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Business of the House

12.30 pm

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

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 22 March—Continuation of the Budget.

Tuesday 23 March—Conclusion of the Budget.

Wednesday 24 March—Opposition half-day [7th allotted day] (part one). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

A debate on the Equitable Life inquiry on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 25 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by programme motion relating to the Employment Relations Bill, followed by a debate on defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 26 March—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 29 March—Remaining stages of the Employment Relations Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 30 March—Opposition Day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 31 March—Remaining stages of the Higher Education Bill.

Thursday 1 April—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for April will be:

Thursday 1 April—Debate on the report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on by-catch of dolphins and porpoises.

Thursday 22 April—Debate on the report from the Treasury Committee on transparency of credit card charges.

Thursday 29 April—Debate on the report from the International Development Committee on development assistance and the occupied Palestine Territories.

It might be helpful if I update the House on the incident in Parliament square this morning. Shortly before 9 am, a van carrying chemicals was involved in a traffic accident. The police and the fire brigade were alerted immediately, and the square was cordoned off because the van contained two chemicals that, if mixed, might have produced harmful gas. The fire brigade took action with regard to chemical control and decontamination procedures. The closure resulted in severe traffic disruption, and both Westminster and Lambeth bridges were closed. Black Rod's Garden remained open to Members' vehicles. I should like to thank the emergency services and the Serjeant at Arms for dealing with the situation so quickly.

Mr. Heald: I thank the Leader of the House for the business, and for that short statement on the traffic

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incident. I think that we are all relieved that there is no gas outside this place, although it is often said that there is quite a lot inside.

May I ask the Leader of the House about his remarks that the Labour party might need to embrace proportional representation to save its marginal seats? [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Indeed. We know that the right hon. Gentleman used to be a Liberal. What plans are there for the Cabinet Joint Consultative Committee with the Liberal Democrats to meet to discuss his proposal? Many people are saying that he is perhaps returning to his roots.

Has the Leader of the House noticed that we are not having any discussion on housing in the Budget debate? Given that that was prominent in the Chancellor's statement, perhaps the Leader of the House will tell us whether we can expect a statement on the Barker report, or at least whether we can have an opportunity to debate the Chancellor's proposals on that matter.

Has the Leader of the House seen the scathing report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, published today, in which it joins calls that I have made for much greater Government co-operation in providing witnesses and intelligence material to Select Committees? That is referred to in early-day motion 760.

[That this House expresses its concern that select committees are not able to obtain from the Government the documents and witnesses necessary in order to fulfil their role of scrutinizing the Executive; notes the comments of the honourable Member for Thurrock in the debate on the Hutton Report when he said that Lord Hutton had been able to cross-examine John Scarlet in public, but the Foreign Affairs Committee was refused access to him, and that they had been refused the drafts of the September dossier but Lord Hutton published them on the worldwide web; and calls on the Leader of the House to institute a major review into the way in which Government and ministers treat select committees and the provisions of the Osmotherly Rules and the Ministerial Code.]

The Committee describes the current practice as unenforceable, and is calling for enforcement procedures for when a Minister refuses to appear before a Committee or to supply a witness or documents. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Government have treated the Foreign Affairs Committee with lofty disdain, and that their attitude has been a disgrace? Will he announce the urgent review that is needed, in a statement today or next week?

Finally, the Leader of the House will be aware that the Home Secretary has described the returned Guantanamo detainees as posing no threat to the United Kingdom. However, reports released today by the US embassy show that one of them was trained in the use of weapons by al-Qaeda and fought the coalition in Tora Bora, and that two others were trained in the use of weapons in Afghanistan and were in that country armed and under Taliban orders. Apparently, another describes the US and the UK as his enemies and has travelled under al-Qaeda auspices. In those circumstances, are we not entitled to know why the Government say that these trained terrorists are not a threat? The Leader of the House will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden

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(David Davis) has asked the Home Secretary to come here and make an emergency statement about this vital issue. Where is he?

Mr. Hain: First, may I say that I am disappointed that neither the hon. Gentleman nor the usual channels have been able to give us the topic for the Opposition day motion next week?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Oh dear!

Mr. Hain: Well, the reason is that if the topic is known, it enables Members to plan their week and their work programme. They are able to decide what to intervene on or whether to seek to catch the Speaker's eye the day before. If they do not know what the subject is, they cannot make those choices. I understand that urgent business might sometimes require a change of subject, but I would be grateful if the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) could discuss with his colleagues the common courtesy to the House of telling us what the subject will be, at least on a provisional basis.

On the Guantanamo returnees, the Government are absolutely alert to the risk that we face from international terrorism—we saw in Madrid last week the terrible impact that it can have. So, in dealing with those returnees, the police have been very anxious to assess the risk. They have done that, and they are dealing with the matter fully aware of all the dangers that the country faces from international terrorism and in the knowledge that they are able to utilise in full the powers of the anti-terrorism legislation. Those individuals have been dealt with in accordance with those facts.

On the question of proportional representation, I am going to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by saying that I have never been a supporter of it. I have, however, been a long-time supporter of the alternative vote, which is opposed root and branch by the Liberal Democrats and many others. I believe that, whatever reforms we make to the electoral system governing the election to the House of Commons, the single Member seat is the cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy. The issue is whether we should have the system that we have now, which is first past the post, or whether we should have a system in which we vote 1, 2, 3. I have always favoured the latter, but that is my view. We are having a big conversation about this and other issues—[Interruption.] It is important for people to express their views if they have strong feelings about retaining the first-past-the-post system. Others have feelings about opting for a fully proportional representation system. I do not agree with the PR system, because it would break the link between the individual Member elected to the House of Commons and the constituency, which could reject him or her if it did not like what that Member was doing. All PR systems destroy that link.

On housing, and the Barker report, we are very concerned about the difficulties that people—particularly first-time buyers—are having, which is part of the problem that ought to be addressed by the Barker report. That report was published in association with

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the Budget and can therefore be discussed at any time during the Budget debates. I hope that it will be, and the hon. Gentleman can arrange for his colleagues to put questions to the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers on housing matters if he wishes to do so. I would also say to him that we would welcome his tabling a motion on housing, because we would then see the clear dividing line between the Government, who intend to invest more in housing, and the Conservative Opposition, who are going to cut housing provision through cuts in the local government budget amounting to £2.5 billion. That savage cut would also, incidentally, result in council tax rises.

Finally, I do not accept for one moment that we have treated the Foreign Affairs Committee with, in the hon. Gentleman's words, "lofty disdain". On the contrary, the Government have co-operated in detail with the Committee, and we will be considering its report and obviously responding in detail to the representations that it has very properly made.

The Prime Minister also made it clear during his recent evidence session with the Liaison Committee that the Government would review the Osmotherly rules, which are at the heart of the matter. We intend to remain supportive of that commitment.

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