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Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Leader of the House consider an urgent debate on the crisis in adult learning? The Federation of Women's Institutes, in my constituency, is deeply unhappy with the Government's funding policies, particularly as they affect adult education, and that a sacrifice will be made in non-vocational subjects, especially in rural areas.
Mr. Hoon: I am well aware of the concern that has arisen throughout the country. I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman will accept the principle that is being operated, which is that the resources that are available should primarily be devoted to ensuring that people have the opportunity of gaining employment, which means that we will concentrate more of the available money on training and on vocational opportunities. That is not to say that adult learning is not an important part of the wider learning programme that the Government intend to continue. We must obtain the right balance between the contribution from those who are participating in what are often leisure activities rather than simply pure learning and the contribution that the Government make. I am not in any way dismissing these proper concerns and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter.
Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab):
My constituents, whom I will not name but whose case is well known, who are victims of Professor Roy Meadow
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and have never been charged with anything, are faced with their third child having been kidnapped by Birmingham city council social services department and being adopted against their will. As a result of the secrecy of the family court there is nothing that I can do about it, as their representative. There is nobody that I can talk to about the matter. May we have a debate about family courts in general, the kidnapping of my constituent's child and children in particular?
Mr. Hoon: I will not comment on a specific legal case, but I accept the more general point in relation to the operation of family courts. I know that it is something about which my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is concerned. The question of secrecy and the way in which the courts operate is an issue. I emphasise that these are particularly sensitive and difficult issues affecting children, their relationship with their parents and the role of local authorities. It is important to look at different ways in which these courts might operate, but we must have paramount regard to the interests of the children in question.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May we have an early debate in Government time on the Prime Minister's refusal to allow Lord Birt to appear before a Select Committee of this House? Is it not an unacceptable restriction on our ability to hold the Executive to account for the Prime Minister to have a personal veto on our witnesses?
Mr. Hoon: I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman raises the issue in that way. He is usually rather more fair-minded about the approach that he takes to these issues. He will know that it is a long-standing aspect of the Osmotherley rules governing who may appear before Select Committees that it is a matter for the Minister in questionI am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was in this position at some stage in the pastto decide whether any particular civil servant will or will not represent him before a Select Committee. That has been part of the rules since they were first drafted, and that remains precisely the position.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made on the Government's thinking on corporate responsibility? I ask that question against the background that when politicians act irresponsibly and endanger people's lives they receive lengthy prison sentences, but when company directors do likewise they often escape prosecution, and when they are prosecuted they receive paltry fines. Surely that is unfair.
Mr. Hoon: Certainly a great deal of attention has been given to this aspect of the law in recent years. It is important that we ensure that those who are responsible for the commission of criminal offences are brought before the courts and prosecuted, and that remains the Government's position.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con):
May I ask the Leader of the House to take the removal of the debate on police restructuring a little more seriously? I
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ask him to do that both as an east midlands Member like him and as the shadow spokesman on the police. The police restructuring debate was on the future business section of the Order Paper. It has been removed, and no reason for its removal has been given, either by the Home Office or by the Leader of the House this afternoon. The Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) in Westminster Hall is not a substitute. This is a matter of huge public concern. It concerns the most major restructuring of the police for about a third of a century. Simply to dismiss the matter as something that might be dealt with in Westminster Hall or at some time in the new year is not good enough. Will the Leader of the House, who is a decent person, ensure that the Government do their duty to the House and bring a substantive motion before the House before Christmas?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He was clearly getting into a contentious area in the later part of his remarks. I appreciate the vote of confidence, if that is what it was. I was not in any way failing to recognise the seriousness of this issue for right hon. and hon. Members throughout the country. The issue affects all Members of the House. I was not suggesting that a debate in Westminster Hall was a substitute. I was suggesting that if Opposition Members believe that it is important to have such a debate before Christmas, that is an opportunity. If, however, the wish is to have the debate on the Floor of the House, I assure the House that opportunity will be given early in the new year.
Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of early-day motion 801, which calls for the vote at 16 and has the support of 91 Members across the parties in the House.
[That this House believes that the time is right to lower the voting age to 16; recognises that at 16 and 17 young people's lives are as rich and varied as at any other age, that they have considerable responsibilities that routinely involve making complex decisions and that are unrecognised in their current democratic rights, that many youth-led organisations have been campaigning for the voting age to be reduced, and that lowering the voting age could play a huge role in helping young people feel more connected with political processes which would strengthen local and national democracy and is the next logical extension for citizenship education; and calls on the Government to use the Electoral Administration Bill to legislate to lower the voting age to 16 for all public elections in the UK.]
As a constitutional moderniser, does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that we have citizenship classes up to the age of 16 in all our schools, it is a great pity that young people will have to wait until they are 18 to exercise the right to vote?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and it is something that the Government continue to consider. Making such a major change is not something that can be done lightly. It requires a great deal of thought and consideration. I assure my hon. Friend that this is a matter that the Government are keeping under close review.
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David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I return to the question of next Thursday's business and offer the Leader of the House a suggestion? Consideration in Committee of the Council Tax (New Valuation Lists for England) Bill took barely more than an hour and a half, and I doubt whether the remaining stages will detain the House for very much longer than that. Could we schedule the debate on the Bill so that it takes place for a shorter time, and then return to the original debate, which is of great importance to Members on both sides of the House, for the rest of that day?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting constitutional question about the willingness of Opposition parties to participate in the scheduling of Bills. Their enthusiasm for ensuring that consideration of Bills continues for a limited period on the Floor of the House is something that I will note, and may rely on in future.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): May I press my right hon. Friend on the suggestion that a free vote be held on the extent of the restrictions on smoking when the issue is debated next year? He will recall that our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, at annual conference, said that whenever he introduced a reform he always thought in retrospect that he had not gone far enough. We are in danger of introducing a measure that makes no one happy. I put it to him that the way round that is to allow a free vote on the extent to which the restrictions should apply.
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