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Commons Chamber

Volume 447: debated on Thursday 8 June 2006

House of Commons

Thursday 8 June 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Trade and Industry

The Secretary of State was asked—

Postal Services

1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the future of the Royal Mail and Post Office in Scotland. (75718)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. DTI Ministers and officials have regular discussions with other Government Department colleagues on matters relating to Royal Mail and the Post Office network.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who was previously Under-Secretary at the DTI with responsibility for postal services, met Ross Finnie, Minister for Environment and Rural Development at the Scottish Executive, on 6 March to discuss a range of issues relating to post offices.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he and his ministerial colleagues encourage the chief executive of Postcomm to engage better with communities on the future of Royal Mail and the Post Office? I recently wrote to her inviting her to attend a function in my constituency to discuss the future of postal services, and she told me that she felt that she could learn all that she needed to know by holding seminars in Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. We in the Isles have some difficulty with that attitude, because there is genuine concern about the issue and people want to engage in the debate. We need better responses from Postcomm than that.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I know that he will have a seminar in Orkney in due course. My understanding is that the head of the rural network in Scotland for Post Office Ltd will attend the Orkney seminar, and that it will also be represented at the Shetland event. The Department is keen to do what it can to maintain a sustainable network. We have committed £2 billion to Post Office Ltd, including £750 million up to 2008 to support the rural network in particular. We will be very interested in the outcome of his seminar.

The Minister may not know that the post office in Irvine in my constituency, which serves some 30,000 people, is to be franchised. One of my reservations about that proposal is that the franchise will include licensed premises. Many elderly people in the area are opposed to that concept and fear the whole idea. It is also almost bizarre that staff have only recently undergone a training programme to help to widen the scope of the business of the Crown post office, which will now be of no use whatsoever.

I can understand my hon. Friend’s concern, although I have to confess that I did not know about that initiative until he mentioned it to me earlier. The Post Office has to look at modern ways of working, and franchising works in other parts of the country. Having conducted a £25 million pilot to determine modern ways of providing services, we will examine closely anything that has a positive effect on the sustainability of the service. I am happy to hear more from my hon. Friend on the issue. If he drops me a line, I will look further into the initiative that he mentions.

Does the Minister understand the fear in rural areas of Scotland when Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail, talks about a “radical transformation” of the network as a result of the collapse in Government work, such as benefits payments? In the recent deal between the Government and the Royal Mail, it was made clear that

“the level of any support after 2008 will depend on decisions on the future of the post office network”.

Who will take decisions on the future of the post office network? Will it be Royal Mail or the Government, depending on the amount of money that they put in?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the lack of Government support, and I hope that I have rebutted that by demonstrating the £750 million that we have committed to the rural network in particular. It is not the Government’s fault that people are not choosing to use the post office. Habits are changing and the internet is available: there are many reasons why people are not using the post offices—[Interruption.] Some 1,200 post offices have fewer than 60 customer visits a week and 800 have fewer than 20. The issue of sustainability has to be addressed, and I will be happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman in due course in respect of his local post offices.

Energy Review

The Government published a consultation document on 23 January this year inviting responses on energy policy issues. We expect to report to the House before the summer recess.

The Secretary of State is aware that energy supplies were very tight last winter and are likely to be even tighter over the next couple of years. What is he doing to ensure that the lights stay on next winter?

The right hon. Gentleman is right: energy supplies were tight last winter, and they are likely to be tight again this winter. We expect a pipeline bringing gas from Norway to come online, and that will help, as will an expansion of the capacity to bring gas across from Belgium. We will also have the Rough storage facility back, but there is no doubt that we will have to take various steps over the next few months to ensure that we can get through the coming winter. That is all the more reason why we should take realistic action to ensure that we safeguard the security of our energy supplies, this winter and in the years to come.

We urgently need investment in new generating capacity, but the single most important issue that the review must resolve is the development of a long-term mechanism for the pricing allocation of carbon. The current emissions trading scheme is welcome, but it does not give investors the confidence that they need to make very large investments. How confident is the Secretary of State that it will be possible to negotiate a mechanism that will apply for, say, 20 years? If that cannot be done internationally, what freedom of manoeuvre does he have domestically to develop a system that will bring forward that investment?

Again, the hon. Gentleman is right. The industry must have certainty, as many investment decisions will have to be taken over the next few years and the price of carbon will be one of the elements determining those decisions. As the House would expect, the Government have been actively engaged with our European partners. I attended a meeting in Brussels on Friday, at which we discussed the ETS and emphasised the need to fix a carbon price over a long period. That is very important, as the industry needs that certainty before it takes the decisions that we need it to take in respect of the provision of power supply in the future.

In all the discussions about the energy review, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will not get bogged down in the nuclear debate? The oil and gas industry still has a long-term future: Cogent, the sector skills council, has an oil and gas training arm called OPITO that is encouraging young people to go into the industry to fill existing skills shortages and gaps. It is seeking to convince them that the industry has a future and that they will still have jobs in 20, 30 or 40 years.

My hon. Friend is right that nuclear is only one element of our energy supply. It makes up 19 per cent. of our provision, and we need to consider the totality. I have said on many occasions—and I repeated the point when I was last in Aberdeen—that a lot of oil and gas remains in the North sea and that there is a lot of work there. The industry employs many people, and provides many highly skilled and good jobs. I certainly agree that we ought to be encouraging people, in the north-east of Scotland and across the whole country, to consider a career in the oil and gas industry. It has a very good future, and it is an industry that we want to encourage.

Obviously, one part of the energy review will consider measures to reduce demand. In an important speech earlier this week, my right hon. Friend floated the idea of changing the role of electricity producers to suppliers of total services. How quickly might that happen, and what impact will it have on reducing demand?

My hon. Friend is right that we must reduce the demand for energy. A central question in the energy review is how we as a nation can reduce the amount of energy that we consume, and a successful resolution of that question could mean that we would not need as many new power stations as might otherwise be the case. Earlier this week, I set out my belief that we need to consider how we can incentivise energy supply companies to deliver ways in which demand might be reduced—such as through the use of insulation, smart metering or other technology, for example. That approach is radically different from the way in which companies at present are incentivised to sell as much heat and light as they can, albeit in a way that causes prices to be driven down. The process will therefore take some time, but the industry is willing to discuss it and it will be a central part of the review when we report in a few weeks.

In his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), the Secretary of State talked about gas distribution but failed to cover the price rises that were the real problem for people last winter. To a large extent, those rises were caused by the continued absence of the common gas market that Britain was supposed to pursue during our EU presidency. Will the right hon. Gentleman indicate whether we are going to go down that road, and whether it will be included in the energy review?

The right hon. Member for Bracknell asked me about distribution, which is why I answered the question as I did. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is right that there is considerable concern about recent price rises. During the course of our presidency, we asked the Competition Commissioner to do everything possible to ensure a far more open and transparent market. The hon. Gentleman will doubtless have seen that over the past few weeks the Competition Commissioner has served notice that she will enforce the current rules and regulations. Recently, there have been raids on some electricity companies in different parts of Europe and I hope that, right across Europe, people are getting the message that if we believe in a genuine open market, everyone has to play by the rules so that we can see exactly what the prices are and exactly how much gas there is. That is essential if we are to bring down prices and we fully support everything that the Competition Commissioner is doing.

Will the energy review have anything to say about providing more information to energy consumers? If we buy a tin of beans and can see how many calories are in it and every other food product has similar labelling, why cannot we see from our fuel bills how much CO2 we are emitting as a result of our consumption?

I agree that we should provide far more information on our fuel bills—not just about how much CO2 is emitted. It would also be useful to make comparisons so that consumers can see how much electricity or gas they consumed this quarter as opposed to the previous quarter. Smart metering would mean that people could see exactly how much electricity they were consuming and how much they were paying for it at any time. A range of measures can be adopted to help reduce the demand for energy, which has to be a good thing.

Only last week, I visited three intensive gas users in Yorkshire and found that the price that they have to pay for their gas is far higher than they would pay for the same gas in France or Germany. The punitive and unfair premium on their costs is destroying some UK companies and is undermining UK competitiveness. Further to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) asked a few moments ago, when does the Secretary of State believe that the EU will have resolved its illiberal and selfish practices, which are currently protecting its own companies and severely disadvantaging ours?

As I said to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) a few moments ago, the Competition Commissioner is taking action. One problem is that, historically, companies in this country have bought electricity on a short-term basis whereas many of our European competitors have entered into long-term contracts. As I have said, it is important that markets operate openly, and part of the reason the price is so high is the uncertainty in the market, which needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.

One of the main ways of resolving the exposure that intensive gas users face is to see just such an increase in long-term pricing contracts, but Ministers have been foolish enough in the past to recommend that companies forsake such contracts and buy on the spot market instead, which is rather like the Chancellor selling our gold. What prospect does the Secretary of State see for the creation of new and better contracts that can alleviate the volatility that industrial users of gas face in Britain today?

It is not for the Government to tell energy consumers how they should conduct their business; it is for companies to use their own business judgment. It might be useful to remind the House, if hon. Members are not already aware of it, that we set up a joint forum between Government and business to discuss some of these issues, but the main thing is to ensure that the energy market actually works.

We heard on the radio this morning that there are large supplies of North sea oil and gas, and large supplies of coal sweeping out to the North sea and eastern England and large supplies in Scotland and Wales. The key to ensuring that we have more coal as part of the energy review is not to rely on foreign sources, but to ensure that we keep the continuity of the mining industry. That is vital if we are to exploit the reserves that still remain.

My hon. Friend is right that coal is a very important part of the energy mix in this country at the moment. Coal provides a significant degree of our security and supply. I can assure my hon. Friend that coal will be one of many aspects that will be covered in the energy review.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Chancellor’s latest estimate of the cost of nuclear decommissioning is about £90 billion—almost double the Government’s estimate fewer than 12 months ago? When he announces whether the Government are to opt for nuclear power, how confident is he that estimates of future decommissioning will be accurate in any shape or form?

