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[That this House notes the speech by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs Vera Baird QC to the Black Solicitors Network in June 2006; further notes that she told her audience that black and
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minority ethnic solicitors should regard her as an ally in the fight ‘to make the legal profession one that represents Britain in the 21st century’; further notes that black and minority ethnic solicitors are more likely to undertake legal aid work than the profession as a whole and that they are more likely to be small firms; further notes that one of the intended consequences of the Government's legal aid reform is to cut the number of small firms and encourage consolidation and that the Black Solicitors Network now estimates that up to two thirds of black and minority ethnic law firms will have to close as a result of the Government's legal aid reforms; believes that such an outcome would be bad for the cause of encouraging black entrepreneurship and for the cause of encouraging diversity in the legal profession and above all bad for clients; and urges the Government to look at this issue as a matter of urgency.]

The whole House applauds the Government’s wish to get value for money in legal aid spending, but it is becoming increasingly clear that among other flaws the legal aid reform will decimate black and minority ethnic solicitors who are more likely to be in new or small firms, or more likely to be dependent on legal aid work. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the Floor of the House on the excellent report of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs on legal aid reform, which particularly emphasises its worrying effects on black and Asian solicitors?

Mr. Straw: I know that my hon. Friend held a short debate on that yesterday in Westminster Hall. I understand the concern she shares and, going back to my time as Home Secretary and my establishment of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, I know how important it was to getting the inquiry established that there were minority ethnic firms of solicitors who could represent the family during their campaign in the mid-1990s for me—as it happened—to set up the inquiry in 1997. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and I am glad that she, in turn, recognises the pressures on the legal aid budget. I shall certainly consider a longer debate, either in Westminster Hall or on the Floor of the House, and in addition I will ensure that her concerns are made known to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Is the Leader of the House aware that each year hundreds of people are needlessly killed and scores more injured all because we go through the ridiculous ritual of putting our clocks back every autumn? May we, therefore, have a debate on the benefits of extending British summer time throughout the year? [Hon. Members: “Definitely not.”] If the Leader of the House cannot give us that debate next week, will he at least tell the House today why the Government appear to be wedded to the current obsolete and unsatisfactory practice?

Mr. Straw: All I say to the right hon. Gentleman is that if he were to observe the views of his colleagues he would say that it is not a Government issue, but one on which there is much to be said on both sides. All of us greatly regret road and other deaths, but to attribute them to the change from summer time to Greenwich mean time is questionable, but I wish the right hon. Gentleman luck in obtaining a debate on the matter.

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Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I think that the Leader of the House is aware of the proposals of Post Office Ltd to close 70 of its Crown post offices in our town and city centres and also of the proposal to replace them with outposts in nearby branches of WH Smith, and in the case of Leicester in the basement of a nearby branch of WH Smith—much smaller premises. As Post Office Ltd is not allowing debate on the principle of those moves, may we have a debate here about that serious change in the provision of vital public services so that the considerable public concern that has been expressed can be reflected in the Chamber?

Mr. Straw: I shall certainly consider that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make a statement on the issue in due course. In my case, the Crown post office building in Blackburn is not an object of beauty—unlike that in King’s Lynn—so I have never been given a print of it. The Crown post office was moved to one run by a private contractor. I am afraid that the public meeting I attended attracted only 50 people, so the move came into force without incident. Although it is hard, the fact of the matter is that the Post Office is having to adjust to major external changes in people’s habits; above all, the internet facilities that have greatly reduced post office business. There is a lot of external competition as well.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Following the Scottish Parliament election results and the victory of the Scottish National party, may we have a debate in Government time so that we can learn how they will work constructively with the incoming SNP Administration? Will the Leader of the House clarify the Government’s position, bearing in mind the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement that he will not work with the SNP? Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to take this opportunity to be the first Minister graciously to commend and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Straw: The Opposition Whip says, “Don’t be tempted”, but I always congratulate everybody who wins an elected position in any forum because that is the essence of our democracy. That can be taken in the spirit in which it is intended— [ Laughter. ]—generously.

On the wider issue, it is of course the duty of the British Government to co-operate with all institutions of governance across the country. We have shown that we do so in respect of local government and we shall do so in respect of the devolved Administrations. That is nothing new and it will continue.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): May we have a debate on the security procedures at airports, especially those of the British Airports Authority, where personal searches have become robust and intrusive? Many of my constituents have complained to me about the process and I have experienced it myself as I travel back and forth. Could we not introduce a system of handheld scanners, such as that in other countries?

Mr. Straw: It is an issue about which I have thought a great deal. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and will certainly give consideration to a debate on the
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matter. However, on the other side, BAA and all other airport operators are under a paramount duty to ensure security—

Mrs. May: So are the Government.

