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Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I will certainly note his suggestion that we use one of the debates on the Adjournment for a wider debate on the role of regulation.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): May we have a debate on crime against young people? Last year, 30 per cent. of all muggings recorded in England and Wales were perpetrated on 11 to 16-year-olds, but that is the tip of the iceberg, because only 21 per cent. of muggings make it into the recorded police figures, and the British crime survey does not even interview people under 16. May we have a debate in the House to bring this issue to people’s attention and to discuss what needs to be done to combat the problem?

Mr. Straw: I would be happy to have a debate on the crime figures. Sadly, it has long been the case that young people have been the principal victims of street robbery, as well as the principal perpetrators. In that debate, I would be delighted to hear about the excellent crime figures that were announced today, which I notice that no member of the Opposition has mentioned, because they are good news. They are not the British crime survey figures but the recorded crime figures, and they show that the most feared crime, violence that causes injury, is down 7 per cent. compared with last year, that sexual offences are down 4 per cent. and that crimes involving firearms are down 14 per cent. All recorded crime is down 3 per cent., and— [ Interruption.] I am sorry to have to tell the shadow Leader of the House this, but according to the British crime survey, crime is down 35 per cent. since 1997.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): May we have a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on whether he intends to ask Ofcom to undertake a public interest test of BSkyB’s acquisition of 20 per cent. of the shares in ITV? Is there not an overwhelming case for such a test, given that the Office of Fair Trading has found provisionally that there could be a relevant merger issue?

Mr. Straw: I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has this matter under active consideration. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that my right hon. Friend has to act in a quasi-judicial manner, and strictly in accordance with the relevant legal criteria. I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s remarks to my right hon. Friend.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Mr. Speaker, may I wish you and the Leader of the House a good Burns day? In this crucial year for our nation, it is worth reminding the House that, in the words of the bard,

I am delighted that the Leader of the House has agreed to a debate on the Act of Union, given that his colleagues in Scotland are running a mile from debating the subject properly with us. Will he check his list, to see whether it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to lead that debate? Given the Prime Minister’s overwhelming popularity in Scotland, surely he would be a massive asset to the Union’s cause.

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Mr. Straw: I have always been ready to debate this matter, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. What persuaded me overnight was seeing the complete incompetence of the representatives of the Scottish National party last night. The leader of that party has been in this place for 20 years, yet he cannot even organise a minor rebellion—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have already stopped an hon. Member discussing that subject.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House aware of this morning’s ruling in the European Court of Justice that, under the insolvency directive, the Government have failed to protect pension funds, including those of Allied Steel and Wire’s pensioners in my constituency? They took the case to court through the unions Community and Amicus, but it is up to the British courts to decide whether the Government should pay up. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this struggle for justice has gone on long enough? Will he ask the Chancellor to come to the House and make a statement, and to end this misery for the 125,000 pensioners in the United Kingdom who are affected?

Mr. Straw: I am aware of this morning’s decision by the European Court of Justice. I am also aware of the indefatigable way in which my hon. Friend has pursued this matter on behalf of her constituents who have been affected. I think that I am right in saying that the judgment by the European Court of Justice arose from a reference from the British courts for a ruling by the ECJ. The judgment will now be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and an announcement will be made to the House in due course. I will, of course, pass on to him what my hon. Friend has said today.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Given the announcement by the Department for Education and Skills that compulsory education is to be extended to the age of 18, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate in the House on the matter, so that we can expose the “common sense” of county councils that are closing schools because of a prediction of overcapacity in those schools? Should not they review their decisions in the light of the Department’s announcement?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that there is a strong case for this change, but it goes without saying that the matter would have to be not only debated but agreed through legislation before it could go ahead. I note the interesting point that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is not always the case that the setting of a secondary school would be appropriate for 16 to 18-year-olds, but it might be, and that should be taken into consideration.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): May I return to the issue that was raised at the outset by my friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase)? It used to be the case that we always debated reports from the Committee on Standards in
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Public Life, but that has not been the case recently. The Committee has produced a highly critical report on the Electoral Commission, and, given that its recommendations go to the heart of the way in which our democracy functions—or does not function—surely we should have a debate on it in the Chamber.

