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Commons Chamber

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

House of Commons

Thursday 12 October 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nursery Education

1. What meetings Ministers have had with representatives of the nursery sector in the last six months; and if he will make a statement. (92857)

Ministerial colleagues and I have held a number of regular meetings with representatives of the early-years and child care sector over the past six months. They have enabled us to highlight the progress that we are making, with the help of the sector, in delivering our commitments in the 10-year child care strategy. Those commitments include establishing, ahead of schedule, the 1,000th Sure Start children’s centre, as the Prime Minister announced last week.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but does she share my concern that the funding that nurseries receive from the Government does not meet their true costs?

No, I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about that. In fact, the unprecedented funding that the Government have committed to our youngest children—to early-years education and child care—has enabled the substantial growth in the private and voluntary sector, which is contributing not only to full day care, but to sessional care. Indeed, in his own area, in the 12 months up to the end of 2005, the private and voluntary sector contribution to that market share has risen from 74 to 78 per cent. for provision for three-year-olds. As we continue to extend the free offer to all families, I am sure that we will see that proportion grow, and that is important to us because diversity in the sector is giving parents choice and driving up quality.

Has my right hon. Friend discussed the importance of diagnosing in the early years whether a child needs special educational help? Is she aware that the Select Committee on Education and Skills has done a great deal of work on the issue? Indeed, the recently published special educational needs report links into it. Will she take a message to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that the Select Committee is deeply disappointed by the response that we have received this week to that important and significant report?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend expresses that view, but I think that he knows that we will debate at length his Select Committee’s important report on children with special educational needs.

As soon as the business managers allow us, we will do so.

It is also important, however, to view the issue in the context of the much wider reforms that the Government are making in children’s services, particularly in children’s centres and children’s trusts, as they are requiring all services to work to together to identify at a much earlier stage the problems that children have and to bring those services to bear around the child and the family in an integrated way, so that their problems are addressed comprehensively and early. That early intervention is very important for children with special educational needs.

Can the Minister explain why popular and high-quality nurseries are not allowed to charge top-up fees? There is a particular demand for that in London and the south-east, where my constituency is located. The principle is established in higher education; why not in nursery education?

Because what we are providing—this is a real dividing line between the Government and the Opposition—is a free entitlement to all three and four-year-olds for 12 and a half hours’ provision at the moment, increasing, we hope, to 15 hours and beyond. The hon. Gentleman is asking for that free entitlement to become a subsidy for better-off parents. The private sector could then make higher charges and better-off parents would be simply allowed to use that subsidy. We will not entertain the prospect of discriminating against poorer families. We will not allow the generation of a two-tier system, in which some families can afford a better quality of care, but poorer families cannot. This will remain a free entitlement for all families—

Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether it is Government policy to support a mixed economy in the provision of child care services? The £3 billion that the Government put annually into the provision of free places gives necessary choice to parents, particularly those of limited means.

Absolutely. Diversity is really important because it not only gives parents choice, but it also drives up quality throughout the sector. I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to correct some of the myths that are flying around. It is still the case that private and voluntary settings provide 81 per cent. of full day-care places. They provide 90 per cent. of sessional places. So they have the vast majority of market share, both for full day care and for sessional places. That is good; it is what we want to see. Public sector provision is not driving private and voluntary sector providers into the ground—quite the opposite is true. The money that we have put in has allowed that sector to grow, and that is very important.

We have heard my hon. Friends’ concerns about nursery funding in their constituencies and I am sure that the Minister is aware of the facts. The dedicated schools grant that local authorities receive to fund free nursery places is under £4 an hour. Is she aware that the National Day Nurseries Association gives examples of where, throughout the country, the cost of staff and overheads alone is nearer £5 an hour? Her transformation fund sets the hourly cost of child care at almost £6 an hour. Little wonder that a report from Camden council says that 90 per cent. of nurseries—

Order. The hon. Lady has made her point. I know what she is telling the House, so the Minister will know.

It is up to local authorities to allocate the dedicated schools grant, both across the age ranges and for early years, between the sectors. It is right that they have the discretion to do that, because they take account of the market situation and local circumstances. The Government have put an unprecedented amount of money into early years: more than £20 billion since 1997. If the hon. Lady were to stand up to speak again, I would ask her: is her party committed to continuing that funding so that the—

May I welcome, and draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to, the new children’s centre in Frankley in my constituency, which will be a great asset to a very deprived part of the area, and also the roll-out of the children’s centre programme? However, I draw her attention to the fact that it is important, as there is availability of capital, for there not to be an over-preoccupation with the physical structures. The ethos of Sure Start—bringing together integrated services and ensuring real responsiveness to local users—is equally, if not more, important.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As the second phase of Sure Start children’s centres proceeds—building on the 1,000 that are in place already and moving to 2,500 over the next two years—the issues that he raises will be important. The key issue is the quality of services for children, to improve their development, but there is also the involvement of parents and the local community in the governance arrangements. We know that by involving parents we are not only doing the best for children, but we are helping those parents—many in disadvantaged situations—to raise their confidence and, through their involvement in children’s centres, perhaps to acquire the skills to get into training and work and to improve their quality of life. That is what children’s centres are doing throughout the country. I am pleased that my hon. Friend will see further children’s centres in his area over the next two years.

