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The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): May I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity that you have given the House to pay tribute after business questions to the memory of Lord Weatherill?
Last week, as Ministers celebrated the anniversary of their Government and the Prime Minister boasted about his record, the people gave themin the words of the Secretary of State for Walesa bad kicking. The Labour party lost 500 council seats. The Liberal Democrats lost 250 seats. The Conservatives gained 900.
Last weeks elections also gave us yet another of the Chancellors Macavity moments, although beforehand he had said that the people would be voting on all the Government. Does the Leader of the House agree, and as he is the Chancellors campaign manager, will he make a statement on his behalf?
When everybodys attention was on last weeks election results, the Government were up to their old tricks and quietly buried 12 bad news stories. They were not about minor and petty issues. We learned that the Chancellor spent £5 million on legal fees to recover
tax credit overpayments from vulnerable, hard-up families. The NHS spent nearly £500 million on clinical negligence claims last year, and the Chancellors friends at Opinion Leader Research won a £150,000 contract to organise a one-day seminar. Can we have a debate on honesty in government?
I was going to ask the Leader of the House to confirm that no bad news would be deliberately buried today but I understand that it is too late, because the Government have already started by burying the identity cards report. Perhaps he will tell us what other bad news is being announced today.
As I said, the Chancellor spent £5 million trying to recover overpaid tax credits, but according to the Public Accounts Committee £557 million in tax credits has already been written off and a further £1.4 billion is likely to be lost. The Committee says that that was caused by
the highest rates of error and fraud in central government,
the design of the internet system for tax credits was deficient from the outset.
I have previously asked for a debate on the creation of the Ministry of Justicea decision that two former Home Secretaries called batty and balkanisation. When the Leader of the House was Home Secretary, he did not think that it was too much for one person, so may we have that debate? The Lord Chancellorthe new Secretary of State for Justicewants to reduce the number of custodial sentences to deal with prison overcrowding. Given that the Leader of the House might be Home Secretary again soon, can he make a statement confirming that sentencing policy must be based on the severity of the crime, and nothing else?
As Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the reform of party funding. While he is still in the job, will he confirm that, as proposed by Sir Hayden Phillips, the Government will not legislate on party funding without cross-party agreement?
There is another post that will be vacant when the Chancellor becomes Prime Minister. The Health Secretary has refused to resignbut I am sure that she will be sacked soon enough. One in six hospital trusts treats patients in mixed-sex
Mrs. May: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was going to ask for a debate next week on boom and bust in the national health service, given the figures released today showing that one in six hospital trusts has mixed-sex wards. Moreover, cancer survival rates in this country are the worst in Europe, and there are 10,000 fewer nurses and health visitors than last year. A debate on boom and bust in the health service would give us an opportunity to set out the Governments failure in all those respects.
All these issues show that, whatever the Chancellor spins about providing a new start, he has been the No.2 in this Government for 10 years. Spin, crises in
sentencing policy, boom and bust in the NHSit is not just the Prime Ministers record, but the Chancellors, too.
As the right hon. Lady knows, I spent 18 years in opposition and I am looking forward to her spending [Interruption.] I therefore have avuncular, comradely advice for the Opposition. They should not believe their own propaganda when it comes to local election results. We had a difficult day last Thursday and Fridaythat is obviousand the Conservative party had a slightly better day. In my Blackburn constituency, however, the popular vote was up and we gained a seat. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) can speak for himself about what happened in his constituency. If I were a hard-headed Conservative business manager looking at the next election, I would not regard the recent results as anything like the breakthrough that the Conservatives needed. They certainly did not parallel the situation that we achieved in 1995or, indeed, in 1990, when, sadly, we went on to lose the following election.
On the right hon. Ladys question about the expenditure of £500 million on clinical negligence claims, all of us regret the fact that such large sums are paid out in respect of clinical negligence, but I would be interested to know whether she will make proposals to cut that sum in her manifesto at the next election. Sums paid out for clinical negligence have been rising because of an increase in patients rights and a greater readiness by courts to award high amounts of damages. If she is saying that in future patients will not have those rights or that the sums paid out [ Interruption. ] The right hon. Lady is wittering on about honesty in Government, but I do not understand what point she is trying to make.
On the ID cards report, I was asked about it two weeks ago as it was slightly overdue. As ever, I took the issue up and we announced it today on the Order Paper. The right hon. Lady witters on about this, but one of the many differences between this Government and the Government whom she supported is that we have greatly increased the accountability of Ministers in large ways and small. One of the things that I had introduced was proper notice for written ministerial statements. One used to have to find planted parliamentary questions buried in the Order Paper, which were sometimes not there at all
I note the right hon. Ladys request for a debate on the Ministry of Justice, including sentencing policy, and I will follow that up. In respect of party funding, she should read what the hon. Member for Somerton
and Frome and I said about any legislation. I hope that we are able to reach all-party agreement in the talks that are due to start next Tuesday, but before she starts looking at the mote in our eye, she should examine the beam in the Conservatives eye. They never sought all-party agreement on party funding. The only legislation that they sought to introduce on party funding was against the Labour partys funding and also protected their funding. The legislation that I introduced in 2000 was done on an all-party basis. I want all-party agreement, but that depends on all parties to the talks being ready to be fair in respect of their opponent parties. I look forward to that happening in respect of the Conservative partyfor the first time in its history, going back to the Osborne judgment in 1909.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): As far as business for Friday 18 May is concerned, is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us are deeply disappointed that party managers are actively encouraging Members to come in to support the private Members Bill that would exempt Parliament from the freedom of information legislation? Having legislated for everyone else and rightly sowe should be proud that as a Labour Government we did thatwhy should we exempt ourselves? Why are the party managers so determined that we should do so? If the Bill is carriedand it probably will be because of the active canvassingParliament will be accused of hypocrisy, and rightly so.
