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Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responds promptly to a very large number of understandable concerns. I am sorry to hear of the death of the hon. Lady’s constituent. Without commenting on that case, I am glad that yesterday the parties were agreed on at least one thing in respect of the national health service—that the arrangements of the National
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Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which gives independent judgment about the efficacy of drugs, should stand. Yesterday, when pressed—very heavily—from the Back Benches by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the Conservative spokesman on health, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), made it absolutely clear that he would not disturb the arrangements for NICE, as he was being requested to do.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2081?

[That this House notes the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain of Leeds who holds dual British/Pakistani nationality and is facing the death penalty on 3rd June; further notes that he was 18 years old when he travelled to Pakistan in 1988, has been accused of murder and robbing a taxi driver, that these claims have not been verified beyond reasonable doubt or to the standards laid by the European and Human Rights Commission and that in 1992 and 1996 the High Court quashed the sentence and acquitted him of all charges; and urges the Government to petition the President of Pakistan to prevent the execution of Mirza Tahir Hussain.]

Mr. Mirza Tahir Hussain from Leeds has been imprisoned in Pakistan since 1988 on what is widely regarded as an unsafe conviction. Since May, when the early-day motion was tabled, his execution has been postponed five times, but it is widely rumoured that he will be executed at the end of this month. I urge my right hon. Friend to get the Government to step up demands to stop that death sentence and I urge all colleagues to sign the early-day motion, as it could help to save the life of someone who has been unjustly convicted.

Mr. Straw: I am all too well aware of the circumstances of the case, not least from my time as Foreign Secretary. Representations at the very highest level of the British Government have been made to His Excellency President Musharraf and to other appropriate Ministers in his Government. We shall continue to do everything we can to ensure that the stays of execution are turned into a reprieve from the death sentence.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May we have a debate on restoring face-to-face interviews as the normal provision for pensioners and disabled people claiming social security benefits, as there is much dissatisfaction with the current telephone system? Now that the Leader of the House has asserted his right to face-to-face interviews, will he do the same for that most vulnerable group?

Mr. Straw: Speaking from my own constituency, I have few complaints about how the Department for Work and Pensions deals with the concerns of pensioners. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but I think the current arrangements, whereby initial contact is by telephone and, if necessary, there can be a home visit, are probably appropriate. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman has specific cases of concern I will see that they are followed up.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): There was yet another tragic death this summer of one of my constituents from a suspected deep vein thrombosis
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following a long-haul flight—that of Mr. Les Rogers, aged 38, who was flying out to Australia to represent his country in the Commonwealth bowling championship. Although I welcome the provisions in the Civil Aviation Bill, which will come before the House today, will my right hon. Friend find time to debate in the House the need to place exactly the same duty of care in law on airlines for the health and well-being of their passengers as exists for all other passenger carriers?

Mr. Straw: Our hearts go out to the relatives of the gentleman who died as a result of deep vein thrombosis. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have taken some steps better to ensure that the incidence of that condition is lessened. I will certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I remind my hon. Friend that Transport questions are coming up next Tuesday.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Following the remarks made by the Leader of the House about discouraging Muslim ladies from wearing the veil, will he help to clarify for the House some confusion in Government policy? He must be aware that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport suggested during the summer that the BBC should be encouraged to use more TV presenters who wear Muslim headgear, so that we can all get more used to the idea. Can he help to clarify what the Government mean on this issue?

Mr. Straw rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That has nothing to do with next week’s business.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate miscarriages of justice? Last night, my constituent, Mr. Michael O’Brien, accepted £300,000 in an out-of-court settlement with South Wales police, but there was no apology and no acknowledgement of the events that led up to that decision. Sadly, today is the 19th anniversary of the death of the murder victim, Phillip Saunders—a Cardiff newsagent, who lived in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan)—and I want express my sympathy to his family. The investigation into his murder still goes on. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on those issues?

Mr. Straw: I hope very much that my hon. Friend can find an opportunity for such a debate—for example, in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment. I understand her concern. In the past 10 years, as a result of legislation initiated by the previous Government in 1996, and the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, as well as other improvements, under this Administration, there has been a significant improvement in dealing with alleged miscarriages of justice. However, that does not in any sense undermine the profound anger that will be felt by that person at the miscarriage of justice perpetrated on him; nor, above all, does it reduce the deep concern of the victim’s relatives about the fact that, so many years on, no guilty person has been brought to justice.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Leader of the House has said
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that the future of the Post Office depends on the uncertainties that it faces, but many of them stem from the Government. Will he ensure that Ministers use Monday’s debate to respond to today’s publication by Postcomm, the postal regulator? Paragraph 19 of its foreword says:

If the many sub-postmasters throughout the country who provide vital services to rural areas are to make a decision about their future, they need to know what the Government have decided that that future should be.

