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29 Mar 2007 : Column 1658

I am always very happy, if time allows, to have a debate inside or outside the Chamber on ethical leadership. However, it does not do the reputation of politics any good for the hon. Gentleman week after week to come to the House and in one way or another try to denigrate the standards of public life. I accept that there are falls from grace, but our standards are higher and better than in almost every other country in the world, and that is shown from independent monitoring. If any of my former Cabinet colleagues are taking business appointments, they will be doing so only in circumstances where they have been vetted and approved by the Appointments Commission.

We all accept that rural housing is a serious matter. I happened to listen to a radio programme the other day about ways in which planning controls are being used more effectively now to ensure a parallel market for local people. That is an important issue and I shall certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

I made myself expert on the train services to and from Milton Keynes only because I had to, not because of any affection for that timetable. We recognise that there are problems with train services as a result of overcrowding. The timetable changes introduced by First Great Western, a private company, and its failure to ensure sufficient rolling stock inconvenienced a great many Members of this House, including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and me. Spending on track support has increased by 55 per cent. in the last 10 years, rail passenger journeys are up by 35 per cent. and, to combat overcrowding, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently announced that an extra 1,000 rail carriages are to be purchased.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As chair of the all-party group on smoking and health, I welcome the recent anniversary of smoke-free Scotland and I look forward in four days’ time to smoke-free Wales and in four weeks and four days’ time to smoke-free Northern Ireland, and on 1 July to smoke-free legislation in England. May I draw attention to my early-day motion 1233?

[That this House looks forward to the introduction of smokefree legislation in England on 1st July this year, following Wales on 2nd April and Northern Ireland on 30th April; applauds the protection from proven health risks of secondhand smoke which this will afford to smokers and non-smokers alike in the vast majority of workplaces and public places; notes the successful passing of the first anniversary of smokefree Scotland; further applauds the 46,000 Scots who used NHS Scotland to support their attempt to stop smoking; recognises that a huge surge in demand is expected for Stop Smoking Services in England, running up to, on and following 1st July; welcomes the £10 million additional funding for 2006-07 and 2007-08 provided by the Department of Health to primary care trusts (PCTs) for increased provision of Stop Smoking Services; regrets that there is evidence that many frontline services are being cut at this vital time despite the additional Government funding; and urges the Government to ring-fence the funding to PCTs for the provision of Stop
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Smoking Services in 2007-08 to ensure that the unique opportunity presented by Smokefree England to make a dramatic cut in smoking prevalence is not wasted.

It draws attention to the fact that the Government have allocated a fair amount of money to boost stop-smoking services, which is what some people are doing at the implementation of this legislation. May we have a debate on how we can protect such funding? Research shows that that extra funding is being used—snaffled, even—by primary care trusts for other services and that smoke-free services are being reduced in scale. May we have a debate on public health and how we can protect finances and give high priority to that aspect of our health policy?

Mr. Straw: I take note of what my hon. Friend has to say. I am glad that he acknowledges the big increase in resources that we have put into it. I hope that he is successful in raising the matter, for example, in Westminster Hall.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the Home Office continues to remove to Khartoum failed asylum seekers from Darfur, even though the safety of such an approach is being contested in the Court of Appeal, can we please debate the matter urgently in Government time on the Floor of the House, because many of us believe that the Government are breaking their international commitments and putting opponents of the Sudanese Government at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three?

Mr. Straw: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I know of no case and I do not believe that there has ever been a case of someone being sent back as a failed asylum seeker unless and until all the avenues of appeal have been exhausted, including appeals before independent immigration judges and possibly even the immigration appeal tribunal. It is well established case law in this country and internationally that it may well be safe to send an individual back to a part of a country although it may be dangerous in another part of that country. That is particularly true of Sudan, which is twice the size of France.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Would my right hon. Friend agree that many of the great campaigns in this House start from an injustice to a constituent? Would he think of an early debate on the behaviour of Swiss banks operating in London outside of European Union regulation? Constituents of mine have lost £2 million through fraud. The fraudster used Pictet and Cie—a French bank—and Pictet Asset Management to back the fraud being perpetrated. My constituents can get no justice because Swiss banks operating in London are outside the normal parameters of European Union protection. Can we have a debate about what is going on with regard to Swiss financial services operating in this capital city of financial services?

