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Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab):
Next week is national markets week, and the all-party markets industry group is encouraging Members of Parliament to visit
their local market to show their support. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate next week on the importance of markets in providing employment, strengthening communities, promoting healthy eating, protecting the environment and regenerating town centres?
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Given the right hon. Gentlemans remarks about the Union, will he arrange an early debate on the size of the Scottish block vote, so that we can consider the unfairness of English taxpayers having to pay for the cost of scrapping graduate tax, even though English students will not be eligible for that relief at Scottish universities?
Mr. Straw: That issue was settled in the devolution legislation, and I would like to hear from the hon. Gentleman whether the Conservatives now propose to go back on that. He should also be told that in the House, the English block vote completely outweighs the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish block votes by a margin of about 5:1, yet the House completely controls the size of the block grant that goes to Scotland. Devolution means difference, and I celebrate that, even if he does not. The truth is that there is no evidence that differences in fee regimes encourage more English students to study in Scotland, or deter significant numbers of Scottish students from studying in England. University applications in England are up 6 per cent. to the highest rate ever, and the proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups is up, too.
Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): For the third week in a row, my right hon. Friend has failed to grant the House a debate on the future of grammar schools, so I shall change tack: will he allow us a debate on the future of secondary modern schools, and does he think that the 102,160 pupils who attend secondary modern schools deserve at least an explanation from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)?
Mr. Straw: I do. I am sorry; I usually try to help my hon. Friend, and the House, but we continue to look for an opportunity to debate grammar school policy, as it is a really important matter. What people used to forget when they celebrated grammar schools is that 20 per cent. of children went to grammar schools, and 80 per cent. were labelled failures and went to secondary moderns. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) is not here, but as I agree with her, I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to put on record what she told The House Magazine:
The whole issue of grammar schools has been handled very badly indeed.
I agree with thatand I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that she is not a right-wing nutter at all, but a Member of the House. I hope that there will be an opportunity for her to explain her views in more detail in the near future.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): May we have a debate on the relocation of 70 Crown post offices to branches of WH Smith? In my constituency, consultation has started on proposals to move the Kirkintilloch post office, and I have no doubt that other areas face a similar situation. Given that the issue is causing a great deal of concern, is it not time that we had a debate in the House specifically on that major change to the post office network?
Mr. Straw: We have had plenty of debates on the subject, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been assiduous in coming before the House to explain the position, which is not one that any of us wished for. May I offer a bit of helpful advice to the Liberal Democrats? They have to think about the fact that in the past 10 years there has been increased use of the internet. It is now in 55 per cent. of homes, and people now use it when they used to go to the post office. Unfortunately, that has changed the market in which the Post Office has to operate. We have put £2 billion into subsidising the Post Office and helping it to deal with transitional problems.
Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): May we have a debate on the disproportionate effect that debt has on the poor, especially with regard to companies such as BrightHouse, which specifically targets the poor and charges them extortionate rates of interest? The price of the goods is marked up to begin with, too. The poor sometimes feel that they have nowhere else to go, but they do: there are credit unions. Wearsidefirst is one such credit union in Sunderland; it offers hope and an alternative to millions of the poorest and most vulnerable consumers in the country.
Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. I had a terrible case along those lines in my constituency advice service just last Friday, in which usurious rates of interest were being demanded from a poor lady. My hon. Friend is right, but I cannot make a promise about a debate, although we will certainly look for an opportunity.
Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): The Department for Transports high-level output specification for the passenger railways is due to be published in July, and it will focus on reliability, safety and capacity. Naturally, those are important issues for every Member of the House, and Ministers have rightly declined to comment on them while the report is in preparation. Next month, will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the implementation of the document, before the recommendations can get buried in the long grass of the summer recess?
Mr. Straw: I shall certainly look for that opportunity. I might add that I have been encouraging my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to include in the high-level analysis a recognition of the case for the doubling of the track between Blackburn and Bolton.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend will know that I have raised the issue of violent video games on a number of occasions. Will he join me
in condemning Sony for the publication of a new video game that depicts scenes of Manchester cathedral, without the permission of the Church authorities, in a game that is very violent and bloody? Will he join the Prime Minister in stating clearly that there is a responsibility beyond profit on those who produce such games? Can we ask Sony at least to withdraw the game and pay compensation to a Church charity, and may we have a debate on that important matter?
Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend is right about the issue, and there has been totally unacceptable practice on Sonys part. It has a moral duty to withdraw the game and make reparation to a Church charity, but it ought also to have some enlightened self-interest about the damage that it is doing to what was a reputable brand.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I welcome the fact that we are to debate defence next Thursday; that will give the House greater opportunity to celebrate the courage, bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, especially those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Can we make sure that the Secretary of State for Defence comes before the House with evidence about why we pay only £1.51 a day to feed our soldiers in the UK, and £2.63 to feed servicemen abroad? That money is not enough to feed our soldiers in the field, which is why so many servicemens families are sending high-protein products out to soldiers in the field, as the Government are not feeding them correctly.
Mr. Straw: I know about the hon. Gentlemans experience in the forces; he was a member of the Grenadier Guards for some years. The Ministry of Defence is clear that the allowance for UK-based forces is significantly above that for dogs, and so it should be. That is the information with which I have been provided [Interruption.] Army dogs. Army dogs have to be fed, too [Interruption]as the hon. Member for Buckingham will understand.
Mr. Straw: Okay. That is unusual, because the hon. Gentleman normally provides a running commentary on everything I say. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) was certainly talking about Army dogs in the Daily Mail yesterday. [Interruption.] If I missed the point of what he was saying, I am sorry, but I thought that he was continuing what he said in the Daily Mail yesterday [Interruption.] Well, I could be forgiven for thinking that he was.
Mr. Straw: I have, too. Although those people were concerned about many things, they were not concerned about the food. None the less, the hon. Gentleman can raise that subject next week in the debate.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In 17 days time, we shall see the banning of smoking in public places, which is an enormous leap forward in the prevention of smoking-related disease. However, there is still an awful lot to do. In the 48 minutes that business questions have lasted so far, 12 of our citizens have died of lung disease. Today, in the middle of breathe easy week, which was organised by the admirable British Lung Foundation, will the Leader of the House announce that we will have a debate in the House on lung disease? There is a shortage of respiratory specialists and community support, and death rates have remained stubbornly high for a generation, so there is an awful lot more to do. I am sure that, as a Government, we will take further steps to tackle that continuing problem.
Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right to raise that important issue. We have done a very great deal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been in the vanguard of ensuring that the ban is introduced, which has already led to change in public attitudes and to much greater consideration by those who smoke of the importance of no longer smoking. We will certainly look for an opportunity for a debate.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The Leader of the House will have noted in todays Financial Times a report that the Chancellors chief fund raiser, Sir Ronnie Cohen, who is also a leading figure in the private equity world, believes that the Government should change a tax loophole by getting rid of the taper on capital gains tax. Should not the Chancellor come to the House next week to let us know what he is doing on that issueor would it be better for us to wait until the end of the month for the Leader of the House to do so himself?
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Could we have an urgent debate on the Chicago convention on international civil aviation, because the only way in which we can reconcile repeated ministerial statements that the Government have no evidence of detainees being rendered through the United Kingdom with the evidence collected by the Council of Europe and the European Parliamentthe most recent instance was on 2 June at Mildenhallof prisoners being rendered through the UK is by reference to a loophole in the convention whereby the US Government are not obliged to inform the UK Government if they are rendering prisoners through UK territory? That is a stain on us.
Tony Baldry: It is: if prisoners are rendered through UK or European airspace, that is a stain on us. I have to tell the Leader of the House that one of the things that have lost the war for the United States is Guantanamo Bay and the issue of civil rights, so can we have an early debate on the Chicago convention?
The reason why I shook my head is that I made it clear in a statement in December 2005 that Ministry of Defence records, which were examined with the greatest care, showed that there was absolutely no
evidence of any cases of rendition having taken place through our airspace or our airportsnone whatever. Despite extensive inquiries by the European Parliament and others, they have not been able to produce any evidence whatever. I shook my head because, uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman was giving force to wholly unsubstantiated allegations. It is my belief, on the basis of the most substantial examination, that apart from the two cases, of which I informed the House, and which took place in 1998 in entirely justifiable circumstances and are on the public record, there has been no rendition through the United Kingdom. If he thinks about it for a second he may realise that if there had been, there might have been a scintilla of evidence from somebody somewhere at a British airport saying that they had spotted something. There has been no such evidence, nor do I believe that the United States would have broken clear understandings with us and done this without our knowledge.
