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Ruth Kelly: I hear exactly what my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) have said. It is important that we have a proper debate that involves people who hold views on both sides of the argument and that we can discuss matters openly and honestly with each other. My first priority is to have the regulations implemented in April. In the consultation,
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passionate views were expressed on both sides, some of which, I fear, are completely misleading—for instance, the thought that the regulations would in any sense force Churches to marry gay people or schools to promote a homosexual lifestyle. It is 100 per cent. inaccurate to suggest that that might be the case, but given the nature of the responses to the consultation that we received, it is only right that we take our time to analyse them properly. If we can, I will consider laying the regulations in draft form, but my priority must be to implement them alongside the religion and belief regulations in April.

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Business of the House

11.32 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the coming week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 23 October—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords], followed by remaining stages of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 24 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Police and Justice Bill.

Wednesday 25 October—Remaining stages of the Charities Bill [Lords], followed by proceedings on the Parliamentary Costs Bill [Lords], followed by proceedings on the Wireless Telegraphy Bill [Lords].

Thursday 26 October—Remaining stages of the Fraud Bill [Lords], followed by motion to approve a European document relating to A Citizens’ Agenda—Delivering Results for Europe, followed by a debate on the Department for International Development’s White Paper on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 27 October—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 30 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.

I know that colleagues on all sides of the House want notice of recess dates as early as possible. Until we have made a decision about September sittings, which will be before Prorogation, I cannot give all the dates, but for the convenience of the House let me give the Commons calendar until February 2007. We plan to rise for the Christmas recess on Tuesday 19 December and return on Monday 8 January. For the February constituency week, the House will rise on Thursday 8 February and return on Monday 19 February. This is, of course, subject to the progress of business.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for telling us the business for next week and the available recess dates.

On Tuesday, the House debated a motion to refer two statutory instruments to a Standing Committee. The Deputy Leader of the House battled valiantly to respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), but the debate masked a serious issue about House business. Since 1997, well over 30,000 statutory instruments have been laid before this House. The Government are increasingly changing the law through the use of such secondary legislation, which is rarely debated, and, if it is, usually it is for only about an hour and a half in Committee and often after it has come into force. That smacks of Government arrogance, and it also potentially lays the House open to be a laughing stock. For example, the statutory instrument to set up the new strategic health authorities will be debated next week. It was laid in June and came into force on 1 July, and the authorities started working on 1 October. Little
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wonder that the Deputy Leader of the House said that if the House failed to pass that legislation

Will the right hon. Gentleman review the use of secondary legislation and make a statement to the House?

The Leader of the House has in the past said that he wants to make sure that parliamentary questions are answered in a helpful and timely fashion. [Interruption.] He says “Yes” or “Hear, hear” from a sedentary position. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary has been waiting for the answer to no fewer than 43 written questions to the Home Office since 8 July, which is more than three months. I fully appreciate that the Home Secretary might find it inconvenient to answer the questions, but that is to do with the failure of Government policy. The delay is simply not good enough. Does the Leader of the House agree, and will he ensure that those questions are now answered promptly?

On 11 September, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety issued a written ministerial statement on the operation of control orders. He did not say that there had been any breaches to the orders or risk to the public. Why not? Although the failure to mention that might not have been a breach of the letter of the requirement on Ministers, it certainly was a breach of the spirit of the agreements made when control orders were introduced. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on that?

Earlier this week, the chief executive of the NHS said that he does not know how many job cuts there will be in the NHS this year—which, of course, according to the Health Secretary is the best year ever for the NHS. We believe that 20,000 jobs will be lost, and NHS employers say that it could reach 20,000. The only people who do not seem to know are the Government. When will the Health Secretary publish a figure for Members?

Yesterday, a petition of 4 million signatures was handed to No. 10 highlighting the fact that the withdrawal of the Post Office card account will lead to yet more post office closures. It was reported this morning that the Minister with responsibility for employment relations and postal services said that

When will the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry make that statement to the House?

Tomorrow, the House will consider a Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to change the definition of brownfield land and to stop garden-grabbing, which is a problem throughout the country. Will the Government come off the fence and support the Bill, and, if necessary, introduce such a Bill in Government time in the next Session?

