The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 19 June—Second Reading of 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 the future of the BBC, followed by a debate entitled “The Failure of the Government’s Housing and Planning Policy”. Both debates arise on Opposition motions.
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.
The provisional business for the following week will be:
Monday 26 June—Second Reading of the Charities Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 27 June—A debate on pensions on a Government motion.
Wednesday 28 June—A motion to approve the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Code of Practice C and Code of Practice H) Order 2006, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the National Lottery Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Childcare Bill.
Thursday 29 June—Remaining stages of the Commons Bill [Lords].
Friday 30 June—The House will not be sitting.
I should also let the House know that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 22 June will now be a debate on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business over the next two weeks. A few weeks ago, the Health Secretary said that it had been the “best year ever” for the health service, but the chief executive of the NHS Confederation said yesterday that the NHS was facing its “toughest year ever”. She said that trusts were facing
“a string of directives, one on top of the other, often contradictory”,
in a system that was
“long on plans and short on strategy”,
and which focused on
“what we report rather than what we deliver.”
The Leader of the House regularly tells us about what the Government have done in respect of the NHS. Can we have statement from the Health Secretary on the future of the NHS, and on how she will cut the directives and targets and let staff get on with their jobs?
The organisation Fathers Direct recently produced advice for fathers with the help of a grant from the Government. One thing that the Government can do to help fathers is to support co-parenting on separation, so will the Leader of the House urge the Education Secretary to support co-parenting in next Tuesday’s debate on the Children and Adoption Bill?
Apparently, the Prime Minister’s proposed fundamental review of Government spending has hit the buffers—I guess that they are otherwise known as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Last month, the Prime Minister described the review as a vital foundation for spending plans. When will the Chancellor allow the review to be published, and will it be debated in this House?
On financial matters, in Treasury questions Members raised yesterday’s evidence from the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, in which he said that the Chancellor’s Budget objective to increase education spending to the current level for private schools was simply an aspiration and that no work was being done on it in the Department. May we have a statement both from the Chancellor, giving further clarification of what he meant when he set that Budget objective, and from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, explaining why his Department is not doing what is necessary to put in place the Chancellor’s aspiration?
The Home Office’s failure to start the procurement process on time has reportedly delayed the identity card scheme—another project so important to Ministers. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the future timetable for that project? Indeed, given the Government’s record, may we have a debate on their handling of IT projects? For example, the Child Support Agency implemented a £465 million new computer system 18 months late and tens of thousands of cases are still stuck in the system. The new IT system for the passport agency was delayed and over budget, and led to more than 500,000 people waiting for passports. The Criminal Records Bureau’s new computer system was delivered six months late and £145 million over budget, built up a backlog of 30,000 cases, and has led to people being refused jobs because the wrong data were used, which, of course, brings me back to Home Office incompetence—a recurring theme in business questions recently.
This week, we have seen yet another example of the Home Secretary trying to blame everyone but the Government for the problems in our criminal justice system; if he is not blaming the civil servants, he is blaming the judges. Does the Leader of the House agree that what the public want is honest sentencing? They want to know that when someone is told that they will be in prison for 18 years, they will be in prison for 18 years and will not be let out halfway through or, worse still, when they have served only a third of their sentence. May we have a debate on sentencing policy? Then we can discuss why the Government’s action on sentencing means that a man who kidnapped and sexually assaulted a three-year-old girl can be let out of prison after less than six years.
Let us look at the numbers: nine years in government, three large majorities and 54 criminal justice Bills, but only one person to blame—the Prime Minister.
First, the right hon. Lady referred to comments about the NHS and said what is needed is to concentrate on what is delivered rather than what is reported. I am delighted to concentrate on what is delivered, because the facts of the improvements in the national health service speak for themselves, in terms of huge increases in the number of staff—an increase of 85,000 nurses, 30,000 doctors and 10,000 consultants. There have been improvements in staff levels in every constituency and they are paralleled by improvements in health care for every constituent across the country.
Secondly, the right hon. Lady referred to co-parenting and the proposals before the House next week. I shall certainly pass on her comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Thirdly, she asked about the report in today’s Financial Times about the comprehensive spending review—
I am talking about the same thing; there will be a report, as proposed.
