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Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): May we have an early statement on the steps that the Government are taking to ensure that the valour and skill of servicemen past and present are properly recognised through the efficient and timely distribution of medals? Is the Leader of the House aware of the deep concern that exists in my constituency and elsewhere at the announcement this week of the closure of the Droitwich Spa medal office, at the busiest time in its history? It is having to cope with many applications for the Suez, or GSM canal-zone, medal, and the increasing number of Iraq medals. Its closure could compromise the efficient distribution of those medals.

Mr. Hain: I am very concerned to hear about that. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence and the other Government authorities will want to take close note of what the hon. Gentleman has said and address the problem urgently.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the important issue of bus deregulation outside London? Since its inception there has been a constant fall in bus passenger mileage, and unfortunately that fall has continued since 1997. Having given 42 days' notice, a bus company such as First Mainline, which is in my constituency, is able to withdraw a service to the people of Mosborough. As a result, many hundreds of people, including pensioners, are cut off from their local supermarket, and locally elected representatives have no say whatsoever in the taking of such action.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend will have the chance to apply for such a debate. I am concerned to hear about what he said, as will be the Secretary of State for Transport, not least because the Government have provided more subsidies for bus services than ever
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before. That is a policy that we intend to stick to. Should the Opposition gain power, that funding would, of course, be reneged upon, because they are determined to cut transport budgets in the first two years of their period of office.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a debate on a matter that should be of grave concern to us all? The publication of the Disability Rights Commission report, "The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People" showed that 86 per cent. of websites were not accessible to disabled people and the majority of the rest were only partially accessible. If we cannot have a debate on that matter, will the Leader of the House ensure that a statement is made on disabled people's access to Government websites?

Mr. Hain: That is a very good point, which I have not heard before, and I am sure that the relevant Minister will want to reflect carefully on what the hon. Gentleman said. I am not sure whether the issue could be dealt with through the forthcoming disability rights Bill, to which the Government are committed, and which will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman has certainly provided a well-made point that has been well taken.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): May I welcome the Government's announcement on Monday that education maintenance allowances worth £30 a week are to be rolled out nationally from this September? Bolton was one of the 55 pilot local authorities that trialled EMAs: it found increased participation in post-16 education and improved attendance by those who were enrolled. May we soon have a debate on this excellent Government initiative?

Mr. Hain: If it were possible and Government business allowed it, I would be happy to arrange such a debate, although my hon. Friend could apply for a private Members' debate in the usual way. I agree that it is a fantastic policy, which will provide real hope and opportunity to thousands of youngsters who are now denied those prospects by leaving school early. As he said, the pilots have shown that the staying on rate is much higher, which is why I find it extraordinary that the Conservative Opposition describe it as a gimmick. My hon. Friend would agree that Conservative Members should be told that his constituents who have benefited from the policy describe it as life opportunity, not a gimmick. The Conservatives should be reminded of that at the next general election.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): Northern Ireland questions next Wednesday will not give Members the opportunity to debate or vote on equality of facilities for all hon. Members of the House. Following the £120,000 fine levied on Sinn Fein in the Assembly, which was authorised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, surely we should have a full debate and an opportunity to vote on the £500,000 allocated by the House last year to two members of the army council—Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams—and their colleagues. They should have no
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facilities or finance from the House until they come in and swear or affirm an oath of loyalty as other right hon. and hon. Members of the House do.

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the independent report referred not only to Sinn Fein, as he pointed out, but to the Progressive Unionist party—

David Burnside: It does not have Members here.

Mr. Hain: I acknowledge that that party is not represented here, as the hon. Gentleman said. He has made his point.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): May we have an urgent debate—preferably instead of one of the footling Opposition day debates over the next fortnight—on the precise consequences of the UK voting against the constitutional treaty? Is it not the case that if we voted against it, any Government—Conservative or Labour—would have to start renegotiating another treaty with EU colleagues? If that Government chose to adopt a line and could not persuade a single other European country to accept it, and then decided to act unilaterally, it would consign Britain to the sidelines of Europe, which would be bad for our economy and our country's future.

Mr. Hain: Indeed, which is why I would welcome the opportunity to have a debate. I invite the shadow Leader of the House to table an Opposition motion on the subject in order to defend his party's policy on that matter. The consequence would be exactly as my hon. Friend says. If we went into a referendum on the basis of rejecting the whole idea of bringing together the existing European treaties into a single constitutional treaty, we would be left saying to the other 24 member states that they should walk away and do their own thing. If that happened, we would be left outside, on a ticket out of
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the European Union. That is the Opposition's policy, and they will be reminded of it in the coming months running up to the referendum.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Following this morning's revelation that an estimated £30 million—perhaps much more—has been deducted by solicitors in various guises from miners' compensation, may we have an urgent debate or statement next week? We should discuss, in particular, whether the Government ever envisaged that miners, their widows and families should receive anything less than 100 per cent. of their industrial injury compensation.

Mr. Hain: As a former energy Minister, I can be absolutely clear that it was always expressly understood that, under the terms of the court judgment and the Government's compensation scheme, the costs of legal fees incurred would be borne by the scheme, not by miners themselves, retired miners or their families. Unless a separate agreement has been negotiated—as in the case of the National Union of Miners in Nottinghamshire—and such an express agreement falls within the scheme, what my hon. Friend mentioned is unacceptable and, I would suggest, falls outside the rules of the scheme. No miners should have their compensation docked in that way by unscrupulous solicitors.


Age-related Payments

Mr. Secretary Smith, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Mr. Secretary Darling, Mr. Secretary Murphy, Mr. Peter Hain and Mr. Malcolm Wicks, presented (under Standing Order No. 50 (Procedure upon bills whose main object is to create a charge upon the public revenue)) a Bill to make provision for payments by the Secretary of State to persons over the age of 70; and to enable provision to be made for payments by the Secretary of State to persons over the age of 60. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 92].

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Points of Order

1.27 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing me to raise a point of order in advance of the debate. The debate that we are about to commence is on an extremely serious issue: the erection of a screen, separating us from our constituents and our electorates, which has cost £500,000. We have no papers on it. The Government tell us that it is such a serious issue—the security position being so demanding—that the screen had to be erected in advance of the House having an opportunity to debate the matter.

I do not see how we can have a proper debate and discuss the serious issues that have to be addressed without being able to meet in private. Some of the points that I would want to raise in an attempt to assess the balance of risk and the nature of the threat that we face in the Chamber might, if given wider currency, only play into the hands of our enemies.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, believing that there is a case for the House to meet in private to debate the issues, provided that we can be assured that Members attending—as I look around, I see mostly responsible right hon. and hon. Members—would not reveal any sensitive information; otherwise, I fear that if we asked the Leader or Deputy Leader of the House to explain the security advice given to the authorities, on which we are invited to rely, they would say simply that they could not provide that information because it was too sensitive. In that case, how could we have a proper debate? Before I formally move that the House sit in private, it might be helpful if other right hon. and hon. Members shared their views on the matter.

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