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Yet Government figures reveal that nearly 30,000 children are being taught in infant classes with more than 30 children. I have written to the Prime Minister
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telling him that he inadvertently misled the House, but he has not replied. What further steps can I take to oblige him to correct the record, as this is a serious breach of his responsibilities to this House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I trust that the Prime Minister will reply in due course, and that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with the answer. When figures such as those are bandied about, they are often less a matter of record than of debate.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Through you, may I thank Mr. Speaker for an intervention that he made in respect of a parliamentary question that I tabled on 25 May? I finally received a response yesterday. The question asked how many questions tabled to the Home Office before 5 May had remained unanswered by 25 May, and yesterday’s answer put the number at 565.

This is a hugely important matter, and I am grateful for Mr. Speaker’s intervention. I understand that the Home Secretary has said that the problem will be resolved by 9 October and that questions will be answered appropriately. However, parliamentary questions are very important to Back-Bench Members who want to put the Government under scrutiny. Will you urge the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that he fulfils his pledge?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The whole matter of questions to Ministers and their answers is clearly extremely important. The House is already aware of Mr. Speaker’s interest in the matter, and the hon. Gentleman has placed his concerns clearly on the record.

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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have either you or Mr. Speaker been approached by the Ministry of Defence with a request to allow a Minister to give an oral statement to the House about troop deployment to Iraq? I discovered from a written statement yesterday that my local regiment, the Black Watch, was being asked to undertake an unprecedented third tour of duty in Iraq that does not comply the 24-month period that should elapse between deployments. Given that the deployment is so contentious, should not a Minister come to the House to be questioned by hon. Members?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: There is a debate on these matters tomorrow. I trust that that will allow the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to raise the points that he is now raising with me.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Further to the point of order raised yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) about supplying water to visitors to the House, a delegation of more than 600 of my constituents had to stand outside the House in tremendous temperatures. I hope that you are able to convey to Mr. Speaker my gratitude for his kindness and thoughtfulness in ordering the Serjeant at Arms Department to make water available to those visitors.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure that Mr. Speaker will read with interest the points that the hon. Gentleman makes.

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Samurai Swords

1.45 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I beg to move,

The recent knife amnesty has reminded us of just how many knives and other bladed weapons are in circulation in our communities. Nearly 90,000 weapons were handed in to police and, in virtually every local or regional news story that I have read, samurai swords are mentioned as having been deposited at police stations during the amnesty. It is a sad fact that there is an increasing number of these lethal weapons out on our streets, and ease of supply is a significant factor.

Too many families and communities have suffered the appalling consequences arising from the use of samurai swords. In my own area in and around Hornchurch, we have seen at least three serious incidents. In one, a man’s hand was severed, and another involved a serious assault. In the third incident, mothers and toddlers were forced to flee a children’s play site when someone started wielding a sword in the area where the youngsters were playing.

I wish that I could say that those were isolated incidents. However, from a brief examination of some of the reported attacks that have taken place this year alone, it is clear to me that samurai swords are being used increasingly in violent crime up and down the country. The following extracts from stories in the past few months give some feel of the nature of the incidents involving the use of samurai swords:

Those are just a few examples, but each case highlights the tragic consequences when these weapons are used. I have little doubt that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be able to provide many other examples.

There is also a disturbing link between samurai swords and gang culture. It has been suggested by some that obtaining a samurai sword is almost becoming a rite of passage for criminal gang members. The recent pictures in the national press of 15-year-old Alex Mulumba—thought to be a member of the south London gang “Man Dem Crew”—lying in his hospital bed with a ventilator tube protruding from his mouth after sustaining a single fatal stab wound from a samurai sword say a great deal about the impact that those weapons are having on the streets. A report in the Daily Mirror from last December summarizes the position well. It said:

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Yet buying one of those potentially lethal implements could not be easier. People can buy them in shops, in markets, on the internet and even in car boot sales. As one commentator said:

Police and trading standards officers are absolutely powerless to do anything about that. Although it is an offence to have a samurai sword in a public place without good reason or lawful authority, it is entirely within the law to sell an item with a blade or point—including a samurai sword—to someone over the age of 16. That seems ludicrous to me, and the consequences of having these dangerous swords out on the streets in criminal hands is increasingly plain to see.

I have become convinced that the availability and supply of these items is a significant factor. A campaign last autumn by Devon and Cornwall police calling on shops to stop selling samurai swords had a clear impact. Instead of averaging one samurai sword incident a week, the force reported only a single incident during its three-month campaign. The time has come to ensure that that approach is taken across the country and that it is given statutory force through legislation.

That said, it is important to recognise that many people use or possess samurai swords lawfully and without causing harm to anyone else. The sports of kendo and aikido specifically call for the use of Japanese swords. The original Japanese katana is the sword that is most commonly referred to as a samurai sword, and those traditional items, forged with the highly specialized tamagahane steel, are highly valuable and important cultural and historic items, some of which are considered works of fine art. It is possible to frame legislation in such a way that sales of samurai swords to museums, heritage bodies, martial arts groups, theatre and drama companies and other lawful groups can be protected, while banning the sale of dangerous weapons for criminal use.

