Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 13 July 2006

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 17 July—Remaining stages of the Compensation Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 18 July—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Health Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Government of Wales Bill, followed by a motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Wednesday 19 July—Opposition half-day [unallotted day]. There will be a debate on home information packs on an Opposition motion, followed by remaining stages of the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 20 July—A motion to approve the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2006, followed by a debate on international development on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 21 July—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 24 July—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Tuesday 25 July—Motion on the retirement of the Clerk of the House, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, followed by a motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

The information regarding business on Tuesday 18 July is as follows:—

The following reports fall within the scope of the motion:

2005-06

Fourth Report

Fraud and error in benefit expenditure

HC 411 (Cm 6728)

Seventh Report

The use of operating theatres in the Northern Ireland Health and Personal Social Services

HC 414 (Cm 6699)

Eighth Report

Navan Centre

HC 415 (Cm 6699)

Ninth Report

Foot and Mouth Disease: applying the lessons

HC 563 (Cm 6728)

Twelfth Report

Helping those in financial hardship: the running of the Social Fund

HC 601 (Cm 6728)

Thirteenth Report

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Tackling homelessness

HC 653 (Cm 6743)

Fourteenth Report

Energywatch and Postwatch

HC 654 (Cm 6743)

Fifteenth Report

HM Customs and Excise Standard Report 2003–04

HC 695 (Cm 6743)

Sixteenth Report

Home Office: Reducing vehicle crime

HC 696 (Cm 6743)

Seventeenth Report

Achieving value for money in the delivery of public services

HC 742 (Cm 6743)

Eighteenth Report

Department for Education and Skills: Improving school attendance in England

HC 789 (Cm 6766)

Nineteenth Report

Department of Health: Tackling cancer: improving the patient journey

HC 790 (Cm 6766)

Twentieth Report

The NHS Cancer Plan: a progress report

HC 791 (Cm 6766)

Twenty-first Report

Skills for Life: Improving adult literacy and numeracy

HC 792 (Cm 6766)

Twenty-second Report

Maintaining and improving Britain’s railway stations

HC 535 (Cm 6775)

Twenty-third Report

Filing of income tax self assessment returns

HC 681 (Cm 6775)

Twenty-fourth Report

The BBC’s White City 2 development

HC 652 (Second Special Report, HC 1139, 2005-06)

Twenty-fifth Report

Securing strategic leadership in the learning and skills sector

HC 602 (Cm 6775)

Twenty-sixth Report

Assessing and reporting military readiness

HC 667 (Cm 6775)

Twenty-seventh Report

Lost in translation? Responding to the challenges of European law

HC 590 (Cm 6775)

Twenty-eighth Report

Extending access to learning through technology: Ufi and the learndirect service

HC 706 (Cm 6775)

Twenty-ninth Report

Excess Votes 2004–05

HC 916 (N/A)

Thirtieth Report

Excess Votes (Northern Ireland) 2004–05

HC 917 (N/A)

Thirty-first Report

Northern Ireland’s Waste Management Strategy

HC 741 (Cm 6843)

Thirty-second Report

Working with the voluntary sector

HC 717 (Cm 6789)

Thirty-third Report

The Royal Parks and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain

HC 644 (Cm 6789)

Thirty-fourth Report

Returning failed asylum applicants

HC 620 (Cm 6863)

Thirty-fifth Report

The refinancing of the Norfolk and Norwich PFI Hospital

HC 694 (Cm ????)

Thirty-sixth Report

Tackling the complexity of the benefits system

HC 765 (Cm 6863)

Thirty-seventh Report

Inland Revenue Standard Report: New Tax Credits

HC 782 (Cm 6863)

Thirty-eighth Report

Channel Tunnel Rail Link

HC 727 (Cm 6863)

Thirty-ninth Report

Consular services to British nationals

HC 813 (Cm 6863)

Fortieth Report

Environment Agency: Efficiency in water resource management

HC 749

Forty-first Report

The South Eastern Passenger Rail Franchise

HC 770

Forty-second Report

Enforcing competition in markets

HC 841

The reference number of the Treasury minute to each report is printed in brackets after the HC printing number

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business up till the recess.