We must do our best to ensure that whatever estimates we have are as accurate as possible. Of course, we have the question of waste to deal with now, no matter what we decide in relation to the future. That is something on which we will get the advice of the energy review that is due to report in the summer. The hon. Gentleman is right: nuclear waste is one aspect that needs to be looked at. Nuclear has provided us with a base load supply of electricity. It represents about 19 per cent. of electricity generation at the moment. If we do not do anything, that will go down to 6 or 7 per cent. in the next 20 years or so, so it needs to be considered. We cannot simply turn our back on it, as I think—I may be wrong on this—the Liberal Democrats believe we should.

In theory, open markets are meant to reduce prices, but according to the Heren report—the international report on electricity prices for the steel industry—the price for the UK steel industry is £52.58 per megawatt hour for this year compared with €52.70 for the same megawatt hour for the same period in Germany. In other words, British steel makers have to pay the same price in pounds as their German competitors pay in euros. Will the Secretary of State write to me so that I can pass his letter to steel makers in Rotherham and explain why British electricity for industry is so expensive?

I will certainly write to my right hon. Friend. For the past eight or nine years, British industry has benefited from lower electricity prices. In the past year or so, prices have gone up dramatically for the reasons that we have discussed in the past five or 10 minutes. There is no doubt that some of the uncertainty generated by the lack of transparency in European markets has added an extra element to that price. We will continue the work that we started last year, and additional capacity should be available to us. We will continue to support the European Commissioner in her efforts to achieve a more open and transparent market. All those things will help.

The other thing that we have to get right is the long-term solution. There are no easy solutions, but I hope that when we report to the House in July, we will have a constructive engagement with all parties in the House to achieve a long-term solution to this problem.

Ministerial Meetings

I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a range of issues. UK trade with major developing nations is an important way to lift millions out of poverty.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. As he knows, in this year’s Budget speech the Chancellor announced plans for expanding trade with major developing countries and specifically to set new targets for expanding trade with countries such as China and India. When are those targets likely to appear, and who is responsible for setting them? As he knows, there is significant concern in the export community that the UK has not been capturing anything like a large enough share of the huge increase in international trade that countries such as India have seen in recent years.

The targets will be announced in due course. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We need to do more to encourage trade between British companies and China and India and Chinese and Indian companies trading here. We should not overlook the fact that there has been considerable success in the past, but we need to do a lot more. They are important markets to this country, and we want to do everything we can to encourage that trade. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor put in place various ways in which we can encourage that trade and explore things that we can perhaps do better than we have done in the past.

I recently took part in discussions through the parliamentary network of the Royal Bank of Scotland with parliamentarians from both the Asian subcontinent and Africa. They expressed their anger and frustration at the EU position in the current World Trade Organisation negotiations on agriculture. Given the Chancellor’s warnings yesterday about the dangers of protectionism, does my right hon. Friend agree that if it is right to liberalise agriculture markets, we should not make it conditional on concessions from developing countries at the WTO talks?

As my hon. Friend is aware, we believe that we need radically to reform the system of agriculture support in Europe. However, negotiations are taking place at the moment and they have to conclude, to be realistic, by the end of July. It is clear that there are three main problems: the perception of the EU offer; support for United States agriculture; and access to manufactured goods and other services in countries such as Brazil and India. Movement will be required from everyone if we are to reach an agreement. The prize of getting that agreement in the current round is extremely great and we want to encourage it, but if negotiation is to work all parties must show sufficient flexibility, and they need to do it soon.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the trade deficit with China has increased by more than 500 per cent. since 1997 and stands at a staggering almost £10 billion. When I asked how many trade deals the Prime Minister had signed in the last eight years, the reply was:

“The European Commission has competence for EU trade policy and conducts all trade negotiations on behalf of…EU member states.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2006; Vol. 446, c689W.]

So when did the Secretary of State last meet his friend Commissioner Mandelson? What was the outcome of those discussions, and what will he do about this disastrous and deteriorating situation?

As I said a few moments ago, we want to increase our trade with China. We are well aware of the situation and will do everything that we can. We also want to encourage the Commission to do what it can to increase trade and I am confident that the position will improve in years to come.

Company Directors' Responsibilities

5. What steps he expects company directors to take to ensure they have sufficient regard to the interests of employees and the impact of the company's operations on the community and the environment. (75722)

The Company Law Reform Bill, which we debated two days ago, will ensure that company directors must have regard to the effect of their company’s operations on the community and the environment in promoting the success of the company for the benefit of its members.

I am genuinely seeking guidance. Clause 158 of the Bill states that directors have a duty

“to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the members”,

but that in doing so they should have regard to other matters. How far should the company have such regard when there could be conflict for shareholders? For example, Tesco, South Africa, Shell—

The hon. Lady makes a good case to be a member of the Committee that will scrutinise the Bill’s 950 clauses. The Minister for Industry and the Regions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), is in Europe today, sadly—[Hon. Members: “Sadly?”] Well, I think she is happy to be in Europe, but sadly she is not in the Chamber. However, she will be keen to engage with the hon. Lady on her question. We discussed the matter at length a couple of days ago when we said that we believe it important that company directors should have regard to a variety of things, including environmental and social concerns, but at the end of the day they have to use their best judgment to come to a view about what is best for their company. Their loyalty has to be to the company and its members; it cannot be divided, as I said the other day.

Most people, including, I think, our party, welcome what we have done. I am sorry that the Conservatives are already showing signs of trying to undermine that. Despite what they say, the amendments they are tabling appear to be removing that environmental commitment.

Does the Secretary of State agree that principles such as those of fair trade and sustainable development can best be pursued in a spirit of partnership, making use of the principles of enlightened shareholder value set out in the legislation? Will my right hon. Friend encourage campaigners, whether on environmental or trade issues, to take advantage of that opportunity and be part of the consensus, which is good for business, good for the environment and good for people?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. As I said on Tuesday, the Government have struck a sensible balance, making clear what directors are supposed to do. Members would do well to remember that in another place many people opposed the Bill and would dearly like us to return it in a way that would allow them to get back into it. It is obvious that no matter what the Conservative leader says about the environment, his Front-Bench Trade and Industry team are tabling amendments to remove the environmental commitment—[Interruption.] One can go only on the amendments that have been tabled so far. Perhaps there will be another change of heart, so I look forward to hearing the Conservatives’ renewed commitment if that is the case.

UK Trade (India)

Bilateral trade and investment with India continues to grow. In 2005 exports to India rose by just over 25 per cent., making the UK the second biggest exporter to India in the European Union. The UK remains the preferred investment location for Indian headquarter operations in Europe.

May I praise the Government for making a tremendous effort to try to strengthen our relationship with India as India emerges as a world power? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] What progress has been made since the last joint declaration between India and ourselves in 2004, which was signed by our Prime Minister and the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, regarding trade issues?

It is obviously clear that the whole House agrees with my hon. Friend’s kind words about the Government’s record. His supplementary question was about developments since the joint prime ministerial meeting. That meeting reinforced or began initiatives, such as the second conference in January this year of the joint economic and trade committee. The United Kingdom trade and investment group has the second largest staff complement in India, compared with other countries around the world, with 72 staff and a £9 million commitment. There is an inward investment summit due in London this year in the autumn—again for both Prime Ministers.

Is the Minister aware that the area with probably the highest positive trade balance with India is the British higher education sector, which now faces increasing competition from other countries that would like to attract Indian students? What further measures does he think we should take to get more young people from India to study in the United Kingdom in the hope that one day, when they set up their own successful businesses, they might want to trade with the United Kingdom?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The Government committed £10 million extra to bursaries as a result of the prime ministerial meetings to which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) referred a moment ago. As well as a variety of other measures, a high-level trade group was set up to look at where we can further develop relations with India and the Indian Government, including in education. I look forward to progress, as she obviously does.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that one of the biggest exports to India is scrap metal, which I do not think should count. We ought to be seeing more manufactured goods. What can he do to ensure not only that British companies have a bigger presence in India, but that there is a good open market for finished British products?

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Clearly, we are committed to developing trade and economic contact with India. I know that the Trade and Industry Committee initiated its own inquiry in November last year and it is due to report next week. We are looking forward to that report and its recommendations, because obviously it will give us some directions on how the Committee thinks we should make further progress.

Manufacturing Industry

7. What assessment he has made of the impact of venture capital firms on employment in UK manufacturing industry. (75724)

Modern manufacturing is critically dependent on investment for successful performance, growth and employment generation. Venture capital plays a key role in providing that investment.

I thank the Minister for that response, but does he realise that venture capital firms are closing genuinely profitably factories in this country, such as the Chewits factory in my constituency, simply to relocate production to eastern Europe and maximise their returns? Does the Minister regard that as undesirable, or inevitable, or as representing a clash of interests between the manufacturing industry and the City?

I am aware of the sad news about Chewits, which could lead to the loss of 130 jobs in September. I am happy to discuss that matter, in terms of advice to those workers, with the hon. Gentleman if that would be helpful. However, the good news is that Southport has a buoyant labour market. Its claimant unemployment rate was just 1.9 per cent in April. That is well below the national average and the national average is historically low. However, as I said, I offer to discuss these particular matters with him.

May I caution my hon. Friend against putting too many of his eggs in the venture capitalist basket? He and his Department should continue to support manufacturing in the heartlands such as my area in the west midlands. All hon. Members will be aware of the difficulties that we have had with Rover and Peugeot. Will he tell me what steps the Government are taking to change the mood music on manufacturing? Manufacturing has not been as high on the Government’s list of priorities as it should have been in the last few years. It is now starting to come up. Will he tell me what further steps might be taken, such as a manufacturing summit, to show that the Government care and wish to increase investment?

Of course we are aware that there has been a long-term decline in manufacturing industry throughout much of the European Union, yet manufacturing remains a vital part of the British economy and, in many respects, is still buoyant. Indeed, I note that for the three months ending in April 2006, there were more than 50,000 unfilled vacancies in manufacturing industry. My hon. Friend is right to say that, as well as the further development of the service sector, manufacturing is vital to the economy.

Can the Minister tell us which regions of the United Kingdom have had the largest number of job losses in the manufacturing sector?

