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It has been shown that under this Government it costs more to send a child to nursery than to many
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public schools. Access to affordable child care is crucial for women wanting to get back to work, particularly lone parents, so can we have a debate on child care?

Can we have a debate on the costs of Government restructuring? Since 1997 there have been nine major reorganisations of the NHS in nine years, two of which alone cost £320 million. We have seen millions wasted on abortive police mergers, on setting up then abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority, and on setting up then abolishing social care inspection bodies. Now the Government want to spend up to £2 billion reorganising local government. That sounds like moving the deckchairs on a sinking ship. We should debate this utter waste of money, and show how the money could have been better spent on patients, passengers and services.

Linked to that, can we have a debate on joined-up government? The chief inspector of prisons says that one of the problems for the prison service is that money promised by the NHS for mentally ill convicts has not come through because of the “upheaval” caused by, for example, the reorganisation of primary care trusts. It is not just health care that suffers from all that restructuring. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is available for that debate, so that he can explain how his decisions to freeze the Home Office budget and block new private finance initiative prison projects have contributed to the current crisis in our prisons?

The press report that the White Paper on Lords reform is expected next week, but it is suggested that it may not be supported by all members of the Cabinet. Will the Leader of the House encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to vote on this issue when the time comes? In the past nine years he has not voted on Lords reform, and if he is to be Prime Minister, we would like to know what he thinks about it. Perhaps his views, like those of the Northern Ireland Secretary and the International Development Secretary, do not accord with those of the Prime Minister.

Finally, I have a paper here containing details of a parliamentary campaign among Labour Members. It sets out the strategy outline, and which Members are willing to go public and which are not. However, it does not say what the campaign is. Some of my cynical colleagues have suggested to me that it is a deputy leadership campaign. I was more generous and assumed that it must be a campaign against Government health policy. May we have a statement on what this campaign is, so that other Members can get involved, should they wish to?

With the Chancellor blocking prison places, the Foreign Secretary blocking Home Office reform, the Chief Whip campaigning against health policy, Labour Members campaigning against each other, and the Deputy Prime Minister telling us yesterday that he is demob happy, is it not clear that the Government are in paralysis and that the only answer for the country is for the Prime Minister to go, and go now?

Mr. Straw: That was original.

The right hon. Lady asked whether there would be a St. David’s day debate. Yes, one is planned for 1 March, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be delighted to talk in great detail about
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Labour’s success in Wales. That includes, for example, 7,500 additional police officers. On health, which is a devolved issue, the Labour-led Welsh Government have done extremely well, providing 400 more consultants, over 7,000 more nurses and 100 more dentists since 1999. There has been an extraordinary increase in resources devoted to education, and 1,700 more teachers since 1998. Employment is at a record high, with 1.3 million people in work. It is a fantastic record and we are delighted to debate it.

The right hon. Lady asked about our child care policy. She leads with her chin, does she not? Child care was a lamentable failure under the Conservatives, whereas under this Government, with expenditure that they opposed, we have a good record on child care. Everybody in the country knows that it is thanks to a Labour Government that we now have tax credits giving effective support to families, a network of Sure Start programmes, children’s centres and vouchers for child care. That means that many more working parents can go back to work, where they wish to.

On the costs of reorganisation, my advice to the right hon. Lady is not to trade our reorganisations with hers. For example, there was rail privatisation reorganisation, for which her party voted and on which they all campaigned. It was one of the most catastrophic reorganisations, which we have had to resolve, and having done that— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) may mock, but we brought Network Rail into public ownership and invested hundreds of millions of pounds, and the result is a 40 per cent. increase in the number of passengers travelling by train. Where there is a problem—as there is in the right hon. Lady’s area with First Great Western—responsibility for it lies with the train operating company, which she should remember, because she supported privatisation.

There are some proposals for the reorganisation of local government. A few years ago, local government was reorganised in the right hon. Lady’s county, just as it was partially reorganised in my county of Lancashire. Speaking for Lancashire, the transfer of responsibility for all services to a unitary authority has made a big difference to delivery on the ground, and the costs of reorganisation have been tiny by comparison.

On joined-up government, I read and listened carefully to what Anne Owers said about the relationship between the Home Office and mental health provision. There is a continuing long-standing problem, in that many of those who commit crimes also have mental health problems. That is a fact of life, but a great deal of work is going into trying to improve mental health provision inside prisons. As the right hon. Lady wants a serious debate about the problem, she will know that mental health practitioners are often reluctant to take on people diagnosed with mental health problems who happen to be in prison. My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health are looking into the matter.

The right hon. Lady made some points about the Home Office budget being frozen. It has not been frozen. There are certainly restrictions on the growth of bureaucracy in all Departments—I thought that she
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was in favour of those—but capital building and the expansion of prison places have increased. The proof is that almost 20,000 additional prison places have already been provided in the past 10 years.