Mr. Straw: Let me deal with those points in turn. Anyone listening to the right hon. Lady would think that the Labour Government had invented secondary legislation. Secondary legislation is a fact of British
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parliamentary life. More than 50,000 statutory instruments were introduced under the Administration whom she supported, before 1997. I accept that the way in which the House is able to deal with statutory instruments is not as satisfactory as it should be, but there is an inherent problem to do with the management of Government time. There is also the simple truth that we cannot in any legislation—her Government did not do it, and we cannot do it—anticipate every change in ministerial power when the primary legislation is introduced. I am very happy—we all are—to discuss and think about changes in the management of statutory instruments to the benefit of the House and good governance. I suggest that she offer some practical ideas that the Conservatives would be willing to introduce, were they in government.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department is very concerned indeed about the huge backlog of parliamentary questions. Ever since he took office in May, he has been working very hard with his colleagues to clear the backlog, which in part arose—I do not complain about this—from the massive increase in the number of questions as a result of the foreign prisoners problem. However, I will of course follow up the issue that the right hon. Lady raises.

We have been up hill and down dale on the issue of control orders, and I have looked at what the Minister in question said on 11 September. There was no disingenuity whatsoever about the statement that was made—as, indeed, the right hon. Lady accepted when she had to resort to saying that at least she could not complain about the letter of what was said. The Home Office has been as open as it can be when breaches have taken place.

Let me deal with the two issues that the right hon. Lady raised concerning the national health service and the Post Office. I know that she is running a scare story that 20,000 people in the NHS are going to be sacked. If she looks at the detail, she will see that, so far, the number of redundancies in the health service, particularly compulsory ones, is tiny. She always forgets to acknowledge that since 1997 the number of NHS staff has gone up by 303,000—a huge increase on the very poor start that we inherited in 1997. The implication of what she is now saying about the NHS is that more should be spent on it, and the implication of what she is saying about post offices is that, in addition to the £2 billion in subsidies that we have already spent, more should be spent. The question for her and for the whole of the Tory party is how on earth they can square that with their promise to cut taxes by between £20 billion and £30 billion—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Gavin Strang.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Following the printed and broadcast statements by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British Army, and President Bush’s acknowledgement that the position in Iraq is comparable to the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, is it not time that this House debated the situation in which our servicemen and women now find themselves in Iraq?

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Mr. Straw: As my right hon. Friend knows, we have been able to debate the matter on many occasions. For reasons that I think everybody understands, I cannot promise a debate on foreign policy before Prorogation, but five days of debate on the Queen’s Speech will be available at the Opposition’s discretion, and I should be astonished if one of them was not on foreign policy.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the Leader of the House on finding the lost Bills that I drew his attention to last week; he obviously does not expect prolonged debate on the Fraud Bill, which gives me some cause for concern.

May we have a debate on freedom of information and the application of the Freedom of Information Act 2000? Many people are extremely concerned that the good intentions behind the Act are to be undermined by the introduction of new charges, the sole raison d’ĂȘtre of which is to prevent people from having the access to information from Government Departments that they should have.

May we also have a debate on the fiasco of the Rural Payments Agency? It is quite extraordinary that it should have performed so badly, as has now been outlined by the National Audit Office. It has been outperformed by its Scottish and Welsh equivalents and by every European agency; indeed, even the German agency, which uses the same methodology, managed to outperform it considerably. It is probably the worst payments agency in Europe, yet the chief executive, who was sacked, is still on full pay.

May we have a debate on the Government’s position on cluster bombs? The UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs has spoken about their use in Lebanon. I recently saw for myself how one still cannot walk on huge areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina—off the roads but only a couple of miles from Sarajevo—because of mines and cluster munitions. Is not it time that we took a lead in removing those appalling weapons from use in warfare?