Fourthly, the right hon. Lady asked for a debate because she wants to find out about education spending now—by comparison, I assume, with 1997 and the Conservative years. We do not need a debate on the improvements in education spending. All that the right hon. Lady needs to do is to look at the website or to ask in the Library for the figures, which show a dramatic improvement in spending on the service, moving education spending year by year—yes—up towards the level in private schools. That dramatic improvement in spending, along with a significant increase of 33,000 in the number of teachers and an increase of more than 250,000 in the number of teachers’ assistants, is leading to dramatic improvements in the educational attainment of pupils in every constituency. I am surprised that the right hon. Lady is not celebrating the achievement of schools and hospitals in her constituency, instead of denigrating the record of good public servants and the effectiveness of public investment.
The right hon. Lady asked about Home Office matters and said that we need debates on sentencing. We have had plenty of debates on sentencing. They have occurred in the context of many of the Bills that she is now complaining about in respect of law and order. As the Prime Minister so effectively pointed out yesterday, it is striking that, more often than not, when we bring forward proposals to strengthen sentencing and to toughen up the judicial system, Conservative Members vote against them. [Interruption.] Someone who has probably not checked the facts of even his own voting record said, “Not so,” from a sedentary position. The Conservatives voted against abolishing the double jeopardy rule to allow suspected rapists and murderers to be retried when important new evidence—for example, DNA evidence—came to light. They thought that that was a bad idea and that guilty rapists and murderers should go free. They voted against powers for the prosecution to ask for trial without jury where there was a danger of jury tampering. They voted against extending police powers to detain without charge—from 24 to 36 hours. They voted against giving the prosecution a right of appeal against terminating rulings by judges before a case is complete. They even voted against restricting the range of evidence of an offender’s bad character that could be admitted in court.
I hear the word “sentencing” being parroted. The difference is that as a result of those changes, which we had to force through against Conservative opposition, many more guilty criminals are being convicted and sentenced. There was no opportunity before for the courts to convict them because of the inadequacy of the criminal justice system that the Conservatives left. I recall—it is worth us all recalling—that when the Conservatives last had charge of the criminal justice system, police numbers were cut and crime doubled. Under this Government, police numbers have risen by 15,000, and according to the British crime survey, crime has gone down on every measure. That is also the case with recorded crime.
A cursory examination of the business for the next two weeks suggests that the Government are coming to the end of the post-election legislative programme, barring a late flurry of criminal justice Bills. That being the case, may I ask the Leader of the House not to bring forward the date of the Queen’s Speech and not to extend the already over-long summer recess, but to forswear for the rest of this Session the use of guillotine motions on Report stages of Bills, so that we can adequately scrutinise the legislation that is before us and perhaps make sure that some of it stands the test of time?
May I ask again for a debate on nuclear power? Every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth on the subject, it creates the need for a further debate. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:
“the new generation of nuclear power stations generate around one tenth of the waste of the previous generation.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 765.]
However, we know, from the work of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, that
“the amount of high level waste would actually increase by 400 per cent.”
It really will not do to have nonsensical statistics bandied before the House, rather than have a genuine debate on a key issue for the future of the country. May we have that debate?
May we have a debate on sport? I say that not because of events in Germany at the moment, or Wimbledon, or test matches, but on the basis of the Audit Commission report on sporting and recreation facilities in our local areas, which says:
“In England 65 per cent of council facilities are over 20 years old”
and are deteriorating badly. If we do not invest in proper sports facilities throughout the country—not just the Olympic facilities, but ordinary sports facilities for ordinary people to use—we will be doing our country a great deal of ill.
I note that on 29 June we will debate the Commons Bill [Lords]. Can the Leader of the House give us any indication of when we will discuss a Lords Bill [Commons]?
All over the place. The Liberals are so deeply committed to the House of Commons and democracy that they have a solitary representative in the Chamber.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asks about foreswearing the use of guillotine motions. I am not trying to make a casuistical point—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Well, I might. We do not have guillotine motions these days; instead we have programme motions, which were recommended by the Modernisation Committee.
That is a Foreign Office point.
No, it is not a Foreign Office point. The Foreign Office produced remarkably little legislation.
There is a need for as much time as possible for Report stages, but the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will appreciate that there is a limit on the amount of time available to the House. However, I am concerned that quite a lot of time that is available to Opposition Members is simply not being used, and I will make that available. There has been an early collapse of sittings—[Interruption.] The Government put their business before the House. I was in opposition for 18 years, so I know that it is for Opposition parties to make use of their opportunities.
