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The Solicitor-General: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent. We need to tackle fraud and we have put in place a programme of three key areas
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that we need to deal with. We have put in place the fraud review and he has welcomed that. I assure him that we will look with care at issues such as plea bargaining. We have also put in place the new Fraud Act 2006, which he and I took through this House. That Act means that we are in position to have a modern legal framework to deal with fraud, but we also need to ensure that the procedures are right and that we get fraud trials right. That is why the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill is necessary. It is about ensuring that we get the courts into a position in which they can deal most effectively with fraud. This is a package in which we want all three measures—the fraud review, the Fraud Act and the Bill—put in place. His failure to support the Bill is regrettable, because it is part of the package that we need to deal with fraud.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Liberal Democrats understand why the Law Officers may resist the request to reconsider the strategy on the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill this
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week, but will the Solicitor-General undertake that the specific proposal in the fraud review to have a financial court with dedicated judges who are experts will be seriously considered? That may be the answer to the question of how we get the right court and maximise the chance of success. Then I hope that he will respond to the request that the Bill be dropped and that the other proposals, which are much more effective and thought-through, be implemented.

The Solicitor-General: The idea of a financial court needs to be looked at. We need to see how the court system as a whole would respond to that sort of proposal. On the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill, we need to have a court system that can more effectively deal with fraud. Our view remains that the Bill is something to which the Government are committed. We need to have a criminal justice system that is not only fit for purpose, but delivers effectively. I regret the hon. Gentleman’s failure to support that position. I understand his arguments, but I believe that the Bill is necessary.

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Business of the House

11.37 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to 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 March—Second Reading of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [ Lords]. Followed by a motion to approve a ways and means resolution on the UK Borders Bill.

Tuesday 20 March—A debate on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 21 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 22 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Friday 23 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 March will be as follows:

Monday 26 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 27 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 28 March—Motion to approve a statutory instrument on casinos, followed by motions relating to House of Commons business.

Thursday 29 March—Motion on the Easter recess and Adjournment.

The House will want to be reminded that we will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Thursday 29 March and return on Monday 16 April.

I draw the House’s attention to a written ministerial statement that I made this morning about a small, but I hope helpful, improvement in the procedures of the House for the benefit of Members. We have agreed and I am proposing that when Ministers have already made reference to the fact that they will make an oral statement on a particular date, that notice will be included in the future business of the House and on the Order Paper itself, for the convenience of the House.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business and his written statement of today on the procedural change, which will definitely be for the convenience of Members of the House.

It has recently been discovered that Ministers have released documents relating to council tax revaluation under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that they had previously refused to release in response to parliamentary questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has raised the matter with Mr. Speaker, who is responding. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, you have always been clear about Ministers’ duty to Parliament. The duty is set out in the ministerial code, which says:

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Does the Leader of the House agree that Ministers have a duty to be more open with Parliament and the public?

This week, we have seen shocking pictures of the injuries sustained by Morgan Tsvangirai while in Zimbabwean police custody. I am sure that the whole House will be disgusted by his treatment and appalled by the wider crisis in that country, which is the direct result of the policies of President Mugabe. Two weeks ago, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Leader of House said that there was a

May we now have an urgent debate in Government time on Zimbabwe?

At the beginning of their long friendship, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor fought many battles with old Labour to build new Labour. One of those was over nuclear disarmament. In yesterday’s vote to replace Trident, nearly 100 Labour Members rebelled against the Government. Indeed, one of the Chancellor’s close allies, the former Deputy Leader of the House, resigned over the issue. Not for the first time, the Government would not have carried their business without the support of Conservative Members. May we thus have a debate on the dwindling authority of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor?

Back in those good old days, the Prime Minister and Chancellor promised us that they would be “whiter than white”. On 25 April, Sir Alistair Graham’s term as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life comes to an end. It was the Prime Minister who decided not to renew his term, and it is the Prime Minister who has failed to appoint his successor. Sir Alistair says:

May we have a debate on the future of that committee and on why the Prime Minister sacked Sir Alistair for doing his job?

This week, the Government published the draft Climate Change Bill, and the Prime Minister and Chancellor were playing up their green credentials. However, let us judge them by their record. Before my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) became Leader of the Opposition, the Chancellor had not made any major speeches on the environment. Since then, he has made three. On his watch, green taxes have fallen from 9.4 per cent. to 7.7 per cent. of his total tax take. And then there is his policy to provide home insulation: he announced it in 1995, scrapped it in 1998, and reannounced it last year. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s environmental record?

With a Brown-Blair legacy like this, is it any surprise that Labour is turning in on itself? The Labour party is rebelling against the Prime Minister, the Cabinet is briefing against the Chancellor, and the people are turning their backs on all of them. Whenever the Prime Minister hands over to the Chancellor, is not the truth that new Labour is an old idea that has simply run its course?

Mr. Straw: Let me just deal with those points in turn.

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The right hon. Lady makes a serious point about whether Ministers answering parliamentary questions should at least meet the standards set by the Freedom of Information Act. I cannot comment on the specific case that she raises because I do not know the circumstances of it. However, it is certainly the case that Ministers all strive to ensure that, at the very minimum, they are at least as forthcoming with the House in respect of the answers that they give as they would be required to be by the Freedom of Information Act. I will ensure that that is maintained. The matter is being discussed by the Procedure Committee, which is examining written questions.

