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I can confirm to the House that we will indeed be setting aside one whole day of the Queen’s Speech debate for foreign policy and defence matters. So we are playing our part. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Foreign Secretary will be available for that debate?

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was willing to come and make a statement today on her local government White Paper, but inserting that statement into today’s business means that today’s international development debate will be squeezed, possibly to only an hour and a half. I ask the Leader of the House to consider redressing that balance in the future, with a longer debate on international development.

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary issued a written statement about access controls for those coming from Romania and Bulgaria. He did not make an oral statement, which meant that he could not be questioned about the Government’s policy. But then it does seem that the Home Secretary is a little reluctant to answer questions in the House. On Monday, Home Office questions covered prisons, asylum applications, detection of rape, reoffending and police pay. Did the Home Secretary answer any of those questions? No. But he did answer two questions on mini-motorbikes and gopeds. So will the Home Secretary come to the House and make a statement on the operation of the Home Office so that Members of the House can question him on his policies and his running of the Home Office?

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will soon make a decision on the use of the new cervical cancer vaccine. When that decision is clear, will the Health Secretary make a statement to the House on the Government’s policy on the use of that vaccine?

May we have a debate on nursery provision? Government guidance means that nurseries cannot charge top-up fees, which means that many private nurseries will probably close, cutting the availability of child care. We need a debate so that the Government can explain how they can claim to be interested in increasing child care when their policies will cut provision?

The Prime Minister has frequently spoken about the need to address climate change. Indeed, recently he told his European Union counterparts:

On 17 October, the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford university published “Predict and Decide: Aviation, Climate Change and Policy”. The leader of the project, Dr. Brenda Boardman said:

Yet the very next day the Department for Transport issued a document on railway closures, in which it said:

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May we therefore have a debate in which the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Transport are brought to the House to explain the contradiction that is occurring in Government policy? Or maybe we should simply leave it to the Foreign Secretary, who of course was talking about climate change earlier this week at the very same time as the Deputy Prime Minister was travelling around the far east doing the Foreign Secretary’s job. Today, the Chancellor is doing the Culture Secretary’s job by talking about competitive sport, although, given the drubbing that the Chancellor was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) in Treasury questions this morning, I suspect that the Chancellor will not be quite so interested in competitive sport in the future. So may we have a statement on ministerial responsibilities?

Mr. Straw: Let me answer the right hon. Lady’s questions in order. She asked whether anything else was to be added to the list that I read out. Yes, very possibly, although I cannot be certain at the moment. It would be in relation to communications allowances. I shall certainly refer to the proposal of which she is aware from her membership of the House of Commons Commission. We may have a resolution on that, but I cannot be certain at the moment and I will of course keep the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats informed.

On Iraq, the right hon. Lady is being slightly disingenuous in pretending that the Queen’s Speech debates are Opposition days. They are quintessentially Government days. It is just that by convention the allocation of subjects between those days is a matter for the Opposition—a convention that I strongly support. It has always been so. Certainly when we were in opposition—and I attended every day of those debates during the 18 years of Labour opposition—we always allocated one day to foreign policy and defence, and I am glad that the practice is being followed under the right hon. Lady’s shadow leadership of the House.

The right hon. Lady asked whether my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would be available. I know that she will want to be available, and now that we know that there is to be a debate on foreign policy, if we can be told the precise date I shall communicate it to my right hon. Friend.

The right hon. Lady noted that we would have an hour and a half for the international development debate today, but we have had other debates on international development—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): But not with a reply from a Foreign Office Minister.

Mr. Straw: I take the right hon. Lady’s point and the comment of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). The right hon. Lady will be aware of my concern about the slightly eccentric allocation of scheduled Adjournment debates on the Floor of the House; some subjects often come up, while others— for example, foreign policy and international development—do not have a regular slot. That will be discussed in the Modernisation Committee and I hope
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that, within the available time, we shall be able to come to a more rational, sensible and agreed balance on those subject debates.

On access controls in respect of Bulgaria and Romania, I think that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been forthcoming in making oral statements. The written ministerial statement was listed on the Order Paper, as it had to be, when my right hon. Friend made the announcement about Bulgaria and Romania earlier this week. We introduced the WMS procedure so that Members have far better notice than the old planted parliamentary questions. That is the whole point of written ministerial statements. If Members spot a WMS that they think should be turned into an urgent question, it is open to them to seek the permission of Mr. Speaker.

I shall pass the concerns of the shadow Leader of the House about the vaccination recommendations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to make a statement—probably written, unless she has some other opportunity to do so.