There have been a number of oral statements in recent days, but, sadly, that has not included the Chancellor’s announcement about the fundamental savings review, and it was only because of your willingness, Mr. Speaker, to extend the time for Treasury questions that Members could question the Chancellor on that review. If the Chancellor has a statement to make, he should come to the House and make a proper oral statement, which would give a proper opportunity for all Members to question him on it. Perhaps his unwillingness to do so has more to do with the fact that the fundamental savings review was an idea announced by the Prime Minister at the Labour party conference, not by the Chancellor. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor to come back to the House to make a proper oral statement on that review to allow more than just 20 minutes of questions from Members to the Chancellor?

Oral statements enable Members to put questions direct to Ministers, whereas written statements do not give that opportunity to raise matters in the House, particularly if they are published on the day the House goes into recess. On the day the House went into recess at Easter, there were 39 written ministerial statements. Last year, on the day the House went into summer recess, there were 63 written ministerial statements. What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that we do not have a repeat performance, with a large number of written statements coming out too late for Members to question Ministers?

It has been shown that there has been a hidden waiting list in the NHS for diagnostic tests, with patients waiting up to an average of 17 weeks for some tests. Some patients have to wait up to two years, but we do not know what the maximum wait is. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Health places full figures in the Library so that Members can see the true state of waiting lists, rather than the partial figures that the Government quote? Before the right hon. Gentleman prepares his standard response to me, which is about how many more nurses there are in my area, perhaps he will let me know instead why respite care at St. Mark’s hospital, Maidenhead is under threat, Townlands hospital is under threat of closure and maternity services have been cut at Wycombe hospital—all affecting my constituents.

It was shocking to read this week that the Department of Health has been sitting on a report on patient safety in mental health services that refers to a number of rape cases. May we have a debate on mental health services when we return in the autumn, and will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Health publishes that report well before the debate?

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition challenged the Prime Minister on reports that the ID card scheme had been delayed. The Prime Minister’s response was:

“It is a huge programme and there are bound to be changes along the way.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1384.]

So when will the Home Secretary come to the House to make a statement about those changes?

The Home Secretary announced on 21 June that there were plans for a major shake-up of the Home Office and that his task force would produce firm proposals by July. Will the Leader of the House arrange also for the Home Secretary to come to the House before the recess to make a statement on the changes proposed for the Home Office, so that we can know what on earth is going on there? The Home Secretary gave himself 100 days to sort out the Home Office. He is more than two thirds of the way through, and with the visa scam at foreign language schools, failure to deport foreign criminals, the ID card project being delayed and confusion over police mergers, he is not doing very well.

This summer the Office for National Statistics will bring in changes to place all private finance initiative deals on the Government’s balance sheet. That is bad news for the Chancellor, as it could blow a hole through his sustainable investment rule. May we have a debate on the production and use of Government statistics? Does the Leader of the House stand by his comments made in a speech to the Royal Statistical Society in 1995 that there should be a national statistical service that should be

“placed at arm’s length to Ministers, on a similar basis to that of the National Audit Office, and should report principally to a powerful Committee of the Commons”,

and that the new arrangements

“would be placed on a statutory basis within a ‘Governance of Britain Act’”?

Whatever happened to the governance of Britain Act?

Finally, yesterday, when asked who would be in charge of the country in the Prime Minister’s absence, the Prime Minister said that

“the arrangements are exactly the same as they have been in previous years.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1385.]

Either that means that the Deputy Prime Minister will be in charge or it means that, unbeknown to him, he has never actually been in charge in the past. It was reported at one stage that the Leader of the House was being put on stand-by to take over in the Prime Minister’s absence. May I tell him that the country would breathe a collective sigh of relief if that happened? After all, he has a job, he owns his houses and he has never been seen wearing a Stetson. What are his holiday plans?

It’s the way she says it, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Lady asks for a statement on the spending review. It is standard procedure provided for in “Erskine May” for Secretaries of State answering questions that may generate much more interest than would be taken account of by the normal time allowance for questions to delay them till the end of the Question Time. That, in my experience, has generally been to the approbation of the House, so I am surprised that the right hon. Lady and other Opposition Members are being so churlish about it. Questions 4 and 14 were drawn down by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer precisely because he recognised the interest in the matter, and there were then well over 20 minutes to discuss it.

