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Mr. Straw: There are plenty of opportunities to question my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, including Treasury questions, which has just finished. Apparently the Conservative party, as from yesterday, is supporting a fairly tight public spending regime. All
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Governments will be faced with the need to reconfigure operations such as Revenue and Customs in light of the fact that the operations have merged and as improved technology is reducing the need for some jobs in some areas. The difference between any Government led by the hon. Gentleman’s party and ours is that under this Government we have a buoyant economy and good investment in retraining to provide alternative opportunities for any people who are displaced.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): As my friend knows, the consultation ended yesterday on the setting up and regulation of marketing departments in NHS hospitals. Can we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Health on that matter, and perhaps a debate afterwards on how the emerging market in health will be policed?

Mr. Straw: I am happy that my hon. Friend raises that, because getting to a period of stability in the NHS will enable primary care trusts to identify the medical care needs of people in their area and the most appropriate provision. There will be a certain amount of creative competition between different providers. That has always been the case, but it has always been sub rosa and I think that it is better if it is explicit. As a result, we will be able to change the culture of some NHS establishments to ensure that they are absolutely focused on their overwhelming priority—the patient.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may not be aware that last week, I had a phone call from Mrs Anne Parker, a constituent from Basegreen in Sheffield. She was extremely distraught at a story in the Daily Mirror to the effect that, as a result of the Hills report, all council tenants and arm's-length management organisation tenants faced the possibility of losing their security of tenure. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on that very important report into social housing by John Hills, so that Ministers can make it absolutely clear that, under this Government, there is no possibility of council, ALMO or housing association tenants losing their security of tenure?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has already made the Government’s position clear, but I will pass on to her my hon. Friend’s concerns and ensure that she writes to him.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House for a statement on discrimination in the workplace? The head of the new Equality Commission, Sir Trevor Phillips, has demanded that rules forbidding discrimination on the grounds of race or sex be scrapped. Are the Government happy that the head of the equality body believes that people should not be given jobs on merit and should be given jobs based on their race and their sex? Do the Government intend to abide by his demands?

Mr. Straw: That is a complete parody of what Sir Trevor Phillips had to say. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman spelled out whether he was in favour of efforts to improve the equality of opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and the disabled.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend explain briefly what he anticipates happening after next Wednesday’s votes and, in particular, what is likely to happen in the other place? Will he affirm that the votes in this place will always take primacy over the votes in the other place?

Mr. Straw: I wish that I could tell my hon. Friend exactly what is going to happen, but that would require clairvoyant facilities greater than mine.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): No!

Mr. Straw: Even greater.

After our debate, there will be a debate in the other place. I thought it important to ensure that these debates did not occur on the same day, so that this House could assert its primacy—something that has been agreed by all parties in this House and in the other place, regardless of shifts in composition. Of course we will take account of the views of the other place but, ultimately, this is a matter of law and this House must decide.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on surface coal mining in Shropshire? Is the Leader of the House aware of a proposal by UK Coal to mine 900,000 tonnes of coal in new works in my constituency? Will he comment on what impact he thinks that will have on local wildlife, residents and roads and, most of all, on the area of outstanding natural beauty that will be affected?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not accept his invitation because I assume, although I am not certain, that that is subject to a planning application—and, if that is turned down, an inquiry, subject to the outcome of which a decision may have to be made personally by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I invite the hon. Gentleman to make strong representations, as he is doing here, at every stage of the process.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May we have an urgent statement or a debate on the very serious allegations in today’s edition of The Times by Chief Superintendent Dizaei, who states that he was subjected to a campaign of harassment by his fellow officers in the Met, that his phone was bugged and that there was an investigation by 44 officers that cost millions of pounds? He also states that the Mayor of London’s race adviser, Lee Jasper, was also the subject of bugging. These are very serious matters because the chief superintendent is the borough commander of Hounslow. I know that the Leader of the House was committed to diversity when he was Home Secretary. This matter creates real problems for the image of the Met, so could we please have a statement?

Mr. Straw: It was not only me who was committed to diversity—and the Government actually did something about it—so, too, were Sir Paul Condon and Sir John Stevens, former Commissioners of the Metropolitan police. On the very specific allegations, my right hon. Friend will be aware that those who feel that the intelligence and security services have acted inappropriately or unlawfully have a right to make strong representations,
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and have those investigated, to the intelligence services commissioner or the interception commissioner.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): In common, I suspect, with many other hon. Members, I am receiving strong representations from people who are studying English as a second language, and who are worried that the Government plan to cut funding for those courses. Given the Chancellor’s professed support for Britishness and citizenship, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) alluded, and the recommendations in the Leitch report about the importance of language as a preparation for work, is there any possibility of having a debate on this important issue?

