|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for telling us the business. May I thank the staff of the House for all that they do for us and join him in wishing them, Mr. Speaker, the Deputy Speakers and hon. Members on both sides of the House a happy Easter?
Will the Leader of the House arrange for three statements to be made in the week after we return? First, will he arrange for Health Ministers to respond to the many letters and approaches that have been made to themso far without successon behalf of multiple sclerosis therapy centres about the charges of more than £1,000 that they are forced to pay for inspections by the Healthcare Commission, which are about to rise by 50 per cent. and will quadruple by 2008? Those centres are paid for entirely by donations and are the only such voluntary arrangements to be charged for in that way. A campaigner said to me yesterday, "I don't call it a stealth taxit's daylight robbery." May we have a statement about that?
24 Mar 2005 : Column 1029
Secondly, the Leader of the House will recall that, on three occasions in June last year, I raised with him the problems associated with postal voting. I cited examples of babies receiving ballot papers, heads of families filling in ballot papers for the whole family, employers threatening to sack staff unless they voted for a certain political party and other worrying abuses. I quoted the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, calling for a "national rethink". Conservatives and the Electoral Commission have called for individual voter registration to be introduced on the mainland as it applies in Northern Ireland. We have gone further and called for Government inspectors for the coming elections in areas where abuses have been alleged. What has the Leader of the House done about that in the past nine months? May we have a statement in the light of the comments of the judge in the Birmingham postal ballots case that the system is an "open invitation to fraud" and today's Select Committee report? If not, are the Government really satisfied about this country sliding back to the worst days of personation and electoral fraud such as were seen in the 18th century?
Thirdly and finally, the Modernisation Committee has now recommended that the European Scrutiny Committee should sit in public when deliberating European documents. I have been asking the Leader of the House for more than a year to make the necessary changes to Standing Orders. What action does he intend to takeor will it be left to me to make the change after our general election victory?
On postal voting, the simple fact is that we did not have a pilot in the west midlands, which is where the case of serious fraud aroseI share the hon. Gentleman's concern about that. The allegations there relate to the traditional method of postal voting, not an all-postal pilot. The Electoral Commission said in its evaluation of the June 2004 elections that postal voting should remain part of the electoral process. We accept its recommendations on strengthening the penalties for malpractice involving postal voting generallyfor example, by establishing new offences involving electoral fraud and personation.
The truth is that postal voting is now increasingly popular among many honest and upright citizens throughout Britain, because they find it an easier way to vote, so more are taking advantage of it. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there is a return to 18th-century fraud is pre-election hype and exaggeration, and I am sorry that he has resorted to it.
We are examining individual voter registration, but it is quite a complex matter. We must consider the situation in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that more voters are not discouraged from registering to vote, because there is evidence that the number of voters on the electoral register is declining. We should be careful not to introduce a system that is so complex that it effectively discourages higher turnout.
24 Mar 2005 : Column 1030
We will look at the recommendation to allow the European Scrutiny Committee to deliberate in public when the opportunity arises, and there is a chance to debate the Modernisation Committee's conclusions.
Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): After raising the issue of school meals during business questions last week, I was delighted that the Government made a statement that they would do something about it. I was impressed by the wide-ranging measures that they announced. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is also obvious that many of our children lack the skills to prepare meals themselves, and there is a lack of information given out in schools about the contents of food? Should we not address the matter through the national curriculum, and will he raise the idea on my behalf with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills?
Mr. Hain: I know that the Minister concerned will want to study my hon. Friend's points closely, and I agree with the spirit of them. I strongly believe that the nutritional value of school meals should be much higher. The kind of food that many children eat is worrying. As independent studies have confirmed, that will ultimately result in serious threats to their future health, which is why we have already announced massive additional investment, tougher standards for processed food, a new role for Ofsted to inspect and report on healthy eating, and investment to rebuild and refurbish primary school kitchens. As the Government have said, we welcome the way in which Jamie Oliver has driven this subject up the agenda and made it a big public issue, as Government Ministers could not have hoped to do. That will move the whole agenda forward.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): The Leader of the House said that the Mental Capacity Bill would return for its remaining stages a week on Tuesday. May we have sufficient time to consider that Bill, because he will know that the Government tabled important amendments in the other place, especially one relating to the Bournewood judgmentan important European Court judgment? I tabled amendments to close the Bournewood gap in Committee, and we will need time for a proper debate on the Government amendments.
Additionally, the Leader of the House will recall that on Report and Third Reading in this Chamber, there was considerable confusion and anxiety about the interpretation of the Bill in respect of euthanasia. The Minister concerned was incapable of answering straight questions on the Floor of the House. Will we have sufficient time to address that important aspect of the Bill? Many people want the Bill, including myself, but while the caveat that it may represent euthanasia by the back door hangs over it, it will continue to cause great concern outside this place.
Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady makes several important points that will be borne in mind, but I must ask her to withdraw the accusation that the Bill represents euthanasia by the back door, because that is simply not the case. She knows that the Bill was subject to extensive pre-legislative scrutiny
Mr. Hain: Are any other hon. Members queueing up to admit to their positive role? [Interruption.] Ah, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House was not on the Joint Committee. The issues are difficult, but the Bill is important, as the hon. Lady says. We want to get it through as quickly and consensually as possible.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that when we return after the Easter recess, the Prime Minister himself will make an oral statement, and respond to questions from hon. Members, to substantiate the Government's response to the recommendations of the Butler inquiry? All hon. Members will be staggered by the mind-boggling cheek of producing such a short written statement on the response to such an incredibly important report yesterdaythe day before the House rises for the recess. There has been media questioning, but Members of the House have had no opportunity to question the Government on important matters, including the machinery of government. What could be more important in a parliamentary democracy than the accountability of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to Parliament?
The Butler report found sloppy decision making and inadequate lines of responsibility. It was a devastating attack on so-called "sofa politics". It defined precisely the corrosive tendencies to which that has led and highlighted yet another reason why the public are disillusioned with, and disengaged from, the political process. I shall quote a specific conclusion from the report:
"we are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the Government's procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgement. Such risks are particularly significant in a field like the subject of our Review, where hard facts are inherently difficult to come by and the quality of judgement is accordingly all the more important."
Last night's statement was a totally inadequate reply to that conclusion, and the apposite and well-informed criticisms made about the way in which Ministers used their judgment on intelligence issues. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were in the Chamber today. Were they too scared to answer questions from parliamentarians about such vital issues at the very heart of our political system?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|