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[That this House believes that protecting vulnerable children is core business of Government; notes research by the Childrens Society indicates that 100,000 children each year runaway or go missing from home or care, of whom 12 per cent. are running from abuse and around eight per cent. are hurt or harmed while away; further
notes the contents of the Ten minute Rule Bill which would safeguard runaway or missing children; and calls on the Government to seek a legislative opportunity for the House to consider the Bill at an early date.]
The Bill comes before the House tomorrow in its second attempt to get a Second Reading. I hope my right hon. Friend will look carefully to find time, so that we can achieve essential progress on the Bill and protect vulnerable children who need us to be professional and speedy in response to their needs.
Mr. Straw: First, I put on the record our appreciation of all the work that my hon. Friend has been doing over many years in respect of missing children and the need to provide better safeguards. I know that she is to meet our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education shortly. I will take full account, as will my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, of what she has just said.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a serious note, the Leader of the House knows that on 11 December 2005 my constituency in southern England was rocked by the explosions at Buncefield. The following day the Deputy Prime Minister kindly came to the House and gave a full statement. He promised to keep the House fully informed. We are 18 months on. An inquiry is going on behind closed doors. While that is happening, my community is suffering with blight, yet the Government have proposed 18,000 new homes around the Buncefield site, whether it is rebuilt or not. We have a water shortage and our hospital is about to close. May we have a statement on Buncefield to tell us exactly what is happening?
Mr. Straw: All of us understand the horrific nature of that fire. I remember flying very close to it. It was appalling. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentlemans remarks and look at whether a statementperhaps a written statementcould be provided to the House to update him and the House as a whole on progress.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May we have a debate on the increased teaching and use of British Sign Language? Last week I visited Archdeacon John Lewis primary school in my constituency and was pleased to see children as young as three and up to the age of 11 not only singing in English and Welsh, but using British Sign Language, along with all their teachers. As there are two profoundly deaf children in the school, all at the school have taken responsibility for learning British Sign Language. Is that not a subject that we should be rolling out throughout our schools?
Mr. Straw: As someone who takes a close interest in matters related to the deaf, I applaud my hon. Friends interest and will certainly look for an opportunity for a debate, possibly on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As, at last nights deputy leadership hustings, all six candidates, five of whom are senior Ministers, pledged an inquiry into the war in Iraq, is it not time next week for the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and tell us when that will happen?
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Today is the international day against homophobia. Will my right hon. Friend find Government time for us to debate the great progress that we have made in restoring and giving civil rights to gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the past 10 years, and also to debate the fact that in 75 countries being gay is illegal, and that in nine countries the penalty is death?
Mr. Straw: I should be delighted to do so and will look for an opportunity. My hon. Friend may be aware that some of us were at a private function earlier in the week at which Mr. Stephen Fry spoke with fantastic eloquence of what we, in the past 10 years, have been able to achieve on behalf of gay and lesbian people. It is one of the great prides that I have in the record of this Government.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I see that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is standing, but I noticed that she was not in the Chamber for the statement. Even though she is my own Member of Parliament, I cannot do her any favours. She must hear the statement. I call the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison).
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Is the Leader of the House aware that last Thursday was the fifth anniversary of the Potters Bar derailment, which took place in my constituency? Is he aware that since then there has been no public inquiry? A coroners inquest is still awaited and some of the families have experienced grave difficulty in obtaining proper compensation. We have had a number of Adjournment debates on the subject. Can the right hon. Gentleman find time for a fuller debate on the Floor of the House on railway safety and the compensation system?
Mr. Straw: I am well aware, not least because of the representations that were made to me a few weeks ago about legal aid in respect of a rail crash elsewhere, of the problems that have arisen with the inquests in Potters Bar and the delays, which are extremely distressing to the bereaved relatives. I shall take up the hon. Gentlemans suggestion about the case for a debate, and in any event I will draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Transport.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May we have an urgent debate in Government time about the current state of the manufacturing sector? In the past couple of weeks in my constituency another 50 jobs have been lost due to a local employer deciding to relocate to Hungary. Such a debate would allow us to discuss how best we can safeguard the jobs that remain and how we can maximise the assistance we give to people who lose their jobs as a result of this worrying trend.
