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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House asked the Leader of the House for a debate on eco-towns, following this morning’s announcement. Surely it would have been even more appropriate for the Minister for Housing to have come to the House today to make a statement. This morning at 5 minutes to 9, I was invited to take part in a conference telephone call along with a large number of other Members of Parliament whose constituencies are affected by this announcement. That is not a proper way to cross-examine a Minister about an issue that is not only of local and regional importance, but of national importance, if we are to believe the Government’s propaganda about the necessity for eco-towns. My constituents are dismayed about today’s announcement, and they are even more dismayed, and
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have every right to be dismayed, that I am unable to cross-examine the Minister in this House today about that matter.

Ms Harman: As I said earlier, this is a four-stage consultation, and only stage one is the subject of the announcement in today’s written ministerial statement. Stage one is the three-month consultation process and there will then be the sustainability appraisal and the final planning policy statement, which will be debated in the House before it goes back to local planning applications. I should have thought that hon. Members would welcome the opportunity to ask questions of and discuss matters with the Minister for Housing.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): That is completely unacceptable. I read in the paper this morning the long list that must have reached the press last night. I put through a conference call on eco-towns; I was told that I was one of 16 waiting on the end of the phone, and the Minister did not come to the phone at the prescribed time. That is completely unacceptable.

This statement is one of 16 written ministerial statements, and it still does not tell me or my constituents whether the proposed eco-town for Skelton and Clifton Moor in the Vale of York is included. It euphemistically refers to “Leeds City Region, Yorkshire”. York is a city in its own right and I have the privilege to represent 24,000 people living there. This is an unacceptable procedure. It flouts normal planning procedures and the fundamental right of any Member of Parliament to represent their constituents on the Floor of the House and to hold the Minister for Housing to account. She should be ashamed of herself.

Ms Harman: I think that the hon. Lady misunderstands this. This process does not flout normal planning procedure. There will be a three-month consultation and the normal planning processes as they apply under the current law will be applied to this matter.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a topical debate on political correctness at the Arts Council, in particular the subject of my early-day motion 1318, with regard to the Arts Council request that people should disclose their sexual orientation on the application form for funding?

[T hat this House deplores the Arts Council's decision to ask intrusive and irrelevant questions about the sexual orientation of those applying for grants; believes that this should be a private matter and not something that individuals should be asked to reveal; considers that sexual orientation should be completely irrelevant in modern day Britain; notes that the idea of putting people into stereotypical tick boxes is an example of political correctness which is opposed by 80 per cent, of the people in Britain in an ICM poll; urges the Arts Council to take serious note of the many objections raised by eminent actors and actresses who find this both offensive and insulting; and calls on the Arts Council to end the request for this highly personal information immediately.]

I hope that the Leader of the House will agree with me that people’s sexual orientation should be a private matter, not something that public bodies ask to be disclosed before public money is given. May we have a debate on this important matter?

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Ms Harman: I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Departure of Culture— [Interruption.] I shall start again. I shall bring his comments to the attention of the relevant Minister. No doubt he will discuss the issue with the Arts Council; if anything transpires from that discussion, he will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the importance of faith schools? Why have the Government set their hearts on a class war against faith schools up and down this land, given all the hard-working parents, governors, teachers and pupils involved? Does the Leader of the House not realise that faith schools take pupils from all sorts of socio-demographic and religious backgrounds?

Ms Harman: That is certainly accepted. I think that the hon. Gentleman is raising the question of the schools admissions code. All schools need to comply with that code, which was approved by the House. It is the responsibility of the Department for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that it is respected in all areas.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I, too, greatly enjoyed the right hon. and learned Lady’s performance yesterday. May I give her a word of advice? Perhaps she should retain that team of script writers, because I have to say that I have not enjoyed today’s questions as much.

Seriously, Mr. Speaker, you will have noticed an increasing practice among Ministers when they are questioned about their departmental responsibilities. They try to turn things around and ask questions of Opposition Members. Will the right hon. and learned Lady consider the innovation of having questions to Opposition Members? In that way, Ministers could spend the whole of oral questions focusing on answering for their responsibilities and the performance of Her Majesty’s Government, rather than on trying to question us. They will have time to do that after the next general election.

Ms Harman: The point of business questions is to give the House an opportunity to air concerns. They are not supposed to be a laugh, but a serious occasion on which hon. Members from both sides can raise questions to do with their constituencies and the business of the House. In that spirit, I attempt to answer questions, not ask them myself.

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Points of Order

12.22 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Just now, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and I both raised with the Leader of the House the absence of a statement from the Minister for Housing about eco-towns. There may be all sorts of reasons why a Minister does not come to the House to make a statement, and I appreciate that it is up to the Government to decide which Ministers come to give which statements to the House.

However, one would have thought it appropriate for a Minister to come to the House on a matter as important as the one that I have mentioned. Is it not of interest that on this last day of term, business appears to be relatively light and there is plenty of opportunity for the Minister to explain herself? It is significant that yet again bad news is being buried on a day convenient for the Government. May I ask you, with the greatest—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is not bad news.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Garnier: I am asking Mr. Speaker, not the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); I dare say he has other qualities that will come before us in due course.

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you could use your influence on the Government and not allow them to abuse the House—and, more particularly, our constituents—in this way? Our constituents have every right to expect Ministers to explain their policies, especially ones that touch as hard as this one does on the constituents that my hon. Friend and I represent.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Well, if I answer the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point of order, perhaps the hon. Lady will not have one. She does not know what I am going to say, does she?

