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Mr. Straw: I have a bet at Ladbrokes, with extremely generous odds, on whether at any stage in the next 10 years the hon. Gentleman will ask any question of the Treasury Bench that does not mention the word “Europe”. Sadly, despite the generous odds, I have still not collected any winnings, because I have never heard him ask any question whatever that does not get on to the issue of Europe. Public conveniences in
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Staffordshire would— [Interruption.] The answer to the question— [Interruption.] Well, I have given the hon. Gentleman so many answers to the question and I never satisfy him; it is very sad. The hon. Gentleman knows the answer; I do not know why he asked the damn question. I apologise; I withdraw that intemperate word.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Do you know the answer?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I do. It is that we are the party that pioneered the use of referendums in particular circumstances. We do not believe that that one is appropriate for the EU reform treaty. The only thing that would satisfy the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is a decision made by this House; if he got his party on board and it won an election on such a manifesto, it could happen. I am talking about a decision to repeal the European Communities Act 1972. This House and the other place made the decision to join the European Union; this House and the other place, with or without a referendum—I suggest that one would be useful and desirable in such circumstances—could make a decision to withdraw from the European Union. That is the hon. Gentleman’s policy, not that of those on the Conservative Front Bench. That is his problem.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does the Lord Chancellor recognise that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would not have voted for the war on Iraq if they had known then what we know now? As we consider our war-making powers between now and the end of the consultation period in January, should the House not have an opportunity to debate how we can avoid collectively misdirecting ourselves again in that way, and how the House can be better informed about such decisions before we again erroneously commit people to war?

Mr. Straw: We will have to have another occasion to debate the justification for military action in respect of Iraq on 18 March 2003. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, who voted for it, I think—I certainly did; if he did not, I apologise—that the House as a whole voted for it by a very large majority.

I have thought about this a very great deal. As far as I am concerned, on the basis of the information that was then available, which was the only information that could have been available at the time, the decision to take military action was justified. I am happy to discuss that in another place. Whatever criticism is made of the Government and their decision, every effort was made to involve this House, not on one occasion but on four, through substantive motions. I believe that we have to learn lessons from what happened, one of which is how much more detail should be available about both the intelligence and the defence case for any military action. Also the House has to come to a view about whether, and in what circumstances, it needs formal written legal advice, and if so from whom, if there is any question of a challenge to the legality of any proposition for military action.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does the Lord Chancellor accept that when we exercise our right to free speech, whether in this Chamber or in public
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places such as Parliament square, that does not confer an unlimited right to shout and bawl one’s message using amplification equipment in a deliberate attempt to disturb other people? Is he aware that when that happens, in breach of the over-generous permission already given to the protesters by Westminster council, there is nothing the police can do about it other than retrospectively take the perpetrators to court? That is because the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 removed the power of the police to cross the road, take the equipment away and stop the people from breaking the rules. Will he address that loophole?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will indeed address that issue. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman makes a rather important and wider point. I commend a lecture that I am giving at the university of Cambridge later on today.

Dr. Lewis: Send me an advance copy!

Mr. Straw: I think that the hon. Gentleman may have discovered that on his desk there is a little box called a computer; if it is working, I will send him an e-mail.

Dr. Lewis: Excellent.

Mr. Straw: The point that I make in my speech, which is by no means original, is that rights have to go with obligations, and privileges with duties, and that we need to do more to ensure that that side of the equation is better understood.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement. I particularly welcome his comment that his motivation for much of his activity as a student was enjoyment—I always thought so, as did many others, and I am grateful for his honesty.

When I wrote to the Home Secretary about Parliament square and the insulting behaviour thrown at Members as they leave this place, particularly at the
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then Prime Minister, I was told that local government powers stood very much in the way of taking further action. The Lord Chancellor will obviously take that into account. Will he talk to local government people to ensure that they do not get in the way of the actions that he wants to take on this occasion?

