Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Straw: I sometimes wonder why the House should put up with the hon. Gentleman for a minute longer—but I am a generous man. What I said was that I would consider the request, but there have already been debates on the West Lothian question, which is central to the issue of how we bind the Union or whether we wish, as he does, to destroy it. Equally, he could ask why, within the Union, Members from England have a dominant role in the financing of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As I said two weeks ago, the system is asymmetrical, but it is very fair, and it takes account of the fact that, as he knows, proportionately, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland represent only 16 per cent. of the United Kingdom’s total population and resources. English MPs, whatever their party, wholly dominate spending
1 Feb 2007 : Column 369
decisions that affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I think that that system works, and I am in absolutely no doubt that if a referendum on independence were held in Scotland it would be wholly rejected.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that on 24 February, the British National party will effectively be recognised as a trade union by the certification officer? May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that that organisation will not be allowed to exploit employment laws to spread its obnoxious policies?

Mr. Straw: I shall certainly look at the point made by my hon. Friend, and ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State writes to him.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Will the Leader of the House allow us to have a debate on access to drug treatment for sufferers of ultra-orphan conditions, which are extremely rare. Last March, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence proposed that the Department of Health introduce different guidelines so that it could review those drugs, which are necessarily more expensive, as the costs are spread among fewer patients. Last year, however, the Department rejected the NICE proposal so that sufferers of rare conditions in Britain have no prospect of access to new treatment. May we have a debate, because that is not the right way to progress the issue?

Mr. Straw: Of course I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. Health questions will take place next Tuesday, and she has not missed the deadline, so I suggest that she table a question. There is, I think, cross-party agreement that the NICE arrangement for independent assessment of new drug treatments is sensible, and better than the alternative. Whoever is in government, there are critical and difficult questions about whether to approve drugs and make them generally available. That is the reality, but I am aware that some individuals at the margin are disadvantaged and are in a difficult position.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the independence of the civil service, particularly the duty of hon. Members not to attack civil servants unfairly? May I draw his attention to the case of Mockbul Ali, with whom I believe he has been in contact? Mr. Ali was attacked by the Conservative party in its recent policy document on national security, but he could not answer, so perhaps we ought to address that in the House.

Mr. Straw: That is a good idea. Having read that Conservative document, which is an assemblage of various allegations off Google, I thought that the attack on Mr. Mockbul Ali, who is an official who worked for me in the Foreign Office, was wholly unwarranted and unworthy of the Conservative party. As far as I could see, his only offence is that he happens to be a Muslim working as a civil servant. I hope that the Conservative party will withdraw that, and much else in that document.

1 Feb 2007 : Column 370

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 108 concerning the Epsom and St. Helier NHS Trust.

[That this House recognises the vital role which the St Helier Hospital plays in providing healthcare services to residents of the London boroughs of Sutton and Merton and of Surrey; notes with alarm that the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust has been asked to make cuts of £20 million over the next two years; expresses its concern at the growing body of evidence suggesting that the hospital may be closed or that significant cuts will be made to hospital services; acknowledges the widespread support for the hospital from local residents; notes that any closure of services would have a significant impact on local people, resulting in longer travel times, inconvenience and a lower standard of care; and calls on the Government urgently to guarantee that the full range of existing healthcare services will continue to be provided at sites within the London Borough of Sutton.]

May we have a debate on the freedom of information rules that have been used by the trust to refuse to disclose information about the pay-off made to the former chief executive of the trust, which is believed to be about £600,000, at a time when the trust is cash-strapped and being forced to make cuts in both beds and clinical staff?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the matter in an Adjournment debate, he is aware of the opportunities. As he knows, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which I introduced as Home Secretary, if the health trust has indeed turned down the request, as he says, those who make the request have a right of appeal to an independent tribunal. I hope they are pursuing that.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Will the Leader of the House investigate an allegation that I received recently about the treatment of Public and Commercial Service Union members following an incident in Parliament square yesterday? The PCS members drove in an open-top coach along Whitehall and through Parliament square and parked in Horse Guards parade. Those who came off the bus were asked by the police to give their names and addresses because African drums and a megaphone had been used as they drove through Parliament square. Is that not a heavy-handed approach to demonstrations outside Parliament, as the bus was merely passing through? I am sorry that I have not put the allegations in writing, but I have been able to verify them only in the past 20 minutes.

