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Mr. Hain: Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that it is better to have the procedure of planted questions—

Mr. Forth: No.

Mr. Hain: I presume, then, that he agrees that written ministerial statements are a good idea.

Mr. Forth: No.

Mr. Hain: He cannot have it both ways. He must surely agree that written ministerial statements are a preferable alternative to planted questions.

The right hon. Gentleman is practised at perpetuating the myth that there was sleight of hand. Cabinet Ministers have made masses of statements, and they make them every week. If he looks at the record of this Parliament, he will find that we are at least as accountable to the House as previous Governments. During the first six years and nine months of his premiership the Prime Minister spent 107 hours and 30 minutes in the Chamber, whereas John Major's equivalent period was 87 hours and 30 minutes—an extra 20 hours of accountability to the House by our Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has made 61 statements, compared with just 46 by John Major. That shows much greater accountability to the House by a Labour Prime Minister than by his Tory predecessor.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to consider the demands of the Doctors for Reform group, which yesterday called for everyone in the country to be forced to purchase medical insurance, whether they can afford it or not? May we have an urgent debate on that

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important matter and on today's further revelations that, far from being an independent organisation, this group is a Tory front organisation dedicated to undermining and dismantling the NHS? When a group parades as independent, surely Members of the House have a right to know what its true political affiliations are, particularly when the issue is the sensitive one of health spending and the protection of the values of the NHS, and particularly when the group is clearly—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are other Members' contributions to be considered.

Mr. Hain: I agree with every word of my hon. Friend's question. Indeed, I would be enthusiastic about the prospects for a debate on those lines, because a clear divide is opening up between this Government, who believe in publicly funded health services from which people can seek relief from pain or proper treatment free at the point of use, and an alternative point of view—advocated by the Conservatives, and probably also by this front organisation—of moving towards increasing privatisation, robbing the national health service of up to £2 billion to walk down the road to private hospitals. That is the choice—a high-quality publicly funded national health service under Labour or privately funded health provision under the Conservatives.

In respect of one other matter, may I correct a mistake that I inadvertently made about business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 4 March? The debate will in fact be on the report from the Transport Committee on overcrowding on public transport, not, as I think I said, on ports.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The Leader of the House has made great play of the amount of time that the Prime Minister spends in the House of Commons. Is it not important, however, that, when he is here, what he says is factually accurate? If it is not, he should come to the House to correct it as quickly as possible. During yesterday's Prime Minister's questions, he committed a clear error of fact when he said

he was referring to drug testing in schools—

That guidance was issued on 16 February, so the Prime Minister made a clear error of fact and should correct it. When will he come to the House to do that?

Mr. Hain: On the general matter of Prime Minister's questions—[Interruption.] I will answer the hon. Gentleman's point specifically. The Prime Minister has answered a massive range of questions, including one on Buddhism in relation to one hon. Member's constituency. I am advised that the drug guidance to head teachers and schools is being issued on 9 March, which accords absolutely with what the Prime Minister said yesterday, so the hon. Gentleman should withdraw his question.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may be aware of early-day motion 665, which stands in my name, in relation to profits in the oil, gas and banking industries.

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[That this House recognises the excessive profits recently recorded in industries such as oil and gas and banking; and therefore calls on the Government to use its influence to ensure these profits are fairly distributed between shareholders, employees and consumers who have all contributed to these profits rather than the executives who award themselves large bonuses or other hidden benefits.]

Will my right hon. Friend use his tremendous influence within the Government to ensure that executives in those industries have a moral responsibility to ensure that these excessive and record profits are shared among shareholders, employees and especially consumers? Their contributions have led to the profits being gained, and they should not go into the coffers of chief executives.

Mr. Hain: I understand my hon. Friend's point. The staff concerned will want to be properly remunerated, and the senior managers concerned will want to be fairly remunerated, but not by being given exceptional rewards for mediocre performance. His question is important and he is free to apply for a debate to raise the issues involved.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): Will the Leader of the House give urgent consideration to holding a debate on the flawed processes surrounding consultation and decision making on the network reinvention programme for post offices? On 16 February I received a letter from Eddie Herbert, the north-west area head for post office reinvention, about Turves Road post office in my constituency, in which he stated that he was still having to take time to consider the consultation responses that he had received. I learned yesterday, however, that the meeting between the Post Office and Postwatch was held on 16 February—the same day that he wrote to me to say that he was taking more time to consider responses. May we please have a debate on the Floor of the House that will enable us to explore this and other flaws in the process?

Mr. Hain rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before we go any further, I remind Members that they must be fair to other Members. Long questions mean only that other Members' questions will be cut out.

Mr. Hain: I understand the hon. Lady's concerns about consultative processes conducted by Post Office managers. I, and many other Members, have received many representations about flaws in that process. I am sure that the Post Office managers concerned, and the Secretary of State, will want to take careful note of what she says.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): In the run-up to the publication of the defence White Paper, my newspapers regularly carried scare stories about the demise of the Cheshire Regiment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the great work done by the regiment, and will he reconsider his answer to the shadow Leader of the House and grant an early

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debate on the defence White Paper so that we may praise the work of the county regiments and expose the proposed Tory cuts in defence?

Mr. Hain: I am inclined—[Interruption.] I see that Conservative Members are joining my hon. Friend in exposing the mistaken policies of their party. I join him in praising the brilliant standards, reputation and courageous work of the Cheshire Regiment over many generations. Its future, and that of other regiments, would be jeopardised by the cuts of £1.5 billion planned by the Conservative party in the first two years following a general election.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): In reply to my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, who complained about the plethora of Government news announcements made in the recess, the Leader of the House, sounding more like a partisan news manager than the custodian of our democratic principles, called in aid a long list of written ministerial statements. Does he not notice that three of the eight statements on today's Order Paper concern important issues relating to Northern Ireland business, which are the concern of this House and on which we need to question Her Majesty's Government, as the devolved institutions of the Province are in abeyance?

Mr. Hain: Notwithstanding the specific question that the hon. Gentleman asks, my point is that surely an above-board written ministerial statement on such questions is preferable to the practice adopted by Governments over the decades—and quite possibly the centuries—of planting questions so that they can answer them to make ministerial statements. That is common sense. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, many oral statements are made by Cabinet Ministers, virtually every week, and they are here to answer questions almost every day of the week as well.

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