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3 May 2007 : Column 1653

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave a fantastic performance yesterday, and there will be many, many more opportunities for him to do so before any resignation takes effect.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): Further to the Leader of the House’s earlier comments about the need for a debate on the European Union constitution, is he aware that the Minister for Europe is currently refusing to appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee to consider the subject? As he will know, given his own remarks about the importance of scrutiny, it is important not only for us to have a debate, but for the Foreign Affairs Committee to be allowed to do its proper job. May I therefore ask the Leader of the House to have a word with his right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, and in particular to ask him for a positive response to the letter that is at this moment winging its way from his hon. Friend the Chairman of that Committee, with the Committee’s full support?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe takes the House extremely seriously. I know nothing of the detail of what the hon. Gentleman has asked, but I am as certain as I can be that the story will prove slightly more complicated.

I should add—having debated the previous constitution endlessly, and having played no small part in ensuring that we were committed to a referendum on it—that the hon. Gentleman should calm down and not worry about this matter. Anything that is agreed in Brussels, even in draft, will have to be put before the House and scrutinised in every detail.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): May we have a debate next week about Ministers’ use of the English language? For weeks now, on occasions too numerous to particularise, I have been asking the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government a very straightforward named-day question: whether she can tell me how many accredited domestic energy assessors and home inspectors there are in each local authority area, region and city in England and Wales. Week after week, I receive the following answer from the Minister for Housing and Planning, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper):

I received that reply again today.

The scheme in question is due to be introduced on 1 June. Either Ministers know the answers to my question and are too embarrassed to give them because they would show that in many areas there are no energy inspectors, or they do not know the answers, which would presage chaos on 1 June. Would it not be more sensible to postpone the introduction of the scheme until October or thereabouts, when Ministers could be confident of being able to introduce the scheme without its being a shambles?

Mr. Straw: I think that rather than debating the English language, we need to secure a proper answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, and I will do my best to do so.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): One of the portfolios that I believe that the Leader of the
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House has not held is that of Environment Secretary. Does he agree that waste disposal is one of the most politically charged topics in the current local election campaigns, and will he therefore arrange for there to be a debate as early as possible and in Government time on waste disposal, allowing for a review of the landfill directive? Does he accept that the Government signed up to the landfill directive before we had alternative sites to landfill at which to dispose of our weekly waste collection? Also, why do the Government insist on blaming local councils for dispensing with a weekly collection and having fortnightly collections instead, as that is the result of the Government’s implementation of the EU landfill directive?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady has extensive experience of the European Union and the European Parliament, and she knows that directives such as the landfill directive cannot be agreed unless there has been the most widespread and lengthy debate, and widespread consensus as well. I cannot promise her a debate, although this is an important issue and I will certainly think about having a debate on it. Let me also say that the introduction of alternate weekly collections has, on the whole, worked satisfactorily. Recently, there has been a late introduction of a request for a debate on that, but such collections have been pursued by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour councils, and by those subject to no overall control, and in many parts of the country—not big cities, where there are particular problems—they have worked satisfactorily. I certainly believe that any policies that achieve what this package of policies has so far achieved—which is ensure that people recycle much better and that far less waste goes into landfill—are good policies.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): In supporting the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for a debate in Government time to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland, which contributed in a major way to our country ruling the largest and best managed empire that the world has ever known, I also support the Leader of the House in that there is an abuse by a limited number of Members of the written question—I support the concern that has been expressed at the highest level on that matter. However, my question is one that I have asked many times of the Leader of the House. He has promised a debate in Government time this side of the summer recess on Zimbabwe. That country is suffering because the rest of the world is ignoring it. Is it not time that we came to the help of the hard-pressed and long-suffering people of Zimbabwe?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the abuse of written questions. On the Act of Union, I can think of many benefits that the Union has brought to England and Scotland and, perhaps, indirectly to the world; however, it might not be appropriate to major on the imperial consequences in quite the way that the hon. Gentleman does—although that is a matter for choice. If he will excuse me for saying so, such a slightly bombastic approach might explain why the Conservatives lose so many votes in Scotland.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Scotch should be proud of the empire.

Mr. Straw: I do not think that they like being called “Scotch” either—that word refers to eggs, does it not?

On Zimbabwe, I have promised the hon. Gentleman a debate, and I continue to do so. I talked yesterday to the relevant Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), about pinning down a date on which he is sure to be able to be present.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Leader of the House clarify what he said earlier about home information packs? Is there to be a statement and/or a full debate on this important subject? There is huge concern in my constituency about the security and cost implications of these packs, and especially about the media reports that inspectors will not be subject to full Criminal Records Bureau checks. Will such a debate or statement reconsider the timetable and regulations before they blight the housing market and the peace of mind of many home owners?

