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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give time for a discussion on a hideous crime and the subsequent sentencing? A nine-year-old boy was raped and the man concerned was sentenced to six years, but that has been reduced to five. I find
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that the sentence was too lenient in the beginning for such a hideous and sickening crime. That has got to be changed, and the parents are rightly very upset. Why can we not have a system like the American system, so that we do not say what the maximum sentence ought to be, but what the minimum sentence is to be? Therefore, in this case there should have been a minimum sentence of six years, and if the convicted person misbehaves in prison it can go up to eight or 12 years. Surely the time has now come to enable the public to understand the sentencing system and for the victims to be put first, rather than the perpetrators?

Mr. Straw: I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and above all the concern of the parents. There are certain circumstances in which indeterminate sentences can be issued by the courts; that applies specifically in respect of life sentences, which have to be imposed where there is a conviction for murder, but they may be imposed by the court in respect of a range of other serious offences, including rape. Obviously, I do not know why in this case a determinate sentence was issued rather than what would have amounted to an indeterminate sentence. The Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor are looking at the sentencing system to see whether it can be made more comprehensible and understandable to the public.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Is the Leader of the House as appalled as I am at the daily scenes of harassment by the paparazzi of an ordinary citizen of this country? Will he arrange for an early debate so that the House can reflect whether adequate powers are available to deal with this wholly unacceptable behaviour?

Mr. Straw: I am, indeed, absolutely appalled by the scenes. I commend News International for saying that it will have nothing to do with the photographs, but we need to hear from all other newspaper groups in this country and abroad that they will ban this practice. I will certainly look into whether we can find time to debate this important issue.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): On Tuesday, I tabled early-day motion 586 on Chinese human rights activist, Chen Guang Cheng.

[That this House notes the four years and three months' imprisonment of 34 year old Chen Guang Cheng, a blind Chinese human rights activist; notes his crime consisted of acting on behalf of women being forcibly aborted and sterilised; notes that 130,000 women undergo forcible abortions per year as part of the coercive one-child policy; notes that Cheng, a self-taught lawyer, acting for two women, whose babies were forcibly aborted only days before birth, approached the State Family Planning Commission asking them to halt such outrages; notes that in response he was placed under house arrest for three months during which he and his wife were persistently threatened by hired thugs; notes that nonetheless he succeeded in bringing the case before the Beijing courts; notes that this failed and Cheng was subsequently imprisoned for trumped up charges of damaging public property and organising villages to disrupt traffic; notes that his attorneys were detained and
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prevented from appearing and that neither witnesses nor evidence were presented for the defence; notes with shame that the Chinese policy is supported with British taxpayers' money through government grants made to the UNFPA, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International, all of which finance Chinese family planning yet have failed in 20 years to change the policy of coercive abortion and sterilisation; and calls on the Government to cancel all grants to groups providing money to countries with coercive family planning policies as well as demanding that Mr Cheng be released from prison without delay.]

Chen Guang Cheng’s only crime, for which he has been locked up for more than four years, was to defend the interests of Chinese women who are forced to have abortions and forcibly sterilised as part of the coercive one-child family policy of the Government; 130,000 women in China have that fate each year. As that type of policy is underpinned by Marie Stopes International and the International Planned Parenthood Federation and others, which are partly financed by British Government grants, is it not about time that we had a debate in this place on the way in which British taxpayers’ hard-earned money is on occasions used abroad to underpin human rights abuses of that kind and on such scale?

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern about this matter. It is no part of Government policy that money from British taxpayers should be used to “underpin”, as he put it, such unacceptable practices, but I shall certainly raise his question with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): On a point of clarification, will the Leader of the House say whether the debate on Iraq and the middle east will also cover Afghanistan? My substantive question deals with a matter that is very much the right hon. Gentleman’s responsibility. He knows that the Modernisation Committee is beginning an inquiry into enhancing the role of Back-Bench MPs and the use of non-legislative time. Will he arrange for a debate on those matters to take place while the inquiry is going on, so that as many hon. Members as possible can contribute? Speeches could be time limited but perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you might also care to use the short speeches procedure recommended some time ago by the Procedure Committee. That would enable as many hon. Members as possible to participate.

Mr. Straw: First, the hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be in order to include Afghanistan in the debate about foreign policy on the middle east and Iraq, which will be held on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I fancy that that might be slightly out of order but of course, Mr. Speaker, that will be a matter for you and your colleagues in the Chair, and not for me. However, I can advise the House that we have every intention of holding a debate on the wider issue of defence and that that will almost certainly take place the week after next. There will be every opportunity for hon. Members to speak about Afghanistan in that debate.

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Secondly, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, which I chair, and I am glad to have his support on the very important question of how we strengthen the role of Back Benchers. I noticed that the Opposition Chief Whip was cheering when the question was asked, so I assume that he is about to engage in a career move shortly.