Mr. Straw: I have many responsibilities, but the investigation of complaints against the police is not one of them. The hon. Gentleman knows, and can advise his constituents, that there are obvious well-tried routes laid down in statute by which, if they are concerned, they can make a complaint against the police.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that the Government have done much to change the law governing rape and sexual offences. May we have a debate on the subject,
1 Feb 2007 : Column 371
to enable us to highlight some of the remaining anomalies? For example, a constituent of mine was refused compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority on the absurd grounds that she had not suffered violence.

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and I will do what I can to see that there is an opportunity to debate the matter. He will know that under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, there is some limited right of appeal. I cannot comment on that particular case, but I say to the House as a whole that it is widely accepted that under changes that we have made in the past 10 years, treatment of rape victims has improved considerably, to the extent that more rape victims are coming forward to make allegations. One of the results is that the proportion of so-called stranger rapes to acquaintance rapes has changed. The vast majority—getting on for 90 per cent.—of the allegations now made are so-called acquaintance rapes, where the issue is not whether intercourse took place or the identity of the alleged assailant, but whether there was consent. That is very difficult to prove or disprove in court.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): May we have a debate on MRSA, even though the House has just had one? In the opening comments of the Secretary of State for Health in the recent debate on MRSA, she cited a visit that she had made to the Royal Marsden hospital the previous day. The Royal Marsden hospital has one of the lowest MRSA rates in the country, and she attributed that to the use of hand rubs, different coloured aprons, and electronic records. What the Secretary of State failed to mention, even though there were several interventions about hospital nurses’ uniforms—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This seems to be an extension of the debate last week. We cannot have that. The hon. Lady should ask for a debate about the matter, not put the case. Perhaps I could help her by suggesting that if she felt that the Secretary of State was not as well informed as she should have been, the hon. Lady could ask for a debate.

Mrs. Dorries: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State was not as well informed as she should have been. The Royal Marsden does launder uniforms. Could we therefore have another debate?

Mr. Straw: As the Speaker said, the hon. Lady has already started the debate. There are Health questions next Tuesday, so she can table a question to the Secretary of State for Health today for answer on Tuesday.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): When we had a drugs tsar and he produced an annual report, we used to debate it on the Floor of the House. I gather that in the very near future the Government are to review the national drugs strategy. Is it not time that we debated that important policy area again on the Floor of the House?

1 Feb 2007 : Column 372

Mr. Straw: I accept the importance of that matter, and I will give consideration to whether we can have such a debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): May I add my voice to those calling for a debate on the process of the restructuring of local government, including the cost of that process? Ministers throw about glib phrases about it being cost-neutral, which most people understand to mean very expensive indeed. This matter needs considering before we proceed.

Mr. Straw: It is being looked at before we proceed. Areas may decide that they do not want to move. It is always an issue of controversy, but from my own constituency experience, although there were some marginal restructuring costs, the benefits to my constituents, whatever their political affiliations, of changing to a unitary authority have been huge.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): May we have a debate on the new £625 million contract for premiership football games to be shown overseas? As far as I can see, the only change that the contract will make is that premiership footballers’ basic salaries will change from £20,000 a week to £60,000 a week. That is obscene. None of the money is flowing down the game to the grass roots, and the gap between the premiership and other lower leagues, especially the one in which Hartlepool United plays, is getting wider. As a Blackburn Rovers fan, will my right hon. Friend arrange time to discuss the matter so that we can redistribute that wealth across football in general?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We look to the premier league to ensure that, with the additional funds, it makes football, whether in the premiership or lower down, more accessible to individuals so that they can go to the grounds. I am indeed a Blackburn Rovers fan. I had the misfortune to go to the away end at Stamford bridge yesterday, and paid £45 for the privilege of watching Blackburn Rovers being beaten 3-0 by Chelsea. I may be able to afford £45, but it is a great deal of money, so there is a real issue. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that Blackburn Rovers are, as ever, in the lead and have already taken steps to lower their prices to attract more people to the game, because the game as a whole, and the premiership offer, will suffer grievously if people see empty stadiums. That is what has happened in other countries. One of the reasons why the premiership is such a saleable product, so to speak, across the world is because of the fans who turn up week after week and support not just the glory teams, but the real teams in any of the leagues.

Mr. Speaker: May I say to the Leader of the House that that did not seem to have much to do with the business of the House?

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May we have a debate on why the Prime Minister will not answer questions about the loans scandal? I asked him about it yesterday, and he said that the answer was obvious. It is not entirely obvious to me why he cannot say that he is innocent, or that he has complete confidence in the
1 Feb 2007 : Column 373
people who have been arrested. If the answer is the really obvious one, I do not see how he is still Prime Minister.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. It is perfectly obvious why the Prime Minister cannot answer such questions while there is a continuing police investigation.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on equality and balanced reporting in our press and media? Although it is right and proper that we should take every measure possible to stamp out racism and sectarianism, I am somewhat concerned that my sensitivities are being ignored. As someone who is often described as a white, fat, half-bald man, I am genuinely concerned that my views are not taken into consideration. Can my right hon. Friend suggest a way in which my sensitivities can be addressed—or do I just need a wee cuddle?