Mr. Straw: We thought that it would be for the convenience of the House to ensure that the order that results in HIPs being brought into force—or not—should be the subject of a debate and a vote on the Floor of the House, and that is what we will do.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I hope—and, indeed, believe—that the Leader of the House shares my pride in the long democratic traditions and leadership of this country, which got rid of serious electoral malpractice in the 19th century. Therefore, will he revisit the rather unsatisfactory response that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? This week, the “Today” programme led on electoral fraud in postal voting. There was also an interesting “Insight” review in The Sunday Times of Labour electoral malpractice in Leeds. That is an issue of fundamental importance that affects this Chamber and our democracy. Our voting methods and the integrity of our voting system have been undermined under this Government. It is time that the Government put that right. May we have a debate as soon as possible on the integrity of the voting system?

Mr. Straw: I reject the burden of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We have sought, where possible on an all-party basis, to do two things: to ensure that there are greater opportunities for those who wish to vote to vote; and to tighten the system to ensure that there is less fraud than ever before. That was the purpose of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. It has ensured that there is a more efficient and effective system of scrutiny in respect of postal voting. We keep all such systems under review. That should be done on an all-party basis. I do not advise the hon. Gentleman to start a competition about whether any one party has a monopoly in respect of the bad people—a very limited minority of people—who seek to engage in
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electoral fraud. Sadly, there will be such a temptation for some bad people in all parties. It is our duty collectively to ensure that the systems are as tight and effective as possible.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Home Office regularly publishes a report on reoffending of adults. The latest one, which it sneaked out, contained some startling information, such as that violent offenders were less likely to get a custodial sentence than non-violent offenders and that 82 per cent. of those who are on drug-testing and treatment orders reoffend. It also showed that the longer people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. Given the importance of these issues to our constituents, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House on how those reports are shaping Government policy?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware of the fact that—when we have a debate, we will bring this to a wider audience—our record of cutting crime by 35 per cent. in the last 10 years compares brilliantly with the record of the previous Administration under which crime doubled, and, moreover, of the fact that while we have been introducing tougher sentences and more effective measures against criminals he has been consistently voting against them. His party voted against tougher sentences for murder and for sexual and violent offenders and persistent offenders, and against a new five-year minimum custodial sentence for unauthorised possession of a firearm and allowing new trials for murder if new evidence comes to light. Therefore, the Opposition need to sort themselves out before lecturing us about crime.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time on Crown post offices? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Post Office recently announced that it was going to close the Crown post office in King’s Lynn? It occupies a proud and historic building at the heart of a thriving community, and it will be moved to a completely inadequate counter in WH Smith. Will the right hon. Gentleman support our local newspaper, the Lynn News, which is giving excellent coverage to the campaign, and the local campaigner, Maxine Tweed, who has launched a petition, and will he help me to support this campaign to make the Post Office see sense?

Mr. Straw: As it happens, I am aware of that post office in King’s Lynn, because when I visited King’s Lynn while campaigning some years ago I was given a print of the post office building. I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is asking why I was given a print of the post office building. That is a good question, to which there is no obvious answer.

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Policing in London

12.9 pm

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

The Government have elected to debate the policing of London this afternoon, in what I hope will be a constructive attempt to understand where we stand in terms of that important subject. Members will know that until 2000, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who has just left the Chamber, was the police authority for London. On the first and only occasion that I criticised a Minister, I demanded that he abolish himself—at least so far as his role as the police authority for London was concerned. Happily, that has happened. He has not disappeared, which I am equally happy about—he is doing an excellent job as the Leader of the House—but it is right and proper that there are now in place other structures for scrutinising policing in London, instead of, as there had long been, a single individual who was a member of the Government.

As part of the process of the Home Secretary’s being the police authority for London, we used to have annual debates on policing in London. Since the inception of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Greater London authority and the various other elements of that family, there have been no such debates. I thought it right and proper, and the Government agreed, that this House have at least the intermittent opportunity to discuss policing in London, and I am very pleased that we are doing so today.

I am sure that all Members will join me in congratulating at the outset the staff and officers of those agencies on whom the policing of London depends, and with whom Londoners come into daily contact—the Metropolitan Police Service, the City of London police and the British Transport police—on all that they do in defending the rights and public safety of people in London. It is their professionalism, dedication, watchfulness and response that secure for us the ordered society in the capital on which our individual and collective freedoms, prosperity and well-being depend. Beyond them, I pay tribute particularly to the leadership of Sir Ian Blair and James Hart—commissioners respectively of Police of the Metropolis and of the City of London—and to Ian Johnston, chief constable of the British Transport police. I also pay tribute to Len Duvall of the Metropolitan Police Authority, to Sir Alistair Graham of the British Transport police authority, and to the City corporation for its scrutiny and oversight.