Science Degrees

More than 40 per cent. of students are taking science-based subjects. Today, there are well over 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than in 1997-98. Crucial to stimulating demand at higher education level is increasing the numbers choosing to study science in schools. We announced a range of new measures to achieve that in the “Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps” document that we published last March.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that, during the years of this Government, the number of students studying biology and chemistry, in particular, and physics has fallen. Will he assure the House that he will attempt to address that problem, not by dumbing down the teaching of science, as has been reported most recently, but by improving, for example, the access to laboratories in schools and persuading young people that there are worthwhile careers in science to be pursued? In my area, for example, the aerospace industry finds it difficult to recruit science graduates. Will he address that problem, rather than trying to dumb down the subject?

As I said, there are 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than when we came to power in 1997. In fact, UK universities produce two to three times more science graduates than the OECD average. Our lead on that, overall, has increased. In 2004-05, there was a higher than average increase of 10 per cent. or more in the number of students accepted to study subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry. There is no question of our dumbing down science. The new science GCSEs maintain the breadth, depth and challenge of the current ones. They provide a sound basis for further study of science at A-level and beyond.

Given that the Prime Minister said recently that we are going to have a new generation of nuclear power plants, what are we doing to ensure that we have adequate science graduates to meet the needs of the nuclear industry in the future?

Some 135,000 students are studying engineering and technology overall, although I do not have the figures for the nuclear industry in particular. However, that represents a good supply of engineers. If the Government were to decide to go ahead with new nuclear power stations—that will obviously be a matter for debate in the House—we would keep the need for additional engineers under review. I might add that Cogent, which is the sector skills council for the nuclear industry, has applied to establish a national skills academy. We will consider that over the next few weeks as a mechanism to ensure that there is an adequate supply of engineers for the industry.

How can the proportion of science students increase when the number, let alone the proportion, of pupils taking A-level maths, further maths, physics and chemistry is declining? Do not the Government accept responsibility for the botched curriculum reform that has led to the decline of specialist science teaching in state schools?

No. Speaking as a former science teacher, I strongly welcome the new key stage 4 science curriculum. I wish that I was teaching it now, but I am fulfilling my educational role at the Dispatch Box by explaining to Opposition Members that which they clearly do not understand. The new science GCSE has the full support of the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Association for Science Education. If that is not good enough for hon. Members, in today’s edition of The Times, the high mistress and head of science of St. Paul’s girls’ school writes:

“we entirely reject the criticisms of Twenty-First Century Science. The approach is challenging, rigorous and, above all, exciting. By linking science to the real world, it embodies the long overdue recognition that science is a dynamic, living subject.”

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to give that lesson to Opposition Members.

As a former science teacher, the Minister will be blindingly aware that science-based degrees require science-based universities, so will he agree to meet me and a delegation of staff and students from the university of Reading, because its physics department is threatened with closure by the university council, despite the receipt of more than £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money last year to establish a centre of excellence for the teaching of physics?

I cannot comment on a possible closure because no final decision has been taken. My hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning will be happy to meet such a delegation. It is not up to the Government to micro-manage the university system in such a way. However, through the Higher Education Funding Council, we try to ensure that the number of physics graduates and others is maintained national and regionally so that we have the supply of such graduates into the employment system that our country needs.

If the new science GCSEs are working so well, why do the best schools, which produce a disproportionate number of the best results at A-level and a disproportionate number of the science entrants to university, still insist on separate GCSEs for physics, chemistry and biology?

The difficulty for Conservative Members is understanding what goes on in our education system. Of course, we want those who have the aptitude to take three separate sciences, so we will be encouraging and enabling more of them to do so. However, in addition, we have been providing the new science and additional science GCSEs since September. Conservative Members seem to be contradicting themselves at every opportunity this morning. They wish to portray themselves as champions of the environment on the one hand, but they now want to reject the new opportunity for young people to debate key scientific topics such as global warming as part of the science curriculum. They cannot have it both ways. I suggest that they put their weight behind supporting our hard work—

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most successful ways of increasing the number of science graduates is through the foundation-degree route? Rather than simply concentrating on schools, we should be examining good examples of colleges and higher education institutions working with industry. For example, at Airbus in north-east Wales, there is a superb example of a foundation degree working excellently to bring us more science graduates.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I had the privilege of visiting Airbus a few weeks ago, I met some of the students who were undertaking foundation degrees. Many thousands of people in the work force are taking foundation degrees. The essence of the value of foundation degrees is that they are tailor-made to suit the needs of employers. At higher levels of study—level 4 and above—for employment that provides support to industries in terms of productivity, profitability, innovation, growth and development, foundation degrees are a real platform for people at work to improve their skills for the benefit of themselves, their companies and the country as a whole.

