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18 Jan 2007 : Column 919

Business of the House

11.33 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the coming weeks?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The business of the House for next week is as follows:

Monday 22 January—Second Reading of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.

Tuesday 23 January—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day] there will be a debate on health-care-acquired infections, followed by a debate on life chances of disabled children.

Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 24 January—A debate on Iraq and the middle east on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 25 January—Remaining stages of the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill.

Friday 26 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 29 January—Remaining stages of the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

Tuesday 30 January—Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 31 January—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 1 February—A debate on “Defence in the World” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 2 February—Private Members’ Bills.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.

In September 2005, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that he had commissioned a report into opportunities to support economic development in Israel and Palestine. I am sure that the Leader of the House was party to that decision as he was Foreign Secretary at the time. More than one year on, the report has still not been published. Will it be published before the debate on Iraq and the middle east next week, and if not, why not?

Talking of the Chancellor’s promises, in his 2004 Budget he announced the Building Schools for the Future programme. The plans showed that 300 new schools would be open by the end of 2008. Now we know that there will be only 70. I am sure that when the Leader of the House replies, he will give us the usual spending list, but I ask a specific question: why is the programme so behind schedule and will the Chancellor come to the House to explain his failure to deliver on yet another of his promises?

Last year, the House agreed new procedures for the Committee stage of Bills. The new Public Bill Committees can take oral and written evidence, and the Leader of the House made it clear that that would not
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apply to Bills introduced in the House before Christmas, but the decision as to which Bills are covered appears to be at the whim of the Government. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill received its First Reading before Christmas and will take oral evidence. On the other hand, the Pensions Bill, which also had its First Reading before Christmas, cannot take oral evidence, yet the Minister for Pensions Reform tabled an amendment on the written evidence for the Committee yesterday—so it is subject to some of the new procedures but not all of them. Surely, the decision as to the powers of Bill Committees is a matter for the House and not for the Government. Will the Leader of the House confirm that under Standing Order 83C decisions about the number of evidence sessions should be taken by the relevant Public Bill Committee through its Programming Sub-Committee? Will he also confirm that a Public Bill Committee can decide to take evidence notwithstanding a decision to the contrary by the Government? To aid clarity, will he make a statement to the House setting out how the new arrangement should operate, the responsibilities of the various parties and the criteria that have been used by the Government to decide which Committees could take oral evidence?

I am sure that the Leader of the House is concerned to ensure proper access to information for Members. On Monday, the Government published research described as

Yesterday, it was shown that the Government had deleted nearly 90 pages of damaging results from that report, which showed, for example, that 46 per cent. of the public think that the NHS will get worse over the next few years and concerns about the political culture of spin and deceit. Why did the Cabinet Office doctor that research, and will the Leader of the House ensure that a full, unadulterated copy of the report is placed in the Library?

Poor train services along the First Great Western line are causing major problems for many Members’ constituents, including mine. A key issue is overcrowding. Health and safety on the railways is the responsibility of the Office of Rail Regulation, yet nothing is being done. Indeed, the Department for Transport says that people can stand for up to half an hour. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on the responsibilities of the ORR and the role of independent railway regulation?

Finally, may we have a debate on the operation of health and safety rules? There are regulations to stop the overcrowding of chickens on trains, but not of people. Meanwhile, health and safety rules mean that firemen in Humberside have been stopped going up ladders to fit smoke alarms because

Chickens are protected but not people, firemen are stopped from going up ladders—we could not make it up if we tried, so may we have a debate to expose the utter stupidity of many health and safety regulations that are seriously damaging our way of life?

Mr. Straw: Let me seek to answer those questions in turn. The first was on my right hon. Friend the
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Chancellor’s report, or investigations—which were in fact handled by the Economic Secretary—into economic development in Israel and Palestine. I shall certainly talk to my right hon. Friend about whether the information is in sufficient form to be published. Of course, the situation between Israel and the occupied territories has become much more serious, I am afraid, not least because of the Lebanon war.