Mr. Straw: There will be a debate on this issue. We are awaiting the report from the inquiry into party funding by Sir Hayden Phillips, which is also looking at the role of the Electoral Commission. I will then make a statement on that report, and when I make that statement I will comment on the proposals in respect of the Electoral Commission. If we then proceed to legislate, which I think we need to in this respect, there will be every opportunity for debate at that stage.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Beverley high school and Beverley grammar school, which are two well-run, successful, over-subscribed comprehensive schools serving mixed areas of Beverley, are facing redundancies of key teaching staff and a worsening financial situation over the next three years. May we have an urgent debate on the allocation of education funding between authorities across the country, on the growing sense of grievance among communities that are seeing cutbacks in everything from transport to NHS beds and on the impression that money is not being allocated fairly across the country?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a debate next Wednesday, on 31 January, on the police grant and the local government finance reports. There will be an opportunity for him to raise those issues in that debate, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, and I wish him luck in that. I hope, however, that he will bring into the equation the huge increase in funding for schools in his area—including the allocations that he has mentioned—that has taken place since 1997.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the growing concern at the increasing number of schools that are collecting data on pupils that are derived from biometrics such as fingerprinting, for use in electronic registration and library systems. He will also be aware of the fact that legal opinion, including that of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, has stated that this practice contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998. Does he agree that it is time to debate this important subject in the House?

Mr. Straw: I am not aware of the practice, but obviously people have accepted it. There is a problem with ensuring people’s identity, and one of the ways of doing that is to use biometric data. Security in libraries is a big issue for younger and older people. If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that this is an important matter, he can raise it on the Adjournment.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give some consideration to a cross-departmental debate, in
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Government time, on the Government’s vision for the decades ahead, given our cultural, economic, political and military links with China and India, the great countries of the future? There is a need for joined-up thinking on this subject, and we would all like to hear about the Government’s vision in terms of those links, as well as in respect of other matters, including education and health care.

Mr. Straw: That is a good idea. The hon. Gentleman has proposed quite a number of subjects for debate on the Adjournment, but I will add it to my list. He is absolutely right to identify China and India as being among those posing the greatest challenges to this country in terms of economic and foreign policies. I know of his work in co-operation with the City of London, and of the City’s excellent work in respect of both those dossiers, and I will pursue the matter.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time on armed forces welfare packages for our servicemen and women serving abroad on behalf of this country? Surely, in the 21st century it cannot be beyond the Government to allow packages to be sent post-free to our servicemen and women, especially when those packages often contain equipment to replace the faulty equipment with which they have been issued.

Mr. Straw: There will be an opportunity to raise that matter next Thursday in the defence in the world debate— [Interruption.] Well, that is an opportunity. Meanwhile I will alert my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the fact that the hon. Gentleman will pose that question to him during the debate.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Is not it time for a debate on the role of religious organisations when carrying out public functions? While I hope that we all accept that religious organisations are capable of doing good work in the provision of public and welfare services, surely if the Government simply said that when in receipt of public funds or under public organisation those organisations should provide such services without discriminating against clients and employees and without proselytising, we could settle the matter once and for all and have clarity. The Government might thereby avoid the unfortunate mess from which I hope that they will extract themselves soon.

Mr. Straw: I do not mind having a debate on the issue. We had a pretty intensive debate during the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, and I agreed to amendments to try to accommodate the position of religious organisations, particularly the Christian Churches. Without referring to the current controversy, I know that the hon. Gentleman is a secularist, and I respect his views, but his is not the position of the vast majority in this country, 70 per cent. of whom declared themselves to be Christian in the 2001 census, and there are many who subscribe to other religions. He is against faith schools; I am not. We have a long tradition of faith schools in this country. His position, which is partly the Liberal Democrat position, is not ours. I am happy, however, to debate all of that.

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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government’s proposals in respect of legal aid, and particularly their decision to impose means-testing on legal aid in magistrates courts, is causing huge concern, not just among the legal profession but among many charities that are worried about vulnerable people? On 11 January, a debate on legal aid took place in Westminster Hall, and many visitors could not get into the Gallery. Why was that debate not held in the main Chamber?

Mr. Straw: The purpose of Westminster Hall is to allow such debates to take place. Because of the pressure on time in this Chamber, we cannot hold all such debates here. Means-testing for legal aid is a good idea. Money was being wasted—I would have thought that the Conservatives would be the first to complain about that—through legal aid being given to people who did not deserve it. We are trying to ensure that legal aid goes to people who need it, but not to people who can afford to pay for their own legal representation.

John Bercow: Given that many of us support early, full and undiluted implementation of the sexual orientation regulations, please may we have a statement next week to confirm that the Cabinet majority has asserted itself in favour of that proposition, to be followed by the speediest possible passage of the regulations, so that gay, lesbian and bisexual people can enjoy equality before the law in the provision of goods, services and facilities, which they have been too long denied?