The shadow Leader of the House made some points about child care. If I was a Conservative, I should keep extremely quiet about child care because of the Conservatives’ utterly lamentable record on it when they were in office and their current plans to cut £21 billion from public spending, which would hit child care as much as anything else. I remind the right hon. Lady of something that I am surprised she did not celebrate: over the last nine years, we have introduced 1.2 million new child care places and more than 1,100 new neighbourhood nurseries, with free part-time nursery places for every three and four-year-old. My constituency is typical; there has been a revolution in child care based on that increased investment, Sure Start and, above all, the family tax credits that help mothers to go back to work.

The right hon. Lady made a very eccentric point about railway closures, because we have been opening new railway systems. There has been a 44 per cent. increase in the number of individuals travelling by train and a similar increase in the amount of freight. Only this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced that more than £400 million would be invested in the next stage of the tram system in Nottingham, with extensions to Chilwell, Beeston and Clifton.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Last week, I asked the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate on the fiasco of the Rural Payments Agency, so this week I shall ask him whether we can have a debate on the consequences of that fiasco in terms of the £200 million-worth of budget cuts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which will affect flood management, environmental protection, veterinary laboratories, Natural England, British Waterways—a long list of exactly the issues that the Prime Minister says are a priority for the Government. May we have a debate on how that was allowed to happen?

While we are on environmental issues, I echo the view of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that there should be a debate on transport. During the lifetime of the Government, traffic levels
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have risen by 11 per cent. Since 1990, carbon dioxide emissions from traffic have gone up by 10 per cent. to 32 million tonnes. When the Deputy Prime Minister was in charge of those things, he had a five-year plan, although of course it did not work. Now, he no longer has a five-year plan about anything, but we should have a strategy for dealing with road transport. It is not very obvious what that strategy is at present, so may we have a debate on it?

I return again to the issue of Iraq. As the Leader of the House knows, I have asked regularly—almost every other week during this Parliament—for Government time to debate what is happening in Iraq. It is not good enough to rely on Opposition days for such debates or, indeed, on the day in the Queen’s Speech debates that is normally reserved for foreign affairs and defence matters across the whole world—that offers a panoramic view of our responsibilities rather than a focused debate about what is happening in Iraq. Given that the world view of events in Iraq is changing rapidly, it is simply not acceptable for British policy and strategy to be based on the short-term requirements of the United States mid-term elections rather than a British assessment of our interests and the interests of our armed forces. May we have that debate in Government time and, if necessary, can we delay Prorogation or have an extra day of debate on the Queen’s Speech so that we have an opportunity to do justice to the matter?

Lastly, may we have a debate on the Department of Health’s useful advice to health service chief executives, displayed on its intranet, that they should


Can we know whether they should do that before or after issuing the press release about the latest hospital closure?

Mr. Straw: On the Rural Payments Agency, DEFRA questions will be next Thursday. Furthermore, my noble Friend Lord Rooker, who has direct responsibility for sorting out the difficulties in the agency and has been in very close touch with farming representatives, understands the difficulties that are being faced.

Transport rates are indeed up 11 per cent. It is inevitable that some transport levels will rise given the rapid, and record, rate of economic growth that we have experienced in the last nine years. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) should be paying tribute to the transport strategy we have adopted, which has ensured that although the rate of overall growth in our economy is about 30 per cent., the increase in transport—according to his figures—has been only about 11 per cent.

I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman makes for a debate on Iraq and, indeed, on wider foreign policy matters. I have already made clear my personal frustration, which I experienced as Foreign Secretary, that quite a lot of days are allocated for subjects that do not command much interest in the
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House, but there are undertakings to use them, while there has to be a big argument about other days. However, I must push back the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the Queen’s Speech is not an appropriate time to debate those matters. First, as we have heard, a full day will be allocated to foreign affairs, as is normal, and it is ludicrous to suggest that Iraq and Afghanistan would not be the major topics. They are the major foreign policy issues, along with peace in the middle east, which is a related matter.

Secondly, it is the nature of the Queen’s Speech debate that Members on both sides of the House can make a speech on any subject relevant to the Queen’s Speech—Iraq and Afghanistan are two such subjects—at any stage during those debates, whether or not the Opposition have identified it as a subject for debate that day. Far from there being only one day for debate, there will be opportunities, if Members can catch Mr. Speaker’s eye, for points to be raised and good speeches made over the whole five days of the Queen’s Speech debates. I hope that Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and my hon. Friends take those opportunities.

Lastly, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the advice on the website that chief executives should use different doors and say hello to three people each time. When I was running the Home Office and then the Foreign Office, it was my common practice to use different doors and to walk down corridors uninvited and pop in to find out how people were getting on. Once they had recovered from the shock, I learned a great deal—even if they did not.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): This morning, the all-party group on town centre management met to discuss the “State of the English Cities” report with its lead author, Professor Michael Parkinson. The consensus that emerged was that the case of cities and towns would be much advanced by a system of strategic unitary councils. Will my right hon. Friend give positive consideration to allowing a debate in the House on the local government White Paper, so that we can properly scrutinise those important matters?

