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24 Apr 2008 : Column 1474

Helen Goodman: I will convey my hon. Friends’ requests to the Foreign Secretary because the position is about not only aid but political developments. It is important that some shift in the political situation occurs. I will therefore draw the matter to the attention of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as to that of the Department for International Development.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I observe to you, Mr. Speaker, that more than 20 minutes of business questions, which are important to the House, has been taken up by Front Benchers? I wonder whether that is normal and whether you might give advice.

My question to the Deputy Leader of the House is in support of that asked by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). Although there may be a debate on Zimbabwe and sanctions in Westminster Hall, the whole House should have an opportunity—as the Government have promised on so many occasions—to debate the uniquely disastrous situation in Zimbabwe, where an election has been held but, three weeks later, no one knows the result. Surely we want to support the view of a growing number of African countries and hold a debate so that we can influence what happens.

Helen Goodman: I think the hon. Gentleman speaks for the House when he says how appalled he is by the position in Zimbabwe. I will take his request as a suggestion for a topical debate next week.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Yesterday afternoon, in the Attlee suite in Portcullis House, the all-party group on sustainable aviation, of which I am an officer, was pleased to receive a report from Jeff Gazzard of the Aviation Environment Federation, which exposed the distortions, inaccuracies and heroic assumptions that underpin official policy on aviation and its impact on the environment and climate change. In the light of his startling figures and conclusions, may I make a submission to the Deputy Leader of the House for an urgent debate in the Chamber to examine that crucial matter, which affects so many people, especially those who live around the nation’s regional airports, including East Midlands airport in north-west Leicestershire?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is right. Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases. That is why a more sustainable aviation industry is important. It is also why the Government have made negotiating an EU emissions trading scheme, which incorporates aviation, a priority. I will pass on his remarks to the relevant Department.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): This week is national depression awareness week. It is an important fact that one in five people in this country will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. May we have a debate on what the Government are doing to tackle the problem and the wider issue of how good mental health can be positively promoted, just as we promote good physical health?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Mental health is important, and that is why the Secretary of State for Health announced a programme
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to increase the amount of psychotherapy that people can get on the national health service. I will consider her suggestion.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time on the behaviour of HSBC? The bank has made a profit of £35 billion in the past three years, but it is closing its facility in my constituency and transferring the bulk of 164 jobs to Malaysia. That is not the only outrageous way in which the management has treated the staff: it has brought them in, one by one, and told them that they cannot speak publicly about the issue. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that behaving like 19th century pit owners is unacceptable.

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend describes unacceptable employment practices. The House knows that he is a doughty campaigner for his constituents, and I am sure that HSBC management will hear his remarks about their handling of the matter.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I tell the Deputy Leader of the House that on Monday No. 10 suggested that the Prime Minister would make an oral statement to the House on Wednesday about the outcome of the NATO summit? Clearly, he was blown off course by this week’s events. It is still not too late for an oral statement on that important summit. It is unprecedented for a Prime Minister not to make a statement to the House after a Heads of Government meeting at NATO. The Government regularly acclaim NATO as the cornerstone of our defence. The Prime Minister’s failure to make a statement on the summit’s outcome sends the wrong signal about the importance that the Government attach to NATO.

Helen Goodman: I do not think the hon. Gentleman should have any doubts about the Government’s commitment to NATO. I have heard his remarks and those of other hon. Members today, and I have said that I will reflect on them.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that Monday is international workers memorial day, which commemorates those who have died as a result of work. Does she agree that it would be fitting for the House to mark that in some way, and to have a debate on what further can be done to prevent incidents at work that lead to fatalities?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we continue to make progress in reducing serious injuries and deaths at work. I will consider her suggestion.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on cowboy and dodgy builders, especially foreign construction companies such as Bovale, which is based in the Republic of Ireland? That company is destroying large parts of Shropshire, not least Priorslee lake which is a designated county wildlife site. Is the Deputy Leader of the House aware of the—at best—dodgy reputation of the company’s owners, Tom and Michael Bailey? Is it not time that the Department for Communities and Local Government
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had a black list of companies so that it could warn local authorities not to deal with those that destroy wildlife and have disreputable financial backgrounds?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about the construction industry. He will know about the Office of Fair Trading report on its behaviour. All those matters are under consideration in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that we extend the time on Monday so that Treasury Ministers can explain to the House in detail the way in which they are dealing with the 10p tax shambles? It is crazy that a Labour Back Bencher, however august, can appear on the “Today” programme to tell us about a discussion that he had with the Prime Minister about backdating the claim, yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House knowing nothing about it. May we please have sufficient time on Monday to ensure that Treasury Ministers explain to the House how they will fiddle around with the national minimum wage, working family tax credits and the winter fuel allowances? Will they backdate the claim to 1 April? May we hear the answer from Treasury Ministers, not Labour Back Benchers on the “Today” programme?

