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Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to the excellent work done by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in particular the volunteer rescue teams, to protect our seaways and coastlines? Does he share my surprise that the inadequate insurance cover those people receive means that if they have an accident that stops them carrying on their main
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occupation—their livelihood—the compensation does not meet their future requirements? Can he find a way to help us air that important matter in the House?

Mr. Straw: I certainly understand my hon. Friend’s surprise and the distress of those affected by the inadequacy of the insurance policy. I promise him that I shall take the matter up with the Minister concerned and look for an opportunity to debate it.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I declare an interest as an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. Will the Leader of the House request that a Health Minister come to the House next week to make a statement about the problems faced by independent midwives on account of the proposal that they should have liability insurance? They are a vital part of the profession and will be essential if the Government’s proposals on maternity and midwives are to be effectively implemented. The matter is critical; otherwise many of them will be unable to practise and to be part of what the Government want—a successful maternity and midwifery service.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue, which we acknowledge. Health questions are on Tuesday and although I am not certain whether there is an appropriate question in which the matter can be raised, I shall certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is made fully aware of the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time about the behaviour of Tesco management, particularly in my constituency? They are moving a distribution centre 200 yd and are sacking the men, reducing their terms and conditions and de-recognising the trade union. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the company to go back to the negotiating table or to use the good offices of ACAS to resolve what could be a messy dispute?

Mr. Straw: I have certainly seen early-day motion 1304, tabled by my hon. Friend.

[That this House expresses its deep concern that drivers at the Tesco depot in Livingston have been threatened with dismissal unless they sign up to new terms and conditions proposed by the company; notes that the new depot from which the drivers would be working is only 500 yards away from their current depot; further notes that some drivers fear that the new terms and conditions would cost them up to £5,000 per year; is concerned about allegations of management attempting to bully the staff to accept the new conditions; and urges Tesco to come back to open meaningful negotiations with the drivers' trade union, the TGWU. ]

Obviously, we understand my hon. Friend’s concern and very much hope that the matter can be resolved satisfactorily, perhaps by the involvement of ACAS.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Some months ago the Government announced that they would abandon the system of automatic, 50 per cent. remission for serious offenders in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it appears that the measure may not come into effect for some considerable time; we have yet to see the legislation, which is a matter for the House, not the Northern Ireland Assembly. I urge the Leader of the House to
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speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that we can have a statement announcing when that will happen. People are fearful that there may be other cases and people convicted now will be able to benefit from 50 per cent. remission in years to come. That is something that appals the people of Northern Ireland right across the board.

Mr. Straw: Northern Ireland questions are on Wednesday and the hon. Gentleman may want to raise the matter with the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is made fully aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): May I suggest a debate on the merits of setting up a national car-sharing scheme? I propose a website for such a scheme, so that it can be national rather than just local, and I have spoken to Transport Ministers about the idea. Local authorities are looking into supporting local car sharing, but a website along the lines of “Friends Reunited” could be a popular way of organising a scheme across the country.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend raises an interesting idea. Car sharing has an important contribution to make in reducing congestion at peak times, especially in certain travel to work areas— [ Interruption. ] I am not sure what the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is muttering from a sedentary position—he is saying either that the matter is the responsibility of Government or that it is not. However, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is informed of my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): May I encourage the Leader of the House to respond positively to the request of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on avian influenza? Could he extend the scope of that debate to include the whole remit of the agricultural element of DEFRA? It was December 2002 when we last had an agriculture debate in the House. Since then, we have seen the debacle of the Rural Payments Agency, the Government’s vision document on the reform of the common agricultural policy, the proposed health check for the CAP, bovine tuberculosis, the DEFRA capability review and the introduction of modulation—to name but a few of the subjects that have never been debated since December 2002.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for a debate on agriculture, and I will do what I can. While I am on my feet, may I, in an ecumenical spirit, wish my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—despite the fact that his question was ruled out of order—good luck in the marathon on Sunday?

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Will there be a debate on the proposed points-based system to control the flow of immigration, which was announced by the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality yesterday? I appreciate that we need a balance and that we should welcome foreign workers with skills into the
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country, but not at the expense of indigenous workers. Virtually all the indigenous workers in a mushroom farm in my constituency have been squeezed out to accommodate foreign workers on reduced pay, terms and conditions. That is something that must be ruled out, stamped out and sorted out.