Mr. Straw: I welcome what my hon. Friend says. I greatly support the Association of Town Centre Management, and the report on the state of cities was significant. This is probably not yet fully Government policy—well, it almost is—but I strongly support unitary authorities. There is no question but that they have made a big difference where they have been introduced. One place where the change has been dramatic happens to be my constituency, which is run by Blackburn with Darwen borough council. First, there will be opportunities to discuss the subject in the five days of the Queen’s Speech debate. Secondly, there will, of course, be opportunity for discussion when a Bill is introduced to implement the White Paper. If we can find time—I am making no promises—for a debate in the meantime, I will make sure that it takes place.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Was the Leader of the House here earlier for the exchange in Treasury questions between the Chancellor and the shadow Chancellor? If he was, he would support our request for an urgent debate on private
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pension schemes. Is he aware that thousands of occupational pension fund holders have had their pension schemes wiped out? Can he confirm to the House that the total cost of the Chancellor’s 1998 tax changes to pension funds is now a staggering £100 billion?

Mr. Straw: I was not present, but I understand that the shadow Chancellor was pulled up by Mr. Speaker for using inappropriate language, and as he was properly educated, that is very bad. I think that his performance will be remembered mostly for that rebuke. I had hoped that he would talk about the new plan, so helpfully set out on the Conservative party’s website, of the economic competitiveness policy group, which includes wholesale deregulation of things such as pensions, so that there will, in future, be opportunities under Conservative policy for people to sign away their rights—including, I assume, their pension rights—when they take out loans or insurance. Under the Conservatives’ new plan, there will be a completely deregulated pensions arrangement.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s particular point, the matter has been the subject of significant discussion in the House by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We understand the great concerns of the individuals involved and we are doing our best for them, but for reasons that we have spelled out, we did not think it appropriate to accept the report of the pensions ombudsman.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May we have a debate on the manner and the content of the Department for Transport’s announcement this week that the toll on the Thurrock-Dartford crossing will increase by 50 per cent.? My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and I learned about the announcement from the press, not from the Minister. That is not only discourteous and bad politics, but unfair, because my hon. Friend’s constituents and mine will pay disproportionately for the roads of others. I hope not only that the Leader of the House will allow us a debate on the subject, but that he will have a word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about whether that decision could be reviewed, bearing in mind that this House passed an Act of Parliament saying that tolling would cease once the bridge was paid for—and it was paid for four years ago.

Mr. Straw: I know my hon. Friend’s constituency well, and of course I understand his concern. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be concerned to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and my hon. Friend only heard about the matter from the press. I will take that up with the Secretary of State, as well my hon. Friend’s substantive point.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a full-day debate on business attitudes towards the European Union? An ICM poll of 1,000 UK companies reported by Jeff Randall showed that 52 per cent. of chief executives think that the European Union is failing, while 60 per cent. think that the UK should have a free-trade area agreement with the
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European Union and nothing else, and 54 per cent. think that over-regulation of the EU outweighs any benefits resulting from the single market. Given that huge shift in businesses’ attitudes towards the European Union, and given the view that it is clearly failing British business, may we have a full-day debate so that we can explore how we would be better off out of the European Union?

Mr. Straw: I think that things became perfectly clear yesterday, when not a single Conservative MEP voted in favour of an amendment in the European Parliament to protect women in the European Union from violence and slavery. Instead, they joined forces with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the UK Independence party. The hon. Gentleman is sitting on the wrong Benches and is taking the wrong Whip. Unless it is now Conservative party policy to withdraw altogether from the European Union—and I see that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is a bit wiser than the hon. Gentleman, shakes his head—the hon. Gentleman ought to stick to the Opposition line.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): On Saturday afternoon, I am holding a public meeting in my constituency for people affected by the liquidation of Farepak, which went into receivership a few weeks ago. It ran a Christmas saving scheme, so its liquidation effectively means that, for tens of thousands of hard-working families, Christmas is cancelled. I have invited the chief executive to attend—he certainly deserves this year’s “unacceptable face of capitalism” award. At that public meeting, is there any message of hope that I can give my constituents from the Government?

Mr. Straw: May I begin by expressing the whole House’s appreciation of my hon. Friend’s work in standing up for the interests of the employees of the company’s call centre in his constituency, as well as, much more widely, the interests of the thousands of people disadvantaged by the liquidation? As my hon. Friend says, they must be greatly worried about what gifts they can give their families at Christmas. The key message that my hon. Friend should give those who attend is how hard the Minister with responsibility for consumer issues and trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), is working with the British Retail Consortium on a rescue package—it is not a compensation package—to ensure that at least some measure of the damage done to those customers is put right.

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