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that information, but it is detailed, so I will not attempt to do so off the top of my head. I will be happy to write to him. Obviously, the overall picture is of the move back to full employment, with 2 million more jobs created since the spring of 1997—I pick out 1997 almost at random—but that nevertheless hides regional variations. I will be happy to supply the information, which is published, to the hon. Gentleman.

May I warmly support the views expressed by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris)? While venture capital firms can play a valuable part in the provision of investment for manufacturing, they too often dilute the ownership of a firm. The cost of venture capital is too high, because manufacturing industry needs long-term investment. What can the Government do to encourage long-term investment in manufacturing, which is the only way in which we will guarantee a manufacturing base in this country in the long term?

The best way is with the healthy and buoyant macro-economic environment that the Government and the Chancellor have provided, with low interest rates and inflation. Surely providing that is the role of the Government and the best thing that they can do, rather than making too many interventions and over-regulating. We are committed to manufacturing industry, which is a buoyant part of the British economy. Venture capital has a role to play, but that role is relatively small when put alongside other forms of investment. We share the view that is being expressed in the House about the importance of manufacturing industry. Our judgment is that the best way to stimulate and encourage the industry is through prudent—to coin a word—macro-economic management.

Postal Services

The Government are committed to supporting the rural post office network, as I briefly explained a few moments ago. That includes support for branches in Northamptonshire, with annual social network payments of £150 million for the next two years. The Government will set out future proposals for the network in due course and after consultation.

Following the Government’s savage assault on the sub-post office network in urban centres, is it not the case that, in the next five years, every rural sub-post office in Northamptonshire will face the threat of closure due to the end of the Government’s support mechanism for rural post offices and the abolition of the Post Office card account?

The Government invested £210 million in the urban reinvention programme to do all that they could to ensure that a sustainable post office network was maintained in the cities. We will do all that we can to do the same for rural areas. I cited earlier some of the figures that make life commercially difficult for the Post Office. However, we spent £500 million on the Horizon project, which modernised computer systems for all post offices so that new products could be provided. The Post Office is now the UK’s No. 1 provider of foreign exchange and the largest individual provider of travel insurance. It launched its new instant saver account in March 2006. The Post Office is doing all that it can to ensure that it provides business as well as possible.

Why has the policy failed so horribly in Northamptonshire, and especially in Rushden, where Avenue road, Bedford road, London road and Newton road post offices, which served the main town of Rushden, have closed? Clearly the Government’s policy has failed.

We do not believe that we have failed in our policy. The target for the urban network was to make sure that 95 per cent. of people were within a mile of a post office, but the figure is actually 99 per cent. We will look at the rural network in due course. The hon. Gentleman knows that, because of changing habits, the rural network is losing £3 million a week. We cannot force people to use rural post offices, but we will do all that we can to make sure that we maintain a sustainable network.

The Minister says that the customers have walked away. The Government forced them away. They made it very difficult for people to get card accounts, but now that people have finally struggled over all the hurdles to get one, the Government are moving the goalposts and taking the accounts away. The Government are playing their part in taking business away from rural post offices.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I said in a response to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that the Government are doing what we can and will look to maintain the most sustainable network possible. The Department for Work and Pensions is in discussions with the Post Office about the future of the card account, which is due to close in 2010. I mentioned the £500 million Horizon project. We also have a £150 million subsidy for the next two years. The Government are clearly committed to doing what we can to maintain a sustainable post office network.

Corporate Social Responsibility

9. What steps his Department is taking to promote and implement the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines for multinational enterprises as part of the Government’s corporate social responsibility policy. (75726)

The UK national contact point—terrible jargon which refers to an individual official in the Department of Trade and Industry—works with business and non-governmental organisations to raise awareness of the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises and to promote their use by companies in developing their own codes of conduct. The Government will shortly publish their response to a stakeholder consultation on possible improvements to the national contact point’s promotion and implementation of the guidelines.

The Minister for Industry and the Regions, who replied to Tuesday’s debate on company law reform, referred specifically to the guidelines as an important means of addressing concerns about international corporate social responsibility. What steps will the Government be taking to ensure that the guidelines are given teeth, both at the UK level and, perhaps more importantly, at a European and wider international level?

As I said, we will shortly publish our response. We gave more time for the consultation because the working group established under the aegis of the all-party group asked us for more time to submit further comments. I am not sure that we have received them yet. We are anxious to tackle these issues and to publish our response as soon as we can.

Has the Minister seen the excellent corporate social responsibility report of Tesco, showing how these guidelines are being applied to cut the carbon imprint, improve energy efficiency and undertake socially responsible actions with employees and in purchasing? When will his Department catch up with the best practice of companies such as Tesco, which seem to me to be streets ahead of many Departments?

It is true that, although carbon dioxide emissions from some sectors, including the energy sector and intensive energy users, are reducing, they are still increasing in the service sector, whether that is the superstore or the governmental system. When I visited the excellent Tesco branch in Thornton Heath, I was impressed that one staff official had responsibility for energy efficiency. That is a practice that we should adopt. Should Government do more? Yes, we should, and we are looking at that in the energy review.

The Conservative party welcomes the OECD guidelines and, on the basis that corporate social responsibility should be set in the context of wider corporate governance, we also welcome the lead that the OECD has given with its continental corporate governance panels. But the question remains: why do the Government give so little time to promoting corporate social responsibility, particularly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) pointed out, given the excellent, world-beating corporate responsibility practices that we find in so many British companies?

There will be joy in the heart of the OECD that the Conservatives support its work. That is welcome. I reject the notion that the Government do not pay due regard to corporate social responsibility. We pursue essentially a voluntary approach. We recognise that corporate social responsibility has many dimensions. There are the international ones that we are examining now. There are also the charitable efforts of many companies and how they treat customers and their employees. This is an issue to which we are committed as a Government.

Nuclear Decommissioning

10. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the restructuring of the UK Atomic Energy Authority on the safety of nuclear decommissioning; and if he will make a statement. (75727)

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency interest in this matter. UKAEA needs to restructure to enable the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to carry out its remit, under the Energy Act 2004, to complete the decommissioning of the sites for which it is responsible. We recognise that any changes on a nuclear site have the potential to affect safety and, for that reason, they are subject to scrutiny by the safety and environmental regulators. With that scrutiny, we are confident that the authority and the NDA will manage the forthcoming change in a way that will not adversely affect safety, and that the restructuring of the authority will not impact on its high standards of safety.

I have no problem in principle with the restructuring, but can the Minister help me with an inquiry that has been raised anonymously with me by a constituent, who makes the point that up to 300 senior managers will be part of the restructuring, and if the restructuring happens in that way and if the UKAEA does not win a contract, those senior managers will be removed from the site, which will compromise safety? My constituent contrasted that with the restructuring of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which apparently involved only 40 or 50 senior managers. Is the Minister aware of that concern, and would he like to comment on it?

I was not aware of that. I do not receive the anonymous letters that the hon. Gentleman gets. I will examine the matter. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me and includes his signature so that I know from whom the letter is coming, I will take the matter up seriously with the authority, with which I have regular meetings. There is important work to be done, not least in nuclear decommissioning. While the process is resource-intensive, it needs to be as cost-effective as possible.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to safe decommissioning of nuclear plants is the supply of the specially trained staff who are necessary? Does he recognise that there is a shortage of such staff and will he therefore welcome the emergence of the Dalton institute at Manchester university?

I not only welcome it, but I had the privilege of visiting Manchester university only a few weeks ago. It is clearly a centre of excellence when it comes to nuclear energy and other aspects of energy. We discussed renewables there as well. It is a centre of excellence not only across the United Kingdom but internationally. It is a resource that we value and cherish.

Government Assistance (York)

The Government, through the Learning and Skills Council and the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, together with additional European funding and resources from the city of York council, have helped to provide just over £3 million to the city of York for investment. A further £2.63 million of Government funding has been allocated through Yorkshire Forward from its “Northern Way” project to support the development of York as a science city.

The growth of science has turned round the York economy. When the Conservatives were in power, unemployment in York was twice the national average. It is now well below the national average. York is not only a science city for the local community, but a science leader throughout Yorkshire and the Humber and, indeed, the north of England. Will the Government’s commitment to York and funding for science in York be a long-term commitment?

My hon. Friend clearly outlines the success of science city York since 1998 and the ability of the city council and the university of York, with the private sector, to harness the world-class potential of business clusters in bioscience, health care, IT and digital creative industries. It is a model that the Government want to support. Three science cities were mentioned in the 2004 pre-Budget report and the 2005 Budget mentioned three more. I am sure that regional development agencies, as a result of the comprehensive spending review in 2007, will be looking to see what the Government intend to do then.

While we all applaud York science city and the contribution that it has made to the local economy in North Yorkshire, does the Minister share my concern about the erosion of the green belt as the science city and York university intrude ever further into the remaining green belt in York?

The protection of the green belt against the development of the university and York science city is something that the regional development agency, the city council and the authorities take very seriously. Those decisions are not taken lightly, and I am sure that everything has been done to protect the green belt. The Government’s record on green belt protection since 1997 is exemplary.

Summer Time

13. What recent representations he has received (a) in support of and (b) against the adoption of single/double summer time. (75730)

In the past 12 months, the Department has received 73 representations on the question of adopting single or double summer time throughout the year. The representations reflect the strong divergence of opinion on the issue, which suggests that the present situation is a satisfactory compromise between those who prefer lighter mornings and those who prefer lighter evenings.

Do those representations disclose the fact that lighter evenings would cut deaths on roads, reduce industrial accidents and provide a massive boost for the tourism industry in the United Kingdom? If the Department cannot bring itself to agree to change the clocks permanently, will it look at the trial in the 1960s and Lord Tanlaw’s Bill in the House of Lords, which I have taken up in the Commons?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s strong support for that change. I heard what he said about road traffic accident statistics, but I must point out that there has been a significant reduction since 1998 in such accidents in the UK. The experiment on British standard time between 1968 and 1971 was adopted to test public support, but after a vote in Parliament the experiment was abandoned. A 1989 Green Paper floated the issue, but it was not pursued, and a debate in 1996 on a private Member’s Bill failed to secure significant support, so I do not think that the issue is making progress.