There will be a White Paper on nuclear power. However, meanwhile, if the Liberal Democrats are absolutely desperate for a debate on nuclear power, which would expose divisions in their ranks because some Liberal Democrat Members are in favour of windmills, some favour increasing carbon emissions and others who represent areas with nuclear power stations are in favour of nuclear power, I suggest that they use the Supply day that they have coming up.
Sport and recreation facilities are of course a concern. We have increased the investment for such facilities hugely. I could bore the House by talking about the investment in my constituency and, perhaps, in the hon. Gentleman’s, too.
As for the Commons and the Lords, as everyone knows, a Joint Committee is reviewing the conventions of the Lords. In due course—around the end of the year, I hope—there will be proposals on their future composition.
The Road Safety Bill, which was lost in the last Parliament, has completed all its stages in the House of Lords. It is two months since its Committee stage in the House was completed. The Bill includes many life-saving measures, but I fear that its Report and Third Reading may be delayed until after the summer. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Bill completes its passage before the summer recess?
Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate in Government time on the plight of Zimbabwean refugees? There are many engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses and other people in this country whose skills could be put to good use for our country’s benefit, which would maintain those skills for the future. There are also people—including my constituent, Ashleigh McMaster, who, outrageously, has had her application for asylum turned down—who are in limbo because they are unable to study, work or contribute. Owing to the languishing state of their skills, a group of Zimbabwean people will be unable to contribute to that benighted country when Mugabe goes.
I understand entirely the concern of Zimbabwean refugees, although I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking not about refugees, but about the different group of unsuccessful asylum seekers, some of whom I have in my constituency. His question illustrates precisely why the asylum system is complex. There are people around the country making similar representations about every single unfounded asylum application. The hon. Gentleman believes that decisions about Zimbabwe are “outrageous”, but others believe that decisions about other countries, even safe countries, are outrageous, and, like the hon. Gentleman, continue to make representation upon representation. I understand that, but it does not lie in the hon. Gentleman’s mouth or in the mouths of Front Benchers to complain about the complexity of the system, given that the complexity exists because of the force of the representations.
We have sought to streamline the system, notwithstanding the representations. We wanted to introduce a single appeal to replace the layers of appeals that existed 15 and even 10 years ago, and to secure a higher quality of judicial decision-making. The decisions made about hon. Gentleman’s constituent were made not by Ministers but by independent judges, and can be reviewed by the Court of Appeal.
As an M25 Member of Parliament, may I ask—as Surrey and Kent Members have not—for a statement about the safety aspects of the M25 when there is a major crash and people are incarcerated for eight hours? If there were a similar hiatus in aviation or on the railway, a statement would be made; but for some reason we stoically accept dangerous detentions on our motorways. One happened recently. It is extraordinarily dangerous. The House needs to be told what evacuation procedures exist, and what directions and duties are given to the police to prevent more people from adding to the hiatus on the motorway. It is time we heard a major statement about how we can minimise the trauma of people who are stuck on the M25 for eight hours in intolerable, dangerous conditions.
I know a little about the incident to which my hon. Friend has referred, and I know of the concern about people who were stuck for eight hours. My hon. Friend will be aware that the police used an emergency helicopter to distribute bottled water to stranded motorists. That was important, because it was a boiling hot day.
I will convey my hon. Friend’s concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I hope that he will follow it up.
Before we have any legislation on sentencing by criminal courts, may we have a full debate in the House? Many of us want an opportunity to say that the House should not be too prescriptive about the sentences imposed by judges, that judges should have as much discretion as they can properly be given, and that defendants should serve the great majority of the sentences imposed, but also that the potential life sentences imposed under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 can do serious injustice to defendants.
I am aware that that is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s view. He has been consistent in that view since the proposals of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in 1996, when he opposed his own Front Bench.
I have thought about the matter a great deal, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor are doing so as well. We must achieve a balance between the understandable desire of the public, and indeed the House, for a clear sentencing framework that is more predictable than it was 30 or 40 years ago and ensuring that there is proper judicial discretion. That is relatively easy to say, but more difficult to achieve. We all accept that the issue must be dealt with in a serious and measured way.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the students at Avondale school who, as part of their star project, have produced interesting and innovative ideas for encouraging people to save energy? Will he make time for a debate on the citizenship curriculum, which encourages young people throughout the country to take part in important projects of that kind?
