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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House a happy St. Andrew’s day? Last week, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on further constitutional change. Since then, we have found that there is majority support not only for Scottish independence but for English independence. Therefore, may I urge the Leader of the House not to arrange
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such a debate, and to continue to do absolutely nothing about the West Lothian question because everything is working out spectacularly well?

Mr. Straw: On a matter on which we can all agree, I return the compliment and wish the hon. Gentleman and all his friends a happy St. Andrew’s day. On the wider issue, I commend to the House a brilliant article by Mr. David Aaronovitch that tore apart the position of the Scottish National party. He wrote about the SNP inhabiting a parallel world in which it pretends both everything to every person and that there will be no difficult choices to be made if that dreadful event befalls Scotland and it goes independent. If it does go independent, that will be a bad day for Scotland, as well as for the other nations in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): The Leader of House will be aware of concerns expressed recently by the TUC that interns were being exploited by some Members of this House who paid them nothing but expected them to work full-time hours. May we have a debate on that to ensure that we are not setting a bad example to industry by failing to practise what we preach with regard to workers’ terms and conditions?

Mr. Straw: I am not totally sympathetic to that. I used to have interns working for me, and as I had no money to pay them the arrangement was that while they were working for me they were supported by their university or their parents. They benefited from that and so did everybody else. I usually do my best to agree with colleagues, but in this instance I cannot agree. I think that there is a real role for internship. We should not exploit interns but, for example, I provide work experience in my constituency, and I would like to pay everybody who comes through my door—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): They pay you!

Mr. Straw: The queue is so long that I could run a bidding system, but I am so charitable that I do not do that.

I have never seen any direct evidence of internship being exploited. I think that it is a sensible system that benefits young people. The more we can encourage young people to have a taste of the real political process from a range of political perspectives, the better.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The Leader of the House is not usually given to hyperbole but he did err in that direction in responding to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on back garden development. Could that be because the Government have a guilty secret? They think that back garden development and the pressure on housing in the south-east is a result only of people unreasonably setting up new families and living longer, when there is in fact a third reason: the 500,000 new people who came into this country last year, and the many more people who come every year. Perhaps we could have a debate on that?

Mr. Straw: First, let me say that the Government have many secrets but none of them is guilty. Secondly,
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I was not trying to be hyperbolic; I was simply trying to set out the facts. Of course there is immigration into this country, but factories and firms in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency would not be operating effectively but for immigration from, for example, eastern Europe, and that is certainly true for my constituency as well. We agreed to the expansion of the European Union and what went with that. We should celebrate the fact that we have a booming economy—it is particularly booming in London and the south-east—and then make proper arrangements to cope with some of the consequences of that, which include great pressure on housing.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As the Leader of the House uncharacteristically failed to explain properly why the Prime Minister is not making the NATO summit statement today, may I give him another opportunity to do so by asking him first to confirm that the Prime Minister has always given the NATO summit statement, and secondly to agree that the summit in Riga was of immense importance bearing in mind NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan and the failure of some member states to play their full role? Finally, will he give us an assurance that the next Prime Minister will make a statement on the next NATO summit from the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Straw: I take the right hon. Gentleman at his word if he says that the Prime Minister has in the past given the statement about the NATO summit. I also say to him that Members of this House cannot have it both ways: on the one hand the Prime Minister is taunted for taking too much control over Ministers, but on the other hand when he sensibly delegates responsibility to a senior colleague—who, in this instance, attended the event—he is criticised for not being present. This Prime Minister has made more statements per year than previous Prime Ministers. He will make a statement on the future of the Trident system on Monday, and I support him on the matter asked about. It is perfectly reasonable that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence makes the statement today. It was an important summit, but he attended it and can give good witness as to what was decided at it.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): May we have a statement on the legislative process for the climate change Bill, and specifically on whether it will be appropriate for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to take on a pre-legislative scrutiny role?

Mr. Straw: I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that. The answer to the question is that that partly depends on whether the Bill is published in draft. The proposal in the Queen’s Speech is that we have a Bill rather than a draft Bill, but we did think about having a draft Bill. If it is published in final form, because it will have its Second Reading after 1 January, it will in any event be subject to the much improved Public Bill Committee stage that the Modernisation Committee proposed and the House has endorsed, including an inquiry over the first three or four sittings.

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Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May we have a debate on how we can work with wildlife trusts, bat, butterfly and moth conservation groups and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in utilising the £2.7 million additional spending that has been announced by the Department for Education and Skills for taking the curriculum outside the classroom so that we can reconnect our young people with the natural environment?