As I said, we used regularly to have such debates. It is right and proper not necessarily to reinstate an annual debate—perhaps we can debate that issue, as well—but every now and then to provide scope for London Members in particular to have an extensive and wide-ranging debate, as I hope today’s will be, on policing in London.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): May I endorse what the Minister said? It is important that we have regular such debates in the Chamber on our capital city, which is also a major region of this country. We welcome this one, but we
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would like an annual one on more general London matters, as we used to have. Although policing is very important, we would also like a general debate on the health service, education and other such matters. I was unable to make that point during business questions, so perhaps the Minister could make it to his colleagues.

Mr. McNulty: Once I have sat down, I shall have extensive discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick)—if he is still here—who is the Minister with responsibility for London, to see whether a broader, state of London debate, rather than just a policing debate, should become an annual feature. As a London MP, I would certainly welcome that, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point. As I said, debates on policing in London were held and were right and proper, because one individual was the police authority. My hon. Friend and I between us will ensure that this issue is raised with the usual channels.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): My hon. Friend will of course be aware that since we came to power—we celebrated this week the 10th anniversary of this Labour Government—we have devolved power. For the first time, we have a Mayor of London and a Greater London authority. Given my hon. Friend’s close involvement with the GLA and the Mayor, he will of course know that they regularly debate policing, health and other such matters, and that they scrutinise the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The Mayor also has an annual state of London debate and regularly opens up the GLA to scrutiny. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the Mayor and the GLA on the role that they play in scrutinising and discussing issues of huge concern to Londoners?

Mr. McNulty: I certainly take this opportunity so to do—in fact, I was going to do that in the next paragraph of my speech. Giving London Members the chance to have a wide-ranging debate on all issues affecting London would complement, rather than detract from, the work of the GLA, the Mayor and the MPA.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): Perhaps I might build on this point. Although we are very grateful for this debate on policing, could the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and the Minister with responsibility for London discuss our ability to table questions on London? It is quite difficult to get the Table Office to agree to accept such questions, because the issues are devolved. However, unlike in Scotland and Wales, they are not devolved legislatively.

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Lady makes a fair point, although in saying that I in no way traduce the work of the Table Office. As she knows, as a Minister I have not had many dealings with the Table Office of late. I do not doubt that I will do so again in the fullness of time, so I need to maintain arrangements and a relationship with the Table Office.

In 1998, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I shared the great pleasure of serving for about four months on the Greater London Authority Bill Standing Committee. I
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said on Second or Third Reading that whatever we passed then would not, 10 years on, constitute the form and shape of the GLA, the MPA and the various other elements because by its nature, such legislation should be organic. I also said that, if there were to be—as I felt there should—a developing scrutiny role for the GLA, including of the police, that should not obviate or impede London Members’ ability also to perform that scrutiny function, not least because, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, such matters have not been devolved legislatively. The combining of the two functions is to the greater glory of London and they are entirely complementary; they do not detract from each other. There is no turf competition between the MPA, the Mayor and the GLA, but this House also has a role to play.

Members do manage to table questions on London to the Home Office, not least regarding policing. Sometimes, I have to respond by saying, rightly, “Actually, you want to talk to Sir Ian Blair about that, not me.” I do not think that I have ever had to say that the MPA, the GLA or some other part of the family deals with that issue, rather than the centre, and I always try to answer such questions as fully as I can. However, I take the broader point that the hon. Member for Beckenham makes. In my view, the Mayor, the MPA and the GLA need to have a greater role in scrutinising what the Government do, but that does not obviate the role and duty of London Members of this House collectively to do the same.

Like my hon. Friends, I welcome not only the advent of the Mayor, the GLA and the MPA, but the work of the latter. As the difficulties arising from the recent debate on the local government Bill have shown, some people do not understand that the MPA is unique. Naturally, it is constantly compared to other police authorities, and some people constantly suggest either that the Mayor should chair it and forge that link all the more, that it should consist just of GLA members, or that it should be abolished and subsumed into the GLA’s functions. I do not agree. Although the majority of MPA members are also GLA members, and although the latter does a very important job in scrutinising the former, the MPA, thanks to its current wider and more representative composition, does a better job than it would if it consisted of just GLA members. For example, many MPA representatives of the black and minority ethnic community and of a range of other interests are not GLA members. The current blend of the two bodies works well, and it can develop and draw on expertise that goes beyond even the great skills base of GLA members.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I share the Minister’s view that the MPA’s consisting of more than just elected GLA members is a good thing, and that other expertise is valuable. I have always felt that logically, once the Government set up, as they rightly did, a Greater London authority, the Mayor—whomever it may be for the time being—should automatically chair it. Most of the public think that one of the Mayor’s key jobs is to ensure that London police do their job well. Security is clearly at the top of the agenda of many people in the capital city.

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