The right hon. Lady knows very well when the Lords White Paper is to be published, because I told her. She has been a member of the cross-party group on the Lords, where we have been seeking consensus when it is perfectly obvious—everybody knows—that opinion on reform of the Lords varies very much in all the major parties, and between this House and the other place. It is for that reason that we committed ourselves to a free vote on composition, which will include all Ministers, as we made clear before and at the election. There is not a Government view—

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What about the Chancellor voting?

Mr. Straw: There will be a White Paper, because it is important that there should be a focus for the debate. There will be a statement on it, followed—as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) knows very well—by consideration by this House, not once but twice, before the House comes to a decision, and there will be equivalent processes, which are a matter for the Lords, in the other place.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the UK’s continuing engagement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The country recently held its first elections for more than 40 years, observed by a number of Members and strongly supported by our Government. The DRC has come out of a civil war involving six neighbouring countries and the deaths of 4 million people, but it is little discussed in public debate and I have failed so far to secure an extended debate in Westminster Hall, so will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for that important debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend’s interest in that issue, which is too often neglected in the public prints in the UK, even though that country is where the largest number of people have been killed in civil strife in the past 30 years. I cannot promise a debate, but I shall certainly consider her request.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It may be helpful if I point out that between the two debates on Wednesday 7 February we will seek a Division of the House, under Standing Order No. 118, on a motion relating to the Merchant Shipping (Inland Waterway and Limited Coastal Operations) (Boatmasters’ Qualifications and Hours of Work) Regulations 2006.

I listened carefully to what the Leader of the House said about the benefits of a unitary authority in his area, but is it not important that a statement be made on the process of local government reorganisation? I am aware that 26 bids have been submitted to the Department, including two from Somerset, where the Conservatives say that a county unitary is unthinkable, although next door in Wiltshire they are not only thinking of it, but bidding for it. The important issue is
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not the merits or demerits of reorganisation, but whether there is an opportunity to consider those bids properly. Is it sensible to do so in the middle of a hard-fought district council campaign? Will there be an opportunity for local people to give their views, or will only councillors, Members of Parliament and Ministers be able to do so, as seems to be the case at the moment?

May we have a debate on the British Library? It is one of our greatest cultural institutions. It is not a place of entertainment, so it is not a place where admission fees are appropriate. In the interests of scholarship, will the House ensure that the British Library is properly maintained?

In the light of today’s revelations about the improper pressure put on the Attorney-General to reverse an opinion, and given the reported views of the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs—herself a recent Solicitor-General—which are that public trust in the role of the Attorney-General has been undermined, and that his advice should be routinely published, may we have an urgent debate on the tarnished role of the Attorney-General?

Lastly, may we have a debate on e-petitions? I note the enormous success of the Prime Minister’s website, which allows people to sign petitions on all sorts of subjects, and I receive a profusion of them. I have one question, which is really a benchmarking exercise: how many signatures are required on an e-petition before anything actually changes?

Mr. Straw: On local government reorganisation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set out the process in the local government White Paper. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that opinions vary markedly on the issue, and not necessarily according to party. It so happens that it was a Conservative Government who agreed that Blackburn should transfer to a unitary authority in 1996, against the all-party opposition of Lancashire county council, so there is no party point to make. However, someone has to make a decision, because otherwise there will be paralysis and no change. There is never a right time to make such decisions. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s area has elections every year or every four years, but mine has them every year, so there will always be an election coming up, or an election that has just taken place; that is how it is.

We have increased the resources for the British Library, as well as museums, significantly, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport would not do anything to damage the services provided by the British Library.

I wholly resent and reject the implications of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about my noble Friend the Attorney-General. He has carried out the duties of his office to the highest standards of propriety. The role of the Attorney-General is well settled, and I am glad that on 14 December the shadow Attorney-General confirmed the Conservative party’s support for the Attorney-General’s role, when responding to the Solicitor-General’s repetition of the Attorney-General’s statement about the suspension of the investigation of the Saudi matters. There is no way wholly to detach some considerations from the
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prosecution system, such as considerations of national security, and of national or public interest in the way that the Liberals suggest. Prosecutors are required by law to consider such matters. The hon. Gentleman ought to look abroad, at countries where prosecutors are allegedly entirely independent of Ministers, and see what criticism they are under, because they end up making political judgments, but are totally unaccountable in respect of those judgments. The Liberals would be screaming much more about the issue in that situation.

On e-petitions, the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was timely, because I have looked at the interest in e-petitions on the Downing street website, and I have talked to officials at No. 10 about the way in which those petitions could be linked to petitions in the House; that is an important function performed by the House. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry on petitions, and I will arrange for the people running the Downing street website to talk to the Clerk and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee about how we can better link the two together.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the number of signatures not just on petitions but on early-day motion 132, which raises the issue of illegal logging?