The reference to “sharpened samurai swords” in the text of my proposed Bill is intended to reflect that approach, as a number of samurai swords imported into the UK are made from an aluminium composite that cannot be sharpened to have a cutting edge and therefore would not be capable of being used for the sorts of attacks that I have highlighted.

If action is required, which I believe it is, the only realistic alternative to prohibiting the sale and importation of samurai swords is some form of licensing scheme. I am persuaded that a general scheme would be costly and bureaucratic and would not reduce the flow of these items into criminal hands. However, licensing of certain groups or organisations may assist the framing of the exemptions that I have highlighted, and I will certainly reflect on that in the drafting of the Bill, should I be granted leave by the House today. The Home Office has said for a long time that it is considering a ban on samurai swords—that was said most recently by the current Home Secretary on 19 June—but we have yet to see a firm commitment actually to introduce legislation to that effect. Although powers are being
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reserved, it remains uncertain whether those powers will be used. It is for that reason that I seek leave to introduce this Bill.

There is a clear and increasingly worrying link between gang culture, violent crime and the use of these dangerous implements. Reducing the ease with which such swords are supplied would have a direct impact on taking these potentially deadly weapons off our streets. A ban on the sale, import and manufacture of such items—with appropriate exemptions—is the only practical way of giving effect to my intent. The time to act is now. I hope that the House will take this opportunity to introduce a law that will significantly restrict the sale of these potentially deadly items, and in so doing reduce the number of serious attacks in which samurai swords are used.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by James Brokenshire, Mike Penning, Mr. Lee Scott, Angela Watkinson, Mr. David Jones, Mr. Shailesh Vara, Jeremy Wright, Andrew Rosindell, James Duddridge, Mark Pritchard, Martin Horwood and Mr. David Amess.

Samurai Swords

James Brokenshire accordingly presented a Bill to forbid the sale, manufacture, hire, loan or importation of sharpened samurai swords; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 217].

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Opposition Day

[Un-allotted day]

Home Information Packs

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I advise Members that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.56 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I beg to move,

May I say how pleased I am that the Minister for Housing and Planning is still in her place, because this debate gives me an opportunity to congratulate her on grasping the nettle, which her predecessors avoided, of signalling the death of home information packs? For let us be in no doubt that the announcement that she made yesterday—with becoming modesty, by way of a written statement—was an obituary to the Government’s plans to tie up the housing market in red tape. The Minister has come to the House today not to praise HIPs, as she may have anticipated a week ago, but to bury them.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making reference to last week, because a week last Sunday I read in my newspapers that the major issue for the Opposition was English votes for English Members. I cleared my diary and prepared my speech in defence of the Union. I wanted to ensure that there would be no second-class MPs. What happened?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The topic under consideration in this debate is home information packs.

Michael Gove: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am always delighted to hear from a fellow Scot in such debates, and I look forward to hearing what the hon. Gentleman might wish to say about the subject that is actually being discussed this afternoon.

Despite the Minister’s many skills at the Dispatch Box and elsewhere, she will not be able to disguise that the central part of HIPs—the keystone around which everything else was constructed—has been demolished. Her decision yesterday to make home condition reports a purely voluntary part of HIPs means that they are now, in effect, a dead letter. After all, who in their right mind will voluntarily wish to pay hundreds of pounds extra for a home condition report, with all its current defects, simply to market their property, when they can go ahead without one? Making the preparation of a
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home condition report voluntary is like making payment of council tax voluntary—something the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister knows all about. If a Government-mandated levy is no longer obligatory, why should people pay?

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): For the benefit of the House, I should point out that council tax collection rates are at their highest ever level.

Michael Gove: I am delighted to acknowledge that, thanks to the wonderful campaign conducted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), the Deputy Prime Minister has at last succeeded in paying his council tax, no doubt contributing to the increased collection rates in Conservative-run Westminster council.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already said that the motion under debate is home information packs—not council tax, nor anything else.

Michael Gove: Thank you very much for your welcome intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker; it allows me, despite the temptation offered by the Minister for Local Government, to get back on course.

I am naturally delighted that the Minister for Housing and Planning, in making yesterday’s announcement, accepted the force of Conservative arguments, because we have consistently highlighted the scheme’s weakness and invited her to climb down. I am particularly delighted that she has appreciated the importance of economic stability and the vital role that a stable housing market plays in ensuring such stability. [Interruption.] Labour Members laugh—perhaps they take a cavalier approach to economic stability—but we Conservatives put it at the heart of economic policy. That is why we welcomed the independent report by the lenders GMAC-RFC, which showed precisely what consequences the introduction of home information packs might have for the housing market and broader economic stability.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I presume that the hon. Gentleman is a fan of free markets, given his background in the Policy Exchange and his being a Tory, and all. So I am sure that he is aware that free markets can be fair only if everyone has the same information. Is his opposition to the Government’s plans merely based on keeping information in the hands of the rich, rather than making it available to all?

Michael Gove: That was a beautifully read intervention. As a believer in free markets, I welcome precisely what the Government have done, which is to replace something that would have been compulsory—an intervention and a regulatory clogging of the market—with a voluntary proposal that allows the market to continue to function well.

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