Helen Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was answering questions about that 45 minutes ago. The hon. Gentleman will have another opportunity to debate it on Monday, but he should not display this hypocritical, if I may say so—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must withdraw that without qualification.

Helen Goodman: I withdraw it without qualification. However, it is somewhat difficult to listen to Opposition Members raising the issue as their supposed priority, when they showed no concern about the low-paid and opposed the minimum wage.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Following that totally unacceptable reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), may I point out to the Deputy Leader of the House that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) told the nation on the “Today” programme this morning that he had received absolute guarantees from the Prime Minister that all measures to offset the harm of the abolition of the 10p rate of tax would be backdated to April of this year? The right hon. Gentleman also said that the Chief Secretary had been ill briefed on “Newsnight” last night. However, that was countered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Dispatch Box less than an hour ago. We have no idea whatever what is going to happen. If we are to reach a decision and vote on that aspect of the Finance Bill next Monday, the Deputy Leader of the House must now give us an absolute assurance that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make the position completely clear before we do so. Will she do so immediately?

Helen Goodman: The Chancellor of the Exchequer did make the position clear 45 minutes ago. He referred to his letter that sets out the programme of work that is going to be carried out over the next few months. The
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Government have been happy to listen to those who are genuinely concerned about poverty, but there seems to be some inconsistency in the position of Opposition Members.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I hope that we can have a full day’s debate on Zimbabwe next week. So incompetent is Robert Mugabe that he could not even rig his own election properly and is now trying to steal it. While he is doing that, 4 million people have moved to live in South Africa and millions more are living with hyperinflation and starvation. Some African leaders have shown true leadership. Indeed, even in South Africa Speaker Mbete has spoken out, saying that the election results should be declared. Sadly, President Mbeki has not shown the same leadership. Please can we have an urgent debate next week on the issue?

Helen Goodman: I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe, as is everybody. Everybody utterly condemns the reports of violence that are coming from that country. I will relay the requests that have been made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Further to the questions posed by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and, more recently, my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), may I reiterate the request that we have a full day’s debate on Zimbabwe in Government time on the Floor of the House? Given that under the truly tyrannical and despicable leadership of the mass murderer Mugabe too many people have suffered too much for too long, with too little done to help them, is it not time that we debated on the Floor of the House how the Government will seek to persuade the United Nations to translate its commitment to the responsibility to protect from fine-sounding words into concrete action?

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Helen Goodman: As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes his point most eloquently, and I have heard it.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Cultural diversity is one of Milton Keynes’s greatest strengths. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of House will join me in commending the work of the Milton Keynes racial equality council. However, does she share my concern at the news this week that all funding for that organisation has been cut by the Government from 1 April this year? What message does that send to minority groups in Milton Keynes?

Helen Goodman: I am surprised to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I will pass his concerns on to the relevant Department that oversees the commission.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): My three local newspapers, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, the Keighley News and the Ilkley Gazette, have all taken the regrettable decision to remove their “Court in brief” sections, not because they wanted to do so but because HM Courts Service has introduced excessive charges for the information. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will agree that that goes totally against the grain of open justice. I quite understand why the Government are embarrassed about the lenient sentences handed out to criminals in our courts, but surely it is a rather weasel tactic to implement excessive charges to stop newspapers reporting them. Can we have a statement from the Justice Secretary on how the matter will be resolved?

Helen Goodman: I think that the hon. Gentleman is exaggerating, if I may say so. It is important that the courts make proper charges for services. I know that colleagues in the Ministry of Justice have considered the issue carefully.