The right hon. Lady spoke about oral statements. I entirely accept that, wherever possible, it is better for oral statements rather than written statements to be made to the House, and we will not keep her unsatisfied in that respect this week, next week or the week after. However, many statements have to be made by way of written ministerial statements. It is a characteristic of all Governments at all times that many announcements tend to be delayed until the last minute before recesses. Written ministerial statements were an innovation that we introduced because they are better than planted parliamentary questions, but I am encouraging my colleagues to ensure that, whenever possible, written ministerial statements are published before the last day. We are all aware of the issue, but with the best will in the world, there will be some on the last day.

The right hon. Lady asked about hidden waiting lists and the true state of those lists. I am only too happy to tell her about the true state of the waiting lists. I will not mention the increase of 85,000 in the number of nurses since 1997, nor the increase of many thousands in the number of doctors. Nor will I mention the fact that between 1997 and 2005 the number of doctors in the health area that covers the right hon. Lady’s constituency increased by 1,400. I will mention, however, that overall waiting lists have fallen by 370,000 over the past nine years. The average wait for in-patient treatment is now 7.7 weeks, and waits of more than nine months are down by more than 118,000 since 1997. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for asking that question.

I understand the point that the right hon. Lady makes about mental health services. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is ready to publish the National Patient Safety Agency’s report, which is being finalised, as soon as it is complete. I cannot promise that there will be a debate on mental health services in the spillover session, but I can promise that there should be such a debate in the autumn.

The right hon. Lady asked about statements by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. There will indeed be statements if he has to make any significant changes before the recess.

The right hon. Lady referred to a fine speech that I made in 1995 about reorganisation of the Office for National Statistics. I am flattered that she has such a stock of my speeches. That led to a manifesto commitment in 1997, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken forward. Progressively, we have strengthened the independence of the ONS—I am glad to see agreement from Conservative Members on this—and we will continue to do so. That is in sharp contrast to the scandal under the Conservatives, who undermined the integrity of national statistics by manipulating them.

I am surprised that the right hon. Lady did not give me the usual list of demands for additional debates. I assume that she did not do so because of the most extraordinary own goal that she and Opposition Front Benchers committed yesterday. I have been in this House for 27 years, and I cannot think of a single occasion when the Opposition have gone into the Lobby five minutes before an Opposition day debate to vote to silence the House on that day. However, if they want to carry on in that way, that is absolutely fine.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 2483 on the death of Zahid Mubarek?

[That this House welcomes the report of Mr. Justice Keith into the death of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution; condemns without exception the litany of systemic and individual failures that led to the death of this young man; calls on authorities to consider what action they are able to take against those individuals specified by Mr. Justice Keith as having direct responsibility in some way for the death of Zahid Mubarek; and hopes that in light of this tragedy action is taken to improve the conditions in which young offenders are detained and to safeguard young offenders in detention.]

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have seen the report by Mr. Justice Keith, which sets out a systematic set of failures by the Prison Service, particularly at Feltham young offenders institution, where this young man died on the day before he was due to be released. As yet, no one has been held responsible. May we please have a debate on this important issue to ensure that the circumstances surrounding Zahid’s death are not repeated?

I fully understand the deep concern of my right hon. Friend, the family of Zahid Mubarek, and many others. I was Home Secretary at the time of this terrible murder, and I take my share of the responsibility for the Prison Service’s failure at that time. Many positive changes have been introduced in the Prison Service since 2000, not least following the important judicial inquiry that was conducted. I believe that the Prison Service is now absolutely seized of the need to ensure that something like that never happens again.

We shall try very hard not to interfere with the Conservative Opposition day next week.

The Leader of the House suggested that what we just witnessed from the Chancellor of the Exchequer was normal procedure. It is not. I defy him to find in “Erskine May” any example of a 66-page document—a White Paper with enormous ramifications for public spending—being released under such circumstances and without the opportunity for proper debate. I ask him seriously to consider whether it should have been a matter for a proper statement to the House, as I believe that it still should be next week.

