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26 Apr 2007 : Column 1036

On Tuesday, Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, said that the split of the Home Office is

but that

Will the Leader of the House commit to a debate in Government time on the restructuring of the Home Office? May we also have a statement from a Minister from the Department for Constitutional Affairs on judicial independence? The changes must not go ahead without our ensuring that proper safeguards are in place.

When people vote in next week’s local elections, they will do so without knowing the full extent of the Labour tax bombshell that awaits them. That is because the Chancellor’s Lyons review, carried out at a cost of £2.25 million, has been buried, at least until after the local elections, but official Treasury documents show that although the 2007 council tax revaluation in England has been postponed, council tax inspectors are already maintaining and further improving the extensive electronic database of every home in England. That database will include details of home improvements and photographs, and will catalogue the bedrooms, bathrooms and attics of every home. If the Orwellian Chancellor will not make a statement to the House on the future of local government finance, will his campaign manager, the Leader of the House, make one? If voters do not know about Labour’s council tax bombshell, they do know that Conservative councils have cheaper council tax, cleaner streets, less litter, less graffiti and less fly-tipping, so may we have a debate on best practice in local government?

The issues that I have mentioned are typical of the Government’s attitude to scrutiny; there are sham consultations and policies that nobody wants, and there is no chance for scrutiny by Parliament. Perhaps it is little wonder that the Secretary of State for Wales has said:

If they want to get back in touch with the country, why do they not stop lecturing and start listening?

Mr. Straw: That is another wonderful pay-off line—absolutely terrific. [Interruption.] Oh, good; one person on the Opposition Benches says that they think that it was good, too. That is better than usual.

To deal with the serious point that the right hon. Lady made at the beginning of her remarks, I gather that there was a report that the website,, is being sued for defamation for repeating what was printed in Hansard. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving me notice of the issue. The position is made very clear and is spelled out in “Erskine May”, which says that

The matter is privileged, and we will obviously watch that action with great care, but our democracy could
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not work if fair and accurate reports of our proceedings were subject to attack from people moving defamation proceedings.

May I deal with the other issues that the right hon. Lady raised? First, she made some wholly unsubstantiated allegations about the leaks of advance counter-terrorism operations, which we all wholly deprecate and deplore. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, contrary to what she said, said that as far as he was aware, he was able to give a guarantee that the leaks did not come from any Minister, civil servant or special adviser. The Leader of the Opposition asked exactly that, and the Prime Minister said:

That, I should have thought, was pretty categorical. Secondly, those are very serious allegations, and I agree with those who say that if they are that serious, they should be investigated by the police, not by a conventional inquiry. The right hon. Lady’s third point was about the split in the Home Office—

Mrs. May: It was Liberty’s freedom of information request.

Mr. Straw: I shall follow up Liberty’s FOI request, but I can say no more about it, as I do not have any particular knowledge of it.

The right hon. Lady asked about the division of the Home Office and the establishment from 9 May of a Ministry of justice. There was indeed a statement about the establishment by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and a parallel statement in the other place by the Lord Chancellor. I cannot give a guarantee, but I shall certainly give consideration to the question of whether a debate is possible. As for judicial independence, the right hon. Lady is tilting at windmills, because she may remember the supreme court Act—if that is not correct, it is an Act that was passed in 2003—which provided for the establishment of the Department for Constitutional Affairs and of a supreme court. The independence of the judiciary, which in practice has always been guaranteed by our constitution, is now clearly and categorically enshrined in statute. The duties of the Lord Chancellor and of the proposed Secretary of State for Justice are enhanced and set out, too.

On the right hon. Lady’s final point, in seeking to curry favour with Conservative candidates, she resorted to fantasy. She said that Lyons was buried: Lyons has been published—it was published on the day of the Budget. I have a copy, and I have already read most of it, so I am sorry that she has not entertained herself as I have done. She invited me to have a debate—it is not my responsibility any more, but I am delighted to have a debate any time at all about local government finance. Many of us were Members of Parliament when the Conservatives rammed through the poll tax, first, in Scotland, before the 1987 general election, and then in England and Wales, leading to mounting panic among Conservative Members of Parliament as well as incredible opposition from Labour Members of Parliament. That brought down the then Margaret Thatcher and led to the collapse of the Conservative party.

