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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): One feels rather sorry for the Solicitor-General. If the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, represents the normal category of client within the Government with whom the Solicitor-General has to deal, he clearly has a rather harder time that I would
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normally have expected. Can he make one point clear? If there were to be any change, would it not have to be directed by the Prime Minister, thus making it something over which the Law Officers have no control at all? Legal professional privilege attaches not for any advantage to the Law Officers, but to those who receive the advice. Therefore the Minister of State’s comments cannot be aimed at the Law Officers; presumably, they are aimed at the Prime Minister.

The Solicitor-General: It is certainly the case that legal privilege attaches to the client rather than the lawyer. That is the case across the board. It is therefore
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the case that it must be a decision for the client—whether it be a Minister or the Prime Minister—to take a view as to whether the advice should be published or not. It is a matter for the lawyer to give the advice in a robust and straightforward way, which is what we as Law Officers seek to do. It is a matter for the Minister to decide whether it is disclosed, but the ministerial guidance requires that the consent of the Law Officers be obtained before that is done. A better approach is for Ministers to indicate that they are seeking advice and that they are seeking for it to be made public; in those circumstances, the Law Officers would be able to take a view as to how best to put that advice.

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Business of the House

11.37 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for the coming weeks?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 19 February—Motions relating to benefits up-rating, followed by a debate on human rights “Values, rights and responsibilities” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Tuesday 20 February—Remaining stages of the Planning Gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Income Tax Bill.

Wednesday 21 February—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day], there will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 February—Motion to approve the Draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in Force of Section 1 to 9) Order 2007 followed by, a debate entitled “Health Challenge England: New Directions for Public Health” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 23 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 February will include:

Monday 26 February—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Mrs. May: Given the interchange that we just heard in questions to the Solicitor-General, may I help the Leader of the House by suggesting that he arrange a debate on collective responsibility, in which Ministers could learn to understand what being part of the same team is supposed to mean?

I note that the Leader of the House has not given us a full two weeks’ business. He will have noticed that there is considerable interest in the debate on the unprecedented preferential voting system that he is introducing on House of Lords reform. The press report that the debate might be held on 27 February. Will the Leader of the House confirm the date of that debate?

Before Christmas, the Leader of the House recognised the strength of feeling in the calls for a debate on Iraq. There is similar feeling for a debate on Afghanistan, particularly given the issues of troop deployment and resources and the Taliban threats reported today. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on Afghanistan?

Following the announcement by the hon. Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen) that he would not contest the next general election, despite earlier assurances to the contrary, we learned this week from the Chancellor’s climate change adviser, Sir Nicholas Stern, that the Chancellor had appointed the hon. Gentleman to work with Sir Nicholas. Will the Leader of the House clarify the terms on which the hon. Gentleman was appointed by the Chancellor and what he will do in his new role and assure us that no other
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promise has been made of which the House, or perhaps another place, should be aware?

The Select Committee on the Treasury recommended that the date of the Budget be given two months in advance. We are now less than two months from the Easter recess: why the delay, and when will we be given the date?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has previously raised the question of the new arrangements for passports, under which people renewing their passports will have to be interviewed—up to 6 million interviews a year managed by the Home Office. We now know that the new e-passports might have to be reissued every two years, which would lead to a massive increase in the number of interviews required. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on how the Home Office, which is not fit for purpose, will cope?

Finally, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health? The Government have dropped a pledge to build or refurbish 50 community hospitals. The Department of Health has given the go-ahead for the refurbishment of only one community hospital and three health centres, while five community hospitals have been closed in the past year. At the same time, maternity units are closing, with even the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) campaigning against closure of the maternity unit in his constituency.

The Secretary of State for Health seems to live in a parallel world. She has denied the impact of cuts and deficits and on health care. Last year, she even said that it was the best year ever for the NHS. Today, she has told the Daily Mirror that

There have been 9,000 bed closures in the past 21 months —some success rate. That paper is not known for its opposition to Labour, but it asks:

We need a statement from the Health Secretary, so that she can explain why she measures success in bed closures, so that she can apologise to the patients who are suffering as a result of her policies and so that Members on both sides of the House can tell her exactly what they and the public think of the Government’s cuts in the NHS.

Mr. Straw: I always listen carefully to the House—I am listening at the moment—but it is for the usual channels to decide the timing of a debate on Lords reform. When a recess is coming up, it is quite usual not to announce the full business for the week after the week when we come back.

The right hon. Lady asks for a debate on Afghanistan. We have just had a debate on defence in the world, which included a great deal of discussion of Afghanistan. Of course I understand the concern that she articulates on behalf of the House, but I cannot promise a debate very shortly, given that we have already had one debate, which I delivered in response to requests from the House, and a second debate in normal time in respect of wider defence issues.

The right hon. Lady asks me about my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen).

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Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is smiling.

Mr. Straw: Is it an offence to smile? There is not much to smile about in the right hon. Lady’s questions, but I think I am entitled to smile. She asks me about my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell.

Mr. Vara: Is there are secret?

Mr. Straw: If there is a secret, I do not know it. I am responsible for a great deal, but not for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s appointments, any more than he is responsible for mine, so I suggest that she table questions to him. [Interruption.] To each of us.

