Previous Section Index Home Page

As for my soap box in Blackburn, I was indeed on it on Saturday and, I am pleased to say, received
20 July 2006 : Column 462
approbation—as ever—for what had happened on 8 July, after 18 years of my campaigning and being given the raspberry. In 1998 my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), then Secretary of State for Health, announced that there would be a new hospital in Blackburn. It has now been built, £140 million has been spent on it, and on 8 July it opened for business. That was a great day for a Labour Government and the people of Blackburn.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. It will be warmly welcomed, particularly in the workplace. I am especially pleased to learn that Scottish measures will be included, because I believe that in Scotland we have one of the highest rates of industrial death and injury. It is important for the Bill to complete its passage. My right hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a carry-over; it is clear from the timetable that he has announced today that that will be necessary, and I hope that he will make every effort to ensure that it happens.

Mr. Straw: I guarantee that the Bill will be carried over, and I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes it. I should explain that while many aspects of criminal law are devolved, the Bill involves health and safety, and the House decided in the Scotland Act 1998 that those matters were reserved. There has, however, been substantial consultation with the Scottish Executive.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): The Government’s avowed intention is to create further rail freight interchanges. I have met 400-odd constituents who are extremely concerned about the possibility of a 3.5 million sq ft interchange in the constituency. I would welcome an urgent debate on the future of rail freight and the positioning of rail freight interchanges, and I hope very much that the Government will have time to provide one.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady raises a legitimate point, but it underlines the conflicts with which we must all deal. I have been in the House for quite a long time, and year after year there are debates in which Members call for more freight to be carried by rail. We are all up for that, but of course it means that there must be interchanges with roads, and those facilities must go somewhere.

I will convey the hon. Lady’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who deals with planning, but I hope she believes that in principle it is a good idea for more freight to be carried by rail. The amount of rail freight has increased considerably during the past nine years, and, as I have said, the interchanges must go somewhere.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): As chair of the all-party group on poverty, I wish to draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2529, entitled “Lunch expenses for unemployed volunteers”.

[That this House believes that volunteers play an important role in building and empowering communities and that volunteering should be encouraged for all;
20 July 2006 : Column 463
supports job seekers and the unemployed who make time to volunteer whilst also seeking employment; notes with dismay the recent Department for Work and Pensions booklet that states that volunteers on Income Support or Job Seekers Allowance will not normally be entitled to claim lunch as an expense; is concerned that the long-standing reimbursement of volunteers as a way of appreciating and recognising their input may be undermined; is further concerned that those least able to afford volunteering are more likely to be discouraged from doing so if reasonable expenses are not provided; notes that volunteering should not be considered ‘basic needs'; and calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to promote volunteering as a benefit to job seekers and their communities, for which volunteers should have the right to claim reasonable and essential expenses.]

This may seem a small matter. The motion refers to a booklet produced by the Department for Work and Pensions, “A Guide to Volunteering While on Benefits”. The booklet is welcome, but buried in it is a small change in the guidance: the withdrawal of lunch expenses as a legitimate reimbursable claim. That will prevent many people on benefits from being able to volunteer.

I think all Members will agree that volunteering is a route back to contact and work. The matter is urgent, because the Government are introducing changes in incapacity benefit—which I hope we all support, because they will encourage people to return to work. If that small change in the guidelines were amended during the summer, while we are away, it would open up opportunities rather than closing them down.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend has made an important and persuasive point, and I take it on board. I promise that I will speak personally to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and propose that the change be made.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): When the House returns, will the Leader of the House provide Government time, as a matter of urgency, for us to discuss the ramifications of the Government’s decision to allow civil partnership couples in Northern Ireland to apply to adopt children in care, and the serious impact that it will have on the children in particular and on society as a whole?

Mr. Straw: I note the hon. Lady’s point of view, and I know that there are strong opinions on all sides. On the basis of my knowledge of the working of the adoption system, at least in Great Britain, I can say that the adoption authorities have the strictest duties—and in any event take the strictest care—not to permit adoptions unless they are satisfied that they are in the interests of the children concerned, and the courts would not do so either.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity of looking at early-day motion 2595?

[That this House congratulates Amitabh Bachchan on being awarded an honorary degree from De Montfort University, Leicester; notes his towering contribution to Indian cinema having received 10 Filmfare awards and
20 July 2006 : Column 464
being named BBC Star of the Millennium; recognises his work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and as former member of the Lok Sabha, lower house of the Indian Parliament; and hopes that the award will continue to strengthen ties between the UK and India.]

