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Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The security work that will be carried out in the Commons in the coming weeks presents usboth new and older Memberswith a unique opportunity to compare the length of the coming recess with the previous broken recess, in which we returned for two weeks in September. If that is true, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a short debate on this issue when the House returns, followed by a vote, and permanently settle the question of the recess? Some of those who, like me, voted for the House to return for two weeks in September are now having second thoughts. We would appreciate the opportunity for a further debate and vote.
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his fair approach to this issue. I do not believe that I am breaching the confidence of the Modernisation Committee when I tell the House that it discussed the other day the need to consider the parliamentary calendar and to examine not simply the way in which we work across the daythat has been the subject of many such discussionsbut our work across the parliamentary schedule. The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and as someone who strongly supported the idea of September sittings, I can see that they have not proved as satisfactory as many Members wished. On the other hand, I also recognise the concern, which has been raised today and will go on being raised, about the long period of the recess. Of course, the practical difficulty responsible for such gaps and way in which the previous schedule operated is the timing of the political party conferences. We may well have to address that issue.
Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab):
There has been much talk, even this morning, about our armed forces
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andrightlyabout the conflicts in which we are involved, but we tend to forget about Gulf war victims. The medical condition of a constituent of mine, Mr. Murray Lomax, deteriorated after serving in that war, yet he is having to deal with various loopholes in order to get the benefits to which he is entitled. We should look after the people who helped us then, just as much as we look after those who are helping us now.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know from my previous experience the efforts that the Ministry of Defence make to provide appropriate medical care, treatment and assistance to all those who serve this country so well.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): As the Government have made the fulfilment of their policy in Northern Ireland dependent on a favourable statement from the IRA, will the Leader of the House find time when we returnif that statement is not up to the Government's expectationsfor the Government to outline their new policy for Northern Ireland?
Mr. Hoon: Obviously, we all hope that there will be a favourable statement, and that continuing support can be provided to the people of Northern Ireland in their efforts to establish peace and justice in that part of the world. I am sure that if such a statement is made during the recess, there will be every opportunity to debate it on our return.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): First, may I associate myself very strongly with the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) concerning the change in refugee status and the lack of opportunity to discuss it? I also want to take my right hon. Friend back to two weeks ago, when I asked him to arrange for a debate on the middle east peace process. We are at a crucial point in that process. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza could lead to an agreed two-state solution that is recognised internationally, or Israel might see that as the end of the process and continue to occupy sections of the west bank. That would leave an unviable Palestinian state with sections illegally occupied by Israel, and the wherewithal would remain for further conflict. This is an important issue; may we have an early debate on it?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right and, as I told him two weeks ago, the Government not only keep this matter under constant review, but are actively engaged in promoting a settlement on both sides of the argument. We believe that we are having some success and that progress is being made. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be an early opportunity for the House to discuss this matter.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con):
May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to this morning's news of the crisis in the African republic of Niger which reported that at least 2.5 million people are affected by a very severe food shortage? The United Nations says that at least 150,000 children could die and according to Oxfam, parents are feeding their children on grass and leaves in an attempt to keep them alive. According to a BBC reporter, fewer than one in 10 of the
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starving are making it to the few feeding centres in the region. I appreciate that there is no time for a debate on this matter, but I remind the Leader of the House that two and a half years ago, the Government were a very big donor to the relief package in Ethiopia. May I ask him to make very strong representations to the Secretary of State for International Development about the urgency of this situation?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I know that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development are closely monitoring the situation in that very difficult part of the world, and I undertake to ensure that they write to him about the efforts that they are making.
Mr. Forth : Is it not becoming obvious to the Leader of the House that we must have an urgent debate on written ministerial statements? His very junior colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, was dragged here by Mr. Speakerobviously very reluctantlyto answer questions from a number of Members about matters pertinent to their constituencies. Yet that same junior Minister had the impertinence to hide behind the written ministerial statement, claiming that that seemed an adequate response. It is not an adequate response. Will the Leader of the House therefore undertake to look again at this matter and, if necessary, to get his ghastly Modernisation Committee to look at it, in order to establish that Ministers have a duty to come here properly to answer questions from Members, and not to hide behind written ministerial statements?
Mr. Hoon: Clearly, the House is making some sort of progress when the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges, in however curmudgeonly a way, that the Modernisation Committee does have a role and that he could conceive of something for it to do. I suppose that that is some sort of progresseven modernisationso far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned.
The difficulty we face, inevitably, is that Ministers have chosen to make a number of written ministerial statements, which the right hon. Gentleman would no doubt welcome, and I accept and recognise that there is always a judgment to be made about whether a statement should be made in written form or orally. That is a question of judgment, and on the occasion referred to, Mr. Speaker rightly decided that the matter was one that should afford Members an opportunity to ask questions. No one could possible argue against that, and nor did my ministerial colleague.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con):
Might the Leader of the House provide time for a debate about the United Kingdom's relationship with the International Criminal Court? When the legislation on that was going through Parliament, we warned that it might give rise to cases against United Kingdom servicemen being taken to the court, but none of us thought in our wildest imaginings that it would lead to charges of war crimes against British servicemen being brought by our own Government. Will he admit that no warning of that was given to the House when the legislation went through,
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and it would be well worth having a debate on that, perhaps when there is no danger of matters being sub judice?
Mr. Hoon: I am certainly not commenting on any individual case. It may well be that since the time when the hon. Gentleman shadowed on defence, he has not kept up with all the developments. He should know that particular prosecutions are being conducted under English criminal law and by English courts, in the sense that our military courts martial system is part of our own system. They are not being conducted by the International Criminal Court, and simply trailing that across his observations is a deliberate attempt to suggest something that simply will not happen.
May I make one final observation about the hon. Gentleman's efforts, again, to attract headlines by mentioning war crimes? War crimes have been offences against English law since 1957. Although I was very small at the time, I know that there was a Conservative Government in office then.
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