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The early-day motion calls for an end to the injustice suffered by servicemen and women who retired from the armed forces before 1 April 1975 and who, if they had served fewer than 22 years, got no service pension at all. The situation changed in 1975, thanks to a Labour Government. It is now time to return to the
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issue, debate it and consider how we can properly reward the brave men and women who served in the second world war, the Korean war and Suez.

Mr. Straw: I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important matter. I hope that he will have an opportunity to debate it on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall. I will follow up what he says with my right hon. Friends the Defence Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Unfortunately, there was no commitment in this year’s Queen’s speech to review or even look at the Abortion Act 1967, which reaches its 40th anniversary this year. I have received representations from women, medical professionals and organisations over the past few weeks informing me that because of deficits and other problems in the NHS, women who have decided to have an abortion are being made to wait until the next month or even the next financial year. Does not the Leader of the House think that that is highly inappropriate behaviour by primary care trusts and in terms of what is happening with abortion in the UK anyway, given that public opinion has changed? Is it not time for us to have a debate in the House?

Mr. Straw: If there is evidence to that effect, it needs to be examined carefully by the health authorities. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health would be interested in such evidence, if it is there. The hon. Lady asks about the Queen’s speech, but the 1967 Act arose from a private Member’s Bill, as, to my recollection, did subsequent efforts to change it. I think that that is the appropriate procedure.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): When can we have a debate on the problems of the policy that prevents Iraqis who possess the existing S series passports from entering this country? I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the huge difficulties associated with acquiring the new Iraqi G series passports. Several of my constituents have experienced major problems, including one person who was unable to get back into the country, although he had leave to remain here.

Mr. Straw: I am aware of the problem, which, as my hon. Friend knows, is to do with the security of the earlier series. However, I will certainly pass on her concerns to both the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): In this week in which we are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate to mark the occasion that would give us the opportunity to discuss not only the success of the Union so far, but the need for further powers to be given to the Scottish Parliament and for a solution to be found to the English question by devolving powers to England?

Mr. Straw: I was delighted to take part, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, in the celebrations at Dover House on Tuesday and to
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commend the wonderful £2 coin that has been produced. The Liberal Democrats have an Opposition day in the week after next, so if the hon. Lady thinks that the matter is important, I suggest that she raises it on that Supply day.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): In the light of the interesting statements by Angela Merkel and the recent press comments by Commissioner Mandelson, is it not about time that we had a debate on Europe?

Mr. Straw: We always have a debate on Europe before each European Council. I would be delighted to have a debate on Europe and the practical European approach that the Government have adopted since 1997. I read the article by Commissioner Mandelson in The Guardian this morning with interest, although I am afraid that I did not regard myself as any more informed about the case that he was making by the time that I finished it than I was when I started.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on lock-outs from prisons that occur due to the fact that insufficient spaces are available? On Tuesday night, 17 prisoners spent the entire night at either Croydon magistrates court, which is in my constituency, or in Worthing and Maidstone courts. An internal memo from the boss of the court staff said:

Mr. Straw: Everyone regards the use of police cells for such purposes as unsatisfactory. However, the Opposition cannot have it both ways. It has not been easy to increase the number of prison places, although we have increased the number by getting on for 20,000. However, the Conservatives consistently voted against the public spending that enabled us to increase the number by even that amount. If they had been in power, the crisis would have been much worse.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The Leader of the House might be aware that the number of people who have complained to Ofcom about the racist language used against Shilpa Shetty on “Big Brother” has reached 20,000. The situation is damaging our reputation abroad, especially in India. Later this afternoon, the chief executive of Channel 4, Andy Duncan, is making a plea in Oxford for more public subsidy. May we have an urgent debate on the remit and financing of Channel 4 and the responsibility of broadcasters not to broadcast racial prejudices?

Mr. Straw: First, I do not think that any of us should have a casual approach to racism. We have managed to change the climate of opinion in this country by being tough on, and unequivocal about, racism both in public and in private. It is important that we maintain that approach.

On the specific point that my right hon. Friend raises, I understand that Ofcom has the power to open investigations while the programme is being broadcast,
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instead of having to wait until it has finished, which would be risible. I understand his concern that there should be a debate and I will do what I can to assist him.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): In case I am not fortunate enough to catch your eye during the next statement, Mr. Speaker, may I ask for a full debate on the implications of the speech made by the head of BBC News last year, in which he spoke of replacing due impartiality in broadcasting with radical impartiality? That would result in the views of people associated with the Taliban and the British National party being given much more air time. That is a serious implication, and it requires a full debate because it sets aside the tradition that public service broadcasting should not be neutral as between the arsonist and the fire brigade.