Will he join me in congratulating Amitabh Bachchan on getting his honorary degree from De Montfort university? Can we have a debate on the creative industries and the importance of links between Britain and India—not just in respect of the film industry, but in respect of the exchange of overseas students, which the degree personifies?

Mr. Straw: I have indeed seen that early-day motion and I had the pleasure of meeting Amitabh Bachchan earlier today. I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done for the creative industries both in India and in this country. If we could find the time, I would look forward to a debate on the creative industries, which are a major part of our export effort these days. It was interesting to learn from my hon. Friend that the Indian film industry, Bollywood, now uses many UK facilities because of their world-class excellence.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I wish the Leader of the House and the whole House a good summer. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is enjoying the weather and that people will make good use of sun creams, because 60,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer and 1,700 die from it every year, with most of the damage done in childhood. However, sun creams are not classed as health products, which they should be, so they attract VAT. Can we have a debate in order to exercise the Chancellor on this matter and get VAT removed from these essential health care products?

Mr. Straw: Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s serious point first. It is extremely important for people to use proper sun cream or other sun blocks. It is not for me to speak on our VAT policy, but I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s point. Secondly, reference was made earlier to my soap box sessions in Blackburn, which depend on good weather—indeed, they take place only in good weather. My constituents have often heard me refer to the sunshine and to the fact that there has been a lot more sunshine since people voted Labour in 1997.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May I once again refer to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill? It will be strongly welcomed by the many people who have lost family members in workplace deaths, particularly when caused by reckless employers from the Herald of Free Enterprise to the railway disasters, although they can sometimes be caused by the smallest firms in the backstreets of our towns and cities. In view of the wise decision on mesothelioma in the Compensation Bill and the progress made on the Warwick agreement, will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate between now and next Tuesday on the rights of employees at work and the role of the trade unions and the Government in working together to produce a better Britain?

Mr. Straw: I would like to have a debate on that but, sadly, I do not think that we have the time between now
20 July 2006 : Column 465
and next Tuesday, which is a shame. I should have said earlier to several hon. Members who raised the issue that the summer recess Adjournment debate on Tuesday offers the opportunity to raise these important matters. I am grateful for the welcome for the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. The ultimate test of its success will not be the number of convictions that follow it, but whether it changes the behaviour of business managers, resulting in far fewer deaths from the sort of major accidents that we have seen in the past.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I warmly congratulate the Leader of the House on his announcement of the tabling of named-day written questions during the recess, which partly meets the recommendations of the Procedure Committee a year or two ago. Will he give an assurance that that facility can be extended in future years?

I am happy to join in the House’s general euphoria about the approaching recess and to add my good wishes to those of others. I also warmly thank the Government for the announcement made at Farnborough air show about the award to BAE Systems of a contract for 12 Nimrod MRA4 aircraft. On behalf of the management and work force, I am most grateful to the Government. However, that leads me to my real question. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on manufacturing industry and the different sectors of manufacturing that are of strategic importance to this country? Having such a debate at the earliest opportunity is vital. Manufacturing is in difficulty and we must maintain the strategic sectors for the benefit of this country’s security.

Mr. Straw: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the introduction of new arrangements for parliamentary questions. I intend that when we return in October, we have the opportunity to debate the summer recess, which is a matter for the House rather than the Government. The experience of the new arrangements for parliamentary questions and written ministerial statements can be taken into account in those debates. I thank the hon. Gentleman for being one of those people who have prodded me on the issue.

On BAE Systems, I also declare an interest in that many of my constituents work for the organisation and I am glad about the announcement. I am also happy to pass on the request for a debate on manufacturing, which faces a paradoxical situation. For example, car production is not quite at its peak level, but at 1.6 million units, it is well above the trough of 900,000 to which it fell in the early 1980s, and we are exporting cars around the world. Aerospace is a world beater and both the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry are well seized of the importance of maintaining manufacturing’s output, albeit in a context in which employment levels may well reduce. One of the key challenges is to see increases in productivity beyond the trend rate.

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): I believe that the Department of Health is about to publish its review
20 July 2006 : Column 466
of communications systems in hospitals, which includes looking into the exorbitant cost—up to 49p a minute—of telephone calls from patients in hospitals. That greatly concerns my constituents, so will my right hon. Friend make time for a ministerial statement when the report is published?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The issue was also the subject of a critical report last week, so I will pass on her concerns.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In a recent parliamentary answer, it was stated that in 2004 there were 103,000 prescriptions for diamorphine hydrochloride, falling to 61,000 in 2005 due to a shortage of supplies. That has led to seriously and terminally ill patients not being able to receive the pain relief that they so desperately require, resulting in unnecessary suffering. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement before the summer recess?

