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Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the next two weeks. As he announced, on Monday 10 July there will be a debate on the BBC on a Government motion. Because the Government have timed that debate to take place just hours before the BBC publishes its year-end results, Members will not have up-to-date information. What is it about the BBC’s results that Ministers do not want
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questioned in this House; or is simply that that the debate has been timed for the convenience of ministerial diaries, not the benefit of Members? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore look again at the timing of that debate?

On 6 July, a debate is to take place on armed forces personnel, and I know that it has already been drawn to the right hon. Gentleman’s attention that the Defence Committee is visiting UK forces abroad during that week. Will he undertake to ensure that in future such debates do not take place when the relevant Select Committee is away on a fact-finding visit? Otherwise—taking this and the previous issue together—the suggestion is that the Government will debate matters only when the facts are not available or when Members who know about the subject are not around.

Over the past few days, we have seen yet further job cuts in the NHS. On Tuesday, 320 job cuts were announced at the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, on top of 300 cuts last year. Yesterday, 500 job cuts were announced by the East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, with the equivalent of two to three ward closures planned. Yesterday also saw the loss of 500 jobs at Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust. The local union leader Karen Jennings said:

This week, I received a letter from the chairman of the Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead patient and public involvement in health primary care forum. She has written to the Health Secretary saying:

And this, according to the Health Secretary, is the “best year ever” for the NHS. Can we have a debate on the NHS before the recess?

Recently, I have been getting complaints from constituents about train fare increases by First Great Western. As one put it,

And that comes at a time when the service is being cut. Today, we read that after a secret deal with the Government, fares on the Thameslink-Great Northern franchise—also run by First—are increasing dramatically. A spokesman for the Department said:

So the Government are doing just what British Rail used to do—raising the fares if trains get busy, and pricing people off the trains and into their cars. But the Government’s policy is to get people out of their cars and on to the trains. It is not even a different Department that is involved; it is within the same Department. Can we please have a debate on train services and fares?

Yesterday’s judgment on control orders raised yet another problem in the operation of the Human Rights Act 1998. This morning, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said:

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We have made our views clear. Ministers have hinted at reviewing the Human Rights Act. When will the Home Secretary come to the House to make a statement on the future of the Human Rights Act?

Debates before the facts are available, Departments contradicting their own policy, Ministers having to rewrite their own legislation, Ministers out of touch—are not those yet more signs of a Government in paralysis? Did not the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) explain all that earlier this week when he said:

Is it not the case, however, that the whole Government have lost their sense of purpose and direction, and that time is running out not just for the Prime Minister, but for this Government?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry to disappoint the right hon. Lady, but as a matter of arithmetic, this Government have a couple of weeks less than four years to run. Let me just run through her points.

The right hon. Lady’s first point was about a debate on a Government motion. There has been no conspiracy, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to ask the BBC whether its results can be made available earlier. In the case of quoted companies it is important for the times at which results are announced to be kept to exactly, but as the BBC is a public corporation with no share price to worry about, I see no particular reason why the information should not be available to the House in advance. I will do my best.

The right hon. Lady’s second point concerned the debate on armed forces personnel. First, there are, quite properly, five debates a year on different aspects of the armed forces. Secondly, a problem for the Chamber, with which we all have to deal, is the intensive activity of Select Committees, which means that their members are often abroad. I do not honestly think it is possible to programme debates to take account at all times of whether Select Committee members are abroad. I experienced the same problem with foreign affairs debates. I should have preferred members of the Foreign Affairs Committee to be present for those debates, but sometimes it simply was not possible.

Let me say parenthetically that we shall have to do something about the fact that Select Committees are increasingly meeting exclusively on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. That is affecting attendance in the Chamber, and putting disproportionate pressure on the facilities of the House. I hope that the Chairman of the Liaison Committee will be prepared to talk to me about it.

As for job cuts in the national health service, the right hon. Lady knows that, in a context in which spending on the health service has more than doubled, there are some temporary difficulties in the management of budgets. I wish that she and her colleagues would stop scaring patients in their constituencies, and implying that a golden age existed when the Conservatives were in power. She knows that to be completely untrue.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead health forum. That is fine, but why
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did she not mention that in her area, which is covered as a whole by Thames Valley strategic health authority, there has been an increase of 2,700—22 per cent.—in the number of nurses and a 40 per cent. increase in the number of doctors? There is no way in which marginal, temporary reductions in the overall level of spending will take away from patients in the right hon. Lady’s area, and in every other area in the country, that dramatic increase in the number of doctors and nurses, and the huge increase in levels of health care for the right hon. Lady’s constituents.

