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20 Mar 2008 : Column 1094

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May we have a debate on the oleaginous and supine approach of BBC news editors to BBC management? Did my right hon. and learned Friend notice this morning, in bulletin after bulletin, how they went on about Formula 1 being won by the BBC? The question that they did not ask was how much the licence payer would have to pay for something that could and should be provided on commercial television, with the licence money being diverted to promoting real, competitive sports, rather than the wealthy industry that is Formula 1. Is it not time that BBC news editors were brought to book? They should be probing BBC management rather than crawling to it.

Ms Harman: I will raise the points that my hon. Friend makes with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I am sure that the top brass will have heard those comments loud and clear.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Perhaps I should observe that hon. Members should make some effort to relate their question to next week’s business.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Local shops and businesses produce a huge amount of waste that usually does not get recycled. Local councils, including Haringey, are not taking up that issue. The Government have not considered it since 2003, and it might be useful if the House had a debate about how we support local councillors in addressing the huge swathe of business recycling that is not being done.

Ms Harman: Many local councils, and certainly Labour councils, have been working very hard, with the support of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to increase recycling rates, but I will raise the points that the hon. Lady makes with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement about Tibet yesterday, and I am especially pleased that he will meet the Dalai Lama when he comes to the UK in May. I had the honour of meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala towards the end of last year, and I am sure that we all admire the peaceful lead that he provides in this difficult situation. I echo calls for a debate, but will my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House have any role in helping to arrange for the Dalai Lama to address both Houses of Parliament when he comes to this country?

Ms Harman: I will look into the point that my hon. Friend makes, because I am sure that it will be of interest to many hon. Members. If there is any outcome, I will write to her and place a copy in the Library so that all hon. Members can see what the arrangements are.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware of the grave concern across the House about the expansion of Heathrow and the third runway. It certainly has great implications, both
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good and bad, for my constituents. An interesting independent report, which was published this week, questions the economic assumptions made by the Department for Transport, and environmental groups have also expressed grave concerns about the detailed evidence that the Government are using. I raised this issue with the Leader of the House about three weeks ago, when she said that there had been a large number of responses to the consultation. Can she give us an assurance today that there will be a debate in Government time about this important issue?

Ms Harman: I cannot make an announcement at this point about how the response to the consultation will be dealt with, but as I said there have been a very large number of responses to this consultation, and they are being carefully reviewed by Departments.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may have seen the report prepared for the TUC by tax expert Richard Murphy, setting out the case that £33 billion is lost through tax fiddles. She may also have seen a report by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, showing that VAT losses from fraud are £14 billion and that losses from tobacco smuggling alone are £3.5 billion. Could we have a full debate on all the losses to the Treasury and how the public purse is being ripped off, so that we can address ways to counter that?

Ms Harman: I know that this issue was raised in the Budget debate earlier this week. The Treasury is very concerned to make sure that taxes are fairly applied and that those people who are in a good position to pay them do not avoid doing so.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May we please have an early debate in Government time on night flights into and out of East Midlands airport in Leicestershire? Last year, there were 20,000 night flights, between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am, and that figure will increase to 27,000 by 2016. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) not to hold his breath, because there has been a marked lack of interest from the Government and the Department for Transport in that issue, despite the fact that there has been huge public disquiet about the activities of East Midlands airport and the disturbance and environmental damage caused by night flights there.

Ms Harman: There is certainly no lack of interest in the Department for Transport in the question of noise from airports. If the hon. Gentleman requires further responses from the Minister concerned and the opportunity to debate further, he can apply for an Adjournment debate on the subject.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Next week is the last week in the Government’s financial year, and it looks as if the York Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust will end the year by clearing its deficit and the North Yorkshire and York primary care trust will have reduced its deficit and achieved a recurrent balance. However, I remain concerned that the financial pressures in the NHS mean that some treatments will be less available to NHS patients in York and North Yorkshire than in other parts of Yorkshire and the Humber. May we have a debate at the end of the financial year to consider the financing of the NHS in Yorkshire?

