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The Leader of the House will be aware that new procedures have been introduced for the Committee stages of Bills. The House voted on them only a few weeks ago. Among other things, the new procedures allow Public Bill Committees to take evidence during consideration of Bills. I think that when the Leader of the House said that they would come into force after 1 January, many Members thought that that meant that any Committees sitting after that date would be able to take public evidence. However, I understand that the
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new procedures will not apply to any Bill introduced—not just any that has had its Second Reading—before 1 January. That means, for example, that the Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill will not be able to take evidence from either the Mayor of London or from London borough council leaders. Is that another sleight of hand by the Government, or will the Leader of the House reconsider, to ensure that the will of the House is put into practice?

Yesterday the Chancellor gave us the pre-Budget report. There is a pattern to such things—Labour Members cheer them on the day in the House, and a few days later the Chancellor’s promises start to unravel. This one, however, started unravelling as soon as he sat down. Not only did he give us reheated spin on education and fail to mention the crisis in the NHS once—which, I presume, means that he supports the cuts in the NHS—but his claim to be addressing green issues struck a false note. Under this Government, carbon emissions have gone up and the burden of green taxes has fallen. The verdict on the Chancellor from Ed Matthews of Friends of the Earth was:

Hon. Members may recall that earlier this year, in the Budget, the Chancellor promised

As it turned out, no cars eligible for that zero-rated road tax are currently available to buy in Britain.

Yesterday we heard about zero-carbon homes. The Chancellor announced

Last night on “Newsnight”, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that there were already some zero-carbon homes in the UK. How many are there? He was not quite sure. Where are they? In a development somewhere, he said. What part of the country are they in? He did not know. So—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady must understand that a lot of Members want to speak today. We have two debates to come, and Members will be disappointed if they are not able to participate. Her case about the business of next week must be concise. I do not want a rehash of yesterday’s pre-Budget report.

Mrs. May: My very next sentence, Mr. Speaker, was to be as follows: can we have a statement from the Chancellor clarifying his policy and explaining how many zero-carbon homes there are, where they are and what exactly qualifies as a zero-carbon home? Alternatively, will we find out that, as with every announcement from the Chancellor, he smiles on the day and people suffer ever after?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady asked me first about the Iraq study group’s important and timely report. The Prime Minister will give his initial reactions to that at a press conference later today in Washington—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, that is where he is. Even with his great skills, there is no way that he can suddenly
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whisk back here to make a statement. On the issue of a statement, it is not usual to make statements on bilateral visits of that kind. There will, of course, be Prime Minister’s questions next Wednesday— [Interruption.] It will be good enough.

On the Post Office, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry intends to make an oral statement. As the right hon. Lady is trying to help position her party as an alternative Government—I am glad to notice the smirking laughter from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) with regard to that statement—let me say that the idea that “the Government are to blame for the closure of post offices” is simply incorrect. Post office closures have been caused by technological changes that have led to a catastrophic drop in customers, which would have happened under any Government. What would not have happened under the previous Government, however, is the £2 billion of additional subsidy to help rural post offices in particular, many of which have fewer than 15 to 20 customers a week.

On Committee stages of Bills, I do not have the exact text of what I said, but I made it clear when introducing the measures that we were putting before the House a plan that the default setting of evidence sessions should apply in respect of Bills that had their Second Reading after 1 January. I am pretty certain that I said to the House that, for that reason, we anticipated that only five Bills or so would have the procedure during the current Session.

However, on the Greater London Authority Bill and the Offender Management Bill, I undertake, without commitment, to talk to my right hon. Friends who are handling those Bills to see whether they are willing to introduce such sessions. There is no sleight of hand; we proposed the measure to ensure that this change, which is of profound importance to the way in which the House scrutinises Bills, gets properly bedded in.

Lastly, at some length, the right hon. Lady went on about yesterday’s brilliant statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The problem that the Conservative party has is that we have had an unparalleled rate of economic success over the last 10 years, which puts into dismal perspective the record of the previous Government. She asks for a statement; we had a statement yesterday.

Mrs. May: On zero-carbon homes?