Mr. Straw: I understand and am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whose happy task it is to conduct this review, will certainly bear in mind. Having been Home Secretary when we had the Stop the City protests, which were very violent and disruptive—on one occasion people dug up the whole of Parliament square—I discovered that the legal ownership of that piece of land is a nightmare, as different bits of it belong to different owners with different rights in respect of it. If I might make my own suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, one of the things that we have to ensure is that any new legal framework in respect of demonstrations there takes proper account of those legal ownership issues.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Lord Chancellor said that the Prime Minister is making a statement elsewhere about the freedom of information request, and that the charges will not be tightened. If it is not a secret, could the Lord Chancellor tell us what were the pros and cons of that decision?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is indeed making a speech elsewhere shortly. One reason why I made this statement in advance of his speech is his concern, and mine, that this House should be the first to know of the substance of what he says—not the whole speech, as that would run over the allocations that we have agreed with Mr. Speaker.

On freedom of information fees, there was a proposal that the definition of excessive time taken should be extended, and that some relatively minimal fees should be introduced in respect of data protection. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will announce, as a supplement to the announcement that I have made in this House, that we are not intending to proceed with those restrictions, nor with the fee.

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Business of the House

12.26 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week. It will include:

Monday 29 October—If necessary consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the UK Borders Bill, followed by a debate on Burma on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, followed, if necessary, by consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 30 October—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments. The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

Colleagues will wish to be aware that business may go beyond the moment of interruption on both days.

I am sure that Members understood all that, but I am aware that the formal way in which business statements are made can be incomprehensible. I hope that the Clerks will not start tearing the hair out of their wigs, but I have already asked the Procedure Committee to consider looking at how we can use plain English, and I hope that in future my statements will be more in humanspeak and less in gobbledegook.

On oral questions, following representations from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I have reflected on their comments and confirm to the House that, following agreement through the usual channels, the Government will bring forward a revised questions rota which is intended to result in better accountability for the larger Departments and, subject to the views of the House today, even greater topicality.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has reflected on the issue of the question cycle. It is important that Departments such as the Ministry of Justice are able to have longer than the half hour that is in the current cycle. I thank her for giving us the future business, such as it is at this stage of the Session.

Last week, the Leader of the House told the House that the Government were

Yet last month she told the media:

Will she make a statement on what exactly is happening with the equalities Bill?

This morning, the Government announced in a written statement that motorway hard shoulders will be used to curb congestion. The Transport Secretary has not come to the House to take questions from hon. Members. Can the Leader of the House confirm that that decision hides cuts to the Government’s motorway widening programme; and when will the Transport Secretary come to the House to explain it?

Yesterday, speaking about the changes to capital gains tax, the Minister for Trade Promotion and Investment, Lord Jones of Birmingham, said that

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Can we have a debate, in Government time, so that we may decide who is right about capital gains tax—the Chancellor or the Minister?

The Prime Minister said:

However, we have just had a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice, the details of which were reported by The Guardian this morning. It is now clear that with this Government no spin has become the new spin. Who can trust the Prime Minister on the constitution? He abused his constitutional position by planning and then bottling a general election for party political reasons. Can we have a full debate, in Government time, on the Prime Minister's abuse of the constitution?

Cancelling a general election for party political purposes is cynical; making a mess of the Scottish elections for partisan reasons is unforgivable. The Gould report says that

Will the Secretary of State for International Development come to the House to apologise and make a personal statement? One experienced parliamentarian has said that

That was the Leader of the House herself. Will she arrange a debate, in Government time, on the lessons of the Gould report?

Democracy and electoral processes will undoubtedly be raised in next week’s important debate on Burma. Who will be speaking for the Government in that debate—the Foreign Secretary or the International Development Secretary?

The British population will increase to over 70 million by 2031, and at least 70 per cent. of that increase will be down to immigration. What is the Government’s big idea on immigration? They borrow British National party slogans such as “British jobs for British workers”—even though everyone knows that that would be illegal. Can we have a debate, in Government time, on Labour’s failed immigration policy?

The issues tell a bigger story. We have a Prime Minister with no long-term vision, just short-term tactics, and no serious answers, just spin. He spent a lifetime working to get to No. 10, but now he has got there, he has no idea what to do.

Ms Harman: The first point that the right hon. Lady asked me about concerned the equality Bill. I very much welcome her new interest in equality, particularly on the question of equal pay. However, I remember that she voted against what was, in itself, the biggest contribution to narrowing the pay gap between women and men: the minimum wage. Nevertheless, I welcome her commitment to equality.

