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On Monday, the Defence Secretary came to the House to make a statement on the double fiasco overseen by his Department, but he failed to explain why, three years after the last such incident, the Iranians were
allowed illegally to hold our people hostage. He said Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fultons inquiry would take about six weeks, but he did not set out a full and proper timetable. We need a clear timetable so that we can ensure that the Defence Secretary does not escape scrutiny by being moved to a new position by a new Prime Minister. Can we have a clear timetable, set out by the Government? The Defence Secretary also failed to say whether the whole House of Commons, rather than just the Defence Committee, would debate the findings of the two inquiries. Will the Leader of the House commit himself to such a debate?
One Minister who never says sorry is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1999, he sold 400 tonnes of the Treasurys bullion reserves, when the price of gold was at a 20-year low. That cost the taxpayer £2 billion, but the Chancellor claimed that he had the backing of the Bank of England. Indeed, the Prime Minister told the House on 14 July 1999:
We sold gold on the technical advice of the Bank of England[ Official Report, 14 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 403.]
However, the Banks spokesman says:
The Bank was not asked for advice.
Can we therefore have a debate on the Chancellors response to the views of the Bank of England?
On the Chancellors watch, more than 60,000 occupational pension schemes have been wound up, and only one third of final salary pension schemes remain open to new members. Typically, however, the Chancellor denies that that has anything to do with his £100 billion pensions tax. He claims that the Confederation of British Industry agreed with his decision, but its former director general says that it is completely
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Jacqui Smith): The Opposition want to talk about pensions again!
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): We dealt with this on Tuesday.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Members should let the shadow Leader of the House speak.
Mrs. May: The Government Chief Whip complains from a sedentary position that the issue of pensions is being brought up again, but it is one that matters to the many thousands of people who have lost their pensions under this Government.
The Chancellor claimed that the CBI agreed with his decision, but its former director general says that that is completely untrue. The Chancellors officials advised him that his tax decision
would make a big hole in pension scheme finances,
but he ignored them. In addition, Lord Simon, a former Treasury Minister, said that the plan
was a particular concern to us,
We have had a debate on the Chancellors mishandling of occupational pensions, but can we have one, in Government time, on the Chancellors response to the views expressed by business, and by his officials and Ministers?
Again on the chancellors watch, 125,000 people have lost at least part of their pension because their pension fund went bust. Yesterday, we tabled amendments to the Pensions Bill to help those who had lost their pensions, but the Government Whipson the orders of the Prime Minister and the Chancellormade sure that they were defeated. So can we have a statement on how the Government intend to support those people who have done the right thing and saved for their retirement but subsequently lost their pension?
We know what a Government led by the Chancellor will be like. He ignores the advice given by officials and business. He makes the wrong decisions, and then denies that anything has gone wrong. Will not the following be the hallmarks of a Brown Governmentarrogance and incompetence, but never repentance?
Mr. Straw: Until just now, the identity of the right hon. Ladys scriptwriter was a mystery to me. However, I now realise that it is the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne)although I concede that she says her lines rather better than he managed on Tuesday.
I turn now to the points that the right hon. Lady raised. First, on the gold bullion: if she wants to put down a motion about that, I advise her to do so. In fact, the Government would welcome a further motion of no confidence in the Chancellor because my right hon. Friend would slaughter the shadow Chancellors case once again, just as even Conservative newspapers concede that he demolished it on Tuesday.
Of course we accept that a serious problem exists as a result of the fact that many people lost their pensions when the firms that employed themand consequently those firms pension fundswent bankrupt. That is why my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor have put in place arrangements to help compensate them that are far better than anything that existed before. Frankly, what the Conservative party indulged in yesterday was another example of blatantand uncostedopportunism.
Overall, I do not in the least diminish the problems faced by those particular pensioners, but nor do I diminish the work that we are doing to help them. In terms of the generality of pensioners, we have worked extraordinarily hard to ensure that the standard of living of pensioners overall is raised significantly. It was not me or any Labour Member, but the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who said:
Nevertheless, despite orchestrated campaigns by todays pensioner groups, the fact is that todays pensioners have never had it so good.[ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 20 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 69WH.]
I put that comment from a Conservative Member on the record for the right hon. Lady.
