Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hain: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting in a reference once again to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—he is absolutely expert at doing so.

On the substance of the hon. Gentleman's point, no, the Freedom of Information Act is very clear. Ministers are under an obligation to respect its terms and to implement it in full in response to requests, and we are doing so. I realise that the Conservatives have an interest in getting up some kind of process story about it because of their embarrassment at the disaster of Black Wednesday and the negative equity, the bankruptcies and the collapse of the economy that it heralded. That is their history—that is what they must live with—but they would take us back to that kind of situation if they were re-elected. I entirely reject the suggestion that there is one law on the release of information about the past Conservative Government and another law for the Government. We are operating the Freedom of Information Act absolutely even-handedly.

Mr. Heald: Ha ha!

Mr. Hain: The shadow Leader of the House says, "Ha ha!", as he is inclined to do. Is he or the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggesting that the permanent secretaries in charge of Whitehall Departments, who are ultimately responsible for giving advice on these matters, are operating in anything other than an even-handed way? If so, they should get up and say so.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): May we have a debate on the future of the new deal programme? Many of my constituents have benefited from the new deal, but a number of people are still unemployed, despite a dramatic fall in unemployment in my constituency. Is it not time for us to look at how we can go forward with that programme and deal with the real concerns that people may have that it might be abolished?

Mr. Hain: I fully agree with my hon. Friend. If there is an opportunity to debate the new deal, I will seize it with relish and persuade my colleagues to join me in providing time for it. A very important choice faces the
10 Feb 2005 : Column 1665
country on the new deal, which has helped about 1 million people to get work, skills and new opportunities and, including in my constituency, has transformed the lives of thousands of individuals. All that would go, all that would be axed if the Conservatives came to power—indeed, the Liberal Democrats have the same policy—so there is a very clear choice between future investment in and the modernisation of work opportunities, including for those who are economically inactive, or cutting off that lifeline and hope for many unemployed people. The country will chose whether it wants to go back to the Conservatives or forward with Labour.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Is the Leader of the House absolutely sure that the Freedom of Information Act is working well? Is he aware that I asked for details of the work being undertaken by the ministerial Sub-Committee on Freedom of Information and was told that it was a secret and that I could be told nothing about it? Can he confirm whether any parliamentary question will be treated as though it has the force of a freedom of information request or the force of a request under the environmental regulations that are parallel to the Act?

Mr. Hain: First, the proceedings of Cabinet Committees are obviously confidential—that is the only way that the Government can work—but any request that the hon. Gentleman may make under the Freedom of Information Act will be considered under the terms of the Act. I should have thought that, as a Liberal Democrat, he supported the Government for the fact that we have introduced the Freedom of Information Act. After all, his colleagues said at the time that the Act did not go far enough.

Norman Baker: That is right.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman is nodding at that. We introduced such an Act for the first time in British history—that is a good thing—and it makes the Government more transparent and accountable. Parliamentary questions are answered in accordance with the rules of parliamentary procedure. The operation of the Freedom of Information Act is a related, though separate, matter.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I welcome the Government's investment in higher education. The university of Wolverhampton, which is headquartered in my constituency, is the most accessible mainstream university in the United Kingdom. Therefore, it has more students who are poorer. That means it will hand out more £300 minimum-standard bursaries and have higher administration costs for those bursaries, and it has more part-time students. By comparison, Wolverhampton university will hand out five-and-a-half times as much of its additional fee income as Cambridge university. Unless the access regulator steps in to redress that, Wolverhampton university will be penalised for its success on access, and universities such as Cambridge will be rewarded for their poor access. May we have an early debate on the implementation of the Higher Education Act 2004, so that we can discuss what the access regulator is doing to
10 Feb 2005 : Column 1666
redress the possible imbalances, what is happening with the administration costs for minimum-standard bursaries, and the fact that the Government are still deciding whether to allow deferral of tuition fees for part-time students, which is a particularly important issue, not only for Wolverhampton but for the Open university?

Mr. Hain: Questions to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will be asked on the Thursday after we return from the recess, so my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise that point, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. He raises a lot of important issues, and the Secretary of State will want to take careful note of them. It is certainly no part of the Government's plans to make good universities across Britain feel discriminated against in any way. He makes some important points about the student catchment and intake of the university of Wolverhampton, to which the Secretary of State will want to respond, but he must also bear in mind the fact that we are bringing back grants, which were abolished by the previous Conservative Government, and which will be of enormous assistance to students going to the university of Wolverhampton and welcomed by everyone.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): The Westcountry Ambulance Services trust has announced several proposed changes, and the paramedics' union has responded by considering strike action. One change would reduce cover at night, while another proposes replacing paramedics during enforced break periods with a "Dad's Army" of first-aiders, allegedly driving Renault Clios. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House to explain why it is right for Somerset's ambulance service to have Private Godfrey driving Corporal Jones's van?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter for his constituents. I know that the Secretary of State will pay careful attention to it, and I expect that he will want to make a detailed response in writing.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): When the Leader of the House finds time for us to discuss the excellent results of Labour's new deal programmes, will he widen the remit so that we can talk about the success of jobcentres in delivering jobs? Is he aware, however, of the decision of local managers in Kent to shut down Deal jobcentre at the very time when my constituency is facing 1,000 or more job losses? Does he agree that that is untimely, to say the least? Surely it flies in the face of Government policy. Is there not a mismatch between the Government's policy intention of removing barriers and hindrances to people getting back into work and the heavy-handed actions of local managers?

Mr. Hain: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes in representing, as excellently as he does, his constituents' interests. I also understand that Deal jobcentre has a relatively small unemployment register and is unable to deliver the full Jobcentre Plus service. Although such changes are difficult in individual constituencies—I have experienced that in Neath—they are all designed to improve front-line services for the residents of Deal and elsewhere in the country.
10 Feb 2005 : Column 1667
Whatever the transitional difficulties in that process of change, it will deliver a much better service on the ground for everyone by making efficiency savings in back-room staff and releasing extra resources to the front line.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have an oral statement from the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary on the continuing crisis in Darfur, western Sudan, given that the United Nations-backed international commission of inquiry found evidence of war crimes by Government forces in Darfur that might be no less serious or heinous than genocide? Several hon. Members heard harrowing personal testimonies to such crimes during a visit to the region last week? Does the Leader of the House agree that the best way in which to demonstrate the international community's revulsion at those crimes, and its determination to bring the perpetrators to justice, would be to put the suspects on trial as soon as possible before the International Criminal Court?

Next Section IndexHome Page