Mr. Straw: How Parliament is treated remains to be considered and the Bill will be decided on a free vote by Members. It is important that the House has an opportunity to make the decision. As someone who introduced the original freedom of information legislation in 1999, I can tell my hon. Friend that the original intentionwhich had all-party agreementwas that Parliament should be exempted from it, as is the case in respect of many other Parliaments, because parliamentarians can use other means to extract information.
I leave aside the issue of Members expenses and Mr. Speaker has already made clear his intention that the publication scheme will continue regardless of any exemption. That must be right. Indeed, the publication scheme may need to be strengthened. It is right, in this respect as in every other, to review the progress of legislation. It was never an anticipation of this or the other place that a consequence of the freedom of information legislation would be that confidential Members correspondence on behalf of constituents would be at risk of publication. That was never, ever the intention. Publication of such matters would drive a coach and horses through the relationship that we have with constituents. It is all very well for some people to say that there are some exemptions, but the truth is that the way that some journalists and the Information Commissioner are acting means that that intention is not being met in practice by the Information Committee.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
Last Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Scotland made a statement about the failure of electoral arrangements in Scotland. May we have a similar statement about
electoral arrangements in England? It should deal with the isolated but quite serious instances of alleged fraudto which the only response from all parties must be zero toleranceand the mismanagement in many areas that resulted in postal and proxy votes not being sent in time, and in polling cards sometimes being sent in multiple numbers or not at all. Such a statement will be needed sooner rather than later, given that we will surely have a general election following the forthcoming change in the Administration.
The Finance Bill is in Committee at the moment. Will the Leader of the House look into why that Bill, uniquely among public Bills, is not open to evidence sessions? Surely it is most important that those who are affected by the Finance Bill should be able to give evidence so as to facilitate an informed debate, but it is the one Bill for which we cannot have evidence sessions.
May we have a debate on legal aid? The Government are precipitating a crisis of their own making in what is one of the key fundamentals of the welfare state. That crisis was precipitated by the report from Lord Carterwho, for heavens sake, has now been asked to review our prison arrangements. It is essential that we get an opportunity to have a debate on the matter and, I hope, to forestall a very serious result arising from the changes to legal aid.
I was surprised that the Leader of the House was not able today to give us a date for a statement on the future of post offices. That is a matter that affects the constituencies of all hon. Members, and I had hoped that we might have a clear date for the Governments response.
Lastly, today we have finally learned the date of departure of the man who has characterised and epitomised the Labour Government for a decade. Therefore, can we have a debate on what exactly is the role of the Deputy Prime Minister, and why he costs so much?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked first for a statement on electoral fraud. All parties take very seriously any allegations of electoral fraud or mismanagement, and I shall certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and invite him to consider making either a written or an oral statement. It is important that we learn the lessons in respect of fraud, which is isolated but which needs to be investigated, and any failures in the administration of postal voting.
The hon. Gentlemans question about the Finance Bill is a rather late entry. We introduced changes to the public Bill procedure to provide evidence sessions for Bills that are programmed. I do not think that there is any objection in principle to having evidence sessions for the Finance Bill, but they would have to be programmed and I am not sure that the House would find that acceptable. Moreover, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the parliamentary proceedings on the Finance Bill, he will see that they are more extensive than those on almost any other Bill. The four days of debate on the Budget deal mainly with the legislative proposals that it contains. They are followed by one day for Second Reading of the Finance Bill and two days for Committee stage on the Floor of the House, after which the Bill goes upstairs. Whatever else one might say about proceedings on the Finance Bill, one cannot
argue that it is not examined fully. It is examined very extensively, and although a few years have passed since I sat on Finance Bill Committees, my experience is that hon. Members of all parties are very well briefed and that some forensic examination is carried out.
The hon. Gentleman asked about legal aid, which was the subject of a debate in Westminster Hall in January. I am aware that there are some concerns about the future of legal aid, but the hon. Gentleman will know that its budget has been vastly increased in recent years, with no commensurate increase in court proceedings. The Government must take account of the fact that money is limitedI know that Liberal Democrats do not have to bother about such mattersand make choices accordingly.
Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Given the continuing, unfolding tragedy in Darfur, where latest estimates are that more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2 million people have been displaced, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Floor of the House about that tragedy?
Mr. Straw: The answer is yes. I think the whole House shares my hon. Friends profound concern about the deteriorating situation in Darfur. Although the business is still provisional, we plan to hold that debate in the week beginning 4 Junethe week we come back after the Whitsun recess.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that I represent a large number of constituents who are members of the Albert Fisher pension scheme and have obviously suffered a huge amount of grief over the past five years. Those people have been seeking the advice of the pensions expert, Ros Altmann, so will the right hon. Gentleman clear up some confusion? Did she advise No. 10 and the Government on their pension policy over the past five years?
Mr. Straw: My deputy tells me that she was never a formal adviser. All of us have constituents who have suffered from the collapse of private pension schemes, but I have personally looked closely at the evidence behind their collapse and there is much independent evidenceI am happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with detailsthat suggests that the impact of the abolition of advance corporation tax on the later collapse of the schemes was remarkably small. Their collapse was principally to do with other reasons.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1303 on the effect of legal aid reform on black and minority ethnic solicitors?
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