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Like the hon. Gentleman, I am always happy to toady to the Press Gallery and congratulate
Britains finest journalists there. [Hon. Members: Name names. Where are they?] My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the Governments position, which has been set out in those terms on a number of previous occasions, so it was a matter of surprise to members of the Government as much as to others that that interpretation was put on it.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has a long reputation for protecting the interests of Parliament and the electorate, so will he ask the Cabinet Office either to direct private offices to stop using 0870 numbers for people to approach them by telephone or to give a full statement of the amount of money raised by that method in order that the House may take a view?
Mr. Straw: Yes, I will. My hon. Friend has raised the matter with me, and it is completely unacceptable for Members of Parliament to be fobbed off with 0870 numbers as the only available number for contacting the private office. I am making that clear to my ministerial colleagues.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a debate on the need for the development of a sustainable community in Aylesbury vale? Given that my area of the country is expected to absorb an additional 1,000 houses every year for each of the next 20 years, does the Leader of the House accept that it is vital for the Government to explain how we shall have the adequate transport infrastructure, sufficient NHS provision and adequate supply of school places in order that my constituents can look forward to an improvement in their quality of life, and not to a deterioration?
Mr. Straw: I accept that the demand for housing and the increase in family formation, particularly in areas such as the hon. Gentlemans in the south-east, is very intense. We have sought to modify that demandfor example, through the Thames Gateway and efforts to move jobs right out of London and the south-east. Of course, Ministers and local authorities have to take account of the impact not just of building new houses, but on all other services. The hon. Gentleman is a very serious Member of the House, and I say to him that there is no easy answer. Certainly, pulling up the drawbridge and suggesting that there should be no further developmentI know that he accepts thisis not part of that approach. Getting a proper balance is part of it. It is difficult, but it is achievable.
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): When will the decision of this mornings Cabinet on Trident replacement come before Parliament? Bearing in mind the concerns of the Quakers that the Government have not conducted a proper threat assessment or explained
the purpose and relevance of nuclear deterrence in relation to current security threats,
Mr. Straw: I have great respect for the Religious Society of Friends, but with the best will in the world, it will not be possible to please everybody on all sides of the debate. I doubt whether, whatever we say, we will please most people from the Society of Friends.
On the process, our intention, which we hope to achieve, is to publish a White Paper, hopefully before the end of this calendar year. Of course there will be a statement on the White Paper, whose purpose is to set out the Governments judgments about the future of Trident, including, fundamentally, the issue of threat as we see it. Then, as I have already made clear on a number of occasions, there will be a debate in the House in Government time and a vote on the Governments proposition.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May we have a full debate on further constitutional change within the UK? That would allow Labour Members to continue their incoherent attacks on independence and continue to suggest that the Scottish peopleseemingly uniquelycannot make a success of their independence. In fact, it has been so successful that support for independence is at an all-time high. Today, we have opened up a seven-point lead over Labour in the opinion polls for Holyrood. Will the Leader of the House therefore encourage the Prime Minister, his colleagues and all his Scottish Labour colleagues to continue what they are doing? They are doing it so well.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman should not pay too much attention to mid-term election polls. I sat on the Opposition Benches comforting myself month by month between elections, not about 7 per cent. leads in polls but about 25 per cent. leads, and we still lost continually. On any serious test, the Scottish National partys position, which is to weaken Scotlands economy and society and the United Kingdom as a whole, will be rejected again and again by the Scottish people.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): As our present Trident weapon can be operated effectively until 2024 at leastnearly 20 yearsshould not we debate the timing of the recent announcement? Is not it vital that we have the right decision and not a rushed decision?
