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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP):
Like all other Members, I am very much looking forward to the debate on Trident. Does the Leader of the House believe that Members who say something publicly on Trident should follow that through in the way that they vote in the Division following the debate? Eighty per cent. of the Scottish people oppose Trident and 45 per cent. say that they will switch their vote away from parties that support it. The majority of
Scottish Members of Parliament oppose Trident. Would not the public therefore be right to punish those who say one thing and vote another way?
Mr. Straw: The people who say one thing and do another are Scottish National party Members and their allies; they are the experts on this. I hope that when we come to the day for the debate on Trident there will be a very serious discussion about what is in the United Kingdoms long-term defence interests. It is not a trivial matter; it is about the future defence of this country, and, indeed, the security of the world. That applies as much to people who are resident in Scotland as it does to other parts of the United Kingdom.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): In September, the all-party group on anti-Semitism produced a report that the Government will respond to in the next few weeks. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this issue would be an appropriate subject for proper and thorough debate in this House? If so, will he consult his ministerial colleagues on how best to achieve that?
Mr. Straw: I certainly accept the very great importance of this matter. Although I cannot make a promise about the use of time, I will look to see what we can do, whether in Government time or not, on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Three years ago the Government announced that the Houses scrutiny of European legislation was inadequate and secretive, and had lost the confidence of the public. Two years ago the Modernisation Committee, which is always chaired by the Leader of the House, recommended sweeping changes. Why have the Government done absolutely nothing to implement those proposals? It is said that this has been blocked by the Labour Whips. Could the Leader of the House account for Government inaction, and for back-pedalling on previous proposals?
Mr. Straw: It is correct to say that we have not yet put forward proposals for change. That is a matter of frustration to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, to the Minister for Europe and to myself, as well as to others. It is not true, however, that we are just sitting on this. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the deputy Chief Whip will confirm that he and I, and the new Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, had a discussion about the way forward within the past week or so. The issue for everybody is how best to change the system so that the new system is more effective than the current one, and how to ensure that the changes are not only supported in principle but backed in practice by sufficient Members on both sides of the House who are willing to turn up and do the work. That is the only obstacle in the way of reform.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab):
The chief executive of Royal Mail recently expressed concern that the universal service obligation could be at risk if Royal Mail continues to lose lucrative business contracts. That happens because of unfair competition, in that its competitors can offer discounts, whereas
Postcomm does not allow Royal Mail to do that. An early-day motion that I tabled in January expressing similar sentiments received more than 85 signatures from Members. Is it not time that we had a debate on the future of Royal Mail, and on the impact of the regulator?
Mr. Straw: I note my hon. Friends concerns and applaud the interest that she shows in the issue. There are opportunities to raise it in debate. This is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, not for me, but I think that with a certain amount of ingenuity she may be able to make some remarks that are in order during the Budget debates.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): A debate on integration and cohesion would give the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) a chance to raise the important issue of anti-Semitism. It would also give the House a chance to discuss relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. When I asked the Leader of the House about this a fortnight ago, he said that business was tight but that it was an idea that we should actively consider. How is that active consideration getting on?
Mr. Straw: The active consideration goes on. I am not being facetious; there is a limited amount of time, but I am aware of the importance of the issue, along with that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).
[That this House congratulates the Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen for his work Queen and Country, which depicts photographs of 98 British soldiers killed in Iraq printed in a stamp format; and calls on the Royal Mail to respect the wish of the artist and the loved ones of the fallen soldiers and produce a commemorative issue of stamps displaying this powerful and moving work of art.]
It is the wish of the artist and many of the relatives of the soldiers who died that a commemorative stamp should be issued using this work of art. That would be appropriate, not only because it is a strong and powerful work of art but because it would be reminder to us all of the true cost of war.