Mr. Straw: I understand the seriousness of the hon. Gentleman’s point. I will not be able to get the Secretary of State to come before the House, but I will certainly ensure that she knows about the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I welcome the announcement that we will be able to table some written questions during the recess and that some statements will be made in September, but I put it to the Leader of the House that the ability to table written questions is no substitute for the House actually sitting. Does he share my hope that this will be the last of 75 to 80-day recesses, which bring us into such discredit with our constituents? Can we revert to the system that, after all, the House agreed to previously?

Mr. Straw: I know that my hon. Friend feels very strongly about that matter. May I say that, since I uttered some words in his support, I have rather felt that a fine career was about to go down the tubes as a result? It is absolutely clear that as the House took the original decision in 2002, any change to it must be made by the House. I am sure that my hon. Friend will not expect his view to receive unanimous support.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Has the Leader of the House seen the opinion poll in Scotland’s largest selling Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Mail, which showed that one third of English people now want independence for England? They join the more than half of Scots who want Scottish independence. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that that represents a seismic shift in the relationship and arrangements between our two nations? Does he also recognise the frustration felt in England about the current constitutional arrangements between Scotland and the rest of the UK? Given that the Conservatives chickened out of a debate on that matter, will the Government hold a debate as soon as we return after the recess?

Mr. Straw: We have had loads of debates on that, but I am always happy to debate it. What I find, not least on my soap box in Blackburn, is that people
20 July 2006 : Column 467
understand how profoundly damaging such changes in the way this House operates would be, with a two-tier system of Members of Parliament and extraordinary legal arguments about whether a matter was English or Scottish. Scotland benefits from the Union, and so does England, and it would be to the detriment of the whole of the United Kingdom if we were to follow the irresponsible path proposed by the Leader of the Opposition last month—but not this month—for a two-tier system of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): As I go around my constituency, I note with great pride the improvements in education. Regrettably, I spot a cloud on the horizon, although it is no bigger than a man’s hand at present. Can we bring my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to the House to deal with reports that suggest that the Government, through officials, are telling local authorities with school building programmes that they will not be successful unless that programme includes a commitment to an academy? Does my right hon. Friend realise that such a stand-off between the Government and local authorities condemns some of our children to schools such as those in my constituency that badly need replacing—for example, Heath Park—and perhaps delivers us into the hands of religious bigots, from whom children will not benefit, or indeed those who have £2 million to buy a school and whose egos need assuaging?

Mr. Straw: I know of no case in which an academy has been established and religious bigots have been involved. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, however, and I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is fully apprised of it.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I know that the Leader of the House does not have a photographic memory, and he is probably unable to recall precisely the length of time it took for written parliamentary questions to be returned by his Department when he was Home Secretary. I appreciate what he said a few moments ago about the improvements that the Home Secretary is trying to engineer with regard to the length of time taken, but increasingly the Home Office is answering written parliamentary questions by saying that the information is not kept centrally and could not be provided without incurring disproportionate cost. Will the Leader of the House investigate that rubric to see whether it is simply a way of avoiding responsibility for answering the question and keeping proper information? Could he also assure me that the named-day system with which he will experiment in September does not lead to a named day in October? Will he also encourage—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is pushing his luck.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in his place and he takes the same approach to parliamentary questions as I do: if the information is available or can be extracted from the Department, it should be provided. The last accusation that can be made against my right hon. Friend—or
20 July 2006 : Column 468
against me five years ago—is that he is keeping bad news from the House. He is presiding not over cover up, but an open up in the Home Office.

On named-day questions, the idea is that three days will be named—Monday, Wednesday and Friday—in the first week of September for tabling the questions and the corresponding three days in the following week for answering them. I hope very much that they are all answered. My right hon. Friend will also confirm that I make myself unpopular with Cabinet colleagues if they do not answer questions on time.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Express and Star and its superb campaign to highlight the noise, nuisance and danger caused by the illegal and antisocial use of motorbikes and mini motorbikes? Will he consider arranging a debate on the issue so that we could discuss how we can impose restrictions on their sale or a proper registration system, so that we can clamp down on those teenage Evel Knievels who disturb my constituents’ peace and quiet and put at risk people using parks and open spaces for recreation or to walk their dogs?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just told me that tough measures are planned for such bikes. They are a real nuisance across the country and I congratulate the Express and Star and my hon. Friend on that campaign.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The Leader of the House will be aware of the appalling decision by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to deny support services to deaf candidates taking exams in English and foreign languages, in many cases automatically depriving them of up to 20 per cent. of their marks, as drawn to the attention of the House in early-day motion 2615.

Next Section Index Home Page