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the intention of the Freedom of Information Act

Those remarks reflected a general concern that I have about the scope of some of the decisions interpreting the Act, but my comments were ambiguous and could have implied that the Information Commissioner had made rulings on the issue of MPs’ correspondence or that he was acting in some way beyond his statutory responsibilities. He has not done that in any way, and he has made no rulings in respect of MPs’ correspondence.

If I may say so, the commissioner, Richard Thomas, does a difficult job very well. I would like to offer my sincere apologies to him.

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

I note that the right hon. Gentleman says that a statement on the energy White Paper is expected on Wednesday, the day of an Opposition debate. As he knows, Government statements should not be made in Opposition time, so will he look again at the timing of that statement?

This week, John Howard instructed Australia’s cricket team not to tour Zimbabwe. That firm decision contrasts with the lack of direction from this Government when England’s last tour went ahead. The right hon. Gentleman was then Foreign Secretary. England is due to play Zimbabwe later this year, in 2008 and in 2009. Meanwhile, the appalling crisis in that country is getting worse. Will the Foreign Secretary make a statement to clarify the Government’s position?

On Tuesday, the Department for International Development published its first annual report to include the requirements of the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006. Many hon. Members want the report to be debated every year on the Floor of the House, and last week, in response to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), the Leader of the House said that he would give “active consideration” to the idea of a debate. Can he now give a date for the debate?

Can we have a debate on standards in government? The Secretary of State for International Development owns shares in a company that works for his Department. That appears to be in breach of the ministerial code. Almost a month ago, I wrote to the Chancellor—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Has the right hon. Lady informed the right hon. Gentleman of her concern and that she would be raising the matter today?

Mrs. May: I apologise, Mr. Speaker; I have not informed the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We will move on to something else.

Mrs. May: In that case, can we have a debate on police targets? While more serious crimes go unpunished, Home Office targets are forcing the police to arrest more people. A bride was arrested on her wedding day for criminal damage after crashing into a car park barrier, a child was arrested for throwing buns at a bus, and a man was cautioned for being in possession of an egg with intent to throw—presumably the police were called before the Deputy Prime Minister could get to him.

Can we have a debate on the relationship between the trade unions and Government policy? It is reported today that the trade unions will effectively decide the Labour party leadership and in return, a union official has revealed, they expect a successor to the Warwick agreement. That agreement led to taxpayers’ money being given to unions, which in turn, of course, give money to the Labour party. We need a debate.

The average accident and emergency unit serves 250,000 people, but an NHS report says that an A and E department needs to be supported by between 450,000
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and 500,000 people. That would mean the closure of A and E departments across the country. The Health Secretary denies responsibility, but that report was described as national guidance. When it suits her, the Health Secretary says that she is in control of the NHS; when it does not, she says that she is not responsible. Will the right hon. Lady come to the House to clarify the Government’s position, and can we have a debate on the meaning of ministerial responsibility?

It is now certain that the Chancellor will be the next Prime Minister, but because of Labour party rules we have to wait weeks for him to take office, with the country and the Cabinet in limbo. Who will make prime ministerial statements in this House for the next few weeks? [Hon. Members: “The Prime Minister.”] Which one? The pensions system is in crisis, the NHS is in deficit, and the Prime Minister will negotiate a European treaty that the Chancellor spins he will reject. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to go, and go now?

Mr. Straw: On the right hon. Lady’s first point about the energy White Paper statement being on the same day as an Opposition day debate, as she knows, my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip does her best to avoid such clashes and generally succeeds. The success of Government Chief Whips over the past 10 years in avoiding such clashes compares extremely well with the practice during my 18 years in opposition—

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Too short.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman says, “Too short”—but time and again during that period, when we announced Opposition days, additional statements were prepared by the Government to blot out all prospect of any coverage for our business. We have tried to avoid clashes, and I hope that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) concedes that we now give advance notice of statements so that everybody can prepare for them.

We will have a debate on Zimbabwe—I promised that to the House and it will happen. As for suggestions that the Government should ban a cricket tour, I made it clear in 2004 that we disapproved of the England team touring Zimbabwe and that we would have preferred the England and Wales Cricket Board not to have gone ahead with the tour, but this is a democracy and we do not have any power—[Hon. Members: “So is Australia.”] Australia’s Government obviously have different powers; we do not have any power to direct the behaviour of a separate, voluntary organisation. Not once during our debates in 2004 did I hear any suggestion to the contrary, nor did I hear of any power that I or any other Minister had that could have led to such a ban.

