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Housing (Legal Advice)

25. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the arrangements for provision of housing law advice. [200058]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): There were 81,606 acts of legal assistance in housing in 2003–04. In the west midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, the north-east and Wales, housing advice is available through not only solicitors, citizens advice bureaux and law centres, but the community legal service direct, which was launched in July this year. We gained 56 additional housing contracts nationally in April this year, and we are introducing increased remuneration for housing lawyers, as of today.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab): That is good news. May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the situation in Dudley, where the Legal Services Commission has no contract for housing advice? I declare my interest as a lawyer, but I am the last one to argue for legal solutions to social problems. However, lawyers help to ensure that landlords repair properties and local government meets its obligations to the homeless. Will my hon. Friend take up the issue with the LSC? I understand that the LSC is discussing an outreach centre for Dudley with Shelter, which is important.

Mr. Lammy: My hon. and learned Friend has raised that issue in the past. I have taken it up with the LSC, which is why Shelter has been given a contract to offer more than 1,000 hours of outreach in Sandwell and Dudley. I hope that the decision to increase remuneration for housing lawyers in litigation will help to bring more providers into the service. I have asked the LSC specifically to examine encouraging existing legal aid practitioners in Dudley to take up housing law.

Mental Capacity (Withdrawal of Treatment)

26. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the implications of the withdrawal of life-saving treatment from those lacking mental capacity. [200059]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): A doctor who omitted to provide treatment that he was under a duty to provide because it was in the best interests of the patient, and where the omission led to death, might face criminal prosecution for gross negligence or manslaughter. He could also face legal liability and negligence and/or professional sanctions.

Mr. Chapman: My hon. Friend will be aware of the deeply felt concerns about living wills and the withdrawal of food and fluids. With the recent publication of the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, what reassurance can he give the House that the power to withhold treatment, particularly food and fluids, will not be transferred from medical
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professions to the attorney, and that the provisions of the Bill are compatible, as a whole, with the European convention on human rights?

Mr. Lammy: I am pleased that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, having considered the Bill, feels comfortable that it is compatible with human rights, although it rightly asks certain questions, as have many hon. Members, about this very difficult area. The most important aspect of the Bill is to ensure that everything done is in the patient's best interests. We as a Government have been keen to ensure that that objective test is as good as we can make it. That is why the Bill has received so much scrutiny over the years.

It is important to bear it in mind that there will always be difficult cases such as that of Tony Bland and it is right that those should be considered in court. That will continue to be the case. It is also important that we were able to put into the Bill clause 58, which rules out euthanasia.

As to advance decisions, we had much debate in Committee to ensure that we have the right safeguards, and I am pleased that members of the Committee felt able to vote with the Government on those issues.


The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

33. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will bring forward proposals to allow tabling of written questions during recesses. [200068]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has no plans to do so.

Mr. Chapman: In 2002, the Procedure Committee recommended that Members should be able to table written questions during recesses and have them answered. As Ministers continue to be Ministers, Departments continue to function and ministerial cover continues through duty Ministers, I cannot for the life of me understand why we should not be able to table questions and get them answered. After all, that is not the same as writing letters. Can my hon. Friend assure me that early progress will be made?

Mr. Woolas: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has brought about innovations to help Members with the tabling of questions. For example, questions can be answered in a special edition of Hansard when we are in recess, and "I will reply" letters are now placed in the Library and in Hansard. On the other side of the coin is the fact that, while the House is in recess, Members can write to Ministers, as my hon. Friend suggested. The Government's response to the Procedure Committee is based partly on the knowledge that, in Scotland, where such a system is in place, it has unfortunately been abused.
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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Deputy Leader of the House will know that the Procedure Committee's particular concern was that there should not be a three-month gap in which it was not possible to press Ministers and ask questions. Obviously, that has been eased somewhat by September sittings, but is there any proposal to tackle what will happen in September 2005, when we will not sit in September? We will be back to the bad old days of having three months with no opportunity at all to question Ministers. Can some measure be put in place to deal with that?

Mr. Woolas: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Modernisation Committee is examining September sittings and the House will have an opportunity to consider its recommendations in due course. I am sure that hon. Members want to hear the points that have been expressed about written questions. Let me amplify. There is a serious danger that proper questioning of Ministers can be abused. There was a tenfold increase in the Scottish case. Some hon. Members of all parties table many dozens of questions. I do not believe that anyone would want to deny House officials a limited break during August. I emphasise that the option of writing letters is available.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government operate for 52 weeks a year and that it is therefore right that hon. Members should be able to ask questions for 52 weeks a year? Answers in Hansard have much more merit than letters to Ministers. I urge my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to reconsider the matter. Under a democratic, open Government, which we profess to be—and are—we should be able to ask questions for 52 weeks a year.

Mr. Woolas: I confirm that we are indeed a democratic and open Government. That is why the innovations that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House instigated have enabled Back Benchers to ask more questions and receive fuller replies. The innovations include written ministerial statements, which the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) opposed. The Government work 52 weeks a year—24/7 is perhaps a more appropriate term. Nevertheless, officials are entitled to a break. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) knows that I hold him in the highest regard and I stress to him that we operate on the principle that, when we are in recess, the normal functions of the House do not take place. Hon. Members can take other measures, including writing letters to Ministers, as, indeed, they do.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): The Deputy Leader of the House appeared to say that the Government deserved a limited break from parliamentary accountability for three months. Surely next year, when there will be no September sitting, for reasons that we all understand, we should have a trial period to ascertain whether for at least two of those months, Members can hold the Government to account.
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Mr. Woolas: I did not suggest that the Government were not accountable for 52 weeks a year. They are. During the recess, the hon. Gentleman and others speak to Ministers, write letters and ask questions. That is quite proper. To be helpful, I had already said that the Modernisation Committee is considering the future of September sittings. Doubtless, he will raise the matter when we hold that debate.

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