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3 May 2007 : Column 1647

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.

One year ago, following the release of foreign prisoners, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) tabled a question to the Home Office. He received no reply until yesterday, when he gave the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality notice of a point of order. The Leader of the House was present when the point of order was raised. The reply said that the issue was a matter for the permanent secretary. Surely my hon. Friend could have been told that a year ago, and what does that reply say about ministerial responsibility?

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker said that Members were tabling a great many—possibly too many—questions, which the Leader of the House has also said previously. May I tell him that if Ministers gave proper answers the first time questions were asked, there would be no need for supplementaries? Will he yet again remind his ministerial colleagues of their duty to this Parliament?

On Tuesday, I and other colleagues celebrated the 10th anniversary of our election to the House, and, of course, we were all celebrating an important anniversary—that of the Act of Union. The Union makes us stronger and it must not be broken. The Leader of the House has previously said that he would welcome a debate on the Union, so when will that debate take place?

Today’s council elections have been marred yet again by concerns about postal voting fraud, with reports that 5 per cent. of postal votes have been discarded. That could leave thousands disfranchised. What is more, internet experts have described security for online voting pilots as “catastrophically weak”. Can we have a debate on electoral fraud?

The Constitutional Affairs Committee says that the Government’s reforms to the legal aid system risk “irreversible damage” to access to justice. The Committee calls the reforms “untested and unpiloted”. May we have a debate on legal aid?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister again refused an independent inquiry into the 7 July terror attacks, but the promised Intelligence and Security Committee report has its limitations. That Committee has no investigative powers and did not even receive evidence from the West Yorkshire special branch. Can we have a debate on the need for an independent inquiry?

The ministerial code says:

In his recent Chatham House article, the Leader of the House argued that we need a “national story of identity” to achieve an integrated society. When did the Leader of the House consult the Home Secretary, or are these matters now the responsibility of the Leader of the House?

The right hon. Gentleman has been very keen to talk about his old jobs—and we have not even got to his next one—but before he moves into No. 11, he should concentrate on the job that he has now. After the historic votes in this House to reform the other place, he said that he would reconvene cross-party talks. When will those talks begin?

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As the Prime Minister boasts about his legacy, one thing he has not discussed is the damaged relationship between Government and Parliament. The Prime Minister is rarely here, parliamentary scrutiny is contemptuously ignored and statements come second to media spin. Does the Leader of the House agree that the next Prime Minister must ensure that his Ministers show greater respect to Parliament and must restore the proper balance between Government and Parliament?

Mr. Straw: First, on the issue of unanswered questions at the Home Office, I made it clear in the evidence I gave to the Procedure Committee that I wish to see very prompt answering of all parliamentary questions, and that I do not wish to see any limit on the numbers of ordinary written questions that Members can table. However, I disagree with the right hon. Lady when she says that there would be no need for further questions if proper answers were given. It is certainly the case—I am on the record as saying this in the evidence I gave—that the quicker Ministers answer the questions and the fuller their responses, the less likelihood there is of further questions being tabled. I know that the right hon. Lady takes these matters seriously, however, and she must also be aware of the fact that there has been some industrial-level tabling, typically generated by researchers, which is quite separate from what we have been discussing. One way or another, it is a matter for the whole House, and its reputation, to deal with this issue without damaging the fundamental right of Members, particularly Opposition Members, to table questions in order to pin Ministers down and hold them to account.

I agree with the right hon. Lady about the importance of the Union. There has been a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall, and I want to see a debate on the Union. I am in the middle of reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I note that, in arguing that the small states would be protected by the constitution of the United States, he referred to the then quite fresh experience of the Scots. He said that, when the Union was joined in 1707, many Scots were worried that, like Jonah, they would be swallowed by the whale. However, Franklin went on to observe that, only 70 years later, it appeared that it was Jonah who had swallowed the whale, rather than the other way round. The Union has certainly been a very good deal for Scotland, as well as for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We have had a lot of debates about postal voting. We have introduced the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and the postal voting system has been tightened, as everyone who has made use of it will know. If there is a slightly higher rejection rate, that illustrates that the system is working properly. Speaking as someone who has exercised his right to a postal vote on this occasion, I believe that the system is now much better, as well as being easier to follow. The pilots are just that: they are pilots.

