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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Following the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) regarding the north-east, but in relation to coal generally, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate or a statement by the appropriate Minister on UK Coal's activities, which should be investigated? With 49,000 acres of land, some of which will be exploited after the closure of Ellington, UK Coal is more of a property company than a coal company. The Government intervened to replace some of the privatised rail companies that succeeded British Rail, and it is high time that we got rid of UK Coal, which is practising the art of shutting pits; otherwise, there will soon be no pits left. UK Coal is continuing the tradition of Thatcher and Heseltine because it wants to make a lot of money out of the land.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for the miners and always has been, and I pay tribute to him for that. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will take heed of what he has said, particularly the charge that he has made.

I find the present situation puzzling. World demand for coal and therefore the price of coal are higher than they have been for a long time, and mine managers in my constituency say their collieries are now in a much better position now than they were years ago. It seems contradictory to be closing pits.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): Today—not next week—the Prime Minister is meeting the leader of Sinn Fein-IRA, Gerry Adams, at Chequers. It is the first meeting since the Chief Constable expressed his opinion that IRA was responsible for the biggest bank robbery in British history at the Northern bank. Will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend to come to the House and make a statement to inform the House what sanctions will be imposed on Sinn Fein-IRA? It is not
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operating as a normal democratic party and its members do not deserve the facilities for democrats who sit in this House.

Mr. Hain: I know that that is the hon. Gentleman's view: to his credit, he has expressed it consistently over a number of weeks. However, as I am sure all our constituents understand, it is the Prime Minister's responsibility to try to get the peace settlement and the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland back on track, reinforced and locked in. I know that the hon. Gentleman supports that objective and I am sure that he agrees that Sinn Fein is an important part of the democratically elected political landscape in Northern Ireland. The recent criminality involving the IRA is extremely serious; it is why the process has stalled after seeming to reach a promising point. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will note the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): The Leader of the House must be aware of the deep concern and genuine unease of staff in the health service, local government and the civil service about Government-proposed policy changes to their pensions, which the House has not had a specific opportunity to discuss. Given that the consultation period ends in March, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the House will be able to discuss the policy changes before the Government take the final decisions?

Mr. Hain: Regulations have been laid, but they have not been debated yet, as my hon. Friend said. Of course, there will be an opportunity to scrutinise them. My hon. Friend will understand that there is a difficult choice of the kind that we have to make in government from time to time.

Everyone, including the trade unions and my hon. Friend, accepts that public sector pensions must be reformed to cope with the problem of an ageing society. Despite the high levels of employment, there are proportionately fewer people in employment to help to fund pensions. The public sector must be reformed, just as we reformed our own salaries. I rebut the charge that Members of Parliament have not reformed their own pensions. We have done so, and we are phasing out early retirement privileges in line with other parts of the public sector. The regulations were introduced to help to create greater funding stability in local government and keep the council tax down. That is one of the difficult balances that the Deputy Prime Minister had to strike.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Leader of the House look again at the way in which programming operates? Could he look at some of the sound proposals which, sadly, he did not accept, made by the Procedure Committee, in light of the unfortunate situation concerning the Identity Cards Bill? It is very sad that such a critical Bill should leave Standing Committee with many provisions inadequately debated or not debated at all. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would give me such an assurance.

On a matter related to what the Prime Minister said in Davos about climate change, could we have a debate or statement on nuclear energy, one of the few clean
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sources of mass energy generation, in the near future? That is important, given that world temperatures could rise dramatically by 11 per cent. before the end of the century.

Mr. Hain: Climate change is, indeed, a threat to the very existence of the planet. The hon. Gentleman is right, and he shares a common agenda with the Government and the Prime Minister, which is why my right hon. Friend is taking a lead on the issue during our presidency of the G8 countries. Indeed, he promoted a much more effective and radical policy only last night. On the question of the nuclear industry, I do not agree that nuclear power is the only alternative. Renewable sources of energy offer a far more attractive future, both for this country and the world, than continuing to build expensive nuclear plants, which have huge waste legacies and huge liabilities for the Exchequer.

On the question of programming—of course we will keep it under review. The House made a decision on the matter only a few months ago, but I accept that the hon. Gentleman was robust in holding a different view. However, we will look at the issue. He will concede that whatever difficulties have arisen in relation to the Identity Cards Bill, programming works well and consensually in most cases. However, that appears not to be the case with that Bill.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): This is not the question that I was originally going to ask, but following the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about the UK coal industry, coal has become such a pressing national issue that it has to be examined. The deep-mine industry has fallen into the clutches of a bunch of asset-strippers who, even when offered money by the Government, have pressed ahead with pit closures, using Government money for redundancy payments. Given that background, there is only one answer—public intervention and public ownership. Otherwise, within a decade, we will not have any deep mines left in Britain, so we need a debate or at least a statement.

Mr. Hain: If my hon. Friend's pessimistic forecast—I am not suggesting that it is unrealistic in the circumstances—were true, the worldwide demand for clean coal, particularly from China and India, should mean that Britain is a position to contribute by exporting technology and expertise. The end of coal would therefore be a counter-productive strategy. Indeed, given the high demand for coal, it is difficult to envisage such a strategy being employed, but the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is well aware of the difficulties, and will have noted his powerful point.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Could we have a statement from the Home Secretary on standards for answering correspondence to the Home Office? I contacted the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), on 15 September about threats to some of my constituents and organised harassment of a local company. As I did not receive a reply, I wrote again on 2 November, and again on 15 November, marking my letter "urgent".
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I accept that the right hon. Gentleman had other concerns at the time, but on 16 December, I wrote to the new Home Secretary congratulating him on his appointment and asking him for a reply. Here we are on 27 January, and I still have not heard anything. That is either gross discourtesy or gross incompetence, and I should like the Home Secretary to come to the House to answer for himself.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious allegation. He is entitled to early replies on important constituency matters. There are Home Office questions on Monday, so he can remind the Home Secretary of that. I am sure, however, that my right hon. Friend will have noted the point that he made, and that the problem will be resolved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I remind the House that hon. Members should ask one question, which should be brief and about next week's business.

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