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7 Jun 2007 : Column 408

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that many of our constituents are anxious to visit London and often make an overnight stay, particularly if they are coming to see this place, but the cost of such stays is pretty high. They—and, indeed, Members—may have noticed, however, that a campsite seems to have been established in Parliament square, which now comprises no fewer than nine tents. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether that campsite is authorised by Mayor Livingstone and the Greater London authority, and if so, can he advise on how Members can help their constituents to get permits to camp there and join that happy band of campers? If they are not available, can he arrange for an early debate on the subject?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is of great concern in most parts of the House with his characteristic light touch. Sadly, I know much too much about the ownership of that land, that piece of grass, opposite Carriage Gates. When I was Home Secretary, the “stop the city” demonstrations took place and the arguments between Westminster city council, the Metropolitan police and others—including, I think, English Heritage—as to who owned not the whole thing but the strip at the front, who was responsible for it and whether the Queen’s writ extended there, almost burnt my brain out. Some would say that the signs are still showing. In any event, the situation is complicated, but, if I may speak for you, Mr. Speaker, I know of your and the House of Commons Commission’s concern that we need some clarity on this issue. It is not about taking away the right to protest, but it is worth pointing out that under previous Sessional Orders, which were always observed, demonstrations within a particular range of Parliament were not permitted for very good reasons when Parliament was sitting.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware of next Wednesday’s ten-minute Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), which proposes to extend the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to the construction industry. Can we have a debate on that issue as soon as possible, so that Members can highlight the terrible impact that gangmasters are having on the construction industry in the north-east in terms of violence, intimidation, illegal deduction of earnings and dangerous working conditions?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) will raise that issue in discussing his Bill, and we wish him well. I understand the concern that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) has expressed. I will ensure that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and in the construction industry’s sponsoring Departments are informed about it, and I will look for an opportunity to debate it further.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): The Leader of the House knows that, on many occasions, I have raised the question of the future of Hemel Hempstead hospital. I and many thousands of my constituents have been given assurances that there were
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no plans to close it. However, yesterday plans were announced to close it and sell it for redevelopment in 2008, resulting in 750 job losses, including those of nurses, doctors, porters and other very important people who work within the hospital structure. This is not a Victorian hospital but a brand new one, in which huge investment has been made under both the previous Government and this one. How can be it right that my constituents will lose such an important facility, and can the Secretary of State for Health come here and explain these actions?

Mr. Straw: Because the hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in raising this matter, I have gone into it in some detail. I understand the concerns in his part of Hertfordshire about the reconfiguration of the health service, and I know that such reconfigurations, which happen across the country, can be difficult. However, he will be aware that Professor Graham Ramsay, medical director of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, said:

I know that that is not the hon. Gentleman’s view, but it is the view of Professor Ramsay and other senior clinicians. Secondly, any Government, including one that the hon. Gentleman supported, would have to face some quite difficult decisions in his part of Hertfordshire about the configuration of the hospital service. Whether or not it would mean that there would be no hospital in his area is another matter.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): May I strike a note of cross-party consensus and raise an issue that Members in all parts of the House are very concerned about, including no less a figure than the Leader of the Opposition? The cost, quality and coverage of services provided by the health service is a really serious issue. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the quality of services provided by the NHS for people who are delusional?

Mr. Straw: That would be extremely helpful. The legislative programme is tight, but we are going to give active consideration to that matter. Usually, we are representing our constituents and talking about the problems that they face, but on this occasion we have the word, no less, of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition that many of his own Members are themselves delusional, so they can be exhibits in this regard. Moreover, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), has just published an extremely interesting, if highly controversial, pamphlet, in which he says,

the NHS, and that—

I hope that we can debate that issue, too. It may well then become clear whether he is one of these “delusional” Conservative Members of Parliament.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement to this House on exactly what “rural affairs”
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means within that Department’s definition, and on what it is doing to work with other Departments? Other Departments are not providing transport to or social housing in rural areas, and are about to cut more post offices in rural areas. By and large, such areas get a fairly short deal from the Government.

