fruit and vegetables before eating for reasons of general food hygiene. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I am glad that the House is enlightened. I was not aware of that until I was briefed for my closing remarks. It is still considered sensible to wash fruit and vegetables before eating them for reasons of general food hygiene. I am also advised that the FSA's nutritional advice is that consumers should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day as part of a healthy, balanced diet. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would concur on that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned listed places of worship and mentioned the scheme launched by the Treasury on 4 December last year. He acknowledged that the Treasury is trying to address the problem, but raised concerns about the bureaucracy surrounding the new scheme. The European Commission has said that it will consider the United Kingdom's proposal to introduce a reduced VAT rate for church repairs when the reduced rate provisions are reviewed in 2003, so that matter clearly needs to be pursued in the European Union.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) addressed the issue of the decline in turnout and, in particular, the decline in the status of local government. I have much sympathy for his remarks, which could form the basis for a full debate in the House in their own right. I concur with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst: the issues that relate to turnout are complex. Although the problems that surround the decline in local government powers are real, there has been a general fall in turnout, not simply in local government elections. We need to address that in a full and comprehensive way, and certainly not in the short amount of time that I have left.

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The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) spoke from the Back Bench today, having spoken from the Front Bench in the two other pre-recess Adjournment debates since the general election. She was concerned about mobile phone masts, a problem that has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. That issue is raised with all Members of Parliament. Indeed, I have several such cases in my constituency. I nodded vigorously when the hon. Lady described people having to move home. A family in my constituency was about to move into a new home when they discovered that a mobile phone mast was to be put directly outside the house, which was opposite a church with two nurseries. They pulled out of that sale and made an alternative purchase only to discover that another mobile phone company wanted to erect a mast close to the home that they had moved into. We are still fighting that case.

On the specific issue that the hon. Lady raised, the North and East Devon health authority is aware of the concerns that have been raised and is collecting further information. I will chase up the Department of Health to ensure that she gets the replies she deserves. I am afraid that I do not have time to deal with the other issues that she raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) dealt with transport. She mentioned the tube and aviation, and I can tell the House that announcements have been made today. She sought to emphasise that it is important for us to have the opportunity to debate such matters. I am well aware of her concerns and it is important that we provide such opportunities whenever possible. That is one reason why the debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons is so important.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire was concerned about the Post Office. He also mentioned council tax. I am sure all hon. Members agree that council tax has a particular effect on those who live on fixed incomes, especially retired people. As his colleague the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, local taxation has troubled Governments of both main parties for decades. We had rates, which everyone wanted to see the back of, then the poll tax, which still retains one or two advocates and champions in the House but which did not prove overly popular with the wider general public, and now we have the council tax, which was introduced by a Conservative Government.

The current Government do not have a policy of reducing grant to local authorities to shift the balance towards local sources of income, but we are aware that council tax increases have been considerably above the rate of inflation in recent years. In the recent local government White Paper, the Government made it clear that we would separately consider the balance of funding, but it is too early to say what the outcome of that review will be.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire spoke about sixth forms. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be aware of the concern felt by schools with sixth forms that they should not be worse off as a result of new arrangements of funding via learning and skills councils. All local education authorities were told last month in a letter from the Department for Education and Skills that the Government do not consider it reasonable of an authority to do what the hon. Gentleman described as

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having been done in his constituency—make adjustments to other elements of funding for a school with a sixth form that have the effect of cancelling out 100 per cent. of the potential gain that it stood to receive from the learning and skills council.

We have changed—the hon. Gentleman looks impressed, but much as I would like to say otherwise, I assure him that it is not as a consequence of today's debate—the financing of maintained schools regulations for the coming financial year to require that a school sixth form must gain at least one third of the potential increase that the LSC allocation would have given it above its real-terms guarantee level.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of social care and residential care, before speaking about the case of Stephen Downing. I am pleased to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's hard work on behalf of his constituent. As he said, Derbyshire's chief constable has announced the opening of the reinvestigation. I am advised that it will begin next month, in April 2002, and will we hope be brought to a conclusion by autumn.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) raised a large number of issues, to some of which I shall respond. I shall pass on to colleagues her positive comments on the Export Control Bill and the aid budget. On Iraq, I am pleased to repeat the assurances given by the Foreign Secretary on Sunday, that any proposal for action in that instance will of course be subject to international law and our international obligations. However, as my hon. Friend said, it is Iraq and Saddam Hussein's regime that are in contravention of their international obligations today, and we seek to bring them to book for that.

