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The House will rise at the end of business on 25 July and return on Monday 9 October. I have given serious consideration to the points made by Members on both sides of the House regarding the accountability of Government during the summer recess. I am pleased to inform the House that later today I intend to table a motion and an explanatory memorandum that will allow for the tabling and answering of named day
questions and, if there is a need, written ministerial statements on specified days during the first two weeks of September. This information will thereafter be printed in the Official Report.
Before closing, Mr. Speaker, I should like to take the opportunity to wish all Members of the House a productive summer recess in which they are able to see their families for a normal holiday period, and then able, as colleagues on both sides of the House always do, to devote time to their constituencies. I also give my thanks to the staff of the House for their continued support and to staff in Government Departments who provide briefings for my weekly business statementalthough of course the answers are entirely my responsibility.
I welcome the right hon. Gentlemans announcement that hon. Members will be able to table written questions during the recess, albeit for a limited period. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) raised the matter in business questions on 21 July 2005 at column 1415 of Hansard, when he asked for immediate action. It was not quite immediate, but at least something has happened and the Leader of the House is to be congratulated on that. However, will he confirm that the extension for written questions includes those to the Home Office and that the Department will respond fully in the time set out? May I urge him to go further? What plans has he to extend the opportunities to ask written questions during the summer recess in future? He also announced provision for written ministerial statements. In the absence of the Order Paper, what plans has he to alert hon. Members to the statements either when they are made or through advance notice?
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week and the week after the recess. Yesterday, I welcomed his decision to change todays business to enable the House to debate the growing crisis in the middle east. As that crisis develops, a further statement might well be needed before the recess. Will the Foreign Secretary come to the House next week to update hon. Members on the situation and the Governments position?
Sadly, todays debate has meant postponing the debate on international development. We previously had such a debate in Government time a year ago, on Africa. Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will be a debate on international development as soon as possible after our return from the recess and certainly before the end of the Session?
On Tuesday, many hon. Members were lobbied by constituents about cuts in physiotherapy services. I met Kate from Twyford, who told me that 2,500 physiotherapists will graduate this year and probably only 250 will get jobs because of cuts in the national health service. Last year, the Government encouraged universities to increase training places for physiotherapists. This year, more than 2,000 graduates will fail to get a job. When we return, may we have a debate on physiotherapy services?
May we also have a debate in the autumn on Britains influence in the world? Todays debate will concentrate on the middle east, but, on our role in world affairs, I was struck by the exchange between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, which was reported earlier this week at the G8 summit. The Prime Minister offered to visit the middle east to
try and see what the lie of the land is.
I think Condi is going to go pretty soon.
Well, its only if, I mean, you know, if shes got a, or if she needs the ground prepared, as it were. Because obviously if she goes out, shes got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk.
What a revelation. That was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom speaking. First, it tells us what we have always known: the Prime Minister does not do anything, he simply talks. Secondly, what does it say about the UK? My noble Friend Lord Hurd once described Britain as punching above its weight in foreign affairs. Today, the Prime Minister sees himself as the warm-up act for the US Secretary of State. We need a debate on our role in the world.
May we also have a debate on ministerial responsibilities? A review of four Departments has shown significant failure to deliver. On ability to plan resources, prioritise and deliver value for money, setting aside the Home Offices poor performance, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Department for Work and Pensions were
Not well placed to address weaknesses, urgent action needed.
high-level strategy and priority setting, managing performance and tackling failure and building up skills.
In respect of annual reports, it is important that we set out the Governments achievements and lack of achievements in whichever year we are in power.[ Official Report, 18 July 2001; Vol. 372, c. 280.]
