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11 May 2006 : Column 507

May we have a statement from the Health Secretary on advice to primary care trusts about the use of Herceptin for early-stage breast cancer? It was clear from Tuesday’s debate that there are still widespread differences in the approaches of different PCTs across the country.

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on her new housing development policy, and particularly on why my constituents and those of other hon. Members will not be allowed to object to overdevelopment, whereas her constituents will be? We could then ask her what the Government have learned from the recent council elections, which of course saw Labour lose 319 councillors—[Hon. Members: “How many?”] That was 319, for those who did not hear me. And the Conservatives gained 316 new councillors—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Say that again!

Mrs. May: The Conservative party gained 316 new councillors. Of course, we should not forget the Liberal Democrats, who gained two.

May we have a debate on the future of the Rural Payments Agency? The Minister responsible was sacked in the reshuffle, and the chief executive was sacked less than three months ago. His replacement is now leaving, and the new chief executive will be an interim appointment. Yet, amid all that chaos, farmers are expected to apply for their 2006 payments by next Monday, despite the fact that many of them are not sure of their entitlements. A debate on the matter is needed.

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Prime Minister to go on a course on personnel management to ensure that he does not make such a botch of his next reshuffle? The Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) was told that he was going to be Foreign Secretary for Europe and in the Cabinet, then he was in the Cabinet without a vote, and then he was told he was out of the Cabinet with a pay cut. The hospitals Minister resigned but the Prime Minister did not know about it. The Prime Minister appointed a new farms Minister but she did not know about it. She refused the job and someone else had to be called back from another job and made farms Minister. Does not this prove that the Government are in complete and utter chaos?

Finally, may we have a debate on equality policy so that the appropriate Minister can clarify whether there has been a change in Government policy, and so that we can remind the Prime Minster that the Equal Pay Act 1970 requires equal pay for equal work? We could then discuss how it is that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is also the Minister for Women and Equality, and who has an entire Department to run, a budget of billions of pounds and hundreds of staff, is paid the same as the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who gets a grand title but no Department, few staff, and no responsibilities—and, by the way, two Jags and two homes to go with it. Better still, may we just have a statement from the Prime Minister explaining what on earth is the point of the Deputy Prime Minster?

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Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. Lady for welcoming me to this position. I, too, look forward to developing not only a fruitful relationship with her but a close and meaningful one. I know that she does not get up at 4.30 in the morning, but I could still invite her to Blackburn and show her its delights. Perhaps I could also arrange piano lessons for her.

I shall pursue the right hon. Lady’s suggestion of a debate in Government time on Iran. I proposed to my predecessor as Leader of the House that a debate on middle east issues, including Iraq, Iran and the Israel-Palestine conflict, would be a good idea, and my request received a sympathetic hearing.

John Bercow: And the answer was no.

Mr. Straw: The answer was not no; it was maybe—and it still is. The issue is the straightforward one of trying to find space for such debates, on the assumption that Members on both sides of the House wish to adjourn for the summer recess on 25 July. I am happy to stay on, but I will do my best, and I recognise the importance of the issue. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly said, each of us must choose our own language when dealing with questions, but in practice there is absolutely no difference between her approach, the Prime Minister’s and mine to the issue of Iran.

On the issue of children with learning difficulties, I do not accept that the state’s position has been a failure. However, dealing with looked-after children has always been very difficult, for Governments of both parties. We can always do better, but parenting difficulties are the reason why the children must be looked after in the first place, as all of us know from our constituency experience.

I shall follow up the right hon. Lady’s request that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health make a statement on advice to PCTs about Herceptin. It might be a written ministerial statement, but I accept that an issue was raised on Wednesday, and I listened to the debate.

The right hon. Lady’s point about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is ridiculous, if she will allow me to say that. The criticism of my right hon. Friend has been that she has represented her constituents— [Interruption.] No, with great respect, everybody knows that any Secretary of State who has a power in relation to local authorities opts out entirely of any decisions relating to their own constituency. There cannot be a single Member on either side of the House who is not assiduous in representing constituents and following up representations made about planning applications. The Government and local authorities must balance those representations in the round. I have made plenty of representations against development on behalf of my constituents. The local authority, which happens to be controlled by my party, often says, “Thank you very much for those representations, but we can’t accept them.” We all acknowledge that. The criticism of my right hon. Friend is that she is simply doing her job, so it is one that I wholly resist.

