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Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): May we have a debate on the workings of the Electoral Commission, which seems to be seriously overstretching itself at taxpayers’ expense? To encourage the Leader of the House, may I refer to a document entitled “Guidance for candidates and agents” and subtitled “Local government elections in England, 3 May 2007”? It stretches to 115 glossy pages, and is being sent to every
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candidate and every agent. It is a total waste of taxpayers’ money. We need to get the commission back under control, or scrap it.

Mr. Straw: I met the chairman and deputy chief executive of the Electoral Commission just two days ago to discuss the commission’s plans to ensure, as I think is the will of the House—it is certainly in recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Phillips committee and the Constitutional Affairs Committee—that the operations of the Electoral Commission should be slimmed down and focused on the core work of regulation. That is, I think, now accepted by the chairman.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The Leader of the House will recall that on 1 February I raised with him the case of my constituent Rafiq Gorgi, whose wife was killed in Saudi Arabia. He promised to raise it with the Foreign Secretary. Despite numerous attempts, the Saudi Arabian Government refuse to give Mr. Gorgi a copy of the police report on his wife’s death. I think that that is appalling, in view of our very close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the work done by the Leader of the House in setting up the haj committee when he was Foreign Secretary. May we please have an urgent debate on our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the way in which it treats our citizens?

Mr. Straw: It is plain from what my right hon. Friend says that the Gorgi family have not received the service that they are entitled to expect, notwithstanding the great assistance that they have had from consular officials of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I will certainly raise the matter again with the Foreign Secretary. In the meantime, I hope very much that my right hon. Friend will find an opportunity to raise the matter either in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): There is growing concern, both in this country and abroad, about Japan’s efforts to use aid to countries to encourage them to vote in favour of resuming commercial whaling. Given that the International Whaling Commission meets at the beginning of May, can we have a debate about international whaling before then?

Mr. Straw: The British Government have taken a resolute approach on whaling. I will certainly ensure that the hon. Lady’s comments are conveyed to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will seek—although I cannot promise—an opportunity for a debate.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I congratulate the Leader of the House on his innovation of announcing statements in advance, not least because I called for it four weeks ago. While I am on a roll, may I suggest to my right hon. Friend that when debating statutory instruments the House sometimes covers itself in glory because it debates them properly, but sometimes an hour and a half simply is not enough time without the opportunity to amend a statutory instrument? This
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week the House of Commons has not covered itself in glory, although I entirely support the statutory instrument that was carried yesterday.

Mr. Straw: I always listen to constructive suggestions made from all parts of the House and try to implement them as quickly as possible. However, I am not sure that I can respond as positively on this occasion to my hon. Friend’s request as I have done in the past. As I said last week, the key difficulty is in scheduling the many demands on time, especially in respect of statutory instruments. I should also point out that when there was a discussion in Committee the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said that he had notified the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) of his desire for it to be debated on the Floor of the House and that she had replied after reflection that

It was also made clear that there was a desire for that matter to be raised Upstairs.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on the support that is given to the armed forces and their families? My constituent, Karen Webster, has set up an organisation called “Support our Soldiers”. One of its requests is for a comprehensive free postal system for armed forces on active service and their families back home. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands that if post were constantly to-ing and fro-ing that would provide a good boost to soldiers’ morale and reassure family members back home. This issue is of great importance to our soldiers, who risk their lives each day in the service of this country, and to their families, so may we have a debate on it?

Mr. Straw: All of us who have family or friends serving in the armed forces are well aware of the pressures on the families, especially when their loved ones are abroad on active service. I cannot give a precise answer to the question asked, but Defence questions will be held on Monday and there will be a defence debate before the end of April, at which I hope the hon. Gentleman will raise that constructive suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In the name of efficiency targets, Tory-controlled Leicestershire county council plans to levy charges for travel to denominational schools, which is a major blow to the parents of the 1,600 children affected, not least the Catholic families in North-West Leicestershire whose children attend the excellent and good-value De Lisle secondary school in Loughborough. May we have a debate on school transport to examine how best to protect and finance the right of children to attend Catholic schools without that being dependent on the means of their families?