In spite of what the Minister says, I think that he would acknowledge that 30 per cent. of university physics departments have closed in the last eight years and the numbers studying chemistry have declined by 17 per cent. in the last 10 years. Against that background and in light of what he said earlier, I hope that he will support our amendment in the Lords which would entitle every pupil to triple science. Does he agree that we will never inspire our children to study physics as long as, in most of our schools, 80 per cent. of those studying physics are taught by someone with a degree not in physics but more likely in biology? Does he agree that the situation is a disgrace and needs to be remedied?

To return to the real world, the fact is that we want more of our teachers to have degrees in the relevant subjects, and we are introducing a science diploma so that existing teachers can develop a specialism in subjects such as physics—the example the hon. Gentleman gave—to ensure that our young people get the best possible education. It is our investment in science laboratories, in schools across the piece and in the number of teachers that has resulted in the best ever GCSE and A-level results in this country since counting began; and that is despite the opposition from the Conservative party.


3. What assessment he has made of the number of racist incidents among students in higher education; and if he will make a statement. (92859)

We do not make this assessment centrally. We have, however, established robust legal protection against racism and as a result individual universities should have clearly identified procedures in place for dealing with racist incidents. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 places a general duty on university governing bodies to promote race equality in their institutions.

The Minister has, I know, read the report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, which talks about systematic racism going on in universities. It refers to a brick being thrown through the window of a Jewish student and a poster bearing the words “Slaughter the Jews” pasted on a Jewish student’s front door. This is being done by some extreme Islamic groups. The report’s main conclusion is that the response of vice-chancellors is at best patchy. What can the Government do to try to ensure that there is a consistent approach to combating anti-Semitism and all racism in all of our universities?

I am aware of the report; I gave evidence to the inquiry. I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great interest in these issues. I urge all vice-chancellors to take anti-Semitism and all forms of racism very seriously. The Government have placed strong legal obligations on all public bodies to tackle racism. The work that the equality challenge unit is doing with universities is the best way to spread good practice and tackle the issue.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree, however, that one of the issues, as I have learned from speaking to students, is a reluctance on the part of some students to report incidents in the first place because they are not convinced that they will be dealt with properly by university authorities?

I certainly hope that my hon. Friend’s concerns are misplaced. We have to create a climate of confidence, and the report by the all-party inquiry makes an important contribution. It is important that the Government take the lead and make it clear that we expect universities to take these issues very seriously.

Will the Minister and the House join me in condemning the BNP in Broxbourne who target young people with their racist lies and filth? Will the House also join me in congratulating the young people in my constituency on turning their back on that nonsense and ensuring that we have happy, settled schools in Broxbourne?

I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. His constituency borders mine. Members of all political parties must challenge the filth and hatred promoted by the BNP. We need to rebut its lies, smears and innuendo, and we need to work at that together. I congratulate the young people who have ignored what the BNP is putting forward.

Educational Attainment

4. What additional measures his Department has considered in order to reduce the number of school leavers not attaining basic standards of literacy and numeracy. (92860)

Since 1997, the number of children achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, including English and mathematics, has increased by almost nine percentage points. We are determined to ensure that every child masters the basics. From this year we will measure the proportion of children achieving five A* to C grades, including English and mathematics. We are investing £990 million in personalised learning to provide more catch-up lessons in English and maths. The key stage 3 curriculum and English and maths GCSEs are being reviewed to emphasise functional skills.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I welcome the Government’s response and the investment that they are making to improve standards of literacy and numeracy, but does he agree that many school leavers do not achieve the basic standards, and that there is still a genuine problem? Even with the Government’s best efforts, we have to do more about that. Will he consider carefully what additional help he can give to try to alleviate the problem, and will he consult people in schools to find out exactly what is required to bring such children up to standard?

My hon. Friend is right that there is more to do, and I have just described the initiatives that we are introducing. At the heart of the issue there is an expectation of high attainment and absolutely no excuses. If we get the basics right, and if, for instance, we can ensure that children succeed at level 4, that key stage at which they leave primary school with the basics of English and mathematics, everything else in their future education can be built on that platform. All the evidence shows that that is the crucial stage. We have moved from 63 per cent. of pupils reaching that stage in English to 79 per cent. of pupils doing so, but we need to move further. I agree with my hon. Friend that more has to be done, but of course that does not detract from all the excellent work that teachers and head teachers—not politicians—are doing in our schools to bring about the enormous improvements that have taken place in the past nine years.

The Government were quick to require schools to teach phonics, but that was only one area highlighted by the Rose report. Why have the Government not addressed other areas, such as speaking and listening skills, which are a foundation for achieving literacy and numeracy?

We have concentrated on phonics, but that does not mean that we have ignored the other excellent suggestions in the Rose report. Phonics has received coverage, and the issues that the hon. Lady mentions have not, but they are a crucial part of the foundation stage. Jim Rose and his people are absolutely right to highlight the importance of listening and speaking skills. In addition, the “social and emotional aspects of learning” project is hugely successful, and is being rolled out across primary schools. The teachers to whom I have spoken think that it is long overdue and will bring about a huge improvement in those soft skills that pupils increasingly need in the modern labour environment.