The right hon. Lady asks me about Morgan Tsvangirai. I entirely share the utter horror of all decent people throughout the world at the way in which the thugs of Robert Mugabe have sought to use the truncheon, rather than debate, to determine the future of that once-wonderful country, which has collapsed into the worst situation of almost any African country that one can think of, because of the total mismanagement of Robert Mugabe. What I said two weeks ago is correct; I promise that the only issue is finding a date on which Foreign Office Ministers can be present for the debate, because they have travel plans—I know that it sounds slightly lame, but it happens to be true. I am sorry that we have not been able to find time, but we will continue to work on that.

Thirdly, the right hon. Lady referred to our debate yesterday. I should just say that it was actually my noble Friend Lord Kinnock who resolved the issue of nuclear disarmament for us, and there was much relief that he did so before my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took over. It is true that the issue of nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons has always been difficult for the Labour party. I take one view on the subject and some of my colleagues take another, but I do not think that a party should be criticised for agonising over what is unquestionably not just a defence and security issue but, in many people’s eyes, an issue of conscience and morality. I draw to the right hon. Lady’s attention the fact that although the numbers involved were slightly smaller, some rather senior people in the Conservative party rebelled against their party Whip, including the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram).

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): He suffers from the disadvantage of being wrong.

Mr. Straw: Well, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that, but the point is that we are talking about a man who, only a few months ago, was shadow Foreign Secretary and deputy leader of the Conservative party, and who has taken a completely different view on the issue. If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead wants to swap stories about divisions inside parties, I suggest that she tries to pull the beam out of her own eye before she examines the mote in the eyes of others; she ought to examine what happened upstairs in Committee with regard to the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. Apparently—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must say that I am going to urge Back Benchers to be brief because there are two statements today, one of which will be made by the Leader of the House, so exchanging stories is not what I am looking for.

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Mr. Straw: You are right to admonish me, Mr. Speaker, and it means that I can dispatch the next two issues raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead very quickly. Alistair Graham served his five years and we are grateful to him. I do not recall hearing similar complaints when Lord Nolan and Patrick Neill moved over to make way for their successors. As for the environment and the draft Climate Change Bill, I had wondered what the Conservatives would say about that terrific Bill. The answer is that they are saying virtually nothing, but are taking an awfully long time to say it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I welcome the announcement about the way in which Government statements will be dealt with in future? If the Leader of the House wishes to see evidence of Ministers failing to give answers, I refer him to the answer that the Secretary of State for Health gave to three specific questions that I tabled well in advance of Health questions this week. I did not get a reply to a single one of them; the responses were entirely evasive.

While the Leader of the House was away thinking last week, his then deputy, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), fielded my question about the medical training application service. He suggested that my idea that it should be suspended was “absolutely cuckoo”—he then flew the nest. If I am absolutely cuckoo, so is the entire British Medical Association, and so are junior doctors across the country. Will the Leader of the House look again at the issue? A review has been published, but there has been no suspension of the system that is causing so much damage to doctors’ careers.

Last night, a press officer announced that it was the Government’s intention to appeal against the administrative review High Court decision on pensions. That has not been formally reported to the House, but it will have profound consequences for pensioners who are still waiting for recompense. It also has consequences for the conduct of the Pensions Bill and for the way in which amendments are dealt with before Report. May we have statement from the Department for Work and Pensions on how it intends to proceed, so that it can allay the pensioners’ fears that they are again being ignored by the Government?

May we have a statement on the formal rebuke to the Government issued yesterday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the discontinuation of the investigation into the al-Yamamah arms deal, and on the fact that the OECD is going to send investigators to question the Attorney-General about why the UK outlawed bribes of foreign officials in 1998, yet not a single prosecution has ensued?

Lastly, we anticipate that the Government’s response to the Lyons report on local government spending will be encompassed within the Budget statement and debate. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is not expected to participate in that debate, but the matter is of huge interest to people up and down the country who are worried about council tax bills and seek a fairer replacement, so it would be proper to have a full statement and, in due course, a debate on local government finance.

Mr. Straw: On the issue of Health questions, I need notice of the questions and sight of the answers. However, Ministers are making every effort to ensure
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that accurate answers are given within the due notice time. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there has been a huge increase in the volume of questions—they have increased by 40,000 in two or three years—which places an unacceptable burden on everyone involved. It is bound to have an overall effect on the quality of answers, which is something that the Procedure Committee is trying to resolve.

On the medical training application service, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is under review, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced about a week ago. We are well aware of the problems that have arisen, and she has said that she will seek to tackle them. On the pension judgment, I can confirm that the Government are appealing that judgment, as we are entitled to do. The issue is not whether we were right or wrong to make the original decision, and of course, we understand the concern of pensioners who have lost part or all of their pension; we all have constituents in that position. However, if we are to try to recompense them fully—we have already achieved partial recompense—that entails a very substantial cost to the public purse, so the issue of fairness arises.

The hon. Gentleman asked about what the OECD said yesterday. He should be very clear that it has not reached any conclusion that the decision was incompatible with the OECD convention, and no other state has come out and said that they thought the decision was incompatible with it or that they would have reached a different decision. I have to say that I thoroughly object to the way in which the Liberal Democrat party seeks to damage the country’s reputation for probity and integrity across the world.

Mr. Heath indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that reputation is not one that we are protesting: it is confirmed by the rankings of Transparency International, which ranks us sixth in the world, only just behind Canada, Sweden and Switzerland, above Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States, and well above France. He should take that into account and cease to damage our reputation.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Earlier, in Education and Skills questions, we spent about two minutes on the building schools for the future programme, which is the most ambitious programme of public sector investment to which any British Government have ever committed themselves—and all credit to the Government for planning it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that since the publication of the Stern review and the draft Climate Change Bill, we should consider seriously the environmental standards to which the new generation of schools will be built? Does he accept, too, that that issue affects every single hon. Member, and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is a supplementary question.

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the issue.

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