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Industrial Action (Grangemouth)

12.26 pm

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the implications of the industrial action at the Grangemouth refinery, which, I regret to report, is scheduled to begin on Sunday and last for 48 hours. Throughout the past few days we have kept in close contact with Scottish Ministers, both parties to the dispute and the industry as a whole. I am particularly grateful to ACAS for its efforts to resolve matters between the parties.

Our first priority now is to ensure the maintenance of sufficient fuel supplies during the period of industrial action. Over the past few days, significant additional supplies of imported fuel have been made available in Scotland. I have been advised by the industry that there is sufficient fuel to resupply forecourts and other users ahead of the planned industrial action. The industry has also advised us that, at present, fuel stocks at Grangemouth, together with planned imports of finished product through Grangemouth to replace lost production, should be sufficient to maintain supplies through the period of industrial action and the consequent restarting of the plant.

We are already working under our established memorandum of understanding with industry to develop a jointly managed approach that allows fuel suppliers to work together to maximise available fuel. We also have available, if necessary, the national emergency plan for fuel, which can be used to ensure that fuel is available for priority groups such as the emergency services. Our best assessment is that there is at present no need for the Government to take action under their emergency powers. We are working closely with the Scottish Executive and the regional forums in Scotland to prepare for further action, should that become necessary. We will not hesitate to use the emergency powers if that becomes necessary.

The oil companies have reported significant increases in fuel uptake this week in response to concerns about shortages of fuel. Although this response is perfectly understandable, I want to emphasise that industry has made it clear that there is sufficient fuel available via imports and that any localised shortages will be resupplied quickly.

It is also essential to prevent the industrial action at Grangemouth from disrupting the flow of North sea oil and gas associated with the Forties pipeline system and the Kinneil processing plant at Grangemouth. There can be no justification whatever for any action that adversely affects production of oil and gas from the North sea. Continuing production depends on power, steam and cooling water being delivered by or through the Grangemouth site. Discussions are continuing this morning on ensuring the continuance of these vital utilities, and of course it is essential that they be maintained.

Finally, there is a need to protect critical equipment to allow a rapid return to normal operation following the period of industrial action. That will require the provision of safety cover for the INEOS refinery and petrochemical plants. It will also require maintaining
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the steam supply throughout the plant to ensure the integrity of steam lines, pipes and production units.

The dispute is one for INEOS and Unite to resolve as a matter of urgency. The Government’s view is that they both have a responsibility to minimise the impacts of their dispute on the public and the wider economy. I urge both sides to get back to the negotiating table as quickly as possible to resolve the dispute without any further harm being done to the public and the economy. We will continue to monitor the situation, working closely with the Scottish Executive, emergency services, local authorities and other key agencies.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) apologises to the House for his inability to be here for the statement.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement on a matter which is of particular concern to people in Scotland. May I begin by agreeing with him that the parties should get back round the negotiating table as a matter of urgency? I would ask both sides to lift their horizons beyond their own immediate interests, and to show a maturity and responsibility which reflects the serious consequences that this dispute could have for the public and the economy.

I am pleased to learn that there has been close working with the Scottish Government, and I would grateful if the Secretary of State provided a little more detail on that. I do not know whether he has seen any of the headline-grabbing pronouncements from Scotland’s First Minister in the past few days, but it would seem that, for once, even his mythical powers have been unable to resolve this situation.

I welcome the proportioned tones of the Secretary of State’s words, as he will be aware that there has been much speculation about the impact that this shutdown could have on individuals, services and the economy. Does he agree that we need to maintain a sense of proportion in relation to these events and to ensure that all analysis is objective? That will be the only way to deliver reassurance to the public that there is no need for the panic buying of petrol or the stockpiling of supplies.

Will the Secretary of State join me in endorsing the view of the AA that if people act sensibly then there will be no shortages? Where fuel is being provided by contingency measures, will he confirm that it will be equitably distributed throughout Scotland and not just to major centres of population? Can he also confirm that, as this situation does not represent a more general shortage, he would not expect there to be any impact on petrol prices at the garage forecourt anywhere in the United Kingdom? Will he monitor what happens to petrol prices to make sure that no one tries to take advantage of the situation and to push their prices up unfairly?

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