HC Deb 08 January 2004 vol 416 cc403-17 12.31 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 12 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Housing Bill.

TUESDAY 13 JANUARY—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 14 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Employment Relations Bill.

THURSDAY 15 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Human Tissue Bill.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 19 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Civil Contingencies Bill.

TUESDAY 20 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 21 JANUARY—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 22 JANUARY—Debate on "Attendance and Behaviour in Schools" on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

I have today written to all Members explaining how I intend to review the sitting times of the Chamber before the next election. Members will recall that the decision of the House in October 2002 was to change the hours until the end of this Parliament. The Modernisation Committee will need to review the current arrangements before then, and the House will need to decide whether to maintain or change them.

In the meantime, I will consult on a series of commonsense alterations that can be made—without waiting for the Modernisation Committee's review—to make the current arrangements work better, for example, through changing Committee sitting times and the times when the Chamber is available for visits. Members have expressed their concerns to me about the clash of Committee sittings with other duties, the 8.55am start times, the compression of the week, making better use of early evenings and access for constituents.

On the main question of the sitting hours themselves, there were and still are strong views. Since becoming Leader of the House in June last year, I have been made only too aware of the deep division of opinion between Members in all parties. We are keen to ensure that we find a way forward that, as far as possible, reflects a new and durable consensus, so I wish to explore a balanced set of changes. Colleagues will receive from the Procedure Committee a questionnaire about hours and the Modernisation Committee will consider its findings as part of its formal review of hours, which will include a more comprehensive survey. I can assure the House that all Members will have an opportunity to express their views.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for his announcement about sitting hours, but he knows that the House is looking for prompt action from him. Will he tell us more about the timetable of his review and that of the Modernisation Committee—either today or, if not, next week?

The programme motion on the Traffic Management Bill, which was dealt with on Monday, provided for a Committee end-date of 12 February. However, hon. Members assumed that the Bill would start its Committee stage next week, in accordance with normal procedure. Is he aware that we have now been told that the Committee will not start until 3 February and that there is widespread concern about that? Will he pledge that future programme motions will make it clear if there is to be a late start date in Committee, and what does he intend to do about that programme motion in particular?

On the Hutton report, can the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister will not only make the statement to the House that we have been told about, but will lead for the Government in the debate? Does the Leader of the House agree that it is important that civil servants are treated fairly? He will have seen the draft Bill proposed by the Public Administration Committee this week on the civil service. Are we to have a statement on that? On the same subject, does he expect the Prime Minister to make it clear next week in the House whether he agrees with Sir Kevin Tebbit's evidence that it was the Prime Minister who authorised the release of Dr. David Kelly's name? If the Prime Minister agrees with that evidence, he should say so, rather than leaving Sir Kevin—a senior civil servant—dangling in the wind.

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the constitutional Bills, such as that on the reform of the House of Lords, will be dealt with on the Floor of the House, as is the convention? It is important that we receive such an assurance, especially on House of Lords reform.

Mr. Hain

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for my statement on the sitting hours. He requests prompt action, and I am concerned about the aggravation caused by early sitting times and other issues—including the fact that hon. Members have not been able to bring constituents into the Chamber after the House has risen in the sometimes relatively early evening, and the fact that Members with constituencies well outside London, such as myself, have not been able to bring constituents to the House for line of route tours in the same numbers as before because they cannot get here early enough. I am in discussion with the House authorities to see what progress we can make promptly.

On the question of the Modernisation Committee's timing, the hon. Gentleman will know—as a member of the Committee—that we are engaged in an important exercise to discover how Westminster can be better connected to the average citizen, so that they can feel that the House of Commons reflects their views.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

What does that mean?

