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14 Jun 2007 : Column 865

Business of the House

11.31 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give the forthcoming business?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Only one more to go, Jack.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): No.

The business of the House for next week is as follows:

Monday 18 June—Remaining stages of the Mental Health Bill [ Lords]—day one.

Tuesday 19 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Mental Health Bill [ Lords]. It is also expected that a statement will be made on the Fulton and Hall reports into the hostage situation in Iran.

Wednesday 20 June—There will be a debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 21 June—There will be a debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 22 June—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 25 June will be:

Monday 25 June—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill—day one.

Tuesday 26 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 27 June—Remaining stages of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [ Lords].

Thursday 28 June—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [ Lords] .

Friday 29 June—Private Members’ Bills.

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

Today is Falkland Islands liberation day, marking the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the islands. I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me in encouraging all members to sign early-day motion 1685, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to mark the courage of Her Majesty’s armed forces and to acknowledge the sacrifice of the 255 men who fell.

[That this House notes that 14th June is Falkland Islands Liberation Day; recalls the enormous courage and determination of Her Majesty's armed forces in liberating the Islands; pays tribute to the inspirational leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, with the support of Parliament, helped restore the Islanders' democratic way of life; remains resolutely dedicated to strengthening the historic ties between Britain and the Falkland Islands; reaffirms Britain's sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and her commitment to defend their right to choose their own future; and acknowledges with deep gratitude the sacrifice of 255 men who gave their lives for this cause.]

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The motion is a reminder of the debt we owe all our armed forces for the service they have given, and continue to give, to our country.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is grave, as fighting continues between Hamas and Fatah. Reports suggest that Hamas is now in control of almost the whole Gaza strip. That obviously has serious consequences for the middle east peace process. May we, therefore, have a debate on the situation in Gaza and on the peace process?

This week, Mahmod Mahmod and Ari Mahmod were convicted of the murder of Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old woman who fell in love with the wrong man. The human rights lawyer, Usha Sood, says that

The police say that there are as many as 12 honour killings in the UK each year. Miss Mahmod was clearly let down by the authorities, who failed to protect her from her father, despite several warnings. May we have a debate on how we can prevent these despicable crimes?

According to a study published today, hundreds of thousands of elderly people are suffering physical and psychological abuse, neglect and theft. The care services Minister has committed to new guidelines for handling cases of abuse. With an ageing population, the fear is that this terrible problem will become increasingly prevalent, so may we have a debate on how to protect vulnerable elderly people?

Ahead of the EU intergovernmental conference, the French President says that he has agreed

with the Prime Minister, and the German Chancellor says that the treaty will have the same “legal substance” as the failed constitution. Surely any treaty on the transfer of powers to the EU must be put to the country in a referendum, so may we have a debate on the circumstances required for a referendum?

I reiterate my request for a debate on home information packs. This week, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Minister for Housing and Planning have got into another fine mess. Now, taxpayers’ money is being spent on subsidising the first home information packs, the Home Information Organisation is threatening to sue for billions of pounds, and the Government tell us that they have not even been able to find a legal definition of a bedroom, so may we have a debate on home information packs?

Finally, the Chancellor’s camp says that he is going to scrap the Department of Trade and Industry and create a Department for energy—but we have heard that before. Two years ago, the Government changed the DTI’s name to the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, but they changed it back again within days—I see the Deputy Leader of the House smiling—when they realised what the initials spelled out. I am too much of a lady to mention it in this House—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I am sure that hon. Members can work it out for themselves. The Lord Chancellor’s Department became the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and is now the Ministry of Justice. The Department for Transport became the DETR, then the DTLR, and now it is the Department
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for Transport again. But after all those changes, voters have seen no improvement in delivery. How much has that cost? In total, this Government have blown £2 million of taxpayers’ money on shuffling the Whitehall pack, so may we have a debate on this Government’s obsession with spin and presentation?

Mr. Straw: I endorse what the right hon. Lady says about the Falkland Islands. All of us, whether we were Members of Parliament or not, remember the dreadful events that led, in the end, to the liberation of the Falklands, and the terrible loss of life among British soldiers and personnel and, I may say, among Argentine personnel, most of whom were conscripts. As I have said before, those of us who were Members of Parliament recognise the steadfast courage and leadership shown by Margaret Thatcher. I salute that again, but above all I salute the courage and bravery of those who fell and of all who fought in that military action.

