» Thursday, June 29, 2006

Other business

Asked about views expressed by David Blunkett on the performance of the Civil Service during evidence to the Public Administration select committee, the Leader said he had not been aware of it. He would prefer to wait to see what the Committee reported and also to reading the evidence of Mr Blunkett and others "in the round" before commenting. Asked further, Mr Straw thanked journalists for bringing this to his attention.

Asked for his view on reported comments by Rupert Murdoch on a "snap election" after a change of leadership, Mr Straw said he had not read them but heard a report on radio earlier today. He noted what he had to say. The timing of a general election was a decision by Her Majesty on the advice of the Prime Minister. Put to him that there had been a snap election on the occasion of an earlier handover in 1955, the Leader pointed out that an election would have been required in the following 12 months anyway, since the previous election had been in 1951. The Leader said he did not think there was any precedent. He insisted that he was not offering any view to the Lobby.

He was asked about his comments during Business Questions, referring to the timing of this year’s summer recess, which would mean there would be no September sitting. The Leader did not agree with the journalist’s view that "it looks terrible".  He said that MPs did a great deal of work during the summer recess and the party conferences also took place. He was conscious that the period – July 25 to October 9 – looked to be "quite a long time". He pointed out that, a century ago, Parliament went into recess in August and did not return until the following February, which people accepted. But, nowadays, life moved on more quickly.

On September sittings, the Leader said that one of the arguments in favour of them was that Parliament previously had been recalled on three occasions in six years. He conceded that support for September sittings did not necessarily reflect popular opinion in the House and there would have to be a free vote on it. For 2006, it was impossible to have a September sitting because of the schedule of building work at the Palace of Westminster.

Mr Straw pointed out that, when MPs took the original decision to hold sittings in September, it was seen as a compensation for the loss of time during half-terms. It was unacceptable to the House both to have half-term recesses and September sittings.

The Leader said that, as an interim issue, he was actively looking at whether written parliamentary questions to Ministers could be allowed during September, since that obviously did not depend on maintenance work being completed.

In response to further questions, he acknowledged that security considerations had been the reason for not having a September sitting in 2005.  He declined to comment on a specific incident when protesters had stormed into the Chamber. The Leader said that the cost to the public purse of compressing maintenance of the building into a more limited period had to be taken into account. The other side of the debate was public perception. He said that it was unfair on MPs, who worked extremely hard, if it was thought that they went off for "an eleven-week holiday."

Asked if he could indicate the date of the State Opening of Parliament, the Leader said he was not in a position to do so.

The Leader informed journalists that he would make a speech tomorrow in which he would expand on themes, including the issue of the Government’s approach to party funding, contained in a lecture he delivered yesterday. This would encompass the evidence to be submitted to the inquiry headed by Sir Hayden Phillips.

Mr Straw declined, in response to a further question, to offer a precise view on the level of a future cap on funding. He had sought in his lecture to highlight the juxtaposition of the halving of membership of political parties and the trebling of their spending over the same period. His view was that this "arms race" on spending had to end. The Leader said that "third party endorsement" was a key issue to be addressed in any party funding regime, as well as the issue of caps on third party donations.

The Leader, responding to further questions about whether some loans from donors had been returned, said he had no information on it. It was not part of his brief. He said that those who had provided loans – to all parties – had done so in good faith in terms of their intentions. They were also lawful. The issue was – and is – whether the loans should have been required to be disclosed.

Questioned about the admissibility of "phone-tap" evidence, Mr Straw said that, so far, the Government working onthe advice of the security services had adjudged that the disadvantages of using intercept evidence outweighed the advantages. It was something that would of course be kept under constant review.

It was an issue that had been examined at very great length over nine years. It was not a theological question; it was about the balance of advantage in the fight against terrorism, and law and order. He noted that evidence obtained through the use of planted microphones was admissible in the courts. The Leader pointed out that he had been in favour of the latter.

The Leader declined to comment on the latest US Supreme Court decision on Guantanamo Bay.

Briefing took place at 9:00 | Search for related news

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