Finally, what is the position of the legislation anticipated by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? If it is to go ahead, it must do so before 24 November, which is in the middle of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. As I understand it, the House has two options: we could deal with it very late at night, after the Queen’s Speech debate, or we could interrupt the Queen’s Speech debate for a day. I suggest that dealing with the provisions late at night would be an insult to the Province of Northern Ireland and to the people who are depending on the legislation. It would be far better to interrupt our proceedings on the Queen’s Speech in order to have a proper debate in the House.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman asked about FOI, but I completely reject his contention that the spirit of the legislation and its effect have been undermined by the possibility that charges will be introduced. In case he has forgotten, I remind him that I introduced the Bill when I was Home Secretary, and that it contained a power to allow for charges. I do not recall any Front Benchers objecting to that power. However, a slight anomaly exists at present. If the hon. Gentleman were to apply, under the data protection legislation, to a public authority for information about himself, he
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would almost certainly be charged, whereas he would not be charged if he applied for information about the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who is sitting next to him. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome may not wish to be burdened with that information, but that is certainly something of an anomaly. The Government are justly proud of the FOI Act, but we must ensure that its provisions do not undermine good administration in other respects.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been determined to sort out the problem with the Rural Payments Agency. The situation is very unsatisfactory, as today’s NAO report highlights, but I understand that farmers are now receiving payments in almost every case.

The hon. Gentleman asked about cluster bombs. Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and his predecessor, I have always acknowledged that we must be extremely careful in the use of cluster bombs. That has been the British Government’s policy.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Northern Ireland legislation, but I simply did not follow his point. We all know about our responsibilities to Northern Ireland, and we have to ensure that the agreement is pinned down. If it is, we will meet the requirement for there to be legislation before 24 November. That will be sorted out through the usual channels.

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ask a Minister from the Department for Constitutional Affairs to make a statement clarifying future investment in the courts estate? We are continually modernising and improving the services that our courts provide, but some of the buildings are clearly outdated and are struggling to house those services. For instance, a new court building has been earmarked as a priority for Newport for many years, but it has been held up by a lack of funding.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is well aware of the need to press ahead with the court building programme. He would be delighted to receive any representations that my hon. Friend might care to make to our right hon. Friends the Chief Secretary and the Chancellor.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Today, Sir Hayden Phillips is publishing his interim report on party funding. On Tuesday, the Leader of the House said that he wanted to find a consensus on that important issue, although he then went on to make a number of deeply anti-consensual remarks. Would not both Sir Hayden and the achievement of a consensus be assisted if we were to have a debate, in Government time, on the interim report? That would allow a broader range than is proposed by those who inhabit the two Front Benches.

Mr. Straw: It is an interim report. I am sorry to tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no time for such
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a debate before Prorogation, but if there is time afterwards, we will think about that. I am always searching for consensus, but highly partisan points were made by Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is sitting just in front of the right hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for The Wrekin led with his chin, because he omitted to mention that although he spent £11,000 within the time limit in April last year, he spent £50,000 outside the time limit, using money from secretive front organisations such as unincorporated associations. When that happens, we are entitled to draw it to wider public attention.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend set aside time for a debate on Farepak, so that we can put on record the anger on the issue felt by Members on both sides of the House? It is a Christmas saving scheme that went into liquidation last week, with the consequence that, for tens of thousands of hard-working families, Christmas is effectively cancelled. The directors should be called to account for their behaviour. Will my right hon. Friend organise a debate on the matter?

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s great concern, and I hope that he can find opportunities to raise the subject, for example in Westminster Hall or in an Adjournment debate. I know from his early-day motion just how terrible the situation is for some of his constituents and for many others. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is profoundly concerned, and I know that he is willing to follow the matter up with my hon. Friend.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Given the significance of General Sir Richard Dannatt’s comments on Iraq, and given that he felt that he had to vent his frustration by speaking to the media—despite all the qualifications made since the original interview, the Prime Minister now seems to agree that, in certain parts of Iraq, the presence of British troops exacerbates the problems, yet troop deployments continue—will the Leader of the House further consider allowing the House a proper debate on the specific issues, which are of great importance to the country, and to the 8,000 British troops in Iraq?

Mr. Straw: We always make statements on Iraq as and when required. As I said earlier, there will be a five-day debate on the Queen’s Speech. It is a matter for the Opposition, and not for us, but I hope very much that one of those days will be used for foreign policy. I would like a better balance in the subject days in this House, so that we have scheduled debates on foreign policy, just as we have on Europe and defence. However, we must sort that out through the usual channels.

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