Mr. Straw: I can save the hon. Gentleman the job of intervening on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, because she has just given me the answer, and I am grateful to her for that. The new charter has been published, and that charter is a matter for the BBC Trust, which is responsible to licence fee payers. Of course, the head of BBC News is not by any means the most senior executive of the BBC, and all the executives are responsible to the trust. My right hon. Friend and I, and the whole House, are clear about the need for the BBC to have appropriate and due impartiality, rather than the kind of impartiality that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Stockport is considered to be a wealthy borough under most indices, but the two Stockport wards in my constituency share the same socio-economic characteristics as neighbouring Tameside, where I have five wards, and Manchester. That social polarisation means that my constituents in Stockport miss out on the extra funding that is needed. For example, it is at the back of the queue for the Building Schools for the Future programme. Will my right hon. Friend find the time for a debate on social polarisation and funding streams, so that those issues of social justice can be aired with Ministers?

Mr. Straw: I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that in the week after next, there will indeed be a debate on the police grant and the local government grant. That will give him the opportunity to air those important issues—and I understand his point—with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): There are still five convicted murderers on the run from Sudbury prison, as was the case last week. May we have a statement or a debate on the prison governor’s suggestion that when people are recaptured after absconding, they should be taken back to court to face a punishment for their disappearing act? He says that at the moment it is likely that they will simply be returned to the nearest prison, and a few weeks, rather
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than a longer period, will possibly be added to their sentence. A greater deterrent might prevent them from absconding.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. My recollection is that when I was Home Secretary, those who absconded were properly punished, because, particularly in the case of open prisons, there has to be pressure on the individual not to walk out of the gates, as that is an obvious temptation. I shall certainly follow up his point and his suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his written response to my concerns about Braille transcribing. A constituent wrote to me in Braille and I needed to have the letter transcribed. However, will my right hon. Friend consider again whether that should be a mainstream duty of the House, so that it is not left to individual MPs to use their incidental expenses provision allowance for that purpose, as transcribing costs for Braille and audio services could amount to a large sum?

Mr. Straw: I will look into the issue, and I could certainly envisage that certain Members of Parliament, such as those who had a home for the blind in their constituency, would have much more contact with people who are blind than other Members. I shall certainly follow up the matter.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Turning to next Thursday’s debate on Afghanistan and Iraq, would it not be appropriate for the Secretary of State for Wales to speak from the Dispatch Box? Do not his views, as set out in today’s New Statesman, more accurately reflect those of Labour Members than the Foreign Secretary’s views do?

Mr. Straw: That is a nice one. I should just say that next week, the debate is on the middle east and Iraq; the week following that is a good opportunity for a debate on defence in the world. One of the things that one learns as Foreign Secretary—indeed, it is perfectly obvious even before one reaches that august office—is that one cannot pick and choose whom people elect to foreign Governments. We have to accept foreign Governments as they are and work with them constructively. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear—it is a position backed by the whole Labour party—our alliance with the United States and our union with Europe are the twin pillars of our successful foreign policy and relationships abroad.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the quality of care provided by hospitals—NHS hospitals, I must stress—in Lancashire. He said before Christmas that he would allow a debate on the transfer of work from the public sector to the private sector, which puts those good hospitals at risk. May I point out to him that a consultation is taking place, but that the only people who will be consulted are those in Lancashire county council? That is unacceptable. Surely district councils,
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MPs, GPs, the public who use the hospital and, more importantly, all the staff in those hospitals should be consulted, too.

Mr. Straw: I take my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously, I am more familiar with the arrangements for east Lancashire, but I speak not only for myself but for all my colleagues representing east Lancashire constituencies when I say that there has indeed been consultation with Members of Parliament and, to my certain knowledge, with the district councils. However, I shall certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s point.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Last week, I reminded the Leader of the House that, on 25 October, the Prime Minister said at the Dispatch Box that he would be happy to debate Iraq any time, yet six days later he failed to turn up and show his face at a Scottish National party and Plaid Cyrmu debate on Iraq. Has the Leader of the House convinced the Prime Minister to be here on 24 January, as I asked him to do last week? I cannot help but think that if this was four years ago, and the debate was on going to war, the Prime Minister would be here, spinning and misleading from the front. Now, with 650,000 dead—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That must be withdrawn. There is a way of putting it—a Member may be said to inadvertently mislead, but they cannot be said to mislead. The hon. Gentleman cannot use that word.