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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): She is still Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I should have said, “Baroness Thatcher”.

On value for money, the figures show year after year after year that council tax costs people less with Labour authorities. The average council tax is much lower under Labour. We provide better value for money, and if I were Leader of the House —[ Laughter. ] I am the Leader of the House, so I am going to mention it, but if I were shadow Leader of the House, I would be more concerned about the antics of the Leader of the Opposition. The Daily Mail headline on page 28 says: “Another day, another... stunt for Cameron”. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) travelled 100 miles to paint an already white wall in a desperate effort to get some votes for the Conservatives.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Wearside Women in Need, an outstanding project in my constituency, has recently won a substantial grant from the Treasury Invest to Save programme to build a hostel for the perpetrators of domestic violence. I invite the Leader of the House to add his support to that of Northumbria police, the city council and other organisations for the project. It is probably the first of its kind in the world, and certainly the first in the United Kingdom, and will enable perpetrators of domestic violence to be given help so that we can try and deal with the root causes. When we can evaluate its impact, will he provide an opportunity for all Members of the House to benefit from the scheme and its objectives?

Mr. Straw: The project sounds to me like a very important one. I am happy to wish it the best. I accept that for all such projects, effective evaluation is needed, including by the House.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The Leader of the House said that he deprecates and deplores the leaks about anti-terrorism operations. Will the Home Secretary come to the House on Monday to confirm that a police investigation has been launched along the lines that the Leader of the House described?

Further on the Home Office, may we have a debate on printing facilities in the Home Office and whether they are fit for purpose? The Home Office is obliged by law to lay before the House at six-monthly intervals a report on the costs of ID cards. That has not been done. The deadline has been missed. In addition, a commitment was made by the Home Secretary on 10 January that 27,500 files on offences committed abroad would be added to the police national computer within three months. That is another deadline that has passed. Will the Home Secretary report on both issues on Monday?

May we have a debate on coroners? That is a subject which causes concern to many people around the country, not just in the context of the inquest into Princess Diana’s death, but the deplorable backlog in military inquests, which still persists and causes enormous distress to many families. May I add to that another instance of malfunction in the coroners
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system—the after-effects of the awful train crash at Ufton Nervet, which the right hon. Gentleman will recall? Families in Devon who lost family members in that train crash went to the High Court to secure legal aid for representation at the inquiry, and have now been told that the Government intend, disgracefully, to appeal against that grant of legal aid. One family which lost a mother and a daughter in that crash will not be represented, if the Government have their way.

Lastly, may we have a debate on engineering and innovation, this being science and engineering week? Many right hon. and hon. Members had the opportunity last night to visit the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and saw an excellent exhibition, including my constituent, Andy Green, exhibiting a remarkable vehicle that does 5,353 miles per gallon, which ain’t bad. We often fail to recognise the critical role that engineers and scientists play in our society, dealing with problems that face us in the future. May we have a debate on the way that we encourage engineering in this country and encourage people to follow that career path?

Mr. Straw: I cannot give any undertaking that the Home Secretary will be able to make a statement on Monday. He has always been assiduous in responding to requests from the House, but I can make no promise about that. On printing and the six-monthly report, I will follow that up. Either I or the Home Secretary will write to the hon. Gentleman.

On coroners, the Lord Chancellor is well aware of the backlog of inquests, particularly military inquests dealing with deaths in action. It is partly for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made arrangements to shift the site of the incoming flights carrying the coffins of those who have been killed in action from Brize Norton to Lyneham. We hope that that is working better, but all of us are extremely anxious to ensure that, first, there are prompt inquests and, secondly, that they are thorough and that, when they take place, they show proper respect to the young man or woman who was killed in action and to their families and comrades.