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman sneers at that, but I see it as my responsibility as Leader of the House to ensure that the Commons is better connected to the democratic wishes of voters. That exercise will go on for some months and thereafter the Committee will formally start the review of the sitting hours. I welcome contributions from the Conservatives, and from Front Benchers and Back Benchers on both sides of the House, so that we can reach a new and durable consensus. It is possible to make changes that will mean that instead of bitterly divided views on the sitting hours, we have a consensus on how to move forward. However, as I said in my letter, I do not see a majority for returning to the old sitting hours when we used to sit well into the night and sometimes into the early morning. Members of the public did not believe that their elected representatives could sensibly make laws at such times. We must consider a series of changes and I want to listen to everyone before proceeding.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Traffic Management Bill. I am curious about his question on that point, because the start date and the number of sittings were agreed through the usual channels and I understand that no further representations have been made by the Conservatives or anyone else through the usual channels. It is, therefore, a source of concern to me that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, and I am sure that the Whips will want to consider any points that are made in the normal way, through the usual channels.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Hutton report, and I have made the situation perfectly clear. I agree that civil servants must be treated fairly—I am in absolute agreement with the hon. Gentleman on that point. But let us take one step at a time. As I made clear well before Christmas, the Prime Minister will come to the House on the day that the report is published; he will answer questions and, as he said yesterday, he will be willing to be cross-examined on all the issues, including those raised by the hon. Gentleman. That is the proper way to proceed. Subject to the decisions made by Mr. Speaker on how long the Prime Minister's statement will run, there will be an opportunity for as many Members as possible to put their point of view and to hold the Prime Minister to account following the publication of the Hutton report.

My job is to ensure that the House can discuss accountability and all the issues involved in a proper way. When the report is published, I shall keep the House informed about exactly when the subsequent debate will take place and how it will be structured.

On the question of the constitutional Bills, of course the Bill on reform of the House of Lords will be heard on the Floor. That is the proper way to discuss that matter and I shall be happy to receive representations about the detail of it from the shadow Leader of the House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

May I assure the Leader of the House that we at least think that the central role of the House of Commons and Parliament generally in debating the affairs of the nation is critical, and that the re-engaging the electors in that process is extremely important? In that context, can he give us some reassurance?

As Leader of the House he is, we would hope, the primary champion for the rights of the House. Can he give us an absolute undertaking that when the Hutton report is published it will be made available to Members of the House at precisely the same time as it is made available to the media? Would it not be outrageous if the report of that inquiry, which has become something of an inquest into Government spin and Government spin doctors, was handed out to the media—or spun to the media—in advance of its presentation to the House? I appreciate that the details are not in the right hon. Gentleman's hands, but will he undertake to make representations to Lord Hutton to ensure that the report will be released simultaneously to Members of the House and to the media? That is extremely important and I hope that right hon. Gentleman can give us that assurance today or, if not, that he will do so as soon as he has been able to discuss the matter with Lord Hutton.

On the sitting hours, I agree with the Leader of the House that it is extremely important that those who send us here should have an input in the process.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Tyler

The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to think that it matters whether the electors know what is happening in the House. Well, I do and I believe that it is extremely important that, for example, broadcasters have at their disposal, in the evening, the main decisions of the House. At present, the Government have a large majority, but important debates and Divisions could be taking place—perhaps in the near future—that should be communicated to those who send us here. Is it not important that those who send us here know what is happening in the House of Commons and can see it at a reasonable hour? Will the Leader of the House give us an undertaking that the Modernisation Committee will take evidence from those whom we represent, as well as from Members and those who communicate with us?

Mr. Hain

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's definition of my role as the primary champion of the rights of the House. That is the way that I see my role and that is how I try to carry it out.

The hon. Gentleman made important points about the Hutton report. As he implied, those matters are for Lord Hutton. Neither my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister nor I, in my role as Leader of the House, have been informed when the Hutton report will be published. We do not yet know that. I shall draw to Lord Hutton's attention the points that the hon. Gentleman made. The decision on who receives what first, in respect of the media and the House, is not in the hands of the Government, but I am sure that Lord Hutton will want to take careful note of the points that he made. I am equally sure that the hon. Gentleman is not accusing Lord Hutton of spin; the matter is not for the Government, but for Lord Hutton and his secretariat.