Women and equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Gender Equality

19. What policies to reduce gender inequality in the workplace the Government will promote at the Council of Europe’s ministerial conference on gender equality. (75710)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality will attend the conference later today, and will promote our implementation of the women and work commission’s recommendations tackling job segregation and the gender pay gap, as well as the measures that we have taken to deliver a better work-life balance.

I welcome that answer and I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. She will be aware that a substantial number of women in my constituency of Denton and Reddish balance family life with part-time jobs, but they are often low-paid, low-skilled jobs, with many women working far below their skill level. What have the Government done to promote greater opportunities for women to undertake quality part-time jobs? The problem makes a significant contribution to the pay gap and is a waste of skills.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. He is right to draw attention to the issue. Indeed, the facts show that women who work part-time earn almost a third less than women who work full-time, which is largely because, on their return to work after looking after children or elderly relatives, they are forced to choose lower-paid occupations in which their skills are not properly utilised. The Government, through, for example, the right to request flexible working and the provision of child care places, have made a huge contribution to turning that around. It is something that was taken up by the women and work commission, which has made practical proposals to which we will respond in the next few months.

Will the Minister give any special coaching or hands-on mentoring to her right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) about inequality and diversity in the workplace?

Human Trafficking

20. What recent discussions she has had with other EU Governments on alerting girls and women to the dangers of trafficking. (75711)

During our EU presidency last year, the UK initiated the development of an EU action plan on human trafficking, which was adopted in December 2005. The action plan addresses the areas of prevention, investigation and prosecution of trafficking offences, as well as provision of support and care for victims.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as many of those young girls and women end up in prostitution in all parts of the United Kingdom, as well as in other parts of the European Union, we need to do much more to inform the men who use those services of the horrendous conditions that those women suffer and the state of virtual slavery under which they are held, very often with criminal force by criminal gangs? We must make sure that men are aware that, when they use those services, they are helping to perpetuate criminal gangs and slavery throughout Europe.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She rightly highlights the fact that, wherever there is prostitution, there is also human trafficking. If there were no demand, women would not be trafficked into the United Kingdom. The inter-ministerial group that looks into prostitution and human trafficking takes the issue extremely seriously and we will be taking forward more initiatives. I welcome my hon. Friend raising the subject and hope that other hon. Members will take the opportunity to make people in their constituencies aware of what is happening in that regard.

Given that the Minister says that the Government are keen to remedy the dreadful problem of human trafficking, can she explain why they have not signed the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her responsibilities on these matters. The Government agree with all the aims of the convention. The reason that we have not signed is that we have concerns about automatic reflection periods, which are the subject of the next question. We are concerned that they might act as further pull factors in relation to asylum and immigration. However, we have held a consultation on a UK action plan and, as part of the response to that, the matter is under active consideration.

May I praise the outstanding work being done by Home Office staff, especially at Gatwick and Heathrow, with trafficked children and women? Having interviewed quite a number of trafficked children myself, may I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that there are proper protocols in place in social services and education departments and schools throughout the country, so that trafficked children can be identified, dealt with appropriately and provided with the right support?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and praise her for her work in that regard. She raises enormously important issues. We are becoming aware of even greater numbers of children being trafficked than we had previously known about. There are multi-agency protocols in place to deal with the matter, but I will take it back to the inter-ministerial working group to ensure that we do that even more effectively.

Human Trafficking

21. What assessment she has made of the merits of granting automatic reflection periods and residence permits to victims of trafficking. (75712)

The UK currently assesses cases on individual needs. However, in our response to the recent consultation paper on a proposed UK action plan on human trafficking, we will be further considering the merits of granting automatic reflection periods and residence permits.

My hon. Friend is aware that the Human Rights Committee is investigating the trafficking into the UK of women and girls for domestic and sexual exploitation. These women suffer multiple rapes over long periods of time and should be treated as victims rather than criminals by the authorities. Many of them exhibit the physical and psychological characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder. Can my hon. Friend use her influence to ensure that a reflection period is granted to those women so that they are protected by the laws of this country and can help to bring to justice the criminal gangs that bring them here?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome the inquiry that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is conducting into this important matter. I reassure her that we do grant periods of reflection and that every help and support is offered to the women, both to help them deal with their experiences and to bring the criminals to justice.

In Northamptonshire, we have a serious problem with sex slaves. The one thing that the police would like the Government to do is to grant automatic reflection periods, as that is their biggest problem. I urge the Minister to be bold and to sign the Council of Europe convention.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued interest in this important matter, which we are considering in relation to the consultation that we had on the UK action plan. However, there are competing issues. I am interested to hear that his local police are raising reflection periods as a problem, because they are granted—it is just that they are not automatic. I will be happy to have further discussions with him outside the Chamber.

Home Working

The Government encourage all types of flexible working by providing guidance, promoting the benefits, and sharing best practice. Employers are already required to consider seriously requests to work flexibly, including home working for mothers of young children.

I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on her new position.

This week, I spoke to women entrepreneurs at the Hull business expo. Does my right hon. Friend agree that encouraging more women to take up businesses for themselves would allow them maximum flexibility in the place where they choose to work—from home or from an office?

I do. That is an option that should be seriously encouraged when women are looking for opportunities in wanting to go back to work having spent some time at home. If we could encourage women entrepreneurs so that the rate of female entrepreneurship increases to that of male entrepreneurship, there would be 500,000 new businesses, which would make a major contribution to economic growth and productivity.

I welcome the Minister to her new post. I am confident that she will show commitment to every aspect of the equality agenda. I am pleased by what she says about encouraging home working, which is an important part of flexibility in employment. However, does she agree that, in discussing these matters, we must consider not only women with small children but women with wider caring responsibilities for elderly, disabled or ill people, as well as—we are talking about equality here—men with family and caring responsibilities?

I agree with the hon. Lady and thank her for her kind words. She knows of my commitment to this agenda; I am certainly committed to all aspects of it. I draw her attention to the fact that, since we brought in the right to request flexible working in 2002, the number of fathers taking up that right has increased threefold. She is right that we have to extend that in stages to a greater range of the population. That has been considered during the passage of the Work and Families Bill, which is progressing through its stages in this House. From 2007, the right will extend to carers—a good next step that will be widely welcomed up and down the country.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 12 June—Second Reading of the Fraud Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 13 June—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Work and Families Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill.

Wednesday 14 June—A debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 15 June—Second Reading of the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill [Lords].

Friday 16 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 19 June—Second Reading of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 June—Remaining stages of the Children and Adoption Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 21 June—Opposition Day [17th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 June—A debate on defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 23 June—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the next two weeks.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was interested to see yesterday’s Council of Europe report on rendition. The Prime Minister did not answer questions on it yesterday. When will the Government respond to it?

This morning it was announced that the police had been given more time in which to detain the suspected terrorists who were arrested in the Forest Gate raid last Friday. They can detain them for up to 14 days, although under the Terrorism Act 2006 the period for which suspects can be detained without charge was extended to 28 days. I think that Members will be surprised to hear that the period of detention in this case is only 14 days. When the Act was passed, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary were adamant that an extension was needed. Indeed, on 9 November last year the Prime Minister said

“This is an occasion when it is important that we do what is responsible, right and necessary to protect this country’s security.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 299.]

However, under section 39 of the Act the Secretary of State must make an order to implement a particular section. That has not yet been done to implement the extended period of 28 days’ detention. The Home Office has not got around to it yet.

Is it not true that by the Government’s own standards, the incompetence of the Home Office is putting the lives of British citizens at risk? Will the Home Secretary make a statement explaining this further lapse by the Home Office?

We are, however, becoming rather used to the way in which the Government say one thing and mean another. The Home Secretary said that he had 100 days in which to sort out the Home Office; the civil servant responsible says that it will take two years. Ministers say that there are no job cuts in the NHS; yesterday we heard of work force reductions. And this morning we heard that despite the hosepipe ban, a hosepipe can be used in the gardens of No.10 because it is actually a bowser with a dowser.

Yesterday’s statement by the Secretary of State for Health revealed that the NHS deficit had doubled over the past year. Jobs will be lost, not just those of administrators but those of doctors and nurses. Dr. Paul Miller, chairman of the British Medical Association’s consultants’ committee, has said that there has been

“shocking incompetence… from the top”.

He says

“Care is suffering, jobs are disappearing, patients and staff are paying the price.”

He also says that the Government should stop reorganising the NHS,

“stop interfering… in… local planning of services”


“let staff get on with the jobs”.

Yesterday, in her statement to the House, the Secretary of State for Health said that primary care trusts that stayed within budget or made a surplus would have to give money to those that were in deficit. That means that they will have to

“postpone some of the improvements that they were planning to make for their patients.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 254.]

If a trust is in deficit, services will suffer. If a trust is in balance or surplus, services will suffer. How is that the “best year ever” for the NHS?

Back in 1997, the Labour party told us that it had 24 hours in which to save the NHS. Will the Secretary of State for Health now come to the House and tell us how long the NHS will have left if someone does not sort out the problems caused by the Government?

On 16 March, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions dismissed the finding of the parliamentary ombudsman in her report “Trusting in the pensions promise” that the Government had been guilty of maladministration. The Government have said that it would cost too much to accept the ombudsman’s findings: £15 billion, to be precise. It has now been revealed that that was a gross overestimate of the cost. Yesterday it also became clear that the Government’s proposals for pensions reform would mean that about 1.5 million pensioners who had built up nest eggs for retirement would lose £450 a year. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State clarifying the Government’s position on both issues, and explaining how the Government have let down Britain’s pensioners?

The Leader of the House has made it known that he would like to be Deputy Prime Minister.

Ah, we have had another job bid from the right hon. Gentleman.

The Leader of the House has also said that he thinks the Prime Minister should step down “well before” the next election. Of course, the Prime Minister did promise that he would serve a full term. That means either that the Prime Minister is not going to fulfil his promise to the British people, or that the Leader of the House is clearly a Brownite now. Which is it?