I accept what the right hon. Lady said about oral statements. A little while ago I announced that we would give notice on the Order Paper where notice of an oral statement had been given elsewhere in the House. I now accept that where notice has been given, even outside the House as it had to be, for example, in respect of the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and even if no notice has been given externally, if it is at all
possible we will put notice of a statement on the Order Paper. It may be for the convenience of the House if I issue a comprehensive written ministerial statement about these new arrangements after consultation with the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats.
I know that the Bernard Matthews case was raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment a moment ago. Of course we will look for an opportunity to debate the matter. We are all uncomfortable about the reports of high levels of compensation to Mr. Matthews firm.
On Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Fultons report, the right hon. Lady will be aware that there is a debate on the defence of the United Kingdom next Thursday when there will be every opportunity to question my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. She asked whether there would be a debate on the report. It will go in full to the Select Committee. Because part of it is bound to be confidential, not all of it can be made available publicly. We will certainly look sympathetically at whether there should be a debate on the Floor of the House, depending on what the Select Committee has to say about it.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on discrimination in the workplace, particularly in relation to those who are discriminated against because of their political views? My right hon. Friend may recall the dark days of the Economic League, which denied decent, honest people the right to earn a living. There is now anecdotal evidence that the same organisations are operating within the construction industry, again denying people the opportunity to work. Could he use his good offices to send a clear message to these companies that are engaged in this heinous practice that they will be exposed and could be in danger of losing major contracts, particularly those surrounding the forthcoming Olympics?
Mr. Straw: I share the considerable concern of my hon. Friend and this side of the House about that practice. It is completely unacceptable to single out and discriminate against people who are simply exercising their rights as shop stewards on behalf of the members of their workforce. I will certainly take the matter up with our right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Trade and Industry.
Mr. David Heath (Somerset and Frome): There are about 70 sitting days until Prorogation and therefore the end of the Session, yet we have not had sight of two major Bills announced in the Queens Speech: the criminal justice Bill and the counter-terrorism Bill. There may be some confusion about which Department is responsible for the criminal justice Bill, but given its importance and how often we have slipshod and spatchcock legislation from the Home Office, is it not proper that the House should have an early sight of what the Government intend so that we can debate it properly?
While on the Home Office, can we have yet another debate on Home Office IT procurement? I do not know whether the Leader of the House is aware of the Phoenix programme, under which a national shared
service centre was set up in Newport between the Home Office and the Prison Service to find
new ways of working in finance, procurement, and HR, to reduce costs while providing consistent high quality support.
It has been in place for almost a year, yet it has no IT services to enable it to deal with about 400,000 paper invoices every year. Instead, we have 34 people doing it by hand on paper. May we have a debate yet again on the incapacity of the Home Office in respect of IT?
The Leader of the House will be aware of the public inquiry that has now opened, chaired by Lord Archer of Sandwell, into those who were sadly infected with HIV or hepatitis C through contaminated blood products in what has been suggested to be the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS. Given the importance of the inquiry, will the Health Secretary make a statement to the effect that her Department will provide full co-operation with the inquiry and will be committed to responding efficiently and effectively as the Government, and that there will be an opportunity for this House to debate the outcome?
I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree with me that no Member of the legislature should be non-resident for tax purposes. That being the case, will he find time to debate the Bill first introduced in 2004 by my noble Friend Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Baythe Life Peerages (Residency for Taxation Purposes) Billwhich he now proposes to reintroduce? Such a debate would enable us to make it absolutely clear that those who seek to sit in either of the Houses of Parliament and make laws in this country should pay tax in this country.
Mr. Straw: The criminal justice Bill and the terrorism Bill will be brought forward in due course. It is something of an irony that the hon. Gentleman normally complains about the number of Home Office Bills and the speed with which they are brought forward. No doubt he is looking for an opportunity to vote against yet another couple of sensible measures.
I will write to the hon. Gentleman about Home Office IT procurement. The hon. Gentleman referred to the inquiry chaired by Lord Archer of Sandwellnot to be confused, Mr. Speaker, with the other Lord Archer[Hon. Members: Hear, hear.] I am glad to hear approbation from the Conservative Benches in that respect. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has already said, as of course she would, that there will be the fullest co-operation with the inquiry.
On the hon. Gentlemans last point, I do not always agree with him, but I agree about the need for at least life peersthose who sit in this legislatureto pay tax in this country. I think that we are all surprised and shocked that Lord Laidlaw, a Conservative peer, should turn out to be a tax exile, and were even more surprised when the hapless shadow Chancellor on the radio yesterday washed his hands of the matter and said that Lord Laidlaws tax status was a matter for him and for the House of Lords Appointments Commission. I thought that it might be a matter for someone like the shadow Chancellor as well.