Mr. Straw: It is not remotely a rushed decision. If my hon. Friend looks at the time scale from the original decision on Trident in the early 1980s and how long it took to be implemented, or at earlier decisions, he will see that very long lead-in times are involved. There may be an argument as to whether we need to take a decision now, but the Government believe that we need to take one in the next few months, and everything that I have seen confirms that it would be prudent to do so. There is no suggestion of the decision being rushed or of it not being made by the House.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con):
Sir Hayden Phillips will shortly submit his final report on party funding. The Leader of the House was unable to accede to my earlier request for a debate on the interim report. Will he therefore give an assurance today that there will be an early debate in Government time on Sir Haydens final report to establish whether
we can move forward from the present position, which even the Government recognise is very unsatisfactory?
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend intercede and ask the Government seriously to consider the recommendation of the Alzheimers Society that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence should broaden its remit so that the second-class citizens in England who are about to be denied drugs such as Aricept for mild dementia can be provided with those drugs, as patients in Scotland are? The Governments remit for NICE appears to be more about money than medical science.
Mr. Straw: I am certainly happy to consider this issue, but it is not fair to say that the Governments remit for NICE is just about money. NICE has decided in favour of providing some drugs that are proving very costly to the NHS, but it is entirely proper that it made those recommendations on medical and not cost grounds, and that those decisions are being implemented. The arrangements in Scotland are slightly different, but that is one of the benefits of devolution. The Labour party did not push devolution so that our colleagues in Scotland and Wales would do things in the same way as us. We pushed it so that they could take their own decisions.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Government to make a statement on their housing policy for key workers and what progress there has been? The crisis that key workers face is not confined to the south-east; it also affects the south-west. For example, in Teignbridge, the multiplier between earnings and house prices is greater than anywhere in Surrey.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman knows that there is great variability in house prices across the country. If he wants a debate about the situation in his constituency, he should request an Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the treatment of Nadia Eweida and British Airways decision to ban its staff from wearing crosses while allowing other staff to wear other faith symbols such as turbans or hijabs? He will be aware that many of our constituents are very angry about that decision, that religious leaders such as the Archbishop of York have condemned the company for its decision, and that more than 100 MPs have signed parliamentary motions asking BA to reconsider.
I hope that my hon. Friend is successful in raising this matter in Westminster Hall or in an Adjournment debate here. The Government do not take a position on this case, but I share his concerns about it. I have great admiration for BA as an airline, but I find its position on this quite inexplicable. Like the rest of the House, I have strongly supported the right of Sikhs in private companies and public services
such as the police and the Army to wear turbans. I have also strongly supported the right of women of the Muslim faith to wear the hijab in all circumstances, and therefore find the ban on wearing a cross or Star of David in equivalent circumstances wholly inexplicable.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Prime Minister was quoted as telling our troops in Afghanistan that the future of 21st century civilisation is being worked out in that extraordinary piece of desert. May we have a debate on why we have only half a brigade in Afghanistan trying to cover an area the size of Wales?
Mr. Straw: As I said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), we keep under review the question of whether we should have debates on such key issues. I cannot promise that there will be a debate on Afghanistan in the next few weeks, but there was every opportunity to make that point yesterday. As for our troop contribution, we have 5,000 troops there and are the largest single troop contributor to the NATO force. Given other pressures on the British forces and the obligations and responsibilities of other NATO members, any increase in force levels should fall first on other NATO members. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will raise this issue at the NATO summit early next week.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The national lottery living landmarks fund has shortlisted 29 schemes for consideration, not one of which is in the north-east but eight of which are in the south-west. May we have an early debate on the funds operation to explain why no schemes in the north-east were considered to be good enough or to meet the criteria, particularly bearing in mind the spend on lottery tickets in the region?
Mr. Straw: That is an interesting point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is also concerned that there should be a proper spread across the regions, not least bearing in mind the different levels of spend on the lottery by my hon. Friends constituents and mine, for example. I will draw her attention to my hon. Friends comments.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Leader of the House anticipate that the promised debate and vote on the future of Trident will take place under this caretaker Government or after a new Prime Minister has been appointed?