Mr. Straw: That remains a proud commitment of the Government. Without commenting on the current considerations—

John Bercow: Oh go on, Jack.

Mr. Straw: I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman would be able to make just a standing intervention; he cannot.

On the issue of an announcement, I cannot promise that there will be an oral statement, but I shall take full account of what the hon. Gentleman has asked for, as I always do.

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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In July 2006, a 92-year-old gentleman in my constituency was told that he had to have a hearing aid. In September 2006, he had the mould made for the hearing aid. Unfortunately, he has now been told that he must wait 15 months for that hearing aid because of cutbacks in Government funding. I do not believe that that was the Government’s intention in their health policy. During the next week of business, would it be possible for the Leader of the House to try and fix this problem?

Mr. Straw: I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. When the hon. Gentleman tries to make much of such individual cases, I hope that he also tells his constituents that the Northamptonshire Heartlands primary care trust, the old lead trust, had its funding increased by more than 31 per cent. between 2003 and 2006.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May we have a statement next week from the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs about the rules surrounding membership arrangements for private gyms? This is the month for new year’s resolutions, and my constituent, Mrs. Trudi Winnett, joined a ladies-only gym in Kettering. Her circumstances changed, but she has been unable to leave the gym because she has in effect signed up to a two-year financial arrangement, from which she cannot escape. Kettering citizens advice bureau is getting a growing number of complaints about such arrangements. May we have some Government action?

Mr. Straw: First, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has said to his constituent, people should read the small print carefully before entering into what sounds like an onerous contract. Secondly, I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs to consider the issue, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Government cannot be responsible for onerous contracts that individuals enter into. Other organisations that run gyms are ethical, including that which runs the House of Commons gym.

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Points of Order

1.26 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you are aware of the recent court case that has led to yet another reversal in the attempt to limit the protest in Parliament square. Whatever one thinks about that, there can surely be no human right to fill the square with incessant amplified noise, which interferes with the ability of Members to do their work, and which is a distraction and danger to police who are in the front line of providing security for the House. Have you received any advice as to whether the latest court judgment entitles the protester in the square to recommence, as he has done, the broadcasting of amplified messages at unbearably high volume in that public place, which would not be allowed anywhere else that I can think of?

Mr. Speaker: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is a nuisance—I have been on demonstrations throughout my working life, and it has nothing to do with the right to demonstrate. Let me say that this is a matter for the police, as excessive noise can be a breach of the peace. I have asked the Serjeant at Arms to investigate, but it is not a matter in which I can intervene.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not exclusively a matter for the police, because one could secure a civil injunction, and the authorities of the House might be able to do so against the protester.

Mr. Speaker: Of course, but that is nothing to do with me. That is why I have Speaker’s counsel. I let them do that type of work.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you are aware of my interest in abortion and my abhorrence of late abortions. Last week, at business questions, I brought to the attention of the Leader of the House the fact that organisations, individuals and PCTs were raising concerns with me that, as a result of NHS deficits and restrictions on finances, women were waiting up to seven or eight weeks longer than normal for terminations, some of which were even being tipped over into the next financial year.

To gain some supporting statistical evidence for those claims, I wrote to the appropriate Ministers. The Ministers of State at the Department of Health, the
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hon. Members for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and for Leigh (Andy Burnham) respectively advised me that the answers to my questions would be in the Library. The Library has told me that it does not have answers to those questions. In my attempt to gain the evidence, I feel that I am being given the runaround. Will you give me your advice on that?

Mr. Speaker: Is the hon. Lady referring to parliamentary questions that she has tabled?

Mrs. Dorries: I am.

Mr. Speaker: I shall have to look into the matter to assist the hon. Lady. Let me also say that both the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and the Leader of the House mentioned the number of parliamentary questions being tabled. I am not saying that the hon. Lady is tabling too many, but I understand that at times there are tranches of hundreds of questions going into the Table Office. Hon. Members should bear in mind that that causes a backlog, and can have an impact on questions of the type tabled by the hon. Lady, who has a legitimate case in pursuing a matter in which she is deeply interested. I ask hon. Members whose researchers are compiling questions to bear in mind that this is causing a backlog and putting pressure on Departments and Ministers.

I shall certainly look into the matter that the hon. Lady has raised, and we will see what we can do about it.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Further to the points of order, Mr. Speaker. If it will assist you and the hon. Lady, I shall be happy to see her straight away and try to ensure that better answers are given. As for the points raised by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) about the Parliament square area, I think it would be wise for us to discuss it in the House of Commons Commission.

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