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point: electors matter. They send us here and hold us accountable at general elections. It is imperative that we address how electors feel about what we do in the House, the way that we do it and the access that we give them, including better online access. We should not simply be preoccupied with contemplating our own navels and our own internal procedures. We should also think about how we have a better direct link to the views of the people in the ways that we conduct business and reflect their views in our proceedings

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. May I just tell the House that we have a very congested agenda before us today? There is an important statement to come, and there is a great deal of interest among hon. Members in the Bill that will follow. I am not sure whether I will be able to call every hon. Member who is trying to catch my eye during business questions, but I appeal for brevity, and I will do my best in those circumstances.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House both on the decision he has reached and on the open-minded way in which he has approached this subject? May I assure him that, contrary to some press reports, those of us who have been campaigning for a review have been doing so not with a wish to turn back the clock—that can never happen—but to arrive at a sensible way in which the business of the House can be conducted? Indeed, does he agree that that is precisely what our constituents would expect? Finally, may I suggest that, if he continues to proceed in the manner that he has described, we can reach a consensus, which, even if it does not please everyone, will content most hon. Members about how we conduct our business?

Mr. Hain

I very much welcome and agree with what my hon. Friend says. I interpreted the motion as a call for a review, not for a reversal, and between the position that he enunciates and those who, like me, voted for the arrangements governing the existing hours, it is possible to find a new consensus that meets all people's concerns.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

Does the Leader of the House accept that the best way to test the will of the House is to have a vote? Will he bear it in mind that Tuesday sittings were changed by a majority of seven? Why cannot we have a vote now on that and keep the other arrangements as an experiment?

Mr. Hain

Because it is not clear what the vote would be on. The hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members will know that I have spoken to scores of Members in all parties on this matter. There are very divided opinions. We ought to have a proper review and proper consideration, and then decide how we can move forward on an agreed basis.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the Government's policy with regard to child day centres, linking early-years education with care provision beyond normal school hours, and, in particular, on how that links to existing provision in local authorities? In my constituency, in the Mosborough area, a pioneering project does precisely what the Government intend to do nationally. Unfortunately, the local authority is proposing major changes, which greatly concern my constituents, and I would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss that issue on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the opportunity to discuss that issue on the Floor of the House could arise in various different ways, but I agree that it is very important and I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised it.

Mr. Forth

The Leader of the House will recall that, yesterday, the Prime Minister said:

we are about to have a report published"— the Prime Minister obviously knows something that the Leader of the House does not, so perhaps he will have a chat with him about that— and rather than the right hon. and learned Gentleman", the Leader of the Opposition, cross-examining me now, he can do that on the day the report is published".—[Official Report, 7 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 250.] Can the Leader of the House therefore confirm exactly what he envisages the arrangements will be? First, when the Hutton report is published, will hon. Members have a reasonable amount of time to consider it before it comes to the House? Secondly, will we have a proper opportunity and length of statement to question the Prime Minister immediately? As important, will we then have a full-day debate, opened by the Prime Minister, who should stay throughout the debate so that he can be held properly to account and answer the questions that arise from the Hutton report? Can we please have all that now on the record from the Leader of the House?

Mr. Hain

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will not follow the precedent set by the Conservative Government on the Scott report when the Opposition spokesman was led into a darkened room and had only a brief time to consider the situation. It is a matter for Lord Hutton to decide precisely the terms in which the report is released, and I am sure that he will listen to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman. However, the Prime Minister has made it crystal clear, as he did yesterday and as I did before Christmas, that he will come to the House on the day that the report is published and immediately make a statement and be subject to cross-examination and questioning by all the Members of the House who wish to take part in that. I have already answered the point about the arrangements for the debate to follow.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)

On Tuesday in the other place, there was a debate on the use of the Pugin Room and demands were made for it to be returned to the exclusive use of peers or, as a compromise, for it to be turned over to joint use. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that we represent constituencies and are regularly lobbied? We need space to meet our constituents and those who otherwise lobby us.

Mr. Hain

I understand that this is a matter for the Accommodation and Works Committee, but I unite with my hon. Friend and, I guess, Members on both sides of the House. I have regularly taken constituents to the Pugin Room. It is an important facility for Members of the Commons even though it has a red carpet.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con)

On another parochial issue, the Leader of the House will have noticed that the unsightly and noisy demonstration in Parliament square has not reappeared in the new year. Can we have an early debate on the report of the Procedure Committee and a vote so that the House has the necessary powers to prevent any recurrence of that demonstration?

Mr. Hain

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The matter needs to be addressed and we are considering it. We will seek to address it as soon as possible in the way that he describes.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)

I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House that he will move immediately to look to make changes to improve the operation of the new hours. Does he agree, however, that it would be premature to consider how the new hours are operating before the problems that Members have raised continually over the past year have been resolved?