Mr. Straw: I have the early-day motion in front of me. Of course it is correct that we should honour those 98 and the others who have tragically fallen since, as well as all those who have been injured in Iraq and other theatres. My hon. Friend is aware that there is quite a lot of consideration before any particular image is used on Royal Mail stamps, but there is no argument about the need to honour, and to continue to honour, those who have fallen in Iraq.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD):
In Birmingham perhaps £1 million a year, and in my constituency perhaps £100,000 a year, is spent on clearing up graffiti tagging, yet it seems to be the Governments policy that unless someone does more than £5,000-worth of damage, no more than a caution is necessary. Can we have a debate about how we can
deter youths from tagging, perhaps by making them clear up the mess that they create?
Mr. Straw: I can tell the hon. Gentleman what we will have a debate about as soon as possibleLiberal Democrats saying one thing here and a very different thing in their constituencies. Time and again they criticise us for tough sentences and for introducing more offences, and now this hon. Gentleman stands up to say that we should be doing more, not less. I hope that he will talk to his leader and to those who speak on home affairs for the Liberal Democrat party, and explain to his constituents how time and again he votes for soft policies here, and then parades himself in Birmingham as being in favour of harder policies.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Next weeks Northern Ireland elections are important not only to the people of Northern Ireland but to each and every one of us. Why, therefore, did nobody in my right hon. Friends department or in the Northern Ireland Office tap him on the shoulder and say that it is inappropriate to have those important votes on Lords reform on the same day as those elections, in which some hon. Members are candidates? Moreover, from three of the Northern Ireland Members we solicit support for this Government. It seems unfair and unreasonable that that happened, and I want to know why it happened.
Mr. Straw: No, but there is a problem. Of course we are aware of that clash. When business is discussed by Government business managers, and then with Opposition business managers, we always look at what else is coming up, but there is never a correct date for some debates. We had to ensure that we could get those debates in at an appropriate time within the programme, taking account of legislation such as the Budget, well before Easter. That was the difficulty. I have already spoken to two of my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland and apologised to them for the fact that there is that clash, which is inconvenient.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Can we have an oral statement on the ongoing investigation into the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko? We had an oral statement in November shortly after the assassination, but an awful lot has happened since. There have been various comings and goings of British and Russian police officers between the two capitals. Serious implications were raised by the incident in terms of both our relations with Russia and the safety and security of dissidents and other prominent persons in this country. We need to take another look at that.
Mr. Straw: It is not usual for statements to be made by Ministers while investigations are continuing, but I will pass on to the Home and Foreign Secretaries the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and invite them to make a statement, probably a written one, at an appropriate moment.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): In the sayonara period of the Prime Minister's term of office, can the Leader of the House tempt him to come to the House for the debate just before the European Council? Can he tempt him to lead the debate himself, on a Government motion and on a vote, to explain the advantages of being in the European Union and the disastrous consequences of the relentless hostility of the Conservative party even to its sister Conservative parties in Europe, which is deeply damaging to the national interest?
Mr. Straw: I would be delighted to do so. Of course, the Prime Minister, even if he cannot be tempted into that debate, will be making a statement straight after the European Council. One of the central issues there will be whether we act on climate change through co-operation in Europe, which is fundamental to our approach, or whether we take the approach of the Conservative party, which is to act unilaterally and to eschew any co-operation with mainstream centre-right parties in Europe. The result of that will be greatly to weaken our ability to make progress on climate change and on many other issues.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I make a sincere plea to the Leader of the House for a debate on Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate of 1,594 per cent., which is putting even basic foodstuffs beyond the reach of many families. More than 1 million people, mainly orphans and schoolchildren, are in receipt of food aid. Hospitals are on strike; doctors and nurses are refusing to work. University lecturers are on strike, supported by their students, and the Government have banned any form of public meeting. Zimbabwe is deteriorating into complete chaos and anarchy. Is not it time that the House had a debate in Government time to show the people of Zimbabwe that we care for their plight? It is a wonderful country with a wonderful people and they deserve more from the civilised world.