I do indeed congratulate the pupils and staff of Avondale school. My hon. Friend has talked to me about that project outside the House. The citizenship project is profoundly important: when we meet children in our constituencies or here, we note that although they are genuinely interested in this place and how it works, they lack adequate information and understanding of citizenship and politics. We need to put that right.
In view of the Government’s decision today to approve a huge waste-to-energy incinerator in my borough of Bexley, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate in Government time on the whole issue of waste disposal and incineration? My constituents are naturally very unhappy about the decision and its consequences for the local environment.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We have sought to produce much better and greener methods of disposing of waste, including the landfill tax, and they are working. That said, there must be some arrangements for incineration of quite large amounts of waste. No one wants such facilities next door, but they have to go somewhere.
At a time when we are focusing so closely on performance in English football, could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate allowing us to consider the circumstances of young players such as my constituent Hannah Dale? Hannah is a star football player, who has won the player of the year award for her club on many occasions. She is an academy player and lives for football, but she turned 11 this month and can no longer play with her team because FA rules do not allow girls to play mixed football after they reach that age. Hannah wants to be a footballer, and we need to ensure that girls like her can become footballers.
I wish Hannah every success. My hon. Friend will know of the great success of the Blackburn Rovers women’s football team: I pay particular attention to women’s football for that reason.
The Government are responsible for many things and are probably to blame for even more, but happily we are not responsible for the rules of football.
Ever—and that includes the performance of the England team. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) says from a sedentary position—and I want this to be recorded—that we all wish the England team well. Some people have the mistaken impression that an England-Scotland game is taking place this afternoon, but we will pass over that lightly.
I will convey the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) to the chairman of the Football Association.
May we have a full oral statement from the Chancellor on his proposals for a £2 coin to celebrate the Act of Union? Is it true that the coin is to be called a Brownie, because it is full of brass, not very popular and soon to be devalued? Is the Leader of the House aware that it will become a collector’s item as the Union passes into history, and is it true that 6,000 million of the coins would have to be circulated in Scotland next year to be the equivalent of the £12 billion of Scottish oil revenues that are the only thing keeping the Chancellor’s head above the financial waters?
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to two recent shootings in Greater Manchester? A 15-year-old boy in my constituency was shot, but fortunately not killed, and a 15-year-old girl was murdered by her jilted boyfriend. Guns were used in both cases. Alas, many members of the public have become resigned to the fact that guns now circulate in our cities and, increasingly, throughout the country. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary, telling us the Government’s strategy for driving the guns out of our sight and making it clear that we do not accept that guns, like drugs earlier, can systematically become part of our national way of life?
The whole House will share my hon. Friend’s profound concern about the availability of illegal handguns on the streets of some of our cities and towns, and send condolences to the family of the schoolgirl who was killed and sympathy to the young person who was injured.
Over the past 10 years, we have taken considerable steps to strengthen the law on handguns. We banned them altogether in 1997, sentences have been increased, and the police are making greater use of tougher enforcement. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, along with the Association of Chief Police Officers and Greater Manchester police, is ever ready to consider further measures to strengthen enforcement against the use and availability of guns on our streets.
Will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement on her very popular patient choice agenda in which she explains why the Isle of Wight strategic health authority, against the wishes of the primary care trust, purchased 200,000 cataract operations at an independent treatment centre in Portsmouth, only four of which have been taken up by my constituents, who do not want to have to travel to Portsmouth for their eye operations, yet who still have to pay for them? Is it the Government’s intention to put money into the private sector, which should be treating health service patients?
I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he regards as popular one of the many proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health; I am sure that she will be pleased to hear that, too. Those policies are indeed popular. Despite the difficulties that he outlines in one respect, the facts are that in his constituency the number of nurses has increased by 27 per cent., there are 1,135 extra doctors, which is an increase of 38 per cent., and almost 400 more consultants, which is an increase of more than 50 per cent.. Those and similar increases have led to real improvements in health care in his constituency and everywhere else. I hope that the next time he stands up, it is to congratulate the doctors and nurses who are delivering improvements in health care in his constituency.