Mr. Straw: I take note of the seriousness of my hon. Friend’s point. I will draw his profound concern to the attention of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to
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the Treasury and the chairman of the Financial Services Authority. I hope that he can raise the matter in debate here.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Government must be alarmed by the criticism in the report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and by the level of fines. Will the Leader of the House make time, as soon as possible after the House’s return from the Easter recess, for a debate to consider two particular aspects of the criticisms? The first is the fact that the level of the fines means that the farm budget has been raided. In addition, the rural development fund, which would otherwise have been used for flood alleviation schemes, is no longer at the level that it would have been without the fines. Secondly, as the Government are so keen to look into restructuring Departments and to consider the level of ministerial responsibility, will he please ensure that the Minister with responsibility for farms is a House of Commons man or woman, and is in this House to answer questions and receive correspondence? If that had been the case, the Government would have been aware of the difficulties much earlier.

Mr. Straw: I take note of the hon. Lady’s last point about ministerial responsibility. I would just say that my noble Friend, Lord Rooker, has very much made himself available to this House. I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but he has done what he can to make himself available. On the hon. Lady’s wider point, of course we always take seriously any Select Committee report. My right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary has apologised to farmers for the debacle in the Rural Payments Agency, and I have done so to the House. There have been changes at the head of the agency, and everybody is seeking to learn the lessons from that very unfortunate episode.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Congressional committees in the United States ordinarily take evidence on oath, and my friend the Leader of the House told me yesterday in a written answer that it is open to Select Committees to require witnesses to give evidence on oath. Given the controversy over the remarks of the previous Cabinet Secretary, and the fact that my friend is now campaign manager for someone who has been described as a Stalinist, I am interested in my friend’s views; would he encourage Select Committees to take evidence on oath on appropriate occasions?

Mr. Straw: I have no particular view about that, because even if evidence is not given on oath, there is a high expectation that those giving evidence will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think that I am right in saying that even if the evidence is not given on oath, if it transpires that the witnesses have given false evidence, they can be brought before the House.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Sadly, far too many small shops are falling victim to crime. A survey by the British Retail Consortium showed that shop theft was up 70 per cent. in 2005, and theft costs shops some £2 billion a year. Will the Leader of the
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House arrange for a debate on shop theft, either in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House, and will he support my call for such a debate?

Mr. Straw: I appreciate that although, overall, crime has come down, one crime is one crime too many, and the statistics are no comfort to the victims of the crimes that continue to occur, so I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We are doing everything that we can to cut shop crime and we will look for an opportunity for him to raise the subject on the Adjournment, or in Westminster Hall.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May we have a debate on information technology developments in primary schools, and will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Members to encourage participation in the competition that is being run by the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee and e-skills, and which is being promoted in the all-party Whip? It is a great way of getting Members to engage with the young people in their constituencies about something that will really affect their future.

Mr. Straw: I congratulate PITCOM and e-skills, which is the sector skills council for IT and telecoms, for their initiative, and I encourage Members to involve their primary schools in that competition.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I still have constituents who have not been paid their single farm payment for 2005. The Leader of the House underestimates the spectacular language in, and the importance of, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report. Paragraph 3 says:

The majority of Committee members were Government Members, and the report was passed unanimously. The right hon. Gentleman’s replies are not good enough. We need to debate the subject on the Floor of the House, with Ministers present, in Government time. Fobbing us off with estimates days is just not good enough.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I say to the Leader of the House that he will have to imply a question from the statement that we have just heard?

Mr. Straw: I will do my best, inadequate though I am. I do not think that I downplayed the gravity of the criticism that was made; it is palpable and it has been well-rehearsed in the newspapers, and on the radio this morning. I do not have much to add to what I have already said. As I said to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), if Members really think that a criticism made of a Minister is serious, there are many opportunities available to them, and particularly to the Official Opposition, to raise the matter on the Floor of the House.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I wonder when we can have a statement from my right
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hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the arrangements for scrutiny by the House of the Home Office and the new ministry of justice. In particular, what arrangements does he intend to propose on the organisation of Select Committees? Given the division of responsibilities, how can the House ensure seamless scrutiny of the criminal justice system?