I will deal with the right hon. Lady’s first question, about the Council of Europe and rendition, in a second.

The right hon. Lady asked about the order to be made under section 39 of the Terrorism Act. She said that if the order was not made shortly, lives would be at risk. I suggest that the right hon. Lady needs to be extremely careful about implying that lives would be at risk in this case; that comes close to pre-judging cases currently before the courts. She really needs to think about what she has been saying.

Secondly, the right hon. Lady knows very well that, under Home Secretaries of both main parties, there is always some time between the passage of an Act and the laying of orders under it. I do not remember that the Conservative Opposition, either here or in the other place, were helpful in getting the legislation in question through. If anybody is to blame for the delays, it is the Conservative Opposition—here and in the other place.

On the national health service, the right hon. Lady asked whether we were right to say—on 30 April 1997, I think—that there were only 24 hours to save the national health service. Yes, we were, because there is no question but that, if the Conservatives had got back into power in 1997, the inexorable decline of the health service—which had happened year by year by year, in my constituency and in hers—would have continued. We have more than doubled funding in real terms.

The hon. Gentleman may say that we have done that, but what we have actually done, including in his constituency, is increase the number of nurses by 85,000—by a third—and we have increased their salaries by a quarter in real terms. There has been an improvement in health care in every single constituency in the country, based on spending that we voted for and the Conservatives voted against. There has been a dramatic improvement in the number of both doctors and nurses in the right hon. Lady’s own constituency; she knows that. Indeed, just four years ago, 113 people in her area were waiting for in-patient treatment for more than nine months, and in addition, 311 were waiting for in-patient treatment for more than six months. Today, the figure in respect of both periods is zero—thanks to Labour’s spending and no thanks to the position of the Conservatives.

On the pensions debate, about which the right hon. Lady asked, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made an excellent statement just over a week ago, and there will be parliamentary questions to the Department for Work and Pensions next Monday. We have also promised—and there will be—a full debate on the pensions White Paper, when all the issues that she wishes to raise can be raised.

Very shortly. [Interruption.] Before the summer.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Council of Europe, a body that the Conservative party sometimes wishes us to withdraw from, so that we can withdraw from all our international obligations under it, but I put that point to one side. She also claimed that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and, by implication, I, have not answered any questions in respect of rendition. She knows that to be totally incorrect. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that we have said everything we needed to say on that, and indeed we have. She knows very well that nobody could have provided more information to the House, either orally or in writing, about the issue of rendition—about the fact that there were four cases of requests for rendition, all of which occurred when I was Home Secretary, before 2001, and under the Clinton Administration. Two were granted, two were refused and there have been no cases since 2001. I have given undertakings to the House, and the simple truth is that if people read the report—the disreputable report—by Mr. Marty of the Council of Europe, they will see that he makes no substantive allegations. I hope that the right hon. Lady does not join that bandwagon.

I announced that there will be a full-day’s debate on 14 June to discuss the prospects for the European Council. I hope very much that the right hon. Lady and the shadow Foreign Secretary will use that opportunity to deal with what The Daily Telegraph described this morning as David Cameron’s broken pledge on Conservatives in Europe. First, we heard yesterday from the shadow Foreign Secretary that a clear pledge, debated endlessly in this House before the election—[Interruption.] They do not like it. The clear pledge, debated endlessly in this House before the election, to withdraw from the common fisheries policy has been torn up, and the clearest pledge to remove the Conservative party from the European People’s party and to join a barmy army of obscure right-wing politicians will also be broken.

Last autumn, oxygen was used to help revive a 14-year-old boy who had been restrained at a secure training centre. That followed an incident in which a 14-year-old boy died after being restrained at the same secure training centre. Does my right hon. Friend understand the fury that some of us feel about the inability to raise the issue and to have it properly debated on the Floor of the House because of the continuing delay in reconvening the inquest? Will he ensure that a statement be made or a debate held on the Floor on this very important matter—one boy has died, and another has required oxygen—to set out what happened and what is being done to end those practices, which are causing such damage to young people?

I certainly understand the deep concern of my hon. Friend on the issue; I am sure that it is shared across the House. She will know that there are always difficulties in raising matters in this House when court proceedings are pending. That said, I take full note of what she has said today and will, along with appropriate ministerial colleagues, do my very best to ensure that she and the families concerned are provided with as much information as possible, and an explanation, in advance of the inquest.

I thank the Leader of the House for his prompt response following the last business questions on the issue of the Bichard inquiry; that was in marked contrast to the performance of the Home Office.

The Greater London authority inquiry into 7/7 threw up yet another unfulfilled recommendation of a major public inquiry. May we have a debate on the way in which we keep track of these matters and on how we ensure that when serious inquiries into disasters are held, the recommendations made are adhered to and implemented at the earliest possible opportunity?

Following the welcome news of the apparent demise of al-Zarqawi in Iraq today, no one would be naive enough to think that that spells an end to the violence in Iraq. This is the tenth time at business questions that I have asked for a proper debate on the foreign affairs aspects of Iraq. When he was Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the House indicated that he would have welcomed such an opportunity. The time is right for such a debate; will he ensure that we have one before the summer recess?

I also noted the fact that we are to have a debate on Europe on Wednesday 14 June. Given that some parties do still have friends and influence in Europe, will the Leader of the House suggest to the Minister for Europe—his predecessor—that he comes to the House on that day to spell out the Government’s position on putting an end to the absurd charade of moving the European Parliament to Strasbourg permanently, with all the costs to the British taxpayer that that entails. It is time we put an end to this nonsense once and for all, and this country should be setting a lead in the matter.

Lastly, may we have a debate on fixed-term contracts? I noted the attempt by the Leader of the House to enliven the Prime Minister’s monthly press conference today, and the Secretary of State for Health’s offer in her statement yesterday to be fully accountable for future failures in the health service. If we had fixed-term contracts for Cabinet Ministers, we could have targets, appraisals and tests for value for money. We could see whether premises were being used. Most importantly, we could ensure that people did not outstay their welcome in Cabinet posts.

The hon. Gentleman’s first question was in respect of the inquiry into the 7 and 21 July terrorist outrages last summer. Full account is always taken of inquiry reports and there was a meeting recently of the Cabinet Committee on international terrorism, which looked carefully at the conclusions of the GLA inquiry and discussed many of its findings. That will continue, because it is in everybody’s interests that we learn the lessons from what happened last 7 July, and indeed on 21 July.

On the issue of the death of al-Zarqawi, let me say that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has described it—on this occasion, I happen to think that it is entirely appropriate that it should be so described—as good news, because that man was an evil butcher who was killing Iraqis, as well as coalition forces, in large numbers. Nothing was going to stop him, I am afraid, until he was stopped in this way. I may say that I hope that we can put on record our admiration for all those in the Iraqi forces and the coalition forces, as well as others, who were responsible for his apprehension.

I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman says about the case for a full debate on foreign policy. I am alive to that, as is my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip. Our only difficulty is finding the time, alongside many other requests. There is an opportunity to raise those matters in the debate on Europe next Wednesday, because Iraq— [Interruption.] Well, he makes a sedentary gesture—a polite but critical sedentary gesture, indicating that he does not entirely accept what I am saying. I have to say to him that before the European Council will be Iraq, Iran and the middle east, so there is every reason for him to use that opportunity, along with his right hon. and hon. Friends, to debate those matters next week.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Strasbourg as the seat of the European Parliament. That arrangement is now friendless, except for those in the host country. I am sad to say that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has just reminded me, that was one of a number of errors made by the Major Government in 1992, because they set that arrangement in concrete. We all have to deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about fixed-term contracts. I do not think that there is a case for them, and I would put this request way below, for example, a request for a debate on the tax system. I hope very much that the Liberal Democrats will use their next Opposition day for a debate on it, because what is clear from the announcements being made today is that they are ditching higher rates for the rich for higher taxation for everyone.

My right hon. Friend might have noticed the launch of the Commission for Global Road Safety report at the QE2 building this morning: eight nations are backing a call to take seriously the fact that 1.2 million people die every year on the roads, mainly in the developing world.

Many of us in the developed world have brought down the number of people killed and badly injured on the roads, but in the developing world that is one of the most common causes of death and serious injury. Will my right hon. Friend urge an early debate on that matter and its global implications? We cannot talk about global sustainability when we exclude what is probably the fifth largest killer in the developed world. Will our Government adopt a higher profile by pursuing the aim of bringing this dreadful, useless loss of human life to an end?

I commend my hon. Friend’s interest in that matter and in the conference. Many of us will have heard our friend and former colleague Lord Robertson speaking about the issue on the BBC “Today” programme this morning.

The campaign is absolutely right to highlight that issue. I can think of a country not in the developing world, but in Asia, with the same population as the UK and lower road usage, but with deaths on the road running at nearly 25,000, compared with 3,000 in this country. It is a major epidemic across the world, of both deaths and serious injuries. I know that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for International Development and for Transport take seriously the need for us to evangelise in other countries on our experience of bringing down road deaths and injuries.

First, I associate myself with the paean of praise from the Leader of the House to the Iraqi Government over the death of that monster al-Zarqawi. I know that everyone else would join us in that.

No one beats me in supporting the forces in their determination to seek out those who would support terrorist acts in the UK, but a number of people in the Islamic community are now quite concerned that there is a deep game going on among the extremists to try to discredit those who are supportive of the British authorities in their search for such information. The raid in Forest Gate, just down the road from my constituency, and the continuing search, with nothing yet found, for those weapons was matched on Wednesday—48 hours ago—by a raid in Dewsbury and the arrest or, rather, lifting of an individual.

I understand that in the same street in Dewsbury and in the same house—the house of Sheikh Yacoub Munshi—on Saturday 3 June, the director of the Defence Academy, Lieutenant-General Kiszely, visited that family. That man’s grandson was lifted on Wednesday and taken by the police, supposedly in connection with the arrests in Canada. I think that the police are now weakening their position over him, and he may be released.

My concern is simply this: we have a delicate situation, and I am not criticising the police, but I wonder to what degree the various Departments are talking to each other, such that a senior general, for good reasons, visits a family to support those who have been supportive, only to find that same family subsequently targeted. I urge the Leader of the House to ask the Home Secretary to come to the House to make a statement.