Mr. Straw: It is also a Government requirement, as the right hon. Lady says. Although the process can be inconvenient, it is inconvenient for everybody, and none of us would forgive the Government or the airport operators if, as a result of changes in procedure, a terrorist got through and passengers’ lives were put at risk.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House a serious question? Mention has already been made of the freedom of information legislation. Is it not wholly unacceptable that private and confidential correspondence between a Member and a Minister does not remain private and confidential? It should not be released into the public domain. Departments are releasing correspondence from Members, on what they say are legitimate requests, so will the Leader of the House give instructions to all Departments that Members’ correspondence with Ministers is private and, if necessary, will he come to the House and make a statement on the matter? I believe that trust and confidentiality between Members and Ministers is at risk unless action is taken immediately.

Mr. Straw: I am happy to accede to all the requests that the hon. Gentleman makes. I share his concern. The House of Commons Commission has given consideration to the issue. New guidance has been agreed with the House of Commons and what was then the Department for Constitutional Affairs and is now the Ministry of Justice, advising public authorities on how to handle requests that involve the correspondence of Members of Parliament. I personally accept that certainly the spirit, and in some cases the letter, of the guidance has not been properly followed and that public authorities, including—but not exclusively—Departments have sometimes been too ready to accede to third-party requests for the release of such correspondence without giving the Member of Parliament any say whatever. The issue is not about protecting the amour propre of Members of Parliament; it is about protecting the rights of our constituents to correspond with us in confidence.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May we have a debate on so-called size zero models? [ Laughter. ] I am not joining them. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the organisers of London fashion week, who have not followed the lead of the organisers of Madrid fashion week by condemning size zero models? Two models have died recently. Sadly, such women are role models for many teenagers and we have seen a substantial increase in anorexia.

Mr. Straw: I will certainly give consideration to that. My hon. Friend puts his point well. As he says, there is no danger that he will drift down that route, but he raises a serious issue. Anorexia nervosa is a terrible disease. The fashion industry has a profound responsibility not to do anything directly or indirectly to encourage young women, in particular, to become anorexic.

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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 814 on excessive packaging?

[ That this House notes with concern the excessive levels of packaging used by manufacturers and retailers, accounting for 4.6 million tonnes of household waste every year and 17 per cent. of the average household food budget; commends the recent campaign against excessive packaging run by the Independent newspaper; and urges supermarkets to reduce where possible packaging on goods sold, encourage the re-use of plastic bags, recycle packaging waste and encourage suppliers to reduce packaging further up the supply chain. ]

May we have a debate on this important issue? The early-day motion has been signed by 147 Members, so there is clearly concern across the House. At a time when there is concern, controversy and debate among the public about how to deal with our refuse collections, should we not have a debate in the House about how to reduce what goes into bins in the first place?

Mr. Straw: I agree with the sentiment that the hon. Lady expresses. The waste strategy report is due out quite shortly and I will look for an opportunity for that matter to be debated.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that next Tuesday the Department for International Development, on behalf of the Government, will publish the first ever report to Parliament to arise from the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006. Given that, on Third Reading, when the Act was carried unanimously by the House, there was an overwhelming view that the report should lead to a debate on the Floor of the House, is he in a position to assure us that that important debate will take place? The report covers issues such as the achievement of the 0.7 per cent. gross domestic product target, the millennium development goals, aid effectiveness, and, above all, transparency itself.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the great achievement of the Government over the past 10 years—one of the many achievements of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—in ensuring a huge increase in the resources available to the Department for International Development and ensuring that resources are better targeted. Our record on international development is exemplary and better than the records of any of the other major industrialised countries of the world. As he says, the report is due to be published. We are certainly giving active consideration to whether there can be a debate on the Floor of the House.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): When we get to Question Time for the Ministry of Justice, which has substantial new responsibilities, including prisons, does the Leader of the House agree that the House is entitled to hold to account a Secretary of State who sits in the Cabinet?

