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16 Nov 2006 : Column 135

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend consider granting a debate on local government capital financing? Although the Labour Government have given local councils, on average, 33 per cent. extra since 1997, Swindon borough council still claims that it needs to sell off much-loved capital assets, such as Lower Shaw farm, which is a community resource that local people value. May we debate that so that we can get the truth out into the open?

Mr. Straw: There will be an opportunity for such a debate, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to catch your eye in it, Mr. Speaker. As she says, we have put a huge amount of extra capital the way of local authorities, and we have eased the rules on their spending and raising of capital. It sounds to me as though there is no need for her local authority to sell off those assets.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister publicly said that our troops in Afghanistan would have whatever equipment they needed. There was an immediate call from a brigadier for more helicopters. We understand that there have been requests for Warrior armoured cars. I make no comment on the tactics, but will the Leader of the House get the Prime Minister to come here to make a statement on what equipment is being asked for, what equipment is needed and what equipment he will provide? At the moment, we can get no answers out of the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Straw: I will not get the Prime Minister here—[Hon. Members: “Why not?”] Because the matter is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. However, I shall communicate the hon. Gentleman’s concern to my right hon. Friend and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman and to place a copy of the letter in the Library.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable public outrage at the proposals by First Direct bank to levy a charge on the poorest of its customers for their accounts? Is he also aware of the considerable concern of Post Office card account customers, first, about being able to access their money and secondly, about the prospect of being charged heavily by the banks in the event of being transferred to a bank account? May we have an early statement from the Department for Work and Pensions on how it will resolve the matter, so that my constituents and people across the country will be able to get their money and not be ripped of by the greedy banks when doing so?

Mr. Straw: I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern. The last day of the Queen’s Speech debate, on Monday week, will focus on work and pensions. I hope very much that he will be able to raise those matters with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): What has happened to the Bill that the Labour party promised in its 2001 election manifesto to introduce a more accountable second Chamber? How many of the
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Bills that were announced yesterday will be completed in this Session, and how many will the Government have to carry over?

Mr. Straw: Contrary to a nonsensical press notice from Conservative central office, which stated that half of the 30 Bills promised in last year’s Queen’s Speech have been scrapped, delayed and so on, we have a good record of getting almost all the Bills through. The Conservative party is complaining that Bills have been changed, but I am proud that they have been because it shows that Parliament—both this Chamber and the other place—is doing its job of revising the measures that the Government put before it.

As for the proposals for reform of the second Chamber, the right hon. Gentleman knows that it has fallen to my party already to have made greater reforms than have been effected since 1958, with the end of the automatic right of hereditaries to sit and vote in the House of Lords and the establishment of a situation in which no one party has an automatic majority in that House. I am engaged in active consultation with the other two main political parties, the bishops and the Cross Benchers in an effort to secure a consensus on the next stages.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Can we have an early debate on the scandal of Farepak, which becomes more intriguing every day? On the “Today” programme on Monday, Sir Clive Thompson said that the company was negotiating a rescue package with Halifax Bank of Scotland in March. At the same time, Farepak was sending out letters to my constituents telling them that they were going to have the best Christmas ever. Hundreds of thousands of decent, ordinary people want to know why, if there were problems in March, they were not notified. Why did the company and HBOS wait until the final payments had been made? More importantly, where has the money gone? Does my right hon. Friend agree that Sir Clive Thompson is the unacceptable face of capitalism and does not deserve to be a knight of the realm?

Mr. Straw: I listened to Clive Thompson’s comments on the radio on Monday and I thought that they were shameless. I hope that my hon. Friend puts that type of evidence before the inquiry that has now been established under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985. It appears that Farepak and its directors, including Clive Thompson, were well aware of the difficulties that the company faced at precisely the same time as they were encouraging many more people, including some of the poorest in the land, to continue to pay their contributions towards the Farepak hampers. I note that Clive Thompson made the following comment on social justice:

and that while taking home £1.25 million, he was actively and vitriolically opposed to any proposal that there should be a minimum wage for the poorest in the land.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the appropriate Minister—perhaps the Home Secretary or the
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Secretary of State for Health—to come to this House to explain why the hard-pressed taxpayer has to pay compensation to prisoners who were not able to get drugs in prison? It was my understanding that the taking of drugs is illegal. Since when should people get compensation for being denied, when they take or seek to take an illegal substance? It would help if a statement were made in the House.

May I also express my support for my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House in her call for a debate specifically on the threat to in-patient paediatric departments in hospitals? I have been told by a constituent that a Department of Health official has said that because East Cheshire declared a far greater number of people in the consultation, their representations are considered much less important than that of one person in central Manchester who ticked a box. Is that the proper way to deal with consultation? I thought that everyone’s views were of equal importance.