As for holding a debate on the Department for International Development report, of course we will look at that carefully. I simply say that we are the first Government to have such a proud record on international development, and it is only thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) that the requirement for an annual report is now law.

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In respect of police targets, there is no requirement on the police to prosecute or arrest trivial offenders and to ignore serious offenders. The Government’s overall record on crime is outstanding. Crime is down 35 per cent., but it doubled under the Conservatives. I say to the right hon. Lady that I have learned, over many years, that it is always rash to go to a newspaper headline for the real truth about any allegation of crime.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are not talking about the matter that I asked the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) not to mention.

Mr. Straw: No, Mr. Speaker, I was talking about the allegation made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that the police were chasing trivial criminal acts. I crossed the other matter off my list the moment that you ruled it out of order.

It must be remembered that in one case, a fatal accident involving a bus was caused by a person doing something apparently trivial, namely, throwing something at a bus and distracting the driver. The scare stories that appear in the newspapers are not always as they seem.

On trade unions and Government policy, I am sure that I heard the right hon. Lady say that the trade unions would decide the Labour party leadership. Well, that is wrong—Members of Parliament have, in practice, decided the Labour party leadership, and if I may do so from a position of total independence, I offer my congratulations to our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the overwhelming vote of confidence that he received.

I have two last points, one of which concerns the issue that has been raised about accident and emergency departments. That is a Conservative scare story that has no basis in fact. What the right hon. Lady needs to understand is that accident and emergency provision is changing because medicine is changing. There is more care closer to home, wherever that is safely possible. For example, in emergency care, practitioners from ambulance trusts are treating people at home, rather than those people having to go to accident and emergency departments. Some care takes place in specialist centres, and those centres have a far better record in dealing with people who face serious conditions such as stroke and heart attacks. The question for the whole House is whether we want to freeze the existing confederation of accident and emergency provision services in the knowledge that patients will suffer, or whether we want to ensure more local accident and emergency service provision, but some specialist centres, too. There is no national plan whatever.

Finally, the right hon. Lady said that the Government were now in limbo, and asked who would make decisions and statements as Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) is the Prime Minister and will stay Prime Minister until 27 June, when there will be a transfer. The right hon. Lady often leads with her chin; today is not the day to talk about a party being in limbo or disarray, because the disarray caused to the Conservative party by yesterday’s announcement on grammar schools is quite extraordinary. It has been
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damned as a rehashed announcement by the former Opposition leader, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and damned again by an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who said,

It has been condemned by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who said that the announcement was unforgivable—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am trying to work out what that has to do with the business for next week. Perhaps the Leader of the House can help me.

Mr. Straw: I am about to offer the Conservatives a debate in Government time on the disarray in the Conservative party. [Hon. Members: “Very generous.”] Yes, we are very generous.

May I make two final points? The hon. Member for North Thanet asked a very important question of Conservative members of the shadow Cabinet that should be included in this debate. He said:

That is a very important question. No wonder The Spectator—the house magazine of the Conservative party—is saying in this week’s edition that the Conservative party is now “in the grip of” Tory “toffs”.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate on early-day motion 1466, which stands in my name and those of other Members, so that this House can debate the crooked activities of SCS, unit 2, the Peel Centre, Stockport, in cheating a constituent of mine out of £2,000 and failing to honour a warranty that does not expire until 2009? It states:

[That this House warns potential customers to steer clear of S.C.S., Unit 2, the Peel Centre, Stockport, and Valspar Industries, Abingdon, which crooked traders have between them cheated a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton who bought furniture costing 1,998 from S.C.S., found it damaged, and has been refused recompense from Valspar Industries even though she spent another 200 on a five-year warranty which is not due to expire until 6th March 2009; believes that such cheats should not be allowed to be in business; and calls on the Office of Fair Trading to investigate their activities with a view to providing justice for the right hon. Member's constituent.]

Will my right hon. Friend also refer the matter to the director general of fair trading?

