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29 Mar 2007 : Column 1652

John Reid: Because there aren’t any.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Home Secretary said today that the Prime Minister decided only today on the change, yet BBC television reported it last night, saying that there would be a statement today. Why are the Government briefing the BBC before Members of this House?

John Reid: The answer is: we are not.

Mr. Bone: The BBC reported it last night.

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman is talking about leaks and reports. The Financial Times reported it 10 weeks ago; it was a misreport and misrepresentation. The Evening Standard reported that one of my Cabinet colleagues was opposed to this; it was not true. There have been constant leaks, as happens in government; that does not mean that we are doing these things. This issue has been discussed for a considerable time across government, and the civil servants and officials working on it have done so with huge discretion and integrity. It is in some ways amazing that the accurate details did not come out until two or three hours ago, when the written ministerial statement was issued; other details have been placed in the Library of the House. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that all the reports of the past 10 weeks have not been at all authoritative; indeed, for the most part, they have been misleading and wrong.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My constituents want to know that, as a result of this reorganisation, the roll-out of the safer community teams in Kettering and the surrounding area will not be affected. They would also like to know the answer to this question: when does the Home Secretary expect to update the House on progress?

John Reid: I can assure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that visible, accessible and responsive neighbourhood policing, which is obviously one of their priorities, is one of our high priorities, too. If he asks them, he will find that managing fair and effective immigration, reducing crime, and countering fraud, international crime and terrorism are their three highest priorities, as they are for the rest of the British people. That is what the evidence constantly tells us, and they are precisely the areas on which we have refocused this great Department of state.

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Business of the House

12.17 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for future weeks?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The business for the week commencing 16 April will be:

Monday 16 April—Second Reading of the Mental Health Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 17 April—Opposition day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on an Opposition motion, subjects to be announced.

Wednesday 18 April—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill.

Thursday 19 April—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied—details will be given in the Official Report—followed by a debate on marine environment on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 20 April—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 April will include:

Monday 23 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 24 April—Opposition day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on an Opposition motion, subjects to be announced.

Wednesday 25 April—A motion relating to the Crossrail Bill, followed by opposed private business that the Chairman of Ways and Means has named for consideration.

Thursday 26 April—A debate on defence in the UK on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. To be confirmed.

Friday 27 April—Private Members’ Bills.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business, and for working with the Foreign Secretary to ensure that we had yesterday’s statement on Iran. Since then, of course, the Iranian Government have—quite disgracefully—paraded the captured British sailors on television. Given that the House rises today, what consideration has the Leader of the House given to ways of informing it of further developments?

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee says that the Rural Payments Agency fiasco will cost the taxpayer £500 million, including a fine of £305 million payable to Brussels for incompetence. The Committee said:

Will the Environment Secretary come to the House to make a further statement on the Rural Payments Agency?

We have just had the Home Secretary’s response to an urgent question on the restructuring of the Home Office. Sadly, the Home Secretary had to be forced to
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come to the House to give those details. He said that details of changes to the Department for Constitutional Affairs would be given by the Lord Chancellor in the other place. When will a statement on those changes be made in this House? Many of the replies that the Home Secretary gave were completely unsatisfactory. It appeared that he simply did not know the answers to many of the questions that were correctly put to him. Indeed, at one stage, the Leader of the House had to brief the Home Secretary on the answer. Perhaps the Leader of the House, as the Chancellor’s campaign manager, knows more about the future than the Home Secretary does. May we have a debate therefore on the restructuring of the Home Office, because that debate would give hon. Members —including the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—an opportunity to express their clear concerns about the proposals?

I was talking of the Home Office, and the Leader of the House once said that he hoped that the Home Secretary would run for the Labour leadership. Now, of course, the Leader of the House is running the Chancellor’s campaign and he has written to Labour MPs saying:

That is some U-turn. May we have a debate on junk mail?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Jacqui Smith): Spam!

Mrs. May: In last week’s Budget, the Chancellor did not mention his Lyons review once. But under him, money raised from council tax has doubled, from £11 billion to £23.5 billion. That is the equivalent of putting 4p on income tax. The Lyons review now proposes taxes on bins, taxes on home improvement, and even taxes on beds. At least the Chancellor did mention the NHS in his Budget—once—but he did not tell us about the health service’s soaring deficits, now £2.7 billion. The Health Committee says that the Chancellor has brought “boom and bust” to the NHS. Last week, the Leader of the House said that he

on the NHS

So when may we have that debate?

It is revealing that the Chancellor stays quiet when it suits him. He once promised that

But last week he refused to answer when I asked how many meetings he had had with trade unions. When I asked the Leader of the House the same question, he gave an honest answer. The Chancellor also refused to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) when he asked about his other appointments. When my hon. Friend asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he gave an honest answer. Clearly Labour Members face a choice between a secretive Chancellor and a more open Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Can the Leader of the House impress upon all his colleagues the importance of being
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as open with Parliament as he is? The public know that this Government have a record of stealth, secrets and spin, and they are sick of it. The problem is that when the Chancellor becomes Prime Minister, it will just get worse and worse—more stealth, more secrets and more spin.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady was doing well until she came to her so-called peroration. In fact, I congratulate her on two rather good jokes—

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): At your expense.

Mr. Straw: Indeed. When the right hon. Lady described an excellent letter that I have sent out as junk mail, the Patronage Secretary, ever loyal, described it as spam. Incidentally, one should never believe anything that Mr. Piers Morgan writes, including stuff about me.

