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15 Jun 2006 : Column 910

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): In view of the Government’s decision today to approve a huge waste-to-energy incinerator in my borough of Bexley, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate in Government time on the whole issue of waste disposal and incineration? My constituents are naturally very unhappy about the decision and its consequences for the local environment.

Mr. Straw: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We have sought to produce much better and greener methods of disposing of waste, including the landfill tax, and they are working. That said, there must be some arrangements for incineration of quite large amounts of waste. No one wants such facilities next door, but they have to go somewhere.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): At a time when we are focusing so closely on performance in English football, could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate allowing us to consider the circumstances of young players such as my constituent Hannah Dale? Hannah is a star football player, who has won the player of the year award for her club on many occasions. She is an academy player and lives for football, but she turned 11 this month and can no longer play with her team because FA rules do not allow girls to play mixed football after they reach that age. Hannah wants to be a footballer, and we need to ensure that girls like her can become footballers.

Mr. Straw: I wish Hannah every success. My hon. Friend will know of the great success of the Blackburn Rovers women’s football team: I pay particular attention to women’s football for that reason.

The Government are responsible for many things and are probably to blame for even more, but happily we are not responsible for the rules of football.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Yet.

Mr. Straw: Ever—and that includes the performance of the England team. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) says from a sedentary position—and I want this to be recorded—that we all wish the England team well. Some people have the mistaken impression that an England-Scotland game is taking place this afternoon, but we will pass over that lightly.

I will convey the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) to the chairman of the Football Association.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): May we have a full oral statement from the Chancellor on his proposals for a £2 coin to celebrate the Act of Union? Is it true that the coin is to be called a Brownie, because it is full of brass, not very popular and soon to be devalued? Is the Leader of the House aware that it will become a collector’s item as the Union passes into history, and is it true that 6,000 million of the coins
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would have to be circulated in Scotland next year to be the equivalent of the £12 billion of Scottish oil revenues that are the only thing keeping the Chancellor’s head above the financial waters?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman could have asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer about that—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): He wasn’t here then.

Mr. Straw: He was not here, so he missed the opportunity.

I do not make that many predictions, but I am certain that the hon. Gentleman will pass into history a long time before the Union.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to two recent shootings in Greater Manchester? A 15-year-old boy in my constituency was shot, but fortunately not killed, and a 15-year-old girl was murdered by her jilted boyfriend. Guns were used in both cases. Alas, many members of the public have become resigned to the fact that guns now circulate in our cities and, increasingly, throughout the country. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary, telling us the Government’s strategy for driving the guns out of our sight and making it clear that we do not accept that guns, like drugs earlier, can systematically become part of our national way of life?

Mr. Straw: The whole House will share my hon. Friend’s profound concern about the availability of illegal handguns on the streets of some of our cities and towns, and send condolences to the family of the schoolgirl who was killed and sympathy to the young person who was injured.

Over the past 10 years, we have taken considerable steps to strengthen the law on handguns. We banned them altogether in 1997, sentences have been increased, and the police are making greater use of tougher enforcement. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, along with the Association of Chief Police Officers and Greater Manchester police, is ever ready to consider further measures to strengthen enforcement against the use and availability of guns on our streets.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement on her very popular patient choice agenda in which she explains why the Isle of Wight strategic health authority, against the wishes of the primary care trust, purchased 200,000 cataract operations at an independent treatment centre in Portsmouth, only four of which have been taken up by my constituents, who do not want to have to travel to Portsmouth for their eye operations, yet who still have to pay for them? Is it the Government’s intention to put money into the private sector, which should be treating health service patients?

Mr. Straw: I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he regards as popular one of the many proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State
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for Health; I am sure that she will be pleased to hear that, too. Those policies are indeed popular. Despite the difficulties that he outlines in one respect, the facts are that in his constituency the number of nurses has increased by 27 per cent., there are 1,135 extra doctors, which is an increase of 38 per cent., and almost 400 more consultants, which is an increase of more than 50 per cent.. Those and similar increases have led to real improvements in health care in his constituency and everywhere else. I hope that the next time he stands up, it is to congratulate the doctors and nurses who are delivering improvements in health care in his constituency.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Communities such as Ravenstone, Packington, Normanton-Le-Heath and Heather welcomed the election of a Labour Government in 1997 for many reasons, not least the promise of a tighter line against greenfield open-casting, the experience and future prospects of which have blighted the lives of those Leicestershire villages for decades. The same is true of other coalfield community areas in the midlands and elsewhere. Does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government plan to make a statement on minerals planning guidance note 3 and whether the concept of the cumulative impact of open-casting has been abandoned in determining applications; and on the reasons for the inquiry inspector’s astonishing recommendations in relation to the Long Moor site in north-west Leicestershire, sanctioning a four-year application to extract 750,000 tonnes and potentially condemning the area for decades beyond? There are also risks in relation to Lodge House in Amber Valley. The issue is extremely serious, and not only in the valley in north-west Leicestershire.

