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House of Commons

Thursday 27 November 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business of the House

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): Mr. Speaker, you informed the House yesterday of the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech. The business for next week will therefore be as follows:

From Monday 1 December to Thursday 4 December, continuation and then conclusion of the debate on the Queen's Speech, with Divisions expected on the final two days.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 8 December—Remaining stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill.

Tuesday 9 December—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, followed by a debate on fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 10 December—A debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 11 December—Estimates [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on child care for working parents, followed by a debate on people, pensions and post offices. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Mr. Speaker, the House will wish to be reminded that the next meeting of the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference is on Monday 1 December at 3.30 pm.

Mr. Heald: As the Leader of the House knows, the Prime Minister launched his great conversation with the nation yesterday, but within hours the Leader of the House went on "Newsnight" and refused to debate with other parties. Does that mean that the conversation does not include Opposition Members?

The Leader of the House will also know that the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) has suggested that the Prime Minister might like to extend the conversation to include Labour MPs, in particular because 128 Labour

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Members have signed early-day motion 7 on university top-up fees:

[That this House recognises the widespread concern about the effects variable tuition fees and the perception of debt may have on access to universities, particularly among students from families on modest or lower middle incomes; notes that there are alternative models of funding higher education, which the Department for Education and Skills has considered and which do not involve variable top-up fees; and calls on the Government, therefore, to publish full details of these alternatives to facilitate proper, informed debate and understanding before proceeding with legislation to reform the higher education funding system.]

If the conversation is to include Labour MPs, are we to expect an early statement from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills?

Will the Home Secretary be making an early statement abandoning his plan to put the children of asylum seekers into care? That is clearly an obnoxious proposal, with no support, and it should be withdrawn.

Can the Leader of the House confirm whether there was a printing error in the Queen's Speech? Is it really the case that the Government are to put forward a Bill for a referendum on the euro, when we all know that they have no plans for such a referendum this side of a general election? Surely, the Bill should have been for a referendum on the Euro constitution, especially in the light of recent information that Britain would lose the right to determine its own foreign policy. Would the right hon. Gentleman like to contemplate his previous remark that that was merely a tidying-up exercise?

The shadow Leader—[Hon. Members: "Shadow?"] Sorry, it was a freudian slip, Mr. Speaker; the right hon. Gentleman is soon to be shadow Leader. The Leader of the House will know that concerns have been expressed that no Bill on mental incapacity was announced. Can he explain what has happened to that? Were all the Bills anticipated for the Session announced in the Queen's Speech? If not, can he list what we are to expect? For example, I understand that the gender recognition Bill, which was not in the speech, was given its First Reading in the other place today. What is the true Queen's Speech? Where are the other measures and what is to happen to them?

The Leader of the House will be aware that our armed forces are greatly overstretched at present. Recent reports suggested that some of the oldest and most illustrious regiments, such as the Black Watch, may be under threat. In an interview in The Times yesterday, the Defence Secretary denied wholesale redundancies, but can the Leader of the House tell us when the House will hear what the true position is? Will the statement on the Defence White Paper be made on 11 December? If not, can he tell us when it will be made?

Finally, there is considerable concern on both sides of the House about the new sitting hours, which have also led to the Catering Committee reducing hours in the Refreshment Department. What representations has the Leader of the House received about that? Is he prepared to undertake research into Members' views with the idea of producing a consultation paper—say, before the summer break—and to make a commitment that the

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matter will be fully debated, perhaps in September? Can the right hon. Gentleman at least make his views known on the process of review?

Mr. Hain: I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is getting up to speed in his job as shadow Leader of the House. I look forward to enjoying jousts with him.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Government's great conversation. He knows the protocol that has been adopted with regard to programmes such as "Newsnight" by Ministers of all parties over the years. Frankly, the idea that, when we engage in debate, as I am doing now, with Conservative Members, the Liberal Democrats and other Opposition Members, we are afraid of debating or having a conversation with them—[Interruption.]—the conversation—is ludicrous—[Laughter.] Conversation with them is absolutely ludicrous.