Mr. Straw: What the hon. Gentleman suggests is simply not the case. He is as well aware as anybody else of the definition of “rural”, which is perfectly obvious, and he knows very well of our commitment to rural areas. For example, we have pumped hundreds of millions of pounds into rural post offices. The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they are never willing to face up to any decision that is remotely to do with their going into government; theirs is simply a party of protest.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House join me and Sunderland city council in welcoming the regional transport board’s recent decision to approve the new central route in my constituency? It is a major transport corridor that will have a big impact in relieving congestion and opening up access to the Rainton Bridge industrial site, where thousands of new jobs will be created. Will he use his good offices with the Department for Transport to ensure its full co-operation and the early completion of that major route, especially in former coal mining areas?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I will. Of course, I can say from my constituency experience that I have seen for myself the economic benefits to the whole area of east Lancashire from opening up such routes.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I apologise for my earlier outburst on the EU constitution, but the people should be consulted.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his personal intervention which led to children’s hospices receiving interim funding of £27 million and the commissioning of an excellent report on palliative care services for children. I know that the Leader of the House is a great supporter of children’s hospices, so may we have an early debate to encourage the Government to publish their response to the report so that we may better co-ordinate palliative services for children, including hospices, and provide better funding for them?

Mr. Straw: I know of the hon. Gentleman’s longstanding concern about that issue, and I will follow up what he has requested and write to him.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members will be disappointed that he has not agreed to my previous request for a debate on the future of grammar schools? That debate will not go away and we would be grateful for a debate in Government time. Perhaps the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) could also have his own debate.

Mr. Straw: This is the second time that I have to apologise to the House—first I had to apologise for the confusion over the south-west and now because I have not arranged a debate on grammar schools. Although
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the Conservative party occasionally uses its Opposition days for important issues—as it will do next Monday—it often chooses worthy but rather dull subjects, made worse by Opposition Members’ speeches. The result is that the debates get no coverage. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is talking about making Parliament more central today, but I guarantee that if the Opposition were to use their day for a debate on grammar schools, the Press Gallery would be packed, as would their Benches. If they will not do that, we will certainly consider doing it ourselves.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May we have a debate on the costs of Government and the number of Ministers? For the past month, a fifth of the Cabinet has been away from their desks promoting their candidacy for the deputy leadership of the Labour party and the Prime Minister has been largely absent on a world tour. The Leader of the House seems to be running the country on his own, but can he assure the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to run a more streamlined and economical Administration?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry to disabuse the right hon. Gentleman, but after my hour of glory I have turned back into a pumpkin, and so I will doubtless remain. The British Government give good value for money in terms of ministerial work load. For example, at least twice, if not three times, as many written questions are dealt with by the same number of Ministers as under the Conservative Administration, of which the right hon. Gentleman was an adornment.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): The Government this week published “Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century: The way forward”, their response to the consultation document on the issue. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on that subject? Unless we make it a duty on local authorities to provide facilities to bury the dead locally, my constituents will have to bury members of their families in adjacent local authorities at double the cost that the council tax payers of those authorities pay. That will mean an extra charge for residents of those local authorities that are not doing their duty.

Mr. Straw: I understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has rightly published that consultative document and will certainly give consideration as to when and whether that can be debated.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I bring the Leader of the House back to the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the BAE situation? Is not the trouble with what the Leader of the House said the fact that the Government called off the prosecution for reasons of national security, but it now turns out that the threat to national security was the threat of the withdrawal of co-operation from the very same quarter
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that was subject to the investigation for corruption? Is it not simply shameful and dishonourable to give way to that sort of pressure?

Mr. Straw: I know that the Liberal Democrats live in a dream world, but the world is not perfect. The Government faced the prospect of co-operation on national security being withdrawn, and rightly made the judgment—and I am glad to say that the Conservative Opposition accepted the explanation—that that had to override other considerations. That is leaving aside the fact that, to paraphrase the comments by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on 16 December last year, in his judgment the evidential tests would be unlikely to be fulfilled. The hon. Gentleman needs to read the full judgment by Mr. Justice Collins, who said that the case being put forward was unarguable. He also said that

The Liberal Democrats have to understand that there are difficult choices to be made, but we face a serious terrorist threat. We vitally need—and have received—co-operation from, among others, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right to seek not to jeopardise that, and he has the endorsement of a senior High Court judge for that decision.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has answered two questions already on the role of trade unions and their lobbying through Labour MPs to protect workers subject to gangmasters and the abuses of temporary and agency working. He will know that there is a profound case for democratic trade unions in Britain and throughout the world. Given that he has faced what can only be described as a malign slight from Opposition Members on trade unions, would it not be a good idea to have a debate on modern trade unions in Britain, so that people can learn whether the Tory party is still viscerally anti-trade union?

