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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I start by wishing you a very happy Christmas and a prosperous new year? I extend that wish to all Members present and thank them for attending this debate, which is the best attended Christmas recess debate in recent times. Thirty-one Members have spoken. I will not repeat my commitment from last year to buy every Member present a Christmas drink, because the success of the turnout at this debate would leave the Family Woolas without some of its Christmas presents.
I shall stay on a note of consensus and thank the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for standing in so ably for the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). It was typical of the hon. Member for New Forest, East to start with a condemnation of the British National party. I know from my work in my constituency that he plays a key role, often behind the scenes, in providing information to undermine that invidious party, and I congratulate him on using this opportunity to raise the matter. I agree very strongly with him about the benefits of single Member constituencies. Recess Adjournment debates always show the House of Commons at its best, because Members speak with detailed knowledge about their local constituencies and what happens in them. There is cross-party consensus about certain issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), for example, spoke from his knowledge of the train manufacturing industry, and the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) expressed concern about Piddington asylum centre. Whatever matters Members wish to raise, there is an opportunity for them to do so in our debate.
I suspect that I will strike a note of consensus on behalf of the whole House in wishing that the media would give the same prominence to these debates and the issues that Members raise as they do to the showtime activities in the Chamber. Local media, of course, will be informed of hon. Members' speeches. I want to continue our consensus, as I prepared a Christmas present for the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. I want to undermine the accusation that the Government ignore Parliament's scrutiny roleit is said that we are a centralising Government who have turned their back on convention. Nothing could be further from the truthit is a myth perpetuated by conservatives with a small "c", some of whom are Government Members and many of whom are Opposition Members, that harks back to a golden age that never existed. In the 1950s, the recess Adjournment debate was taken by the Prime Minister, who was also the Leader of the House and decided the business of the House and the timings of debates. The great era of parliamentary democracy on which Opposition Members look back through rose-tinted spectacles is therefore one of centralised control.
I shall give Members my Christmas present. At business questions last week, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire used information from the House of Commons Library to point out that 706 questions remained unanswered at the end of the last Session. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House could not allow such an accusation to go unchallenged, so he instigated an investigation and "got
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the drains up", as he likes to say. Like any Member, I respect the information provided by the Library and, as I understand it, the data came with a few health warnings. Following a search on the POLIS database, it appears that the information is heavily reliant on answers printed in the Official Report. My right hon. Friend therefore requested the same information from the Library and since business questions we have quality checked the data with the parliamentary Clerks. We found out that many questions listed in the report were either withdrawn or had lapsed when the Member asking the question became a Minister. There were not, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire stated, 706 unanswered questions at the end of the last Session. In fact, there were about 100. That is 100 too many, but we are only human. The situation will be addressed by the new EPC database that the Leader of the House launched in November to help to provide even more accurate information. When Members consider that in the last but one Session 55,000 questions were tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the House, they will see that rather than being a Government who dodge scrutiny, we relish it.
The reason we are having these debates is that we introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The only reason why Opposition Members can ask questions about the alleged shredding of data and the deletion of e-mails is that we introduced that Act. The only reason why they can ask informed questions about the workings of the Government in the decisions on Iraq and other matters is that we instigated the Butler inquiry. We put into the public domain the information that has been used. I cannot think of any example of a more open Government. What has happened certainly compares well with the dark days of the 1980s. The idea that a collective Cabinet governed this country when Mrs. Thatcher summoned the so-called vegetables and told them what they would decide is incredible, compared with the open, transparent, scrutinised Government that we have now.
I am very grateful to the honourable and elderly Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for coming out of retirement to intervene on my intervention. May I ask the Minister to explain himself? The very attitude that lies behind his remarks demonstrates what is wrong with this Government. They think that it is their right to give the people freedoms and rights to information. It is our right as elected Members of Parliament to question him and his co-Ministers. The balance of inquiry is entirely the wrong way around in his mouth. It is we Back Benchers who are entitled to cross-examine the Government, not the Government who are entitled to give us things out of a bountiful nature.