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Ms Harman: Perhaps I could suggest to my hon. Friend that he too apply for an Adjournment debate. He will be well aware, as will the whole House, that we have more than doubled the investment in the national health service. We want to ensure that not only are the finances well run but services are continuously improved for people, wherever they live.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): May we have a debate on tourism, given that this is Easter weekend, when roads are clogged and people are going on their holidays? There is an enormous differential in funding between Scotland, England and Wales for tourism, but there is also a problem with funding all the way up. Every level of local authority except parish councils has funding for tourism. If we want to encourage more tourists—we have the Olympics coming in a few years’ time—we should discuss the best way to provide what people want, which is an experience of Britain. We need to provide that in a proper and sensible manner.

Ms Harman: I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is focusing on the tourist industry in this country and, in particular, his welcome for the increased investment that the Government have put into the tourist industry and our focus on seaside towns. I will raise the points that he has made with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that today is the fifth anniversary of the commencement of the invasion of Iraq, and that this year it will be seven years since the war started in Afghanistan. I appreciate that we will have a debate next week on the inquiry into the events leading up to the war in Iraq, but will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a serious debate on our foreign policy objectives as a whole, including the war in Afghanistan, given that the Ministry of Defence predict that we will be there for another 30 years? Have we not taken a wrong turn with both those conflicts, and should we not be looking for a more peaceful, just world in the future, instead of one of eternal wars led by Bush?

Ms Harman: I point out to my hon. Friend that there will be a debate on Tuesday 25 March in Westminster Hall on our mission in Helmand province. Perhaps that might provide an opportunity to develop his points further.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): May we have a debate on policing? The great improvements in police performance in Gravesham are largely due to the outstanding leadership of the area command team, but the bar for serious crime and antisocial behaviour is rising. For example, police are often unavailable to deal with shoplifting incidents.

Ms Harman: I shall take on board the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we should make policing the subject of a topical debate, but he will know that police numbers have been increased, in Gravesham and elsewhere. Local government and the police have been focusing on antisocial behaviour, which is something
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that all local authorities and agencies are working together to tackle. However, I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.


Iraq War Inquiry

Mr. Edward Davey, supported by Mr. Nick Clegg, Nick Harvey, Willie Rennie, Sir Robert Smith, Mr. Don Foster, Paul Holmes, Mr. Paul Keetch, Mr. Michael Moore, Mr. Charles Kennedy, Mr. Alan Reid and Sir Menzies Campbell, presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of an inquiry into the war on Iraq; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 May, and to be printed [Bill 91].

royal assent

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Appropriation Act 2008.

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The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I beg to move,

I am delighted to open this debate on the UK and the Commonwealth. I intend to set out the continuing importance of the Commonwealth to this Government and this country.

The House will know that last week was Commonwealth week. I want to thank the members and staff of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for their work and for hosting the 57th Westminster seminar. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the Commonwealth. Indeed, this month the Prime Minister highlighted the Commonwealth’s importance to a meeting of all the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s heads of mission.

The Commonwealth is an extraordinary global network of countries big and small, rich and poor, and it represents more than a quarter of the world’s population. If it works together, the network has the potential to shape a better world for us all.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): This House of Commons was bombed in 1941 and rebuilt after the war. The Dispatch Box on which the Minister is leaning was a gift from New Zealand, the Table in front of which she is standing was a gift from Canada, and the Chair in which Mr. Deputy Speaker is sitting was a gift from Australia. Given that the Commonwealth has played such a central part in Britain’s heritage, why are the Government advancing proposals to get rid of the ancestry visa that is so important to people in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Canada and elsewhere around the world?

Meg Munn: First, I salute the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the Chamber. That he has learned all that in his relatively short time in the House is a credit to him. The Government’s proposals in connection with visas are exactly that—proposals. I understand that the consultation closed on 10 March, and that representations were received from Commonwealth countries. Representations were also made to me, and they have been passed on to the Border and Immigration Agency.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: I shall make a little progress, but I assure the House that hon. Members will have plenty of opportunity to contribute to the debate.

The UK is by far the largest contributor to the Commonwealth secretariat budget, and we are proud to remain so. In addition, we spend seven times that amount supporting other Commonwealth programmes on development, youth and education. I think that
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hon. Members on all sides of the House are looking forward to hosting the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in 2014.