In the light of what the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said about cricketers going to Zimbabwe, will my right hon. Friend also provide time for a debate on a previous Conservative Government’s record in allowing a rogue English cricket team to go to apartheid South Africa, in refusing to impose any sanctions on that country, and in the then Prime Minister calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist?

Mr. Straw: I have always wished to accept the advice of my right hon. Friend and on the latter point, I am warming to two debates in Government time: one on
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the Conservative party’s disarray and another on the record of previous Conservative Governments. That would be to the benefit of the whole House, and especially to the preparation of the Opposition party for government, because it is not very far down that road at the moment.

I accept that the matter dealt with in early-day motion 1466 is very serious, and I will certainly refer my right hon. Friend’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, so that he can consider a reference to the Office of Fair Trading. We will of course look for an opportunity for the matter to be debated.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I suppose that it is appropriate to offer congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman, in his role as campaign manager, on finally winning the “marginal seat” through the vote of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), which, as I understand it, secured victory.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for notice of the statements on the planning and energy reviews, consistent with what he said earlier. It is however a great shame that we were not given proper notice of the statement following business questions today on the Post Office review. We all knew that it would happen some time this week, but Members, who have a great interest in this matter, were not given proper notice of it. Is it not therefore inevitable that we need a debate on the Post Office review, as well as the statement? Apparently, the review will involve the closure of 2,500 post offices, a disproportionate number of which are located in rural areas such as mine. We want our opportunity to have a proper debate on the consequences.

If the Leader of the House had been here earlier for questions to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he would have heard a lively exchange on excess packaging. May we have a debate on that issue, and not only on the absurdities that we hear about such as coconuts and swedes being wrapped in plastic and a melon being labelled as “produce of more than one country”? Is there not at least a suspicion that a lot of such excess packaging is based on a commercial imperative of making people purchase more of a product than they actually need? That being the case, may we have a debate, and will the right hon. Gentleman give parliamentary time for the Retail Packaging (Recycling) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), which will give us the parliamentary opportunity to do something about it?

Like the right hon. Gentleman, I was disappointed that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did not ask for a debate on education, but as the right hon. Gentleman rather did the subject to death, I shall not pursue it. However, we ought to give an opportunity to Conservative Back Benchers to have their say about the change in the policy on grammar schools.

Lastly, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman noticed the perplexing comment by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday— [Interruption.] Indeed, there were many, and let us hope that we never have another session quite like that. He said at one point that he was hoping to delay time. That opens up a new future for him as a time lord.

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If the Government are in the process of delaying time during the interregnum when we have two Prime Ministers, one in office and one waiting, is it not an opportunity for the Leader of the House to clear the decks and enact some of the thoughts that he has been putting forward to improve the performance of Parliament, in addition to the U-turn on the royal prerogative that he announced last week? One of the interesting things about U-turns is what is left washed up on the beach when the tide comes in. In this case it was the Lord Chancellor who was left washed up. Can the Leader of the House find time for a review of parliamentary procedures on a wider scale, so that we can make this Parliament more effective and more relevant? He has the time to do it. Will he make sure that it happens?

Mr. Straw: In respect of the Post Office, we are doing our best to give advance notice of statements. Sometimes that is not possible. It has been well known that there would be a statement about the Post Office at some stage. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make it shortly. The issue is one for the whole House, not just the Government, because it reflects changes in the circumstances in which the Post Office has to trade.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on excess packaging. To some extent I thought I had already announced a debate—my offer of a debate on the disarray in the Conservative party. Part of the Conservatives’ problem is an excess of packaging of their policies and an insufficiency of content. We are also working on a statement on waste strategy. There will be one shortly.

On education, the hon. Gentleman said he thought that I had exhausted the subject of education with reference to the Conservative party. That is quite wrong. Had I had the opportunity, I would have drawn attention to the astonishing number of improvements that have taken place in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead since 1997—203 additional or refurbished classrooms, three schools where 50 per cent. to 80 per cent. of the area has been refurbished and one where more than 80 per cent. has been refurbished.

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point about delaying time, I shall let him into a secret. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister had in mind that interesting discussion in Stephen Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time”, about how, the further one goes from an area of gravity, the more slowly time goes.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend heed the call from 216 Members of the House who signed early-day motion 866 in my name to find time to debate and give a Second Reading to my Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children Bill?

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