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Mr. Hoon: I congratulate the right hon. Lady on that long list of items, which I suspect will be a new record. I shall endeavour to make my way through each point, but I apologise in advance if I do not give as much detail as usual, as she is clearly challenging my powers of explaining the Government's excellent record on each matter that she raised.
On Afghanistan, the Government have always kept the House fully informed about the deployment of our forces, and in other theatres. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will take an early opportunity to inform the House about any relevant developments in Afghanistan.
The right hon. Lady asked about rendition. I am sure that she is not relying on leaked documents for her assertions, but I draw her attention to the fact that the statements by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary were made after the particular document that has been the subject of some rather excitable media speculation this morning. I encourage her to read my right hon. Friend's statements in detail, and she will find the facts contained therein.
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As to NHS funding, the right hon. Lady is relying on a survey that is interesting and important but not especially scientific. It does not set out the full facts, which are clear; as I have told the House on previous occasions, only a small number of NHS bodies are operating in deficit, with some 65 per cent. operating at a surplus.
I have a question for Opposition Members. Are they seriously saying that the Government should not act to assist those NHS organisations that are operating at a loss, when the great majority operate at a surplus? I should have expected Opposition Members to come to the House and demand that the Government sort the problem out. We are sorting it out by providing help and assistance to ensure that all NHS organisations operate at a surplus, or certainly do not operate at a loss.
The right hon. Lady asked about the education reform Bill. It has never been Government practice to announce dates, but I assure her and the House that the Bill will brought to the Floor of the House at the earliest possible opportunity.
It is astonishing for the right hon. Lady to comment about unemployment, given the lamentable performance of the previous Government. In 1992, Norman Lamontnow Lord Lamontsaid that unemployment was a price worth paying. I should be interested to know whether that comment was written by the current Leader of the Opposition, who of course was Norman Lamont's special adviser at the time. Many people in the country suspect that that remark is what the Conservatives believe. I would encourage the Conservatives to look carefully at the remarkable record of improvement in employment in this country, which is as good as any of the other G8 countries and out of sight of anything they achieved during their time in office.
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): Tomorrow, the House will debate the private Member's Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Bill. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know that the Bill commands widespread support in the House and he may have seen the letter in The Guardian today from overseas development organisations and others that take an interest in the issue, commending the Bill. Is he in a position to tell the House what attitude the Government will take to the Bill?
Mr. Hoon: The Bill is an excellent initiative that will contribute significantly to the transparency of overseas development initiatives of this and other Governments, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development strongly supports it, as do the Government.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
Last week, I asked the Leader of the House for a statement by the Home Secretary on the implementation of the Bichard inquiry recommendations. A written statement is being made today, so I thank him for the expedition of this matter and ask him to draw it to the attention of the Prime Minister for his education.
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On 8 December, I raised the issue of extraordinary rendition. Indeed, I have raised it several times. Was the Leader of the House then aware of the memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Prime Minister' Office the previous day, advising that
Can the Leader of the House find time for a statement by the Paymaster General on the massive organised fraud in the tax credit system? Some 30,000 cases are being investigated, but that is only the tip of the iceberg, and millions of pounds have been lost to the Exchequer. The Paymaster General was made aware of the issue a year ago, so is it not time that the House had an opportunity to raise questions?
Finally, can the House now be told what new advice from the intercept commissioner requires the Prime Minister to consider the tapping of the phones of hon. Members? There is real concern on both sides of the House about that issue.
Mr. Hoon: With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, I would like to keep the House fully informed about the hon. Gentleman's prospects in the current leadership contest in the Liberal Democratic party. The House has been eager to learn whether he will put his hat into the ring, and the odds are shortening each week as other runners and riders fall by the wayside. We now know, from an e-mail from the chief aide of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, that the hon. Gentleman does not want to stay neutral and not declare for anyone. We are all delighted to see that Liberal Democrats are breaking the habit of a lifetime and getting off the fence. Time is running out for the hon. Gentleman to announce his candidature and we give him every opportunity today to do so.
On the issue of extraordinary rendition, I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not listen carefully enough to the answer that I gave earlier. The document to which he refers predates the statements made to the House by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. He set out clearly the relevant facts and those facts have not changed. As a matter of simple timing, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that they can hardly have changed as a result of a document that predated the announcements that have been made.
I am also interested in the hon. Gentleman's position on organised fraud. If he had looked a little more carefully at the issue, he would have seen that it concerns identity fraud. I am therefore slightly surprised by his party's position on identity cards, as part of the underlying purpose for introducing identity cards is to deal with identity fraud. If the hon. Gentleman were on the Government side of the House, he would have to supply some answers, instead of merely raising questions in the way that he does. I realise that supplying answers is something that the Liberal Democrats are not good at, but practice makes perfect. Perhaps if he would have a go at it, it might help.
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[That this House believes that the Scottish Parliament should follow the lead of the Welsh Assembly and introduce guidelines for all political parties that ensure that candidates for election cannot stand for both the list and the constituency.]
Will my right hon. Friend find time in this Parliament to resolve the anomalous situation of elections to the Scottish Parliament, whereby candidates can stand in a constituency, lose and then be elected on the list?
Mr. Hoon: I have read that early-day motion, not least because of my hon. Friend's assiduous efforts to draw the issue to the attention of members of the Government, and I congratulate him on his initiative. I am sure that it is something that members of the Scottish National party might consider very carefully.
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