In respect of public services in Swindon, I am advised that it has been announced today—perhaps not as a consequence of my hon. Friend's speech, but if she wants to take the credit, that is a matter for her—that Swindon has received £57 million in private finance initiative credits, which will enable, among other things, the building of two new secondary schools and a new primary school in Swindon, in the constituency of the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, our hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills).

I share my hon. Friend's view on breastfeeding and hope that the matter will progress as she said it should. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is perhaps not quite as much of a moderniser as his party's leader. No one to my knowledge has proposed that the Commons should become a 9-to-5 Chamber. Anyone who enters the Commons is aware that being a Member of Parliament is a hard job, and rightly so. We should all work hard at that job, but we do want to consider changing the hours to ensure that we more effectively scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account, and become a Parliament that is genuinely representative of all the people.

Parliament remains 80 per cent. male and has very few ethnic minority Members. I know that the Conservative party is now tackling that issue—albeit apparently not with the support of the shadow Leader of the House. I look forward to the day when the House of Commons truly reflects the diversity of modern, 21st-century Britain.

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My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon also raised issues that may be mentioned in the Queen's Speech. On the specific and important question of sexual offences, I am pleased to be able to assure her that the Government are committed to introducing new sex offence laws and intend to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows. She will understand that at this stage I can go no further.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) set out in detail a number of specific concerns relating to his own constituency. I undertake to draw them to the attention of my colleagues and seek a reply for him. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, in a characteristically thoughtful speech, set out concerns about scrutiny of the Executive in relation to public expenditure and the democratic control of supply. He demonstrated once again that he is a serious reformer; I am sure that his suggestions will be considered as debate on the modernisation and reform of Parliament progresses.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who may have wondered whether I would reach him in my list of speeches to which to respond, raised the issue of the fridge mountain. I am advised that both the Local Government Association and the Environment Agency have not reported a significant increase in the fly tipping of fridges, but I am aware that there are a number of cases such as those to which he referred. Local authorities have a statutory obligation to accept and collect all household fridges and freezers; significant extra funds have been provided through government to meet that obligation. Clearly, the issue needs to be closely monitored.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who is also my neighbour, raised important issues about energy mis-selling, which I shall draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) has taken a close interest in the British overseas territories since entering the House last year. As he said, he is an officer of the all-party groups on Gibraltar and on the Falkland Islands. He will be aware that the Government's position on Gibraltar is clear: no proposal affecting its sovereignty will be implemented unless its people agree. On the broader issues of the British overseas territories, he will be aware that the British Overseas Territories Bill is now an Act, having received Royal Assent, and represents an important advance in citizens rights for the people of the British overseas territories.

I apologise for not being in the Chamber while my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) was speaking, but I watched his speech on television while eating my cheese sandwich. He talked about a recent meeting of the friends of the Finchley Memorial hospital. I certainly concur with him about the high quality of service at the hospital; my grandmother was there two years ago, and I visited her. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for raising a number of issues and shall convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health his invitation to visit the Finchley Memorial hospital.

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The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made a characteristically robust speech, as is his wont during these debates. Again, I apologise for missing most of it because I was still eating my cheese sandwich, but I shall ensure that he gets a response to the specific issues that he raised. He mentioned the network card. The Strategic Rail Authority's review of fares policy will report late next year, and I suggest that he makes a submission to ensure that his concerns are properly reflected in that review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), in a disturbing contribution, made a number of serious points, putting them on the record in Parliament. I undertake to ensure that he gets a response from the relevant Ministers and that the lessons to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred are learned. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger–Ross) raised many issues of concern to his constituents. I am well aware that there are anxieties about the funding of social services on both sides of the House which reflect concerns in all parts of the country. Social services funding is currently being reviewed by the Government as part of the comprehensive spending review.

Finally, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) discussed the three Ps—the Post Office, planning and the police—and aired a number of issues to which responses will be forthcoming.

However, as the minutes tick away, I should just like to thank everyone who has taken part in our debate. Pre-recess Adjournment debates provide a good opportunity for the House to air issues of concern, whether local, national or international. Members on both sides of the House have done so, and I join the hon.

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Member for Southend, West in wishing people a happy Easter and a good recess; I also wish our Jewish constituents a happy Passover.

Question put and agreed to.


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