I hear what the Leader of the House says about trying to avoid last-minute written ministerial statements. I hope that he achieves that. Perhaps he should tell Departments that the House goes into recess next Thursday—then we will have all the written statements on Thursday and at least two days to consider what they say before the event.

We should have a debate or a statement on the health service. I was struck, as was the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), by the delays in diagnostic testing. It is not good enough that people have to wait for six months after seeing their GP for an essential diagnostic test. Irrespective of the investment that is going into the health service, that is a critical period for patients. This needs to be addressed, as it is an area where the Government are failing.

When we are debating the health service, perhaps we could consider the position of foundation hospitals and the fact that the heads of the companies that lend more than £500 million a year to the NHS are worried that they are going bankrupt. Are not the Government worried that foundation hospitals, which are now the flagship of the NHS, are going bankrupt?

I hope that I am not breaching any sub judice rules following recent events, but when we come back we need to have a serious and sober debate on party funding to enable us to exchange views, because all parties need to have a clear view of what will happen in future.

Before the recess, may we have a statement from the Leader of the House on the pressing matter of whether the Scrutiny Committee will have oversight of the Prime Minister’s resignation honours?

Let me deal first with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the drawing down of Questions 4 and 14 by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There is nothing unusual about this procedure. [Interruption.] There is not—it is set out on page 399 of “Erskine May”, and it is usually for the convenience of the House. I used the procedure as Foreign Secretary in respect of an issue that was of profound importance to Members of this House, as well as internationally, and excited just as much interest—the necessary withdrawal of our monitors from the jail in Jericho that then led to the arrest of the prisoners. For the life of me, I cannot see why Opposition Members are complaining about this, because it was to the benefit of the House, not its disadvantage.

I cannot guarantee that there will be no written ministerial statements on the Tuesday that we get up, but I hope that there will be fewer. As we all know, when written ministerial statements are put down on the Tuesday rather than the Monday there is, among other things, a cry that we are trying to avoid scrutiny. Generally speaking, we are not—it is merely that there has been a great logjam in getting them agreed.

There will be a debate on aspects of the health service when the Compensation Bill is before the House on Monday. There are plenty of opportunities to debate health services, and we are always delighted to do so, because despite the difficulties that will arise at any time, there is not a single constituency in which health care and spending has not improved, and the satisfaction of our constituents has not gone up, in the past nine years. Yes, it is the duty of Oppositions to criticise the Government, but in doing so they should not continually imply criticism of the additional thousands of doctors, nurses and other health care workers who are delivering that additional health care.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sir Hayden Phillips is conducting an inquiry into party funding to which all parties are giving evidence. Sir Hayden has said that he intends to report by the end of the year, and he may give some interim indications in the middle of the autumn. It would be premature to have a debate until we have at least an interim report from him.

On the Scrutiny Committee, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to write to him.

May I remind my right hon. Friend that today—13 July—is the birth date of John Clare, one of our greatest English poets? Many regard Clare as one of the greatest English poets of the countryside and the environment. Would not it be appropriate to hold an early debate after the recess about the Education and Skills Committee report on the value of out-of-school education? We expect an imminent response from the Government on a manifesto for education outside the classroom. Is not it time that we ensured that all children in this country, wherever they live, have the opportunity to visit, enjoy and fall in love with the English countryside?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments and I commend his work on commemorating John Clare, including setting up a trust, about which I recently read an interesting interview with him in a magazine.

On the back of the most peaceful July parade for many years, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate so that we can examine areas where there were glitches, consider changes that can be made to the procedures and structures surrounding parades and perhaps discuss the Northern Ireland Office’s initiative to fund the Orange Institution to broaden the event’s appeal and make it more of a tourist attraction?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland reported to Cabinet this morning that yesterday was the first occasion since 1970 when the Army did not need to take part in policing the parades—an extraordinary achievement by all the communities in Northern Ireland and the security forces. I offer our congratulations.

I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I take note of the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and I am sure that discussions will take place between him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Will my right hon. Friend agree to an annual debate on the Welsh block—the billions of pounds that the House provides for public services in Wales? Secondary school heads in my constituency tell me that there is a growing disparity between what they receive and what schools in others parts of the United Kingdom receive. Given that the Assembly Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills refused to meet them, refuses to meet me and even refuses to meet the Assembly Member for Islwyn, Irene James, an annual debate will mean that those of us in the United Kingdom Parliament can scrutinise what is being done with the generous settlement that we provide.