Why is the big conversation important? No Government in living memory, if ever, have undertaken such a degree of consultation on the future big challenges facing Britain and, indeed, the whole world. When well into their term of office, the Tory Administration—the Thatcher and Major Governments—ran out of ideas, ran into trouble and fell out of touch with the people. I should have thought that, by contrast with that record, people would welcome the fact that we are saying in this big conversation with every citizen that we want to know their views on big issues that confront the country—for example, how we will fund pensions for an ageing population. Indeed, I know that that conversation will be welcomed when the Prime Minister launches it tomorrow, because people want a form of politics that engages them. The hon. Gentleman should be concerned that the whole Westminster bubble in which Opposition Members, Government politicians and the media live is completely divorced from the issues about which most people are concerned. The big conversation is about engaging with the people on the future challenges for the country.

We know where the Opposition stand on student fees. They want to deprive 250,000 students of the opportunity to go to university. The dividing lines, therefore, are clear. We are trying to find a better way of funding higher education than exists at present, for future years when there will be a funding shortfall. What do the Conservatives propose? Their solution is to cut out the opportunity of 250,000 students to enjoy university education. We want a more highly educated work force because we know that Britain's future lies in having a highly skilled, highly educated work force in a knowledge-based economy. That is the big debate before us.

The disgraceful, opportunistic way in which the hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition yesterday misrepresented the Government's policy on asylum obliges me to explain the Government's policy to the House. Let us look at our proposals.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have announced to the House that we are discussing the business for next week. We must concentrate on that.

Mr. Hain: I was asked, Mr. Speaker, whether there would be debates on this subject next week. Of course

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the Government's legislation will be discussed during the Queen's Speech debates and there will be an opportunity to raise these issues. In anticipation of them, let me make a succinct rebuttal of the hon. Gentleman's point. We are talking about asylum seekers who have lost their appeals. The Government are saying that we will pay for return air tickets for the whole family and provide a rehabilitation allowance to settle them in their country of origin. I should have thought that most fair-minded people would say that that was a reasonable attitude for the Government to take. It is firm, but fair. Or is the hon. Gentleman's case simply to let open the doors to all asylum seekers and let them stay here even if they lose their appeals? If that is Conservative party policy, perhaps the shadow Home Secretary will announce it next week.

Yes, there will be a Bill on a draft referendum on the euro. We need to be prepared to make a decision on joining the euro on meeting the five tests. The hon. Gentleman asked why there was no referendum on the constitution. We have gone into that argument time and again. The fact is that the negotiations have not yet been concluded. We are negotiating hard and all our red lines will be met.

Yes, there will be a mental incapacity Bill and yes, there will be a gender recognition Bill. All Governments have additional Bills, and draft Bills in our case, in their legislative programme that are not in the Queen's Speech. It is a regular occurrence. There is nothing new in that.

A defence White Paper will be issued on 11 December. The Defence Secretary made it crystal clear in The Times this morning that old regiments will not be abolished. As he said, he would expect to have the same sized armed forces in five years' time as today—about 103,000 trained soldiers. The issue is whether we reconfigure our defence forces in order to meet the challenges of the future. That is what this is about.

The hon. Gentleman asked about sitting hours and catering. I was as surprised as everyone else to receive the letter from the Chairman of the Catering Committee about the new arrangements. The Chairman and indeed the Committee as a whole are keen to hear the views of hon. Members and will respond to them. The Chairman has assured me that that will happen. He listened to hon. Members' views in respect of the Smoking Room, where the hours that were originally proposed have been readjusted but the same cost savings achieved.

I put this point to the House, because it is an important matter for hon. Members. There is a £6 million subsidy for catering in the House. I do not think that taxpayers should be subsidising to the extent that they are.

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