Mr. Straw: I am sorry to say that the fundamental uncertainty faced by the Post Office arises from the extraordinary pace of change in the introduction of information technology . [ Interruption. ] That is absolutely true. It is affecting post offices all over the world. There is a dramatic change both in the number of letters posted and in the payment of benefits, which is a core business, particularly for sub-post offices. I repeat that we have recognised the fact that the Post Office faces a very big transitional problem. That is why we have put in £2 billion to help to maintain the network, including £750 million for the rural network. Of course my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—who represents a Scottish constituency, albeit an urban one—is well aware of the problem in far-flung rural constituencies in Scotland and elsewhere, and he will ensure that there is an effective response to the motion that is, no doubt, being tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent, definitive and clear statement from the Home Secretary on whether the Government will impose employment restrictions on the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania when they join the EU in 11 weeks’ time? As a champion of enlargement, my right hon. Friend will know how important it is that we consult our potential EU partners and that we are clear about whether there will be such restrictions to avoid a repeat of the hysteria of the tabloid press before the last enlargement process on 1 May 2004.

Mr. Straw: I accept my right hon. Friend’s point. As we have made clear, Romanians and Bulgarians will be subject to restricted access to our labour markets, once their countries join the European Union on 1 January 2007. We believe that a gradual approach is required, and more details of our approach will be given to the House by the end of this month.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate the Leader of the House on having the courage over the summer to raise the issue of veils and say something that many people in the country think, but that no one has previously dared to say. Will he consider a debate on forced marriages? Legislation to outlaw that practice was dropped by the Government just before the summer recess. I am sure that he cannot believe that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear veils, but should be able to be forced into marriages against their will. May we have a debate to judge the mood of
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the House and to bring back plans to legislate to outlaw that outrageous practice?

Mr. Straw: We are all agreed on the need to outlaw forced marriages. During my period as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary and during that of my successors, the Government have taken a great deal of action to ensure better enforcement against forced marriages and to provide far better support—especially in Pakistan, where the main problem arises—for the victims of forced marriages. I am always happy to ensure that we do more.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will have noticed this week how warm it is in the Palace of Westminster. His ministerial colleagues are for ever, rightly, urging us and our constituents to conserve energy in our private lives. Will he have an urgent discussion with the House authorities, so that we can practice what we preach and do out bit in this place?

Mr. Straw: I think that we have all lost a few pounds this week, as a result of the fact that the atmosphere in the House has been even more sweltering than it has been outside, where it is unusually warm. My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is a debate on climate change today, and she may wish to put her remarks in that debate as well.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Might I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it would help if we could have an earnest statement from the Home Secretary about the operation of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, especially with regard to the two cases of MK and Abu Doha? The right hon. Gentleman will know that many of us are very concerned about the secretive nature of the proceedings and the risk of injustice. He will also know that, in the case of MK, the judge has found that false information was supplied by the Home Office to the tribunal and, furthermore, that there was wholly inadequate disclosure, and the Home Secretary was criticised. Can we please know what the Home Secretary will do to meet the criticisms made of the Home Office by the trial judge?

Mr. Straw: Of course the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises a very serious matter, but it was the subject of an exchange between the shadow Attorney-General and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General just before I stood up to speak. My hon. and learned Friend said that what had happened was unacceptable—it certainly is—but it is a very unusual case.

On the overall issue of the standing of SIAC, the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is extraordinarily difficult to set up a forum that is both fair and necessarily protects the intelligence that must be protected in such cases. SIAC, as I remember, was originally a creation of the previous Government, with our endorsement. We have developed it, and it has worked satisfactorily. As he will accept, one hard case should not be allowed to lead to a general change in what, overall, has been a satisfactory arrangement.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the policies that the Royal Mail is pursuing? I am thinking, in particular, of the decision to announce the closure of both the Gloucester and Reading sorting offices and to centralise those services on Swindon. Will he ask, through his good offices, for the report on which that decision is based to be made available to us? Dare I say—on a day when environmental concerns are uppermost in all our minds—that it is not very bright to have a letter that is posted in Stroud possibly taken to Swindon and then perhaps via Bristol back to Stroud. That is not the way forward. Would he care to comment on that?

