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23 Jan 2007 : Column 1286

Mr. Hoyle: At least I’ve got my own.

Angela E. Smith: Not many of us want to discuss grey hair in the Chamber.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle); I was 38 when I left my local authority, Essex county council, and I was replaced by somebody older. It is incumbent on all of us involved in politics not only to set an example to younger people in our constituencies and to engage them, but also to identify the problem. The review outlined in the White Paper, which will look at barriers and incentives, will help us to encourage young people to get involved. I hope that in our political parties we, too, can take on that role.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I got involved in local government as a county councillor in my late 20s and resigned because, like the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), I came to this House, but does the Minister agree that what is really important is the commitment of people to local government, not their age? Experience surely counts for something. Does she value it?

Angela E. Smith: It would be very foolish to stand before the House and say that I did not value the experience of hon. Members and councillors. However, what we generally want to see are local authorities and a Parliament that are genuinely reflective of society. That means people of all ages being involved, so of course experience is greatly valued, but so is the introduction of new and younger members—to councils and Parliament as well.

Local Government Finance

22. Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): To what extent her Department will take into account its assessment of value for money in local authority spending in 2005-06 when it determines local authority grant uplifts for 2006-07; and if she will make a statement. [117393]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The local government finance settlement for 2006-07 was approved by the House on 6 February 2006.

Justine Greening: The Minister will be aware that my local council of Wandsworth received a much lower than average grant uplift this year—in spite of being graded excellent by the Audit Commission and in spite of being rated as the best value for taxpayers’ money council in the whole country. How can he justify my local taxpayers getting such a raw deal from Whitehall when the council is doing such a good job?

Mr. Woolas: I challenge the hon. Lady’s assumption that her constituents are getting a raw deal. Indeed, we specifically provided a floor to protect authorities such as hers that do not suffer the same deprivation—I am not denying that there is some deprivation in her area—as other authorities. Rather than criticise us, I would have thought that the hon. Lady would be thanking the Government for providing a floor to protect the grant, which has been above inflation throughout the Government’s period of office.

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MSC Napoli

3.31 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to discuss a specific and important matter, which I believe should have urgent consideration, namely,

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) for his courtesy in keeping me informed at all stages. I should also like to record my thanks to the Secretary of State’s representative, Robin Middleton, and his staff at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, to Devon and Cornwall constabulary, to the Environment Agency and others in the emergency services who are working tirelessly to mitigate what could have been a far worse situation.

The sensitivity of all this is exacerbated by the fact that the Jurassic and Triassic coastline in east Devon and west Dorset is a UNESCO world heritage site. The coastline also includes a number of sites of special scientific interest.

The media images from the beach in Branscombe show that some members of the public are behaving in a dangerous free-for-all and quite unacceptable manner. The police have felt disempowered at times, not least in their inability to close off the beach straight away. Ministers need to revisit the legislation when events of this nature occur. Although 103 containers have been lost from the ship, to date only 53 have been located on shore. Fifty tonnes of dirty fuel have been washed ashore. Although clean-up operations have commenced and work has begun to discharge the bunker fuel into a reception vessel, that could take a week, during which time the ship, which is between 17° and 25° down at the stern, depending on the tide—is at
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the mercy of the weather. I am travelling to Brussels tomorrow to meet Jacques Barrot, the Transport Commissioner, to see what lessons can be learned from this incident and to find out what help can be provided to clean up the environmental damage.

My constituency is largely dependent on tourism and we will need assistance to deal with the fall-out of this incident—in the short and long term—particularly when the wreck is likely to remain where she is for at least a year. My constituents need to be reassured that none of the costs of cleaning this up will have to be met by the council tax payers of East Devon. They also seek reassurance that no more damage will be done to the environment from any protracted clean-up operation and that every step possible is being taken to protect the wildlife affected by the spillage.

Many questions surrounding the beaching of MSC Napoli need to be answered and I believe that the House should have the opportunity, at the earliest time available, to question Ministers about the events surrounding that unfortunate incident.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member has said and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, so I cannot submit the application to the House.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you can indicate whether the Secretary of State for Transport has said that—at the appropriate time, when all the appropriate information has been gathered—he will make a statement to the House on the grounding of the MSC Napoli.

Mr. Speaker: It is up to the hon. Gentleman to ask the Secretary of State for Transport. As I have stated, I have not given any reason why I have refused this matter, and I do not want to say any more about it.

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Intergovernmental Contracts (Provision of Information)

3.35 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I beg to move,

The Bill is designed to deal with an absurdity and a scandal, and its genesis is easy to explain. A short while ago, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I was prompted to ask why the National Audit Office report on the al-Yamamah arms deal had not been published—a simple enough inquiry, not especially original and not without wider interest. The Committee convened in special session to answer the question. It met in camera, and I am not, frankly, allowed to tell the House what was said or who was there, although I will say that some eminent people were there—people who do not usually attend that Committee.

I can also say what the outcome, the conclusion, was: we discovered that no one on the Committee—none of the customarily fierce interrogators on the committee, nor the Chairman, nor a single living Member—has a right to see the document, even though it is about a Government contract, even though we can see every other NAO report ever written and even though it was written by a man who is technically a servant of the House.

The only Member who was ever gifted the privilege of reading was the former Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, Lord Sheldon. Once the reading had been delegated to him, it seemed that no living soul could clap eyes on it again. My Bill seeks to rectify that absurdity. It would not ensure the publication of the NAO report. It would not undo the past. It seeks simply to provide a mechanism whereby Parliament’s right at least to scrutinise the doings of Government can be preserved.