Informally, I can tell the House that I am not certain that it would be a good idea to hold such a debate while the Modernisation Committee’s inquiry is taking place. I hope that we can encourage hon. Members of all parties to give evidence to that Committee, and that a debate on the Floor of the House can be held subsequently.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate on the way in which BAA conducts its business? Many of our constituents were greatly inconvenienced by the fog at Heathrow before Christmas. We cannot help the weather, but BAA handled the problem very incompetently. People were put in tents in sub-zero temperatures, and many had their luggage lost for days, if not weeks. The company now has no shareholders and has little accountability to anyone, even though it has a monopoly on many airports and brings discredit on the travel sector.

Mr. Straw: I note what my hon. Friend says. We are all aware of the terrible conditions faced by travellers at Heathrow and other airports over the Christmas period. However, it is not the case that BAA has no shareholder: it is now owned by the Spanish company Ferrovial, which is not listed in this country. Even so, I shall ensure that his concerns are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): At Prime Minister’s Questions on 25 October, the Prime Minister told the House from the Dispatch Box that he would be happy to debate Iraq anywhere. However, six days later, on 31 October—Halloween—during a debate initiated by the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, he was nowhere to be seen. Does not the Leader of the House have a right and a duty to urge the Prime Minister to be present for the coming Iraq debate, so that he can explain the debacle and mess that has occurred in that country? The Prime Minister must be here.

Mr. Straw: I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and I have said repeatedly that debates on foreign affairs are usually taken—not surprisingly—by the Foreign Secretary. That applied when I held that post, and for decades before that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that he will make a statement at an appropriate time. Moreover—and despite the danger that I might be repeating myself—I remind the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend is available every Wednesday to answer questions, many of which are, and will continue to be, about Iraq.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Bill received Royal Assent late last year, and the Home Office has
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indicated that the necessary commencement orders are to be brought before the House next month. Will he do everything in his power to expedite the legislation so that it can be operational as soon as possible? The Sunderland Echo has campaigned for the measure, which will protect emergency workers—such as those in the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service and others in the voluntary sector—who often risk their lives to protect the lives of our constituents.

Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend and the Sunderland Echo on their campaign, and of course I shall do what I can to ensure that the Bill’s commencement orders are brought before the House as soon as possible.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): In Westminster Hall yesterday there was a debate on the new boatmaster licence. The consensus among hon. Members of all parties was that the new licence was inadequate to protect safety standards on the tidal Thames. Only the Minister defended it, so may we have a full debate on the Floor of the House? We need to examine the detail of the new licence so that we can ensure that correct standards, adequate for the conditions on the tidal Thames, can be maintained.

Mr. Straw: I understand what the hon. Lady says, but it is not unusual for a Minister to defend Government policy in Westminster Hall or during Adjournment debates, or for others to put the contrary point of view. However, my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department for Transport told hon. Members:

He went on to explain why the proposals were being introduced. I cannot promise further time on the Floor of the House, as the subject is one for Westminster Hall, but I will relate the hon. Lady’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware of the public concern about the proliferation of quangos that spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. The latest example concerns the vision boards set up by the Northwest Regional Development Agency. May we have a debate on the purpose, powers, funding and accountability of those boards?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is a fellow north-west Member of Parliament, and I think that such a debate would be a good idea. My understanding of the so-called vision boards is obscure—although I do not think that that is my fault—and I agree that we have to be concerned that unelected, non-departmental bodies such as the Northwest Regional Development Agency are much less accountable than elected bodies. Such bodies must be very careful about how they spend money, and they must consult the people who are elected before they do so.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the Floor of the House on police resourcing,
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especially in respect of Greater Manchester? The independent chairman of the police authority there is forecasting a shortfall of £26 million in 2008-09, but that does not take account of the need to find resources to pay for police community support officers. Without an urgent review of funding, further cuts in police numbers in Manchester may follow the 200 officers cut this year.

Mr. Straw: There will be a debate—if not the week after next, then the week after that—on the police grant order, and that will give the hon. Gentleman every opportunity to raise the concerns that he set out in his question. However, he must acknowledge that, over the past 10 years, policing in Greater Manchester and across the whole country has been infinitely better resourced than it was previously. In his constituency, and in Greater Manchester as a whole, there are now many more police officers and community support officers, and much more in the way of resources has been made available.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I remind the Leader of the House that, since he and I have been Members of the House, the Animal Procedures Committee has approved 90 million experiments on animals? While the Government have found 250 hours to debate hunting with dogs, they have not yet been able to find a moment to debate one of the Committee’s reports. Given that the Government have a genuine concern for the welfare of animals, may I ask that the Leader of the House find an early opportunity for the Government to be the first Government on the Floor of the House to debate a report by the Animal Procedures Committee?