I take seriously what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, and of course I understand the delicacy of that matter, not least with my constituency background, but I say to hon. Members that there is a dilemma facing not just the intelligence services and the police but every Member of the House: do the agencies and the police act on credible intelligence, knowing, of course, because that is the nature of intelligence, that it might not be fully accurate, or do they ignore it, knowing that it might well be accurate? If they ignored it, and a terrorist outrage followed, the opprobrium on them would be far greater than in the reverse situation. That is the dilemma facing the police and the intelligence agencies. I believe that they carry out their job phenomenally well, and they deserve our full support.

What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to the prospects of any legislation further to deregulate Sunday trading? In view of the extensive opposition on the Labour Benches, and indeed in all parts of the House; the concerns of retailers, large and small, and the opposition of family and Church groups, as well as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, is not this something that the Government would be wise to drop sooner rather than later?

I well understand my right hon. Friend’s concern, and I recall that in 1991 and 1992 we shared a similar position on the free votes to amend the shops legislation. We take full account of what he and others have said on the issue and I shall ensure that his views are relayed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

May we have an urgent debate on the consequences of unskilled immigration? While such immigration may benefit the middle and upper-middle classes, because those immigrants tend to work in restaurants or to clean offices and homes, that level of immigration is not so good for the less well off in our society, who end up competing with the newly arrived for scarce resources such as housing, education, health and jobs. That is creating some unnecessary and unwanted friction in our communities—I suspect not just in my community, but in the community of Blackburn, which is represented by the Leader of the House.

I am always happy to see these issues debated. Contrary to myth, there is a high degree of control over immigration, especially in respect of low-skilled workers who have no family connections here. The hon. Gentleman knows that, but he would know more if he talked to fruit farmers in Herefordshire, Kent and many other areas, and not just to people in what he describes as more prosperous areas. I could take him to a factory in my constituency that would not be operating without low-skilled workers from eastern Europe, because the owners could not recruit others to do those jobs. That is a reality, and we have to choose between maintaining employment at its current levels with all the protections, including the minimum wage, that we introduced and he voted against—[Hon. Members: “He was not here.”] Had he been here, he would have voted against them. He is not denying that. I know that he spoke out against those protections in his leaflets, so the fact that he was not here is, on this occasion, irrelevant. I understand the point that he makes, but I do not agree with it.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement this morning by the water services regulator that he intends to fine Severn Trent Water for its appalling level of service to customers? Will my right hon. Friend also speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about making a statement to make it clear that it is the Government’s intention that the fine should be paid from the recently announced excessive profits of the company, rather than by the hard-pressed customers who have to suffer the poor service and unique record of leaking pipes, prosecutions for pollution and the fiddling of figures to inflate bills and overcharge customers, recently admitted by the company? It would be much more appropriate for the fine to be paid by those who own the company, not by those who suffer from its appalling service.

I certainly get the point that my hon. Friend is not very keen on Severn Trent Water and its record, and I will ensure that his concerns are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

With the Home Secretary telling us that his Department is unfit for purpose, it is hardly surprising that some of us are very cynical about the fact that the order under the Terrorism Act 2000 to extend the period for which terrorist suspects may be detained has not yet been laid. That is a serious matter, and I ask the Leader of the House to insist that the Home Secretary come to the Dispatch Box early next week to tell us when the order will be laid.

With respect, I have already dealt with that matter. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware of the urgency of the matter, but it has been the practice of successive Home Secretaries from both parties to allow time to elapse between the passage of legislation—the Bill in question was delayed by the Conservative party—and the introduction of Orders under it.

Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate on Iran? I am conscious of the fact that we have a debate on Europe next week, but a debate on Iran would cover the International Atomic Energy Agency and the delicate—one might say, grave—situation of that country’s nuclear aspirations. Other issues include human rights and the status of those exiled from Iran. It is time that the House took cognisance of the situation in Iran and the fact that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is sending a delegation there, which I am very uncomfortable about.

My understanding is that the IPU will send a delegation, but that is a matter for it to decide, taking account of any advice that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary may have to offer. I understand the strong case that my hon. Friend makes for a debate on Iran: I am seeking a debate on foreign policy, which could range more widely. I hope to be able to achieve that before the House rises for the recess, but that depends on accommodating the multifarious requests.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that one of the major obstacles to stability in Northern Ireland is the ongoing situation with paramilitary activity and criminality. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, we have until 24 November to resolve all the issues. Will he consider putting some Government time aside to discuss the whole issue of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland?

I will look into that idea, and discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

In the past few weeks I have visited two separate debt advice centres in my constituency, and both expressed concern about rising levels of debt among people who have been taken in by television adverts about debt consolidation and other financial products that were inappropriate for their needs and, far from solving their financial worries, actually made them worse. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the regulation of the advertising of personal credit products?

I understand my hon. Friend’s great concern about the issue. It would be difficult to find time for a debate on it on the Floor of the House, but it is an ideal candidate for a debate in Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate. I wish her well in that.

Is one of the tasks given to the Leader of the House by the Prime Minister that of resolving the impasse over House of Lords reform? If so, can the right hon. Gentleman make a statement before the House rises for the summer recess, indicating the progress that he has been able to make and how his approach differs from that of his predecessor?

That is one of the tasks that I have been asked to undertake, and I am doing so with some relish. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we had an interesting, if unexpected, three-hour debate in early May on the establishment of the Joint Committee on Conventions and the issue of Lords reform, so it has been aired. I am seeking to allow the Joint Committee time to reach its conclusions and I will bring forward an order to extend its deadline. I said that I would do so, and I hope that we can agree that. While that is going on, I will hold informal consultations with the other parties, Cross Benchers and bishops about the formula that would be appropriate. In view of that, I am not sure whether I will be able to make a statement to the House before we rise, but I will think about it.

Can we find time for an early debate on relations between Britain and Germany? We will all be cheering England on to Berlin and victory in the World cup, and we want every English fan there to be an ambassador for Britain. In that context, does my right hon. Friend deplore the fact that the BBC has not yet apologised for Mr. Jeremy Clarkson having thrown up his hand in a Nazi salute, or this statement from a prominent personality, quoted in The Independent:

“If anyone’s got a history of making themselves feel at home in other people’s countries, it’s the Germans.”

That was said by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). With such vile xenophobia expressed against Germany, how can we expect English football fans to behave differently?

We are all looking forward to the opening of the World cup and Saturday, including—please God—success for England, and to the opportunity to excise all the ridiculous parodies of Germany portrayed in the media and by some hon. Members.

I hope that hon. Members who are not English will take the opportunity to sign my early-day motion wishing England success in the World cup—including the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who is in his place on the Front Bench.

The Leader of the House knows my constituency well, and he knows that the people of Longridge have traditionally looked towards Preston for their health care. Under the primary care changes, they are being asked to look towards Ribble Valley and Hyndburn, which many of them will find inconvenient. The GPs are up in arms about it and a petition on the subject has more than 3,500 signatures. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House to explain why she is not listening to the concerns of GPs and local people about health care provision in the area?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion, which advises support for England even though he is Welsh. His constituency is next door to mine, and I know it extremely well. It is not remotely Welsh; it is as English as any, and I can think of no other career move open to him. I congratulate him on a minor act of survival. He will know that in his area there are 5,400 more nurses—

The hon. Gentleman says, “Oh, no!” and throws up his hands, but whether he likes it or not, the proper thing to say is, “Oh, yes!” The quality of health care in Ribble Valley, Longridge and elsewhere has increased and will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) asked a specific question about the PCT boundaries. I assure him that I will take the matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ensure that he is given an answer.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be interested to hear that there was an extremely well-attended debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on the question of securing peace between Palestinians and Israelis. However, most Back Benchers present were unable to make proper contributions, largely because the three Front-Bench spokesmen took up a third of the time available. Calls have been made already this morning for debates on Iran and Iraq, so should we not have a full debate in Government time on the middle east?

First, I shall pursue the issue that my hon. Friend raises about the use of time in Westminster Hall, which I know causes anxiety for many hon. Members, especially in popular debates. The Procedure Committee or the Modernisation Committee may wish to pursue that matter. Secondly, I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I am doing my best in that regard.

May I ask the Leader of the House to take a personal interest in a matter about which I gave him notice this morning? For some months, those of us who depend on remote access to the parliamentary intranet from our constituencies have been affected by very poor service. Despite the efforts of our Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology department, the problems have still not been resolved. After five months the key fault, which may be external to the House, has not even been identified. My constituents have been inconvenienced by the amount of time that my office has wasted in dealing with this problem, and I am sure that many other hon. Members could make the same complaint.

Will the right hon. Gentleman inject some urgency into resolving the problem? In a commercial organisation it would have demanded a solution within hours rather than months. And when he answers, please will he not begin by telling me how many nurses there are in North-East Bedfordshire?

I shall not start my answer in that way. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the notice that he gave me about a problem that I know has frustrated him and other hon. Members of all parties. I shall follow the matter up personally—and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House has just volunteered that he too will take a close interest in it. We shall pursue the problem together. Meanwhile, the hon. Gentleman will wish to know that in North-East Bedfordshire, there were 2,975 more nurses, and 659 more doctors.

Last night the House was locked down for the second time in less than a year—a fact that hon. Members and staff found out about from rumour, anecdote and the rolling news on the BBC and Sky. Will my right hon. Friend discuss security in the House with the relevant officials, and take an urgent look at how we can use new technology, such as e-mail and text and pager messages, to communicate the fact that an incident has happened? Will he also look at the training given to staff? The fire training in the House is excellent, but people need to be trained in evacuation procedures when other emergencies arise. Will he renew the guidance in respect of training and communication in this area?

I am sure that the House will take note of the points that my hon. Friend raises, but she will understand that security is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, and not directly for me. I know that you have taken full account of what happened yesterday, and that you were concerned about it. I also know that the Joint Committee on Security—of which the Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), is Chairman—will have the matter on its agenda at its next meeting.