Why do we allow children to keep progressing through the school years when they have serious difficulty in reading? Frighteningly high numbers of children in the higher years of our secondary and upper schools cannot read well. The head teachers to whom I speak in my constituency would like the flexibility, within existing budgets, to give intensive remedial reading provision to those children. Why can they not do that?

In my reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), I said that £990 million is being invested in personalised learning. We have asked Christine Gilbert to produce a report on the subject, which is imminent. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is right: we should concentrate on catch-up, and on ensuring that children who do not reach the right standard at level 2 and level 3 receive the kind of attention that they need to reach that key stage at level 4. Some 66 per cent. of children who reach the right standard in English at level 4 aged 11 will go on to obtain five good GCSEs, but only 9 per cent of those who do not reach that standard will do the same. Level 4 is a crucial stage. The hon. Gentleman is right, but that is why I spoke about almost £1 billion going into personalised learning and catch-up, which is crucial to improving results.

Millions of Britons, without the ability to read a story to their children or write a letter, feel cheated. One in three employers send their staff for remedial training to teach them to read, write and count; and even if the Government reach their targets in 2020, 4 million Britons will not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. With 50,000 school leavers each year functionally illiterate or innumerate, do not the Government realise that they must tackle the skills problem at its root, in primary schools, or is it just that the Secretary of State does not have the skills to do the job?

I shall ignore that barbed remark, which wounded me deeply. It is extraordinary that anyone from the Conservative Front Bench should stand up and make criticisms about literacy and numeracy. The National Foundation for Educational Research published a report in 1996 that showed that for 50 years we had flat-lined on literacy and numeracy. Jim Rose, whom I mentioned earlier, said in the opening paragraph of his review of teaching of early reading—an independent review—

“Over the first nine years of the National Curriculum”—

that is, 1989 to 1998—

“very little impact was made on raising standards of reading. . . That changed markedly with the advent of the National Literacy Strategy in 1998.”

I applaud the previous Government for introducing accountability, introducing the regulator and ensuring that there were standards. However, nine years after they did that, nothing had happened, so we have put a huge amount of effort through teachers and head teachers to give children the skills that they need. We have raised educational attainment in literacy and numeracy massively, which is why people from countries all round the world are coming to the Britain to see how we did it.

Parenting Skills

In personal, social and health education—PSHE— pupils are taught about the nature and importance of family life and bringing up children. They are also taught about the role, feelings and responsibilities of a parent and the qualities of good parenting and its value to family life.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but given the number of dysfunctional family backgrounds and given the fact that nearly every child becomes a parent and that children are necessarily brought up by amateurs, is there not a need for increased focus on this important area?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to work with children, and work at an earlier stage. A great deal of work is being delivered through PSHE, as I said, and through citizenship classes in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I am sure, as in mine. Beyond that, in every community in the land we have parenting support programmes for young parents and older parents being delivered at over 1,000 children’s centres—there will be 2,500 of those by the end of 2008 and 3,500 come the end of the decade—and through 2,500 extended schools. That number will also increase. That is a fair indication of the Government’s commitment to children, to parents and to parenting skills.

Does my hon. Friend accept that effective parenting is even more important than good schooling in ensuring educational attainment? In constituencies like mine, Ofsted report after Ofsted report on primary schools states that the teaching is great, the heads are superb, we have a rebuilt or refurbished school, but the kids still do not attain. The reports always give the same explanation: those children cannot speak in a sentence when they arrive at school and cannot recognise a letter or a number.

Will my hon. Friend look again at prior attainment before children get to primary school, so that before those children reach the age of two or five, or even when they are aged minus nine months to two or five years, we give the parents the support that they need to enable those children to take advantage of the great education that is now on offer?

I know that my hon. Friend feels passionately about this topic. He had an Adjournment debate about the SEAL project in his constituency and in Nottingham with my predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), when she was in post. I agree entirely that the focus needs to be at a very young age, and that the SEAL project and continuing work on that, targeting the under-twos, will make a real difference by ensuring that children are school-ready at a much earlier stage.

Does the Minister agree that one key parenting skill, in which school leavers are often deficient, is the ability to prepare and cook balanced nutritional meals for children? Does he think that more should be done to improve the teaching of cooking skills in schools, which would address children’s diets not only for the five meals a week that they eat in school, but for the 16 meals that they eat in the home?

I particularly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question, not least because of comments, with which I fundamentally disagree, made by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) about chips and burgers being passed through the school fence.

The tape says otherwise.

As part of the offer that we announced this summer, we will provide children with the opportunity to learn. As well as the additional money for school meals, the five-point plan includes the objective of children reaching the age of 16 with the ability to cook nutritional, healthy meals. I am looking forward to seeing that being rolled out, and I know that Jamie Oliver and others support it.