Mr. Straw: I hope that my hon. Friend has the good fortune to secure an Adjournment debate on that—perhaps in Westminster Hall. The problem he raises is a consequence of Conservative Administrations, both national and local. The Conservatives say one thing but we know what the old Tories always do—they cut, and
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they cut, and they cut. That was what they did when they were in power for 18 years. We have increased the sums put into education so much that the amount per head has almost doubled in the past 10 years.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): To follow on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), may we have an urgent debate on welfare services for Her Majesty’s armed forces, especially telephone services for troops in theatre? Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the fact that Iraqi detainees are allowed to use a phone card for an hour-plus each week to call their families while incarcerated, yet our own troops—brave men and women—are given only 30 minutes a week in which to call home?

Mr. Straw: I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman says is necessarily correct, but in any event I refer to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is anxious to do everything that he can to ensure that there is the maximum welfare, particularly for troops serving abroad.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The Mental Health Bill has completed its passage through the Lords, and that passage has not been uncontentious. It is due to come to the Commons for Second Reading. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Bill is referred to a special Standing Committee so that written and oral evidence can be given to Committee members on the issues that were of concern to the Lords before the Bill passes on to the full Committee?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend will be aware that we have replaced special Standing Committees with Public Bill Committees. We have agreed that it will not be the practice for Bills that were “Lords starters” to have the equivalent of a Select Committee hearing at the beginning. However, I will think about my hon. Friend’s suggestion and discuss it with Ministers and my business-manager colleagues.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May I ask again for a debate on trains, principally so that I can highlight the concerns of Milton Keynes commuters who can no longer get on a Virgin train during peak hours? The last time I asked for such a debate, the Leader of the House said that he had been on many trains that had stopped at Milton Keynes during peak hours. Now that he has seen the timetables that I sent him and has realised that no such trains exist, will he reconsider?

Mr. Straw: Following the break-up of the railways—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] The hon. Gentleman forgot to send me the timetable for Silverlink trains as well. When I went through it, I discovered that there is a train about every 15 or 20 minutes from Milton Keynes to London. As on the economy, education and health, commuters in Milton Keynes now have a better service than they had 10 years ago.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I have raised previously with my right hon. Friend the case of Gareth Myatt. The inquest into his death opened and adjourned again pending an appeal to the
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High Court for judicial review. Gareth’s mother says that as yet no official regret has been expressed at her son’s death. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that she gets a letter expressing real regret at the loss of that very young boy?

Mr. Straw: We all share my hon. Friend’s concern and distress, and I will do my best to ensure that what she seeks is achieved.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): As many people know, the North sea plays a vital role in our energy supplies of oil and gas and many jobs in north-east Scotland are linked to it, yet it is facing great difficulty in attracting investment because of rising costs and increasing difficulties in production. Will the Leader of the House ensure that during the debate on the Budget the Government explain why they have denied to the North sea the cut in corporation tax that large business on the mainland will receive, and why they have therefore not made the North sea more attractive to investors?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman knows that the overall tax regime for oil exploration and lifting is a different one from that for corporations generally. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear yesterday that he had no plans to change the oil tax regime. The hon. Gentleman is right that to say that there has been a decline in production from the North sea, which has been unexpectedly sharp, but there was buoyant revenue and production in recent years under the same tax regime, so he cannot suggest that the tax regime has been the cause of the decline.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the need to educate the British public on the dangers of exposure to asbestos? May I also draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 1179?

[That this House welcomes the Mesothelioma Framework, launched on Action Mesothelioma Day, 27th February 2007, and urges the NHS to implement the guidelines in the Framework as soon as possible; regrets that 37 per cent. of the British public are unaware that exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and that 65 per cent. have never heard of mesothelioma; further regrets that bereaved families report that legal procedures followed by the coroner constitute a distressing chain of events at an extremely difficult time; and welcomes the recommendations contained in the British Lung Foundation's report An Unnatural Death for making this process more sympathetic to the relatives left behind.]