Mr. Hain

As I said earlier, I agree that some aggravating issues can be addressed quite quickly. We then need to take not too long but enough time to make sure that we reach a consensus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) suggested, I believe that it is possible to reach a consensus on modern hours that do not involve some of the anomalies that we face at present. That is the issue that I wish to consult upon, and we can move forward and find an agreed way to do that.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Does the Leader of the House appreciate that his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) indicated to the House that the Prime Minister was not going to lead in the debate on the Hutton report? Again and again, the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister merely say that the Prime Minister will make a statement. Can we have a categorical assurance that there will be a reasonable amount of time between the statement and the debate and that, as has to happen, the Prime Minister opens the debate from the Government Dispatch Box and remains in his place throughout the debate so that he takes account of what the House thinks of the report? As the Prime Minister has made it clear that Hutton will report shortly, it is essential that the Leader of the House now tells us that what I have asked for will happen. If he does not do so, we will assume that the Prime Minister is on the run.

Mr. Hain

That is an outrageous suggestion, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it. The Prime Minister set up the Hutton inquiry and the Prime Minister has already made it clear that he will come here on the day that the report is published to answer questions from the right hon. Gentleman and anybody else. I do not think that the Prime Minister could be more accountable or open than that.

As for the debate, I have already made it clear that it will happen a week after publication of the report, so there will be enough time for the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to consider it. The question as to the handling of the debate needs to be decided in the light of what the Hutton report says. [Interruption.] Indeed, the Conservatives have made up their minds about what the Hutton report says in advance. That is a prejudiced position; we are adopting a fair and open-minded position and the House's interests will be protected to ensure that the handling of the debate and who opens and who closes it is appropriate in the light of the report that appears from Lord Hutton.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Although I still support the changes made to the hours, may I urge my right hon. Friend to consider one change that would be welcomed by many people who do not live in London or the south-east? That would involve making all Fridays constituency days in which we could accept constituency engagements and moving debates on private Member's Bills to Tuesday evenings. When the Modernisation Committee considers the proposals, will he also confirm that the Conservatives' proposal was for the House to sit from 9 to 5?

Mr. Hain

It was indeed, but I will not pour oil on troubled waters. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] I am being incited to do that, but I am seeking to be a cross-party Leader of the House rather than a single party one.

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion, and I have received strong representations to that effect. It may well be one of the ways in which we can achieve a new consensus. I point out, however, that I read in The Guardian the other day that, under the new sitting hours, the average length of a sitting day has increased from 7 hours 40 minutes in 2002 to 7 hours 57 minutes. It is not the case that the new sitting hours have led to less scrutiny. On the contrary, they have actually led to more time in the House.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly has been in suspended animation since October 2002, and it does not look like it will get off the ground very speedily. Will he therefore consider how urgent legislation required in Northern Ireland is dealt with in the House? For example, the draft Disability Discrimination Bill refers to every other part of the United Kingdom, but does not refer to Northern Ireland except to exclude it from its provisions. Surely all citizens with disabilities or other problems should be looked after by the House in the interim.

Mr. Hain

I agree that citizens suffering from discrimination, including on the ground of disability, must be protected by the House. The hon. Gentleman will know that Northern Ireland questions will take place on Wednesday next week, so he will have an opportunity to raise these matters then. I know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will certainly want to take account of his views.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab)

In the negotiations that the Leader of the House has about the hours, will he place priority on opening up the hours from 9 o'clock to 12 o'clock on Wednesday morning, which, as he understands, are not at present regarded as available for Select Committees? If he could release those hours, that would make a major difference to the problems that currently confront Select Committees.

Mr. Hain

I am very sympathetic to my right hon. Friend's point. We could make better use of Wednesday mornings for Select Committees, in particular. That is precisely one of the common sense and balanced set of changes that I am seeking to explore over the coming weeks.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Bearing in mind that two Cabinet Ministers gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry—the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence—is it not only right that those should be the two people who deal with the debate?