[That this House notes the problem of illegal logging, which is valued at 10 to 15 billion euros per year, costing producer countries billions in lost revenue, causes widespread environmental damage and loss of biodiversity, and increases carbon emissions; notes research by WWF which estimates that the EU is responsible for at least three billion euros of this and that the UK imports over 70 per cent. of its timber and is one of the largest importers of illegal timber within the EU; believes that the current EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Action Plan is inadequate, as it does not prevent illegal imports entering the EU via third countries such as China; supports the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee for legislation to make it illegal to import illegal timber into the EU; further notes that Chatham House has reported that such legislation is WTO compliant; and, therefore, calls on the Government fully to support moves to introduce this legislation as a matter of urgency.]

I tabled the motion, which has been signed by more hon. Members than any other early-day motion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is shocking that, despite the best efforts of companies such as Balfour Beatty, which has gone to great lengths to make sure that it procures sustainable timber, the UK is the third biggest importer of illegal timber? Is it not time that we had a debate in the House so that we can call on the European Community to introduce legislation to stop the import of illegal timber by the UK and the EU?

Mr. Straw: I certainly note my hon. Friend’s interest, and I congratulate her on the vigour with which she has pursued the matter. As she knows, there are a number of opportunities to raise the issue, including in Westminster Hall and on the Adjournment, and I will look at her request.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Chancellor of the Exchequer has much on his
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mind at the moment, so we hope that he has not forgotten about his last Budget. Can the Leader of the House tell us when that event will take place—and in connection with that, is he as confident today as he was last week that today’s air passenger duty has completed all the appropriate processes in the House of Commons?

Mr. Straw: First, the Budget date will be announced in the appropriate way; the right hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that. I will try to ensure that I send him a personal billet doux with the details, in case he misses it. On his second point, the decision to bring the tax into force today was entirely lawful, proper, and consistent with previous procedures. I do not know why there are complaints from some airlines, because when they impose a fuel surcharge they impose it on passengers who have already booked a ticket and paid the fare.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con) indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: That is true of the fuel surcharge, and it is a matter for the airlines whether they charge existing passengers for that tax or, as British Airways are doing, absorb the costs themselves.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the powers of local government? We read in the papers that local authorities may be given powers to erect more speed cameras. That may be open to misrepresentation by our opponents, so a debate would allow us to restate the case that Labour stands for the hard-working family and the British-assembled motor car.

Mr. Straw: I would be delighted to try to arrange such a debate. We do indeed stand for hard-working families and for British-manufactured motor cars. The number of cars manufactured in this country is very high; it is not quite at its peak, but it is approaching that level. May I tell my hon. Friend that we have speed cameras because of concern for hard-working families, as we wish to ensure that families, particularly children, are safe from speeding motorists?

Mr. Mackay: It is clear that to avoid continuing Government paralysis the Prime Minister must retire soon—so will the Leader of the House assure us that he will quickly introduce the orders for parliamentary boundary changes, so that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes leader he can fight the election on the new boundaries?

Mr. Straw: I promise the right hon. Gentleman that I am involved in a spirited discussion with the Department for Constitutional Affairs about introducing the boundary change orders. I have been told that the problem is printing and binding delays—[Hon. Members: “Oh!] I am not convinced that that is the reason, and I am pursuing the matter with vigour. I repeat my commitment to the House that the orders will be introduced in good time for a general election. Everyone knows that by law
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it is not open to Government to seek to amend the orders, and we shall not do so.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 791, which highlights the plight of hundreds of my constituents who still await a decision on a flood defence scheme seven years after their houses were flooded?

[That this House notes that it is now seven years since hundreds of residents along the Water of Leith in Edinburgh suffered severe flooding; further notes that the City of Edinburgh Council speedily drew up a flood defence scheme which it submitted to the Scottish Executive for approval; further notes that a report was submitted from the public inquiry into the scheme in September 2005, and that a decision on the scheme has been awaited ever since; and urges the Liberal Democrat Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Ross Finnie MSP, not to delay any further in reaching a decision, but to approve the scheme as soon as possible in order to end the uncertainty endured by residents in the affected area.]

Will my right hon. Friend support the call for the Liberal Democrat Minister for Environment and Rural Development, who has been sitting on the plans for two years in the Scottish Executive, to make a decision so that my constituents’ uncertainty can be ended?

Mr. Straw: Yes, we put large sums of money into flood defences. I am sad that the Liberal Democrat Minister in Scotland has been sitting on his hands for the past two years, but it does not surprise me, because it has always been clear to me that people join the Liberal Democrats only if they are congenitally incapable of accepting responsibility and making decisions.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Last week, the Leader of the House kindly agreed to a debate on the Act of Union. Will he make sure that the motion covers the West Lothian question, so that a Minister can explain to me from the Dispatch Box why it is fair and democratic for Scottish Members of this Parliament not to have a vote on health services in Perth, while, almost perversely, they can vote on health services in Penrith and Penzance? Why should the people of England put up with that for a minute longer?

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