Mr. Straw: If the right hon. Lady wants to ask detailed questions about the statement, she should table some written parliamentary questions. Also, the Chancellor has just been here for a whole hour answering questions—when, to my certain knowledge, the right hon. Lady was not in the Chamber.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of recent reports from some employers who are frightened or reluctant to display festive decorations in the workplace for fear of offending other religious cultures? Will he join me in sending out a signal that that is absolute nonsense, and that we should be able to celebrate accordingly in this country?

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Mr. Straw: I am aware of the reports and I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is total nonsense. My column in the Lancashire Telegraph this week is about exactly that subject. The simple truth is that my Muslim constituents and friends also wish to see Christmas celebrated. What is forgotten by those who come out with this nonsense is that those of the Muslim faith honour our prophets, and those of the Jewish religion, as much as they honour their own prophets.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am afraid that a press conference in Washington DC is not an appropriate response to this House to a fundamental review of policy in Iraq that has inevitable consequences for British policy. We need a statement here; what is more, we need a debate here on our position on Iraq.

I understand that the Andaman islanders have only five numbers in their language—one, two, one more, some more and all. That is approximately the level of financial scrutiny that the House is able to give Government spending. Today is Estimates day, and we will discuss the lamentable record of the Government on affordable housing and the scandalous response of the Government to the ombudsman on pensions. What we will not have an opportunity to do is to debate the estimates. Is there not a case for better scrutiny by this House of the Government’s spending? That is our primary function, and it is one that I think we do not perform properly.

Will there be a statement next week on the BBC licence fee, as we will discuss the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill on Monday week, and it is important that the licence fee decision be made before the Bill is debated? Can we have a statement, and a subsequent debate on an amendable motion, to give Members the opportunity to discuss the BBC licence fee properly?

Lastly, may we have a debate on, and perhaps a review of, the Licensing Act 2003—in respect not of alcohol licences, the area that has so often engendered debate, but of public performances? Here I ought to declare an interest, as honorary president of the National Association of Brass Band Conductors, west of England area. The Leader of the House may be aware that a council in Cornwall determined that a brass band in its area could perfectly properly play Christmas carols, provided that it restricted itself to carols such as “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night”—but that if it strayed to playing anything that did not have a directly religious content, such as “Jingle Bells”, “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”, it would have to pay a licence fee. Happily, that particular situation has been satisfactorily resolved, but there are huge discrepancies between council licensing committees throughout the country as to what comprises a public performance. Can we not have some degree of consistency, and one that errs in favour of the Christmas spirit?

Mr. Straw: On the first item that the hon. Gentleman raises about the Iraq study group, we accept that that is an important review and, as I have told the House, the Prime Minister will answer questions here for half an hour next Wednesday. The hon. Gentleman asks for a debate as well. I cannot promise that there will be a
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debate on Iraq, or foreign policy more generally, before Christmas, but I shall certainly note that he has made a request for one after Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman also asks whether we can have better opportunities to debate estimates. The Modernisation Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the use of non-legislative time in this House—which I think is eccentrically distributed at present—and I hope that he will put forward his own evidence on that, as I think he has raised an important issue.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about the BBC licence fee, and on his final point, on which I think it is fair to say that he was blowing his own trumpet—

Mrs. May: And you complain about my script writer!

Mr. Straw: At least my last comment was unscripted—although I accept that it was just as bad as many of the right hon. Lady’s. The hon. Gentleman has a strong case for an immediate review, based on what he says about the kinds of difficulties that local authorities are getting into over Christmas carols. I promise to draw what he says to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give time for a debate on the teaching hospitals and other hospitals in Lancashire, because of the effect that the independent treatment centre might have on them? We know that consideration is being given to handing over 60 per cent. of work. That poses a threat to the staff who work in those hospitals. The time has come to ensure that we have a full debate on that matter—and I know that my right hon. Friend is sympathetic to that point of view.

