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Mr. Hoon: First, the right hon. Lady referred to the Budget debate. There will be a debate today, which will continue on Monday and Tuesday. There will therefore be every opportunity for hon. Members to raise any issue that they wish, not least the excellent funding that
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the NHS receives. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made clear, an extra £6 billion will be put into the NHS next year and a further £6 billion the year after.

If Conservative Members genuinely believe that that extra money should not be spent on the health service, they need to make it clear—rather clearer than the shadow Chief Secretary, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), speaking on Sky News yesterday. When she was asked:

the Chancellor—

the hon. Lady replied:

What a lamentable performance from someone who apparently aspires to run the British economy. Perhaps that explains why she has been pulled from the Budget debate and is not replying to it, as traditionally happens.

Indeed, the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), is not opening the debate either, as would normally be the case. Instead, we have the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—I am delighted to see him on the Front Bench—who will no doubt be declaring his considerable interests when he gets up to open the debate, having refused to abandon his connection with the City when he moved jobs. It would seem that he is now back in the same job, without having given up his interests in the City, so we are not going to take any lectures from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about interests. She referred to the chairman of Capita, and we know that he made a loan to the Labour party because the Labour party published that information. If the Conservatives are so keen on transparency, perhaps they should publish their list of donors. So far, however, we have not heard from them.

The right hon. Lady asked for a debate on mental health. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) has issued a written ministerial statement on that subject, as has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the subject of independent advisers. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear yesterday the Government's commitment to reducing the gap in women's pay, which we have consistently been committed to doing.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The whole House will wish to welcome the release of Norman Kember and the other hostages this morning. Next Monday will be the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq conflict, so perhaps this is a good opportunity for me to ask the Leader of the House again whether it is time for a debate on the political situation there. We simply never discuss the matter, which seems entirely wrong.

May we also have a debate on ministerial announcements to the House? It has long been a tradition that the Speaker has deprecated the release of material to the press before the House has been properly
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informed, yet Ministers carry on doing it. The most important information is that contained in the Budget, yet yesterday's Evening Standard, which was published on the morning of the statement, carried headlines about the additional cash to schools. It also said:

before going on to quote the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There was a time when that would have been a sacking offence, and we should have a debate on the matter.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has already mentioned the dropping of the Mental Health Bill. Many organisations are worried that the most objectionable aspects of that Bill will now be introduced as tack-ons to other legislation. May we have a clear statement of the Government's intentions for legislation in that area?

Lastly, may we have a debate on Cabinet vacancies? The right hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned that we had now waited four months for an appointment to the splendid office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—although I understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer expressed an interest in the job yesterday. We have also waited a month since the Prime Minister announced with some fanfare that he was going to create a Secretary of State for social exclusion, and would have an imminent reshuffle to bring that new post about. As the Prime Minister is increasingly being shunned by those on the rich list, that could be the perfect retirement job for him—but I think that we should have a debate on the matter.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising Norman Kember's release. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say how delighted we all are for him and his family and friends that he and the two Canadian hostages have been released. It is important, however, to remember that an American hostage, a compatriot, was brutally killed in Baghdad. I would also like to praise the British forces, working alongside forces from other countries, for what has been described as their prominent role in securing the hostages' release.

We have had a number of debates in the House about the situation in Iraq, and I am sure that that will continue. We also have regular defence debates, in which it is possible for right hon. and hon. Members to raise that issue. I have spoken on Iraq on many occasions, and it is a matter that the Government take very seriously. We also recognise the importance of the views of right hon. and hon. Members.

As for ministerial statements, we have a practice of issuing written ministerial statements when that is appropriate, and they provide a considerable amount of detail. Ministers also recognise the importance of coming to the House when that is necessary, and it is something that they do on a regular basis. I looked at the statistics recently, and on average a Minister makes a statement to the House pretty much every other sitting day, so it is a regular occurrence.

As for press speculation, one of the interesting aspects of our great media is that if they speculate often enough about what will be in a ministerial announcement or a Budget statement, some of that speculation will be right. It necessarily follows that if enough ideas are spread
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around, the media will get it right once or twice. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) believes what he reads in the newspapers about their sources of information. There is a touching naivety about the Liberal Democrats, which we all rather appreciate.

I have made clear the position on the Mental Health Bill. Of course, had the Government not responded to the debate and the various representations received, we would have been criticised for that. Again, I do not expect consistency from the Liberal Democrats—and I am not getting it.

As far as Government vacancies are concerned, I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives, who also raised the issue, would have praised the Government for the efficient way in which we are managing the business of the country. Obviously, not having a full complement of Ministers means that our productivity is higher.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): There are growing concerns about the potential impact of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill as presently drafted. Some call it the "Abolition of Parliament Bill". I do not accept that; I accept the Government's reassurances that they will not attempt to push through controversial legislation using this framework. Can the Leader of the House tell us what future opportunity Members will have to debate and table amendments to it so that although Governments have the right to amend, repeal and replace legislation they must always do so with the scrutiny of and accountability to the people in Parliament?

Mr. Hoon: There was a vigorous debate in Committee about the Bill, and the Minister responsible made certain undertakings to the Committee that the Government would in due course bring forward amendments. Those amendments could be tabled on Report, which obviously will take place on the Floor of the House soon.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I remind the Leader of the House that one of his duties is to this House, in which capacity he should be non-party political, and seek to represent the interests of the House? Will he therefore use business questions less for party political propaganda and more in the interests of this House? And with regard to his role as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, will he assure me that he and the Government—because he controls that Committee, unlike any other Select Committee of this House—will give proper and due consideration to the establishment of a business Committee for the House, which will be representative of Back Benchers, who can then take decisions on how this House deals with business and the amount of debate, as opposed to legislation, that takes place?

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