The right hon. Lady went on to talk about rail fares. Although her comments were rather opaque, I understood her to be complaining, root and branch, about the consequences of rail privatisation. I know that she was not in the House when the Railways Act 1993 was passed, but I gather that she would have supported railway privatisation. [Interruption.] I can read too, and what the right hon. Lady’s newspaper says is wrong.

It is true that in the case of one or two privatisations we may not have got things entirely right, but we were absolutely right when it came to the method of railway privatisation. The fares have been changed as a result of decisions by the train operating companies, which the right hon. Lady and her colleagues set up under the rail privatisation deal. Let her explain that to her constituents, along with the fact that since 2001 we have more than doubled spending on the railways.

The right hon. Lady’s last point concerned the Human Rights Act and the decision on control orders. I do not intend to comment on that, as it will go before the Court of Appeal shortly. All I will say is that I think that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who now chairs the Conservatives’ democracy group, was probably correct in describing the Leader of the Opposition’s proposals in respect of the Human Rights Act as “xenophobic” and wrong-headed. [Interruption.] What is the Government’s view? We have set it out.

Vernon Bogdanor was even more correct to say that, as the Leader of the Opposition’s former tutor, he would have sent his most recent speech back to him had it been an essay, and asked him to rewrite it.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): If the current World cup competition has confirmed anything for us, it is that the position of the ticket tout is stronger than ever. Ticket touting robs many people, especially people from poorer backgrounds, of the opportunity to experience live music and sporting events and to witness their heroes in action. Could we have a debate to formulate a strategy with a view to eradicating ticket touting completely, whether it takes place via the internet or people skulking around theatres and football grounds?

Mr. Straw: We would all like to see greater action on that issue. There are clear offences on the statute book, but the difficulty is getting them enforced properly, not only here, but across the world. I share my hon. Friend’s great concern about ticket touts.

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I congratulate the Leader of the House on the signal distinction of being the answer to 10-across in the crossword in The Daily Telegraph yesterday? The clue however was

which may be a description of his performance.

I thank the Leader of the House for his response on the BBC debate and I hope that that is a successful initiative. I ask him again for a debate on the national health service, although not in the expectation of hearing a long list of the extra investment, because we acknowledge that. If I acknowledge that, I hope that he will acknowledge that many parts of the country are seeing the closure of community health facilities, such as cottage hospitals and maternity units. The great concern is that those closures are taking place on the basis not of strategic planning, but of short-term financial expediency. A debate could discover whether the Government intend to have a quasi-market approach to provision, which would greatly disadvantage many parts of the country—not least rural areas such as my own—or a planned national health service, providing facilities for all of our constituents.

May we have a debate on the ombudsman? The Leader of the House will be aware of the battle over the refusal of the Department for Work and Pensions to accept the ombudsman’s verdict on the payment of compensation to those who have lost their pensions. He will also be aware of the memorandum sent by Ann Abraham yesterday to the Public Administration Committee, which accused the Government of failing to address the basis on which she found that maladministration had occurred, making selective use of the evidence in her report and providing an unbalanced view of the role of Government. She said:

That is a very serious matter, which requires debate.

Finally, what has happened to cross-cutting questions? I have asked this before and had no reply. We had a very good initiative of cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall, which allowed hon. Members to ask questions on subjects that crossed several different departmental areas. Can that be reinstated? It would be easy to do so, because we would not need a range of Ministers when we could just have the cross-cutting Chancellor of the Exchequer to answer questions on everybody’s behalf.

Mr. Straw: I am not good enough at crosswords to do the one in The Daily Telegraph, so I am grateful to learn that I was the answer to 10-across, which is much better than being the answer to 1-down. [ Laughter. ]

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It wasn’t that good!

Mr. Straw: It wasn’t bad, either.