Mr. Straw: I will do my best to support my hon. Friend on that. I also pay tribute to the RSPB because it has one of the largest memberships of any organisation in the country. It not only gives a lot of pleasure to its 1.3 million—I think—members, but plays a major role in preserving the environment and providing indicators of future trends in climate change.

John Bercow: May we please have a statement or debate on the provision of speech and language therapy to young offenders? Given that the governor of Polmont young offenders institution has stated that his speech and language therapist is his single most important member of staff who, by enabling boys to access education and express their needs, is vital to their rehabilitation, does the Leader of the House accept that, as Lord Ramsbotham has long argued, it is important that the Government make a firm commitment to ensure that a speech and language therapist is attached to every young offenders institution in this country?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is present and listened to what the hon. Gentleman said. We would all like speech and language therapists to be attached to all offenders institutions, but that is a matter of priorities and of the availability of such skilled individuals.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Is the Leader of the House aware that the Sentencing Advisory Panel has recommended to the courts that custodial sentences be dropped for shoplifting? The manager and the entire staff of a large supermarket in Ampthill in my constituency have written of their great concern at that decision, because such sentences are the only disincentive to shoplifting. Given that the retail industry will probably have one of its worst ever years
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because of online shopping, that is far from helpful. Should such a measure not be debated and discussed in the House and be introduced as an amendment to existing legislation, rather than be a recommendation from an independent body?

Mr. Straw: That is a recommendation from an advisory body; it is not a decision by Ministers. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has confirmed from a sedentary position that Ministers have not yet made a decision on that recommendation. The concerns of the hon. Lady and her constituents will of course be taken into account, and I think that they are widely shared across the House.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): The Government have made no statement whatsoever about the budget for the Olympic games since the Lords amendment to the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill was discussed in this House in March. Bearing in mind the considerable press speculation and the fact that the Government are refusing to answer parliamentary written questions on it—they are simply using the formula, “A review is in progress and the results will be announced in due course”—will the Leader of the House ask the Olympics Minister to make a statement to this House? There are many Members in all parts of the House who, although they support the Olympic games and wish to continue to do so, feel that the lack of transparency and accountability is doing the Olympic process enormous damage.

Mr. Straw: As Chairman of the Cabinet Committee responsible for the Olympics, I can say that we will of course provide the House with detailed and further information when it is available. However, a review is continuing, and much of the press speculation is just that. Meanwhile, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has taken note of the high praise offered to the forthcoming London Olympics and its state of organisation and readiness by the chairman and senior executives of the International Olympic Committee, who met yesterday.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on.

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Alexander Litvinenko

Mr. Speaker: I have a ruling to make. The inquest into Mr. Litvinenko was formally opened at 11 o’clock this morning and immediately adjourned. In view of the Home Secretary's statement and the general public interest, I am exercising my discretion to waive strict application of the sub judice rule, but I ask hon. Members to bear it in mind that an inquest has been opened.

12.21 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the death of Mr. Alexander Litvinenko. This statement provides an update on the circumstances surrounding his death on 23 November 2006. As I made clear to the House on Monday, Mr. Speaker, and as you have again made clear, I remain limited in what I can say, in order to ensure the integrity of the police investigation and to observe the relevant proprieties. I continue to work with my colleagues across government to ensure an appropriate response to the developing situation, and I am grateful in particular to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretaries of State for Health and for Transport for their assistance.

In my previous statement, I highlighted the issues being addressed by the Government in response to the death of Mr. Litvinenko. I confirmed that traces of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 had been found in Mr. Litvinenko’s urine, and at several London locations. To date, some 24 venues have been, or are being, monitored, and experts have confirmed traces of contamination at approximately 12 of these venues. Police continue to trace possible witnesses and to examine Mr Litvinenko’s movements at relevant times. It is probable that the investigation will continue to bring additional locations to our attention for screening—additional, that is, to the numbers that I have just given to the House. I stress that the Health Protection Agency continues to reassure members of the public that the risk of exposure to this substance remains low.

At 23.00 hours last night, NHS Direct had received approximately 1,700 calls. A total of 69 people have been referred by NHS Direct to the HPA as a precaution. Fifty-two of those people have been contacted, 18 of whom have been referred to a special clinic or to an appropriate clinic in their area. To date, 29 urine tests have been returned, and none of the results shows any cause for concern. I hope that that helps to reassure the public on these issues.