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There are questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry next Thursday and I hope that he can raise that matter then. Meanwhile, I will certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are all concerned. What he is talking about applies not only to the Post Office, but to supermarkets: goods travel huge distances around the country, apparently for no great purpose.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Now that we have a Lord Chief Justice who pursues an agenda by posing as a criminal on community service and who makes a speech comparing present-day sentencing to barbaric past practices, may we have a debate on the Government’s policy on the protection of the public from violent crime now that the prisons are full?

Mr. Straw: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is totally unacceptable for any of us to start parodying the position taken by as distinguished and senior a judge as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips? I happen to know the Lord Chief Justice, as I knew his predecessors, and he is as concerned as anybody in this House or the other place about protecting the public. [ Interruption. ] Of course he is. There is no suggestion whatever that he or his Court of Appeal criminal division are going to go soft on violent offenders. That has never been part of what he has been talking about. What he has talked about is what successive Home Secretaries and Governments have talked about: a balance between custodial and non-custodial sentences for non-violent offenders, and ensuring—this is necessary under any Government—that the available prison places are used sensibly and the prisons are not full to bursting point. It certainly does not lie in the mouth of any Opposition Member to start complaining about the number of prison places now, because there are many, many thousands more than there were in 1997 and there were very few plans for any increase in the last Budget of the last Conservative Government.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Those of us who recently visited RAF Odiham heard at first hand of the courage of our air crews who are flying Chinooks in Afghanistan. Bearing it in mind that and other sources, many of us were greatly surprised to hear the breezily uttered comments by the Prime Minister on the British Forces Broadcasting Service that all the equipment that the armed forces need would be made available. May we have a debate on
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what extra equipment the armed forces require, what actually exists and what the Government propose to do about the shortfall?

Mr. Straw: First, like the hon. Gentleman, I pay tribute to the service personnel and civilians operating from the air base in his constituency, as well as those around the country. They show extraordinary bravery and skill, as I know personally. I said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) earlier that I acknowledge the case for a debate on these important issues and I hope to ensure that there will be an opportunity for such a debate to be provided.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Leader of the House think that it is right for a spouse or a partner of somebody serving a prison sentence to be eligible for council tax benefit, if a spouse or a partner of somebody who is serving their country in a war zone such as Afghanistan, Iraq or the Balkans is not? If he agrees that that is wrong, will he arrange for a Minister to make an urgent statement in the House next week?

Mr. Straw: I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. To put it at its mildest, it is anomalous, and the matter is being reviewed as I speak.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Will the Leader of the House place on the Order Paper next week the necessary motions to put an end to the scandal in a free Parliament of the European Scrutiny Committee meeting in secret? That is for the fourth time of asking.

Mr. Straw: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there are actually quite good reasons, in a free and democratic Parliament, for the Scrutiny Committee to meet not in secret, but in private. He knows that plenty of Select Committees hold meetings in private. There are good explanations in the report of the Modernisation Committee on European scrutiny, and much else besides, as to why that practice is sensible.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): When I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Skills earlier about the paucity of core skills, you will have been surprised and disappointed by his answer, Mr. Speaker. He ignored the fact that one in three employers now have to provide remedial training to teach staff how to read, write and count. The skills crisis is affecting our economy and we need a debate on it. I hope that the Leader of the House will treat that as a matter of some urgency.

Mr. Straw: There are plenty of opportunities to debate our excellent record on skills training. We can always do more, but we have invested hugely in further education vocational training and that is showing in the increasing number of young people on modern apprenticeships, as well as much else besides.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a statement or debate next week on the continuing crisis in Darfur, western Sudan? Given that murder and
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rape continue unabated and that foot-stamping by the Sudanese Government has already effectively vetoed a vital United Nations troop deployment to the region, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be timely for the House to debate whether the responsibility of the United Nations to protect is a serious attempt to avert genocide or simply a rather futile exercise in vacuous moral posturing?

Mr. Straw: Ensuring that the United Nations always practises what it preaches is an enduring challenge for all of us who are, or have been, involved in international diplomacy. The issue is really serious. I hope that it can
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be debated in the House and that the concern that everybody feels on the issue of Darfur is made very vocal. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, the United Nations committed itself last year to intervening under its responsibility to protect. I am sorry to say that one permanent member, at least, of the Security Council was very reluctant to ensure that that happened. The result is that that member of the Security Council is effectively protecting the regime in Khartoum.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We now come to the main business.

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Point of Order

12.27 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister stated, in relation to hospital operations:

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