Mr. Straw: I know that that is a problem in Amber Valley as well, because our hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) was just telling me that she endorsed what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) says. I understand his concerns and I shall be in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, especially on the question of the cumulative effect of open-cast mining in his area.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): May we have a statement from a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the movement restrictions imposed on 33 fish farms in north Yorkshire as a result of viral haemorrhagic septicaemia being found in fish on only one farm some weeks ago? The matter is serious: many of the fish farmers now face ruin and fish cannot be moved to lakes and other watercourses that angling clubs and estates need for the rest of the fishing season. Compensation and aid for the farmers is desperately needed. it would be paid in any other EU member state and it would certainly be paid to the agriculture industry.

Mr. Straw: I shall let the Secretary of State know today about the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I also draw
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his attention to the fact that oral questions to the Department are next Thursday and he can table a question on Monday.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): This week, I received my draft entry in “Who’s Who” for 2007. It contained my London address, which at a time of trouble is a bit worrying, given that in the ‘70s a terrorist organisation used “Who’s Who” to get the address of an individual whom it subsequently murdered. Will the Leader of the House consider writing to the publishers of “Who’s Who” to ensure that nobody’s address appears?

Mr. Straw: Happily, I am not responsible for “Who’s Who” entries—yet. If I were, I would tell the truth about Conservative Members. However, I am certain that the publishers will allow a House of Commons or other accommodation address in place of a private address.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on access to telephone services in rural villages, particularly those in Shropshire? Does the Leader of the House agree that it is wrong that BT is failing in its universal access obligations and that villagers in Kynnersley in my constituency are suffering from poor telephone services and little access to internet and broadband services, despite BT’s high rhetoric?

Mr. Straw: I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In addition, if he has not already done so, I invite him to write to the chairman of Ofcom.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): When can we discuss early-day motion 2350? It states:

[That this House records its sorrow at the first death of a British soldier in the Helmand Province and salutes the courage and professionalism of British troops; and fears that the mission is an impossible one that will strengthen the Taliban, lead to more British deaths, the Columbia-isation of Central Asia and possibly deteriorate into a British Vietnam.]

Last week, there were complaints of a shortage of morphine in British hospitals and there is a chronic shortage of morphine throughout the developing world, yet our troops are engaged in what has been described as a “mission impossible” to destroy the raw material for the manufacture of morphine. Would it not be more sensible of us to license Afghani farmers to use their poppy crops for the production of morphine, rather than to try to destroy the livelihoods of 2 million people and drive them into the hands of the Taliban?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend has consistently opposed criminal sanctions in relation to all drugs. I understand his point of view, but I do not agree with it. Increased production of morphine for lawful use is needed, but I do not think that that is an argument for generally legalising the growing of poppies. [ Interruption. ] He
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should bear in mind that, overwhelmingly, poppy production in Afghanistan is not used for morphine production, because it can be sold for a much higher profit on the streets in the form of illicit drugs.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that one of his principal responsibilities is to ensure the clarity of Government policy. There is considerable confusion following last night’s television programmes, in which the Lord Chancellor on “Question Time” appeared to condemn the Home Secretary and other politicians for interfering with the judiciary but, simultaneously, the chairman of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), was on “Newsnight” saying the opposite. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that Home Office questions on Monday is sufficient to ensure clarity, or should someone come to the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Lord Chancellor next week?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman may raise the matter in Home Office questions, and I suspect that he will do so. In fact, there is consistency between what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said on Monday and what my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor said more recently this week. Let us be clear: on Monday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expressed a reservation about a specific sentence—he is entitled to do that; he was not criticising the judiciary, merely expressing a reservation—and this morning my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor gave what I thought was an eloquent exposition of the overall position on sentencing.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that there is to be a debate on House of Lords reform in Westminster Hall next week. Apart from the fact that I cannot be present, I regard that as wholly inadequate for debating one of the most important issues on which the House must decide. If my right hon. Friend is true to his word and wants to take the temperature of the House in that respect, and if we are to achieve the so-called “developing consensus” on the future of the House of Lords, it is critical that we have a debate in this Chamber. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that we will not wait until the Committee reports at the end of the year, but that we will have a debate in the main Chamber before the summer recess?