I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that I understand the deep concern about constituency housing that every hon. Member has, including myself. The issue is very important to us all. I am being asked on a point of order to raise the matter with a Minister. All I can really say is that that is not a point of order. However, I am sure that the Minister concerned will have heard the hon. and learned Gentleman’s deep concern.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Mr. Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Lady is going to make a point of order.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on behalf of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and myself? Is the Leader of the House saying that ministerial statements are now regularly being replaced by conference calls? I have never been invited to take
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part in a conference call before and I would not be given the opportunity to question.

Furthermore, Mr. Speaker, will you give guidance on why I have not been shown in writing whether the specific eco-town in the Vale of York is going ahead—a city region is referred to—whereas details were provided to the press last night?

Mr. Speaker: I am not responsible for the words of the Leader of the House or of any Minister. Therefore, such issues are not a matter for me. On the other matters that the hon. Lady raised, once again all I can say is that she has brought her concerns before the House through her point of order. The fact that she and the hon. and learned Gentleman are deeply concerned about the matter will be recorded.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention a written statement on disability benefits and the European Court of Justice made by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)? It is due to publish information, but only online. I know from your previous responses that you prefer information to be placed before the House, by way of written statement or in the Library. It is much better to have a permanent record of important information. Finally, I should say that just before I came into the Chamber for business questions, the information that I mentioned was still not available online. I should be grateful for some helpful guidance.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman should seek an answer through methods other than a point of order. Perhaps he should go to the Table Office to express his deep concern and see what can be done. I think that the Clerks will be able to help him.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on the number of replies to Members’ written questions that refer Members to websites. Given our busy schedules, we do not always have the time to look at websites. If the information has already been published by other Departments, or if there has been a similar reply to a similar question, there is no reason why the Departments cannot print the reply in full. That is not a party political issue, but one for the whole House.

Mr. Speaker: It is for Departments to decide how they answer questions; the important thing is that they do answer questions. We live, of course, in an electronic age and we use computers. If the hon. Gentleman has a deep concern about how written questions are answered, he should take the matter up with the appropriate Minister. I have always been on Ministers’ cases when they do not answer hon. Members’ questions. However if the hon. Gentleman’s issue is about the method of answer, he should pursue that himself.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it correct to describe a reference to a website as a written reply? It seems to me that that changes the procedures of the House in a fundamental way.

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Mr. Speaker: It is a written reply. If the hon. Gentleman does not like the reply, there is nothing that I can do to help him. He must pursue the issue again and again.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that I am right in recalling that at business questions last week, the Leader of the House gave a very satisfactory response on exactly this point. She explained that she believed that written answers should give the full information, not simply refer to a website. Could you ask the Leader of the House to make a statement after the recess to explain what action she has taken to ensure that that will happen?

Mr. Speaker: Once again I say that there are things for the Speaker to do and things for Ministers to do. The Leader of the House is a Cabinet Minister, and there we are. She spoke about the issue last week in business questions. I do not always listen in detail to what the right hon. and learned Lady is saying, as I have to look around for who I am going to call next. The matter is in Hansard and it is being looked at.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Mr. Speaker, your answers to these points of order have been very helpful. However, because the Leader of the House is here, she might take on board the concerns that people would still like to receive answers in the traditional and conventional way, rather than electronically. I hope that she will give some response to those concerns.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that when someone in a Department is answering a question, if it refers to a previous answer they should not just give the Hansard reference but repeat the previous answer, because they have it in front of them and it saves hon. Members from having to do work that the Department could put in front of them.

As regards a reference to a website, if a small bit of information is being referred to, there is no excuse for referring to the website—they should extract it from the website and put it in the answer. If what they are doing, having answered the question, is making a reference to a more general, bigger document of 200 pages, that is fair enough. However, it is not fair enough for parliamentary answers just to be signposts in six different directions—they should attempt to meet the Member’s point and be accountable. I agree with the specific points that hon. Members have raised. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and I are on the case, and I ask for specific bits of information in respect of this to be given to us, and we will follow them up with Departments. Departments are responsible for running the Government policy for which they have responsibility, but they are also accountable to the House.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): It might be helpful for the House to be reminded that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry into written questions, and all this information will be helpfully put before it to further that inquiry.

Mr. Speaker: That is a very good point which allows me to move on to the main business—a topical debate on the drug strategy.

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Topical Debate

Drug Strategy

12.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I beg to move,

Let me start by thanking many of the hon. Members whom I can see around me on both sides of the House for the contribution that they have made to the development of the drug strategy that we published a few weeks ago. Their contribution to what is an incredibly important debate in many of our communities has been welcomed. Although they may not agree with all the various points in the strategy, I hope that they recognise some of the differences and changes that have been made. In particular, some of my hon. Friends—and, to be fair, Opposition Members—have said that while it is important to concentrate on the enforcement side, we must also, in order to reduce harm to communities, consider what to do about dealing in the street, crack houses, and those who run gangs in order to supply drugs in a neighbourhood.

We must also think about treatment. We have been very successful in increasing the numbers going into treatment, which has been welcomed by all Members. We have taken on board what people have said to us about ensuring that treatment is effective, that it is not only about numbers but outcomes, and that when people enter treatment and seek to leave it we not only consider whether abstinence is appropriate but take into account all the other services that are necessary to support somebody in those circumstances. That means closer relationships with housing and employment services, the benefits system and so on. We try to reflect that in the new strategy.

Those important contributions to the debate have enabled us to move on.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I hope that the Minister will focus on the role played by prisons. Far too often, people go into prison as drug addicts having committed volume crimes to feed their addiction. They come out a few months later—a very few months later in many cases—still drug addicts, with no testing beforehand to check whether that is the case. Moreover, there are still too many people who take drugs for the first time in prison. Will he dedicate some time to explaining what is being done in prisons to stop the proliferation of drugs?

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