The right hon. Lady’s first point was not bad, but she then made a terrible one, by drawing a contrast between our record on school building and her own. I advise her not to pursue that, because our record on school building is astonishing when compared with hers. I remember when I was shadow Education Secretary that, year after year, I had to publish a dossier on crumbling schools because of the terrible state of the buildings. That is illustrated by the fact that in 1997, just £700 million was being spent on school buildings, and that figure has now risen to £6.4 thousand million. I say to the right hon. Lady that on this, as on NHS spending, she voted against such increases in public spending, and everyone knows that the unquestionable improvements that have taken place in every school across the country under our Government would not have taken place under her Government. The Building Schools for the Future programme, from which thousands of children will benefit, is simply a further stage in the brilliant programme that we have followed— [Interruption.] One or two Conservative Members may well—

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Answer the question.

Mr. Straw: I just have. Some Conservative Members may be laughing about this, but all they have to do is look at the state of school buildings in their constituencies and compare what they are like now with what they were like before 1997. They should remember that they voted against the increases in spending.

The right hon. Lady asked about new procedures for Bills. If she looks at what I said when the matter was debated—I was very grateful for her support for this important change, both on the Modernisation Committee and on the Floor of the House—she will see that I said that the new procedures would be introduced for all Bills that were introduced into this House after Christmas. I made it clear that the number of Bills to which the procedure would apply in this Session would be limited. The reason for that is to ensure that this change—unlike, for example, the change to Special Standing Committees, which was a good idea, but never properly bedded down—is properly bedded down.

On the powers of the House, I regret that I cannot recall every detail of Standing Order No. 83C and it is a matter for the Chair, not for me. We are very committed—I include in this my right hon. Friends the Chief Whip and the Deputy Chief Whip—to making this system effective. If the Standing Orders say that not only the Programming Sub-Committee but the Public Bill Committee can decide on whether to have evidence sessions, that is correct. It depends on what the Standing Order says.

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The right hon. Lady asked me about the national health service and I have to say that I have not seen the document to which she refers—either in expurgated or unexpurgated form—but I will make inquiries about it. I also remind her that she has voted against all the increases in spending on health care. My Blackburn constituency is one of 650 examples of where increases in spending have made a great difference to health care. When I visited a friend in the Royal Blackburn hospital on Saturday, people came up to me—they did not know that I was going to be there—to say, “Mr. Straw, the service that we are now getting in this new hospital is fantastic”.

The right hon. Lady then asked about train services. I would be delighted to invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to talk about responsibilities for that service, because the principal responsibility for current train services— [Interruption.] Oh no, Conservative Members voted for railway privatisation back in 1994. Yes, we are responsible now and we have brought back Network Rail into public ownership—and a very good thing, too, as it has transformed the quality of the infrastructure. The decision by First Great Western, which I do not understand, to take out good carriages and replace them with fewer bad carriages, comes directly from the sort of financial regime that the right hon. Lady’s Government established for the rolling stock companies.

I was also asked about the operation of health and safety rules. I suspect that we all agree about this. I heard on the radio this morning the story about the Humberside fire service. If it is correct, it is barmy. I go up ladders quite frequently—

Mark Pritchard: What about going down them?

Mr. Straw: And down. [Interruption.] I dare say many do. This is certainly a ludicrous interpretation of health and safety rules.

On the right hon. Lady’s final point, I have been waiting patiently for her to return to the report, which she published with such a fanfare just before Christmas, saying that the Government had failed to answer 1,000 questions. At the time, on 16 December, I mentioned two questions that had already been answered; actually the number is 260. I will give her a report later today that sets out the details of what has happened to the others as well.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the entry clearance system in Islamabad, with particular reference to the appeals system? I have constituents whose spouses have won appeals and the delay is interminable. I refer, for example, to my constituent, Mr. Mohammed Waheed, whose wife won her appeal on 31 October 2005. She is still waiting for entry clearance. My constituent Mrs. Shamim Akhtar won her appeal in April 2006 and is still waiting for entry clearance. I have lots of examples of such cases. A judge has made a determination in these cases. It should be more or less automatic for those visas to be issued. These shameful delays are causing problems between husbands and wives and the wider family network. The delays are indefensible and—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman might want to apply for an Adjournment debate. He seems to have plenty of material.