Such a debate would be a good idea. My hon. Friend emphasises that the House controls the amount of money available to the devolved Welsh Assembly and the devolved Scottish Parliament. We did not make a one-off decision to devolve power to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Although we devolved power to them, we continue to exercise a great deal of control over what they can do through the block grant. For that and many other reasons, any suggestion that there should be two tiers of Members of Parliament in the House, with Scottish and Welsh Members denied an opportunity to vote on issues that directly or indirectly affect their constituents, is an outrage and would undermine the Union of the United Kingdom.

I fully support the request of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on mental health services and facilities, not least because I have received information that Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Trust is trying to remove all in-patient mental health facilities from Macclesfield district general hospital.

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the Greater Manchester PCTs forum will not make decisions about in-patient paediatric, maternity and obstetric services that affect my district general hospital and the people of west Derbyshire and north-west Staffordshire as well as east Cheshire before the House comes back? It would be wrong for Members of Parliament not to have an opportunity to raise those matters on the Floor of the House. We are considering essential NHS services.

I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ask her to respond to his obviously genuine concerns. He is an experienced advocate for his constituents and I know that he will be skilled in making his points to the PCTs forum and the PCTs in his area as well as the mental health trust. There is no way in which the health service in England can be run through the Secretary of State and the Department of Health making every decision. Local trusts or bodies will always make decisions locally, and that is appropriate. They are given the responsibility and have to make the decisions.

In response to questions from me at a sitting of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee yesterday, the Secretary of State was unable to reassure the Committee that, as a result of failures in the Rural Payments Agency, the Department is not contemplating severe cuts in current and future budgets of the agencies and organisations that it funds. Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that if DEFRA is contemplating cuts to bodies such as the Environment Agency and British Waterways, he will ask the Secretary of State to come to the House to make a statement before the recess so that hon. Members have the opportunity to question him about why those bodies, their customers and those who rely on their services should suffer cuts because of unconnected failures in the Rural Payments Agency?

All Departments have to live within their budgets—that is life. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been assiduous in coming to the House to make statements. I am sure that he will do so again if it is judged appropriate.

The Leader of the House appeared to fail to understand the strength of feeling on the Opposition Benches about extradition arrangements with the United States and the lack of reciprocity. He failed to understand that we felt so strongly yesterday that we were prepared to delay our debate on home information packs until next week by voting with the Liberal Democrats to draw attention to the fact that something disgraceful is happening. He could put the matter right. The Police and Justice Bill will return from the Lords soon. The Government suffered a major defeat when their lordships rightly decided that there should be reciprocity. May we have ample time to debate the relevant amendment and a free vote, so that Labour Members who share our concerns are allowed to do that without the interference of the Whips?

I can take such criticism from the Liberal Democrats, who have consistently expressed their concerns about the Extradition Act 2003. It was known from the start that there would not be complete symmetry. We debated the matter at great length, not only yesterday but during the passage of the 2003 Act and when the matter was debated Upstairs under affirmative resolution procedure, which designated the United States as a part 2 country, notwithstanding the fact that it had not ratified the treaty. The Liberal Democrats voted against the order when it was presented on the Floor of the House on 15 December 2003. We voted in favour of it. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) and all his hon. Friends abstained. They had no view about it then. That shows how little concerned they were about the matter at that stage. I am sorry but it is not a matter for Johnny-come-latelys.

Given the rapidly deteriorating situation in the middle east, will the Leader of the House assure us that the Foreign Secretary will discuss the matter with colleagues at the G8 over the weekend? As well as the report back from that meeting, will my right hon. Friend please reconsider whether there is time for a full debate?

