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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. I understand the need for flexibility at this time of year. For a start, of the first four Divisions in the House of Lords since the recess, three have been lost by the Government, one by a margin of more than two to one. I fully understand that it may be necessary for matters to pass between the two Houses over the next few weeks.
Can the Leader of the House tell me, however, why we do not have a clear timetable for those Bills that are now before the House? The Fraud Bill seems to have disappeared without trace, the Charities Bill has disappeared temporarily and nobody has yet seen the Wireless Telegraphy Bill, which, allegedly, is in this House.
At yesterdays Prime Ministers questions, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) asked about maternity services, and she virtually declared her interest at the time. In his reply, the Prime Minister mentioned maternity pay and leave, but for some reason he omitted to mention maternity hospitals, probably because they are being closed up and down the country. Maternity services are being reorganised to suit the bureaucracy rather than mothers. May we have a debate on the provision of maternity services, because it is an important issue that affects all communities?
I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, but we are in the unique position of having two armies in the field at present, one of which is facing probably the most severe fighting for a generation. Is it not right that we should have an urgent debate on matters relating to those servicemen who are fighting so bravely in the field, such as military medical services, equipment, overstretch and the position of reservists, who are often overlooked? We need more than the routine defence debate. The debate should be targeted at the soldiers, sailors and air personnel presently risking their lives in the service of their country.
Finally, the Leader of the House has already shown himself to be innovative, and I hope that he will introduce another innovation. We will have the Gracious Speech in a few weeks. Can he arrange to have ready in the Vote Office on that day a clear and unambiguous list of the Bills that the Government intend to introduce? The list should also present the Bills subject matter in broad terms, and mention the responsible Department. As things stand, armies of people have to try to decipher what the Gracious Speech might mean, and that is nonsense. We need a clear list of Bills on the day, so that we know what is to be introduced. I acknowledge that other Bills may come later and that plans may change, but such a list would be a service to the House and to people outside it.
Mr. Straw: I shall look at the respective timetables for the Fraud, Charities and Wireless Telegraphy Bills and let the hon. Gentleman know, but I assure him that the matter is in hand. Those Bills are significant, but I somehow doubt that his constituents are gagging for information about them.
The hon. Gentleman raised an important issue in respect of maternity services. There used to be three maternity hospitals in the area that I and a couple of colleagues represent. The two smaller ones were closed when the Conservatives were in power, but we tried to ensure that public concern was balanced by the promise that the services to be provided in the main general hospital would be better. Although people had affection for the old maternity units, we argued that it would be better to concentrate the services. The key issue that hon. Members of all parties must understand is that the nature of medical care has changed, with mothers who have just delivered their babies spending much less time in hospital. There is bound to be some reconfiguration, but the important questions have to do with whether the services provide effective care before, at the time of and after birth, and whether ill babies are more likely to recover. According to those indicators, the service is getting better and not worse.
I shall discuss the matter of Afghanistan and Iraq with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Patronage Secretary. The truth is, however, that we have been able to debate Afghanistan and Iraq on many occasions.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Queens Speech. I know that some of the things that the Government do are a bit obscure, but the Queens Speech is pretty straightforward, in terms of the Bills that we are proposing. Moreover, the website that my office prepares contains details of all Bills, as well as departmental contact details.
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Following yesterdays Opposition day debate on the NHS, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on nurse education? I was unable to take part yesterday, but I note that the subject of nurse education was woefully absent from the debate. There have been tremendous advances in nurse education, and university facilities have been expanded. The Open universitys distance learning opportunities are fantastic, and the fact that it is able to place a great many nurses in jobs soon after training is something to be admired. Sadly, no mention was made of that in yesterdays debate.
Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend has great experience and knowledge of these matters, and I am glad that she has raised that issue. I shall certainly consider holding a debate on nurse education, not least so that the House can look at the changes and improvements that this Government have introduced. The number of nurses has increased by many thousands, and their real-terms pay has risen by more than 25 per cent. above inflation.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Can we have a debate on county council road schemes? Is the Leader of the House aware that counties such as Norfolk used to be able to set the priorities for non-trunk, A-road schemes that would then attract Government grant? However, since 2004, the priorities are set on a regional basis by the East Anglia regional assemblya bloated, unpopular and unaccountable body. That means that local bypasses, such as the Westbridge bypass in my constituency, lose out. What will the Government do about that?