Mr. Straw: We will look for an opportunity to debate that; it may have to be in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment. All of us who have a manufacturing base in our constituencies know that our constituents sometimes suffer from redundancies, which we do all that we can to avoid. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) raised this the other day in her Standing Order No. 24 application. Although there has been a fall of 54,000 in manufacturing employment in the year to February 2007, which is greatly to be regretted, that is very much lower than the drops in manufacturing jobs of the 1980s and 1990s. For example, there were 673,000 redundancies in 1981 and 422,000 10 years later.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): In a spirit of magnanimity, will the Leader of the House agree that when a truly great occupant of No. 10 Downing street has ceased to be Prime Minister, broadcasting the legacy is important? May we therefore have a debate on early-day motion 1367, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and 24 other MPs from all parties?
[That this House welcomes the recent transmission by the BBC on Radio 4 of the outstanding Falklands Play by Ian Curteis; and calls on the BBC to transmit the film version of the play on BBC1 at prime time on 14th June to mark the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands and as a tribute to those, both military and civilian, who worked to restore freedom to the Islanders and uphold British sovereignty.]
The EDM calls on the BBC at last to broadcast in prime time in June on BBC1 its excellent The Falklands Play as a tribute not only to those who fought in the campaign but to the great Prime Minister who initiated it?
Mr. Straw: I would like it to be re-broadcast. I backed the military action against the Argentines in the debate on 3 April 1982, and that was my consistent position throughout the conflict. I applaud the courage and fortitude of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In 41 days time, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will drive to the palace with the seals of office and a letter of resignationnot, I hope, including an honours list associated with that resignation, on lavender paper or otherwise. Has No. 10 asked for an opportunity, as an alternative, to make a statement in this place to express gratitude and to describe the special contributions that people have made to the 3,708 days of this Administration? Would not that be a more economical and satisfactory way of acknowledging their special contribution?
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Leader of the House has already mentioned Zimbabwe, with particular reference to a possible cricket tour at some time in the future. Will he give me an assurance, here and now, that while he is Leader of the House there will be a full debate on Zimbabwe in Government time on the Floor of the House?
On a second very important point, the Leader of the House referred, in an apology to the House, to freedom of information. Does he accept that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is not working, that private confidential correspondence between Members of Parliament and Ministers is being released, and that we need some assurances if we are to carry out our job as people expect us to?
Mr. Straw: On the first point, let me make it clear that I have said, on behalf of the Government, that there will be a debate on Zimbabwe before the summer recess. I am happy to tell him that I have been discussing this with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade to ensure a date that is acceptable and convenient to the House and to him.
On the second matter, I am aware of the profound concerns of many right hon. and hon. Members about the risk that their correspondence might be disclosed, thereby compromising their relationship with their constituents. That will of course be the subject of debate tomorrow.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): It is characteristic of the Leader of the House to apologise whenever he considers it appropriate, and I welcome what he said at the beginning of his statement. However, is it not rather strange that the Government are doing all that they canincluding three-line Whips, unofficial though they may be, to get Parliamentary Private Secretaries to come into support a Tory Members Bill that is completely inappropriate, given that MPs correspondence is already well protected? [Hon. Members: It is not.] I suggest that hon. Members who disagree read the Data Protection Act 1998 and todays edition of The Times. Does my right hon. Friend really believe that the reputation of this House would be enhanced by our taking special privileges to exempt ourselves from a law that applies, and will continue to apply, to every other public body? It is a grubby little Bill, and it should be thrown out.
