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Mr. Hain: I do not think that any Conservative Member will be coveting the Leader of the Opposition's job, given his dismal performance recently. [Interruption.] Coveting a job in an election when there was only one candidatethat is some coveting, is it not?
That is a regular bleat of Opposition Members. When the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are handling very sensitive relations with Iran, these things have to be managed carefully. The Defence Secretary's written ministerial statement made it absolutely clear that the practice and behaviour of the Iranians in this situation was intolerable.
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As I have said before, the regional assemblies Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and published before the summer recess in a few weeks' time. The pre-legislative scrutiny will provide a full opportunity to go into all the Bill's details and establish any issues that Members wish to establish. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the Government's practice of providing pre-legislative scrutiny on an increasing scale so that precisely the debate that he is asking for can take place.
Local planning authorities already have powers to determine the suitability of sites for mobile phone base stations, and planning policy guidance on telecommunications is set out in the revised PPG8. The Government also strongly encourage telecoms operators and local planning authorities to carry out annual discussions about the roll-out plans in each area, especially as they affect sensitive issues such as schools.
With regard to the request to the Prime Minister for election observers, is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that what might or might not be going on in the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election is in any way comparable with the systematic rigging, violence and intimidation for which Robert Mugabe has been responsible in elections? That is a ridiculous comparison. The Prime Minister will be responding to the Leader of the Opposition's request in due course, and I might add that if there were any irregularities, they would be under the traditional election system and nothing to do with the all-postal voting pilots that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have regularly attacked in past weeks.
If any improvements are needed to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill as a result of the scrutiny and debate in both Houses, it is important that the Government bring them forward in the form of amendments. But let us not lose sight of the fact that this is a very important Bill. It is one of the Government's flagship Bills in this Session. With a quarter of all violent crimes taking place in the home against women and two women dying every week from violent crime, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would applaud our attempts to get the law absolutely right.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the written ministerial statement, which appeared in Hansard on Tuesday, from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the proposed closure of massive numbers of benefit offices? The matter is so serious that it should be debated in Government timean oral statement should have been made, but that can be put right. The written ministerial statement does not inspire confidence, because it discusses developments in the Child Support Agency and the Appeals Service, which is under pressure in many areas. The whole matter should be fully debated.
I am sure that my hon. Friend supports the Government's objective of serving all our constituents better by transferring resources and priorities to front-line services. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions also intends to follow the Government's policy of transferring jobs from over-congested, overheated
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London and the south-east to the regions of England, Wales and Scotland, and those of us who represent such regions welcome that policy.
The Electoral Commission was mentioned earlier. Will the Leader of the House examine the possibility of a statement, or better still a debate, on its role and remit in the next couple of weeks, so that we are sure about its responsibilities and how it is accountable to Parliament?
On funding and democracy, did the Leader of the House read the report in The Times on 28 June that Mr. Paul Sykes is willing to spend all his £500 million fortune on seeking to manipulate public opinion and undermine the political process? Mr. Sykes may even be interested in seeking to deflect attention from the referendums on regional assemblies, which were referred to a few moments ago, so the matter is urgent. In the report in The Times, the chairman of the Electoral Commission said that he is concerned about the intentions of the millionaire manipulators:
"That could distort the whole campaign. The legislation is flawed".
Finally, the Defence Committee published an important report this morning. How quickly can we expect the Government to respond to it? The report raises important issues such as command, intelligence capabilities and equipment provision, which I have drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House before. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about equipment provision, particularly in relation to actions currently being undertaken by British troops in Iraq.
Mr. Hain: On the Butler inquiry, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify matters. The Butler review press office aims to publish the review on Wednesday 14 July. The timing and exact arrangements for publication are a matter for it, and we will announce the parliamentary arrangements when it makes its position clear. Whenever the report is published, the Prime Minister will make a statementthere is no question about that, and he will be pleased to do soand hon. Members will have a chance to debate the issue at an appropriate time.
The Electoral Commission's role and remit is set out on a statutory basis, and I see no need to revisit itthe Electoral Commission's work is important, and we will continue to monitor it. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised an important point about attempts to manipulate elections, especially on the European issue. In the end, the people of Britain will vote according to the national interest, which is to keep Britain at the heart of the European Union, and they will not be bribed by millionaire manipulators or persuaded by propaganda. The people of Britain will vote in the national interest, and the Government will put the case in the national interest.
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On defence policy, we very much welcome the Defence Committee's report on the White Paper; as ever, it makes a valuable contribution to defence issues. We need to await the outcome of the spending review on 12 July and any statements that might follow. However, two annual defence debates are as yet unused in this Session.
Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House make a statement to clarify the position of MPs' representations and correspondence on behalf of their constituents in relation to the Data Protection Act 1998? Confusion and inconsistency still surrounds the question of whether constituents need to give written permission before a third-party body can respond to the MP. That obviously causes great inconvenience, because the constituent would not have contacted the MP in the first place if they did not want them to make that representation on their behalf. Can the position be clarified to ensure that that confusion in relation to third parties does not continue?
Mr. Hain: I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that matter, which goes to the heart of Members' rights in representing their constituents. As he will be aware, in response to such pressure the Government made a changethrough an order that came into force on 17 December 2002that removed the restrictions in the Data Protection Act 1998 on the disclosure of sensitive data to MPs and other elected representatives when they are dealing with constituents' cases. As a result, Members secured proper protection and enhanced rights.
Information that hospitals have about an individual's health is likely to be held in confidenceI suspect that that is where the issue has arisen in my hon. Friend's caseand disclosure to a third party is governed by the common law on confidence. However, the Department of Health has issued guidance to the effect that hospitals should accept an MP's word that they are acting on behalf of their constituent; that means that the necessary information can be disclosed and the case can be processed in the normal way. The message should go out loud and clear that every hospital and every trust is obliged to treat MPs' representations in the proper way and should not try to impose any bureaucratic obstacles.
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