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on crane safety, following the tragic accident in my constituency in which two people died? Such a debate would allow the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to report to the House on the number of similar fatalities, and review the need for further changes in crane safety. That would benefit people who work on cranes, and those who work next to building sites and who look nervously at the cranes towering over them.
Mr. Straw: The accident in my hon. Friends Battersea constituency was a terrible one. On behalf of the Government and the House, I should like to send our condolences to the relatives of those who were killed, and our sympathy to those who were injured. It will be no comfort to them to know that safety at work has improved in recent years, but even one accident or fatality is one too many. I shall of course raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I know that my hon. Friend is raising the matter with the Health and Safety Executive.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Will the Leader of the House please find time for a debate on the implications of British Airways proposal to close its cabin crew base at Manchester airport? The move will affect several dozen residents in my constituency and in neighbouring areas, where jobs are now at risk. It also calls into question the commitment of our national airline to regional centres such as Manchester. Does he recognise that this very serious matter deserves to be considered by the House?
Mr. Straw: Manchester airport is a fantastic airport, and the increases in passengers and services there have been huge. It is also municipally owned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds an opportunity to raise the issue to which he refers in an Adjournment debate or at next Tuesdays Transport questions.
[That this House expresses its extreme concern at the handling of immigration cases by the Manchester firm of solicitors, Thornhills; notes that Thornhills often take up, for money, immigration application cases that do not require the involvement of solicitors; further notes that repeatedly they handle these cases so incompetently that applicants feel obliged to consult their hon. Member in order to obtain the outcome that Thornhills have failed to achieve; is deeply concerned that in one recent case whose applicants felt obliged to consult their hon. Member Thornhills refused to hand over important documents in their possession until an exorbitant bill had been paid; and warns people in Manchester to have nothing whatever to do with this firm.]
The motion deals with Thornhills solicitors in Manchester, who take on immigration cases and botch them. They charge a great deal of money for the cases, which often end up with Members of Parliament. Will
he pay special attention to a case in my constituency, in which Thornhills, even though they failed to deal with it, held on to the papers until my constituents paid them an exorbitant bill?
Mr. Straw: All of us in the House who have any experience of dealing with immigration cases will recognise the seriousness of the issue that my right hon. Friend raises, and the outrageous way in which some solicitors firms behave. I hope that the appropriate disciplinary authorities will look at the very important facts that he has put before the House.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House told the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) a moment ago that the House had many opportunities to debate Afghanistan and Iraq. Does he agree that the situation there has sadly deteriorated since we rose for the summer recess? Would it not be appropriate to have a whole-day debate in Government time on this matter, instead of a debate about whether we should sit in September?
Mr. Straw: I acknowledge that a case can always be made for the Government to find time for defence and foreign affairs debates. It happens that five days each year are earmarked for defence-related debates, although no specific Government-time debates are earmarked for foreign policy. One matter that I am considering, in the context of the Modernisation Committee, is whether we should aim for a better allocation of subject-day debates in Government time to take account of the fact that this country is far more involved in military action overseas than was the case, say, a decade ago.
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): The Leader of the House might be aware that the £69 million Turner and Newall asbestos fund comes into existence today. Victims of the terrible disease that asbestos causes, and their families, can be found in my constituency and elsewhere. They can claim between 17p and 20p in the pound for their illness, which stands in stark contrast to the fact that lawyers and accountants dealing with the parent company can claim 100p in the pound of the £70 million made available to cover administrative fees. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the matter, so that the House can consider whether the cut in compensation that disease victims have had to accept should also apply to the schemes administrators?