Communities such as Ravenstone, Packington, Normanton-Le-Heath and Heather welcomed the election of a Labour Government in 1997 for many reasons, not least the promise of a tighter line against greenfield open-casting, the experience and future prospects of which have blighted the lives of those Leicestershire villages for decades. The same is true of other coalfield community areas in the midlands and elsewhere. Does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government plan to make a statement on minerals planning guidance note 3 and whether the concept of the cumulative impact of open-casting has been abandoned in determining applications; and on the reasons for the inquiry inspector’s astonishing recommendations in relation to the Long Moor site in north-west Leicestershire, sanctioning a four-year application to extract 750,000 tonnes and potentially condemning the area for decades beyond? There are also risks in relation to Lodge House in Amber Valley. The issue is extremely serious, and not only in the valley in north-west Leicestershire.
I know that that is a problem in Amber Valley as well, because our hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) was just telling me that she endorsed what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) says. I understand his concerns and I shall be in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, especially on the question of the cumulative effect of open-cast mining in his area.
May we have a statement from a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the movement restrictions imposed on 33 fish farms in north Yorkshire as a result of viral haemorrhagic septicaemia being found in fish on only one farm some weeks ago? The matter is serious: many of the fish farmers now face ruin and fish cannot be moved to lakes and other watercourses that angling clubs and estates need for the rest of the fishing season. Compensation and aid for the farmers is desperately needed. it would be paid in any other EU member state and it would certainly be paid to the agriculture industry.
This week, I received my draft entry in “Who’s Who” for 2007. It contained my London address, which at a time of trouble is a bit worrying, given that in the ‘70s a terrorist organisation used “Who’s Who” to get the address of an individual whom it subsequently murdered. Will the Leader of the House consider writing to the publishers of “Who’s Who” to ensure that nobody’s address appears?
May we have an urgent debate on access to telephone services in rural villages, particularly those in Shropshire? Does the Leader of the House agree that it is wrong that BT is failing in its universal access obligations and that villagers in Kynnersley in my constituency are suffering from poor telephone services and little access to internet and broadband services, despite BT’s high rhetoric?
When can we discuss early-day motion 2350? It states:
[That this House records its sorrow at the first death of a British soldier in the Helmand Province and salutes the courage and professionalism of British troops; and fears that the mission is an impossible one that will strengthen the Taliban, lead to more British deaths, the Columbia-isation of Central Asia and possibly deteriorate into a British Vietnam.]
Last week, there were complaints of a shortage of morphine in British hospitals and there is a chronic shortage of morphine throughout the developing world, yet our troops are engaged in what has been described as a “mission impossible” to destroy the raw material for the manufacture of morphine. Would it not be more sensible of us to license Afghani farmers to use their poppy crops for the production of morphine, rather than to try to destroy the livelihoods of 2 million people and drive them into the hands of the Taliban?
My hon. Friend has consistently opposed criminal sanctions in relation to all drugs. I understand his point of view, but I do not agree with it. Increased production of morphine for lawful use is needed, but I do not think that that is an argument for generally legalising the growing of poppies. [Interruption.] He should bear in mind that, overwhelmingly, poppy production in Afghanistan is not used for morphine production, because it can be sold for a much higher profit on the streets in the form of illicit drugs.
I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that one of his principal responsibilities is to ensure the clarity of Government policy. There is considerable confusion following last night’s television programmes, in which the Lord Chancellor on “Question Time” appeared to condemn the Home Secretary and other politicians for interfering with the judiciary but, simultaneously, the chairman of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), was on “Newsnight” saying the opposite. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that Home Office questions on Monday is sufficient to ensure clarity, or should someone come to the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Lord Chancellor next week?
The right hon. Gentleman may raise the matter in Home Office questions, and I suspect that he will do so. In fact, there is consistency between what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said on Monday and what my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor said more recently this week. Let us be clear: on Monday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expressed a reservation about a specific sentence—he is entitled to do that; he was not criticising the judiciary, merely expressing a reservation—and this morning my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor gave what I thought was an eloquent exposition of the overall position on sentencing.
My right hon. Friend will know that there is to be a debate on House of Lords reform in Westminster Hall next week. Apart from the fact that I cannot be present, I regard that as wholly inadequate for debating one of the most important issues on which the House must decide. If my right hon. Friend is true to his word and wants to take the temperature of the House in that respect, and if we are to achieve the so-called “developing consensus” on the future of the House of Lords, it is critical that we have a debate in this Chamber. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that we will not wait until the Committee reports at the end of the year, but that we will have a debate in the main Chamber before the summer recess?
I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate before the summer recess. There will be a debate on Tuesday next week in Westminster Hall. I will not be able to be present, but my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be deputising for me. There was a debate which lasted for three hours on 10 May, which was in Government time. A good debate it was, too. It was on the motion to establish the Joint Committee on Conventions. I promise my hon. Friend that, during the calendar year, there will be other opportunities to debate what I accept is an important issue and a heavy responsibility on my shoulders.
