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Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes very seriously any unattributed briefing about such matters, as have all Home Secretaries. I make two further points to my hon. Friend. One is that
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it is a simple fact of life and inevitable in any fair criminal justice system that some of those in respect of whom there is a reasonable suspicion sufficient to merit arrest are subsequently released without charge. That has to be the case, but it also happens, as figures from my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General have made clear, that the ratio of arrest to charge not just under the Terrorism Act 2000, but under other, more substantial offences, is higher than in respect of many categories of offence. The final point that I make to my hon. Friend is that we should give no excuse or quarter to those who claim that this country is a police state. That is utter nonsense. We live in a democracy and, sadly, we are engaged in fighting people who seek to destroy the very basis of our democracy. That includes, as part of our democracy, all of my constituents, 30 per cent. of whom are Muslim.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): At Prime Minister’s questions before Christmas, I asked the Prime Minister if he would make available resources to the families bereaved as a result of the Iraq war to be represented at coroners inquests. The Prime Minister responded that the families would get all the assistance that was necessary. Following that statement, I wrote to the Lord Chancellor and asked him to give substance to that undertaking. I received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) referring to various matters concerning legal aid, which did not help at all, so I wrote back to the Lord Chancellor and asked if he would give substance to the Prime Minister’s undertaking. To date, that undertaking has not been honoured. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate so that we can discuss the resources given to the state to represent the armed forces through the Ministry of Defence at inquests, and the resources that are not given to the families who require representation?

Mr. Straw: I take very seriously what the hon. Gentleman says. I personally will look into the matter and write to him. On the subject of a debate, we had a wide debate on defence just last week, and he is fully aware that there are other opportunities to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Through our many years of friendship, my right hon. Friend and I have rarely, if ever, disagreed on anything before. I welcome the fact that, as he said in reply to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), he is still listening to views on the system of voting that we will employ on House of Lords reform. Is he aware that many of us want not only the opportunity to vote for what we want to happen, but the opportunity to vote against what we do not want to happen?

Mr. Straw: I am glad to hear that from my close right hon. Friend. As I said, I have always sought to listen to the House and I continue to do so. My one aim is to enable the House to come to a conclusion, which it was, sadly, unable to do last time.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Following the line of thought opened up by the hon. Member for
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Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), there are few general opportunities in the House to debate the current state of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. Is it possible to have a debate in Government time on integration and cohesion, which would provide the opportunity for a broader debate but would include the opportunity to consider that matter?

Mr. Straw: I cannot make a promise about that. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the pressures on time, but that is an idea that we should actively consider.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Prior to veterans day on 27 June this year, may we have a debate on support for veterans in Britain—people who have served our nation so well?

Mr. Straw: I will look into that. My hon. Friend knows that there are many opportunities in Westminster Hall and on the Adjournment to debate the matter. I think he is aware of all the efforts that our Government have made over the past 10 years to improve services to veterans, including the appointment of a Minister for Veterans.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): This week the Prime Minister got his usual easy ride at the hands of the Liaison Committee, where we find that there is still no representation of the minority parties. The Leader of the House referred yesterday to something called cross-party consensus and consultation on his House of Lords reform. Again, we find that only the three main parties are involved in that. Will this Leader of the House dare to be inclusive and to ensure that all parties and constituencies are represented in all the institutions of the House?

Mr. Straw: The cross-party talks were not part of the House’s operations but a Government initiative in which the other two parties willingly joined. I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but if we are going to enter into cross-party talks we need to know where he is coming from. As far as I can tell, he wants to be on a completely different planet from the rest of us. If he is telling me that he has repented and now recognises the value of the United Kingdom Parliament, we can start on some business.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Given the possibility of a takeover of Sainsbury’s, one of our major supermarkets, by a private equity conglomerate, could we have a debate in the House about the role of private equity organisations? They are mysterious and unaccountable organisations that employ nearly 3 million people in this country, and the House should know more about their workings.

Mr. Straw: I will pass on my hon. Friend’s views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. There are many opportunities for the issue to be raised on the Floor of the House and through investigation by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Northampton Herald and Post is looking to start a campaign to highlight the difficulties of cancer patients
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who can access life-saving treatments only in the private sector, not through the NHS. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we can address that very serious problem?