Mr. Straw: I commend the hon. Gentleman for his consistent concern about Zimbabwe. I agree with him both about the terrible plight of Zimbabwe and the need for a debate in Government time. The only bit of slightly better news relatively is that the European Union recently agreed for the fifth year running to roll over the sanctions against Zimbabwe. I have to say, as the Foreign Secretary who got those sanctions under orders to begin with, that that was quite difficult because of resistance from some of our continental colleagues. This morning, I was talking about a date to the Chief Whip and the Minister in the Foreign Office who would handle the debate. Frankly, the issue is to ensure that we have a debate when he is in the country. However, we are actively considering the matter.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that we are in the middle of fair trade fortnight. Can we have a debate in order that we can promote even further the benefits of fair trade not just to the British consumer, but to those less fortunate than ourselves? That would also give us the opportunity to congratulate the local authorities, volunteers and retailers who work all year round promoting fair trade products.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Did not Monday's statement by the Defence Secretary deploying further troops to Afghanistan underline how important it is that we have a debate in Government time on Afghanistan? It cannot be right for us to put at risk the lives of so many young men and women in our armed forces without the House properly debating what is going on in Afghanistan. Can we have an urgent debate?
Mr. Straw: I do not deny for a second the importance of that issue. There has been one occasion this year when the matter has been debatedin the defence and the world debate. I accept the need for that matter to continue to be debated. I cannot promise a debate before Easter, but I will look at opportunities after that.
Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend, or the appropriate Minister, investigate the recent actions of American troops in Iraq, who, on three occasions in the past two weeks, have raided trade union offices, destroyed equipment, confiscated computers and fax machines and arrested some of the employees?
Mr. Straw: I will certainly pass on to the Foreign Secretary the concerns raised by my hon. Friend for the trade union movement in Iraq. Although I know nothing about that particular incident, I know a lot about the bravery and commitment of the trade union officials and movement in Iraq.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): In welcoming the 14 March debate on Trident on behalf of the shadow Defence Ministers, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he will guarantee that there will be no intrusion by statements on the time for that debate? Will there be protected timesix and a half hoursfor that debate? Does he agree that it would send the wrong signal about the importance of this as a defence issue for the Defence Secretary to be relegated, as appears to be the case, to winding up the debate, rather than presenting the case, which he is perfectly capable of doing?
Mr. Straw: I accept the hon. Gentleman's first point. Unless there is some emergency, we will do everything we can to avoid any statement before the debate begins. Frankly, I think that the second point is rather trivial. The responsibility for that kind of major issue has always been shared between the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary. If I were still Foreign Secretary, it is quite likely that I would open the debate on the issue.
Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab):
I thank my right hon. Friend for his best wishes on St. David's day. He will be aware that on 3 May there are elections to the Welsh Assembly. Two of the candidates are members of a party called Forward Wales. However,
they are standing in that election as independents. Can we have a debate on whether that deceitful practice is in breach of electoral law?
Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend on the first point. I hope that he is successful in securing a debate on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall on that issue. He may also wish to consider making complaints to the Electoral Commission and to the returning officer because the accurate description of candidates is fundamental to the operation of our democracy.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The Leader of the House may be aware of the Light Bulb (Regulation) Bill that would allow for the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs. If he would like to feel the hand of history on his shoulder, will he find time in this House to debate that important issue?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is trying to garner some green credentials, but I gather that his green credentials are rather tarnished by the Liberal Democrats opposition to other serious environmental plans, including the congestion charge in Edinburgh and wind farms in various areas in Scotland.
Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that on 25 March we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This morning, a group of walkers have left Hull in chains to walk to Westminster to celebrate this important anniversary. Will there be an opportunity to have a debate on the Floor of the House about the anniversary and the modern context of slavery?
[That this House views with concern the plans to cut the number of employees of HM Revenue and Customs in Leicestershire; notes that this will result in the loss of more than 300 jobs; believes that there are already problems with the level of service in this area which would only worsen with a significant cut in staff numbers and budget; and calls on the Paymaster General to reconsider the decision.]
It was tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is in his place, and relates to the review of Her Majestys Revenue and Customs and the impact that that is having on the abolition of jobs, particularly front-line jobs. Will it be possible to have a debate on that? Will the right hon. Gentleman have a friendly word with the Paymaster General about the criteria used in identifying the job losses across the country, which are causing concern to Members on both sides of the House?
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