Mr. MacNeil: I withdraw the remark, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Straw: I would have thought that, if one were drawing up a charge sheet against the Government, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, one could do better than the charge that my right hon. Friend was absent from a debate organised by Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. Everybody else was absent, too, and they were probably wise. It is completely untrue that next week’s debate will be the first occasion in four years when Iraq has been debated. It has been debated in Government time, as well as in Opposition time, on a number of occasions, the last of which was the Queen’s Speech.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend set aside time to debate the obscene bonuses paid to 4,000 staff who work in the City of London? The payments ranged from £1 million to £50 million, and this week it was reported that another individual received a payment of £58 million as a bonus. Most of that money, it is alleged, goes into offshore trusts, so not even the Treasury benefits from the payments. Those bonuses distort not only the housing market, but society, and surely something needs to be done.

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I think that everybody in the House believes that people’s rewards should be proportionate to their effort and achievement, and where payments are very high, those making the awards have to be very clear that they are justified.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we have what I think would be the first ever debate on the Floor
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of the House on Burma, given that the brutal military dictatorship there is guilty of some of the most egregious human rights abuses practised by any regime in the world, and that a very modestly worded United Nations Security Council resolution last Friday was opposed by South Africa and vetoed by both Russia and China? Is it not time that right hon. and hon. Members debated how, through the use of concerted international pressure, we can force that despotic regime to stop subjugating its citizens and to start liberating them?

Mr. Straw: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which is House-wide. Like my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I deeply regretted the unusual decision by China and Russia to use their veto, but I shall certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman’s request.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), in the week when we have rightly and warmly celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Union, a raft of research and a slew of polls surveying opinion in England have consistently shown a very clear majority indeed in favour of an English Parliament, which rates more highly as a constitutional issue than Scottish independence or House of Lords reform. As those are the people’s priorities and this is the people’s Parliament, should we not have a full, proper debate on the merits and demerits of an English Parliament?

Mr. Straw: I am always happy for those issues to be debated, and I remember a Front-Bench request not very long ago that resulted in such a debate in the House. It easy to proclaim the idea of an English Parliament, but it is much more difficult to achieve. In my judgment, we have a Parliament that represents the direct interests of our constituents in England as well as those of constituents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on reserved matters. The House of Commons has worked effectively for centuries, and long may it continue to do so.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): While I accept that a debate on defence in the world will be held in a fortnight, does the Leader of the House accept that a debate on housing and accommodation for the armed forces is long overdue? Three or four years ago, I took part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, when I visited many barracks in the UK and operations overseas. The accommodation that we provide for our armed forces is in a desperately bad state, and does not compare with that provided by our allies. May we have a debate in the House in Government time or in Westminster Hall on that very subject?

Mr. Straw: I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman’s mention of Westminster Hall, but it is indeed an important issue. The standard of armed forces’ accommodation varies. In many cases, it is very good, but in a limited number of cases it is unacceptable. He is an ingenious parliamentarian—

John Bercow: And a distinguished one.

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Mr. Straw: Indeed. I am sure that in the debate on defence in the world the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) can remain in order if he raises the issue of accommodation needed for British troops if we are to play our part in defence in the world.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) pointed out, health and safety regulations have had a disastrous impact on all aspects of national life. The House authorities have failed to fly the flag of our country from Portcullis House for the past 10 years, so will the Leader of the House make arrangements to investigate why the Union flag is never flown there; and will he follow the example of our sovereign, who flies the Union flag every day from Buckingham palace?

Mr. Straw: I shall look into the issue of flag flying from Portcullis House and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman should do it himself!

Mr. Straw: Well, Mr. Speaker, you and I could go up a stepladder, and do so.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Last week, the Leader of the House promised to speak to the House about the publishing of letters between Home Office Ministers and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Yesterday, the Prime Minister singularly failed to answer any requests for publication, so will the Leader of the House update us on his discussions with the Home Secretary? If the answer is no, will he explain what possible reason there is not to publish those letters?

Mr. Straw: The Prime Minister made the position very clear, as he said that those letters and any other relevant documents would be published at the same time as the report of the inquiry undertaken by Sir David Normington. That is an appropriate and well settled way in which to proceed.

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