Mr. Barry Sheerman:
Mr. Speaker, I know that you are aware of this, but is the Leader of the House aware
that 180 years ago today one of our most famous poets of the environment, John Clare, published The Shepherds Calendar. Here is a poet who 180 years ago was forced to work on the enclosures. In an era when we seem to apologise for everything, is it not about time that we had a debate on what happened in the enclosures? In a move led by the other House, before there was true democracy in this Parliament, the English common land was stolen from English people. Is it not about time that we looked at what happened and whether measures could give back to the English counties the common land stolen from them by the House of Lords, the Tories and the Liberals?
Mr. Straw: I have personal reasons for welcoming such a debate, which is that my forebears were among those in what is now suburban Essex who fought the lords of the manor, including one John Whitaker Maitland, then lord of the manor of Loughton. In the end, they were successful in preventing the further enclosure of what is now Epping forest. It was a nasty, bloody battle that went on for 30 years in the middle of the 19th century, and I am proud that my great-great-grandfather and many others in that part of Essex were successful in standing up for the working classes of Essex, to ensure that Epping forest remained for the people of Essex and London for ever.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware of the widespread concern over the failure to fly the flag of our country from Portcullis House since its opening a number of years ago. He will also be aware that the early-day motion that I tabled has been signed by no fewer than 44 Members of this House. Will the Leader of the House give us a progress report and tell us whether the flag of our country will at last fly from the parliamentary building of Portcullis House?
Mr. Straw: I am delighted to give the hon. Gentleman some good newsafter a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. There was a health and safety problem that I insisted on inspecting, although I was originally told it was too dangerous for me to do so, and I went up there yesterday. It is genuinely difficult to get to the flagpole. The problem was that two bronze trap doors, which were, as I saw, unsecured, were in danger of decapitatingliterallyanybody who put up a flag. However, I am pleased to say that the House authorities have decided on a number of inexpensive safety measures and they have promised me that the flagpole will be fully operationalcertainly by the recess and, we hope, well before.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The Leader of the House will recall that last month we had a good debate in the House on nuclear disarmament and the replacement of the Trident system. Before next weeks debate on defence, will he make sure that the Secretary of State for Defence can set out what the Governments position will be at the non-proliferation treaty review committee preparation meeting in Vienna, which is due to open at the beginning of May, so that the House can be informed exactly of what the Governments position is on nuclear non-proliferation?
I shall do my best, because my hon. Friend makes an important point. Our position on the
revision conferences of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has been consistent, and very much in the vanguard of reform. We in the United Kingdom led the case and the call for improvement and change at the revision conference that took place in May 2005, almost exactly two years ago, but I regret to say that other members of the Security Councilpermanent and non-permanentblocked the measures we were trying to introduce.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Clearly, good work is going on in New York to secure a United Nations-sanctioned resolution to ensure a no-fly zone over Darfur that would allow its beleaguered people to have proper support and aid. Will the Leader of the House make absolutely sure that next week an appropriate Minister comes here to make a statement so that the whole House can express its horror about what is happening in Darfur and, we hope, congratulate Ministers on a successful resolution?
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for referring to that point. I think the whole House will want to applaud the work of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the fact that she went to New York and chaired a meeting of the Security Council where, frankly, she forced some pressure on the Sudanese Government and the Chinese, who had been supporting them, so that there is now a prospect of serious progress for the first time in a number of years. I shall certainly give consideration to a statement; indeed, I know that the whole House wants us to look for an opportunity for a debate on Darfur, too.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): As the Leader of the House knows, the Mental Health Bill goes into Committee next week and obviously there is important work to be done to make sure that the legislation is in the right shape before we finish with it. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has written to many Members inviting them to what he calls a special all-party committee, which suggests that it is a Committee of the House and that it is all-party? In fact, it is a committee of only some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, so bearing in mind the fact that the House makes it clear that there should be rules about all-party committees and groups, is it not wrong for people to pretend and abuse the public in that way? [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has made a criticism of another Member. Did he notify the hon. Gentleman that he would make that criticism?
Chris Bryant: I tried to ring the hon. Gentlemans office earlier
Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser).
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