Mr. Straw: First, I thank my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. Secondly, there is no whipping, official or unofficial, on either side of the House, in respect of the Bill, which is a private Members Bill. There is an issue here. My hon. Friend has expressed one point of view; many Members on both sides of the House have expressed a contrary point of view. I simply put it on the record that the matter was first raised with me by two Membersthey happened to be Conservative Members, but they could have been from any other part of the Housewho wrote to me, in my capacity as Leader of the House, to express their profound concern about the possible imminent release of correspondence in such circumstances.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Given that a majority in the Scottish Parliament now supports further powers for the Scottish Parliament, may we have a debate on the advantages of devolving to the Scottish Parliament more, or indeed everything, pertaining to Scotland, with the aim of ensuring that Scotland can catch up with nations such as Norway, Iceland and Ireland? They are smaller than Scotland but have greater gross domestic products per capita than the UK.
Mr. Straw: The Scottish Parliament and Executive have certain functions in respect of the economy; that is a matter for them. The United Kingdom Parliament and Government have other functions. It might help if I state that the terms of the devolution settlement have been altered neither by the election results in Scotland or Wales nor by the election of a new First Minister in Scotland yesterday. It has always been recognised in the devolution settlement, not least because of proportional representation, that parties different from the Westminster Government can and will hold office. For example, over recent years mechanisms have allowed Liberal Democrat shadow Ministers to work effectively with their Labour counterparts at Westminster.
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The Leader of the House has just heard that opponents of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill are claiming that MPs correspondence on behalf of constituents is not subject to disclosure thanks to the Data Protection Act 1998. Will he confirm that that is wrong? In fact, Members on both sides of the House have already found that their correspondence to a public authority has been revealed to a third party, which is completely unacceptable.
John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): In his answer to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about our having two Prime Ministers, the Leader of the House gave a technical, black-letter lawyers answer, which I am sure was procedurally absolutely correct. Does he accept, however, that there is a wider constitutional question about what may happen, for example, if during the next six weeks there is some kind of crisisnational or internationaland the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister disagree on what must be done? Who will be in charge, and how are we to avoid paralysis?
Mr. Straw: I do not accept that for a moment. There have often been such transitions. There has been a change of Prime Minister between general elections on five previous occasions, four of which happened to take place under Conservative Administrations. [ Interruption . ] The period was shorter, but it was not non-existent. No problems arose then, and I do not anticipate any problems arising this time.
[That this House congratulates the individuals and organisations, secular and religious, who have over many years worked assiduously towards community cohesion and integration in Keighley; but condemns in the strongest terms the behaviour of certain Keighley Conservatives who, under the direction of their candidate Zafar Ali, used the tactics of intimidation, threatening and discriminatory propaganda to secure electoral victory in Keighley Central
ward on 3rd May 2007; further condemns the failure of officers of Bradford Metropolitan District Council to take action against such activities; expresses the hope that no authority in future will allow such activity to take place; and urges the Government to review electoral law as it applies in these circumstances with a view to tightening up regulations and providing for sanctions in future.]
intimidation, threatening and discriminatory propaganda,
in which the electorate were invited to vote for their Muslim brother. Would it be appropriate for my right hon. Friend and me to invite our electorates to vote for their Christian sister or brother? I believe it would be inappropriate.
Mr. Straw: I know of my hon. Friends serious concern and I hope that all parties in the House treat such practices as unacceptable. We are making arrangements to draw to the Electoral Commissions attention the unacceptable practices that took place in her constituency and several others.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May we have a statement from the Transport Secretary on the future of the driving test centre in Kettering? I wrote to the chief executive of the Driving Standards Agency but have yet to receive a substantive reply. I have written to the Minister of State for Transport this week. I raised the matter with the Leader of the House on 26 April, when he kindly said that he would draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport, but I have heard nothing.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, discussions about the German presidencys final summit are well advanced. Hon. Members are finding out what is going on in them through leaks to newspapersyesterdays Financial Times had a long article about the justice and home affairs section. Should we not have an earlier debate before the summit, so that hon. Members can be informed of the Governments proposals, instead of the usual debate that takes place the day before the summit? That does not genuinely give us an opportunity to know the Governments position in advance and to inform them of the Houses position on those important issues.
Mr. Straw: I note my right hon. Friends point. There is always a debate before the biannual European Councils. I accept that it normally happens on a Wednesday and the meetings start on the Thursday. I cannot make promises, but we will consider whether we can bring the debate forward.
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