I have been remiss and I apologise, because I failed to read out some of the business for Westminster Hall. On Thursday 19 April, there will be a debate on the report from the Trade and Industry Committee on “New Nuclear? Examining the Issues”, and on Thursday 26 April, a debate on a report from the Transport Committee on “How Fair are the Fares? Train Fares and Ticketing”. Those titles may be elocution tests as well —[ Interruption. ] These were not my ideas, Mr. Speaker. If it had been left to the Patronage Secretary, the debates would have at least been clear in their subjects.

On a very serious note, I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary coming to the House yesterday in respect of Iran. It is a serious situation and we are all concerned. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and our diplomats, both here and there, are working extremely hard on that matter. Given that the House will not sit again until 16 April, the only way in which we can in practice inform Members about developments is through the media, but of course we shall do so. If there is detailed information that we need to transmit to Members, it can be done by a “dear colleague” letter.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this morning and asked when it can be debated. There are plenty of opportunities for the House to debate issues if it wishes. The subjects for debate on estimates days are determined by the Liaison Committee, and if the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is concerned, it may raise the issue then. Given the synthetic fury to which we are sometimes subjected in business questions, I am surprised that the Opposition do not take the opportunity—if they really think that criticism of Ministers is significant—to raise such matters on Opposition days. They used to do so, when they were a slightly better Opposition. I remember, time and again, between 1974 and 1979, motions for the reduction of Ministers’ salaries—

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): You are giving them ideas.

Mr. Straw: I am, because—like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald
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Kaufman)—it is my profound wish and desire to make the Opposition more effective as an Opposition and to keep them there for at least as long as we were there.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) does not have a salary. You cannot reduce it!

Mr. Straw: No, but he has the joy of working in the Leader’s team.

On the restructuring and the ministry of justice, if the right hon. Lady were to read the written statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister issued earlier today, she would see details laid out both on the arrangements for Home Office and on the new ministry.

On the health service, I frankly do not recognise the figures that the right hon. Lady mentions. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary announced about a month ago that, taking account of the use of some contingency money, there would be a £13 million surplus for this year; and there have been substantial extra funds for the health service for the new year starting on 1 April. Time and again, I listen with bated breath for the right hon. Lady to mention the huge increases in resources in her constituency, but yet again she has failed to do so. Allow me to mention the extra £39 million on top of all the additional funds that her area has had.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): May we have a debate on international whaling, which is a big issue in my constituency? It was first raised by a constituent of mine. Iceland has recently resumed commercial whaling of fin whales. Those magnificent creatures can be seen in the Firth of Forth from my constituency, and it is surely outrageous that we cannot do anything to protect them.

Mr. Straw: I agree. It is not often that I can, as it were, satisfy an hon. Member immediately, but I draw to my hon. Friend’s attention the fact that we will have a debate on the marine environment on the Thursday after the recess, in which she will be able to raise those issues. I hope that she catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): To pick up on the sedentary comment by the Patronage Secretary, it is obvious that we are in the process of transition from Camelot to Spamalot. [ Laughter. ]

To return to the serious issue of the changes in the machinery of government, and as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, there is a statement on the Department for Constitutional Affairs in the other place. It is not acceptable for a statement to be made about a Government Department in the non-elected House and not made to this House. I shall leave that thought with the Leader of the House.

Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the proposed changes, is not the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) right that when we have machinery of government changes that affect Departments, costings and organisation it is sensible for them to be put forward in costed form in a consultation paper that sets out the advantages and disadvantages and allows the
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House to have scrutiny of such changes before implementation? It is not back-of-the-envelope stuff just before a change of Administration. We ought to be able to set a precedent for this.

May we have a debate on ethical leadership? Given the Select Committee on Public Administration comments this week and those of Sir Alistair Graham, and in the context of Ministers being accused of leaning on officials for political purposes and an ex-Cabinet Minister one day being the advocate of a new policy on ID cards and two years later turning up as an employee of an ID card company, is it not time for a civil service Act and a strengthened ministerial code of conduct? Should not this House have an opportunity to debate that?

May we have a debate on rural housing? The establishment of a new rural housing advisory group has been announced, but we have not yet had a Government response to the affordable rural housing commission that reported only last year. That is a serious issue for many people in rural areas.

Finally, last week the Leader of the House showed that he is adept at studying rail timetables for Milton Keynes and I applaud him for that. I have to repeat my request, however, for a debate on rail services. To quote one of my favourite books:

TravelWatch South West said:

and points to drastic timetable cuts, plummeting reliability and chronic overcrowding. This is a serious issue for the south-west, as it is in many other places, and it is time that we had a debate not only on the narrow issue of rail fares, which the Leader of the House has announced, but also on the wider issue of what is happening to our rail services.

Mr. Straw: When the hon. Gentleman asked about today’s announcement on splitting the Home Office, he included the words,

That is classic Lib Demory. They have two views, one in favour and one against, and they cannot make up their mind which, so they leave aside the merits. I take seriously some of the points raised by the Opposition because they have a view about the merits of the case, but, although I listened with great care to what the shadow, shadow Lib Dem home affairs spokesman had to say, I was none the wiser at the end of it, nor was I any better informed of the Lib Dem’s position. The matter has been the subject of detailed consideration and of a detailed written ministerial statement. Although there may be a debate about whether some time in future such matters should be handled differently, the truth is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister handled it more openly today than was ever the case in the past. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, in 18 years of Labour Opposition there were repeated examples of changes to machinery of government without any announcement to the House.

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