Don McKinnon steps down in the next two weeks as Commonwealth secretary-general after eight years in the job, and I want to record the Government’s gratitude for his deft stewardship of the Commonwealth secretariat. He has modernised its working practices, developed links with other international organisations and dealt with some very tricky political situations, not the least of which is that in Zimbabwe. We look forward to welcoming Kamalesh Sharma as his successor.

One of the Commonwealth’s great advantages is that it is able to cut across traditional alliances and regional blocs. We should like to see it develop a more active role in identifying and helping to defuse potential conflict situations. It can also be a very positive force on important world issues, such as tackling radicalisation and climate change and advancing human rights and good governance.

Last year, when I was Minister for Women and Equality, I had the honour to represent the UK at the meeting of Commonwealth women’s affairs ministers. The meeting looked in detail at issues of gender equality and provided an opportunity for countries with shared values to learn from each other’s experiences and to support each other’s development.

It struck me at the time that it is not necessarily the richer countries in the Commonwealth that are in the forefront on gender equality. For example, many of the newer democracies have much better records on women’s representation. As I look across at the Opposition Benches I am sorry to say that, with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), only men are present for this debate.

The Commonwealth plays a vital role in giving small and poorer states a voice on the world stage. The Commonwealth-sponsored Office of Small States in New York, to which the UK is a major contributor, is a fine example of that. It gives a number of very small countries a presence next to the UN headquarters that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

Our historic links to many of the smaller nations remain important and are reinforced by our membership of the Commonwealth. As the Minister with responsibility for South East Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean, I know how much those countries value that relationship.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Given the region for which she has responsibility, will the Minister tell the House what the Commonwealth secretariat and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are doing to address the deteriorating situation in the Maldives? Democracy there is fragile, to say the least, and campaigning for the elections to be held later this year is not allowed to be based on either the Copenhagen or the Commonwealth-Harare criteria. Will the Minister ensure that our mission in Sri Lanka has a more impressive presence in the Maldives than it does at the moment?

Meg Munn: The Maldives are the responsibility of Lord Malloch-Brown, but he has discussed the matters that my hon. Friend raises with that country’s
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president. The Commonwealth has offered technical assistance to help to bring all sides together so that the reforms are kept on track. My hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns, and I shall ask my noble Friend to give him further information.

Simon Hughes: The Minister will know how much I welcome this debate, which I hope will become a regular annual event. She identified how the Government support activities such as those undertaken by the Commonwealth secretariat, but does she agree that the Foreign Office’s decision to withdraw money for Commonwealth scholarships has been sorely felt? That budget has been cut by £10 million, and many scholarships are now unavailable. Will she go back and discuss that cut with the Foreign Office to see whether the programme can be restored?

Meg Munn: I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman, who, if he is unhappy with my answer, can return to the question later.

We have reviewed our funding for scholarships and fellowships to ensure that it is in line with overall foreign policy goals. We are proposing a smaller and better organised programme that will focus on those people from a wide range of backgrounds who will be the leaders of tomorrow. The Commonwealth scholarships and fellowships plan has been used to fund awards for the eight most developed Commonwealth countries—Australia, the Bahamas, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Malta, New Zealand and Singapore—but they are not the countries that need the money the most.

Meanwhile, the Department for International Development is increasing its combined contribution to that fund and to the Commonwealth shared scholarship scheme by £1 million, which means that its total contribution for 2008-09 will be £15.93 million. The money will go directly to fund scholarships for developing countries—that is, those countries that will really benefit.

I want to say a brief word about the candidates from the eight countries that we were funding previously. Candidates from Cyprus and Malta come under the European Union’s Erasmus programme, but candidates from the other six nations are eligible to apply to the Chevening scholarship scheme. Several are also eligible for Chevening central partnership scheme scholarships, co-sponsored by an outside organisation and a UK university. I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that there will be continuing support for countries where students can least afford to study in the UK.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was delighted to meet Caribbean Heads of Government at Kampala in November, where they held positive discussions on trade, among other issues. Meanwhile, we look forward to hosting the UK-Caribbean ministerial forum in London in July. It is a key event for the UK-Caribbean relationship. The agenda will include security, climate change and economic development in the Caribbean.

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