I am told that we are spending much more on legal aid this year than we were in 1997. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised the issue of the inquest into the Berkshire train crash and the relatives of the dead. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor this morning, and he is making every effort to ensure that those relatives’ inquest costs
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are to be met. There is a separate issue as to whether there should be an appeal by the Department for Constitutional Affairs on a point of law, but my right hon. Friend has assured me that that will not affect the payment of the costs.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of an inquiry into the Operation Crevice trial and the 7 July bombings. She said that the Intelligence and Security Committee had no investigative powers. I think that what she meant to say was that the ISC had decided of its own volition to do without the services of an investigator. It had an investigator from 1999 to 2004, but decided for its own reasons not to recruit a further individual to the post thereafter. Having had to appear before the ISC over a nine-year period, both as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, I can assure her that the Committee has substantial investigative powers. In any event, its forensic scrutiny of the intelligence and security services and of Ministers is very detailed. In my view, it has got better and better over the years, working from a high start. She needs to bear in mind that this was a system that her party established by law in 1994, along with the intelligence commissioner and the surveillance commissioner. Those three institutions taken together—the ISC and the two commissioners—operate to provide better scrutiny of the work of the intelligence and security agencies, especially in such acute times as these, than takes place in many other countries that I can think of.

I gave my Chatham House lecture in January, and I am glad that it has reached a wider audience. There has been ample time for anyone who wishes to comment on it to do so, but it was entirely consistent with what the whole Government have been saying about their increased emphasis on the need for a concept of citizenship, and for citizenship education.

On the right hon. Lady’s seventh point, on cross-party talks, I was agreeing a note, which she was not to know, to her and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) overnight—in between celebrating 10 years in a glorious Administration—

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Awake.

Mr. Straw: I was awake the whole time. We will not go into the rest of it.

The matter that the right hon. Lady raised is in hand, and she will get a note about it. On her last point about the relationship between the Government and the Commons, I hear what she says, but if she examines the record objectively, she will see that scrutiny of Government by the Commons is now stronger than it was in 1997. I could go through a long list of changes in procedure and improvements in the power of the House—including many more Select Committee inquiries, the Public Bill system that we have established and much else besides—which have strengthened its role. The number of parliamentary questions asked of the Government has also nearly doubled.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): May we have a debate on post office reorganisations in Coventry? As my right hon. Friend knows, there is great fear among people in Coventry that the relocation of the Hertford street Crown post office to WH Smith will lead to a deterioration in the service.
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The relocation of the main sorting office to Northampton will also lead to a deterioration in the service and possible redundancies.

Mr. Straw: I will think carefully about the request of my hon. Friend. As he knows, the deputy Chief Whip is also a Coventry Member of Parliament. We will see what we can do.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for what he said about the Ufton Nervet rail crash inquests. As an aside, may I say that Benjamin Franklin was an exceptionally long-sighted individual, as befits the inventor of the bifocal lens? We opticians care about such things.

I fear that we need a debate on the European constitution. The Leader of the House may be aware that the Foreign Secretary responded to a question in Foreign Office questions on Tuesday to say that she had received and filled in a questionnaire from the presidency of the European Union on the British Government’s position on any future constitution or amending treaty. That means that the Chancellor of Germany, the new President of France, the Prime Ministers of Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta—and all the rest—will know what the British position is, but not the British public. Is it not time that the British public were let in on the secret as to the Government’s position?

We are used to almost weekly statements from the Secretary of State for Health on IT failures in the health service, but can we have a statement on the latest IT fiasco: the system for registrars of births, deaths and marriages, introduced at a cost of £6 million on 26 March and now withdrawn because it does not work? How many IT debacles must we have before the Government get their procurement right?

We shall soon have the new Ministry of Justice, but the allocation of responsibility is still not clear. Can we have a debate in the House on the structures and functions of the new Department? Given that the Secretary of State will be accountable not only for the electoral system—I share the view that we need to debate some of the recent operational failures in the electoral system as well as electoral fraud—but for the prison system, does the Lord Privy Seal think that the Lord Chancellor should be an elected Member and answerable to the House?