As for the recent council elections, I shall just say two things—

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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): You lost—that is one of them!

Mr. Straw: Yes, that is one of them. In each of the May local elections in the 1980s and 1990s, we did rather better than the Conservative party. We used to chalk up hundreds of gains. In the mid-1980s, I was the local government spokesperson for my party in opposition. If success in local elections had led automatically to an election of a Labour Government, we would have had one in 1983, in 1987 and in 1992.

The right hon. Lady did not mention the local election results in Blackburn, where it is true that the Labour party had a net loss of two, which may be understandable, but it is also true that the Conservative party had a net loss of two. The Conservative party shrunk from 17 seats to 15.

I do not think that a statement on the Rural Payments Agency is necessary, although I understand all the difficulties that have been faced in respect of the RPA. I have carefully considered the figures today, and Ministers in the other place have been making announcements. I understand that 85 per cent. of the value of the payments due for 2005 have now been made to 50 per cent. of the farmers concerned. The payments outstanding for 2005 are very small—some thousands. They ought to be made, however, and they will be made as quickly as possible. We have apologised for the mistakes that have occurred. As for the future, I shall certainly raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I think that the position is now improving.

Finally, the right hon. Lady raised a serious point about equality. I defer to no one, least of all members of the Conservative party, on the subject of our record on equality. I was in the House when a Conservative Government, to cheers from the Conservative party, forced through section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 and failed to do anything about equality for those who had a different sexual preference. They also did very little about equality for those whose skins were a different colour. In 18 years of Conservative government, there was no legislation whatever in respect of racial or religious equality. We will take no lectures on equality from the right hon. Lady or her party.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1705?

[That this House notes that the Square Route Group, a group of women on Wearside, have transformed their community in New Herrington by the creation of a doorstep green in the centre of their community; further notes that they have just completed the funding of road markings and new art features including four trees fired in metal, to be officially launched in May; and congratulates them for the achievement of true people power and for raising more than half a million pounds to reach their outstanding goal.]

The motion, which is in my name and those of 17 other Members, pays tribute to an inspirational group of women in my constituency who, after five years of hard work in a former mining area, have raised more
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than £500,000—as a result of help from a Labour-controlled council and a Labour Government—to transform the environment of their former mining community beyond all recognition. The official opening takes place next week. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to an area that was neglected for so long under the Tories? It is a great deal better now, and the people there are enjoying the benefits of a Labour Government.

Mr. Straw: I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating that group of women on the transformation of not just the environment, but one of the communities that were decimated by the closure of the pits under the Conservatives.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I note that I have not been invited to Blackburn yet.

May we have a debate on progress towards an international arms trade treaty? Perhaps the new Foreign Secretary will tell us whether she intends to go to the United Nations small arms review conference in New York next month. The arms trade is an extremely important issue on which this country can and should take a lead, and I believe that a debate would be of value.

May we have a debate on the BBC charter and the licence fee? The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told the Select Committee on 2 November that such a debate would constitute a good approach. Presumably there is a letter somewhere in the right hon. Gentleman’s “pending” tray asking for one. May I ask him to give the matter proper consideration? This would be an opportune moment.

May we have a debate on the probation service following last week’s tragic events? I think everyone appreciates what a difficult job the probation service does, and how overstretched it is in supervising serious criminals. I believe that it has been hamstrung by changes in its management and structure, which have reduced its effectiveness.

May we have a statement on the Chagos islanders in the light of today’s High Court decision in their favour? Some of us think that they have been treated appallingly by this Government. We should have a statement on the consequences of that judgment.

Finally, there is the business of tracking Ministers—knowing whether the Health Minister has resigned, whether the farms Minister has resigned, and what on earth the Deputy Prime Minister does. Perhaps we should be given a weekly bulletin in the form of a written statement from the Prime Minister. That would concentrate at least the Prime Minister’s mind on what exactly his Ministers are doing.

Mr. Straw: I look forward to a relationship with the hon. Gentleman: whether it will be close is another matter. As he will know, I have slightly different feelings from others about Liberal Democrats.