Mr. Straw: The aim of equality legislation is to take everybody’s sensibilities into account, including those of my hon. Friend.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the growing sad army of NEETs—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in employment, education or training—whose numbers have rocketed since this Government came to power? With demand for unskilled labour falling, there is a real chance that we are creating an underclass. That is incompatible with social responsibility, social cohesion or social justice, and it deserves the House’s earnest, ardent and urgent consideration.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman raises an important topic, and I will certainly think about whether we can have a debate on it. He will know that part of the purpose of the proposal by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to extend the compulsory education age from 16 to 18 is to deal with that group. We have invested a huge amount of money, for example in welfare-to-work programmes, to provide better opportunities for many such youngsters. I accept that this is a matter for all parties. Because the number of unskilled jobs is declining, we have to work hard almost to stand still in providing opportunities for those who previously would have worked as factory labourers but for whom such opportunities are no longer available.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Could we have an urgent debate about the treatment of British citizens in Saudi Arabia during haj visits? On 9 December the 36-year-old wife of my constituent, Rafiq Gorji, was killed in a coach crash, and he was dragged along the ground, suffering burns to his hands, head and back. When I met the deputy Saudi ambassador yesterday, he referred me to the British ambassador in Riyadh. I spoke to our excellent ambassador there, who clearly stated that this is a matter for the Saudi Government. I know that my right hon. Friend set up the haj committee, and I have spoken to Lord Patel. However, this is a friendly country with which we have strong
1 Feb 2007 : Column 374
relations, and it is surely in the public interest to ensure that the case is dealt with. Could we therefore have an urgent debate?

Mr. Straw: I accept my right hon. Friend’s concern and ask him to send my personal condolences to the family concerned. It is a very distressing case. The Minister for the Middle East has already written to tour operators to draw their attention to the terrible consequences of this accident and the need to enforce regulations on bus safety and bus drivers’ hours. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to raise the matter with the Saudi Foreign Minister.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Can we have a further debate on affordable housing, which remains a priority in Milton Keynes? Does the Leader of the House understand my constituents’ frustration, given that last summer the Government trumpeted the introduction of a new £60,000 house, which we discovered this week had gone on sale for £189,500? Is that what he calls affordable?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I am not an expert on house prices in Milton Keynes—

Mr. Lancaster: Why not?

Mr. Straw: I know that it is a dereliction of my duty. I accept the criticism, and I will consider my position. What else can I say? It is an abject failure. [ Interruption. ] Here comes the Opposition Chief Whip.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about high house prices—for first-time buyers in particular—which we all share. However, we have a done a great deal—rather more than the previous Government—to try to ameliorate the situation.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I hope that the House would agree, Mr. Speaker, that the private religious views of yourself, myself, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and even the Leader of the House, are not and should not be material to Government policy. If the Leader of the House accepts that, may I put to him again the question that I put to him last week? Can we have a debate on the role of religious organisations in delivering public services, with particular regard to whether it would be sensible for them to agree not to discriminate against service receivers or their employees, or to proselytise or harass when delivering welfare, social and other public services, after which they can make their contribution?

Mr. Straw: As I said last week, I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman’s views, if I do not altogether share them. There are plenty of occasions on which he can raise this matter. For example, the issue of faith schools, and whether their head teachers should be required to adhere to that faith, is regularly debated in this House. As a liberal western democracy, we should absolutely respect people’s right to hold, or not to hold, religious opinions. At the same time, most of us believe that we should take account of our country’s history and the important contribution that faith groups make, not only to private worship but to public services.

1 Feb 2007 : Column 375

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Leader of the House will recall that the Prime Minister showed great courage, generosity and good sense in giving £27 million to the children’s hospice movement to replace the falling off of national lottery funding last year, and in setting up a review to secure fair funding for it. That review is coming to an end, and its recommendations will be presented to the Minister concerned at the end of February. Will the Leader of the House look to hold an early debate after that so that the House can show its strong cross-party support for the children’s hospice movement and its fair funding?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the approbation that he offers to the Prime Minister, who is very committed to this issue. I cannot promise a debate, but I will certainly ensure that his views are made known to the Prime Minister and to the relevant Minister.

Next Section Index Home Page