I am afraid that I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the train crash in Devon—[Hon. Members: “In Berkshire.”] I am sorry; that is why I knew nothing about a train crash in Devon. The train crash in Berkshire is a different matter. I will take it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and the Lord Chancellor.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about engineering and innovation. We will have to look to see whether there is an opportunity for a debate, but all of us need to understand and appreciate the extraordinary role that science and engineering have made in the development of our society. I recognised that last Friday when I was privileged to open the new exhibition on Blackburn’s textile heritage. As everyone in the House should know—I think that most do—the industrial revolution and therefore Britain’s greatness began in Blackburn.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that we should have a debate
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on local authority best practice so that, in particular, I can raise the issue of recycling by local authorities to bring to people’s attention the fact that Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council is the most improved council in England in respect of its recycling targets? That is a good reason why people should consider voting Labour next week.

Mr. Straw: I agree with both things that my hon. Friend has said. The council has had an extraordinary improvement in its recycling rate. I also point out to him and the House that, 10 years ago, just 7 per cent. of waste was recycled; now it is more than four times that amount.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Last year, I asked the Leader of the House if we could have a debate on leniency in sentencing guidelines. This followed a case in which a gentleman—I call him a “gentleman”—raped a 12-week-old baby and will serve less than four years in prison. On Friday in Plymouth, a mother, a grandmother and two aunts were sentenced to 100 days’ community service and a one-year suspended sentence after they filmed their forcing their children to fight each other. One child was in nappies and in tears throughout the event. May we have a debate on this sort of sentencing?

Mr. Straw: First, I said last week that I would write to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General about what had been said. I have done exactly that, and either the Attorney-General or I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Secondly, all of us understand and, to a degree, share the concern about such reports, but we must also bear it in mind that it is fundamental to our constitution that judicial decisions in trial at the point of sentence are made independently. We cannot get into a position of second-guessing those decisions simply on the basis of newspaper reports. Members are right to echo concerns and raise their own concerns about such cases, and I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for what he has done. However, ensuring that there is a proper separation is vital for everybody. Of course, I will ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is again made aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend is doing everything he can to consider a debate on Darfur, so will he consider extending the remit of that debate so that we can discuss genocide education in the United Kingdom? Does he share my astonishment that a motion supported by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party on Sandwell council this week in favour a holocaust memorial day in Sandwell was not supported by the British National party? Does he think that holocaust denial in the UK is a great threat to our democracy and peace and that we should do everything that we can to educate our young people?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I do. I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the issue, but I am afraid that I am not surprised by the circumstances, because the BNP is a fascist party.

John Bercow: Neo-Nazis.

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Mr. Straw: The BNP is, as the hon. Gentleman said, a neo-Nazi party. When people read through its sedulous literature, they need to be very careful to appreciate and understand exactly what it is that they might be voting for and not vote for it.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Can we have an early statement from the Leader of the House and then a debate on the report by Sir Hayden Phillips on party funding, which was published last month? The Prime Minister has charged the Leader of the House with finding a resolution to that vexed problem and we need to know whether he will discharge that responsibility before he moves on to pastures new.

Mr. Straw: Whether I do, in fact, discharge those responsibilities remains to be seen. However, we do not need a debate, because I can give the right hon. Gentleman an answer straight away.

I am currently doing my best to discharge those responsibilities. I have already had a preliminary meeting with representatives of the other two main parties and Sir Hayden Phillips has written to the three parties proposing a series of meetings to try to seek all-party agreement. They will take place very rapidly and, I think, without question while I am in this post.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Leaving aside a particular case on which I have written to you, Mr. Speaker, and on which you have given me advice to refer the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether we can have a debate on the new communications allowance? It appears that there is a lack of understanding by individuals and political parties about the permitted use of their logo. I have informed the hon. Members for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) that I am raising the matter today with you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should not refer to any hon. Member regarding this case. Just in case other Members think that I am giving such advice, I also say to her that I have not advised her to take the matter up with the parliamentary commissioner. I said that the matter that she brought before me was not for me, but for the parliamentary commissioner. However, it is entirely a matter for her or any other hon. Member whether they make a complaint to the commissioner. The Speaker will never invite hon. Members to do that.

I have written to the hon. Lady about this matter, and I know that she is aware of the contents of my letter. She will do best to wait until she receives the letter. I do not wish the Leader of the House to respond to her point.

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