The situation in Gaza is indeed grave. Violence, whoever is causing it, provides no answer to the deep-seated problems in the occupied territories; nor does it provide any future. There is a heavy responsibility on Hamas and Fatah, and on the Government of Israel, to recognise, in their own separate ways, their responsibilities to work towards the only peaceful prospect for that area: a political process leading to negotiations and the fulfilment of United Nations resolutions. I will certainly bear in mind what the right hon. Lady says about the need for a debate and, I might add, a statement before that.

I note what the right hon. Lady says about honour killings. The term is a misnomer as there is no honour in those crimes, which are despicable, as are all murders and crimes that take place within families, regardless of the ethnic background of the people involved. It is our responsibility to ensure that the police, and the communities, do all that they can to ensure that such crimes do not take place.

The report published today on vulnerable elderly people is of profound importance. I am glad that it was sponsored by the Government, as it contains much food for thought about how we recognise the signs that vulnerable elderly people are being abused, and about what better measures we can take to detect those who abuse elderly people in the guise of family carers. The problem is very difficult to get at, but I hope that the report will generate a great deal of discussion and, in time, action too.

Unusually, the right hon. Lady is getting a bit ahead of herself with the EU treaty proposals. Nothing has yet been agreed. I am afraid that I was not privy to the discussions between President Sarkozy and the Prime Minister, but my right hon. Friend has set out his interpretation of them already. It is absolutely right for any British Prime Minister to engage in discussions with his opposite numbers in Europe. In the unlikely event—and it is becoming more and more unlikely—that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) ended up as Prime Minister, I hope that he would do the same; otherwise he would be selling this country short. By the way, he would be assisted in his attempts to persuade Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy of his point of view if he decided to keep the Conservatives in the centre-right European People’s party, instead of
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attaching his party to a far-right rump currently occupied only by the very far-right conservatives in the Czech Republic.

If previous experience is anything to go by, I am sure that the Conservative party will find plenty of opportunities to debate a referendum on the EU constitution, but the real question is whether there would be any significant transfer of power from the UK to Brussels as a result of any treaty. When the matter was discussed before and after the 2005 election, I spelled out endlessly that much in the constitution works to Britain’s advantage. I suggest that the whole House examine the proposals on their merits, and not anticipate decisions that have not been taken yet.

The right hon. Lady asked about HIPs. In her statement in May, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made it clear that HIPs for larger houses of four or more bedrooms will come into force on 1 August, and that they will be phased in for other properties after that. Moreover, I do not think that there will be any difficulty in determining whether a bedroom is a bedroom.

The right hon. Lady’s final question was about the changes of name of Government Departments. The Conservatives made changes to how Departments were organised—some of them perfectly sensible—but we are proud of the delivery that those Departments have been able to achieve since 1997. For example, Britain has, in many ways, enjoyed its best economic record since records began, and there are now 2 million more people in work and 760,000 fewer unemployed. Investment is at record levels, education standards are at record highs and we have had record improvements in the health service.

I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House did not continue the leadership theme begun by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. Perhaps the Conservatives have learned a lesson about that, because I was hoping to have an opportunity to give a wider audience to the blessed Simon Heffer of The Daily Telegraph—

John Bercow: He is a right-wing extremist nutter!

Mr. Straw: I think that the jury is out on that.

I am warming very much to what Simon Heffer says. The Daily Telegraph is the official organ of the Conservative party, and only yesterday he wrote:

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): How does the Leader of the House intend to ensure that correspondence from MPs on behalf of their constituents is not subject to public disclosure if the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill fails to make progress in the other place?

Mr. Straw: We are taking every step, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice and with a great deal of consideration by the House of Commons Commission and the Department of Finance and Administration in this place to ensure that it is made absolutely clear to
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public authorities that where they receive requests for the disclosure of correspondence that involves Members of Parliament, first, in every case the Member of Parliament must be consulted and, secondly, it is probable that in almost every case such correspondence is covered either by the exemptions, which are absolute in respect of confidentiality, or by data protection or by many of the other qualified exemptions within the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Detailed guidance has been drafted. I went through it again last night. Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen are also being consulted. It should lead to a better situation than we faced before. I underline that Members of Parliament, for very good reasons, are not public authorities and therefore are not subject to freedom of information legislation. That was agreed without argument eight years ago.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): That guidance will be very welcome in explaining the position to authorities that do not understand the existing law.