I understand the desire for a full debate, and so does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will go to St. Petersburg for the G8. As he told the Cabinet today, it is clear that the deteriorating situation, which now affects the whole of the middle east, will be at the top of the agenda for all G8 countries. In Cabinet, my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister expressed profound concern, and the Foreign Secretary reminded Cabinet of her condemnation of what is regarded as a disproportionate response by Israel as well as deep concern about the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement about that on Tuesday, following his return from the G8. The statement will be about the whole issue of the G8, but this matter can be covered by him in that statement, and it will be. There are also Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions in the following week, and meanwhile my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be at the General Affairs and External Relations Council of the European Union on Monday, where this matter will be top of the agenda—and, if possible, she or one of her Foreign Office Ministers will make a statement later in the week, if necessary.

I am a bit perplexed by references already made this morning to public funding, but in the light of increasing public concern, and given the conclusions in the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee, which was published this morning, can Government time be found to debate the issues addressed in my Honours (Prevention of Corruption) Bill, and will the Prime Minister make a statement?

The progress of Bills in this House is a well-known procedure and the Government will, of course, respond to the Public Administration Committee in due course.

I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2519:

[That this House believes plans by the right hon. Member for Witney to ban hon. Members representing constituencies in Scotland from voting on matters relating exclusively to England would precipitate a constitutional crisis which would threaten the future of the United Kingdom; and further believes that everyone elected to this House should have the same rights of participation, irrespective of which part of the United Kingdom they represent.]

I tabled it in anticipation of the expected Opposition day debate by the Conservative party on the West Lothian question that was due to take place yesterday, but which did not do so, presumably because wiser counsel from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and—God help us—the Daily Mail prevailed. Therefore, may we have a debate in Government time on the West Lothian question, so that the Conservative party’s incredibly cynical position on that issue can be properly exposed?

I cannot promise that, but I will do my best. My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is extraordinary that the shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), told us through the organ of The Observer that he was hoping to use an Opposition day debate before the House broke for the summer to highlight the “English votes” Bill. Somehow or other, the Conservatives had a touch of nerves; the fact that they have been so worried and concerned to avoid this issue being discussed is another reason they voted down their own half-day yesterday. I would be delighted for this matter to be discussed. Meanwhile, I should like to draw to the attention of a wider audience a speech that I made on Tuesday to the Hansard Society on precisely this issue.

I asked the following question of the previous incumbent of the right hon. Gentleman’s post, and I make no apologies for asking it again. I spent last Friday on the wards at Bedford hospital, where I witnessed nurse managers, nursing sisters and departmental managers leaving meetings in tears because they are going to lose their jobs. Nurses are the drivers of, and the most important people in, the NHS. They deserve to have a day and a debate of their own in this place, when we can discuss the future role of nursing in the UK, the fact that so many of them have lost their jobs, and where exactly nursing is going. I hope that the Leader of the House will make time for such a debate. Will he do so?

I understand the concern of the hon. Lady’s constituents, and of nurses in her area, about what are temporary difficulties in health services in some parts of the country. Of course I commend such nurses’ work, but I hope that the hon. Lady will take account of the fact that, between 1997 and 2005, there was an increase of 2,500 in the number of nurses in the area that covers her constituency.

No, 2,500 nurses have not lost their jobs in that area. There has been some reduction in the number of nurses, but that has been from a much higher level than ever was achieved under the Conservatives.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, last week, Kate Barker published her interim report on the impact of the planning process on business. Does my right hon. Friend agree that community involvement in the planning process is a vital part of our local democracy, and that it would be appropriate for us to have a debate in this House to ensure that that aspect of the planning system receives equal treatment, so that not only the interests of one sector of the community are addressed?

I certainly agree with what my hon. Friend says about the importance of involving communities. Like him, I receive many complaints about, and representations on, planning issues; they come from both sides—they are both in favour of development and against. I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s concerns are drawn to the attention of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Please will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on human rights abuses in China, and specifically the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners? The right hon. Gentleman might be aware of the forthcoming publication of a report, co-authored by a former Cabinet Minister from Canada, on the horrific practice of organ harvesting, and the shocking details of human rights abuses contained in that report surely demand the attention of this House and wider debate.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the human rights report published by the Foreign Office, which gives details of the representations that the British Government are making on human rights in China. Meanwhile, I urge him, if he wishes to do so, to table a question on this issue for Foreign Office questions on Tuesday week.