Mr. Straw: That is something on which we will have to consult the usual channels, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and, of course, the Chairmen of the Select Committees concerned. I say to my right hon. Friend that however uncomfortable it may be, the general principle—now enshrined, I think, in the Standing Orders—is that the departmental Select Committees are there to monitor the work of Departments, and that principle is important in making the Select Committees as effective as they can be in fulfilling their role. We have to take that into account.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I repeat my preference for specific questions.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Looking at the future business, it seems that the Leader of the House and I have failed to secure an Act of Union debate prior to the Scottish elections. I have to say that I am disappointed. I wanted to hear Ministers once again make their positive case—the black hole of the issue of border guards, the brutal language, and so on. When the Leader of the House observes the 10-point Scottish National party lead, does he believe that the current approach is working?

Mr. Straw: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not mention that there has been a 20-point reduction in support for independence in Scotland since the SNP started wittering on about it.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister stated, in relation to NHS operations:

The House of Commons Library informs me that official figures show that there are currently 7,851 patients who have waited more than six months for an NHS operation. After the recess, will the Leader of the House make a statement on the accuracy of ministerial answers to oral questions, and will he say how they might be corrected if they are found to be wrong?

Mr. Straw: I think that what my right hon. Friend said is accurate, and I echo what he said, because virtually nobody is waiting more than six months. The number is down by 284,000 since 1997, and is now relatively small. Of course, that is still too many people who are waiting, but the hon. Gentleman needs to make up his mind about whether he supports the extra money that we have put into the health service—it alone has made the improvements possible—or whether he opposes that spending, as he did at the last election, and the one before that.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): A major industrial plant in my constituency has suffered terrorist attacks in the past, and thousands of my constituents travel to London every day to work. May we have a debate to explore, in plain language, how the Home Office changes will improve the on-the-ground protection from terrorism for my constituents? That will not be clear to them from the statement made by the Home Secretary this morning.

Mr. Straw: The purpose of the changes that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced this morning is to strengthen the framework for counter-terrorism and to ensure that our work on local policing continues, so that the good people of Castle Point, including those on Canvey Island, can, with a bit of luck, sleep even easier in their beds than they have been able to since that halcyon day, 1 May 1997.

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Points of Order

12.49 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance about the failure of the Department for Communities and Local Government to answer not one but three named-day questions that were due on 5 March. The questions, which I tabled on 26 February, relate to an apparent breach of planning law by the Minister for Housing and Planning. If that breach is confirmed it may well result in legal action by my constituents against the Department. Three weeks after answers were due, I have yet to receive an answer or even a holding reply from the Department. Will you confirm, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is in breach—I tried to identify whether it was—of Standing Order No. 22, and as you are the protector of our interests as Back Benchers, will you advise me how I can resolve the matter in the interests of my constituents?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): This is something that the House rightly takes seriously. It may be helpful if the Leader of the House, who has heard what the hon. Gentleman said, seeks to catch my eye in furtherance of the point of order.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have obviously taken careful note of what the hon. Gentleman had to say. I shall follow it up and hope to get in touch with him later today.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In Treasury questions, the Chancellor and the Economic Secretary both flatly refused to answer a straight question as to whether a senior Treasury official had given accurate information to the Select Committee yesterday. Is it possible, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for you to convey the message to the Treasury and to other senior Ministers that their reputations and the reputation of our proceedings are not enhanced outside the House by that sort of behaviour?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman must recognise that that is not a point of order for the Chair. The Leader of the House will have heard what he said, and I am sure that he is as interested as any right hon. or hon. Member to ensure that the fullest information is supplied to hon. Members. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should recognise that all of us in our profession are sometimes fallible in giving the fullest of answers to the questions that we are asked in many different theatres.

Deferred Division No. 85

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to report to the House an error in the numbers reported as having voted yesterday in Deferred Division No. 85 on immigration. The number of Ayes was 366, rather 342, and the number of Noes was 52, rather than 49. I can advise the House that the Clerk will arrange for the record to be corrected.

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Easter Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Heppell.]

12.52 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Before the House of Commons adjourns for the Easter recess, I want to raise a matter relating to the manner in which we conduct our proceedings, particularly the manner in which legislation is now being progressed through both Houses of Parliament. On 15 March, I tabled a written parliamentary question to the Prime Minister asking him, in the light of an earlier comment that he had made, if he would place on record the Hansard reference to the occasion on which a very full debate took place on the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. That written question should have been answered today. The Table Office—and I have no quarrel with the Clerks whatsoever, far from it—rejected the question, on the grounds that the Prime Minister, in his answer at Prime Minister’s Question Time to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), had not actually referred to a parliamentary debate. The Prime Minister in fact said:

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