Previous Section Index Home Page

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1010

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for indicating that there will be a debate in Government time to focus on the middle east. A number of right hon. and hon. Members and I have been asking for a debate on Iraq for some time, and I am grateful to him for providing that.

I am sure that the Leader of the House has seen the report today showing that Ministers avoided answering more than 1,000 written parliamentary questions in the last Session of Parliament. I commend him for being innocent of this charge, and I am sure that he will tell me that the problem is that there are so many more written questions these days. But the unanswered questions covered issues such as the number of school leavers without any GCSE qualifications, the number of homes built on green-belt land and violent crime committed by murderers released on parole—all issues of concern to our constituents.

The report follows the information from the Department for Work and Pensions that replies to awkward questions are distorted or delayed and some are simply thrown in the bin. On 10 July, the right hon. Gentleman said:

He is right: it is the job of Ministers to be accountable, and it is the job of Members to scrutinise the Government. So will he now investigate and make a statement to the House after the recess to set out what steps will be taken to ensure that all parliamentary questions are given full and timely replies in future?

The resolution of the House of 19 March 1997 states:

Can the Leader of the House tell us why it took the Secretary of State for Defence from the end of October to the middle of December to correct the record on his claim that there would be no losers when the Government introduced changes to allowances for troops?

Another example of reducing parliamentary scrutiny is the handling of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order. The order covers 304 pages, 308 articles and 13 schedules, yet it was set for only two and a half hours of debate. In July this year, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), told the House:

He also said:

Will the Leader of the House give a commitment to the House that the Government will not in future introduce such lengthy and controversial legislation by unamendable order?

May we have a debate in Government time on financial management in the Department of Health? Ministers have been quick to point out in the past that
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1011
deficits in NHS trusts were the result of poor financial management locally. Yet the Health Committee report on NHS deficits, which was issued earlier this week, makes it clear that some of the blame lies at the centre. It said:

We need such a debate, so that Members can hold Ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to account for their responsibility for the loss of 21,000 posts in the NHS, the threat to 80 community hospitals and the closure of accident and emergency and maternity units across the country.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, may I join the Leader of the House in sending best wishes for the Christmas festivities? As we look ahead to those festivities, I am sure that if hon. Members want advice on office parties, they could always ask the Deputy Prime Minster, and that if they want to know how much to drink, they can always ask a bishop. May I join the Leader of the House in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members and, indeed, all the staff, who serve us so well throughout the year, a very merry Christmas?

Mr. Straw: If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I will pass lightly over her last comments. I join in the congratulations to the shadow deputy Leader of the House and I am sure that I am joined in that by all Members of the House. I am also delighted to note that the birth waited until after the 10 o’clock vote, because I have always been of the opinion that the old hours were family friendly and that just underlines the point. They certainly were for me.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Jacqui Smith): Well, that is all right then.

Mr. Straw: The Chief Whip—Patronage Secretary—says that that is all right then. It is certainly one contribution to that debate.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to a bit of “research” that Conservative central office issued this morning, in which it is claimed that 1,000 parliamentary questions are unanswered. She invited me to begin an investigation into that research. Among other things, she mentioned a question that she claims is unanswered about the number of school leavers without qualifications. It is an indication of the speed with which my office and I move that I have already started the investigation and I can report to the House that the research to which she referred is defective in many particulars.

The whole House just heard the right hon. Lady claim that there was an unanswered question about the qualifications of school leavers. On 1 November 2006, Hansard states:

The Minister for Schools goes on to answer the question. That is only one of a series of examples.
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1012
Another example, which is also quoted in the press release, is a question to ask the Secretary of State how many suicides have taken place among deployed UK personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. That answer is also given. It looks as though included in the 1,000 questions are a number of questions that were withdrawn before the due date for answer, quite a large number that were transferred to other Departments and then answered, quite a number that, consistent with the policy of all previous Governments, were grouped for answer with other questions, and quite a number of questions that were answered, but were not updated on the database.

I also notice not quite a claim, but an insinuation in the press notice that the information came from “the independent” House of Commons Library. In fact, it came from researchers in the right hon. Lady’s office trying to make use of the database of the House of Commons Library and failing lamentably in that endeavour. All that I can say is that we have been generous to a fault with the Opposition. The amount of money that we have ensured should be paid to the Opposition has gone up from £1 million or so when we were in opposition to over £6 million—and this is the result of that investment. If ever there was a part of British civic society showing a failure in terms of value for money it is the Opposition research departments and the kind of people who work for the right hon. Lady.

That leads me on directly to the right hon. Lady’s request for a debate on the health service. She asked about the important report on NHS deficits. I do not doubt that it will, in due course, be the subject of debate, either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. That is a matter for the Liaison Committee to determine. I will just point out that report says:

The right hon. Lady went on to ask me two other things. One was about corrections. Ministers are always assiduous in ensuring that corrections are made. If she wants to know why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence took time to issue a correction, as he did yesterday in a letter to you, Mr. Speaker, which has been made available to Members on both sides of the House, it is because—I know this because I have also gone into it in detail—the changeover in the separation allowance for the armed forces, which was begun three years ago and approved by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, was immensely complicated. There were, with the same pot of money, some winners and losers. The briefing was that even for those who had lost out—those who had experienced a reduction in separation allowance—the bonus payments would more than offset that. That was overwhelmingly true, but it was not the case for some examples that took a long time to come through. When my right hon. Friend made the original announcement about the bonus, he was wholly unaware—he had good reasons for this—of changes to the separation allowance.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What an anorakish explanation.

