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11 May 2006 : Column 513

Mr. Straw: The Chancellor of the Exchequer has just been in the House, so I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not find an opportunity to put that question to him.

John Bercow: It was not on the Order Paper.

Mr. Straw: That must have been the first occasion in the whole time that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has been here—since 1997—that an issue’s not being on the Order Paper has constrained him from asking a question on it. He is losing his touch in that regard. However, I will pass the point on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role. Has he recently experienced travelling in the north-east of England? If so, he will have noticed that the region has not a single three-lane motorway, and that the 40 miles of two-lane motorway that we do have are not even linked to the rest of the motorway system. That is severely restricting attempts to revive the region’s economy and, combined with the Highways Agency’s restrictive practices, is causing much difficulty in the region. May we have an early debate on regional transport infrastructure, and if not, a statement on how the Government intend to address the serious and continuing transport problems in the north-east?

Mr. Straw: I am in the north-east a lot, and although this was not an issue that much engaged me as Foreign Secretary, now that my hon. Friend mentions it, I realise that there are no three-lane motorways in that region. None the less, the problems that the transport infrastructure in the north-east, as elsewhere in the country, has to face are a consequence of high levels of economic growth and, therefore, of much greater transport movement. He will know that there has been a dramatic turnaround since 1997 in the economy, employment levels and economic activity, and a real rejuvenation in areas such as his. That said, I will of course pass on the point that he makes to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): When can we expect the regulations giving effect to the parliamentary boundary changes?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised this issue with me in an informal conversation yesterday. It is a matter for the Boundary Commission and, speaking from memory, I understand that it has until next spring at the latest to produce the order. I promise the House that the order will be laid as quickly as possible after that, because it is in the interests of Members in all parts of the House that we achieve certainty about boundaries as soon as we can. As I told the right hon. Lady, my office is pursuing the matter with the secretary of the Boundary Commission, and as soon as I know when the order will be produced, the House will know.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I join other hon. Members in welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new post. Over the past few weeks, I have been contacted by several constituents who have very real concerns about the new Home Office guidelines covering non-EU doctors working in the UK. This is of particular concern in Dundee, which has one of the
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largest teaching hospitals in Europe. It is generally accepted that there will be less need to import staff as the number of UK-born staff increases, but I fear that the guidelines have been rushed through without due cognisance of the concerns of relevant organisations such as the British Medical Association. May we have an early debate to allow hon. Members to discuss those issues, and perhaps persuade the Home Office and the Department of Health to think again, or at least engage in further consultation?

Mr. Straw: I remind my hon. Friend that Health questions will take place next Tuesday. I am glad that he acknowledges that because of the dramatic increase in the number of UK-trained doctors—and those trained in the EU—the demand for doctors trained outside the EU is bound to fall. That has led to the change of policy. That said, I pay tribute to the huge contribution that overseas doctors have made to the running of the health service. My own doctor when I was a child came from India—and that was in suburban Essex—so I acknowledge their contribution. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health and the Home Secretary are also fully aware of that contribution. I looked into the issue for constituency reasons and I thought that the change of regulations was reasonable, but I will pass on my hon. Friend’s concern to my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): May we have an urgent statement on the biocides directive? It was agreed in 2000, with a 10-year period for implementation, but one consequence has been a soar in the cost of the chemicals used by undertakers in the embalming process. There is some concern about gold-plating, but representations may have to be made to the EU. The embalmers of Poole demand it.

Mr. Straw: Gold-plating was the first issue that I pursued the day I got to the Foreign Office five years ago, and I have been very concerned about it. A statement may not be necessary, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, the former Leader of the House, to follow that up. Even when there has been no gold-plating, the way in which some directives are followed is a matter of concern, and we need to have a more practical common-sense approach to them.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position, and I ask him to do even more than the previous Leader of the House to try to arrange a debate on early-day motion 1531 on the abolition of the Post Office card.

[That this House is gravely concerned by the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) decision to withdraw support for the Post Office Card Account when the existing contract expires in 2010 and in particular by the Department’s attempt to kill off the Account in advance of 2010, through pilot schemes being introduced immediately when it will deny to new benefit claimants the option of opening a Post Office Card Account, inform 35,000 existing customers that they will have to use a bank or building society instead of the Post Office Card Account and require them to provide their account details, and pay benefits of 2,500 existing customers into
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a bank account rather than the Post Office Card Account, ignoring the preferences they made when their benefit books were stopped; condemns the fact in that, breach of all plans, these pilot schemes are being introduced without consultation; and calls on the Government to halt these pilot schemes immediately and to institute an immediate review of the DWP’s proposal to abolish the Post Office Card Account by 2010.]

More than half the Members of Parliament on both sides of the House have now signed that early-day motion, and it was a big issue in the local elections. I ask my right hon. Friend for a statement, before the pensioners parliament meets next week in Blackpool, making a commitment that the Post Office card account will not be abolished. May we have a debate in this Chamber on the issue as soon as possible?

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for her good wishes, which are particularly well received by me, because we have known each other for almost 40 years—

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): Condi will be upset.

Mr. Straw: As my right hon. Friend says.

I know that the Post Office card account is a matter of concern and I suggest that my hon. Friend apply for a debate in Westminster Hall. Although it was an issue on the doorstep in her constituency, it could not have been so great an issue, because the Labour party did brilliantly in Lambeth, especially in her constituency, in taking seats from the Liberal Democrats and winning control of Lambeth borough council.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): In a book published this morning called “Where the Truth Lies”, an essay by a Labour Member of Parliament alleges that a peerage was offered to the publisher at Heinemann as an inducement not to publish “Spycatcher”. In Tony Benn’s diaries, he mentions a Labour MP being offered a peerage as an inducement not to stand for election to this House. The more I discover, the more concerned I am about such practices, which are offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. The fact that such practices are possible compromises Parliament severely. May we have a debate on this matter, and a moratorium on further appointments to the Lords until the system is beyond reproach? Or should we just continue to ignore it, like ostriches, with the very real possibility of corruption in our midst?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman must be pretty desperate if he has to drag up ancient history and go back to “Spycatcher”, which dates back, I think, to 1976—[Hon. Members: “1986.”] Well, it was 20 years ago. I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to the House, but in case he has not noticed I remind him that there was a Government of a different complexion in office at that time. Very important changes have been made, with all-party support, to the manner of appointing Members of the other place. Those changes are transparent and they are followed—he knows that and the House knows that. He needs to accept that and not make completely unwarranted allegations against Members of Parliament.

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Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Last Friday I met the community friendship group in my constituency, who quizzed me on the progress of the draft Mental Health Bill. Can my right hon. Friend reveal the timetable for the Bill?

Mr. Straw: I should own up to the fact that the Mental Health Bill was my idea as Home Secretary—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What goes around, comes around.

Mr. Straw: Indeed. I cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) an answer off the top of my head, but I will make an answer—I mean, I will find the answer and give it to her.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Leader of the House has moved from a very important job to an equally important job—seeking to maintain this cradle of democracy. He will appreciate that Members on both sides of the House would like opportunities to debate in the House vital, important and current issues. Will he seek to ensure that Back Benchers have greater say in how the time of the House is spent and, once or twice a month perhaps, may we debate issues that are of critical importance not only to the House but to the country?

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes and I share his view about the importance of this job. As I said in my first outing as Leader of the House on Tuesday, I have many distinguished predecessors who have held this title and this portfolio having held equally distinguished portfolios in other respects. On the issue that he raises, I know—because I met him shortly after my appointment—how strongly he feels about the establishment of a business Committee for the House. I will look at the proposal carefully, although I was not aware of it until last Friday when I got the job. I have not made up my mind, and I will discuss it with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Select Committee before pursuing the matter.

On the specific issue of whether we should revert to the previous arrangement of ballots for private Members’ motions as well as ballots for private Members’ Bills, I recall that that was the arrangement when I came into the House. It meant that every Friday in a Session was a sitting Friday, and there were no constituency Fridays. The House made a decision about that, but we have also had the introduction of Westminster Hall, which has made a huge difference and greatly expanded the time for holding Ministers to account. In any case, I will consider the proposal.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I offer my congratulations to the Leader of the House and wish him well in his new duties. Will he arrange for a debate on London in the near future, especially after the recent local election results, which highlighted the dissatisfaction across London with Labour councils and the Labour Government? We always used to have a debate in the Chamber on London every Session, and I urge him to arrange one in the near future.

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Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. He can make whatever he wants of the Conservatives’ relative success in the local elections. I must point out, however, that I forgot to mention in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) that the Conservatives, too, lost a seat in Lambeth, as they did to Labour in Blackburn.

Mr. Evennett: I asked about a debate on London.

Mr. Straw: Yes, I remember the debates on London. There is insufficient time for all the debates requested. There is also an issue about how long the House wants to sit and whether it wants to sit on a Friday. That is not a problem for me, but it may be for other Members.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role. I assume that this week he saw the announcement from the Health Minister about the intention to bring maximum waiting times down to 18 weeks by 2008. I was, however, slightly concerned to read from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People that the 18-week waiting time will not apply to hearing services. That is bad news for people who are applying for a digital hearing aid, particularly the hardest of hearing who currently have an analogue hearing aid, and so go to the bottom of the queue when applying for a digital hearing aid. Could he arrange for a debate in this House on those matters, to give credit to the Government for getting waiting times down to 18 weeks, and to look at whether we can extend that to hearing services?