Mr. Straw: The answer is that it is, but we should also have such a debate.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that Edinburgh university has decided to remove an honorary degree from Mr. Mugabe of Zimbabwe. American universities are about to take similar action. Is it not a pity that more action was not sought by the Prime Minister in his recent visit to South Africa, because the people of Zimbabwe are starving and brutalised and the economy is deteriorating rapidly? After all the assurances that the Leader of the House has given me in recent months, can he now tell me that we will have a debate on the issue on the Floor of the House so that we can explore what can be done about the tragedy in what was one of the most prosperous and improving countries in central southern Africa?

Mr. Straw: The whole House shares the profound concern about Zimbabwe and the horror at what is now happening. I do not wish to make this a partisan issue, although the hon. Gentleman started to go that way,
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so it would be unseemly to remind the House that it was a previous Conservative Administration who awarded Robert Mugabe an honorary knighthood —[ Interruption. ] Well, it is not possible to take it away, otherwise that would have been done. We are indeed promising to have a debate and I hope to be able to make an announcement shortly.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Could the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the local government code of conduct, especially on the duties of council officers towards Members of Parliament who raise issues on behalf of constituents? I ask because I have experience with the new chief executive of Warrington borough council, who has failed to reply to several letters that I have sent her on behalf of constituents or has sent replies that were not worth the paper they were written on. She now claims never to have received some letters about very serious antisocial behaviour in my constituency. The suspicion is that she is backed to the hilt by the council’s Liberal leader, that she is not interested in issues in my constituency and that she feels that she is under no duty to treat Members of Parliament with the same impartiality that she shows to different groups in the council. For the sake of all hon. Members, is not it time that we had a debate on this matter? We need to be sure that the concerns of constituents will be treated seriously by all local authorities, regardless of their political colour.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend raises a matter of very serious concern, and the simple fact is that all chief executives—who often are returning officers as well—are expected to be impartial and to offer to MPs the same high level of services as they do to councillors. We will certainly look for an opportunity to hold a debate on the matter.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Further to the Leader of the House’s comments about the al-Yamamah deal, many of our constituents will be feeling great uncertainty about the deal as a result of the impending “Panorama” programme and of the exposé in today’s edition of The Guardian. Is it possible for the right hon. Gentleman to arrange for a statement to be made clarifying what was legitimate under the first, Government-to-Government al-Yamamah arrangement, which did not directly involve BAE Systems as the company soliciting business? Secondly, may we have a statement about when the Serious Fraud Office will come to some conclusions, one way or the other, about the remaining investigations into the activities of BAE Systems?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House about the history of the al-Yamamah deal. It was a Government-to-Government deal, negotiated originally by Margaret Thatcher, with support from both sides of the House. I am unapologetic in saying that it has greatly benefited the country, and Lancashire too. On his second point, we will of course look for an opportunity to give the clarification that he seeks. However, as he will know—although others may not—the Attorney-General in the House of Lords and my right hon. Friend the Solicitor-General in this House made statements on 16 December that set out the facts with great clarity. There was no dubiety—and I direct this at the hon.
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Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—about what was said, and there is no inconsistency between what was said then and what is being said now. It may be sensible if I bring to the attention of the whole House the judgment that was made by Mr. Justice Collins on 29 May this year, and issued earlier this week.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): The shadow Leader of the House referred earlier to yesterday’s exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about occupational pensions. Given that that is such an important subject, does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that it deserves a reasoned and mature debate? If one is held, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the wording of the motion dispels the myth that everything was hunky dory before 1997? In fact, the Pensions Act 1995, which was pushed through by senior members of the current shadow Cabinet, singularly failed to provide pensioners with adequate protection when the companies that employed then went bust—something that seemed to happen quite a lot when the Tories were in power.

Mr. Straw: It would be great to have the debate that my hon. Friend seeks, but unfortunately there is little chance, given the readiness of Conservative Members simply to make partisan points and to suffer amnesia about what happened before 1997. He is right to say that the 1995 Act did not give people adequate protection, but I remind him that the Conservatives encouraged people to opt out of public and state-funded schemes. That was a scandal, and it caused large reductions in the pensions to which people were entitled.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Could the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry to make a statement next week about what is becoming a very unsatisfactory consultation process in respect of closing or moving Crown post offices, such as the one in Chelmsford? That Minister should explain why the consultation is not about decisions to close or move an office, but only about the services that any new office will offer, and where it will be sited in a building. Such decisions will affect a great many people, in my constituency and elsewhere, who believe that they should have an input into the siting of new offices, as well as into the services that are offered.

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