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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I join in the sentiments that the Leader of the House has just expressed, and I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Leader, Members on both sides and all who work here a very happy Christmas.

Has the Leader of the House read early-day motion 404?

[That this House expresses its deep concern that during the debate on consideration of the Mental Capacity Bill on 14th December, a document relating to and important to the debate was not made available by Ministers to honourable Members in all parts of the House, but only to Labour honourable Members, namely a letter from the Lord Chancellor to the Archbishop of Cardiff; considers that it is a matter of constitutional importance that all relevant documents referred to by Ministers in the House should be made available to all honourable Members; notes the remarks of the Lord Chancellor on the Today programme of 15th December that the correspondence took place at around lunchtime and was sent straight down to the Commons and distributed around the Commons; further notes that despite these remarks the letter from the Lord Chancellor was not available in the Vote Office at 3.45 p.m.; applauds the ruling of Mr Deputy Speaker that this should not happen again; and calls on the Leader of the House to make a statement giving such an assurance on behalf of the Government.]

The Leader of the House must understand how annoyed hon. Members were by the shambles that led to only Labour Members seeing the important letter from the Lord Chancellor. The rest of us, and even some on the Labour Benches, were left trying to make out its contents from the rather difficult remarks of the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs.
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As was made clear from the Chair, we should all receive the same information for a debate. Will the Leader of the House make sure that that happens in future? Will he also ensure that if amendments come from the other place, adequate time will be allowed for a full debate on a particularly sensitive Bill?

Has any progress yet been made in arranging the debate for which I have been asking on foreign affairs so that we can discuss the situation in Africa and the middle east? The Leader of the House will know from this morning's Law Lords' judgment that it has been declared that under the provisions of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 the detention of prisoners at Belmarsh is illegal. Given that the Government have always insisted that that imprisonment was perfectly all right legally, can we have a statement in which the advice given to Ministers and the statements of Ministers are explained? Clearly, the situation is worrying.

The Gambling Bill is approaching its final day in Committee. The Government have today decided to revise the basis of the Bill completely. Can the Leader of the House assure us that we will have at least two days on report to consider the Bill now proposed?

In the summer, I criticised the Leader of the House for changing guidance to allow Ministers to avoid answering written questions by replying that there was no time to answer before prorogation. Ministers have used that, but can he say why, according to the Library, so many of his colleagues have gone a stage further and cannot even be bothered to answer the questions at all? A whopping 306 written questions went totally unanswered in the last Session. Why?

When will the Leader of the House change Standing Orders to allow the European Scrutiny Committee to sit in public? The Committee asked for that a year ago, and it would provide an early-warning system for excessive European regulation. Why is the Leader of the House dragging his heels on that?

Mr. Hain: It is not a question of dragging my heels. As the hon. Gentleman very well knows, since he sits on it, the Modernisation Committee is looking at the question of proper scrutiny of European business by the House, particularly on the Floor of the House.

On the Mental Capacity Bill and the scenes that occurred on Tuesday, I agree with the hon. Gentleman and give the assurance that in future the same information should be shared with the whole House, especially both Front Benches. The Speaker has written to the Lord Chancellor about the events of Tuesday. As Leader of the House, I take seriously any mistakes made by Departments in their day-to-day dealings with the House. All officials are required to respect the courtesies of the House. Mistakes were made, and lessons have been learned within the Department for Constitutional Affairs. My private office has been in contact with the Department to remind it of the correct procedures for depositing papers in the House and the courtesies that should be shown to all Members. I also spoke myself to the Lord Chancellor this morning.

The hon. Gentleman requested a foreign affairs debate on Africa and the middle east. I understand the case for it. It is a strong one. We are looking into it, but a whole number of Second Reading debates on important
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legislation—I am sure he would recognise that—are to take place. If he were content with a debate in Westminster Hall, we could look at that in a different context.

As the hon. Gentleman will realise, the Law Lords' judgment on the Belmarsh matter was handed down only earlier this morning. The Home Secretary has deposited with the House a written statement and perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if I read a key part of it. The Home Secretary says:

That is the key extract from the Home Secretary's statement, which is available in the Vote Office.

Two new sittings of the Standing Committee on the Gambling Bill are due to be scheduled on 11 January. That has to do with a Government amendment to cap the size of existing and medium-sized casinos—an issue which has arisen during consideration of the Bill.

If Departments are not answering questions, they should. If it is brought to my attention that Departments are not answering questions, and the hon. Gentleman quoted a figure of 306—

Mr. Heald: Seven hundred and six.

Mr. Hain: Seven hundred and six is even less satisfactory. In the summer I introduced a new procedure whereby written replies would be not just deposited in the Library where they might gather dust and nobody in particular might know about them, but placed on the record in Hansard. I am sure that the whole House welcomes that extra scope for accountability.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I welcome what the Leader of the House has just said about the way in which the Mental Capacity Bill was handled. All Members will welcome the actions taken on our behalf. I endorse also his good wishes to you, Mr. Speaker, other Members and staff.

Can the Leader of the House give an absolute assurance that Sir Alan Budd's report will be published before the House rises next week? Some very important issues are involved. If, as we now understand, the Home Secretary was not at fault, somebody else in the Home Office was, and clearly the new Home Secretary needs to take action.

On the Belmarsh detainees, it is extraordinary that the Leader of the House comes here and reads out part of a letter. [Hon. Members: "A statement."] Part of a statement, then. Either the Home Secretary is prepared to make a statement to the House about why his
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predecessor's policies have now been declared unlawful by the highest court of the land, or it does not wash. For the Leader of the House to read part of a statement is unsatisfactory. Can he give us an absolute undertaking that before the House rises for the recess the new Home Secretary will declare exactly what the Home Office will do? Surely here is an opportunity for a new Home Secretary to make a fresh start on something that causes huge concern on every side of the House. We look to him to do that.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) has put forward practical proposals to make sure that those who are detained could be charged and brought to trial without endangering our security services? Members on both sides of the House would wish that to happen.

When can we expect a statement and debate on the report of the Electoral Commission into the funding of political parties and the democratic process? The Leader of the House will agree that it is scarcely satisfactory for maverick millionaires to be able to buy parties and their policies. It is not doing any good to the battered reputation of Parliament, of which he is the prime defender. Surely he must recognise that we need to debate the matter urgently. As I understand it, nobody is now in principle against state funding. After all, since 1997 the Conservatives have benefited to the tune of some £30 million of taxpayers' money, so they can scarcely have any principled objections. Is it not time that we looked at this carefully and made sure that funding was more transparent, fairer and attuned to encouraging local participation in our democratic process?

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