As far as the Bill is concerned, the original plan was to issue a consultation and following that to publish a draft Bill this spring for inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of November 2008. Following the response to the consultation, a number of proposals have been made
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that we think are worthy of consideration in order to improve the Bill. As I told the right hon. Lady previously, we want to keep our slot for a new equality Bill, fit for the 21st century, in 2008. It might not be possible to publish the whole Bill in draft, but we would seek to publish some draft clauses. I attended a reception at the TUC in September—the House was not sitting at the time—where I gave that answer to a question about our response to the consultation on the equality Bill. If the House had been sitting, I would have taken the opportunity to come to the House to make that point.

The right hon. Lady asked about motorway hard shoulders. There was a written ministerial statement on that, and I am not aware of any request for an urgent question from hon. Members, but there will be Transport questions in the future— [ Interruption. ] I apologise; an urgent question was requested, but not accepted.

The right hon. Lady asked about capital gains tax. There is an opportunity during consideration of the Queen’s Speech for the Opposition to choose the subjects for whole-day debates. I have no doubt that the economy will be one of them, and hon. Members can revisit those issues.

The right hon. Lady accused the Secretary of State for Justice and the Prime Minister of briefing the newspapers before the statement given by the Secretary of State. The information that was new in the Secretary of State’s statement was first announced in this House, but a lot of the information discussed in the papers this morning was in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, which had already been given to the House by the Prime Minister in July. That information was already in the public domain. Although we can discuss things already in the public domain in the newspapers, if Ministers have new information, I regard it as important that they bring it in a statement to this House. As I understand it, that is what the Secretary of State for Justice did today.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the Scottish elections. It is deeply regrettable that 150,000 or so people did not have their vote counted in those elections. The point is that everyone should have a vote and we have always wanted to increase the turnout from its diminishing level. One of the reasons why proportional systems, which operate in the European elections, and in London, Wales and Scotland, were introduced was the belief that it might increase turnout, based on the argument that every vote counted for more. As we have seen, the reality is that it makes the system more complex.

I remind the House that in the 2004 London elections, 220,000 votes were ruled out because we had the European, the Greater London authority and the mayoral elections on the same day. We tried to have a perfectly fair system for each election, but the result was too much complexity. The Electoral Commission is on hand to deal with the matter, and we established that independent commission to assist with election questions when we came into government. However, the question of how the new electoral systems are
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knitting together is the subject of a review that is being led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

On the question of Burma, I am sure that the House will welcome the fact that a Minister in the Foreign Office has been in talks in the region, in Singapore on Monday, and with Chinese and Indian Ministers in Tonga, so work is going ahead—[Hon. Members: “Who is the Minister?”] I shall get to that in a moment. I know that the matter is very important, and I wanted to report to the House the work of Ministers on the important question of Burma. We hope that it is a sign of progress that Aung San Suu Kyi has been called for talks by the Burmese authorities, and the Foreign Office are still considering who will lead an important debate on the matter on Monday.

As far as Labour’s immigration policy is concerned. I will repeat what I have said before. This country was built on successive waves of immigration. No doubt, many Members would not be in this House if it were not for immigration, and I am sure that they play a very important role in this country. If they want to debate the issues further, they can raise them on the occasion of the Queen’s Speech debate.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that the Government have for several months had the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body. Can she let the House know when it is likely to be published and when it is likely to be considered by the House?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Don’t say shortly.

Ms Harman: I can say that it will be very shortly. I know that the question of pay and the important support services for Members that enable us to do our job properly are of concern to the House. We will publish the Government’s response at the same time as the SSRB report, enabling the House to debate it very shortly thereafter.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Leader of the House’s announcement about plain English statements and a new timetable for questions is welcome. I assume that there will be a chance over a year to consider how the latter works. I hope that there is a case for doing the one thing that, despite her best efforts, she has been unable to achieve: ensuring that the Department for International Development has a full slot like the other major Departments. I am sure that that would be popular and welcome and I hope that we can do it as soon as possible.

May I join the calls that hon. Members of all parties made yesterday and that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made today for the earliest possible debate about elections in the United Kingdom? The Gould report contained the telling phrase

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