Student Finance

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the “Aim Higher” programme in informing potential students of the financial support available to them. (92862)

The new student finance package is better and fairer, giving more help to those who need it most. Assessment of our “Aim Higher” student finance information campaign has shown that awareness of tuition fee loans among potential students has increased significantly, and the assessment of other “Aim Higher” promotional activities, such as road shows, has been positive. We will continue our efforts to ensure that all students get the facts about what they are entitled to.

Under freedom of information rules, I have a copy of the media analysis of the “Aim Higher” campaign, which the Minister has referred to. Although he will take some comfort from the finding that his remarks were “consistently on message”, he should be less comforted by the fact that the penetration of the message was highest among social class A and lowest among social classes D and E, which is the opposite of what the campaign was meant to achieve. Will he ensure that this year’s campaign is directed at schools and colleges where participation in higher education is at its lowest?

On the key indicator of awareness of the tuition fee loan, which is effectively the end of the up-front contribution to the tuition fee, awareness has risen from 75 per cent. to 84 per cent., which is significant. I will throw back the challenge: will the hon. Gentleman join us in explaining the benefits of the new system? I get tired of hearing that the Liberal Democrats oppose tuition fees, given that they support them in Scotland. There has recently been a very interesting publication by a Liberal Democrat think-tank—

There is a particularly low rate of going to university among children in care and care leavers. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that help will be given to local authorities in discharging their responsibilities towards children in care and care leavers in the form of “Aim Higher” advisers?

We are examining that issue closely, because we need to ensure that all the information gets across to children in care. In the Green Paper, we announced our intention to give an additional bursary to students who come from care and who go on to higher education, which is a significant step forward.

Does my hon. Friend agree that “Aim Higher” has a complex task in encouraging potential students? Will he applaud an initiative in Derbyshire, where potential underachievers at GCSE maths were taken to Derby university for additional training to get their grades up? Those children were also introduced to maths students at the university and some high-flying groups were shown videos about the jobs that might be available if they were to enter maths education. Will he encourage initiatives to get underachieving and well-achieving children into university, where they can get used to learning in that environment?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need more such initiatives. One of my frustrations is that too many young people who have the potential and aptitude to benefit from higher education still do not perceive it as an option for them. The “Aim Higher” programme targets young people and plants the seed of an interest in higher education, which is the direction that we should move in.

Student Finance

7. What assessment he has made of the administration of student loans; and if he will make a statement. (92863)

We have reviewed how students in England can obtain financial support for their studies in higher education. From September 2008, we will phase in a new service which will be mainly online and which will bring together applying for a place and applying for financial support. We will also change the Student Loans Company so that it is a national delivery organisation and further improve the collection of repayments through the income tax system.

The Minister will be aware that South Tyneside is part of the pilot scheme for student loans. Let me tell him that it is an absolute mess. Young people have not been paid yet, they and their parents are having to go into debt and they are having to consider whether to take up their university courses because they cannot afford the fees. There needs to be an investigation, compensation and a solution. The solution is to give it back to the councils, who did not make a mess of it, so that student loans do not become another debacle like the Child Support Agency or tax credits.

I take my hon. Friend’s concerns seriously. We are introducing these reforms partly because there was too much variability in performance on the part of local authorities in the administration of the student loans scheme. However, knowing of his interest in the issue, I have looked into it and spoken to the Student Loans Company, which told me that, in South Tyneside, of the 2,100 applications, all but 40—fewer than 2 per cent.—have been paid on time at the start of the new academic year. Of those 40, some were made very recently and others may have been paid part of their loan while the SLC is awaiting further information. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. Contingency arrangements are in place, and I will work with my hon. Friend to ensure that the situation is sorted out.

It is good to hear that the Minister is going to work with his hon. Friend to get the shambles of the Student Loans Company sorted out. Does he agree that one of the most important parts of student loans administration is the repayment of teachers’ loans scheme? Is he aware that there is a two-and-a-half to three-year delay in producing statements for constituents such as Mr. Chris Dutton of Chippenham, who asked as long ago as June 2005 for a statement of when his loan would be repaid? To date, he still has not got it. Today, the chief executive of the SLC told me that he hoped to get it sorted out by the end of the year. That is not good enough, and the Secretary of State needs to get this shambles sorted.

If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of that case, I will ensure that it is dealt with quickly. I do not believe that we are dealing with a chaotic system or a shambles. However, there are difficulties—that is why we have conducted a very thorough and rigorous end-to-end review. We are consulting to get this absolutely right. The reforms that I set out earlier are the way forward to ensuring that we have a nationally uniform system that works in the interests of students.

School Building

9. When he next expects to visit Leicester to discuss the “Building Schools for the Future” initiative. (92865)

I would be delighted to visit Leicester to discuss “Building Schools for the Future” and to enjoy my right hon. Friend’s legendary hospitality. In addition, the Department’s officials and Partnerships for Schools are in regular contact with the authority in working to support the development of the project, which is funded to the tune of £235 million, in Leicester.