Mr. Hain

That may well be the case.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Hain

We continually get a ray of darkness from the right hon. Gentleman. This is about handling the matter in a way that is satisfactory to both sides of the House in the light of what Lord Hutton's report says. We do not know where its focus will be and where its spotlight will fall in any conclusions. There is a range of institutions from the BBC to the Ministry of Defence and to the others involved for which there is ministerial accountability, so it is sensible to consider the report and then decide. I will report to the House immediately it is possible to agree a way forward. I will obviously hold business questions on the Thursday of the week in question—whenever that is.

By the way, it is not the case that I have said something different from the Prime Minister about the publication of the report. He is not aware of the publication day any more than I am.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab)

I welcome the statement by the Leader of the House on the revised hours. I know that he is trying to be balanced, but I urge him to amend them only marginally. We now have a more intense, productive and focused week when we are here, and that should not be damaged.

To turn to other Government business, the House received—I think quite warmly—a ten-minute Bill from me in July that talked about amending the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 to take out the anomaly by which people's tips paid through the payroll are counted towards the minimum wage. Are the Government making any progress in introducing such a provision as an amendment to part of their business?

Mr. Hain

I will certainly make inquiries about my hon. Friend's latter point and let him know what the situation is. I, with him, voted for the changes to the sitting hours. I did not think that it was sensible for the House to sit at 11.30 pm, 12.30 am or 3 am and make legislation. However, the existing hours and arrangements have thrown up a series of issues, some of which I have described, that we need to address. Unless we address them, we will not get a new consensus and there will be continued division—sometimes bitter division. It is my job to try to assemble a new consensus and I hope that I will have the co-operation of every hon. Member in doing that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I thank the Leader of the House for his announcement about the sitting hours. He might not be aware that the Committee is issuing a questionnaire this very day to all Members of the House. Will he join me in urging all hon. Members to respond to the questionnaire, which, although short, is comprehensive? When he sees the replies that are received, he will see that it deals with every option that the House could consider.

On the day on which the statement on the Hutton report is made, will he, as the Leader of the House representing the best interests of the House, ensure that the business on that day is light—there will be notice of when the statement is likely to take place—so that Mr. Speaker can allow maximum time for questioning?

Mr. Hain

I will bear in mind the important point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I have a copy of his excellent survey in front of me, which will be dispatched to hon. Members today. I am glad that he is conducting the survey because it will provide an important background to the Modernisation Committee's review. I have identified at least four options in the letter that I have dispatched today to all hon. Members: first, that we should revert to the old hours; secondly, that the new hours should stand; thirdly, that adjustments should be made to improve the new hours, including Committee sitting times; and fourthly, that the House should sit until 10 pm, as previously, on Tuesdays, but that we should keep the early hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Those are not the only options but they show the complexity of the issue. We need to take a bit of time to consider it, and his survey will help us to achieve that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

Has my right hon. Friend read early-day motion 357, which is about an unjustified United States raid on the offices of the Iraqi Federation of Workers Trade Unions in Baghdad on 6 December?

[That this House notes that no explanation, apology or compensation has so far been proffered by the US military authorities in Iraq for the unjustified raid on 6th December 2003 on the temporary headquarters in Baghdad of the Iraqi Federation of Workers' Trade Unions (IFTU) which led to the arrest of eight IFTU leaders who were later released; congratulates a wide range of organisations around the world such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the International Labour Organization, the Scottish TUC, the RMT union, the Labour Start web site, the Italian CGIL, the International Metalworkers' Federation and the Congress of South African Trade Unions for showing solidarity with the fledgling independent Iraqi trade union movement; regrets that the Iraqi Governing Council and Iraqi political parties failed to act to defend such an important part of the new civil society in Iraq; agrees with the IFTU on the need for an apology from the local US military commander who led the attack, for commitments that such an act should never happen again, and for compensation for damages inflicted on the IFTU personnel and possessions; and endorses its appeal for the American authorities not to be further misled by remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime about the new trade union movement.]

