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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 paroleall 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:
I attach great importance to the accuracy and timeliness of responses to parliamentary questions[ Official Report, 10 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1560W.]
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?
It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.[ Official Report, 19 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 1047.]
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:
if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable.
We will...ensure that, whenever possible, we legislate for Northern Ireland through primary legislation.[ Official Report, 25 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 766.]
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
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:
Poor central management has contributed to the deficits.
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 oclock 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 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.
To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what proportion of children left school with no GCSE qualifications in each year since the introduction of the examination.[ Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 443W.]
The Minister for Schools goes on to answer the question. That is only one of a series of examples.
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. Ladys 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 millionand 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. Ladys 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:
Poor local management is also to blame. For all the added costs imposed by the Department of Health, it is undeniable that the NHS has had a lot more money to spend. Surpluses can be found in PCTs and trusts with a low per capita funding. Deficits exist in trusts with a high per capita funding.
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 becauseI know this because I have also gone into it in detailthe 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 outthose who had experienced a reduction in separation allowancethe 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 unawarehe had good reasons for thisof changes to the separation allowance.
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 todays 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 yearsthey 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.
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 Pandoras 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
£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 October the Department began trialling an informal system that involves colour-coding Questions depending on whether separate press briefing may be required.
how many parliamentary written questions his Department received ... were not answered because of disproportionate cost.
The hon. Members question cannot be answered without incurring disproportionate costs.[ Official Report, 12 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 958W.]
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 changesnot caused by anyone in the House or directly by anyone outside, but resulting from the internetwhich 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.
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.
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. Friends 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.
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