On the date of the Budget, it is often the case—it was under the previous Administration, or certainly during the 18 years of it that I witnessed—that the date is not announced anything like two months in advance. Of course, it is for everybody’s convenience that it should be announced as far in advance as possible, and we will make an announcement about it as quickly as we can.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady asked about e-passports, because it enables me to bring to a wider audience an unusual statement from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who said, in respect of a report on e-passports, that

Mrs. May indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady shakes her head; I know that the hon. Member for Gainsborough is almost in a different party from her, and he recently said in The Daily Telegraph that the Conservative party, under the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), was going

The right hon. Lady needs to talk to her researchers—those famed researchers, whose knowledge of parliamentary procedure and pop songs is often so defective—before she comes back to the subject of e-passports.

On the health service, which we are always pleased to debate, there is a serious point to be made about bed closures. Beds in some hospital wards have closed. Why? Because—

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a shambles.

Mr. Straw: No, because patients are spending much less time in hospital, thanks to huge improvements in treatment, and thanks to the fact that many people who, even five years ago, had to receive treatment as in-patients now receive treatment as day patients. Conservatives may mock that, but it happens to be to true, and if they are serious about producing a health service when and if they form an Administration, I do not believe for a second that they would go into an election with a health policy that committed them to not closing a single hospital bed. I hope that they will go in to the election saying that they will increase spending on the health service, instead of cutting taxation.
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We know that they voted against every single spending plan, although those plans produced 85,000 more nurses and 32,000 more doctors, and meant that 157 new hospitals have either been built or are on the way.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on police manpower statistics? Since the introduction of police community support officers and safer neighbourhoods teams, police visibility in my constituency has improved significantly, as has the ability to respond to community concerns. Given the success of those innovations in West Ham, can we not find time to discuss funding for neighbourhood policing, to ensure that policing levels are maintained, if not increased?

Mr. Straw: I shall certainly consider that, and, as my hon. Friend knows, the total number of police officers is now at a record high, having increased by more than 14,000 in the past 10 years. Alongside that, there are almost 7,000 police community support officers.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The reason the House is so keen to hold debates on the health service is that that is the only level of democratic accountability for the decisions that are taken. We share the concerns about community hospital closures and maternity units. I note that Dr. Sheila Shribman, the author of a report issued last week, said:

That shows a fine disregard for the fact that some families cannot do that, particularly in rural areas, where proximity is a key part of health care.

I add to those concerns the issue of dentists. We learned today that the number of calls to NHS Direct from people desperate to find an NHS dentist rose to well over 200,000 in the past six months. Some 2,000 dentists left the NHS last year, and a further 860 are in dispute. These are serious matters for our constituents and we ought to have the opportunity to debate them.

May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—incidentally, can Government statements, which are pre-arranged, be arranged for days other than Opposition Supply days, which seems to have become a habit recently?—on the report from the National Audit Office, which reveals that of the £13.3 billion of savings trumpeted for the Gershon review, £10 billion are dubious or fictitious? This is a matter of some concern for the planning of Government finances.

May we have a statement on the outcome of the judicial review of the Government’s refusal to accept the ombudsman’s report on pension compensation? The Government have chosen to ignore the ombudsman, the European Court of Justice and the Public Administration Committee of the House. They surely cannot ignore a judicial review. In the interests of pension justice, we should have a statement.

The Leader of the House hinted a couple of weeks ago in response to a question of mine that we would have a debate on Scotland and the Act of Union. That seems to have gone by the bye. I anticipate that we will have a debate on St. David’s day, 1 March, on Wales. May I ask for a debate on whales spelled with an h? Whaling is an important environmental matter, and
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one on which the Government have an extremely good record. In the past few days the Government produced a document that bears further scrutiny, which argues that the nations around the world that are engaged in the Whaling Commission should resist attempts by whaling nations to re-open commercial whaling. We should give the Government every support on that, because many people support the conservation of these special mammals.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement on whales. I shall think about his request.

He asked for a debate on the national health service. The Liberal Democrats had two debates yesterday and they wasted both opportunities. They were shredded by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). For someone who is occasionally friendly with the Liberal Democrats, it was embarrassing to read Hansard, and still more to have been in the House. The hon. Gentleman missed an opportunity, and there are plenty of other opportunities to debate the NHS.

The hon. Gentleman complains about the absence of community hospitals. I think he is the Member for Frome.

Mr. Heath: We have one.

Mr. Straw: Exactly. Under our spending plans—not the Liberal Democrats’ or the Conservatives’ plans—a large amount has been spent building a new community hospital for Frome to replace the existing hospital, which is over 100 years old. The Liberal Democrats believe in magic wands and fairies. They want new community hospitals everywhere all at once. We are providing them as we can, but with a much higher level of resource than ever they or the Conservatives could.

The Gershon targets are targets, and the time span for the implementation of Gershon has not yet been fulfilled. On pensions, a judicial review is under way and I shall not anticipate the outcome. If the hon. Gentleman consults the record in respect of a possible debate on Scotland, he will find that I said that I would think about it, and I am still doing so.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Although I recognise that there remains an acute terrorist threat in our country, Britain can hardly be a police state if those who believe that can broadcast their views. Nevertheless, will my right hon. Friend find out how the lurid details of last week’s detentions came to be leaked? If there are such allegations, they should arise in court when charges are made, and the charges should be made by the prosecution. There are some lessons from recent detentions that unfortunately have not been learned.

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