I appreciate that it has been difficult to get information out of the Americans about what occurred, but will efforts to find out be redoubled so that we may have a statement to tell us what actually happened from their point of view? I am aware that the Foreign Office and the TUC are taking a progressive line to encourage the development of free trade unions in Iraq, but efforts need to be made so that the Americans respond in a similar way to this country. There was an answer on 27 November—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mr. Hain

I am concerned that we get to the truth of what really happened on the occasion that my hon. Friend mentions, which he also raised before Christmas. I assure him that in a democratic Iraq there must be democratically constituted trade unions. They should have the right to organise and their headquarters should have the right to be free from any intimidation or harassment. We should bear that principle in mind when trying to get to the bottom of the matter.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the proposal made yesterday by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) that Scotland adopt variable top-up fees if they proceed in England to prevent Scottish universities from being at a financial disadvantage? Surely we need a debate on the emptiness of the Government's devolution policy if Scotland is simply expected to follow policy decided here. Should the Scottish Parliament not have full financial independence so that it can adopt Scottish solutions rather than being forced to follow this place?

Mr. Hain

We know where the hon. Gentleman stands. He wants an independent Scotland—he nods—despite the fact that the people of Scotland have overwhelmingly rejected that. They prefer devolution with the strong Scottish Parliament that they have with responsibility for matters including education.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab)

We are all aware of the pressure that the Leader of the House is under on the revision of the hours, but has he had an opportunity to cross-reference the Conservative Members who signed early-day motion 262 with their entries in the Register of Members' Interests on outside business concerns that might be influenced by the new regime?

[That this House notes that the revised sitting hours and related arrangements have now been in place for 12 months; believes that there is now sufficient experience of the new arrangements to enable the House to judge what adjustments would be appropriate to enable the business of the House to be conducted more effectively; and calls for an urgent review of the reforms.]

Mr. Hain

I have not had the opportunity to do that. I am sure that any decision taken by the House will not be informed by what individual hon. Members might do outside the House in the mornings.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

Is the Leader of the House aware that this week 500 employees at the Sara Lee factory in Bridlington in my constituency lost their jobs? Does he appreciate that the scale of that loss is likely to have an effect on the town of Bridlington similar to that which the collapse of the entire UK car industry would have on the city of Birmingham? Will he therefore pass on my deep concerns to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry with a plea for more to be done to encourage inward investment in English seaside towns, and may we have a debate on that?

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman is free to apply for a debate. I am concerned to hear the news from his constituency, but it is against the background of a continued rise in jobs and employment and cuts to unemployment—including in his constituency. Despite the sometimes terrible impact of company and factory closures, most, if not all, people find alternative jobs. We must ensure that we defend existing jobs wherever we can, including in his constituency, but if closures take place, we have active employment programmes to ensure that new job opportunities arise. That has been the case consistently throughout the country since we took power in 1997.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will no doubt have seen reports this week about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport's frustration at the failure of the Strategic Rail Authority and his apparent decision to take back powers from the authority to Ministers. That is clearly another stage toward direct public ownership and control of the railway industry, which I welcome. Will the Leader of the House arrange a full debate on the Floor of the House on the ongoing crisis in the railway industry, especially so that we may consider the prospect of bringing the whole industry back into public ownership and making it accountable to this Parliament?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to take account of my hon. Friend's views. I am also sure that my hon. Friend will want to celebrate the fact that more than 1,500 new trains have come into service since we came to power. Passenger numbers have been rising and record investment is going into the railways. There is a long way to go, given the mess that we inherited in 1997, but I am sure that he would want to applaud those trends.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

The Leader of the House says that he wishes to reconnect Parliament with the people, which I support. In that spirit, is he aware that the Radio 4 "Today" programme held a poll of its listeners over Christmas to find out the sort of Bill that they would like to come before Parliament? They decided that there should be a Bill on law and order so that people could protect their homes properly. Will he arrange an urgent debate on that so that we can discuss something that worries many people?

Mr. Hain

I agree that the issue worries many people. I thought that the "Today" programme's poll was a worthwhile exercise. It is open to any Member of the House, including those high up on the private Member's ballot—

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

Where is the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound)?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) was not high up on the ballot. It is open to any hon. Member to take forward the "Today" programme listeners' verdict, and I hope that hon. Members will consider doing so.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)

May I urge the Leader of the House to support the suggestion to bring in private Members' Bills on a Tuesday evening because it is important that we use that space more? I resist being held hostage here by the lovely gentlemen opposite—they are all gentlemen—and urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that we maintain the current sitting hours.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend and others have put to me the interesting suggestion that we could liberate all Fridays and consider private Member's Bills on Tuesday evenings. Arithmetically speaking, we would require 22 Tuesday evenings to have time equivalent to that on the Fridays on which we sit. The suggestion will no doubt be considered during the Modernisation Committee's review.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

The House will agree that the health and well-being of our children is of the utmost importance. With that in mind, will the Leader of the House, with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, find time to debate here the incredible, callous decision of Conservative-controlled Essex county council to abolish the school meals service in Essex?