Mr. Straw: Of course one understands the distress caused by particular cases in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, as in mine or anybody else’s. However, he must appreciate that there has been a phenomenal increase in the amount of money invested in the health service in the past 10 years—money that his party not only would not have provided but voted against. The result has been a huge improvement in mortality and morbidity rates; in other words, people are living longer and more healthily. We sought to establish fair assistance, through National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence evaluations and other systems, whereby resources—which at any level will be limited, although they are much more than they were or would have been—can be fairly allocated.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): May we have an early debate on the appropriate use of referendums? Given that both major Opposition parties said in their last manifestos that they would introduce a directly elected element into the House of Lords, and lost, while the Labour party did not mention direct elections, and won, surely we cannot take the kind of radical action that my right hon. Friend proposes without a referendum of the people. Let the question be: “Do you want another 270 elected politicians—yes or no?”

Mr. Straw: We said in our manifesto that we wanted a reformed House of Lords that was more representative. It is arguable, to say the least, whether it can be more representative without there being a democratic elected element. We did not promise a referendum, and there is no suggestion that we should do so. When we have a Bill, my hon. Friend will no doubt wish to table an amendment, and then we shall see.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The Leader of the House mentioned the response that he gave two weeks ago to the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for a debate on the Act of Union. He told us just now that he would think about it, but what he said then was:

Does what he said just now mean that he consulted his right hon. Friend, who thought that it was a bad idea to have a debate on this important issue, or can we expect such a debate in the near future?

Mr. Straw: I do not think that there is much difference between what I said previously and what I said just now. I am thinking about it.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have a debate on the Electoral Commission? That body got £26 million last year, yet, having asked a large number of colleagues from all parties what it actually does, I cannot find an answer. I do not want to abolish
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anything, but £26 million is an awful lot of money, and if some of it was given for political purposes to democratic parties, that might obviate the need for the loans, offshore transactions and so forth which have caused a little difficulty for all of us in the past few months.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend raises a very serious point. He will be aware that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended significant changes in relation to the Electoral Commission, including a reduction in its scope and budget. It is also a subject of consideration by Sir Hayden Phillips. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs made a recommendation, but I told its Chairman that we will delay our response until we have received Sir Hayden Phillips’ report. I am considering whether to make an oral statement on his report.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time, as soon as possible, on the nasty and abhorrent inheritance tax? This week, I was visited by a constituent who bought his council house under the right to buy but, sadly, worries that current property prices mean that when he dies he will not be able to hand it over to his loved ones because inheritance tax thresholds have not risen with inflation.

Mr. Straw: There will be an opportunity to debate that when we come to the four-day Budget debate that is due before Easter. I do not know who the hon. Gentleman includes within the category of loved ones, but transfers between spouses on death are subject to special exemptions from inheritance tax.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): May we have a debate on the weather? My right hon. Friend will be aware that throughout the country today—although not in Yorkshire, where we are tough—schools have been closed or are closing early. While that offers children welcome opportunities to practise their sledging, snowman-building and snow angel-making skills, there is an economic impact on businesses and public services—and indeed on this place, as earlier in the Committee Corridor I saw a child accompanying her father in her Wellington boots. We need to discuss what is the appropriate local, regional and national response at times when we have extremes of temperature, whether snow or excessive heat, to guarantee public services and people’s health and safety.

Mr. Straw: Predicting a debate on the weather would be as difficult as predicting the weather itself. My hon. Friend makes a serious and important point. The judgment about whether to close schools is a matter for the local authorities concerned, and I will not second-guess them. However, it is extremely important that we constantly upgrade our efforts to defy the weather, which after all, notwithstanding a day’s snow, is much more moderate in this country than in many other countries that are able to cope with it a bit better.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Returning to the thorny issue of preferential voting on Lords
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reform, as the Leader of the House has admitted that he is in listening mode, I put it to him that many of us will be signing the early-day motion tabled yesterday by the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). Will he guarantee that before this radical idea is implemented it goes before the Procedure Committee; and can he assure the House that Government Back Benchers will not be put under a three-line Whip and there will be a free vote on this issue, which should be a House of Commons issue?

Mr. Straw: I cannot do the latter, but as well as listening carefully I am reading carefully.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I am concerned about how we can regulate profit-driven organisations that seek to portray themselves as charities. Last week, I was contacted by a constituent who had received through his door a flyer from an organisation known as Helpmates Ltd asking for donations of clothes which it said that it would forward to third world countries. What it did not say was that it would sell the clothes before they reached those countries. May we have a debate about how we can prevent that disreputable practice and protect our constituents from these fraudsters?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am aware that there are organisations, sometimes retailers offering services, that present themselves as not-for-profit charities but turn out to be nothing like that. I hope that my hon. Friend has specific cases so that we can draw this to the attention of the Charity Commission, which has investigatory powers. I wish him good fortune in raising the matter on the Adjournment either here or in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In 1996-97, the NHS spent £2,600 million on administrative staff. I congratulate the Government on increasing NHS expenditure, but is it not unfortunate that the sum spent on administrative staff has now reached £5.7 billion? May we have a statement or a debate on the NHS, especially spiralling increases in spending on administrative staff?