May we have a debate on adult education? The Government’s decision to cut adult education funding and divert the moneys to other areas of further education has led to a cut in the overall budget to Shipley college last year. It has led also to many people having to pay extra fees, many of whom cannot afford them. Bradford college has decided to shut Burley Grange in my constituency, which provided adult education for people in Wharfedale. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands how important adult education is to many people throughout the country. I hope that he will find time for a debate on the subject. There are issues that are causing much anguish in my constituency.
I do understand the importance of further education. I am proud to say that I have been, and remain, the governor of the further education college in Blackburn for the past 15 years. I take a real and close interest in the matter. There have been some changes in funding, not for all adult education—let us be clear about that—but of non-vocational adult education. I know the importance of that to those who are concerned. Overall, there has been investment in education at other levels—primary, secondary and higher education—as well as in further education. That is leading over time to significant improvements in skills levels and, for example, in eradicating adult illiteracy, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills spoke yesterday.
Mention was made a few minutes ago of handguns. My right hon. Friend will be aware also of the problem that is caused by the misuse of airguns, which affects so many of our constituents. My constituents were pleased with the Government’s proposals in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill to tighten up the law on airguns. Unfortunately, that Bill seems to have been delayed in the House of Lords for more than six months now. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to encourage the quick completion of consideration of that Bill in the other place? When it comes back to this place, will he ensure that it has an early passage, so that my constituents and those of right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House can get the benefits of the protections that are set out in the Bill?
May we please have a debate on special educational needs? I declare an interest as the father of a two and a half year old boy who will almost certainly have such needs. Given that there are about 1.5 million children who are SEN, does the Leader of the House accept that it is most unsatisfactory that the three debates on this subject that have taken place in this Parliament have respectively had to be initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Government need to commit to finding Government time to address the concerns and needs of some vulnerable children with severe, complex and multi-faceted disorders? These children need our help and they need it now.
I agree with the substance of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, I do not agree with his conclusion. He seems to be implying that the only good debates in the House are those held in Government time. The purpose of ensuring that there is Opposition time and Back-Bench time is to enable issues of importance—matters that are also of interest to the Government—to be taken up by Back-Bench Members. Neither Back-Benchers nor the Opposition have to wait for the Government to find time; they can find it themselves. It is a credit to the House that there have already been three debates on the matter. I will bear the hon. Gentleman’s request in mind. He should not undervalue—I do not think that he was intending to do so—the importance of debates other than those that take place in Government time.
In order to continue the Government’s unique and innovative policy of giving things for free—for example, free bus travel for pensioners, free eye tests for pensioners, free television licences for those over 75 and free museum entry for all—may we have a debate on the merit of introducing free and healthy school meals for all primary school children, as is currently being piloted in Hull? It is proving hugely beneficial to the attendance and performance of such children.
Can we have a debate on land-banking? It is an increasingly common practice now, especially in the south-east of England, where overseas companies are buying up large tracts of agricultural land, only then to split them up in plots and advertise them as speculative residential plots. In my constituency, Sinclair Deville has recently bought a four or five acre site and advertised it at the Ideal Home exhibition. It is not within the local plan, but it causes considerable unrest in local communities when these plots are advertised. Also, the practice potentially misleads investors.
On 3 May, I asked a series of named day questions to the Home Secretary about my local prison. As of today, I have received no replies. If the answers are being delayed to save the Government embarrassment, that would be a gross abuse of power by the Executive. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make an urgent statement on parliamentary questions absconding from the Home Office?
I talked to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about this issue this morning. He is very concerned about the delay in answering questions. The delay is not for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman implies. As I said in answer to a point of order yesterday, part of the problem is that since about April the number of written questions for answer by the Home Office has doubled. With the best will in the world, as I explained yesterday—
Whether they are named day questions or otherwise, the numbers have doubled. There is understandable concern in the House and outside it about the performance of the Home Office. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary understands that. With the best will in the world, additional pressure has been put on those who are responsible for drafting the answers. The hon. Gentleman would be pretty merciless if the answers were drafted and they turned out to be inaccurate. There is a balance between timeliness and accuracy.