As we are approaching the summer recess, I do not want to over-burden civil servants with this task, so I shall offer some suggestions on what the Governments annual report might cover. It could include U-turns on home information packs, self-assessment tax returns, council tax revaluation, prison building, sentencing policy and police mergers. It could cover abandoned projects such as hospital star ratings, regional assemblies and the abolition of the Lord Chancellor. Further subjects might include the information technology projects left in chaos at the Child Support
Agency, the Rural Payments Agency, the Criminal Records Bureau, the Passport Office and the NHS
Mrs. May: I am sure that the Leader of the House will ensure that all those issues will be addressed in the debate that, I hope, he will offer us on what the Government have been doing over the past year and a half. However, of all the areas in which we know that the Government have failed, we need to address the problems with the ID card scheme, the fact that fewer pupils from state schools are going to university, hospital closures, the wider gap between rich and poor, and the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister is a laughing stock, the Prime Minister is a lame duck and the Government are in paralysis. I wish the Leader of the House and all right hon. and hon. Members a very happy and productive summer recess, and I join the Leader of the House in thanking the staff for all that they have done to support us over the past year.
Mr. Straw: I thank the shadow Leader of the House very much for her remarks and compliments, which I take in the spirit in which they were intended. I hope that one of the things that she does over the recess will be to sack the person who writes her lines. I say that in a spirit of great affection for the right hon. Lady, but, honestly, after putting her up to do that awful number on pop song titleswhich turned out to be inaccurateand now this stuff, he really ought to be sacked.
I shall now deal with the questions that the right hon. Lady raised. She asked whether notice of written ministerial statements would appear in advance, and the answer is yes. Notice will appear in the normal way in the Questions Bookthe blues attached to the Order Paperalongside the notice of questions. I will also talk to the Clerks Office, to the right hon. Lady and to the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), about whether we can arrange for Members to receive electronic notice, particularly of the written ministerial statements, as Members will be at a distance. I want to ensure that this experiment works.
The right hon. Lady asked whether there would be an opportunity for a statement on the crisis in the middle east. The answer is that there are Foreign Office questions next Tuesday, so hon. Members will have every opportunity to question my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and her ministerial colleagues. The right hon. Lady also asked whether there would be a debate on international development before the end of the parliamentary Session. The answer is that we hope so, but, given the other pressures on the parliamentary timetable and the buffers of the Queens Speech, I cannot guarantee it. However, we will do our very best to have such a debate either soon or in the run-up to the Queens Speech, this side of the year.
The right hon. Lady made some remarks about the health service. I have been looking at the health service in her own constituency. There is greater competition for jobs in health care because we have greatly increased the number of places available. There used to be complaints that we were recruiting so many people
from overseas. These days, thanks to the dramatic increase in places for nurses, for doctors, for paramedics and for physiotherapists, most recruitment can take place in the UK. Yes, of course there is competition, but I simply do not believe these statements that thousands of new staff will be unemployed. That is not the case at all. Meanwhile, I note that, in the Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead Primary Care Trust, there has been a 5.2 per cent. increase above inflation in real terms in a single year, and that the trust received three stars for its latest performance. In the same area, waiting lists are down by 10 per cent. since June 2002. It is very odd that that was not mentioned just now.
In relation to the Home Office capability review, the right hon. Lady did not mention an increase of 440 in the number of police officers in her area and, of course, a big drop in crime. She did mention the DFES. Astonishing additional resources have been devoted to education, with primary school and secondary school results both up. She criticised the DWPs capability review, as a result of which unemployment in her area has been cut by more than half in nine years and long-term unemployment by two thirds.
Lastly, the right hon. Lady asked about a debate on Britains influence in the world, which I would be absolutely delighted to have. I make no criticism of one of my distinguished predecessors, both as Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, Lord Hurd, but it is impossible to survey the past nine years without recognising that Britains influence in Europe, the middle east and across the world has greatly extended and increased compared with the previous 18 years.
[That this House calls on insurance companies to take action to reduce the travel insurance premiums charged to people who have suffered from serious diseases such as cancer; notes that premiums for people in such a position can be many times higher than otherwise quoted; and calls for action to be taken to lower premiums so that insurance costs do not prohibit former patients from travelling abroad.]
The early-day motion concerns the excessive charges that insurance companies make to clients who want to go abroad and who have had serious illnesses but are in remission. For example, James Timmons in my constituency, whose case is highlighted in the Daily Record today, received a minimum quote of £350 for insurance cover to go on holiday. That is more than the price of the holiday. May we have a debate on this issue?
Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. The truth is that it is our poorer constituents who get ripped off in this way. I am glad that he has raised the matter, and I will be pleased to draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has responsibility for regulating the insurance industry.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. I am delighted that, even at this stage in
the Session, it is not too late to introduce a new Home Office Bill, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, on Tuesday 10 October.
