Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab):
One of the welcome changes from Tory years was September sittings. The word "recess" is wholly unknown to the general public; to them, we appear to be taking a 10 or 11-week holiday, so is it not a backward step to stop September sittings? In previous years, we broke up for 11 weeks. Our duty is first and foremost in the House of Commons, but September sittings in no way prevent us from carrying out our usual visits and other activities in our constituencies. As I see it, not holding them is simply an excuse for not being here for two weeks. Will my right hon. Friend promise that the matter will be further
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considered? We should not abandon what I and many Labour Members believe was a welcome change in the procedures of the House of Commons.
Mr. Hoon: I am certainly willing to continue to keep the matter under review. I have made it clear that the overwhelming majority of Members who have contacted me on the issue were against September sittings, as recently organised. I repeat to my hon. Friend what I set out to the House: what is important is that there should be continuity in our arrangements, but that is not possible while the party conferences take place towards the end of September and in October. If that could be adjusted, I would strongly support the idea of a late September sitting.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I, too, want to bring up the issue of the next summer recess, but I want the Leader of the House to refer to July, not September. Why, once again, is the summer recess due to start halfway through the Scottish school holiday? Why, when we are off for such an inordinate length of time, can we not have a summer recess that accommodates all parts of the UK, so that we can all spend equal time with our children?
Mr. Hoon: I have spent so much time over the past few weeks poring over details of the different holiday arrangements organised by local authorities throughout the whole of the UK that I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it would not be possible to provide a recess that satisfied each and every Member and the various arrangements in each and every part of the country. There must necessarily be compromises on the dates and I have made a number of them. Obviously, I cannot take every circumstance into account.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Given that increasing aggression is shown towards our emergency workers, will my right hon. Friend announce as a matter of urgency a new date for the cancelled Second Reading on 24 February of the private Member's Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, which would extend to emergency workers the same sort of protection currently enjoyed by the police?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise that important issue. Material recently published by the TUC recounts the number of occasions when emergency workers, in the course of doing their job of saving lives, have come under physical attack. I find that absolutely astonishing. It is scandalous and appalling. She is right to raise the issue and we must continue to regard it seriously.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con):
I know that the Leader of the House is a keen supporterand, indeed, a keen studentof the constitutional proprieties and that as a former Secretary of State for Defence he would have been surprised had Army, Navy and Air Force commanders telephoned, written or e-mailed to Members of Parliament to advance Government defence policy. Will he therefore ask the Home Secretary to come urgently to the House to give a statement about why the Home Office instructed senior police officers to do just that?
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Furthermore, if he is in touch with the Home Secretaryhe may not bewill he ask the right hon. Gentleman to come here and make an urgent statement on police reorganisation? I understand that there has been consultation with senior police officers about the matter, but that the Government have already reached the view that there should be regional police forces rather than any other form of reorganised police.
Mr. Hoon: The hon. and learned Gentleman put his question with his usual elegance. I am always grateful that we do not have to pay his usual fees for the quality of his questions. His question about constitutional proprieties has already been raised several times today and I shall certainly give him the same answer: police officers made available to Members vital information so that they could decide a very important question. The implication of the hon. and learned Gentleman's elegant question is that somehow or other we should not have such information before making up our minds. That may be the position that the Conservative party has chosen to adoptit does not appear to care for the views of the police on such questions and that, presumably, is the continuing logic of the refusal of Conservative Members to take account of what the police actually requested.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend gets around to reading the book of early-day motions, which I know he takes seriously, I hope that he will reach early-day motion 972, on the Post Office and UK passport services.
[That this House notes that key passport services have been provided across the UK for many years through the Post Office network with the result that Post Office Ltd and its employees have developed considerable knowledge and experience of these services, yet that the UK Passport Service intends to procure 70 new offices to act as sites for interview for first time passport applicants under rules that will not allow interviews on premises that also provide Post Office services; believes that security sensitive services like passport interviews should be carried out by civil servants in suitable publicly-owned offices; does not believe that the creation of a new network of privately owned offices at considerable expense to the taxpayer is either necessary or desirable when the proposal contains rules which deny the Post Office a level playing field on which to compete and denies the public the use of available Crown post offices which they have indicated they prefer to use in the pilot studies while simultaneously undermining the long-term viability of a publicly-owned enterprise; and calls on the Government and UK Passport Services to alter the rules to allow the utilisation of the Post Office network to carry out these interviews.]
Will my right hon. Friend ask the responsible Home Office Minister to explain to the House how the Government could draw up a contract whereby the Post Office cannot use Crown offices or offices also used for postal services to interview people for their first passport, thus preventing the Post Office, which we own,
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from using premises in every high street for that service? That is a ludicrous decision, which threatens the Post Office and will force taxpayers to pay for 70 new outlets that will be used only for passport interviews. That wholly ludicrous decision should be explained to the House.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Yesterday in the House, the Prime Minister urged us to support legislation on the basis that it was supported by the public at large and by the police, yet on the very same day the Government brought forward legislation to give an amnesty to terrorists on the run, which is opposed by the public and the police. Does not that send a signal that far from being tough on terror, as the Government like to pretend, they are actually in the business of abjectly appeasing terrorists in Northern Ireland, and that there are good terrorists and bad terrorists? Is not it clear that the proposal is outside the terms of even the Belfast agreement? The Government should not pretend that the legislation extends the rolling out of the agreementa point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and other members of the Social Democratic and Labour party who supported the agreement.
Mr. Hoon: I am not going to trade with the hon. Gentleman remarks about the situation in Northern Ireland. He has experienced that and knows that far better than I ever will. All I say to him is that this is not an amnesty. The Bill sets out a legal process that will be undertaken in relation to those who have been on the run and who allegedly committed offences before the signing of the Good Friday agreement. He is right that no specific detail in that agreement deals with the issue, but it was part of the wider agreements surrounding the peace process that were made by the Government and other Governments involved in ensuring a ceasefire and continuing peace in Northern Ireland.
As I said, I will not trade remarks about the circumstances in Northern Ireland with him. He knows them much better than I ever will. All I say to him is that there has been a continuing peace, that the terrorists are on ceasefire and that it is important that we continue to do what is necessary to preserve that. Again, he knows the situation in Northern Ireland much better than I do. Surely it is better for the people of Northern Ireland that we should take these difficult decisions and preserve the peace, rather than risk a return to terrorist violence.