Does the Leader of the House think it acceptable that forces families who have lost loved ones in Iraq have had to wait as long as three years for inquests to take place? Will he get a Minister from the Department for Constitutional Affairs to come to the House and make a statement about why such an appalling state of affairs has been allowed to happen? Will he ensure that the necessary resources are made available to make sure that it is addressed properly?

The delay is not acceptable. Written ministerial statements were delivered earlier this week, both in this House and in the other place, that set out the process being pursued. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in that Department are very concerned about the matter. I am sure that it is no comfort to the bereaved families if I point out that a Bill is before the House that is designed greatly to improve the administration and timeliness of inquests, but I emphasise that the Government understand that the situation is unsatisfactory. I apologise to those relatives for the delay, which has been caused by other factors. We understand their frustration, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that action is being taken to deal with the problem.

Will my right hon. Friend review the way in which Back Benchers can get business debated, both in Westminster Hall and on the Floor of the House? Will he look in particular at how early-day motions are treated? Hundreds of thousands of copies are printed, and are reprinted day after day. For example, early-day motions take up 200 pages of today’s Order Paper, but none ever gets debated on the Floor of the House. Similarly, every day we reprint other pages that are full of motions that will never be debated; the one that I am showing the House now has been printed 220 times. Should we not be more honest about how business from Back Benchers is brought to the Floor of the House?

My hon. Friend raises an important question about the balance of time on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has reminded the House that there was a period when we dealt on the Floor of the House not only with private Members’ Bills but with private Members’ motions, which were debatable and could be voted on here. The House gave up that facility when Westminster Hall was introduced, and it is for the House to decide whether that was a fair exchange. I shall not express my personal view, save to say that the Modernisation Committee will wish to look at the matter. However, I must also tell my hon. Friend—any party aspiring to be in government has to think about this—that only so much time is available to us. The debates on private Members’ motions used to take place on a Friday, so the House used to meet every Friday, not just on some Fridays.

The second consideration that must be borne in mind is that all hon. Members stand for election on manifestos that set out the legislation to be introduced by a prospective Government, and not by private Members. Government legislation, too, takes time, which means that the balance is quite tricky.

As we approach the wonderful season of garden parties, fetes and proms provided by communities, schools, churches and volunteers to raise money for good causes, may we have a debate that will allow us to expose the perverse interpretation of the newly implemented Licensing Act 2003 by some councils that want to discourage those good works? The Government need to provide clarity about the application of that Act.

The hon. Gentleman represents Canvey Island, which I know well. If he is saying that the fine people who live there are facing difficulties, I shall do my best to sort the matter out with the relevant Ministers. However, I do not recall that Castle Point has a Labour-controlled council. Some other party must be responsible for what is happening there, and I suppose that it could be the one represented by the hon. Members who sit below the Gangway—[Interruption.] Oh, is it run by the Conservatives? In that case, the hon. Gentleman needs to talk to his leader.

There are regular debates in the House on energy policy, but has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read the excellent report on water resources by a Select Committee in the other place? Is it not time that the House fully debated the water crisis facing the south-east—not least because it could result in a very large hole being dug in my constituency? Is not it time to debate our water strategy?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment made a statement about the water shortages some two weeks ago, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we keep the matter under close review. However, I know his constituency a little and believe that any proposals for reservoirs there are usually resisted quite strongly. There are large reservoirs in my constituency, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have to store our water somewhere.

The unfortunate consequence of an ageing population is that many more people will suffer from dementia. In fact, the number of people being diagnosed with the condition is rapidly increasing. Unfortunately, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has decided to continue to restrict the use of drugs for Alzheimer’s disease in future. May we have a debate on the consequences and the wider health and financial implications of an ageing population?

That raises an important issue, but whether there is time for such a debate is another matter. On the issue of drugs to control Alzheimer’s and other dementias, I would say that NICE has not yet published its full guidance to the NHS. There is a formal appeals process and stakeholders have until 15 June, next week, to lodge any appeals. We acknowledge the importance of the appraisal and I hope that the hon. Lady does too, but NICE was established to examine precisely this sort of difficult issue, and it has the expertise and independence to enable it to do so.

May we have an early debate on management of the likely consequences of climate change, which would allow us to look into the use of desalination plants, such as the one proposed for Beckton, for more water resources and better coastal protection? Otherwise, the welcome for the Olympic games in Britain will be, “Don’t shower while you’re here. These are the dirty games. There’s no water to wash—but be careful in case there’s a flood”.

The Olympic games will be a triumph for the United Kingdom—[Interruption.]—and for all the parties who have supported it over the years on a bipartisan basis. We have had plenty of debates on climate change, but I strongly take note of what the right hon. Gentleman said.

May we have an urgent debate on the effect of VAT regulations on the construction of community swimming pools? I ask that because islanders on Mull have raised enough money to construct a swimming pool, but the project is in danger of collapse because of complications in the VAT regulations. Community recreational projects are supposed to be zero-rated for VAT, but Revenue and Customs is threatening to levy VAT in this case. If the Leader of the House cannot find time for a debate, will he at least draw the Chancellor’s attention to that matter? I am sure that the Government would not want this important community project to fail because of VAT complications.

As the hon. Gentleman has observed, there are many concessions within the VAT regime to take account of charities and other good works. I shall certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the Exchequer.

On 11 December, just before Christmas last year, the largest explosion that Europe has seen since the second world war took place in my constituency. I praised the Deputy Prime Minister the following day for making a statement before the House. Since then, 4,000 jobs have been put at risk and our water table has been contaminated, but we have received no money from the Government. May we have debate in which some Secretary of State makes it clear who is in charge, as the Deputy Prime Minister has been moved from his position? I do not mean that in any detrimental way, but this is a very serious matter.

Of course I understand the profound seriousness of what happened and the importance of the long-term implications, which are too easily forgotten once the problem is no longer in the headlines. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was personally concerned about the matter, and continues to be so. I shall certainly raise it with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for Trade and Industry and for Communities and Local Government. I will get the hon. Gentleman a response.

A fortnight ago I asked the Leader of the House to place on the Order Paper a motion to enable the European Scrutiny Committee to sit in public. He said that he would think about it, so I would be interested to hear the product of his thoughts.

I am still thinking about it—I say that so that the hon. Gentleman knows that that process does not just take place on the odd Thursday. I intend to have an office meeting to attempt to resolve our approach to European scrutiny. As I said to the hon. Gentleman before, I am in favour of the House having greater scrutiny of European matters, as we do not compare favourably in that with the other place. However, we must not embarrass ourselves by setting up systems that subsequently fall into disrepute because of inadequate interest on the part of Members on both sides of the House. That is the problem.

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 2281:

[That this House expresses concern at the Department of Trade and Industry's decision to review advice on the use of mechanical parts in electrical components; notes that the decision to include mechanical parts under the European Directive on Hazardous Substances will in effect place a ban on most decorative lighting; further notes that no other EU member state is extending the ban to mechanical components in decorative lighting; further notes that the ban will not extend to mechanical components imported into the UK including from competitors from Asia; further notes that the lighting industry believes that 200 lighting manufacturers employing over 4,000 people face bankruptcy under the new guidance; and calls on the Government urgently to review the new guidance on mechanical lighting to exclude it from the EU Directive on Hazardous Substances.]

May we have an early debate on Whitehall’s obsession with gold-plating EU directives? Two hundred jobs in Banbury are at serious risk because the Department of Trade and Industry is interpreting an EU directive on the regulation of hazardous substances on decorative lighting in a way that no other member state is doing. It is a complete nightmare, as companies have had only three weeks’ warning of the change in the regulations. Frankly, it is crazy. This kit is still going to be importable from China and the far east, so the directive is anti-competitive, leading to lost jobs in the UK. It is mad.

I have seen early-day motion 2281—but we do not need a debate, because we are as against gold-plating as the hon. Gentleman is. As soon as I became Foreign Secretary, I initiated with other ministerial colleagues a major push against gold-plating. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is equally opposed to it, and there is also the Better Regulation Executive to provide further scrutiny. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will pursue the matter personally with my fellow Ministers, and I do not believe that there is a single Minister who wants an outcome different from the one that he would like. I hope that I am right.

May we have a statement from the Leader of the House, preferably within the next couple of minutes, on the opportunity afforded by business questions for hon. Members to raise issues on behalf of vulnerable members of society and for the Leader to give non-partisan replies, as he did to the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) earlier today? That would allow him to revisit the answer he gave me on 25 May when I raised the question of the closure of the emergency walk-in clinic at the Maudsley hospital. He said:

“I am sure that the arrangements being made in respect of the Maudsley hospital are more than adequate to meet the needs of those patients.”—[Official Report, 25 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 1646.]

If that were so, Marjorie Wallace of SANE would not have said that there was

“nowhere for people to find refuge in crisis and emergency”,

and Teresa Priest of Southwark Mind would not have said that it was a matter of “life and death” for people with mental health problems. The situation is very serious, so I would be grateful if he reconsidered his response.

I do, where appropriate, try to deal with non-partisan questions in a non-partisan way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I occasionally find it necessary to mention the increase in the number of doctors and nurses in different constituencies. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and I know of his profound interest in the matter, which I shall continue to pursue with the Health Secretary.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask for your help in your role as protector of Members’ rights against the abuse of their privileges by the Executive. It was my understanding that when Ministers and other Members visited another Member’s constituency, they wrote to them beforehand to explain the purpose of the visit. Yesterday, the Prime Minister visited Frimley Park hospital in my constituency without giving me any notice of his visit. Earlier this week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister with responsibility for veterans visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), again without giving advance notice. It seems to me an abuse of the House when Ministers visit constituencies for party political and propagandist purposes without giving due notice, thereby denying Members the right to raise issues of pressing concern to their constituents such as the future of Frimley Park hospital and its upper gastro-intestinal unit. As you well know, Mr. Speaker, that is a matter of deep concern to me and to my constituents, and I would have loved to have the chance to ask the Prime Minister why his Department of Health was closing a world-beating centre. I was denied that opportunity by the arrogance of the Executive.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman should have notification when another Member visits his constituency, but that does not give him the right to question any Minister solely because they are in the constituency. I must say, in defence of the departments of both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, that they are very conscientious about notifying hon. Members. I know that from my own experience, but I will bring the matter to the Prime Minister’s attention and see what is happening in his office.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the issuance of oral ministerial statements on Opposition days, page 358 of the copy of “Erskine May” in the Library states:

“Prior notice to the Speaker is necessary, but neither his permission nor the leave of the House is required. The Speaker”—

your good self, Sir—

“has, however, indicated that he would prefer it if oral ministerial statements were not made on Opposition days.”