On the national health service, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there have been improvements—and there is a long list of them—and I note that the hon. Member for North Southwark and
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Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) agrees. It would be good if the Liberal Democrats’ recognition of the improvement in services in the NHS were accepted, even ungraciously, by members of the Conservative party. I do not accept that the short-term financial difficulties are a result of privatisation, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) alleges: they are the result of trying to get a grip on total spending in the NHS in the context of substantial rises. I appreciate that there is great anxiety in areas where community hospitals are to close. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is very alive to that, and there are many opportunities—more than there used to be—to raise such matters on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. Moreover, let us not forget that we recently had a full day’s debate on the health service.

The ombudsman issue was raised in a debate of only two days ago on pensions. We do not accept what the ombudsman says about her constitutional position; we are acting with full respect for it. We have committed more than £2 billion to the financial assistance scheme to help those closest to retirement who have been worst affected, to cover the lifetime of the scheme.

On cross-cutting questions, I just say that I am happy to look at that again, and to consult the Chairmen of the Modernisation and the Procedure Committees.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend provide time for an urgent debate on the increasingly dangerous situation in the middle east, following the deplorable and despicable kidnapping of the Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, and the massive, and so far futile, Israeli response, which has, among other things, wiped out a power station, and which the Government have condemned? In view of the fact that the situation could reach a point of serious explosion, can we find time for a debate in which the Government can say what they are doing to put the road map back on course?

Mr. Straw: I understand the very serious concerns on this matter of my right hon. Friend and many other Members on both sides of the House. As I said at business questions last week, I hope—I continue to work on this—that it will be possible to find a slot for a foreign affairs debate before the summer recess.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): If the Leader of the House is lucky enough to come to Hemel Hempstead, he will see that there is a fantastic general and acute hospital, which I freely admit has received a great deal of investment in the last few years; it has a new cardiac unit, stroke unit and maternity birthing unit, and there has been a great deal of expenditure on new staff and facilities. Sadly however, that is now all wasted because the hospital is going to be knocked down as a consequence of Hertfordshire’s deficit problem. Can we have a debate in which the Secretary of State for Health is brought before the House to explain to my constituents why this is the worst year ever for the health service in Hemel Hempstead?

Mr. Straw: I have always enjoyed my visits to Hemel Hempstead. The other day, I drove through the town that the hon. Gentleman represents and reflected on what a nice place it is. It used to be Labour, too, so it was even better in those days.

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I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but in respect of the area he represents, I just say that Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire strategic health authority has had an increase of 2,500—30 per cent.-plus—in nurses and a 30 per cent. increase in doctors. Comparing the situation today with that of 10 years ago—as the hon. Gentleman seeks to do—it is the case that, despite the difficulties, health care is significantly better than it was.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the 76-day summer recess brings this place and us into discredit with our constituents and that, as a matter of principle, it is not acceptable in a democracy to give a Government an almost three-month holiday from scrutiny? Does he recall that when our friend, the late Robin Cook, announced reforms to the parliamentary calendar, he promised that there would be September sittings? Indeed, they were introduced for a year, but the following year we were given the excuse that the security screen needed to be set up, and they disappeared. What is the excuse this year for not sitting in September, and does my right hon. Friend have any plans to do something about that?

Mr. Straw: When I inquired into the matter, the excuse that was given was that it was too late to do anything because the maintenance had already been planned for this year—that may or may not be correct. Personally, I am in favour of September sittings—which puts me in a minority among some colleagues, so it is a risky career move—but we are too late to do anything for this year; that is understood. However, it is my hope that there will be a vote of all Members early next Session on whether the House wishes there to be September sittings.

If we continue not to have September sittings, we will have to increase the number of sitting days in the rest of the year, because the deal that the late Robin Cook agreed with the House was that we would get half terms in return for sitting in September. However, folk are getting half terms and not sitting in September, which is certainly unacceptable to our constituents and active Members of this House.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con) rose—

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I have not said a word. May I thank the Leader of the House for introducing debates on a substantive Government motion on important issues? We have had a debate on pensions, and we are about to have a debate on the BBC, both of which are very important subjects. Will he continue with this experimental initiative, but perhaps have a feed-in to the subject that will be available for debate on a substantive motion from Back Benchers as well as the usual channels, so that the House can be more involved in business, and issues of current importance can be debated at the initiative of Back-Bench Members?

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