Lastly, in the context of the debate on the UK Borders Bill next week, will the Leader of the House find time to debate again the consequences for both national security and the security of our excise had the Conservatives won the vote on their amendment to the Finance Bill on Tuesday evening? That amendment would have taken away the power of arrest from 4,500 customs officers at our ports of entry, on the grounds, as the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) put it, that there are usually police officers available. Does not the Leader of the House feel that that would have had serious consequences, and should be revisited?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Benjamin Franklin and bifocal lenses. Bifocal lenses are valuable not only to opticians but, particularly, to those who—like myself—use them. What a great man he was.
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He also famously invented the lightning conductor, and all of us in politics should be extremely grateful for that.

I have seen many statements by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe setting out our position on the new European constitution. I will send them to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes.

I understand that although the registration system has not operated well in some areas, it has proved perfectly satisfactory in a number of others. It is a matter of fact that—in the private as well as the public sector, sadly—IT systems sometimes take a little time to bed down, but once they do bed down they often produce major benefits.

I am considering whether there should be an oral statement about the Minister of Justice. As for the position of the Lord Chancellor, the hon. Gentleman will know that an Act passed three years ago—I think—provides for the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and the Lord Chancellor, as the same person, to sit in this House. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—and the Home Secretary, in a statement at the end of March about the further split in the Home Office—made it clear that allowing any new appointee to the position to sit in the House of Commons was under consideration.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the UK Borders Bill. My evangelical role as Leader of the House and former Home Secretary is obviously working in his case. As we know, the Liberal Democrats are famously soft on crime: they wish to let large numbers of criminals out of prison and give the vote to those who stay, and to do much else of that nature. But here is the hon. Gentleman criticising the Conservatives for being soft on crime, and he is right to do so. The police cannot be everywhere, and removing powers of arrest from the border guards strikes me as ridiculous.

I note that “David Heath MP’s Crime Survey 2007”, a copy of which I have before me for the purpose of greater accuracy, contains questions on prisons and sentencing. The question “Do you think that prisoners should have a right to vote” is completely absent, but the questionnaire does say:

It gives people the opportunity to say no, but I think the sense of the question is fairly clear.

Then—deliciously for those who have had to suffer the slings and arrows of criticism from the Liberal Democrats for 10 years about the introduction of CCTV, which they say is leading to a surveillance state, and other such nonsense—it asks:

It offers “Better street lighting ”, “More Community Wardens” and “CCTV coverage”, but gives respondents no opportunity to say that they would like the numbers to be reduced.

This is my last comment on the issue. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister brilliantly drew to the attention of a wider audience the Liberal Democrats’
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commentary on our first 10 years in office, in which they commended our brilliant record. I have a copy of the printed text, which I think should be placed on the Table so that all can read it. It includes some lovely lines, which I know will be noted by voters. It refers to the “fruits” of investment by Labour in Britain’s previously “dilapidated public services”, and to

In other words, vote Labour!

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend think that the time has come to revisit the question of whether the Intelligence and Security Committee should become a Committee of Parliament rather than one appointed by and reporting to the Prime Minister? He will recall that we debated the issue when he was Home Secretary and I was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and he did not entirely rule out the possibility that that might happen at some time in the future.

I should add that I make no criticism of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I merely suggest that making it a Committee of Parliament might increase its credibility when it deals with controversial issues such as the one with which it dealt recently.

Mr. Straw: The Government have never ruled that out as a possibility from the day on which my hon. Friend started asking me questions about it, which I think was around 4 May 1997.

I am glad that my hon. Friend says that he makes no criticism of the ISC, because under successive chairpersons, certainly those whom I have observed—Lord King, Lady Taylor and now my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy)—it has been extremely effective. I have always said that making it a Committee of Parliament would not make much difference in practice, because it would have to meet in secret in order to do its proper scrutiny job, and there would have to be a way of redacting its unexpurgated reports before they were made public. I accept that there are arguments about the optics, as it were—about how the Committee is seen—and I think that those need to be borne in mind.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Now that the Prime Minister has announced his imminent retirement, does the Leader of the House agree that the House should pay a fitting tribute to him? May we have a full debate in Government time to try to divine what the Prime Minister’s legacy might be? Perhaps the Prime Minister could be asked to come and give a valedictory performance, and participate fully in the debate. Indeed, the Leader of the House himself might wish to participate as well.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman obviously has great affection for the Prime Minister, which is well deserved. Our brilliant investment in his area—which I happen to know quite well—in schools, hospitals, transport and so on goes before us; and the fact that whereas we ranked seventh out of the seven major industrialised countries 10 years ago, we now rank second only to the United States tells its own story.

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