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Mr. Hoon: Having studied the second volume of the diaries of my distinguished predecessor, Richard Crossman, which covers the period in which he sought to find ways to reform the House of Lords from the position that I currently hold, I recognise the difficulties of achieving the right result. The Government made progress by removing the overwhelming majority of hereditary peers, a change for which great intellects from Tom Paine onwards have argued. The Government are committed to continuing to establish a consensus on the way forward, because a single political party cannot drive through such reform. We must achieve a wide consensus on the way forward and establish constitutional arrangements for the United Kingdom that are consistent with the requirements of a 21st-century democracy.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that the level of council tax is a concern across the country. Yesterday's statement on the changes to the local government pension scheme will have concerned my constituents and, I am sure, other hon. Members' constituents, who fear another council tax hike. Will the Leader of the House make time available for an urgent debate so that we can properly question the Deputy Prime Minister and Ministers from his Department?
Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is extremely concerned about the level of council tax and has taken appropriate action in relation to a number of local authorities, most of which are represented by Conservative Members. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members should use their considerable influence to encourage those Conservative-controlled councils to hold down their council tax increases, in which case we would all be very pleased.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): One year ago, the APW company pension scheme had a significant but manageable deficit. Government rule changes made it in the company's interests to shut the scheme, which crystallised the debts into tens of millions of pounds and cut pensions by three quarters. Can we debate pensions and examine in detail why the Government's refusal to assist companies when they are still solvent is simply not tenable?
Mr. Hoon: I commend my right hon. Friend, who has pursued that issue with considerable determination and emphasise that the Government are consulting widely on the question of future arrangements for pensions. The issue is complex and difficult, and it is a sensitive subject for many people. I have already set out the rules on compensation for that particular scheme, but we should examine individual cases with a view to making sure that justice is done for the pensioners concerned.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con):
Given the debate that will take place in the Lords this afternoon and the contribution that the former Chiefs may make, will the Leader of the House arrange for one
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of the Law Officers to make a statement to clarify the legislation on the International Criminal Court? It would be improper if soldiers were denied the proper protection of the courts-martial systembeing judged as professionals by professionals. It would be outrageous indeed if, figuratively, officers were to wake up and find themselves in the cell next to Milosevic.
Mr. Hoon: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the general proposition. It is vital that the very high standard set by our armed forces on the conduct of those who serve the country is maintained, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has made that point. I assure the hon. Gentleman that members of our armed forces will continue to benefit from the courts-martial system and to uphold the law, which is something that they have always done excellently.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): When can we debate the disability living allowance and the eligibility criteria? My constituent, Mrs. Angela Jackson of Lisvane, Cardiff, was severely disabled before her 65th birthday. At the time, she was critically ill in intensive care and was in no state to fill in the forms to claim disability living allowance. She is now paralysed from the waist down and is not eligible to claim an exemption from road tax, which accompanies disability living allowance, because she is over-65. The situation is grossly unfair, because she could not fill in the forms before she was 65 and she has now been excluded from those benefits. When can we debate that unfair situation?
Mr. Hoon: I am not familiar with the particular case raised by my hon. Friend, although many similar cases have arisen in my constituency. I understand the concern among those who claim the variety of incapacity benefits that the form-filling and bureaucracy is sometimes extremely frustrating, particularly for those people who are least able to do it. Let me emphasise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is looking thoroughly at ways in which we can reform the incapacity benefit system, which is often criticised by people who suggest that those who are not necessarily eligible are receiving benefit. On the other hand, we will all have had in our own constituencies cases where those who are deserving have not been properly supported. My right hon. Friend's ambition is to ensure that we target this financial help from the taxpayer on those who are most in need and most deserving.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con):
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to take a grip on terrorism and deport more terrorists. What he did not say is that under successive Governments the UK has become a haven for different extremist groups, including the Armed Islamic Groupthe GIAwhich has been raising money here to finance terrorism in north Africa. Can the Leader of the House
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confirm that the Government will deport all terrorists, including to countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia?
Mr. Hoon: I do not accept for a moment the suggestion that this country is in any way a haven for extremist or terrorist groups. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government will use the full range of powers available to them to deal with such organisations. Moreover, should the security services require further powers, they will, as I said earlier, be the subject of further legislation that I hope can be taken forward on a cross-party basis.
David Wright (Telford) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time on the proliferation of mobile phone masts, particularly next generation masts, which are springing up right across the country? The public are deeply concerned about the health implications and have not been reassured by the Stewart report. We need a major debate on the Floor of the House about this issue.
Mr. Hoon: I knowI can tellthat this matter concerns many Members. Shortly before the election the Government commissioned research on identifying the future direction of mobile phone technology, including the need for mast developments and the potential for increasing the sharing of masts. That research will inform the review of development rights that the Government are conducting. There is a thorough investigation into the planning arrangements for telephone masts, which we take very seriously.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Information has come into the public domain in my constituency to the effect that those responsible for mental health are going to reduce the number of mental health beds by 34, despite the clear need for such beds. Mental illness is still the Cinderella of the national health service. Will the Leader of the House treat this matter very seriously and arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement, either before we rise for the summer recess or soon thereafter, on the number of mental health beds in the United Kingdom, or arrange for a debate in Government time?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important issue. Mental health provision is not always given the publicity and attention that other parts of the health service receive. That is precisely why the Government intend in due course to introduce a mental health Bill to provide further help and assistance for this important area of our national health service. I am not familiar with the particular circumstances in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I will ensure that they are dealt with by the appropriate Minister.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):
Yesterday, BAT Industries announced the transfer to the far east of all cigarette production in its factory in Southamptona decision that was taken far beyond
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these shores and regardless of the efficiency and dedication of the 500 workers in my constituency who will lose their jobs over the next two years as a result. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the responsibilities of companies such as BAT for the retraining and possible re-employment of people affected by such decisions and on whether there is sufficient capacity in learning and skills councils and regional development agencies for assistance with re-employment and possible re-use of the sites of factories that have been relocated in this way?
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