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Mr. Hoon: I have dealt with this question on a number of previous occasions, and I am sure that I have tested the limits of your patience, Mr. Speaker, because this is not strictly a matter for the Leader of the House or for the Chamber. I suggest that my right hon. Friend raise the matter at the regular meetings of the parliamentary Labour party. That seems to me to be where decisions on whether a free vote should be allowed should properly be discussed.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I should place on the record my interest as a warrant-holding special constable. The Leader of the House is fully aware that chief officers have been given a desperately short period in which to respond to the proposals contained in "Closing the Gap". That consultation closes, and therefore effectively the debate closes, on 23 December. It is therefore ludicrous to suggest that the debate in the House should be held in the new year. Is he aware that it is an insult to the Chamber and to the police to suggest that an hour and a half in Westminster Hall is sufficient? The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that hour and a half debate could not possibly be followed by a vote. There are many Members who require a vote on this subject. The Government have recently paid particular attention to the views of the police. If the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister receive representations from the Association of Chief Police Officers indicating that it is concerned about this, will he guarantee a debate before Christmas?
The first stage of the consultation is scheduled to be concluded by 23 December, but that will happen only where police forces agree to amalgamation.
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If there is no such agreement, there is a further opportunity for consultation lasting another four months. There is every opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to set out their concerns, and it is important that the matter be widely discussed. I do not intend to repeat what I have already said about the need to give right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to set out their views in this Chamber, but should any structural changes be required there will obviously be opportunities for Members to vote on them once any necessary legislation is brought before the House.
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House ensure that when the education Bill comes before the House there is ample opportunity to discuss its anti-bullying aspects so that we can share the experience of Sunderland city council and of local schools? They have a very innovative and pioneering scheme involving the use of mentors, including 14-year-old Demi Stanners from my constituency, where all the evidence and experience shows that people will respond more to people of the same age in dealing with the evil that is bullying in many of our schools.
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. All of us who are concerned about discipline in schools are worried about bullying, which is part of the problem that, sadly, too many of our children and young people face when they go to school. That is why the Government's most recent White Paper on education includes a chapter that specifically mentions bullying.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): We have learned today that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made a number of mistakes at the time of the Asian tsunami. Can we have a statement here from either the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for International Development explaining what the mistakes were and why they occurred, and, most importantly, giving an assurance that they will never be repeated?
Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I believe that he is being somewhat harsh on the Foreign Office and the work that it did in response to the tsunami. The National Audit Office report is critical of certain aspects, but overall it makes it clear that there was a significant and very effective response on behalf of the United Kingdom. What is important about such reports is that we learn lessons from them, and I assure him that we will do so.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House aware that opinion in Wales is more united against police reorganisation than it has been on any issue since Liverpool decided to drown Tryweryn in 1965? People are saying, quite sensibly, that we do not want to have three years of disruption and upheaval from a reorganisation that will distract the forces from their task of keeping the peace.
Does the Leader of the House realise that the Government have given no figures on the cost of this, although the North Wales police have said that it will
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cost £50 million, which will be an additional burden on the council tax payers of Wales? Following the postponement of next week's debate, can we take some comfort from the Government's waking up to the fact that the demise of those fine police forces would be as futile as most people believe?
Mr. Hoon: I am slightly surprised to hear my normally radical friend taking such a conservativewith a small cline on such an important matter as police reorganisation. As the Government have made clear, it is necessary to organise our police forces in the best way to allow them to do the job. My hon. Friend refers to the up-front costs, but I can assure him that the projected savings from police reorganisation are significant. Those savings will allow more effective policing in Wales and, indeed, in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Will the Leader of the House reorganise the business programme so that we can discuss the amalgamation of the police forces next week? He must understand that there is a deep anxiety in the House about that. In my constituency, there is very robust opposition to the suggestion that the Lincolnshire police force should be grouped with adjoining forces, because it is felt that that will lead to prejudice against rural areas. The House needs to discuss this matter on the Floor of the House, with a vote, immediately.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Highways Agency is blocking much needed development of business and housing in my constituency on the basis that that would add to congestion on the A1 western bypass around Gateshead and Newcastle? Can we have an early debate on the powers of the Highways Agency, which has failed over many years to take any action whatsoever to relieve congestion on that trunk road and is now using its powers to block much-needed development and redevelopment in my constituency?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising what is obviously an important issue for him as a constituency Member of Parliament. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is made aware of his concerns and responds accordingly.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):
If the Leader of the House is going to persist in tying the EU rebate to the common agricultural policy, will he instruct the Prime Minister to come to the House urgently and tell us in terms that any surrender of the rebate will be based only on an absolute and actual reform of the CAP, not a promise, an undertaking or a wish; otherwise, nobody will believe a word that either he or the Prime Minister says?
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Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his confidence in my abilities to instruct the Prime Minister to come to the House. I am sure that the Prime Minister would respond to a warm, friendly invitation to set out the Government's position, and he will do that, as he regularly does, after the forthcoming summit.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): In the light of what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said about support for the chemical industry, may I tell my right hon. Friend that there is a great deal of concern about the gas price increases that were announced at the weekend? Two companies in my area, Terra Nitrogen and Huntsman, are worried about reduced capacity and shutdowns. It is a very important issue for the chemical industry and for manufacturing. Can we have a debate on the Floor of the House on the future of the chemical industry? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would benefit from that.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise the important issue of the chemical industry, which is a vital employer and a supplier of significant technology in the United Kingdom. By and large, chemical companies that are large consumers of gas tend to have financial arrangements with the energy suppliers, particularly in relation to gas, based on the spot price on any given day. Indeed, that price fluctuatesit fell overnight. I assume that large chemical corporations arrange their supplies of energy on the basis of what is most cost-effective. Some companies have long-term contracts at fixed prices for the supply of gas. I assume that chemical companies choose not to do that as a financial judgment that they make as being in their own best interests.
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