Does the Leader of the House recall from his days of being Foreign Secretary the favourable reception that was given to the Government’s strategic defence review for recognising the need for a shift to an expeditionary strategy based on aircraft carriers to deal with terrorist threats as far away from home as possible? If so, can the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement soon on who is in charge of future defence policy, given the report this week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is insisting on £1 billion being shifted from the defence budget to the homelands security budget, which will almost certainly result in at least one of the aircraft carriers not being built?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is, of course, responsible for defence policy, through the Cabinet and to the House. It is true at all times that there is pressure on defence spending. I will not embarrass the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) by reminding him of the cuts that were made in defence spending towards the end of the Major Administration. If there is any change in our current position in respect of aircraft carriers, it will be announced to the House. I am not anticipating that there should be.
I returned this morning from Afghanistan, having visited Kabul, Kandahar and the provincial reconstruction team in Lashkargah. I had meetings with President Karzai. I also travelled with General Jones, the head of NATO, and met General Richards of the international security assistance force. I put the question of poppy licensing to them. They all agreed that it is something that we need to pursue, even if it is only a pilot scheme.
I am asking for a debate on Afghanistan so that we can discuss these issues and, I am sad to report, the lack of co-ordination between international organisations, whether they be the EU, the United Nations, the Department for International Development and the embassies that are pouring in a great deal of money and good will. There is no overall co-ordination, as we have seen in Bosnia.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, when he was in Afghanistan—I am grateful that he made that journey—my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for International Development were there, and they gave a report in Cabinet this morning. Work by the British Government is knitted together, but co-ordination by other foreign organisation remains a challenge, not least to the UN, as those forces are at present under UN mandate. On the licensing of heroin production, I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s concerns on to my right hon. Friends, but I cannot promise the outcome that he seeks.
I am afraid to report that a public menace is abroad. When he was responsible for the environment, for transport and local government, he made a mess of them, and he is now damaging parliamentary questions. To make room for the Deputy Prime Minister, Transport and Work and Pensions questions have been cut to only 40 minutes. Transport and pensions affect every single citizen, so is it right to cut them to 40 minutes to give us what is admittedly an enjoyable half hour harpooning a figure of public ridicule?
The Leader of the House will be aware that thousands of pensioners have sent copies of their council tax bills to the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and its successors in the past few months. Hundreds of those pensioners live in my constituency, and they kindly sent me copies, too. Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the effect of council tax rises on pensioners, many of whom are on fixed incomes and are suffering very badly, which is a cause for great concern, particularly in my constituency of Weston-super-Mare
Questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will take place shortly. It is easy to collect council tax bills and pass them on, and it is fine for the hon. Gentleman to do so as a constituency Member of Parliament. However, I hope that he has done two things. First, I hope that he has told his constituents about all the benefits received by pensioners in the past 10 years, which are very significant indeed. Secondly, I hope that he has explained to his constituents what he and his party would introduce in place of council tax. His party has rightly ruled out a completely mad Liberal Democrat proposal for local income tax, but council tax was a Conservative policy, not a Labour one, so if it does not like it now, let us hear what it would do.
My local newspaper, the Braintree and Witham Times, has fought a tremendous campaign to build a local community hospital in Braintree. My constituents were promised a community hospital that should have been built by the end of last year, but not a brick has been laid. Developers have moved on to the old site, which has only increased their concern. Can the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House and make a statement to reassure them a community hospital will indeed be built in Braintree?
I do not think that we need a debate. As an Essex boy, I know the hon. Gentleman’s Braintree constituency and I know, too, how much the area’s health services have improved in the past nine years. Indeed, I have gone there to see and hear about the changes that have taken place. He complained about the delay, but I hope that he will celebrate the fact that there are over 2,000 extra nurses in the health authority covering his area, over 700 doctors and over 200 consultants.
I am a member of the Standing Committee considering the Company Law Reform Bill, which is the largest Bill ever to proceed through the House. Given that the Government lost a vote in that Committee this morning, can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explain why the Government talk tough but vote soft?
I doubt whether that is the largest Bill ever. The Local Government, Planning and Land Bill introduced by Mr. Michael Heseltine was, as the Conservative Whip, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), will recall, a massive Bill. It was so awful, however, that it had to be withdrawn. If the hon. Gentleman can guarantee that there will never be the odd procedural glitch in the unlikely event that a Conservative Government are elected, I am happy to listen to him. The Committee will meet next Tuesday, so we will not lose a great deal.