We look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend to Leicester. As he knows, “Building Schools for the Future” has funded the complete modernisation and rebuilding of two schools in my constituency—Judge Meadow school and Soar Valley community college. What assurances can he give me that the other schools in Leicester, East, and in wider Leicester, will get the benefit of this extraordinarily wonderful scheme?

I look forward to visiting one or two of the schools that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Leicester is in the first wave of “Building Schools for the Future”. There are 16 schools in the project, four of which are in phase 1, so plenty of others beyond the two that he mentioned can look forward to the substantial investment that we are putting into schools.

Has the Minister heard the concerns expressed by Jamie Oliver—or St. Jamie, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) calls him—about the schools building programme? He is worried that they may not be built with the kitchens that are needed if kids are to have hot school dinners. He is also worried that in Leicester and across the country there are not the school dining facilities that would be necessary if we could get more schoolchildren eating hot school meals. Does the Minister agree that it would be absurd if the Government’s schools building programme made it impossible to deliver better hot school dinners for our children?

I passionately believe that it is important to have kitchen facilities in our schools, given that I represent a Dorset seat where the Tory county council closed the kitchens some 20 years ago. We do not have any kitchens in schools in Dorset and I am therefore looking forward to the investment, which will come. When we announced—[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) clearly has a lot to say about school food. When we announced the five-point plan on school food, it included the commitment to a targeted capital fund for kitchens in schools. That remains a commitment as we go into the comprehensive spending review. We continue to have conversations with St. Jamie about his concerns and we always enjoy addressing them fully, unlike some.

During the recess, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, visited Leicester, as an environment city, and the school on Eyres Monsell estate in Leicester, South. Those involved have erected, with funds that they raised themselves, a wind turbine generator to produce most of the power that is consumed at the school. Will my hon. Friend consider whether there is scope in the “Building Schools for the Future” initiative to encourage admirable projects such as the one that we saw and were impressed by at Eyres Monsell school?

Certainly, we are considering that carefully. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) launched the sustainable schools plan and we are considering whether we can provide capital to assist schools in investing sustainably in their buildings. Obviously, we consider that alongside the design elements of “Building Schools for the Future”.

Education Facilities (Wellingborough)

10. What plans there are for additional educational facilities to serve new housing development in Wellingborough East. (92868)

It is a pleasure to respond yet again to the hon. Gentleman, who is in his usual place, asking me the same old question. Planning for new schools is undertaken locally by local authorities and Ministers have no role in the process. We have not been approached by Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire county council for a new Wellingborough school but my officials have made inquiries and two new primary schools are being considered as part of the development of east Wellingborough.

I think I thank the Minister for that reply. However, he knows that the Government plan to build 167,000 homes in Northamptonshire, with many thousands in my constituency, yet there does not seem to be a proper plan for education. Given that the Government demolished a secondary school in my constituency when we had a Labour-controlled county council, my constituency is concerned about the Government’s plans.

The hon. Gentleman continues to raise the concern; he is clearly preoccupied with it. I think that he needs help from his friends in Northamptonshire who have the power to develop the matter. As the new housing developments are planned, we provide the money that is necessary to educate the children, but the hon. Gentleman’s friends on Northamptonshire county council have to make the plans.

Foreign Languages

11. What measures the Department is taking to increase the number of pupils studying foreign languages at GCSE and A-level. (92869)

With the introduction of languages in primary schools, and the improvement of the quality of teaching and learning at key stage 3, we expect more pupils to want to continue to learn languages at GCSE and A-level. However, it will take time for the effects of our strategy to be realised. I can announce to the House that I have asked Lord Dearing to review our languages policy at key stage 4 and to consider what more can be done to increase take-up.

The Secretary of State may know that, in the past year, only 2,854 pupils in the East Riding of Yorkshire took languages at GCSE—down from 3,471 in 1997. Only 98 students took an A-level in languages in the East Riding of Yorkshire—down from 181 in 1997. I sincerely hope that he will consider reviewing the policy. Does he now regret the decision to remove languages as a compulsory subject at GCSE three years ago? Will he do a proper U-turn?

No. The fundamental question is whether that strategy was right. The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a drop, but there has also been an improvement in attainment by those students who have continued to study languages. [Interruption.] No, it is not marginal. In two years, pass rates are up 11 per cent. in French and 9.7 per cent. in German.

There is a problem in this country: people who speak three languages are called trilingual, people who speak two languages are called bilingual, and those who speak one language are called English. We need to address that problem. Our strategy to do so is for children to start learning languages earlier—at age seven—and no longer to force kids who are starting their GCSEs to study a language if they do not wish to do so. We have no record of the Conservatives opposing that strategy, and it could be key to solving the problem. We want languages to flourish. Forcing 14 to 16-year-olds to learn a language will not achieve that objective, but exciting children about languages at an early age, and finding new and more inspiring ways of teaching languages, will do so.

Lord Dearing has been asked to look into this issue. He has a tremendous track record and, if he says to us that this strategy is wrong and we should go into reverse, we will listen to that advice; we will do that. But Members in all parts of the House would have to be absolutely convinced that that is the right thing to do, and so would Lord Dearing, because the principles of those changes are right. I share the deep disappointment about the drop that there has been; there has been a decrease, not only in East Riding but across the country, of about 14.7 per cent. this year. That cannot be right, and we must do something about it.

