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Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I was very sorry that the shadow Leader of the House could not bring herself to give a sincere welcome to the initiatives that the Chancellor took yesterday to provide better training in skills for women. They have been welcomed universally by all except Opposition Members. The situation contrasts very favourably with the total lack of initiatives for women and work when the Conservatives were in government, while from time to time the pay gap worsened. None the less, acknowledging that there is a pay gap, and acknowledging that the report from the women and work commission contains some very good recommendations, may we have a full debate on those recommendations to establish whether we can make progress, and possibly even galvanise Opposition Members into taking a bit of interest in the issue?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for raising the issue and setting it out in that way, not least because we were told that Conservative Front Benchers were going to abandon Punch and Judy politics—not least the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, who famously described the Conservative party as the nasty party. Yet what we have heard by way of a response to the Budget, including the matters raised by my hon. and learned Friend, is an eight-minute rant from the Leader of the Opposition, and opposition to every proposal.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Leader of the House draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to a BBC programme broadcast last night called "Whistleblower", which exposed illegal and shoddy practices among London estate agents? In some cases an estate agent had offered to sell a property for £100,000 below cost if the buyer would bung that estate agent £10,000. Will the Secretary of State come to the House and make a statement about the conduct and regulation of estate agents?

Mr. Hoon: We have just had Trade and Industry questions, at which the hon. Gentleman could have raised that issue; nevertheless, I recognise that it is one of great concern. I did not see the television programme to which he refers, but I have seen articles in the Evening Standard, for example, pointing out estate agents' apparent and alleged poor behaviour. On this occasion, I choose to give such reports some credibility. Members will need to return to this issue.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): May we have a debate on the Highways Agency's use of article 14 orders to block developments and the jobs that they would bring to areas such as mine, where such jobs are greatly needed if we are ever to achieve 80 per cent. employment? Businesses such as Northern Rock are prevented from expanding by the use of article 14 orders, which are meant to prevent congestion in areas that are overheating and where the roads have been fully
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expanded. However, that is not the case with the A1 and the A69, which in some places have not even been dualled.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend raises an important issue that is of great concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I will ensure that he writes to her about it.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Last night, I was rung by a journalist who told me that the Mental Health Bill will be dropped. We heard details about that this morning on the radio, and at 10.15 am the press were summoned to the Department of Health to be formally informed. Sometime afterwards, a statement appeared in the Library. The Secretary of State for Health really must make a statement to the House explaining where this legislation now stands. We have had a Green Paper, a White Paper, two draft mental health Bills and a pre-legislative Scrutiny Committee. How much money has been spent on this entire exercise, which has now come to nothing? What will the timetable now be for amending the Mental Health Act 1983, and how does the Secretary of State for Health propose urgently to deal with such legislation's conflict with the European convention on human rights? Simply issuing a statement and talking to the press really will not do. The Department must be accountable to the House for this very important legislation, for which we have been waiting for seven years.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman has answered his own question, in that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has issued a written ministerial statement—quite properly and in accordance with the rules of the House—setting out the Government's thinking. The Government remain committed, as the statement indicates, to introducing legislation to resolve certain mental health issues, and it will be introduced as soon as possible.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that, next Tuesday, this country could be hit by the biggest strike since 1926—in fact, the biggest strike ever of women workers. Can he arrange for the Deputy Prime Minister to make a statement to the House on what he, as the regulator of the local government pension scheme, intends to do to resolve this issue? The trade union has proposed positive changes, but the management is refusing to negotiate, even if there are no financial implications.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend has rightly identified that the Government's responsibility in this matter is as the regulator of the pension fund, which means that we are obliged to ensure, on behalf of those who benefit from the fund, that it is properly funded. The issue between the trade union and the employers is one for them to negotiate, and we encourage negotiation rather than resorting to strike action.

I should emphasise to my hon. Friend the importance of ensuring that this pension fund is properly funded; if it is not, the very people who are contemplating strike action will lose out because their pensions will not be payable at the rates they are expecting. I repeat: I urge
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all those involved to negotiate instead of resorting to strike action, and I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in that call.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have an urgent debate in Government time on the continuing crisis in Darfur? Given that foot-stamping by the Sudanese Government has effectively vetoed a vital United Nations troop deployment to Darfur, and given that, while the international community dithers and delays, Darfurians are dying in droves every day, is it not now time to decide whether the UN's proclaimed responsibility to protect is a serious attempt to avert genocide, or simply a piece of vacuous moral posturing?

Mr. Hoon: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, which many Members are concerned about, as are the Government. The Government are the second largest donor to that difficult area of the world, and we take this issue extraordinarily seriously. We have offered not only cash but assistance in kind, in the form of military and other expertise. I urge the hon. Gentleman to continue to raise this issue; he will have a further opportunity to do so next Wednesday, at International Development questions.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Notwithstanding the excellent measures announced in the Budget yesterday to protect vulnerable people from ever-increasing energy costs, and the initiatives announced today by the Minister for Energy, there remains one important question: the alleged link between the rising cost of oil and rising gas prices. May we therefore have an independent inquiry into that alleged link, which many serious commentators in the industry deny exists?

Mr. Hoon: As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are undertaking a major and thorough review of energy. They will look at that link, as well as our prospects of securing alternative forms of energy into the future. The Department of Trade and Industry is examining this issue in detail, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy are giving it careful consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) will doubtless want to make representations to them.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Will the Leader of the House find time to discuss the serious matter of this Government's and the Department of Education's duplicity in their treatment of the state-controlled and Catholic-maintained sectors in Northern Ireland? They are closing those categories of schools due to falling rolls, but they are allowing, through a charitable trust—which happens to be funded by the Department of Education—the building of new,
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integrated schools. That will have catastrophic effect on the sectors to which I have referred, which are already struggling in terms of pupil numbers.

Mr. Hoon: If the implication of what the hon. Lady is saying is that we should not encourage the integration of schooling in Northern Ireland, I would be very disappointed.

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