May we have a debate on the decision of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to restrict access to lucentis and macugen for wet age-related macular degeneration? I recognise that NICE does a very necessary and difficult job, but often the methodology it employs seems better for assessing life-prolonging therapies than for those that enhance the quality of life. As a former optician, I am only too well aware of the awful devastation that can result from AMD. I hope that the House will discuss the matter.

Last week, I asked the Leader of the House about the Ministry of Defence’s involvement in the al-Yamamah affair. It is ironic that the United States Congress is taking more interest in the matter than the House of Commons. The Attorney-General has now written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) saying that the decision to withhold vital information from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was taken by officials rather than by accountable Ministers—decisions that were politically inept and clearly unsustainable. I renew my request for a statement on the matter.

May I ask the Leader of the House to find time for a debate and the passing into law of the Corruption Bill, which finished its remaining stages in the House of Lords yesterday and would at least enable us to rectify the law?

May we have a debate on the draft Community Drivers’ Hours and Recording Equipment Regulations 2007? There were several unanswered questions in the Delegated Legislation Committee yesterday. The regulations remove the exemptions for rural bus services with a route of more than 31.6 miles. I know that the Leader of the House not only knows the south-west well but knows public transport well. He will know that if he were to catch the 632 service from Taunton to Yeovil via Martock, he would be all right because the route would be 30.3 miles, but if he caught the 54 service from Taunton to Yeovil via Long Sutton, he would not be all right because the route would be 31.8 miles. Is this not nonsense, and should we not revisit the regulations?

Mr. Straw: In respect of the first point, the hon. Gentleman comes to this issue with a great deal of professional expertise. All of us understand that age-related
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macular degeneration is a distressing condition for patients and their carers. We are committed to supporting the national health service to deliver improved eye-care services for patients. All primary care trusts are funding photodynamic therapy as a treatment for what is called wet AMD. I underline that what NICE has said is not its final guidance; the guidance has been issued for consultation and the Department of Health will respond in due course. I will make sure that the chief executive of NICE is aware of the hon. Gentleman’s view from his position of expertise.

On BAE, far from the matter not being discussed, it has been discussed at every recent business question time that I can recall, and at Prime Minister’s questions. The suggestion—the insinuation—by the leader of the Liberal Democrats that my noble Friend the Attorney-General ordered investigators to withhold information from the OECD is completely wrong. Instead of wriggling, the Liberal Democrat leader should apologise for making completely unsubstantiated allegations.

Secondly, if the Liberal Democrats are serious, as I think some of them are, about ending their 90 years in opposition and going into government—as a charitable sort of fellow, I have always seen it as part of my role to assist them along that path in whatever way I can—they need to think about the considerations that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had to take into account in making his judgment. The simple fact is that security and co-operation with the Saudis, which is absolutely fundamental not just to the middle east but to our safety in this country, would not merely have been threatened; it would have been undermined had we continued with an inquiry that, on the merits of the case, many of us believe would have proved abortive. There is no point in the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) trying to pretend that it is not an issue—it is an issue for everybody in the House. The Conservatives, to their great credit, understand that, and I am just sorry that the Liberal Democrats try to avoid it altogether.

The third issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was the draft Community Drivers’ Hours and Recording Equipment Regulations 2007, which were, as he said, subject to considerable discussion in a Delegated Legislation Committee. I do not want the House to get the wrong idea; I know the south-west very well, I was just confused last week—unusually, let me say for the record. I am tempted to try the 632 and the 54, but I have always had a conscientious objection to getting on a bus with a Liberal Democrat, so I shall have to avoid that.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): If indeed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill is dead and, I hope, buried for ever, my right hon. Friend should be aware that if there is a genuine problem over the disclosure of MPs’ correspondence, I should support a measure that will deal with it. It is a pity that the problem was not dealt with at the beginning, rather than trying to exempt Parliament from freedom of information provisions. Perhaps the Data Protection Act 1998 should be considered with regard to MPs’ correspondence.

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