The Bill would apply only to commercial contracts in which the Government are involved. There is force in the argument that, if some of those contracts were exposed to prolonged public debate, the kind of economic benefits that they were designed to secure would be defeated, thus putting at risk jobs, embarrassing international partners or jeopardising other national, perhaps security, interests. I accept that those who point that out make a serious moral claim, but I cannot accept that the House must forfeit the right to examine such a claim and establish whether it has substance or is simply a claim made to cover up a less ethical position.

When the Serious Fraud Office inquiry was dropped before Christmas in a cunning Government plan that even Baldrick might have bettered, I suggested in the Chamber to the Solicitor-General that the understandable suspicion provoked, and now snowballing, could be allayed by allowing wider access to the report, perhaps on a confidential basis. He pointed out correctly that that was a matter for the House, but he and I both knew that that meant that it was matter for the business managers—the Whips—who can block indirectly or directly any attempt to change the status quo, and believe you me, they will.

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The Bill is an attempt to establish procedure whereby, if sufficient Members make application to the Leader of the House—he is here now—for the scrutiny of documents such as the al-Yamamah report, he must refer those documents to a relevant Committee of the House for scrutiny, perhaps with appropriate caveats. Parliament’s right to scrutiny would thus be minimally preserved. I would add that the Committee must refer the issue back to the House if, and only if, apparent evidence of a breach of national or international law was found.

I strongly believe that such a minimal mechanism needs to exist, if only to show that Parliament is not reduced to the supine, ludicrous position where it is not even allowed to read its own papers, simply because the Government, with a host of obviously shoddy arguments, tell us that it can do us no good.

We all know that there are pros and cons. Jobs may be lost if we go one way; international and public respect will definitely be lost if we go another. The battle for orders and influence is on one side, and the battle for commercial ethics is on the other. And we can come down on either side irrespective of whether we are moral pragmatists or moral purists. Whatever side we are on, however, we all have to recognise that the Government’s current position is simply unsustainable and, like all unsustainable positions, it will only get worse. Thanks to their cack-handed approach, no one now believes that the serious fraud squad was getting nowhere. Everyone now believes that BAE gave out bribes and the Saudis took them. Accusation and allegation, and naming and shaming fill the pages of The Guardian. The media have, de facto, painted a worse picture than the dear old National Audit Office ever could, or does. Imagination flourishes in the face of the shiftiness that sits on reports, stops investigations and mistakenly tries to rope the intelligence services into the whole charade. The Saudis are not now being criticised; they are being demonised. Our European allies are outraged and the corrupt regimes of the world are smugly vindicated by our apparent and cynical display of grubby realpolitik.

Parliament perhaps ought to try to rescue the Government from themselves. The Government are aiming for closure, but are opening can after can of worms. The clear plea in the recent official Saudi press release to be able to move on and acknowledge some of the changes made in the kingdom goes completely unheard. That press release, which is on the website, says explicitly:

Without even the most minimal checks and balances on international contracts, the present is clouded by a miasma of suspicion and allegation from which neither BAE, nor Saudi Arabia, nor the Government can get clear. That damages them and wider human and commercial interests. All reputations—including those of Parliament and the Public Accounts Committee—are in the collective mire. To do nothing to avoid further repetition of past mistakes is itself culpable.

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I am reminded of the Government’s approach to the British citizens wrongly accused of bomb outrages in Saudi Arabia. I was involved, to an extent, in that matter. What did the Government’s hesitant and limp-wristed approach on behalf of innocent Britons lead to? It led to two years of appalling publicity for Saudi Arabia, two years of suffering for the innocent and time bought for the al-Qaeda cell that made and planted the bombs. Let us have no lectures about security from the Government. If we wish BAE to have a business reputation as unsurpassed as its technical excellence, if we wish for an equal and understanding friendship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people, and if we wish for protection against the next scandal or allegation that is going to ripen, whether from Tanzania or elsewhere, self-evidently we cannot leave matters to the Government. Parliament must assert its right to scrutiny or abjectly acknowledge its impotence. I beg all Members to support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. John Pugh, Nick Harvey, Mr. Michael Moore, Susan Kramer, Dr. Vincent Cable, Lynne Featherstone, Norman Lamb, Simon Hughes and Mr. Paul Burstow.

Intergovernmental Contracts (Provision of Information)

Dr. John Pugh accordingly presented a Bill to require the provision to Parliament of certain information relating to intergovernmental contracts; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March, and to be printed [Bill 49].

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Opposition Day

[3rd Allotted Day]

Health Care-acquired Infections

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business. I inform the House that in both debates, I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister to the motion.

3.44 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I beg to move,

I want to start, as our motion does, with a recognition of the work that the NHS does to seek to minimise infection. I am sure that many hon. Members visit hospitals, particularly their local hospital, and have occasion to discuss infection control measures, and I am sure that they appreciate the effort being made. I recall visiting a hospital a year or so ago and speaking to a sister in charge of a ward. I appreciated what she had achieved, as there had been orthopaedic patients on that ward for a substantial period, without any infections occurring. One then realises just how much the matter comes down to individual members of staff. I talked to the chief executive as we left that ward, and asked to visit the adjoining stroke ward. He said, “Unfortunately, we can’t do that, because it’s closed at the moment due to an infection.” That made me realise that control of the measures taken on wards makes a big difference.

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