Mr. Straw: On the first point, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is well aware of the sensitivity of the issue. Having been in my right hon. Friend’s position, I simply say that there are occasions when we are presented with powerful legal advice, and sometimes we have to make unpalatable decisions. My right hon. Friend will speak in the debate on home affairs in a week’s time, on 23 November, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can raise the matter then.

On consultation in the NHS, if the hon. Gentleman is correct about what is happening, it is obviously not acceptable, but I hope that he accepts that, overall, investment in Cheshire, as in Lancashire, has greatly increased. The Conservatives are not proposing to spend any more money on the health service than we are, unless the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has a surprise to give us in a couple of minutes. As patterns of health care change, there are bound to be changes in the provision of health care. That is the problem facing us all, but it is a problem resulting from success, not failure.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): It is a very good Queen’s Speech for our constituents, but in view of the continued terrorist threat from religious fanatics—there is no division in the House about that—I urge my right hon. Friend to be careful about any proposals made about detention without charge. I am pleased that the Government have not rushed in with further 90-day proposals. Is there not good reason to maintain our unity against terrorism and to try to reach consensus on the issue? I believe that 28 days should be that consensus.

Mr. Straw: I agree about the need to reach consensus, but I say to my hon. Friend that although 28 days is now the consensus, it was not the consensus when I introduced the Terrorism Act 2000, when it was extraordinarily difficult to secure just a seven-day period. We have to take account of the evidence: if the evidence is that 28 days is satisfactory, not withstanding our original desire for 90 days, so be it, but if the evidence points to a longer period, the whole House must take account of that.

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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The enjoyment of breakfast this morning was ruined, for many people, by reports that eggs purchased under the description of free range were produced under more intensive conditions, and that eggs imported from Spain had high levels of salmonella infection. Those are important issues affecting consumer confidence and public health. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to the House and make a statement about what his Department is doing about those matters, so that hon. Members and the public can once again enjoy the Great British breakfast?

Mr. Straw: I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns because I have been worrying about the subject since last Thursday, when, late at night, I bought a dozen eggs from a garage in Blackburn for 78p, which is extraordinarily cheap. I was reassured that they were not out of date, and I ate one, and I am now worrying about the potential consequences, so of course I will take the matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that any request for a longer period of detention will be evidence-based. Will he confirm that it is not the role of Parliament to roll over and have its tummy tickled every time that the police or security services make a demand on our liberties? Bearing in mind that the measure providing for a period of 28 days is less than a year old, would it not be an idea to allow the evidence to accumulate before we revisited the issue in Parliament? Does he recall that, last time around, the measure was so friendless that not even the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Condon, voted for it in the House of Lords?

Mr. Straw: I certainly recall the difficulties that the measure faced. It is never Parliament’s role to roll over and be tickled by Ministers or their advisers. Indeed, the role of Parliament—both sides of the House as well as the other place—is to scrutinise Government proposals and to make its own decisions about the way in which matters are handled. My hon. Friend will recall from the time when he was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and I was Home Secretary that, although it was sometimes uncomfortable, there was not a Bill that was not improved as a result of scrutiny. On the issue of timing, the situation that we face in respect of the terrorist threat can be fast moving, and we must take account of that and of any evidence that the police and the security services provide for the case, if there is one, to extend the 28-day period.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I suggest that next week we hold a debate entitled, “This House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’s policy in and towards Iraq”? It would be interesting to see whether the Government have the courage to lay such a motion, which would enable those of us who opposed the war at its inception to repeat our view that it was foolish, probably immoral, certainly illegal, profoundly dangerous and wholly unnecessary. It would enable us to say that we think
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that inadequate provision was made for the post-war settlement, and to demand a strategy for an early and phased withdrawal.

Mr. Straw: May I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that a debate on foreign affairs and defence will be held in six days’ time, on 22 November? I have told the House enough times that it will be a general debate, but it will be dominated by Iraq and Afghanistan. His position on Iraq, although I disagree with it, has been consistent, and I am sure he will have an opportunity to make the points he wishes to make in that debate.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Will the Leader of the House find time in the coming year for a full debate on the replacement of Trident before any decision is made?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I have already made that commitment.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 29?

[That this House notes the National Audit Office report on delays in administering the 2005 Single Payment Scheme in England, which lays bare the full extent of the Government’s incompetence and the financial hardship it has caused English farmers; believes that English farmers were treated in a deplorable manner; regrets that errors and procedural mistakes in administering the Single Payment Scheme could end up costing each taxpayer £4.30; and calls on the Government to give all English farmers at least 80 per cent. of their due payment by 25th December 2006, helping them to have the financial certainty they need to continue producing the best food in the world.]