Mr. Hain

I find it astonishing that the Conservative council has taken that decision, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the welfare of youngsters ought to be at the top of our agenda.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)

Returning to the topic raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), engaging the public with our work here, does not the Leader of the House think it entirely unsatisfactory that he cannot announce the topics for Opposition day debates when he makes his statement? The public do not know what is coming up in those debates, and neither do the MPs and Ministers who have to prepare for them. Should he not make it a requirement that, when he makes his statement, the topics of Opposition day debates have to be announced, or are the Opposition in total disarray?

Mr. Hain

Fortunately, I am not responsible for the Opposition, but I think that my right hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. In the last few minutes, I have had requests about all sorts of details for the coming weeks shouted at me or made in more sedate terms. It would be interesting to know the subject of Opposition day debates in advance so that Members could prepare and their constituents make representations. I shall energetically pursue the suggestion.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)

The Leader of the House may be aware that the Penrose report delivered to the Treasury on 23 December has now been copied to the Financial Services Authority. That is not part of the normal Maxwellisation process, and it is a decision that the Equitable Life members action group has rightly described as highly questionable. In light of that and the appalling year-long delay in publishing Penrose, may I ask the Leader of the House to prevail on the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to come here next week and make an urgent statement about what exactly is going on in the Penrose inquiry?

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Financial Secretary will have carefully noted the hon. Gentleman's points. Those with Equitable Life pensions have suffered grievously, and their interests ought to be seriously considered.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for pointing out earlier that the Conservatives' proposal for our hours was for a 9 to 5 day. Will the Leader of the House bear it in mind that the 11.30 am start was itself a compromise between those who wanted a late start and finish and those who wanted an earlier start to the day? Will he assure the House that if he moves towards a compromise, it will not only be a question of having later hours; we should also have the option of an earlier start on all days of the week?

Mr. Hain

That is exactly why the issue is so complex. My hon. Friend has made a perfectly fair case. I do not know whether Conservative Front Benchers will resurrect their proposition—the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is nodding vigorously—or whether they will get unanimity on that point. Opinion on the Conservative Benches is just as divided as it is in other parties. We should approach the issue on a non-party basis in the interests of the House.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

May I assure the Leader of the House that he was absolutely wrong in what he said about the Traffic Management Bill? No start date for the Standing Committee sittings has been agreed, and nor has the number of sittings. Surely, in any event, those are matters for the Programming Sub-Committee, and that cannot meet until the Selection Committee has appointed the Standing Committee. Will he assure the House that the Standing Committee on the Traffic Management Bill will be appointed this coming week so that the Programming Sub-Committee can decide how many times the Committee should sit and when it should start?

Mr. Hain

I made it clear earlier that the usual channels—the Government Whips—invited further representations. That invitation still stands, and if the hon. Gentleman or anyone else wants to make representations, they will be listened to.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will, I am sure, have noted several excellent ideas for modifying the existing hours. He, like me, is of a generation who remembers the joy of getting a Meccano set at Christmas, and we know that just because one cannot get all the right pieces in place the first time, that does not mean that one chucks it in the bin.

Mr. Hain

That is a verdict with which I completely agree.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

In the interests of justice, will the Leader of the House consider having a word with his Foreign Office colleagues about the situation of my constituent, Ian Nisbet, who, with two other British nationals, has been imprisoned in Cairo since April 2002? His legal process has been constantly frustrated by adjournments, the last one of which took place on Christmas day and is likely to lead to a further 15-week delay. Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that entirely inappropriate in a legal process? If we do not get some action from the Egyptian authorities, it may be necessary for me and other concerned Members to hold another debate in the House on the matter.

Mr. Hain

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, and I know that the Foreign Secretary will want to address the matter as soon as he can. Indeed, he is actively considering the hon. Gentleman's requests and representations at the moment.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must now move on.