Mr. Straw: I note my right hon. Friend’s request. I will do my best. Whoever else was to blame for the many hours that we spent on hunting with dogs, it was not me, because I was in a small minority on our side of those who were not terribly enthusiastic about that measure.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): As the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) was obliged this morning to discuss on the “Today” programme a leaked memorandum from the Department of Health outlining the Government’s lamentable performance on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is it not appropriate for the Leader of the House to petition his hon. Friend the Member for Leigh to come to the House to explain to Members of Parliament what has been going on and what he will do to put this right? It is a matter of great importance to our constituents.

Mr. Straw: I welcome the opportunity to talk about this. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) has obtained an Adjournment debate on clostridium difficile on Tuesday. The explanation of the issue is simple. The targets have been set for 2008. It is now 2006, so it is not surprising that they have not been met. [Hon. Members: “2007.”] Sorry, 2007. Well there we are. That was a good point that turned bad, Mr. Speaker. Under a shock horror headline, “Six ways
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to fudge a target”, which is allegedly in the report, the first way mentioned is to keep to the target and drive as hard as we can to meet it. That is exactly what the Government are doing.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the accuracy and accountability of the British press? He may be aware of a report in last week’s Sunday Herald that a Scottish Labour MP was about to defect to the Scottish National party. This was printed without a shred of evidence and without seeking clarification from the Labour party. Putting aside the fact that no sensible person would ever do such a thing, does he agree that this kind of irresponsible reporting from a normally quality newspaper in Scotland undermines politics and the profession of journalism?

Mr. Straw: If we had a debate in the House every time that allegations were made that the accuracy and credibility of the British press had not been to the standard required, we would talk about nothing else, but I know about the story that my hon. Friend has raised. It is a matter of great concern that a newspaper such as the Sunday Herald, which has a good reputation on the whole should have swallowed what I gather was an SNP fabrication. I hope that it will correct the story in due course.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Rail passengers in west Berkshire are having to suffer the indignity of fewer trains, greater overcrowding and massive inconvenience to them—

Mrs. May: And east Berkshire.

Mr. Benyon: And east Berkshire, as my right hon. Friend says. May we have a debate in Government time to consider the workings of some of the franchises that are operating in this country? The travelling public are having to put up with appalling conditions in trying to get to and from areas such as my constituency.

Mr. Straw: I know of the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: “Maidenhead.”] Sorry, I mean the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I am doing well today. The right hon. Lady has an Adjournment debate, notwithstanding the fact that she is shadow Leader of the House, next Thursday on train services in Maidenhead and Twyford. Perhaps she will give some time to her hon. Friend from elsewhere in Berkshire. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) needs to look at the huge investment that has been made in rail services and the fact that there has been an extraordinary 40 per cent. increase in the number of passengers. At long last we have managed to turn round the utterly incompetent privatisation of the rail services and ensure that there is now a benign path both of improvement and investment.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May I refer back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) about the north-west vision board? Is this not just a good example of these opaque regional bodies? Do we not need some mechanism within the House
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whereby we can begin to bring some of these regional bodies to account? It could be a committee of the regions or some other structure that would allow us to debate seriously how central Government resources are applied in the regions and whether they are applied efficiently.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend raises an important point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). I do think that we need to look at ways to strengthen the system of checking and approving appointments to quangos and holding them properly to account. Otherwise, we will have a culture in which people in such organisations—it applies to other public bodies as well—think that, because they are above politics, they are accountable to no one. That is dangerous. As Winston Churchill said, democracy has many flaws, but it is better than the alternative. Other countries understand that and go for elections in many more cases than do we, rather than appointments.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As this week’s revelations have brought into question the reputation and integrity of certain Home Office Ministers, does the Leader of the House accept that it is essential that their correspondence with the Association of Chief Police Officers be published immediately? In response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman said that he would pass on her request to the Home Secretary. Should he not as Leader of the House advise the Home Secretary that this is the right thing to do immediately?

Mr. Straw: Any advice I give to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in private is, with great respect, not something that I am going to offer to the House. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had a policy ever since he took over the job on 5 May of being open with the House. The moment that this broke, he came to the House and explained things. I do not accept for a second that Ministers at the Home Office have had their reputation for integrity brought into question. I think that he will find that the explanation is a different one from that.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday that he had every intention of offering further explanations, probably by way initially of a written ministerial statement in answer to a parliamentary question. Then there will be an opportunity to question him and his colleagues on Monday in Home Office questions.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): One of the great success stories of the Government has been the fact that hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid to miners and their families in the form of miners’ compensation for vibration white finger and dust affliction. However, some issues remain to be addressed successfully. I think in particular of the situation of surface workers and widows and the families of deceased individuals who worked for more than one employer. May we have a debate on this issue so that our concerns can be aired satisfactorily?

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