I say modestly that no one is more committed to an international arms trade treaty than I am. It was a proposal of mine that I pursued before the general election, and it was an election manifesto commitment. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary
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is committed to pursuing this issue, which we certainly need to debate at some stage; I will look into the matter.

As to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s attending the United Nations small arms review conference, I was not due to attend it because the attendance is to be of a different level, but I will pass on to her the hon. Gentleman’s question and ask her to respond to it.

On the BBC charter and licence fee, I understand the need to debate those matters. I will look into the matter.

On the probation service and the report on the killing by Anthony Rice, who was released on life licence, this is an appalling case and our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and community of Naomi Bryant. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will study the report by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of probation on the circumstances of this killing for key recommendations, final recommendations and relevant practice recommendations, in order to determine the changes to procedures and systems that will need to be made. My right hon. Friend promises to make a statement to the House as soon as he is in a position to do so.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May we have a debate on the problems that people are experiencing in getting to Wales? If they do not have cash in their pockets, they are forced to travel the long way round, through Gloucester, because current legislation prohibits the use of credit and debit cards at the Severn crossing. Allowing people to pay with such cards would enable them more easily to access the wonderful delights of Wales, and improve trade. On a more serious note, a number of women have had to hunt the byways and back-ways of England late at night to find a cash machine in order to pay to cross the Severn. Allowing payment by card would greatly help those of us who need to travel to Wales regularly.

Mr. Straw: Of course I will follow that up—it sounds bizarre. I am afraid that I have not had that much recent experience of travelling to Wales, but I have much—

Dr. Julian Lewis: That is your next job.

Mr. Straw: I am from Essex, so I am afraid that I am completely unqualified to be Secretary of State for Wales. On the other hand, these days, perhaps that qualifies me. I use the M6 toll road, the Birmingham bypass, almost weekly, so I have plenty of experience of the issue to which my hon. Friend refers, and although it is not me who makes the payment—the man in front does so—I am damn sure that credit and debit cards can be used. I will follow up the matter with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Wales, because we need to sort it out quickly.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Leader of the House has doubtless seen the report issued this week by the Ministry of Defence on Army installations in Northern Ireland. We need to debate this issue, for the simple reason that the people west of the Bann will have no Army presence at all—they will lose it completely. The headquarters of the IRA dissidents is
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located in that area, and they are very active in that community. People are very alarmed at the prospect of losing the Army installations entirely, and closure of the Army barracks in Ballymena, in my own constituency, has also been proposed. We need also to address the question of employment. I wish the Leader of the House well in his new job, and I hope that he will think of Ballymena and of the constituents whom I represent.

Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes and I look forward to working with him. I of course understand the anxiety felt in Ballymena, where a 15-year-old lad was killed recently in an absolutely appalling murder. I appreciate that this is a very sensitive issue for the community whom the right hon. Gentleman represents. I understand that the decision has been taken on the basis of the military requirement to ensure that the Ministry of Defence fully meets the needs of the future long-term garrison based in Northern Ireland, so that the military can provide the residual support needed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland for as long as it is required, and that the garrison is structured as efficiently as possible to achieve value for money for the defence budget. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has already made his views known to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but I will of course pass on his renewed representations following this exchange.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): As a north-west MP, the Leader of the House may be aware what a great, family-friendly football club Morecambe is. I was at the ground on Sunday and the atmosphere was tremendous: there were old people, young people and children. This is a club that really reaches out to the community and does a lot with the town’s youth. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Morecambe FC all the best for its match tonight to gain entry to the football league, and look out for an early-day motion that I hope to table, congratulating the club on its success?

Mr. Straw: I do indeed send my very best wishes to Morecambe, whose family-friendly policies have, I know, been modelled on those of Blackburn Rovers. If, like Accrington Stanley, Morecambe succeed in getting into the football league, a disproportionately high number of football clubs in the various divisions— including the championship and the premiership—will come from the geographical county of Lancashire. That is a great testament to Lancashire’s sporting prowess, among other things.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new appointment, and I very much hope that he will continue to exercise in his new role the independence of thought that he exercised in his previous one—even if that was the reason why he was moved. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister has been relieved of his departmental duties, may we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer explaining why he has given the Deputy Prime Minister special exemption from paying tax on the benefits in kind that he continues to enjoy?

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