I think that the Government intend to move a carry-over motion for the Welfare Reform Bill on 24 July. Carry-over is normally by agreement between all parties, so some discussions are necessary before the motion is moved. Before we get to that point, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Committee stage of that very important Bill is not truncated by Prorogation or for any other reason? Secondly, can it be ensured that the Committee has the necessary draft orders, which form a large part of the substance of the Bill, from the start of its proceedings?
I welcome the Leader of the Houses comments about questions during this over-long recess. The ability to put questions is important, and the ability of the Government to answer them equally so. Their record is not good over recent years. I put a named day question to the Home Office, inevitably, for 3 May, and did not receive a reply, which said that it was not prepared to answer me, until 13 July. The Treasury is even worse. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) tabled 15 questions for answer on the very important matter of fraud in the tax credits system, and received a single reply on Wednesday that did not answer the specific points raised. This is a key issue. If we are to hold the Government to account, there must be an understanding among Ministers and civil servants about what comprises an adequate response to a parliamentary question. Will he speak to his Cabinet colleagues and the head of the home civil service to ensure that proper answers are given?
Let me say in response to what was said by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that there has been a change of emphasis in Foreign Office policy even since Monday, when the Minister for the Middle East, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), made what I thought was an extremely well-balanced statement to the House. We heard the Prime Ministers replies on the same subject yesterday. As I have said in a speech on home affairs, we are not a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States, and our foreign policy must not appear to be dictated by the White House. That is an important issue, and I hope the debate will explore it.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman will spend the recess on his soap box in Blackburn; I will spend it undertaking my usual tour of the 120 or so villages in my constituency. I know already that the questions I will be asked will be about closures of sub-post offices, the state of agriculture, police amalgamations, and the fact that although record amounts are being spent on the health service, hospital wards are still being closed.
Will the Leader of the House ensure that on our return we debate all those important issues, so that I can tell my constituents Fear not, your concerns will be raised as soon as Parliament resumes in October?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. It has
been a difficult Bill to get right. I began the process back in 1997, after the Southall train crash. I hope the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind his welcome for the Bill when his colleagues next start delivering cheap shots about the number of Home Office Bills that have appeared over the past nine years. They say that there have been 54 of them, and indeed there have. The question is, which of those Bills should not have been passed?
Mr. Straw: It is helpful to have that on the record. Many of the Bills that the hon. Gentleman voted against are the ones that are protecting our citizens and helping us to reduce crime. I am glad to have secured that admission from him.
The Welfare Reform Bill is one of two measures that we intend to carry over. I hope that that can be agreed, but if it cannot, it cannot. The purpose of carry-over has been accepted by the House, and it is very sensible. It should be borne in mind that it does not make it any easier for Government to pass legislation, because we have to ensure that it is passed within 12 months of the date of its introduction; and of course the Bill will have a normal Committee stage.
I recall hearing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions say that he would do his best to ensure that the principal draft orders were presented to the House, but I do not think he said that all of them would be. I will pass on to him what the hon. Gentleman has said.
As for Home Office questions, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is present to make his daily statement or speech to the House. I am sure we all welcome that, but only those of us who have held my right hon. Friends portfolio quite understand how it feels to wake up each morning and hear five stories about the Home Office, one of which you may know about, four of which you have not the first idea about, and all five of which you must answer for during the rest of the day. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the backlog of questions, and I can say on his behalf that he and his colleagues have made every effort to clear it.
Ministers and officials must recognise the need for questions to be answered, but Members must recogniseand I am pleased to say that it has been recognised in all parts of the Housethat if the Order Paper is overloaded with questions in industrial quantities, tabled by researchers and in some instances unseen by the Members concerned, there are bound to be logjams. It is a real problem. I am glad to see that Members agree with that.
I am assiduous, as are all my colleagues, in ensuring that questions are answered whenever possible, but we have a problem in the House with researchers trying to prove a point, and with the TheyWorkForYou.com website, which seems to measure Members work in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. That is an issue for the whole House, not just for Ministers.
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