Primary Schools

In January 2006, the average size of a primary class taught by one teacher was 26.3. In 1997, more than 20 per cent. of infant classes contained more than 30 pupils, but now that figure is down to 1.6 per cent. That transformation is due to this Government’s investment, and our belief that every child deserves the best start in life.

My wife is a primary school supply teacher in west Yorkshire and I have been amazed at the number of classes she has taught that have more than 30 children. She tells me that the children who are most detrimentally affected by large class sizes are those who struggle most—and, surely, they are the children whom we should be helping. That was backed up by research in 2003 by the university of London. There are 500,000 pupils in class sizes of more than 30. What will the Government do to bring that figure down next year, so that the most vulnerable pupils are cared for?

Naturally, we take that issue seriously. That is why we made such a priority of it back in 1997, and why we have made such a difference by significantly reducing the numbers of those who are taught in class sizes of more than 30. But we are not complacent. There are circumstances in which, legally, the figure rises above 30—due to a statement of special educational needs, for example, with the stating of a school and that school being most appropriate. But we are drafting guidance for local authorities and schools that will help them to manage compliance with the infant class size ratio more fully, because we want to continue the drive to ensure that the student-teacher ratio, particularly in infant and primary schools, is as low as possible.


The Solicitor-General was asked—


18. What contribution his Department is making to the Government-wide initiative to tackle overseas corruption. (92849)

My Department, and especially the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, has contributed to the UK action plan on overseas corruption. We have also provided training and technical expertise in tackling corruption to other countries, such as Romania, Macedonia, Ghana, Kenya and Bulgaria.

When the Prime Minister responded to the all-party group on Africa report on the UK and corruption in Africa he said that the Government planned

“to establish a dedicated unit jointly housed by the City of London and Metropolitan Police Forces to investigate allegations of foreign bribery by UK businesses, and use of the UK’s financial system to launder the proceeds of corruption.”

What use will the SFO make of those investigatory resources to ensure that cases of trans-national bribery are brought before the courts?

My hon. Friend has been pressing for the setting up of that unit and, as part of the national action plan on overseas corruption, the Metropolitan police and the City of London police have formed a specialised unit that will begin operations in three weeks’ time, from 1 November. It will be tasked with the investigation of aspects of overseas corruption, and it will be funded by the Department for International Development. Of course, the SFO remains the lead department on overseas corruption, but the new City of London police and Metropolitan police unit will be a valuable resource that it can use. Clearly, the SFO cannot investigate all matters, but the new unit will be able to investigate those areas that the SFO cannot reach.

The Solicitor-General must be aware of the concern that Romania and Bulgaria are being allowed to join the European Union before they have put their own houses in order. What threat does he believe that they pose to this country in terms of organised crime and corruption?

Clearly, we are watching with care the impact that crime has in a number of eastern European states. We want the European Union to expand, but on the right terms, so we are developing much closer links with Bulgaria and Romania to ensure that we have the facility to work with them and to assist them, where we can, in tackling some of the crime and corruption problems that they obviously have.

Human Trafficking

Last week, I opened the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, which is staffed by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies and aims to co-ordinate our work in tackling the trade in people. The CPS has developed a network of area prosecutors to deal with trafficking offences, and there is also improved training of prosecutors and CPS staff, who have been issued with national guidance to deal with human trafficking.

The whole House will deplore the abuse suffered by innocent victims brought here against their will, but there are also organised criminal gangs charging illegal immigrants for illegal entry into Britain. What does he say to those of my constituents who want to know that illegal immigrants are removed quickly, and that those engaged in this illegal trade face the same tough penalties as those trafficking drugs and other serious organised criminals?

The Government have improved the removal rates of those who arrive here illegally, and through legislation we are tackling sentencing issues. The key thing is to ensure that we can break up those involved in trafficking human beings. Operation Pentameter, which was undertaken between February and May this year, was very successful at breaking up some of the organised rings in this country. In dealing with the development of human trafficking for prostitution purposes, 84 victims were rescued and 230 people arrested. So we must not only deal with the removal of those who are here and with the proper sentencing of those involved; we must also ensure that they are caught in the first place.

A debate at our party conference last month recognised both the seriousness of this issue and the work already done by Government. But we also called on the Government to get the United Kingdom to sign and ratify the Council of Europe convention on trafficking in human beings, which we unanimously support and which is widely supported throughout the country. Is it now the view of Law Officers and the CPS that we should sign and ratify that convention, and will the Solicitor-General undertake that the Government will make that a priority in the weeks ahead?

The straight answer is, not quite at the moment. We support the convention’s aims—indeed, we played a significant part in negotiating it—but we have concerns about a number of particular aspects. The automatic granting of reflection periods and residence permits for trafficking victims give rise to some concerns. We should remember that trafficking victims might include not just those trafficked for the purposes of prostitution, about whom we have heard a lot in the newspapers recently. There are also those who come here—sometimes voluntarily—for economic purposes who are trafficked, in the sense that traffickers bring them in. A consultation was completed in April on how we might implement the proposals, and we are looking at the results. There are still some details to work out before we can make an announcement.