It highlights the facts that 37 per cent. of the British public are unaware that exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and that 65 per cent. have never heard of mesothelioma. We need a debate on the dangers of being exposed to asbestos, not only for workers but for their families, too. Anything that my right hon. Friend can do to educate the British public to stay away from asbestos unless they have protective equipment would be extremely welcome.

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Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts in that regard and for his early-day motion. He is right to draw attention to the alarming lack of information that many members of the public have about the often lethal dangers of asbestos and the diseases associated with it. We will certainly look for an opportunity to debate the matter.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Leader of the House is a distinguished and experienced parliamentarian, but may I request that he devote more of his time at business questions to replying about the business for the following week than to political rhetoric?

He assured me on a number of occasions in the past that there would be a debate on Zimbabwe, and while I welcome that there will be a statement next Monday will he assure me again that there will be a full debate? We are partially responsible for the chaos and brutality in Zimbabwe. I believe that we should have a full day’s debate in Government time on the subject to enable those who are experienced in Rhodesian affairs to contribute fully to a debate to influence Government.

Mr. Straw: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his flattery. I wondered what was coming next, and I was not disappointed.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): He is distinguished, as well.

Mr. Straw: Ditto.

We could not fit in a debate on Zimbabwe before the recess, for reasons that I am happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman in more detail outside the House, but the Foreign Secretary and I both thought that a statement by a Foreign Office Minister on Monday was the least we could do for the House. I promise the hon. Gentleman that we continue to try to identify a day—it will now have to be after the recess—in Government time for a debate on Zimbabwe.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Thames Water’s announcement of the investment of £2 billion to clean up the Rivers Thames and Lea in my constituency? Some 52 million cu m of waste, which destroys the environment of our rivers and kills our marine life, will thereby be diverted. Will my right hon. Friend make Government time for a debate on the environmental quality of our rivers?

Mr. Straw: I, too, am glad to welcome this investment. I know extremely well the area that my hon. Friend represents, and there will be a good opportunity to express his interest in this issue during Monday’s Budget debate—after all, it is about the investment of public money—which will be opened by our right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is a strong and highly respected Leader of the House. Will he reflect on the answer that he gave earlier to the House concerning the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which were not debated by a single Back Bencher?
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They were taken in a small Committee Room with no television cameras; moreover, there were not enough seats for Members, and officials had to sit on the floor. Will the Leader of the House consider making a written statement on this issue next week, or perhaps meeting me to discuss it?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, too, for the compliments that he has paid to me today and yesterday, when he gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee. As I have said, there are far more demands for debates on the Floor of the House than there is time available, and that has always been the case. Ultimately, the Government are responsible for such business and where it transpires, but I point out to him that the decision to take that business Upstairs was agreed across the Benches by the official Opposition.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I was very proud to be elected to this House in 2005, particularly given that I joined a 98-strong group of Labour women MPs. Does my right hon. Friend think it time for a debate on how to increase the number of female MPs in this House, and does he share my disappointment at the fact that so far this year the Conservative party has selected 17 men and no women?

Mr. Straw: A debate on this issue would be very important. I note that more people called Mark have been selected as Conservative candidates than have women.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): This week has been the tale of two anniversaries. It is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and we had a debate on slavery in this House, and there was a prime ministerial apology. It is also the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but there was no prime ministerial apology and no debate in this House. When are we going to have such a debate in this House, led by the Prime Minister, in which he comes to the Dispatch Box and says the three words that everybody wants to hear him say on the war in Iraq: “I am sorry?”

Mr. Straw: We had a debate just a few weeks ago on Iraq, which was led, as is normal, by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We also had a very full statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Iraq just a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As well as the unfolding tragedy in Zimbabwe, there is a second crisis in Africa, in Darfur. The Government in Khartoum have had weeks in which to agree to the introduction of the joint UN-AU force, but, sadly, it appears that no progress is being made. Will the Leader of the House agree to an early debate on this issue, so that the people of this country, through their representatives, can make known their views on the need to get that force into place as soon as possible, so that the crisis can at least be abated?

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