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5.43 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): I thank the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for his typically polite, kind and open-minded remarks in winding up the debate. It is a particular pleasure to wind up this Christmas recess debate. I find myself in the perhaps enviable position of being the only person standing between the House of Commons and a drink in the bar—[Interruption.] I was going to offer to pay for the drinks, but I am pleased to see that the House has filled up recently, so perhaps we can restrict ourselves to halves.

The House of Commons and Parliament is subject to intense criticism—some would say cynicism—in the modern world of public debate. On behalf of the House, I want to say that an enormous amount of valuable work and public service has been done by Members on both sides of the House in the past term. I have done some background work on this Session. The House may be interested to know that since the Queen's Speech just a few weeks ago, Ministers have given 161 written statements on a broad range of subjects; there have been five oral statements; Select Committees, which are increasingly engaged in public debate, have provided the House with 16 full reports; and, of course, there was the important decision to introduce pay for Select Committee Chairmen, which bodes well for the future and may herald other changes. The House of Commons now has more than 250 all-party groups, which engage in debate with large numbers of pressure groups, carry out their own investigations and express points of view. Parliament and the House of Commons remain at the centre of public debate and public life in this country. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House appreciate that the main purpose of changes introduced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, as well as other changes that we will debate in future, is to strengthen the role of Parliament in public life. Some of the changes were contentious and led to disagreement, but I hope that we all agree that they were intended to make the House of Commons the centre of public life and strengthen it in the eyes of the public. There is a balance to be struck between respect and relevance, but we are determined to achieve that balance.

To respond to points made in our debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) raised the important issue of Cyprus. He does so regularly in Adjournment debates, including at Whitsun and in the summer. I commend his single-mindedness, and hope I can offer reassurance by reminding him of the statement made by the Foreign Secretary on 15 December:

I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that confirmation of Government policy.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised an important issue on behalf of one of his constituents—the case of Sergeant Steven Roberts, who was killed on 24 March this year. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he raised the issue, and I can reassure him that the Ministry of Defence

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continues to investigate the death of Sergeant Roberts. It has kept Mrs. Roberts informed, but cannot comment publicly on the progress of the investigation at this stage. The Secretary of State for Defence has met Mrs. Roberts and members of the family, and is happy to agree to the request of the hon. Gentleman to do so again. I believe that the whole House would want every effort to be made to investigate the situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and several other Members raised the important issue of the future of national airports in the south-east at Stansted and Heathrow, as well as of regional airports. I remind the House of the purpose of the White Paper and the debate that has been launched. The Government should be commended on taking a long-term view. Planning for the position in 20, 30 or 40 years' time is important in the field of aviation but, in the past, both Conservative and Labour Governments have failed to put in place long-term plans to develop aviation. It is a telling fact that, in the time that we took to conduct an inquiry into the expansion of terminal 4 at Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle airport doubled its capacity. Governments must take heed of developments at Frankfurt, Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and other major hub airports.

The aviation industry directly supports about 200,000 jobs, and indirectly supports up to three times as many. Aviation contributes £13 billion a year to Britain's gross domestic product, and one third, by value, of our visible exports go by air. Air freight tonnages have doubled since 1990, and are expected to double again by 2010. Also, two thirds of the visitors to this country travel by air.

However, I want to reassure hon. Members who have raised concerns about Heathrow, Stansted or elsewhere. The White Paper is statement of national policy. It does not authorise specific developments, which remain matters for the planning system. It will be for airport operators to bring forward planning applications for airport developments in the normal way. The White Paper attempts to provide a clear policy framework for individual decisions. In other words, much debate and discussion must still take place.

It is right and proper for hon. Members to raise constituency issues. That reinforces my earlier point about the House's value residing in the fact that it is a public forum where such debates can be held.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) made his usual impassioned and patriotic—some would call it nationalistic—speech. I began to think that the debate was being led by hon. Members from Essex, as there were a large number of contributions from that county.

Mr. Rosindell: We are assiduous.

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman says that Essex Members of Parliament are assiduous. He spoke about the need to reinforce Christmas as a Christian festival. I am happy to confirm that that is the Government's view, regardless of the mischief in some of our media. I am sure that that is all good fun, and I can tell the House that only last weekend I visited the famous traditional Christian carol service celebrated on horseback at an equestrian centre near Saddleworth. I was not on horseback myself, but that might happen in the future.

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I was surprised that the hon. Member for Romford criticised the number of nightclubs in Essex. I am not certain that that will be popular with younger people in his constituency, but he made a serious point about the nature of his town centre. He also reminded the House about early-day motion 239, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope). It deals with the English national anthem, and it prompted many comments in the debate.

The hon. Member for Romford said that he wants to retain "God Save The Queen" and that he did not want "Jerusalem" to replace it, as the early-day motion proposes. However, one of the most famous sons of his constituency is the late and great Ian Dury, who wrote "Reasons To Be Cheerful". Perhaps that should be adopted as Romford's anthem—although "Hit me with your Rhythm Stick" might cause me to stray beyond where I am willing to go.

The hon. Member for Romford also talked about his early-day motion 202, which concerns the "a dog is for life, not just for Christmas" campaign. I am pleased to inform the hon. Gentleman that my briefing sheet says that the Government support that early-day motion. Being a good, dog-loving Government, we endorse the Dogs Trust campaign for responsible dog ownership. We are reviewing animal welfare legislation, and one of the review's aims will be to increase owners' responsibility for their animals. We want to reduce the number of animals abandoned every year, and Christmas is a good time to reaffirm that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) made what was perhaps the most impassioned speech in the debate, and the House will agree that its subject—anti-Semitism and the dangers of extremism—was the most important of the afternoon. The Government believe that to equate anti-Zionism and attitudes to a particular Israeli Government with anti-Semitism is both erroneous and dangerous. As the length of time that has passed since world war two and the holocaust grows, we all should redouble our efforts on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I know that hon. Members of all parties are involved in that. We must heed my hon. Friend's warning that, unfortunately, anti-Semitism seems to be on the increase.

As I am sure my hon. Friend agrees, it is not only Jewish people but ordinary Muslim people who most strongly condemn and fear the extremism and intolerance of Islamic extremists. Islam is not an exclusive faith, but a faith of tolerance. It is worth reminding ourselves that, given the nature of the extremists to whom my hon. Friend rightly drew the House's attention, the tolerance that is a great characteristic of our country may be a bit naive. I think the Government will respond in that vein to my hon. Friend's comments.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) managed to congratulate his postman.

Mr. Evans: Trevor.

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