Mr. Straw: I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate before the summer recess. There will be a debate on Tuesday next week in Westminster Hall. I will not be able to be present, but my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be deputising for me. There was a debate which lasted for three hours on 10 May, which was in Government time. A good debate it was, too. It was on the motion to establish the Joint Committee on Conventions. I promise my hon. Friend that, during the calendar year, there will be other opportunities to debate what I accept is an important issue and a heavy responsibility on my shoulders.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on adult education? The Government’s decision to cut
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adult education funding and divert the moneys to other areas of further education has led to a cut in the overall budget to Shipley college last year. It has led also to many people having to pay extra fees, many of whom cannot afford them. Bradford college has decided to shut Burley Grange in my constituency, which provided adult education for people in Wharfedale. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands how important adult education is to many people throughout the country. I hope that he will find time for a debate on the subject. There are issues that are causing much anguish in my constituency.

Mr. Straw: I do understand the importance of further education. I am proud to say that I have been, and remain, the governor of the further education college in Blackburn for the past 15 years. I take a real and close interest in the matter. There have been some changes in funding, not for all adult education—let us be clear about that—but of non-vocational adult education. I know the importance of that to those who are concerned. Overall, there has been investment in education at other levels—primary, secondary and higher education—as well as in further education. That is leading over time to significant improvements in skills levels and, for example, in eradicating adult illiteracy, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills spoke yesterday.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Mention was made a few minutes ago of handguns. My right hon. Friend will be aware also of the problem that is caused by the misuse of airguns, which affects so many of our constituents. My constituents were pleased with the Government’s proposals in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill to tighten up the law on airguns. Unfortunately, that Bill seems to have been delayed in the House of Lords for more than six months now. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to encourage the quick completion of consideration of that Bill in the other place? When it comes back to this place, will he ensure that it has an early passage, so that my constituents and those of right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House can get the benefits of the protections that are set out in the Bill?

Mr. Straw: I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the matter. I will follow it up.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a debate on special educational needs? I declare an interest as the father of a two and a half year old boy who will almost certainly have such needs. Given that there are about 1.5 million children who are SEN, does the Leader of the House accept that it is most unsatisfactory that the three debates on this subject that have taken place in this Parliament have respectively had to be initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Government need to commit to finding Government time to address the
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concerns and needs of some vulnerable children with severe, complex and multi-faceted disorders? These children need our help and they need it now.

Mr. Straw: I agree with the substance of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, I do not agree with his conclusion. He seems to be implying that the only good debates in the House are those held in Government time. The purpose of ensuring that there is Opposition time and Back-Bench time is to enable issues of importance—matters that are also of interest to the Government—to be taken up by Back-Bench Members. Neither Back-Benchers nor the Opposition have to wait for the Government to find time; they can find it themselves. It is a credit to the House that there have already been three debates on the matter. I will bear the hon. Gentleman’s request in mind. He should not undervalue—I do not think that he was intending to do so—the importance of debates other than those that take place in Government time.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): In order to continue the Government’s unique and innovative policy of giving things for free—for example, free bus travel for pensioners, free eye tests for pensioners, free television licences for those over 75 and free museum entry for all—may we have a debate on the merit of introducing free and healthy school meals for all primary school children, as is currently being piloted in Hull? It is proving hugely beneficial to the attendance and performance of such children.

Mr. Straw: I am sure that we can have a debate on the matter. I advise my hon. Friend to try to secure an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate on this important issue.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Can we have a debate on land-banking? It is an increasingly common practice now, especially in the south-east of England, where overseas companies are buying up large tracts of agricultural land, only then to split them up in plots and advertise them as speculative residential plots. In my constituency, Sinclair Deville has recently bought a four or five acre site and advertised it at the Ideal Home exhibition. It is not within the local plan, but it causes considerable unrest in local communities when these plots are advertised. Also, the practice potentially misleads investors.

Mr. Straw: I cannot promise a debate on the matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is successful in an Adjournment ballot. I understand the concerns. It seems to be an issue of consumer protection as much as anything else.

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