Mr. Straw: Yes, there will be an opportunity to debate that. Part of the purpose of the points-based system, which will apply to non-EU workers, is to ensure that job permissions and work permits are given to those from overseas, outside the EU, only where they are fulfilling an occupational need that cannot be fulfilled already by someone in the UK.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Will the Health Secretary come to the House to explain why so many hospital trust boards are refusing to sign off their accounts? The West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS trust, which has a huge deficit, refused to sign off the accounts this week. Should not the Secretary of State explain why?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman should take that up with the regional health authority. I will certainly take it up on his behalf with the Secretary of State for Health.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House will be familiar with the ministerial code, which says that when Parliament is in Session, the most important Government announcements should be made in the first instance to the House. He will also know that the Prime Minister has indicated that he plans to announce his resignation over the next few weeks. Does he agree that there can be few announcements of greater importance either to the Government or Parliament than the resignation of a Prime Minister? Can he give us an assurance that any such statement will be made in the first instance to the House and that the Prime Minister will then be invited to answer questions about why he feels he has to go?

Mr. Straw: That is a clever idea, but I cannot satisfy the right hon. Gentleman. As he is an expert on the British constitution, he well knows that the appointment of a Prime Minister is a matter for Her Majesty under her prerogative powers. It is not, therefore, a matter for this House.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Can we have a debate on business support or even on which party business is actually supporting? We have found that the Government have very little support in Scotland. Today, a letter drafted by the Scottish Secretary’s special adviser and circulated to businesses in Scotland had to be withdrawn because no one was prepared to sign it. That is in the same week in which the Scottish Trades Union Congress gave grudging support to Labour by a majority of one. Given that the right hon. Gentleman is running the Chancellor’s campaign, does he accept that a defeat in his own backyard, which looks likely in two weeks’ time, will leave him fatally flawed and a lame duck Prime Minister?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman has done better than that in the past. He makes a rather complicated
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point, which I believe is designed to encourage people to vote for his party rather than the Labour party in the Scottish elections. However, as I could not understand his point—and I would like to be able to understand it—I am not sure that he will have much luck with it. What I suggest the hon. Gentleman starts talking about is the Labour Government’s record in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. That record is spectacular and it is one from which Scottish people have benefited with lower unemployment, higher output and much improved investment in education and health, all of which would be put at risk if ever the SNP came anywhere near power.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Defence Secretary announced an investigation into the operational aspects of the Iranian debacle—an inquiry by Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton—but will it cover personnel matters? Those involved in the operation showed such a compliant attitude and worryingly low state of morale and training that they actually thanked their captors after their release was secured. As the admirals and chiefs of staff have explicitly approved that performance, should it not form part of a separate debate by the House, so that we can help to restore the Royal Navy to its former pride and strength?

Mr. Straw: Although I am not privy to the inquiry’s terms of reference and do not have them with me, it seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman’s points are central to the inquiry, which is bound to look into those matters. In any event, if the inquiry failed to deal with them, I cannot imagine that the Defence Select Committee would refuse or fail to answer questions on them. I think that they will be dealt with as an inevitable part of the inquiry, but I will follow up the matter with my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and, if necessary, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Before the disastrous mismanagement of the sale of the sailors’ story came to overshadow everything else, on 28 March, when they were still captive, the Foreign Secretary made a couple of important points—namely, that the co-ordinates supplied by the Iranians had initially shown the boat to have been in Iraqi and not Iranian waters, and that even if the boat had been in Iranian waters, the most the Iranians would have been entitled to do would have been to warn it off and tell it to return to Iraqi waters. In the light of all that, may we have a further statement from the Foreign Secretary explaining what action the Foreign Office has taken in the interim to bring before the UN what is clearly misconduct by the Iranians in respect of the Royal Navy fulfilling a task laid upon it in accordance with a UN resolution?

Mr. Straw: I note the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I think that it is better to have the inquiry under Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton and then to have it the subject of consideration by the Defence Committee. Any further questions that need to be answered should be dealt with at that stage.