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May we have a debate about the need for an immediate grant of planning consent so that a young constituent of mine can receive medical treatment at home? A mobile kidney dialysis unit is to be placed in the proposed building in the garden of his parents house, but that opportunity might be lost because of the length of time required to gain planning permission.
Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friends concern on this important issue, and I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I shall also consider whether there might be an opportunity for this to be raised as a general policy issue during our debates on the Bill on planning gain later this Session.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The declaration that the High Court in Belfast says should accompany the Water and Sewerage Services (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was based on the view that the Government have not conscientiously considered this important matter. Will the Leader of the House urge the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that there is no further parliamentary progress on this order until the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, which is meeting in Belfast on 12 December, has had the opportunity to debate the order fully?
Mr. Straw: As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I will draw to the attention of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): On 12 September the directors of Farepak wrote to their customers telling them that they had to pay their bill by 6 October to enjoy the biggest, best Christmas ever. The company went into liquidation seven days later. We now know that the parent company asset-stripped Farepak of £35 million, Halifax Bank of Scotland got its cut, and Sir Clive Thompson, the chairman of the company, effectively robbed hundreds of thousands of decent people of Christmas. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although Halifax Bank of Scotland may not have a legal responsibility to those individuals, it has a moral responsibility to them?
Mr. Straw: On behalf of the House, I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts on behalf of Farepak customers and employees. The situation is truly scandalous. The more we find out about it, the more it stinks. I hope the inquiry that has been set up under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985 gets to the full truth of all that happened. Meanwhile, I agree that whatever legal obligations Halifax Bank of Scotland may have, it certainly has strong moral obligations in the situation.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Further to his remarks about trying to clear up the confusion surrounding the London Olympics, will the Leader of the House also clear up the matter of VAT payments that might be attracted by the London Olympics? He is aware that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has suggested that there will not be a VAT liability and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has begged to differ. Given that London taxpayers may end up picking up the bill if there is an overrun, they will not be very impressed if that payment goes straight to the Treasurys taxation coffers. When will Ministers clear up this important issue?
It is an important issue, but it will not delay the building of the Olympic infrastructure or
detract from the success of the games. As the hon. Lady would expect, it remains a matter for detailed discussion between my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Against the background of the dirty dealings going on in Farepak, does my right hon. Friend understand the frustration of those who have lost their occupational pensions, and who will suffer not just this Christmas, but every Christmas? Will he use the same energy to get a satisfactory conclusion for those people?
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Reverting to the subject of Trident, may I suggest to the Leader of the House that we should debate early-day motion 239, which is in my name, next week?
[That this House, noting that it is the intention of the Government to ask it to consider the replacement of the Trident missile system with an enhanced system for the delivery of nuclear weapons, believes that, before it is asked to consider such a policy, a committee of at least seven right hon. Members should be appointed by Mr Speaker to consider the desirability and the cost of replacing Trident with an enhanced delivery system together with alternatives to such a policy; considers that the Government should furnish to that Committee such information and documents they require; further requires the Committee to report not later than 12 months from the date that it is established; and further requires that until its report shall have been received, the House shall not be asked to consider any motion for the replacement of Trident.]
Early-day motion 239 provides a mechanism for addressing the Trident issue: that Mr. Speaker should appoint a Committee of at least seven right hon. Members, not necessarily Members of this House, to receive evidence from the Government on the cost of replacing Trident and on the alternatives, that we would therefore have an independent assessment of the need, and that we should not vote on the issue until we have received a report from that Committee.
Mr. Straw: That is an interesting idea but not one that will find favour with the Government. It would never find favour with any Government. That was not the approach adopted, for example, by the Thatcher Government when there was a vote on the existing Trident system in March 1981. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was in the House and supported that decision in those days. That seems an appropriate way to proceed. It is a decision for Government. We will provide as much information as we can and put it in the public domain in the White Paper. There will then be a period of reflection on the White Paper, followed by a debate in Government time and a vote. That seems to me to be the way to proceed.
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