Earlier today, as you mentioned, Mr. Speaker, the coroner opened the inquest into Mr Litvinenko’s death, which was formally adjourned pending further scientific evidence and investigation by the police. The post mortem is expected to take place tomorrow. As confirmed last night, two British Airways aircraft are being monitored by experts at London Heathrow. I can confirm that early results show low levels of a radioactive substance on board both aircraft. The HPA expects to be able to confirm that no residual public health risk remains on the first plane. A formal report is in progress, and measurements continue to be taken
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on the second plane. The risk to public health is, we believe, low, but passengers who wish to receive further advice should in the first instance contact the special helpline or website set up by British Airways to confirm that they were on one of the aircraft. If they were and they are concerned, they should contact NHS Direct for further advice.

A third BA aircraft is on the ground at Moscow airport. BA has decided not to return it to London until the position is clearer, and the Government are in contact with BA about the next steps. Between them, these three aircraft have made some 221 flights, involving about 33,000 passengers and approximately 3,000 staff. A fourth aircraft of interest—a Boeing 737 leased by Transaero—arrived at London Heathrow terminal 1 this morning. Passenger details will be collected and the HPA will contact individuals if any matters of concern are found.

The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Russian Foreign Minister on Wednesday 29 November and requested all necessary assistance with the public health aspects of this incident. In addition, she formally requested all necessary co-operation with the ongoing investigation. The Russian Foreign Minister assured her that this co-operation would be forthcoming. We will contact other Governments of countries where the planes that I have mentioned might have landed in the interim.

I hope that this statement and the various bulletins issued by the health authorities have given a degree of reassurance, at least, at what is an understandably worrying time for many travellers.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I start by thanking the Home Secretary for making this statement today and for providing the Opposition with early sight of it.

We understand that more than 30,000 British Airways passengers have been alerted on the basis of risk of radiation exposure. Clearly, the grim pictures of Mr. Litvinenko in his dying days and the large number of people nominally exposed to polonium-210 traces could lead to unnecessary public alarm. I appreciate the Home Secretary’s caution on any matter involving public safety. He used the phrase—I think I have it right—“the risk of exposure is low”. Will he clarify that? In particular, will he give an objective assessment of the risk to the public, based on the expert scientific advice he has received to date, and will he confirm that this risk is very small indeed?

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said:

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the police have been, or will be, instructed that diplomatic niceties will not obstruct or influence in any way the conduct of this investigation?

There is predictable ongoing fever-pitch speculation in the media. Will the Home Secretary provide any further answers and reassurance at this stage? I understand, particularly in the light of your comments, Mr. Speaker, that there are legal limitations to what the Home Secretary can say. However, can he quash at least one rumour reported in the press and inform the
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House whether any of the aircraft under inspection in London or Moscow have carried a diplomatic bag since the beginning of October this year?

Many Russian émigrés in London will be feeling alarmed about their own safety after the events of the last weeks. That alarm will have worsened after Yegor Gaidar, the former Russian Prime Minister, was taken seriously ill in Ireland and his office said that he might have been poisoned. Is any action being taken to protect and reassure other Russian dissidents in the UK?

John Reid: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. As far as we can tell, the risk of exposure is very low indeed because of several factors. First, polonium-210 is an isotope that radiates over a very short distance—centimetres, rather than metres. Secondly, almost any barrier between the source of polonium-210 radiation and a person will stop the travel of that radiation—even thick paper. So if it is in a glass phial, for instance, the radiation will not travel.

Thirdly, there has to be ingestion of polonium-210, either by eating, inhalation or via a cut. As far as we are aware, with inhalation, the level in sieverts would be so low as to mean a very small risk. That is borne out by all the evidence that we have. I mentioned 29 urine tests, mainly of hospital and other staff. All have been cleared of concern, and I hope that that provides reassurance to those who may have been worried.

As for the two aeroplanes on the ground at Heathrow, one is expected to be cleared by the HPA when it has compiled its report, and the other is being monitored. Tests are being carried out and BA will make a decision on whether to bring the other aeroplane back from Moscow on the basis of the results.

As for co-operation with the Russians, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to them and we have been assured of their co-operation. We understand that that assurance goes up to the highest level in the Russian authorities. Of course, if it is necessary to use the powers that are conferred on the police to obtain access, for instance, to aeroplanes in this country, they will be prepared to exercise that power on their own judgment. There will be no political prohibition on the police following where the evidence leads them. In that context, I have no knowledge of any diplomatic bags. I had not seen that story but I will satisfy myself about the position and, if I need to correct anything that I have said to the right hon. Gentleman, I will come back and do so.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I am also grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement and advance notice of it. I have two questions, one specific and one more general. The Home Secretary referred to the need for passengers and staff on those flights to refer themselves, in the first instance, to BA and then to the health authorities. Can he confirm that procedures are in place, both for BA and NHS Direct, to refer passengers to the police if they have information of any value in identifying passengers of interest to those conducting the investigation?

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