Mr. Straw: I am always sympathetic to my hon. Friend; I do not necessarily always agree with him, but that is a different matter. As he knows, there has been huge investment in the national health service in Lancashire, including in the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, Blackburn, the sum for which is £110 million, the Lancashire teaching hospitals and the Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust, the Royal Albert Edward infirmary and Blackpool and Fylde cardiac centre. I have talked to my hon. Friend about the effect of the so-called CATS scheme—capture, assess, treat and support—and I understand the concerns that there are about it. Like him, I am in urgent discussions with the strategic health authority and the trusts involved, and we will follow that up. I also hope that he has an opportunity to raise the matter in a debate in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Week after week, the Leader of the House shows that he does not understand what has happened to the post office network. His hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), is chairman of the all-party group on sub-post offices, of which I have the honour to be secretary. Is it possible for her to inform him that the real problem is that some of my post offices used to get 70 per cent. of their income from benefits, and that more than £400 million in benefit income has been
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deliberately taken away by this Government, along with TV licences, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency documents and so forth? They are now left floundering. What is the role of the post office network? Adam Crozier, the chief executive, said that he needed only 4,000 of the 14,400. Can we have a full debate and a statement in the House from the Minister concerned?

Mr. Straw: I understand the point about the role of post offices, and post offices in my constituency have also been closed, but there is a reason for that. There is no point in the hon. Gentleman trying to make mischief out of a seminal change in people’s behaviour. People no longer go to the post office to buy their TV licences and to get their benefits. They now prefer to have their benefits paid into their bank account and to buy their TV licences by direct debit. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should let the Leader of the House answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): Last week, the Leader of the House turned down a request for a debate on home helps no longer being provided for many frail and vulnerable people. At the same time as he turned down that request, a 90-year-old war veteran in a wheelchair was in my constituency office because he had been assessed as being ineligible for a home help. How can a warm-hearted, generous Leader of the House such as my right hon. Friend grant a debate on fisheries next week, but refuse one on the frail and vulnerable being denied home helps?

Mr. Straw: I suppose it is because I must have made a mistake last week. I share my hon. Friend’s profound concern about this issue. I was not trying to turn down his request—I made some other points and said that it was difficult to find Government time for such a debate—but I very much hope that will be able to use the many opportunities in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment to raise the issue. Meanwhile, I will do again what I did last week—draw his concern to the attention of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Yesterday, as column 307 of Hansard shows, the Chancellor made a fleeting reference to a very significant reorganisation of NHS clinical research and the Medical Research Council, which will have a combined budget of £1 billion. On the same day, David Cooksey produced one of the most far-reaching reports on how we deal with clinical and pure medical research. Will the Leader of the House ask the appropriate Minister to make a statement to this House on the Cooksey report, and may we have a full debate on this issue, which will affect every Member of this House?

Mr. Straw: It is an important report, and although we cannot have statements on every such report, I accept the basis of what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will consult my colleagues on whether we can have a debate on the issue.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the workings of the NHS Appointments Commission,
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which again in Warrington has managed to appoint only two out of the seven primary care trust members from Warrington, North? The PCT is stuffed full of business people and accountants, but there are no representatives of the most health-deprived areas. Will he draw to the attention of our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health to how profoundly dissatisfied many Members of this House are with the way in which the commission is operating, and its failure to widen participation?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to do so; I know that my hon. Friend’s unhappiness is widely shared among Members in all parts of the House. These days, people are reflecting on whether such a commission is an appropriate way to make that kind of appointment.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I return to the Iraq review report, which is perhaps the most important issue facing this Parliament and other democracies at this time? Is it not important that we in no way undermine the morale of our service personnel in Iraq, while showing total solidarity with, and support for, the fledgling democracy in Iraq? Is it not important, therefore, that the Prime Minister, who is in the United States talking to President Bush about this issue, should make a statement in this House before we rise for the summer recess? [Laughter.]

Mr. Straw: I can almost guarantee that the Prime Minister will make a statement on Iraq before we rise for the summer recess, but as the for the Christmas recess, I cannot make that promise. I repeat: the Prime Minister, if he is nowhere else, will be here next Wednesday, and I am sure that the Iraq study group and the consequences of it will be a dominant subject for questions during that half hour.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may be aware of the recent comments by General Sir Mike Jackson about the care and well-being of our service personnel, which were a typical example of yet another military snob pining for the return of a Conservative Government. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to remind General Jackson and other senior ranks in our armed forces that there was an opportunity during the recent debate on the Armed Forces Bill for him—or, indeed, for any other senior military person—to express concern about the care and well-being of service personnel? Bearing in mind the fact that we asked for a federation for the armed forces, not a trade union—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should be asking about next week’s business. At this time of day, we do not have a forum for complaining about speeches that were made outside this House.

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