Mr. Straw: I am delighted to debate the national health service any time, including with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to the time when he recognises the huge improvements as a result of the increases in spending in his constituency. [Interruption.] He obviously does not know his constituency. Huge improvements have occurred for people living in his constituency as well as throughout the country.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): May we have a full debate in Government time about the Government’s record on crime, so that we can again expose, in the public interest, the ludicrous position of the Liberal Democrats, which was so clearly exposed last night?

Mr. Straw: I would be delighted to have a rerun of last night’s debate.

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Mr. Heath: So would we.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman was ever a masochist. I recommend to hon. Members of all parties the excellent website, FibDem. It is brilliant and goes through all the promises that the Liberal Democrats have made about the fight against crime, and all their actions inside and outside the House to undermine and sabotage that fight.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Last Wednesday, the maternity unit in Oswestry closed. As far as I am concerned, the closure is temporary because the service conforms exactly to the ideas of community care that were outlined in the White Paper that the Secretary of State for Health published last autumn. I discussed those ideas with her and agreed with them entirely. I went to the strategic health authority in Birmingham to discuss the funds and arrangements that could possibly relaunch the service, but was dismayed to read in The Times that the White Paper has not been effected and there is doubt about where the allocated £750 million has gone. The White Paper contained some good ideas. The Secretary of State should come to the House and explain what is happening and where the money has gone.

Mr. Straw: I understand the discomfiture and concern in any constituency where the provision of a service is changed. However, the hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate the reason for the reforms to maternity services. They are happening in order to cater better for mothers’ wishes about where they have their babies—there is greater demand for having babies at home or in small centres. At the same time, as anybody who has had an ill baby understands, what matters is having the very best services, which can only be specialist, concentrated and available in rather fewer centres than they are at the moment. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is wittering from a sedentary position. I repeat the point that she wills the end but not the means. She—and her party—keeps voting against all the increases in spending, which have enabled improvements in maternity services as well as other services.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Unlike some others, I offer the Leader of the House wholehearted support for the process that he is adopting for breaking the logjam in reforming the House of Lords. The current composition of the House of Lords is risible. At the last by-election for an hereditary peer, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein defeated the seventh Earl of Effingham—incidentally, of the second creation—by 11 votes to five on a single transferable vote. That is more like an episode of “Blackadder” than a proper constitutional process.

However, is it possible to include an additional vote in the process on whether bishops should sit in the House of Lords? Before my right hon. Friend says, as I suspect that he might, that that would mean disestablishing the Church of England, I simply point out that the Church of Scotland is also established but has no representation in the House of Lords.

Mr. Straw: As someone who was once a clerk in holy orders, and may still be so, my hon. Friend should
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know that the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian and therefore has no bishops. The question of their representation in the Lords does not arise.

I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend for his support, and I am listening to all the voices on the happy issue. However, in the words of the hymn, with which he is familiar, “One step at a time”. There will be plenty of opportunities if and when we introduce a Bill for him to table an amendment to remove the right of Anglican bishops to sit in the Lords. However, that can happen only when we reach the sunlit uplands, compared with where we are today.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on the conditions of service of Commonwealth servicemen in our armed forces? During the summer, I had the privilege of sharing a room with Corporal Charlery in Afghanistan. He had been recruited in Antigua and told that, after five years’ service, he would be eligible for a British passport. However, he has subsequently been told that his service in Afghanistan—and, indeed, in Germany—will not count towards that five-year period. Is it right to discriminate against our servicemen in that way?

Mr. Straw: I commend the hon. Gentleman for his continuing service in the military and knowledge of it. I know a little about the point that he makes. May I suggest that he takes it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence? We have no wish to discriminate against Commonwealth citizens who serve in the armed forces. They play an invaluable role in our fighting capacity, as I have personally experienced. Meanwhile, I shall write to my right hon. Friend and let him know the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend may have seen early-day motion 692 about the environmental liability directive.

[That this House notes the special nature of the potential risks arising from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and limited knowledge of their long-term environmental impacts; and calls on the Government to change its proposals for the implementation of the Environmental Liability Directive which is intended to protect biodiversity, land and water from environmental harm that may arise from the use of GMOs to ensure that there are no defences from strict liability for harm arising from the use of GMOs.]

The subject is getting an airing in all parties. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) generously said that there is a balanced argument about whether the Government should seek greater protection for some of our most important sites of scientific interest. Is not it right for this place to debate formally whether the Government should introduce greater protection? Would my right hon. Friend support that?

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