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Mr. Hain: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that carefully manufactured soundbite, but that is about all that I can say for his contribution. As for the proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I can tell him that two thirds of all new dwellings in England in 2002 and 2003 were built on brownfield sites. That compares with 56 per cent. in 1997. The intention is to use existing brownfield sites wherever possible, and to protect the green belt. We also intend to proceed with more affordable housing by using Government land where possible, so that the main cost borne by homeowners is the cost of their home.
That approach compares with Conservative proposals to cut the funding for housing massively, as part of the £35 billion in cuts that they hope to make. The hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on that, as voters in the south-east and elsewhere will have to decide between a Labour Government who invest in new housing, mostly on brownfield sites, providing opportunities for new homeowners, and a Conservative party that would cut all that support, and take it away from first-time buyers in particular.
On the Northern Ireland elections Bill, we would like to publish it as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is a matter for discussion through the usual channels, and that it is being discussed in the House of Lords at present.
I agree that the IRA's statement is very regrettable, but it would be "premature"to quote the hon. Gentlemanto start reconfiguring the infantry in Northern Ireland. It is very important to keep the peace process on track, and I hope that Opposition Front-Bench Members, for once under their current leadership, will back the Government in that regard. That would contrast with their usual practice of continually undermining and sniping away at the peace process.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there was an argument about the Constitutional Reform Bill, but that that was resolved satisfactorily in the end. Indeed, he and I had a constructive conversation about the matter. However, I remind him that, on the second day in Committee, no Conservative Member was present at one stage of the debate. It is therefore very hard to tell quite why there was such a hoo-hah about providing extra time, given the sheer indifference among Conservative Members to that important matter.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the European Scrutiny Committee. He will know that the Committee reconsidered the matter last week. I understand that the vote was tied, with 12 hon. Members voting. After that, the Chairman voted and it was decided that the Committee should meet in privateat least for some sittings. The Committee meets in public when it takes evidence, and I have attended in various capacities to give evidence to the Committee. The evidence that I gave was always on the record, and given in public.
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However, the Committee's vote needs to be respected by the House. It involved 12 hon. Members, whereas previously just five had voted. That was against the wishes of the Chairman, who thought that there should be proper representation.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Environmental Audit Committee report, and suggested that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister had transgressed the normal protocols. As I understand the matter, that did not happen. I am advised that he was responding to a report of a leak when the question to which the hon. Gentleman referred was put to him. I think he is entitled to do that. If he or any other Cabinet Minister is challenged on the record by journalists, of course they cannot remain silent in the middle of any story that is beginning to run. It is interesting that instead of concentrating on the substance of the policies and arguing their merits[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is asking about policy issues in the context of a lot of processy stuff. It is interesting that Conservative Front Benchers are always obsessed with process, never the issues or the policies.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Yesterday, we had a very good debate about the excellent local government finance settlement for next year, but a number of issues require further explanation, so could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate in which I could ask about a possible £4 billion cut in local government expenditure? As police, education and social services are protected, a cut would surely mean that houses would not be repaired, potholes would not be filled in, litter would not be collected, street lights would be left off, sports centres closed and libraries shut down. That may be the world that the Opposition want to live in, but I am sure that it would find no favour among Government Members.
Mr. Hain: I am absolutely sure that my hon. Friend is right. Whether it is cuts that would devastate communities such as his own and others across the country, or the £35 billion of cuts that Conservative Front Benchers are triumphantly proclaiming, everyone understands that they would destroy public services and take us back to high unemployment, economic risk, high interest rates and all the devastation that that would bring.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): In relation to the business announced for next Thursday, does the Leader of the House recall his eloquent plea last week for a full working day on Thursdays? He said:
That is not yet in place, so how does he justify the inclusion of the Identity Cards Bill next Thursday? Is it not major business? Just because there are deep divisions in the Government and among the Conservatives, that is no excuse for truncating the debate to little more than four hours.
Today, urgent questions were raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Will the Government reply in detail before the debate? He will know that the Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), wrote to the Home
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Secretary with 14 extremely important questions, and specifically asked for answers before next Monday. Can we be certain that we will have those answers before the debate? The Leader of the House will be aware from reports in both The Guardian and The Independent today that both inside and outside the House there are extremely serious concerns about the way in which the legislation appears to conflict with our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Will he therefore reschedule the debate for a later date, so that we can have a proper, full debate on a day that even he recognises as suitable for major business?
Can the Leader of the House find an opportunity for the House to vote on the principle of making the other place more democratic and representative? He will be aware from today's papers that he and his Cabinet colleagues are being blocked by the Prime Minister on this issue.
Is it not time to have that vote? Even the Prime Minister, when answering a question from me last week, admitted that it was a matter for the House on a free vote. When will the House have that free vote?
Mr. Hain: A free vote on precisely what? The last time there was a vote on the composition of the House of Lords there was no agreement on any of the options put before the House. The debate was the result of considerable consultation and preparation. As for the hon. Gentleman's objective of a reformed and democratically constituted House of Lords, I share the general principle of that objective, although not necessarily the details. I am on record as doing so, and have voted accordingly. There is therefore no surprise about the proposal or anything new in it. If we are to achieve a consensus, as the Prime Minister wants, that will allow us to move forward and resolve the matter, we must work at it rather than simply springing a vote on the House. I therefore advise the hon. Gentleman to wait and see how matters progress, especially after the general election.
As to whether there is time to consider the remaining stages of the Identity Cards Bill on Thursday, that was discussed by the usual channels, and it was agreed to hold the debate then. There is no question of truncating the discussion. How could the Government seek to truncate a discussion about the Bill, when it has been raging in the media? The Bill itself has been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and detailed consideration in Committee. It is a major item, and it has been agreed on this occasion, as we have agreed on other occasions, to discuss it on a Thursday. Indeed, we are taking the legislative stages of another major Bill today. It has not been possible to secure agreement to hold Opposition
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day debates on a ThursdayI am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman would agree to thatbut it is possible to make progress on major pieces of legislation.
As for the report on identity cards published by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we will obviously study it in full. We welcome the Committee's view that article 8 of the European convention on human rights does not prevent the issuing of any form of identity cardthat is the key point. Currently, 21 of the 25 European states have identity cards. It is only the United Kingdom, Ireland, Latvia and Denmarkwhich has a national identity registerthat do not. That underlines the point that there is no incompatibility between the Bill and the convention. People have concerns about identity cards, and the Home Secretary and the Government as a whole will wish to consider some of the issues raised by the Joint Committee. I do not, however, accept the hon. Gentleman's central proposition.
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