Mr. Straw: I understand exactly my hon. Friends point. Solicitors administration charges in some of those cases are exorbitant and unacceptable, so I am not surprised that his constituents feel as they do.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con):
Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a debate about the Post Office on a motion that is drawn widely enough for me to raise both the threat to Letchworth Garden City main post office, which it is proposed to move from the town centre to the edge of the industrial area, and also the attitude of Post Office senior management, particularly Mr. Cook, the director responsible, who has refused to meet me to discuss the matter and has not even replied personally? Does the
Leader of the House agree that that is disgraceful from a publicly owned company?
Mr. Straw: I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I can give him immediate satisfaction on his request for a debate. Care of the Liberal Democrats, there will be a debate on Monday, so they were obviously listening to somebody. The Post Office is having to cope with changes quite beyond its control[ Interruption.] Of course it is. There has been a serious decline in traditional letters since the introduction of e-mail and the internet, so the Post Office has to make changes. There is no point in laughing about it; that is the situation. To cope with those changes, we have ensured that £2 billion has been put in to maintain the network, including £750 million for the rural network. That is a high level of subsidyfar higher, I suggest, than we would have seen from a Conservative Government.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): During the summer recess, my right hon. Friend will no doubt have been contacted by constituents who were charged severe penalties by banks, even when they were only slightly overdrawn. Despite such charges being clearly disproportionate to the costs incurred, all banks seem to impose them, so may we have a debate to determine what steps the Government can take to stop that blatant profiteering by high street banks?
Mr. Straw: I understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises. There are questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry next Thursday, and I hope that my hon. Friend will raise the matter as it is of profound concern to constituents across the country.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The Leader of the House will well remember those bright days of Your Right to Knowthe Government White Paper of which he was a signatory; indeed, he steered the freedom of information legislation through the House. Has he had an opportunity to read early-day motion 2699?
[That this House welcomes the finding of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (HC991) that the Freedom of Information Act has already brought about the release of significant new information and....this information is being used in a constructive and positive way' and the committee's conclusion that it sees no need to change' the Act's charging arrangements; views with concern reports that the Government is considering changing these arrangements to permit an application fee to be charged for all requests or to allow authorities to refuse, on cost grounds, a significant proportion of requests which they currently must answer; and considers that such changes could undermine the Act's benefits of increased openness, accountability and trust in the work of public authorities.]
The early-day motion was signed by Members on both sides of the House, and is in respect of the strong rumours that the Government are considering changing the present fee arrangements, which will have a deleterious
effect on access and on the objectives that the Government stated in their White Paper and in its support through legislation.
Mr. Straw: It is not rumour but fact. When we began operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, 18 months ago at the beginning of 2005, we said that we would review its operation after it had been in force for a year. That is what my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has been doing, in consultation with colleagues. Subsequently, a report was produced by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, to which, as is entirely proper, my noble Friend, in consultation with his Cabinet colleagues, is considering the Governments response, so that we can put our views before the Select Committee and the House. That is the appropriate way to proceed.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could find time for a debate on human trafficking. I was a member of the Council of Europe for six years so I am well aware of the problems arising from that terrible trade. I am also well aware of the fact that the Government are concerned and that last week they opened a new centre in Sheffield. What I am not sure about is the fate of women so trafficked. It may be demonstrated that, yes, they have been trafficked but it may also be demonstrated that they are in this country illegally. I should like to know just what their fate will be.
Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for all the concern she has shown about this very difficult issue; it is a serious matter. I will certainly pursue her concerns with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We have all heard of harrowing cases of that kind, where women subjected to enforced trafficking end up in this country, but they have no papers and no right to remain, so decisions have to be made on compassionate grounds to allow them to stay. We have to ensureas my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary doesthat the interests of the women in those very distressing cases are high on the list of considerations.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): May we have a debate not only on compensation for sufferers of mesothelioma but also on their care and treatment? The Leader of the House will remember that just before the summer recess I raised the case of my constituent, Mr. Harward, who was unable to get the only drug licensed to treat mesothelioma, as it had not been funded by his primary care trust. He died because he did not receive treatment, but it is still not too late for the Government to take tough action to ensure that treatment is available for surviving sufferers of that terminal condition. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to hold a debate and to rattle the chains of the Secretary of State for Health so that she is slightly more proactive on the topic than she was during the summer when I wrote to her on several occasions?
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