Mr. Straw: I am,sadly, familiar with the situation. It is unacceptable. The Home Office and the entry clearance service have a limited period once an appeal has been found in favour of the applicant of, I think, 28 days to decide whether they will enter a further appeal. After that, the visas ought to be issued. I pursued this matter when I was Foreign Secretary. I know that my right hon. Friend the current Foreign Secretary is very concerned about it and I will take it up with her.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It would not be entirely true if I said that I did not want to make the Home Secretary’s life more difficult, but will he come to the House to make a statement not on prisoners escaping, but on prisoners being locked out of jail? The Prison Service has asked the police, yet again, to house 450 convicts. Only 264 police cells are available. This week, 330 prisoners were locked out of jail. We have an overcrowding problem yet again. The first thing that we need to do is provide more secure accommodation for those with mental illness, who are quite wrongly in our jails.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised a point about rail services—another form of overcrowding. I entirely endorse what she said, particularly with reference to First Great Western. Rail users have all sorts of things to contend with. Only this week, two swans held up a train for half an hour in Worle in Somerset. However, they should not have to put up with having to pay £5,000 a year for a season ticket, only to be told by an official from the Department for Transport that they have no entitlement to a seat. That is not the way to run a rail service and we should have a debate on that.

Touching on the issue of firemen who are not allowed to walk up ladders, may we have a debate on the Better Regulation Commission report, “Risk, Responsibility, Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?”? It seems to have some sensible things to say about nonsense such as that. Two of its key recommendations are:


Those things seem long overdue. The report was issued last October and I believe that the Government have yet to respond.

Lastly, will the Leader of the House examine carefully his reply to me last week? I raised the issue of the BAE Systems Saudi Arabia case. He said to me:

In fact, what Robert Wardle, the director of the Serious Fraud Office, said was that his team found significant evidence in the Saudi arms inquiry and hoped to find more from Swiss banks. I invite the Leader of the
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House to correct the record and perhaps to deprecate the use of spin by the Attorney-General in what is becoming an increasingly sordid episode.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman says that he does not want to make the Home Secretary’s life difficult, but the record of the Liberal Democrats has been one of making public protection and the responsibilities of the Home Secretary much more difficult. There is no point in the Liberal Democrats complaining about a shortage of prison places when they have campaigned against an increase in those places. I can bet my life that if there were proposals to increase the amount of secure accommodation, they would be campaigning against them as well.

I am also concerned about rail services. I occasionally use First Great Western, and its service is poor and among the worst in the country. However, although the House is responsible for the total investment in the railways, which has increased considerably, and for investment in, and the ultimate control of, Network Rail, which is effectively a publicly owned company, it is not responsible for the private companies. I do not think that the Liberals voted for the idea, but the Conservatives certainly did. The responsibility for the ludicrous decision to take good, new stock out of commission and to replace it with fewer carriages of old stock must rest not with the Government, but with those who run First Great Western.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the Better Regulation Executive. We would be happy to see the matter debated. I have often heard Bill Callaghan, the head of the Health and Safety Commission, say that he wants a common-sense approach to health and safety. He deprecates just as much as the House such ludicrous over-interpretation of the regulations.

Of course I will look at what I said last week about the BAE Systems-Saudi decision. I do not have the record with me, but if it needs correcting I will of course do so. I certainly recall that the combination of what the head of the Serious Fraud Office and the Attorney-General said was that a judgment had been made that continuing the prosecution would not be in the national interest and that a continuation of the process, even for a further 18 months, would be very unlikely to produce evidence that could secure a prosecution. The Liberal Democrats claim to be the first to defend the civil liberties of others. They need to be very careful before they continue to spray around allegations of culpability by anyone, including BAES and the Saudi Government.

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): May we find time to debate early-day motion 67, which I tabled and which has been signed by 100 Members?

[That this House believes that all ex-servicemen and women should be treated equally in the payment of pensions, regardless of when they served in Her Majesty's armed forces.]

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