In my brief time as a Member of the House, I think that an oral ministerial statement has been made on almost every Opposition day, including yesterday, which held up the very important debate on tax credits. I seek your guidance, Sir.

It is normal for Ministers not to make statements on Supply days, but there are occasions when that is not the case. The hon. Gentleman will know that when a Minister seeks to make a statement I have no power to reject that statement. Of course the House has a dilemma: we must consider the importance of the Supply day, but Opposition Members in particular are very keen for Ministers to come to the House to make statements. So we have that difficulty as well.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During his response to my question, the Leader of the House invited me to visit his constituency. As I am a new Member, could you advise me how I could go about organising that?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many hon. Members have been concerned to see the draft Coroners Bill. During business questions, the Leader of the House suggested that it might be before the House currently. It was my understanding that it would soon come before the House, but I do not know whether he can clarify that. I was expecting it early next week.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The matter will be before the House in one form, because the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs will question witnesses on Tuesday on that Bill, having expected it to be available some time ago. We now know that it will not be available until Monday, and we may have to find some way to tell the witnesses whom we want to question what it contains. That is not a satisfactory way to proceed, particularly when the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs is offering to provide a completely alternative system of scrutiny in which she chooses the witnesses and the people who carry out the scrutiny.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I just tell the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who is the Opposition spokesman, and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that I take note of what they say? I understand that the plan is for the Bill to be introduced very shortly indeed, but I will raise the House’s concerns with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and hope that we can find a quick resolution of the matter.

Meanwhile, may I tell the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who wants to come to my constituency, that all Tories are welcome in Blackburn, because there are so few whom anyone ever sees?

Orders of the Day

Compensation Bill [Lords]

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 754, on Compensation Culture, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6784. The Twentieth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2005-06, Legislative Scrutiny: Tenth Progress Report, HC 1138.]

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am pleased that, after much debate and discussion in the other place, the Bill has finally come to the House. It is part of a much wider set of initiatives that we are promoting: we are determined to tackle practices that might stop normal activities, because people either fear litigation or have become risk-averse. We want to stop people being encouraged to bring frivolous or speculative claims for compensation, and the provisions in the Bill will help us to do just that. They will reassure people who are concerned about being sued that, if they adopt reasonable standards and procedures, they will not be found liable.

The Bill will also put in place the legislative framework needed to regulate claims farmers—people who encourage consumers to make claims—too many of whom are cowboys who have abused the system for too long, and we are going to put a stop to it.

Part 1 contains provisions on the law of negligence and statutory duty and on apologies, offers of treatment and other redress. Clause 1 relates to the law of negligence and statutory duty, and some hon. Members have had concerns about the need for that clause. We believe, however, that it is important and that it will have benefits.

The Better Regulation Task Force in its report “Better Routes to Redress” made clear its view that, although a compensation culture does not exist in this country, the perception that it does can have a real and damaging effect on people’s behaviour. That can be particularly significant in respect of activities provided by voluntary organisations and others.

Last autumn, Volunteering England found that nearly one in five organisations said that people had stopped volunteering for them because of fears about risk and liability and that nearly a quarter of organisations said that volunteers had been deterred from joining them in the first place by concern about those issues. Those fears might well be out of proportion and based on inaccurate perceptions, but they are very real. So there is a need to provide reassurance to those who are concerned about possible litigation—not only in the voluntary sector, but elsewhere too—and about how the law in this country works. That is what clause 1 will do.

The way in which clause 1 will work is that, in deciding a negligence claim or a claim for breach of a statutory duty that involves a standard of care, the court must consider whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the claimant and, if he did owe such a duty of care, whether that duty was breached, and whether the claimant suffered loss or injury as a result. In considering the second of those factors—whether the duty of care was breached—the court must consider the standard of care, and whether the defendant fell short of that standard.

In this country, the ordinary standard of care used in considering whether negligence is involved is that of reasonable care, and whether the defendant has met that test is a question of fact for the court to decide, having regard to all the circumstances of the case. Clause 1 is therefore concerned only with the approach of the court to assessing that question of fact. It does not concern or change what the standard of care should be, nor whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the claimant.

I hear what the hon. Lady has to say, but does not clause 1 go further than that by requiring the claimant to put together a risk assessment—in other words, to specify what steps should have been taken by the defendant in complying with the duty of care? Does that not go beyond what is required of the defendant at the moment?

No. The hon. Gentleman is putting more into clause 1 than is actually there. Clause 1 provides that, in considering a negligence claim and deciding whether the defendant should have taken certain steps to meet a standard of care either by precaution or otherwise, the court may have regard to whether a requirement to take those steps might prevent an activity that is desirable from taking place or whether it might discourage people from undertaking functions in connection with that activity. That reflects the existing law and the approach that the courts have already taken and the view that they have already expressed, particularly in judgments in the higher courts.

Perhaps my hon. Friend might offer a definition of desirable activity as it is a new concept in common law, which, as far as I can see, has not been defined by any previous authority. Her comment that the provision simply restates the existing law, the Tomlinson v. Congleton borough council ruling, which is the most recent authority on the issue, makes it quite clear that the sort of exclusion to which she refers does not apply across the board, particularly with an asymmetric relationship—for example, the employee-employer relationship. Will she therefore undertake to table an amendment to correct clause 1, to put right the fact that it does not accurately reflect the law as it stands?

The view that was expressed in the Tomlinson v. Congleton ruling, which is the most recent case, as my hon. Friend rightly says, is reflected in clause 1. The clause will have a range of benefits. It will reassure those who are concerned about possible litigation by making clear how the law works and it will help counter the view that people should cease activities for fear of litigation. I know that hon. Members will say that that will bring more cases to court. Any form of legislation brings the opportunity for people to bring a case to court so that the common law is established clearly. We should not be overly concerned in that respect. Clause 1 and clause 2, which has been added, make it clear that the law is clear, that people know where they stand and that the courts will use common-sense judgments in ensuring that people understand what desirable activities are and where the balance lies between the desirable activity and any precaution that individuals need to take.

I fully accept that the Government’s intention is not to alter the law but to maintain it as announced by the House of Lords in the Tomlinson case. That gives rise to the difficulty that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) mentioned. Another problem with the way in which the clause is drafted is the phrase “breach of statutory duty.” There are statutes that set up standards of care, breaches of which are less than full negligence. An example is the Consumer Protection Act 1987. Is it the Government’s intention to change the way in which that Act works by adding this new clause?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being willing to debate the phrase “desirable activity” at this stage. It may well be an issue to be discussed in Committee. “Desirable activity” implies a notion of public good. I am concerned about public services, say accident and emergency units or ambulance services, in which people may work with difficult clients. Does the phrase imply that their conditions of employment and their access to the civil courts will be less at risk than for people not engaged in activities involving the public good?

Order. Before the Minister answers, may I take up the point made by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)? I do not wish to hinder the debate today, but I am sure that the Minister and other hon. Members will bear in mind the fact that the Bill involves some complicated matters that are probably best dealt with in Committee. That aside, it is quite in order for the Minister to make her usual observations.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have rightly led us towards the way in which we should conduct the debate today. I am conscious that many hon. Members want to participate, so I will try to be as brief as I can in responding to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about emergency services. We have sought to capture with the term “desirable activity” the well-established concept of taking into account the wider social value of activities. The emergency services are a good example of that. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will leave the matter there and perhaps we can pursue it in Committee.

Clause 1 will have a range of benefits. It will help counter the view that organisations should stop activities for fear of litigation. It will form a valuable part of the work that we are undertaking to tackle perceptions that lead to risk-averse behaviour. It will improve the system for those with valid claims. It will also ensure that the law is widely known and applied.

I mentioned in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that clause 2 had been added to the Bill. It provides for an apology and an offer of treatment or other redress which shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty. That clause stemmed from an Opposition amendment, which the Government have been happy to accept. It reflects the approach that has been taken in clause 1 in that it does not change the law but provides reassurance on how it works and encourages the giving of apologies and other offers of treatment and redress. I hope that that is something that the whole House will welcome.

The clause also reflects the approach taken in the NHS Redress Bill, which was debated earlier this week, and should help to reduce the number of cases in which adversarial disputes about liability prevent early rehabilitation in cases involving personal injury. I am sure that hon. Members across the House have had constituents come to them in circumstances in which the length of time and the adversarial nature of proceedings have made matters much worse than they would have been had they been dealt with in a more simple and straightforward fashion.

In clauses 1 and 2 do the Government seek to codify—to put into written statute—the present law? Do the Government seek to take the law as the courts have defined it and put it into an Act of Parliament? If that is the case, there may be merit in that. The Government have a long-term plan, which many of us support to codify the law so that people have a clear view about what it stands for.

It is not my wish to enter into a debate on the merits of common law and case law versus codification, although the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have a long-term ambition, as most Governments do, to codify the law properly. What I am trying to say is that clauses 1 and 2 seek to clarify the situation so that people feel comfortable with the activities in which they participate. It does not reduce the protection available to claimants. It will be open to the courts, as now, to decide, for example, whether the terms in which an apology is given amount to an admission of liability in the circumstances of an individual case.

In the context of what the Minister is saying, it is my understanding as a supporter of clauses 1 and 2, as far as they go, that they offer a form of protection to volunteers and volunteer organisations who are losing volunteers because of the perception that she discussed earlier. Is it the Government’s intention to make it clear to those voluntary organisations that those clauses will give them some legal protection against vexatious and spurious claims, which are having a practical and measurable effect on volunteering in the United Kingdom?