Mr. Straw: We are all aware of the pressures on the English as a second language service, not least my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The hon. Gentleman may be fortunate in gaining an Adjournment debate on the matter, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on holding a St. David’s day debate today, and I ask him to consider allowing a similar debate on St. George’s day, so that all Members who believe in the Union can celebrate the patron saint of England. Does he agree that that would send the important message to the racist parties, such as the British National party, that we will never allow them to hijack St. George’s day for their own brand of narrow-minded extremism?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. My two Scottish colleagues who are currently sitting on the Front Bench—the Defence Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), who is the longest-serving Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence ever in the history of the world, as he himself told me not long ago—have both endorsed that as a good idea. As an Englishman, I think that it is a good idea. In reply to the question, I cannot make an absolute promise, but we will look into that.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) spoke movingly about the situation in Zimbabwe. However, given that the numbers of people dead, dying and destitute in Darfur are increasing exponentially on a daily basis, and given that no fewer than 14 United Nations agencies have warned that malnutrition rates there are

can we please also have next week a statement—or, better still, a full-day debate—on Darfur to seek to establish how the international community will secure a properly equipped United Nations or African Union presence in that region before the genocide has been completed?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise his concerns, which are shared by all Members and all parties. We continually look for opportunities to debate
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such matters. I simply say—although I know that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting this—that there is not a competition between Zimbabwe and Darfur. We must debate both matters, but there are special responsibilities on the United Kingdom in respect of Zimbabwe, and we have been in the lead in the European Union in getting sanctions. There is great frustration about Darfur, but the hon. Gentleman might wish to know that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is today asking judges to consider summonses in respect of two individuals. He might also wish to know that as a result of very strong representations that I made—I claim credit for this—the United States lifted its potential veto on a Security Council resolution that effectively brought the ICC into play in respect of Darfur.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): As is traditional, the Leader of the House has announced the business for the next two weeks, but he has announced only the main business; he has not announced any statements that there might be. Of course, many statements are responses to emergencies and nobody would expect there to be foreknowledge of those, but I suspect that there might be a Minister or two who already knows, or is almost certain, that they will make a statement within the next two weeks. Might it be possible for the Leader of the House to start to make announcements in advance in respect of statements that he knows will definitely be given, for the better forewarning of the House and so that we do not get up in the morning and, by listening to the “Today” programme or watching the television news, hear that a Minister will make an announcement later in the day when no Members of this House have been informed of that? Might it be possible to send an e-mail? Instead of having a piece of paper stuck up outside the Chamber saying that there will be a statement later in the day, my right hon. Friend could arrange for e-mails to be sent to all Members.

Mr. Straw: I am aware of that issue. There are two aspects to it. One of them is that sometimes information that should first be given to this House is instead made available outside it, sometimes as a result of Ministers’ decisions— of which I do not approve—and at other times because of leaks. I deprecate that, and all Ministers seek to avoid it. The second aspect is to do with advance notice of statements. I am actively looking into that with my Cabinet colleagues and the Clerk of the House. On occasions when everyone knows that a statement is to be made, such as the Budget—everyone knows the date when that will be delivered—notice of statements might be put on the Order Paper at least on the morning when the statement is to be made, and in some cases well before that.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Can we have a debate on the robustness of the British crime survey? It is an annual survey that the Government put great store by in judging whether crime is rising or falling, yet it does not cover a variety of offences, ranging from commercial offences, murder—because the victims of that cannot be interviewed—and offences that it calls victimless, including drugs offences. Crucially, it also does not cover offences against people who are aged 16
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and under because they are not interviewed as part of the survey. Can we have a debate on that matter, to try to discover how we can make the British crime survey relate to crime in today’s Britain, rather than crime in the Britain of 1981 when it was established?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Lady has concerns about the crime survey, she needs to raise them with the Office for National Statistics, which we are now making independent of Government. One of the reasons why we are doing that is so that there is complete integrity in terms of the data that are used. It has never been suggested that the British crime survey is a substitute for the recorded crime figures; what the BCS shows, in respect of those groups surveyed and the offences concerned—it shows this in a robust, statistical way—is whether the numbers of offences have increased or fallen. It is able to knock out of consideration some offences which are not notified to the police. As the hon. Lady is aware, the truth is that some offences, such as burglary and thefts of vehicles, traditionally have high and consistent levels of notification whereas others have relatively low levels of notification, including some robberies—so-called minor robberies, although I think that they are all major—and thefts from vehicles. I accept that there is an issue to be addressed, but it is time that the hon. Lady acknowledged that the BCS none the less shows that since 1997, in respect of bulk offences that affect everybody including families and kids under 16, there has been a very significant decline in crime in her constituency, as well as elsewhere. One of the reasons for that might be that there has been an increase in the number of police officers in her area—up from 563 in March 2001 to 589 in January 2007.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Can we have a statement from the Minister with responsibility for prisons on the closure of Her Majesty’s Prison Service office at Crown house in Corby and its relocation to Leicester? Many of my constituents who serve as part of the almost 90-strong work force—many of whom are female and young mums with children who work part-time—will not be able to join in the relocation, and they are aghast to hear from the Prison Service that one of the reasons for the relocation of the office is that the population of Corby is 94 per cent white British whereas the population in Leicester is less than
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60 per cent. white British. Is it not appalling that such decisions are made on racial grounds?