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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the number of people dead, dying and destitute in Darfur is increasing exponentially on a daily basis, may I tell the right hon. Gentleman that his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) is warmly welcome. In view of both the urgency and the magnitude of the issues and the imperative requirement on this House to debate how we will stop the genocide and deliver to the people of Darfur peace, freedom and security, would the right hon. Gentleman accept that a debate on the matter must not be relegated to Westminster Hall, but take place on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Straw: I understand the importance of the issue and accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We will look for a date.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): There is great anxiety throughout the country about the Government’s plans for sub-post offices. I received a petition from several hundred of my constituents in St. Martin’s about the future of its sub-post office, even though there is no formal proposal to close it at the moment. When will a Minister give a clear statement to the House about how the Government’s programme will be implemented and how my constituents can fight it?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has extended the consultation period. Because of public concern about the issue, I believe that after further consideration he will make a statement some time next month. Meanwhile, the House may wish to welcome the fact that WH Smith has announced its intention to open post office branches in about 70 of its more than 500 town centre stores, which is good news.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Last month, two amoral mindless thugs were found guilty at Peterborough Crown court of an assault on a resident, Paul Machin, which left him in a persistent vegetative state, effectively destroying that man’s life. They were sentenced to three years imprisonment. It subsequently became clear that the Crown Prosecution Service is unwilling to appeal against that grossly unsatisfactory sentence. When can we have a debate in Government time on the role and accountability of the CPS, especially its role in undermining people’s faith in the criminal justice system, so that we can reach a position where the punishment fits the crime?

Mr. Straw: Of course I understand the great distress of the family of the victim and the public concern, but I am in no position to offer a comment on whether the sentence was appropriate. We have to be careful about second-guessing the decisions of the courts. My right hon. Friend the Attorney-General is assiduous in looking at all applications for appeals against lenient sentence and referring them to the Court of Appeal where appropriate. I do not know of a single case where he has refused to do so when there has been any merit in the appeal. I will take up with my right hon. Friend the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised and will ask my right hon. Friend to write directly to him.

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Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on NHS dentistry? In the surveys that I carry out across my Shipley constituency, the number of people who say that they cannot find an NHS dentist is increasing all the time. Given the anger and frustration that the situation causes to my constituents, and no doubt the constituents of other Members, may we have a debate on this important issue?

Mr. Straw: There are plenty of opportunities to raise the issue, including in Westminster Hall. There has in fact been a substantial investment in dentistry. Notwithstanding the scare stories about the new contract, my understanding is that there are now more patients being treated within the NHS than there were before. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Health if he wishes.

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Points of Order

12.11 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your advice? The Leader of the House, in replying to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House in respect of questions that she put to him on pensions, quoted from a speech or statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Would it have been appropriate for a Minister of the Crown—the Leader of the House—to have notified my hon. Friend that he intended to quote him during his responses to Question Time?

Mr. Speaker: It was not a criticism of an hon. Member; it was a factual record. Right hon. and hon. Members are entitled to use factual records and speak about them in the House during the course of their work.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know from your recent actions that you are keen to defend the rights of Members of the House who are here. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is now in his place, referred to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in his question, and you quite rightly put him down. There is some confusion. I have spoken to my hon. Friend and he states quite categorically that somebody has been in his office since before 8 o’clock this morning and no telephone calls whatsoever have been received from the hon. Gentleman. I wonder whether you can guide us on this matter.

Mr. Speaker: I gave good guidance. I stopped the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), as I would stop any other hon. Member. In doing so, I consider these matters to be finished. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) will note that I did not allow the Leader of the House to respond to the hon. Member for Rhondda. I wish the hon. Member for Rhondda well with the marathon on Sunday.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will have heard, at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions considerable interest was expressed in the report on the epidemiology of the recent avian flu outbreak, which was released to the press at 10 o’clock this morning. Hon. Members were given to believe that the report was also available to them, but I am advised that, at least up until five minutes ago, it was not available in either the Vote Office or the Library. I wonder whether there is anything that you can do to impress upon DEFRA Ministers the need to ensure that the report is made available to all Members.

Mr. Speaker: If that is the case, I am very disappointed and I instruct the appropriate officials to look into the matter.

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