I am sure that the Leader of the House appreciates the importance of schoolchildren being able to visit this House, and that he will be delighted to know that a group from Morecambe high school are here today, seeing the workings of Parliament. Will he join me in thanking the education unit for all its help and, indeed, Virgin Trains for making it possible for schoolchildren from the north-west to come here? However, can he also tell me what we can do to improve facilities—and, indeed, when the visitors’ centre will be ready—so that we can make the public most welcome in this House?

I commend my hon. Friend for her initiative in organising the Morecambe high school trip, and Members from all parts of the House. This kind of involvement by young people in the workings of Parliament and of politics is of profound importance if we are to maintain and develop interest in our democracy. Such trips are not just about having a day out; they are about something much more profound. A good experience in this House can live with people for the rest of their lives. The education unit and Virgin Trains deserve great approval. Following decisions made by this House on recommendations of the late Robin Cook and my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who is now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, big changes and improvements in the way in which visitors are treated in this House are under way, and the visitors’ centre—which will be a huge improvement—will be opened later in the year.

What does the Leader of the House think of the proposal of the Hansard Society in its document, “The Fiscal Maze: Parliament, Government and Public Money”—of which he was sent a copy—for experimental financial audit sub-committees to be set up for some of the main Departmental Select Committees, so that there can be greater scrutiny of estimates and public expenditure?

It is a very interesting report—I have read it—and, as with all other Hansard Society proposals, it will be taken seriously. I will consider this recommendation with Government colleagues and will reach a considered view. Of course, because this is all-party, and it is the Hansard Society, we take it seriously.

May I tell the Leader of the House how important I think it is that we have an urgent debate on the utterly disgraceful, anti-British, unpatriotic proposal to ban MPs from some parts of this country from voting in this House?

I agree. The Conservatives might have decided not to use one of their Opposition days on this matter because of real concern among many of their wiser right hon. and hon. Members about the implications of this two-tier system, which would lead inexorably to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Let me say as an Englishman that, yes, the United Kingdom has benefited all the four nations of the United Kingdom, but it was basically an English idea and it is England that would suffer the most if the Union were to break up.

Will the Leader of the House urgently set aside Government time to discuss the plight of the families of the disappeared who were murdered by Sinn Fein-IRA and how best we can assist them in real and practical terms, as well as putting pressure on Sinn Fein-IRA to give the Police Service of Northern Ireland the locations of the murdered missing people so that they can have a proper burial and this nightmare can be brought to an end once and for all?

I will certainly pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the hon. Lady’s very great concern, which we all share, about the plight of the disappeared and the need for a continuing spotlight to be put on Sinn Fein-IRA for their responsibility for what happened to these people.

Will the Leader of the House reflect on the fact that today, Sir Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, published his annual report, in which he expresses dismay at the volume and mishandling of a great deal of personal data? I suffered from the unlawful disclosure of so-called personal data about me, which were subsequently acknowledged to be wholly untrue. That underlined the need for this House to examine the workings of the Data Protection Act 1998 to see whether it should be improved, particularly so that people who are wrongly traduced can know who the authors of that calumny are.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and I am, of course, very familiar with the case that he mentions. We always need to improve procedures where we can, but I should point out that, had it not been for the 1998 Act, which was one of the very first that I introduced in this House as Home Secretary, none of us would have any right to know what data are held about us.

May I return to the question of party funding? I have already highlighted how various constituency Labour parties are breaking the law, specifically section 5 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which requires that constituency parties declare income of more than £25,000. According to written answers, 308 Conservative and 76 Liberal Democrat associations declare their accounts, but only 24 constituency Labour parties do. I was intrigued by the advertisement in today’s edition of The Times, which purports to be from 28 individuals who say that they are

“proud to help fund the Labour Party.”

They may be proud but, according to the Electoral Commission’s website, fewer than half of them have declared their donations to the commission.

That might be because of the size of the donation. I would not advise the hon. Gentleman to mix it on this matter. If he has any complaints, he should refer them to the Electoral Commission; meanwhile, he should not judge the Labour party by the standards of the Tory party. I think that there is probably a reason why not many Labour party constituency associations are declaring that they have an income of more than £25,000—it is because they do not have an income of more than £25,000.