Mr. Straw: There will be questions on Tuesday in respect of the Ministry of Justice. [ Interruption. ] May I just say in response to the sedentary intervention that
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the time allocated for parliamentary questions to the new expanded Ministry should be longer? We are looking at that. On the wider issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I refer to the statements that were made when the original announcement was made in March about a Ministry of Justice. There is an expectation that in due course the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice will sit in this House.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): May I support my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) in asking for a debate on the takeover by WH Smith of the Crown post offices, including the one in my constituency? I believe that that will be bad for customers, that the facilities provided will be inadequate, and that there will be a cut in the wages of the counter staff and a cut in their conditions. A debate would give the Minister responsible for the Royal Mail the opportunity to defend himself against the charge that he is indifferent to the concerns of hon. Members on the issue.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is not remotely indifferent to Members’ concerns. It was he who secured hundreds of millions of pounds by way of additional subsidy to ensure that post offices, including those in rural areas, can continue to operate. But none of us is able to resist the changes, not necessarily in our habits, but in the habits of our constituents, and the advance of technology. Of course I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and I will ensure that they are relayed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We will also look for an opportunity to debate the matter.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on houses in multiple occupancy or HMOs? Their impact on constituencies such as mine is considerable. The problem seems to be that dwellings that were built with just two or three bedrooms are being converted to have six or seven bedrooms, with a major impact on parking, antisocial behaviour, noise and nuisance. Local authorities seem powerless to do much about it.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I will certainly look for an opportunity for a debate. It may have to be in Westminster Hall. If he wishes to give me more details, I will make sure that they are put before the relevant Secretary of State. There were some improvements to the powers for local authorities under housing legislation about two years
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ago. The legislation gives local authorities powers better to control and regulate private landlords, who often lie behind houses in multiple occupation. But I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Andrew Mackinlay: May I ask for a debate on a sensitive matter? There is never a right time to mention it, but it is a serious constitutional point. I am talking about what happens when a Prime Minister suffers a sudden incapacity or dies. Neither of the two main political parties has adequate arrangements to deal with such circumstances. Is there not a case for institutionalising the post of the Deputy Prime Minister? The Conservative party does not have an elected deputy leader. The Labour party does, but that deputy leader might be out of government. Buckingham Palace would be obliged under the conventions to send for that person to fill the post. It is rather sloppy of our generation that, at a time when the country could be in the middle of an international crisis, we could have uncertainty about who should be in charge of Government if the Prime Minister were incapacitated or suddenly died.

Mr. Straw: I was going to observe that there are plenty of hazards of being Prime Minister, but dying in office is a very rare one.

Mr. Bellingham: What about Spencer Perceval?

Mr. Straw: Yes, but he was shot and the protection arrangements are different now. That was a very long time ago. Our constitutional arrangements, which have allowed for the transfer of power between one Prime Minister and another mid-term on five occasions since the last world war, are perfectly adequate.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Given the enormous financial commitment that the nation is making to the 2012 Olympics, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate in this House on the legacy of the Olympics? Given that not everybody can compete in the events, we want to give a chance to young people and British companies at least to get involved and participate.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the notice he gave me of his question. We had a statement in March, but there has not been a debate on the Floor of the House since the proceedings on the legislation two years ago. I will certainly give consideration to a debate. I cannot promise exactly when it will take place.

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Tributes (Speaker Weatherill)

12.9 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): As I said earlier, I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me and many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House the opportunity to express our condolences to Lady Weatherill and to pay tribute to the memory of Jack Weatherill, as so many of us knew him.

The most important and fundamental role of the House is to hold the Executive to account. The Speaker, above all, is here to protect and enhance the duty of all Members to fulfil that important role and to defend the rights and privileges of individual Members representing their constituents. From the moment that Jack Weatherill took the Speaker’s Chair in 1983, he never forgot the duties of the House or the importance of his position in sustaining the democratic process.

Many of the tributes to and obituaries of Jack Weatherill have highlighted his kindness. He was indeed a kind man, as you and I, Mr. Speaker—we came into the House just four years before he assumed the august office of Speaker—have good reason to remember. Other obituaries have highlighted his professionalism and quick wit. Both were absolutely the case. He was always on top of procedure and Standing Orders—and sometimes, when necessary, individual Members. Many of us who were around at the time will remember receiving the sharp end of his tongue.

Of all Jack Weatherill’s qualities, the one that I wish to emphasise is his courage. In the early and mid-1980s, politics in this country was raw and the divisions between the political parties were bitter. Without television, as all of us who were here at the time will recall, this place could be like a bear pit. The external divisions of British politics ran very deep inside the House. Jack Weatherill had to control the House. He also had to resist the ire of Ministers—I am not making a party point because you also know, Mr. Speaker, that that is a function of all good Speakers—to ensure that the fundamental role of holding the Government to account could be fulfilled and so that Members on both sides of the House could give vent to their anger.

Jack Weatherill was a traditionalist. He was the last Speaker to wear the full-bottomed wig and while he sometimes used to complain about it, he continued with the tradition. However, he was also very alive to the need to modernise this place. He embraced the idea of television and was the Speaker in the Chair when television was first introduced. Through that, he became the first Speaker to become not just a national but an international figure. He thus enhanced the reputation of the House throughout the world. Although the notices that we receive for our performances in the House probably mark us down compared with our predecessors, the House is still regarded as one of the most vibrant democratic Chambers in the world. For that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the pioneering work of Jack Weatherill, who ensured that the introduction of television meant that Members were better behaved and properly reflected the dignity of the House.

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