Is my hon. and learned Friend satisfied that we are still getting this issue right in terms of sentencing policy and the priority given by law enforcement agencies to trafficking? We know that trafficking—certainly the trafficking of women—is very often accompanied by extreme violence and sexual violence. Frankly, the sentences of the courts do not always reflect just how serious the traffickers’ underlying activities are. Can we now see a real determination to ensure that the police and the courts treat trafficking with the seriousness that society expects?

I very much hope that we will. I am particularly pleased that the recent reference of a serious trafficking case to the Court of Appeal resulted in the sentence being substantially increased, to 23 years. The Court of Appeal has thereby sent out a clear message that those caught engaging in human trafficking need to be sentenced appropriately, which means serious custodial sentences. We have recently seen a number of those, following that reference to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney-General.

The establishment of the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, and of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, means that we can focus more closely on dealing with this problem. This is a growing problem as a result of the global economy, and there is still a lot of work to do to address it. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that that work is being done.

Court Papers

Statutory charging by the Crown Prosecution Service should ensure not only that the correct charge is made but that evidence and case papers are available at the first hearing. In addition, in the four pilot areas for the programme known as “Criminal justice: simple, speedy and summary”, the CPS has committed additional resources to quality-assure papers delivered to court and to the defence.

My constituent, Mr. Prokop, had his case dismissed at Milton Keynes court because he failed to turn up for the hearing. However, he claims that he never received notification of the court date. More alarmingly, when he contacted the court, it was unable to provide any evidence that the papers had ever been delivered. What action does the Solicitor-General intend to take to ensure that courts at least record the delivery of court papers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman’s office for alerting me to this case. We have made inquiries about it, and it appears that it might be a county court case, rather than one being dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service. If the hon. Gentleman provides me with further details of the case, I will happily look into it for him.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his recent visit to Nottingham, and for the impetus that he has given to our bid for a community court. Will he look further into the “Criminal justice: speedy, simple and summary” pilots and let the House know how they are going? If they are working successfully, as I believe that they are, will he consider extending them to my constituency and to the city of Nottingham?

The pilots are apparently going very well, although they started only recently, so we need to be cautious about some of the results. The improvement in guilty pleas has been quite substantial, however. The key elements that we have seen include papers arriving and being provided early to the defence, so that cases can be ready at the first hearing. The result of that has been that guilty pleas have been running at 80 per cent., as 60 per cent. have been issued at the first hearing. Half of these cases have been dealt with at the first hearing. That is a very good result. The pilots are showing that, if we simplify the process of dealing with cases, ensure that the papers get there early, or before the first hearing, we can speed up the whole criminal justice process.

If the Crown Prosecution Service is now showing itself to be much more efficient in relation to the provision of court papers—and, I assume, unused material—to ensure that trials can take place quickly, would it be worth while ensuring that some of its staff are delegated to work with the Home Office in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission process, to ensure that there is no repeat of an occurrence that we discovered this week, namely that material was not being properly disclosed in the SIAC process, leading to contradictory material being revealed in two cases? That is a serious scandal that undermines the credibility of the entire procedure.

It is the case that a problem arose in a specific case involving SIAC. It is not the case, however, that that reveals a systemic problem. It shows that problems arose in a particular example. The Government are looking into the reasons why those problems arose, but I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s claim that this undermines the whole system.

Business of the House

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 16 October—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “Post Office Network”, followed by a debate entitled “The Green Tax Switch”. Both arise on an Opposition motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday 17 October—Progress on remaining stages of the Companies Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 18 October—Progress on remaining stages of the Companies Bill [Lords].

Thursday 19 October—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Companies Bill [Lords].

Friday 20 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 23 October—Remaining stages of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords].

As I am sure the House will appreciate, at this time in the parliamentary year it is necessary to have some degree of flexibility when timetabling business. I will of course endeavour to give the House early notice of forthcoming business, but for the immediate future, I am afraid that I can announce business only for a week and a day ahead, because if I were to announce it for longer than that, it would only end up being changed.

I should also like to inform the House about business in Westminster Hall:

Thursday 26 October—A debate on the report from the Education and Skills Committee on special educational needs.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business of the House for the coming week. I start by congratulating him on arranging for hon. Members to be able to table written questions during the recess. However, may I also ask him whether he has assessed the value of that exercise, in particular the impact on Government accountability?

During the recess, the Modernisation Committee, which the Leader of the House chairs, published a report on the legislative process. When does he expect that any of the changes proposed might be considered by the House and introduced? When does he expect to be able to publish the calendar for the sittings of the House in the coming year?

Today is the anniversary of the Bali bombing, where a number of British citizens were among those who lost their lives. There is no system of compensation for UK citizens who are the victims of terrorist attacks abroad. