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Mr. Straw: Yes, is the answer. It has been a constant problem ensuring that young men, in particular, are not attracted to carrying and then using knives. As the police are pointing out, aside from anything else, those young men become far more vulnerable to attacks by other youths who are carrying knives. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have begun a knife amnesty. It is relatively successful, but all of us, in all parts of the House, in support of the police and community
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organisations, must keep up the battle to persuade those young men, principally, not to carry knives and never to use them.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): If we are to have a debate on the Home Office, would it not be useful to examine carefully the role of the most senior civil servants previously and to some extent now? Is it not about time that politicians stopped covering up for those who have demonstrated sheer incompetence in their jobs?

Mr. Straw: The system we have in this country is that Ministers take responsibility for their Departments. At any one time there will be some officials who are performing well and some who are perhaps performing not as well. In my experience of nine years in government, both the home civil service and the foreign service do extremely well, often in difficult circumstances. The fundamental problem with the Home Office, which distinguishes it from any other Government Department, is not the quality of the staff, but the nature of the individuals whom the Home Office must deal with. In every other area of Government activity, local or national, those who are the customers, so to speak, of the Department—schoolchildren, parents, patients—are on the whole willing volunteers, but the last thing the customers of the Home Office are is willing volunteers. Many of them are dysfunctional individuals—criminals, asylum seekers, people who do not wish to be subject to social control, the purpose of the Home Office. It is that which places the burden on the staff and provides a challenge to both staff and Ministers. But we have no proposals to shift from a fundamental aspect of the way we run Government, which is that it is Ministers who are responsible for their Departments.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): May we have a debate on maintaining the integrity of our precious electoral process and democracy? In the debate we could expose and seek to prevent sinister abuses of the system, such as those investigated by James Redgrave, the excellent Essex Enquirer reporter, which are soon to be considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I cannot comment on individual investigations, but the Electoral Administration Bill is currently going through Parliament and is intended to tighten controls on electoral administration and to counter fraud.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the latest findings in Scotland about the smoking ban? It has not reduced trade in public houses. Will he assure me that there will be a ban in the House, with no exceptions, including in the Members’ Smoking Room?

Mr. Straw: That is a matter for the House to decide. As someone who was rather sceptical about the bans, I find the evidence in Scotland interesting and significant.

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Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): May I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in calling for a debate on community health services? The Leader of the House’s reply only emphasised the need for such a debate. The Government’s strategy is to shift the delivery of patient care from hospitals to our communities, yet only last week, the British Medical Association issued a report that stated that three out of every four GPs feel that their surgeries are not big enough to tackle future demand. We need an urgent debate in Government time to ensure that the Government’s strategy matches what the NHS delivers on the ground.

Mr. Straw: The NHS is delivering in the hon. Lady’s area. In the Hampshire and Isle of Wight health authority area, there are nearly 3,000 more nurses, more than 1,000 extra doctors and 382 more consultants. That is making a genuine difference to patients. I wish that Opposition Members would praise the work of additional staff and its effect on patient care.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I support the calls from Members of all parties for a debate or statement on the operation of the Home Office. The Home Secretary’s statements to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and his assessment of his Department were devastating. I appreciate that, when my right hon. Friend was Home Secretary, he started the reform process, but a major problem remains with the way in which the Home Office operates. The latest allegations of sex for visas are serious. Like my right hon. Friend in Blackburn, I will go to my surgery in Leicester on Friday and there will be many cases of constituents complaining about the Home Office. The matter is not for an Adjournment debate but for the Floor of the House, where all hon. Members can participate in setting the benchmarks for a more efficient and effective Home Office. May we have such a debate?

Mr. Straw: As my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, which is compiling a report on Home Office administration. It is best for us to await the outcome and the recommendations before deciding about a future debate on the matter.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Leader of the House may know that all four Welsh police chief constables now say that the reconfiguration of the police service in Wales cannot take place in the time scale that has been set out. They also say that, if it were carried out in the proposed way, there would be a financial deficit of approximately £60 million year after year. More and more people believe that the proposed model is not right for Wales. Indeed, in the Welsh Grand Committee, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) proposed an alternative model that would tackle some of the concerns of people who want to ensure that local policing remains strong. Will the Leader of the House ensure that everybody gets together on the matter so that we get an affordable and effective solution for Wales?

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Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is taking time to consider those matters and, of course, taking the advice of the Welsh Assembly and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. However, I note that Mr. Terry Grange, the chief constable of Dyfed-Powys, said to the BBC in December last year:

There is therefore a debate in the police service as well as in the community about the future of police services in Wales.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware of the work of Derian House children’s hospice in Chorley. It is sad that the hospice movement, especially children’s hospices, is underfunded. It is unacceptable that the funding crisis continues, with the Government funding only one week in 52. That must change. We need a debate and we must ensure that the hospice movement, especially the children’s hospice movement, is properly funded.

Mr. Straw: I note my hon. Friend’s comments. There is a fine hospice, which is supported by voluntary contributions, in my constituency. I shall pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): May I join the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) in calling for a debate on the Home Office? At a recent Public Accounts Committee meeting on the Home Office’s accounts, we heard that they were in such chaos that the Comptroller and Auditor General could not qualify them but had to disclaim them. In other words, there were no accounts even to consider. The former Home Secretary is wrong to say that the problem is simply one of dealing with dysfunctional people. Home Office procedures and administration are dysfunctional. Although he is right to say that, ultimately, Ministers take responsibility, Sir John Gieve, the former permanent secretary, was in charge and is now deputy Governor of the Bank of England. We need a debate in the House and we must take a serious interest in not only policy but administration.

Mr. Straw: Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s latter point. If Ministers are to be successful, they must do both. One of the failings of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary was his effort to evade responsibility by claiming that he was responsible only for policy and that others were responsible for operations. The test of a policy is how it operates in practice.

I accept that there are problems with the Home Office—no one has ever denied that—and there always will be. Administration should be better, but the nature of the tasks that the Home Office undertakes—especially given the extraordinary explosion of movement across borders, the increase in civil wars and so on since the collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet empire—means that the pressures are
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likely to remain and put pressure in turn on all interior Ministries, including the Home Office.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about debates and I look forward to the Public Accounts Committee’s report as well as that of the Home Affairs Committee on the matter.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Are we getting the most out of official residences? Dorneywood, for example, is open to the public only one week out of 52, and my spies tell me that the Deputy Prime Minister rarely goes there. May we have a statement when we return on the allocation and proper use of ministerial residences?

Mr. Straw: There are many ways in which my hon. Friend can raise the matter, but he knows that those residences go with certain jobs. In addition, I understand that they do not cost the public purse anything, or anything significant.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time before the summer recess on Iraq and Afghanistan, where the position remains difficult? It is some time since we had a proper debate on that subject. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to introduce the debate and the Foreign Secretary to wind it up on the Adjournment so that the Government can take the mood of the House?

Mr. Straw: As I have said on other occasions, when I was Foreign Secretary, I sought a debate on those issues, although it would have been opened not by the Prime Minister but by the Foreign Secretary. I am still trying to arrange such a debate. Meanwhile, there is a debate in the second week in June on proceedings before the European Council. Since the European Council will consider Iraq and Afghanistan, that is a good opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to raise his concerns.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate about the corrosive impact of elements of the popular press on democracy? My right hon. Friend may know that there is an undercurrent of racism to the popular press’s surveys, supported by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, that present Scots as dour, dreary and unfit to hold the most senior position in British politics. That is damaging to our democracy. If another nation or religion were treated in the same way, there would rightly be a public outcry. Even today, one of the most successful British football managers is being criticised for endangering England’s World cup hopes. I am sure that Sir Alex Ferguson and I will be the first to offer England our support, with the volume turned down, of course.

Mr. Straw: As a true-born Englishman, may I say that I understand my hon. Friend’s concern? I hope that the World cup will lead to real ecumenical feeling between the different nations of the United Kingdom. I have always supported Scotland whenever they were playing in a game other than against England, but, as
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Scotland have a bye on this occasion, I look forward to all Scottish Members on both sides of the House supporting England in the World cup.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The right hon. Gentleman is emerging as a truly reforming Leader of the House and I know that he is keen to represent all shades of opinion in the House. Will he therefore have a look at the membership of the Liaison Committee and work to end the exclusion of the minority parties? Even a cursory glance at the arithmetic will show that we are entitled to a place, and it is not good enough simply to say that membership is confined to the Chairs of Committees, because co-option is an easy matter. Will he demonstrate that he truly speaks for the whole House by ending this unfair exclusion?

Mr. Straw: Flattered though I am by the hon. Gentleman’s compliments, it is probably too early to say, after only three weeks in the job, whether I am going to be a truly reforming Leader of the House. I shall look into the composition of the Liaison Committee, but I cannot promise him the result that he wants.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): An audit of hepatitis C health care in England was published this week by the all-party group on hepatology, and it shows that diagnosis and treatment of the disease are a matter of chance. An estimated 400,000 people are carrying the disease, the vast majority of whom do not know that they are carriers. That represents a health time bomb. Will my right hon. Friend draw the report to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health? May we also have a statement in the House on the Government’s delivery of the hepatitis C strategy and their action plan?

Mr. Straw: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has undertaken with the all-party group on hepatology. I will indeed tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about this matter. As she is sitting on the Front Bench, that should be straightforward.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The Home Office can release and then lose serious offenders from overseas, but the immigration and nationality directorate can find women asylum seekers who have committed no offence, some of whom have been detained for more than a year at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in my constituency without any immediate prospect of deportation. The mental anguish resulting from indefinite detention can only be imagined, and the system was never designed to be used in this way. Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate in Government time on this matter, so that we can determine whether there is a better way of dealing with these almost forgotten women?

Mr. Straw: I know of the hon. Gentleman’s concern about this matter, and it illustrates the complexity of dealing with asylum seekers. In general, people on both
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sides of the House say that asylum seekers should be sent back as quickly as possible and that their rights should be restricted. However, Members on both sides are assiduous in representing individual cases. The Home Office has to deal with individual cases, rather than with the generality. In my experience, it is very rare for anyone to be detained in a detention centre for as long as 12 months without a very good reason. They are fully entitled to apply for bail, and if there is no good reason for detaining them, bail will be granted.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In the last year for which figures are available, there were 4,159 fires in the home caused by smoking materials. Those fires resulted in 1,416 non-fatal injuries and 123 fatalities. On 13 and 14 June in Brussels, the general product safety directive committee will consider regulations that could lead to a requirement for reduced incineration propensity cigarettes—those that go out unless they are actively being smoked—to be produced in this country. We shall be represented by officials from the Department of Trade and Industry at those meetings. Will the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry make a statement to the House on the attitude his officials will take, and whether he will support my forthcoming early-day motion, to be tabled on the day that we return from the Whitsun recess, or my 10-minute Bill, which I shall present on the third day after the recess?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about this important matter and I will certainly talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about it. If it is possible for him to make a statement, there will be one.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): This morning, the Oxford Radcliffe hospital in my constituency announced 600 job losses, half of which will be compulsory redundancies. The Secretary of State for Health has said that this is the best year that the NHS has ever had and that such developments are a sign of efficient hospitals, but this is a debt-ridden hospital that is being forced to do that. Her remarks have been described as coming from another planet and a parallel universe by people working in the health service. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Health Secretary to come to the House on planet Earth to explain why hospitals up and down the country—including the Oxford Radcliffe—are cutting all these jobs? The cuts will have a huge impact on patient care.

Mr. Straw: I heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health give an excellent explanation about the problems, which are not affecting anywhere near all the health trusts and authorities. They affect the few trusts that, despite record levels of overall spending, are still spending above those levels and placing pressures on their own health facilities and those of other heath trusts. I greatly regret the fact, as I am sure my right hon. Friend does, that these redundancies have been announced, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are a large number of unfilled vacancies in the
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Oxford area. I wish that he would tell his constituents about the huge improvements that are still being made in his area, illustrated by the vast improvements in patient care, and by the fact that the number of nurses in that area has increased by 2,700, and the number of doctors by 1,200.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, a year or two ago, the European Scrutiny Committee resolved that its routine meetings should be held in public? That was a modest request, but it was nevertheless ignored by the then Leader of the House, who refused to change the Standing Orders to permit that arrangement, despite the Government’s professed commitment to openness and to the public’s right to know. Will the new Leader of the House—whom I very much welcome—bolster his reforming credentials by looking more favourably on this request, so that we can blow away the cobwebs of secrecy and allow the public to see what we try to do on their behalf?

Mr. Straw: I will certainly look into the right hon. Gentleman’s request. When I was Foreign Secretary, I was in the vanguard—along with the then Minister for Europe—of seeking ways to improve the scrutiny of European business by the House. I promise the right hon. Gentleman, and you, Mr. Speaker, that I will look very carefully at the overall recommendations to improve scrutiny by the House.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I appeal to the Leader of the House to secure from the Secretary of State for Health, whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber, a statement on the dangerous decision by the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust to close the emergency centre at the Maudsley hospital? It is one of the few places in the country offering a walk-in service to people suffering a serious psychotic or suicidally depressive episode. It has been said that such people will now have to go to an ordinary accident and emergency unit, which will be potentially lethal for them and distressing for the other people in the unit. Can this be examined as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Straw: I am sure that the arrangements being made in respect of the Maudsley hospital are more than adequate to meet the needs of those patients. I must say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said repeatedly to Opposition Members who raise these issues, that, had it not been for our spending plans—which were opposed by every single Conservative Member year after year—none of the improvements in the health service would have taken place.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The Leader of the House will know that the best way to improve scrutiny is through transparency. May I therefore urge him to place on the Order Paper a motion that would enable us to end the scandal of the European Scrutiny Committee sitting in private? That arrangement excludes Members of the House, members of the public and journalists, and it is a scandal for a free Parliament and a free people.

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