Mr. Straw: I do not believe for a second that the hon. Gentleman’s final point is correct. I have looked into this matter, as I rightly guessed that the hon. Gentleman would raise it, and it is my understanding that this transfer was triggered by a decision to sell the property in Corby that is currently occupied by the National Offender Management Service because there was an approach—presumably by developers, as I am told that the building sits within the phase 2 area of the Corby regeneration programme. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman endorses that from a sedentary position. That is why the building is being closed for the current purposes, and it is then up to the Prison Service to make decisions on where to relocate the staff.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): As we have recently had a debate on buses, can we now have a debate on trains? Perhaps that would enable us to get to the bottom of why the Government seem to misunderstand, or misrepresent, why so few Virgin trains—in fact none—now stop at Milton Keynes during peak hours. Bizarrely, one train does stop, but only to set down passengers—it will not allow anybody on. When I asked the Secretary of State about that, he said that the issue was the platform length at Milton Keynes, but in a written answer last week he said that there is nothing wrong with the platform length there. Reading between the lines, it is pretty clear that the Government’s priority is those travelling from the north, but why should local people in Milton Keynes be discriminated against in that way?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry that although I have used the inter-city west coast main line for 30 years, I do not have the full details of the timetable in my head. However, I have been on plenty of trains that have stopped at Milton Keynes, both at peak hours and at off-peak hours, and both to pick up and to set down passengers. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that as a result of our investment in the railway service, the inter-city west coast main line is more efficient, more punctual and far better patronised. I am surprised that he did not commend what I understand to be an almost definite plan to expand Milton Keynes railway station through the addition of a further platform—is that not correct?—in order to increase its capacity.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

12.30 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Before I make my formal statement on the UK military commitment in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I want to pay tribute to Rifleman Coffey, who died in Iraq on Tuesday. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

The UK first deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, as part of UNPROFOR, in response to inter-ethnic violence resulting from the collapse of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. We are all sadly familiar with the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war, which resulted in an estimated 100,000 people being killed and the forcible displacement of some 1.8 million people. After three years of conflict and following a NATO air and land campaign, a ceasefire in Bosnia-Herzegovina was agreed in 1995. This was followed by the brokering of the general framework agreement for peace—more commonly known as the Dayton agreement—underpinned by the deployment of NATO forces.

The international community has retained a military presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina since then, initially through NATO and, since 2004, through a European Union force. At its peak, the international community presence under NATO amounted to some 60,000 troops, including approximately 12,000 UK personnel. Today, there are approximately 6,000 international troops in EUFOR, some 600 of whom are from the UK. This significant reduction over the years is testimony to the continually improving security situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Through the UK’s involvement in the United Nations, NATO and now EU forces, we have been operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina for some 15 years, contributing to the maintenance of a safe and secure environment. Indeed, we led EUFOR for its first year of operations and have been the lead nation in Task Force (North West). Over the years, UK troops have been engaged in many operations to recover illegally held weapons and ammunition and explosives, as well as assisting local authorities in combating organised crime. I want to set out the detail of some of our successes.

There are still dangerously high levels of small arms and light weapons in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and while a number of international organisations are implementing initiatives in this field, they are all dependent on donors. Last November, I had the pleasure of opening an explosive waste incinerator designed to destroy surplus small arms ammunition. The UK funding for this project amounts to some £500,000. In addition, the UK continues to fund the training of junior officers from all the three main ethnic backgrounds, thereby contributing to the building of the state. In this financial year, UK support for this project is in the region of £1 million. The UK is also assisting in the development of the NATO trust fund mechanism to facilitate the resettlement into civilian life of up to 6,000 personnel made redundant through defence reform processes. The project will aim to provide training and advice to former soldiers returning to civilian life.

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