I draw attention, too, to early-day motions 57, 50 and 53. May we have a statement as early as possible on the financial failings of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which have hurt many people in my constituency; the incompetence of the single payment scheme for farmers; the postponement of the rural development programme; and the serious funding cuts for waterways such as the Oxford canal, which passes through my constituency? Why is DEFRA such a shambles, and will the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs come to the House to explain how the Department will sort out its budget for the coming year?

Mr. Straw: There will be every opportunity to do so on Monday, when one of the two subjects proposed for debate is the environment, food and rural affairs.

Tony Baldry indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he asked for opportunity to question the Secretary of State.

Tony Baldry: I have already spoken in the Queen’s Speech debate.

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Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman’s constituency, sadly, is not the only one affected by those problems. The Oxford canal, as beautiful as it is, passes through his constituency and through others, too.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Leader of the House understands the importance of post offices to our communities—in fact, I am surprised he did not buy his eggs from a local rural post office. I acknowledge the additional financial support that the Government have given post offices over a difficult few years, but does he acknowledge that the withdrawal of various kinds of Government business from post offices is in part the cause of their demise? Will he provide a dedicated debate in the House so that we can discuss the withdrawal of the Post Office card account in 2010, and change the Government’s mind?

Mr. Straw: I do not think that any post offices have been open at 10 pm, which is when I bought my eggs. [ Interruption. ] I thought that I had thought ahead, but it turned out that I had not done so.

It is not the Government’s fault that there has been a serious reduction in post office business, and it is not as though we have made gratuitous changes. Indeed, we have provided more than £2 billion of subsidy to support post offices, and much of that has gone to rural post offices. Notwithstanding that support, 800 post offices in the most rural areas have fewer than 20 customers a week, which is extraordinary. The reason for the change, which, in many ways, is regrettable, given the role that post offices have played, is the advent of the internet and the fact that people choose to perform their financial transactions differently, thus bypassing the post office. That is something with which we all have to deal, and which any Government would have to face.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I was a little disappointed with the response from the Leader of the House regarding the marine Bill, which he said the Government proposed. It was promised last year. The proposed Bill is a draft Bill, so it will take a considerable time for it to become law, if the Government indeed put their money where their mouth is. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us a timetable for the introduction of the Bill, and in the meantime arrange for a debate so that Ministers can hear how strongly hon. Members feel about the matter?

Mr. Straw: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his continuing interest. It was his Bill that first got the issue moving some time ago. There has been a great deal of consultation. We must get the Bill right. I hope he will be able to raise his concern in next Monday’s debate, which will be on, among other things, environment, food and rural affairs.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): How long does the Leader of the House estimate the pre-legislative scrutiny process on the congestion Bill will take, and when does he think the Bill will come to the House for Second Reading?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer about when we plan to
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bring the Bill before the House or on the length of time that the pre-legislative scrutiny will take. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the impact that NHS budget deficits are having on health services across the country? Milton Keynes primary care trust is facing cuts of some £18 million. The right hon. Lady, who is in her place, may be interested to know that since her visit in the summer, the Fraser day hospital has been closed, we have had cuts in mental health services, and only this week the surgical assessment unit has been closed with the loss of 22 beds. I hope she does not come to Milton Keynes again, but will the Leader of the House at least explain why the Government are forcing Milton Keynes to expand and our health service to contract?

Mr. Straw: The Conservative party cannot have it both ways, which it is trying to do, to mounting incredulity from the British public. The hon. Gentleman knows that in Milton Keynes, as well as everywhere else in the country, health spending has trebled in cash terms and doubled in real terms since 1997. That has had a direct and beneficial effect on health care in his area and in every other area in the country. He also knows that that level of spending was never achieved, and never would be, under a Conservative Government. Moreover, he should have the honesty to tell his constituents that should there ever be a Conservative Government, under the policies being followed by the shadow Chancellor there will be no increase whatever in health spending, simply cuts.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): May I echo the call for a debate on Afghanistan? I have just returned from the country, where I had the opportunity to meet General Fraser, the ISAF commander in charge of the southern region, which includes Helmand province. He has made repeated requests to British chiefs for Warrior and mechanised infantry, yet that is in stark contrast to what we heard in the Chamber from the Secretary of State for Defence, who said that no such requests had been made. May we have an urgent debate so that we can clarify the breakdown in communication and ensure that our troops get the equipment that they so need?

Mr. Straw: If I may, I shall give the same answer as I gave to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). I appreciate the interest of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and his expertise in the matter. There will be a debate next week, effectively on Afghanistan and Iraq. I keep under active review the possibility of further earmarked days for debate on both issues. Meanwhile, I shall write to the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East and for Blaby, or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will write to them and place a copy in the Library.

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