Mr. Straw: Health questions take place on Tuesday and that is the appropriate time to pursue the matter. I am glad my hon. Friend mentioned all the improvements in the health service that have taken place under this Government. One of the many reasons why I am so pleased to do this job is that it gives me an opportunity to talk about the Government’s record and the dramatic way in which we have improved the health service. Yes, there are problems and there will always be problems. Now we have 85,000 more nurses, 32,000 more doctors and a huge increase in investment. As everybody knows, that benefits every constituency. Notwithstanding some of the problems, there have been dramatic improvements in the health care being delivered. It is a testament to the success of our policies. Just to mention Blackburn once again—I spent 18 years in Opposition, receiving letters from Health Ministers saying that they would provide us with money for a new hospital; the only problem was that the cheque never came. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) ensured that the cheque was delivered within a year of Labour taking office, and that £140 million hospital is now close to completion.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post. Even in my time in the House he is not the first to make the transition from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House. Indeed, if he is looking for a role model, he could do a lot worse than look to the late Robin Cook.

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Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement about the Government’s role in the decision to deprive post offices of the right to sell television licences over the counter and give the contract to PayPoint? This gives rise to an acute situation in my constituency, where we have only five PayPoint outlets. In Orkney they are in the main towns and in Shetland we have only one. There is no provision in the outlying districts of the mainlands or in any of the outer isles. Surely if people are to be allowed to buy television licences over the counter, that facility should be available to my constituents as well as to those on the mainland and in urban areas.

Mr. Straw: We have always accepted that there needs to be special provision for the isles, and I will ensure that that particular point is pursued with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I, too, have looked into this, and there are two reasons why the BBC—not the Government—decided to let the contract to a private company rather than to the Post Office. First, it estimated that tens of millions of pounds would be saved from the costs of collection, which could be spent on programming. Secondly, it wished to see a new system of collection of the television licence fee, which had more, not fewer, points of sale, and could be used on Sundays and at night. I gather that the new system will provide that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. It is good that normal humour will be resumed. I completely concur with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on the need for a debate on Iran.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2131 in my name?

[That this House applauds the signing of a peace settlement between the major rebel group the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the government of Sudan on 5th May 2006; welcomes the intervention of the Rt. Hon. Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, and the US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, in the mediation process that led to the settlement; recognises the peace settlement to be a positive step towards ending a conflict that has displaced a population of over two million and caused the death of more than 180,000 people; cautions against excessive optimism as the peace settlement is but a first step, agreed to in part by the major rebel movement, SLM, and rejected by the other two rebel movements; and urges that in order for the settlement to bear long term peaceful solution to the Darfur conflict the two parties need to commit genuinely to an end to the conflict and that the international community, especially the UK Government, must continue to put pressure on the parties to honour their pledges, pursue opportunities to include the other rebel groups within the peace process and provide sufficient funding for the African Union and for the humanitarian aid effort.]

It draws attention to the peace settlement in Darfur. It is good to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development present. It is important that we pay attention to the work that he and Robert Zoellick did in bringing forward a peace settlement. It is crucial that all parties now sign it, and that that part of the world gets the peace that it desperately needs.

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Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I echo his tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. Knowing this subject as I do, I have no doubt that but for his attendance and that of Robert Zoellick, the Deputy Secretary from the US State Department, this peace deal would not have been achieved. It is an example of active diplomacy by a senior Minister in the British Government. What we now must do, as my right hon. Friend said in the Cabinet this morning, is ensure that the peace deal is implemented—a bigger challenge—and accepted by all sides.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I extend to the right hon. Gentleman my best wishes on his new post. May I drag him back to a recollection from his last existence when he was helpfully dealing with a case for me relating to Nassima Sadia—a young girl who was abducted from Belfast by her Algerian father? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands the torment of her mother and the difficulties with those who are not signatories to the Hague convention on international child abduction. Could we have a debate in the House about those issues and the steps that the Government can take and have taken in such cases, where clearly there is considerable anguish and concern in the families involved?

Mr. Straw: Of course I remember the case that the hon. Gentleman raised with me. I followed it up and responded quickly to him on the concerns of this terrible story. I promise that I will discuss the matter personally with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. There is no argument between our parties about what needs to be done. The issue is about how we pursue foreign Governments who have either not signed up to the Hague convention or, where they have, are not implementing it. I promise the hon. Gentleman and the family whom he represents so assiduously that this will be followed up, and I am happy to talk to him afterwards about it.

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