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1013

Mr. Straw: Let me come on to the last thing, if the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will hold himself back. None of us regards the arrangements for legislation in respect of Northern Ireland when direct rule is operating as satisfactory. However, those arrangements were introduced in the early 1970s by a Conservative Government. Given the problems of time, it is extraordinarily difficult to know what other arrangements could apply.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate on today’s announcement in the other place about a consultation on giving prisoners the vote? I know that such a proposal would be enthusiastically supported by the Liberal Democrats, but I and other hon. Members would have strong feelings about it.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right. That proposal has been one of the few consistent aspects of Liberal Democrat policy over many years—they continue to support it. Speaking for myself and, I think, all my colleagues, we are wholly opposed to giving prisoners the right to vote. The consultation document arises from an interesting decision taken by the European Court of Human Rights.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): It is wrong.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is correct about that. I simply say to hon. Members that when the consultation has concluded, this House will make a decision about the way forward.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I shall wait until Tuesday’s pre-recess Adjournment debate to offer Christmas wishes to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for stating that we will finally have a debate on Iraq. I have asked only 14 times for such a debate since the start of this Parliament. We very much look forward to the Foreign Secretary actually attending the House and giving some sort of account of the policy.

A statement on post offices will be made immediately after business questions. If, as many fear, it has the effect of closing a great many post offices throughout the country, which would lead to inevitable social effects, may we not just ask for a debate, but demand one, because such closures would affect the constituency of every hon. Member and I am sure that Members would want the opportunity to express their views?

The local government White Paper opened a Pandora’s box on unitary status. However, it also had interesting and valuable things to say about first-tier authorities. May we have a debate in the near future about the role and functions of parish and town councils? I take this opportunity in the Chamber to offer my best wishes and thanks to all the volunteers who serve on town and parish councils throughout the country, whose efforts are often unsung.

May we have a debate on stationery? The Leader of the House may be aware that a National Audit Office report reveals that the Government are losing
14 Dec 2006 : Column 1014
£660 million a year simply by not ordering stationery from the cheapest sources. Apparently, they pay twice as much for Post-it notes as they would at the local corner shop. That is a disgraceful waste of public money.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) drew attention to parliamentary questions. It seems that we have a continuing problem with the traffic light system in the Department for Work and Pensions because a letter from the Secretary of State says:

In other words, hon. Members’ questions have to wait for spin to be applied before they can be answered. Surely that cannot be satisfactory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ask

He received the answer:

Does that not say it all?

Mr. Straw: I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman will at least offer Christmas greetings on behalf of his party on Tuesday. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are having to debate whether they recognise Christmas. The hon. Gentleman is a generous character, so for the life of me I do not understand why he cannot say “Happy Christmas” today. I have been trying to discover the source of all the politically correct nonsense; I strongly suspect that it is somewhere in the heart of the Liberal Democrat party.

To continue, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his acceptance that there will be a debate on Iraq and the middle east in January. The title will be “Foreign Policy”, because issues may have arisen in Afghanistan and it is important that the House has a timeous opportunity to discuss them. It is not correct to say that there have been no debates in Government time on the subject for three years; I am happy to give him a list of the occasions on which such debates have taken place.

On post offices, the hon. Gentleman should listen to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has to say. If there is demand for a debate, it will be considered in the normal way by the usual channels. However, I say to him and to the House that what we need in relation to change in the Post Office is a grown-up debate on the fact that there have been changes—not caused by anyone in the House or directly by anyone outside, but resulting from the internet—which have dramatically changed the use made of the Post Office. The hon. Gentleman knows that; he also knows that in the unlikely event of the Liberals being in government, they would face precisely the same issues as we do. [ Interruption. ] We are in government, as the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) says from a sedentary position, and we are happy to make the decisions.

14 Dec 2006 : Column 1015

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): I asked why the Liberals are in government in Scotland.

Mr. Straw: Oh—that is because of the voting system.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asks me about the local government White Paper. That will be the subject of debate, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has stimulated a good debate on flexibility of arrangements. The Bill will be published and have its Second Reading early in the new year, and there will be many opportunities in this Chamber and in Committee for debate on that.

On stationery, those of us who have to run Government Departments constantly search for savings. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will draw to wider attention the need for centralised purchasing at one level, and for people to find the bargain in the corner shop at another.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, that answer is not acceptable. I shall follow it up and ensure that he gets an answer to his question.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate, or perhaps a statement from the Minister for Housing and Planning, on the development of community empowerment in housing in Birmingham, in which my constituency has been a pioneer? The Minister for Housing and Planning made it a condition on the local council to be responsive to local solutions that were proposed. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that Birmingham city council has now announced that it is to wind up the community-based housing organisation in my constituency? That is a matter of great public concern and we need a debate on it. Does he agree that if the Liberal Democrats truly agree with localism, it is about time that they stood up to their coalition partners in Birmingham?

Mr. Straw: Having gone into the matter in detail, I fear that it is another example of saying one thing and doing another. As the Minister for Housing and Planning made clear, we greatly value locally based housing organisations such as the Northfield community-based housing organisation, and we in the Government expect the city council to consider those organisations in any reorganisation of housing provision. I share my hon. Friend’s concern and hope that we can find him an opportunity to raise the subject.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Can the Leader of the House make time for a debate on British waterways, to assist the education of the Prime Minister? Waterways play a crucial role in the lives of my constituents, yet the Prime Minister knew nothing yesterday about the deep cuts that are taking place. His ignorance can be seen in all its glory at column 869 in Hansard. My constituents are worried that the Prime Minister is so out of touch, especially in view of the fact that he has a “save our waterways” petition on his own website, listed at No. 9.

Next Section Index Home Page