John Bercow: Could we please have a full-day debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time, given that both those important topics fall within the scope of current inquiries by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, so ably chaired by the Leader of the House himself, and the fact that we need to decide how to improve the means of scrutiny and the opportunities for representation? Will he take it from me that it would be cruel beyond endurance, both for him and for the House, if he were denied the opportunity to listen and respond to a full-day debate on those matters before he moves to pastures equally lush?
Mr. Straw: I know of no pasture as lush as that of Leader of the House. If anyone aspires to the position, may I tell them it is a great job? We will leave to one side what will happen, or will not happen, in futureyou never know. The hon. Gentleman gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee, on which I commend him. We have concluded our report, and it should be published shortly. I hope and believe that there will indeed be a full debate, as he proposed. Improving the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time is of profound importance to the House.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A constituent of mine was set upon by a group of thugs in a vicious assault, and ended up in hospital for more than a week. The Northamptonshire police did a very good job, and arrested the alleged culprits. The Crown Prosecution Service did its job, and the case went to the magistrates court. However, when it reached the Crown court, the defence lawyer pointed out that there was an error on a forma court clerk had misrecorded something that the judge had saidand the case was dismissed. The Northamptonshire Evening Telegrapha fine paper in my constituencyhas taken up that case under the banner Rough Justice. Can we have a statement or a debate to clarify the reason why clerical errors apparently allow justice not to be done?
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not comment specifically, as I know no more about that case than what he has told us, but it sounds as if it is a serious matter. Discretion rests with courts to deal
with non-material errors without having to require acquittal in certain circumstances. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friends the Attorney-General and the Secretary of State for Justice. If the hon. Gentleman can provide me with more information, I will follow this up.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Can we go back to the issue of Crown post offices? We should have a full-scale debate in Government time on the closure programme. Is the Leader of the House aware of the anger and dismay in Kings Lynn about the fact that services housed in a great historic building are to be moved to a nondescript counter in WH Smith? Despite what he said the other day about the public not using those services, people use that building regularly, so what can he do to help hon. Members on both sides of the House to make the Post Office and the Department of Trade and Industry see sense?
Mr. Straw: Of course I understand the concerns that arise when those changes take place, but the Post Office and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry face a dilemma that must be shared with the House. How is it possible to maintain the viability of the Post Office when the internet has led to a significant reduction in personal mail as a result of e-mail, and in over-the-counter transactions at post offices because people can now, for example, renew their road fund tax on the internet, rather than going to a post office? That dilemma affects all of us. I understand the anxieties expressed by the hon. Gentlemans constituentsas he knows, I am familiar with the main post office in Kings Lynnand I shall certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I want to take the Leader of the House back to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about the House of Lords judgment. It is interesting that the Ministry of Defence was quoted in todays press as saying that the ruling changed nothing, and that it was a helpful clarification. That raises the question why the MOD appealed the matter to the House of Lords in the first place. I listened carefully to the response from the Leader of the House, who said that the Law Officers and the Secretary of State for Defence were reviewing the judgment carefully. I do not think I heard him sayit would be helpful if he could clarify this for the Housewhether, once they have completed that consideration, the Law Officers, the Secretary of State or both will make an oral statement to the House to set out the current legal position of our service personnel when operating abroad.
Mr. Straw: My understanding is that it was not the Ministry of Defence, but the family, who appealed to the House of Lords. That is how the case ended up there. I will pass on the hon. Gentlemans concerns and alert my right hon. Friend to the fact that the hon. Gentleman is likely to raise the matter in the debate that takes place a week today.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con):
May we have an urgent statement from the Minister for Industry and the Regions about the proposed closure at the end of this month of the Kettering Business Venture Trust,
and the role of the East Midlands development agency in its demise? KBVT has been helping local businesses start up over the past 22 years, creating thousands of jobs in and around the Kettering constituency. When 43,000 new jobs are required in north Northamptonshire in order to comply with the Governments sustainable communities plan, the loss of KBVT comes at entirely the wrong time. The Government should step in urgently and save this worthwhile local enterprise agency.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have no briefing on the subject, as it is a question without notice. I understand the concerns that he expresses and I will make them known to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
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