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The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could have a State of the Union speech. We have an equivalent in the Queens Speech debate each year, which the Prime Minister always leads. The hon. Gentleman suggests a debate on the Act of Union and three centuries of our being joined with Scotland in a Union. That is a good
idea. I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I hope to make an announcement in due course.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a written question. I agree with himI do not know why a Department could not answer a question about how many libraries had closed or how many remained open. I shall follow it up.
Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on aviation, especially given the intense interest that The Independent has taken in Ministers travel? When I wrote to that newspaper to ask about travel by its journalists and its board, it displayed a singular reluctance, in spite of its proclamation of freedom of information, to reveal its activities. Indeed, the editor wrote that the paper was engaged in an audit process with the Carbon Trust, a reply of which Sir Humphrey would have been proud. May we have a debate in which such hypocrisy could be exposed, and we could discuss the transparency that journalists appear to be interested in imposing on everyone but themselves?
Mr. Straw: That is a terrific idea, for which I commend my right hon. Friend. Since newspapers present themselves as public institutions, there is a case for extending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to them
Mr. Straw: Apart from sketch writers, because they do not necessarily deal in information and there should be a special exemption for them. The Freedom of Information Act covers the BBC as a public body. That is a two-headed hydra because, although the BBC makes many Freedom of Information Act requests, anyone who has made such a request to the BBC finds that it is more constipated and less forthcoming than the worst Department.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Although I deplore inadequate and late replies to parliamentary questionsthe Leader of the House has apologised for the inadequacy of some of themI support the right hon. Gentlemans appeal to the House for more responsible tabling of written questions. Just because people have got more research assistants, there is no point in their spending all their time tabling large numbers of questions as a sort of virility symbol.
Has the House forgotten the tragedy of Zimbabwe, where there is 1,000 per cent. inflation, shortage of water and electricity, and starvation? Is not it time for the House to hold a debate on that tragic country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Chairman of the Procedure Committee and a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, for his remarks about parliamentary questions. I hope that we can reach agreement, through the Procedure Committees recommendations, on the matter on an
all-party basis. I have no interest in restricting hon. Members opportunities to question Ministers effectively. However, quantity is currently getting in the way of quality. If we got back to where we were even four years ago, there would be even less excuse for Departments failure to answer questions on time. Questions are all answered in the end, but sometimes the delay is too great.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of Zimbabwe and the way in which it has slipped from the headlines and, in some cases, from the inside pages. I shall follow up his suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to widen the request of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on environmental taxation, especially in the days before the introduction of the increased air passenger duty. In such a debate, may we consider the comments of Mr. Michael OLeary, the boss of Ryanair, on the airwaves, in the printed media and elsewhere about his attitude to such taxation? He appears to wish to present himself as the Robin Hood of the modern world in maintaining access for poorer people to cheaper holidays. However, in reality, is he not the Al Capone of the aviation industry, defending the indefensible, trying to create a taxation-free zone, with an arrogance and breathless contempt for politicians which he revealed in his comments
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Will the Leader of the House make time to debate the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on Guantanamo Bay? It states that the Committee was advised by the International Committee of the Red Cross that its members could not meet detainees in Guantanamo because that contravened the Geneva convention. The ICRC strenuously denies making such a claim. Given such blatant inaccuracy, how can the House have confidence in the report? Will the right hon. Gentleman make time available for us to debate the report in full?
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House know that the business plan for the refurbishment and renewal of the 26-year-old Tyne and Wear metro system has been submitted to the Government this week? The metro contributes to social mobility, economic development, the relief of traffic congestion and the fight against climate change. May we have an early debate on the value of light rail systems such as the metro and their contribution to our citizens quality of life?
Mr. Straw: I know the contribution that the metroa great achievement of the previous Labour Governmentmakes to the vibrancy of the economy and society on Tyneside. I shall discuss my hon. Friends suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House knows that one of the most important functions of the House of Commons is to vote Supplyto approve increases in taxation that the Government propose. When did the House of Commons approve the increase in airport duty that comes into effect next Thursday?
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament long enough to know that some duties are subject to specific approval at the time and others are made by order, based on previous legislation.
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): First, may I declare an interest as chair of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent campaign in The Independent newspaper on domestic and commercial waste, which are of great concern to many of our constituents? A debate would help to clarify some of the relevant issues associated with waste and the Governments strategy for dealing with them.
Speaking as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs who visited Guantanamo Bay, I echo the call for a debate on that Committees report. I want to tell my right hon. Friend that the reason why members of that Committee did not visit inmates at Guantanamo had absolutely nothing to do with the International Red Cross.
Mr. Straw: The answer to my hon. Friends first question [Interruption.] Well, I am not going to get involved in a private argument about what did or did not happen on that Foreign Affairs Committee trip as I was not there and I am not a member of that Committee. On packaging, I have seen The Independents campaign to reduce it and I commend my hon. Friends chairmanship of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group. I will look for an opportunity to have this matter debated.
[That this House notes the recent announcement by the Home Office about the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency; and calls upon the Government to spell out the resources, commitment and determination that the new organisation will be expected to have in order that the
fight against organised criminal activity, particularly in Northern Ireland, will be stepped up rather than decreased.]