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Mr. Woolas: That is exactly why the Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000. If the Government were trying to hide away from scrutiny, we would hardly go around passing Acts like the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which have enhanced Back Benchers' rights.
Let me try to provide some political attack the other way around because the Opposition should be scrutinised as well. They come along with motion 37 on impeachment knowing full well that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege has decided that the procedures for impeachment are completely obsolete. I shall quote what that all-party Committee of both Houses has said:
Even the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who tabled that motion, said in the debate that the procedures on impeachment are confused by the fact that the Executive is drawn from the legislature in this country. Those involved in that motion are trying to set up a smokescreen. By proposing a procedure that they know cannot be implemented, they hope that the inference that the Prime Minister is therefore guilty will be made by the wider public, when the Prime Minister is not being given the opportunity to reply to the points about impeachment.
The resolution of 18 March 2003 that gave the go-ahead for a military attack on Iraq was based on the failure of Iraq to comply with United Nations resolutions. The choice that faced the House was whether the international community should make threats and then allow a rogue state to ignore those threats, or whether to stand by our words and implement those threats. The retrospective justifications that have now been put into the Prime Minister's mouth by his political opponents do not address the reality of the debate that we had on 18 March 2003.
I believe that those hon. Members who come to the Chamber and say that they wish the sovereignty of Parliament to be re-established, as they see it, so that it becomes the cockpit of debate, as they rightly argue, have a responsibility on their shoulders to stick to the facts of the debate and not put into the public domain arguments that were not used at the time[Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like it when accusations are made about their responsibilities to the House. They do not see themselves as responsible for the whole nation, but simply as oppositionist politicians who see their whole role as being to attack the Executive and not to take on to their shoulders responsibility for the reputation of this Parliament, as we also have to do.
This has been a tremendously successful year for this country. In the past year alone, the Government's policies have delivered record numbers of jobs, with 2 million more people in work and the lowest unemployment for 30 years. The minimum wage has risen again; it is now £4.85. We have record numbers of
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police, some 12,500 more than in 1987. We saw crime fall again5 per cent. last year and now down by 30 per cent. since 1997. There are more nurses and doctors, with 77,500 more nurses[Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like the facts, but 77,500 is about the population of the average constituency represented by Members in this Parliament. The capacity of the national health service has risen again and waiting lists have been cut, as have waiting times. That is a tremendous record of improvement.
I shall come to some of the matters raised in the debate. However, with the experience of attending these debates, I have learned that it is more constructive for individual Members to take up the points that they have raised with the Ministers concerned and ensure that letters are sent. I hope that I can stand on my record on that. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) stops huffing and puffing, he will find that the reply on Yarl's Wood will be quite positive. However, any reasonable person would accept that with 31 Members speaking and raising an average of three issues each, I clearly cannot get through all those points in 15 minutes.
On the important issue of CyprusI failed to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Tom Cox) in the previous debateI am sure that Members will want to hear that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said that recognition of the country is a matter for successful negotiations of entry and will be discussed in the negotiations with Turkey. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North rightly raised points about train manufacturers. I know that the Secretary of State is aware of his concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) tried, I thought successfully, to put the Reading terminal back on the agenda. I congratulate her on that.
The most consistent participant in these debates is the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). He raised the issues of hospices, development in Essex, under-age drinking, Essex police funding, the sick and elderly and the Derek Curran case. The hon. Gentleman is aware of Government policy on the hospices and the extra money that has been provided. He acknowledges that he would like to see more and I am sure that many Members agree with that objective. However, £50 million has been put in.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is not in her place, referred to Guantanamo Bay and Belmarsh. The hon. Member for Banbury congratulated the Government indirectly on their success in bringing down the numbers of asylum seekers, but pointed out that that should lead to a review of the policy for the Piddington centre. I will ensure that his views are passed on to the relevant Minister.
When I have not been able to respond to individual points, I will, of course, undertake to do so and try to provide on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House satisfactory answers to the political and constituency issues that have quite rightly been raised, even if it is inconvenient for the Government to do so. That further underlines our record as a Government of open transparency and co-operation. Merry Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker.
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