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12 Dec 2002 : Column 402—continued

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 78, which concerns the postponement of Criminal Records Bureau checks on more than 300,000 carers who are meant to be caring for vulnerable adults. It states:

[That this House agrees with the Home Secretary that the function of the Criminal Records Bureau is to reduce the risk of abuse by ensuring that those who are unsuitable are not able to work with children and vulnerable adults; deeply regrets the decision of the Home Office and Department of Health to postpone criminal records checks on 300,000 care home staff, agency nurses, agency domiciliary care staff, residential family centres, and adoption centres; is concerned that the establishment of the Protection of Vulnerable Adults list has been postponed indefinitely; believes that in reducing demand for CRB checks Ministers have put the lives of vulnerable people at risk; further believes that this announcement should have been made by way of a statement in the House, not as a written answer in the House of Lords on a Friday afternoon; calls on the Home Secretary to make a statement on this matter; and further calls on the Home Secretary to publish the report of the Carter Inquiry into the Criminal Records Bureau and Capita.]

May we have a statement on, or an opportunity to debate, the progress of the CRB, not least to obtain an explanation from the Home Office as to why it has so far taken more than a month to answer questions that I tabled as a result of a written statement made in the House of Lords on a Friday, when there was no other opportunity for Members to scrutinise it?

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Mr. Cook: We have repeatedly said that the performance of the Criminal Records Bureau has been unacceptable, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that we increase its throughput. There has been a substantial rise in the number of cases that it is capable of clearing per week, and we will continue to work to clear the backlog. It is entirely sensible and rational that, faced with the CRB's inability to cope with current demand, we should establish priorities. It is very important to ensure that the CRB's priority is to focus on those who have access to children, to ensure that they are protected. When we have secured that priority, we can move on to the other cases.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate the work of the Child Support Agency? The promised review of the implementation of its procedures is more than 12 months overdue. Some 30 per cent. of families who are entitled to maintenance are not receiving it, thereby causing greater poverty among children. When the Department for Work and Pensions is asked for explanations, it has little to offer. If the CSA were a local government body, it would be charged with failing its responsibilities, and the Government would threaten to send in private operators. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that this House was allowed to debate the work of the CSA, with a view to improving its efficiency?

Mr. Cook: It is of course open to hon. Members to pursue any matter of concern to them through the many avenues available in this House, and to raise such issues if they feel that their constituents have been particularly badly treated by the CSA. However, I should remind my hon. Friend that one of the first pieces of legislation that we introduced was concerned with trying to ensure that the CSA was better able to perform its job. Since then, there has been some improvement in its performance, and I have noted that the number of complaints in my own constituency has declined. On the issue of principle, we fully agree that those who are legitimately and legally liable to maintain their children should be obliged to do so.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the so-called Cliffe airport consultation, so that Ministers can explain to the House why they refuse flatly to attend a public meeting in my constituency, which I am prepared to arrange for them, to explain this Labour proposal; so that they can explain why they flatly refuse to answer my parliamentary written questions on this issue; and so that they can explain why they flatly refuse to reject the Xcrosswind" runway option, which will result in the over-flying of Canvey island, Hadleigh and Leigh-on-Sea 24 hours a day?

Mr. Cook: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has now secured a very comfortable paragraph in his local paper through that intervention; that of course is the important function of the House of Commons. I understand entirely his concern, and he will doubtless welcome the fact that there are now an additional four months in which this matter can be debated and

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examined. I am familiar with the area that he refers to, and I fully understand the powerful environmental considerations.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): May we have time for an emergency debate on the lack of co-ordination between the former public utilities? Last week, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water entered the gas main in the Belgrave area of Leicester, causing 1,500 people to be without heating for several days. It is astonishing that no formal mechanism exists to enable Severn Trent to talk to Transco and to East Midlands Electricity, now Powergen. I know that this problem is the result of privatisation that was undertaken by the previous Government, but it is important that we have a debate, so that we can formalise the relationship, so that my constituents will not have to face any more days without heating, and so that they can get compensation from one of the statutory authorities.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises a very valid issue, and many of us will have similar experiences. In my own constituency, a repair to the electricity supply in the street resulted in the loss of the water supply, and the repair to the water pipe resulted in the loss of the gas main. I therefore fully understand, and sympathise with, the position of his constituents. I shall consider the point that he makes, and invite Ministers to reflect on whether a more legal remedy could be made available to those who suffer interruption.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the inside cover of today's Order Paper regarding forthcoming Westminster Hall Adjournment debates? I hesitate to ask whether a genuine mistake has been made or whether there has been an inadvertent change of procedure about which the House was not advised, but I note that subjects can be requested only from certain Departments, one of which is that of the Advocate-General. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have made it my mission in this Parliament to hold the Advocate-General to account. I hold the hon. and learned Lady in the highest regard but as she appears unable or unwilling to answer on any particular issue at Question Time, what will she do during a whole half-hour Adjournment debate? Where is the right of an individual Member of Parliament to table the Adjournment debate of their choice—perhaps on an issue that is topical in their constituency—rather than having to ask for a debate on a subject answerable only by those particular Departments?

Mr. Cook: If I apprehend the end of the hon. Lady's question, she was referring to the new procedure recommended by the Modernisation Committee and on which we voted in October, which provides that debates in Westminster Hall will follow a weekly rota. The delay involved for any one Department is thus only a week. There was unanimous agreement among all parties in the Committee and the recommendation was not disputed in the House.

The change does not in any way remove the exposure of Ministers to debate in Westminster Hall, nor does it reduce the right of Back Benchers to seek debates. It means only that they have to fall in with a fortnightly

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rota, which will ensure that they can hold their debate within two weeks. In all the circumstances, that is not unreasonable.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Will my right hon. Friend make time for an early debate to assess whether the five economic tests to join the euro have already been met? I ask because, today, the Labour Movement for Europe, which is widely seen as a Government front organisation, stated that the tests have already been met, thus calling into question the integrity of the Treasury's assessment. Will my right hon. Friend also tell us whether the Government's position, which we could discuss in such a debate, is that:

Is that the Government's position, and does the Leader of the House accept or repudiate it?

Mr. Cook: I do not understand the eight-year calculation that my hon. Friend has just announced—indeed, I am almost tempted to hold a debate in order that he might explain that slightly surprising conclusion. The Labour Movement for Europe speaks for itself; it does not speak for the Government. When the Treasury has carried out an assessment of the five economic tests, I am sure that it will want to tell us.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): The Leader of the House is obviously aware of the growing crisis in the small firms sector as a result of soaring liability insurance premiums. What does he say to a south-coast firm in the insulation business that requires cover of #5 million to secure contracts from its regular customers? This year, the business was able to secure cover of only #1 million at a cost of #8,000, whereas last year #12,000 bought cover of #10 million. The small firms sector needs immediate action, not a report that may come out in four or five months.

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