There is concern about the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, particularly in Northern Ireland where there is so much organised crime and paramilitary groups are involved in such activity. Can we have a debate to ensure that efforts to disrupt those criminal gangs and take away their assets will be stepped up? We do not want those efforts to be at all reduced.
Mr. Straw: The idea of the amalgamation is to ensure that those efforts are stepped up and made more effective. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be opportunities to debate that matter, which is the subject of a Bill that is currently before the House.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I wonder whether we could set some time aside to debate procedures of the House. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the shambles that took place last night. At the end of the debate, an SNP Member who was not a Teller actually shouted Aye, then shouted No
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As the Leader of the House jealously guards the Houses reputation and is anxious to ensure that it is more relevant to the people of this country, does he not accept that it is absolutely essential that the Prime Minister soon attend a debate on the war in Iraq? To say that he does not normally take part in foreign affairs debates entirely misses the point. To say that he has spoken in 23 separate debates, when he has only done so twice a year, does not seem to most people a very good batting record.
Mr. Straw: I answered that question when I responded to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). The Prime Minister has already made it clear that he will come to the House and make a detailed statement once Operation Sinbad is through. That will be the case.
Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): May we have a debate on what can only be described as the plight of children in India, where modern-day slavery is going on? I do not know whether my right hon. Friend saw Sky News last week, which showed the blatant selling of young children in India. It is going on under everybodys nose and nothing is being done about it. I would like us to debate that. I find it ironic that we are all debating what is going on in Big Brother on Channel 4 rather than rising up to defend the rights of those children in India.
Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friends concern, and there will be a number of opportunitieson the Adjournment in this place or in Westminster Hallto debate the issue. I hope that my hon. Friend is successful in doing so.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement about the use of 0844, 0845 and 0870 numbers? One of my constituents has to ring an 0844 number to contact the local GP, and I found out that 12 GP surgeries across the Bradford district are making people phone those numbers to book an appointment. I am sure that the Leader of the House knows that it is more expensive to ring those numbers than ordinary local numbers. Will the Secretary of State for Health thus make a statement about the use of those numbers across the national health service?
Mr. Straw: I am aware that those numbers are charged at a slightly higher rate, depending on which precise exchange number is used. I will follow it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): May we have a debate about the way in which some councils are using the threat of council tax capping as an excuse for cutting services? Wandsworth council, for example, is using an entirely bogus threat of capping as a reason for cutting funding to very popular and widely respected local facilities such as the Wandsworth museum and Battersea arts centre.
Mr. Straw: I will certainly look for an opportunity to have such a debate. I am afraid that Wandsworth Conservatives have been using bogus figures to justify cuts for at least the three decades in which I have been a Member in this House. I dare say that they will carry on doing so. The fact that they are putting at risk such highly valued community services in my hon. Friends constituency illustrates their distorted sense of priorities.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The Leader of the House may be aware of yesterdays judgment of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, which ruled that it would be unlawful for the Scottish Parliament elections to go ahead in May unless the issue of voting rights for serving prisoners were addressed. Understandably, the prospect of the elections being cancelled is causing considerable concern north of the border, so will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement to the House about his plans to deal with the problem and ensure that the elections go ahead as planned?
Mr. Straw: I find it odd that of all the issues that a Liberal Democrat could raise, the hon. Lady asks about providing votes for rapists and murderers while they are serving their sentences [Interruption.] That is the issue. The wider issue of what we do about a European Court judgment, which would not require us to give votes to rapists and murderers while they are serving their sentences, is the subject of consideration within the Government. I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats would do better to worry about the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime.
Nearly every Member of the House and the Government have condemned the fact that many electrical appliances around the country use up the same or nearly the same amount of electricity when they are on standby as when they are switched on. If we are serious about facing up to global climate change, we have to address that problem, yet the televisions in the Palace of Westminster cannot be switched off. They are nearly all either permanently on or on standby.
Mr. Straw: Well, I have two old televisions in my room just along the corridor and if I just press a button, they go off. A problem can arise when the televisions are placed high on a wall. I will raise the issue with the House of Commons Commission and we will see what can be done.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Magistrates Association has expressed concern about the continuing closure of magistrates courts. In my constituency, some cases cannot proceed because witnesses, victims or defendants cannot attend because of transport problems, and yet another court is threatened with closure. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the working of the magistrates court system, which is the core of this countrys criminal justice system?
Mr. Straw: On the specific constituency issue of concern to the hon. Gentleman, there are opportunities to debate the matter on the Adjournment. On the wider issue, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is doing a great deal to concentrate court services in some cases, but that is in the context of making those services more efficient in delivering justice for victims. The throughput of cases is better now than it has been.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the National Audit Offices criticisms of Ofwat, the water regulator, which has supinely failed to control the water companies in respect of stopping leaks from their water systems, thereby increasing the charges to the paying customer? As has been pointed out before, it is the customers pocket that is hit. We are not getting value for money from our regulators: whether we are talking about the energy regulator or the water regulator, prices are going up. Can we have a debate on the role of regulation in this country and the need for regulators to serve the public interest?
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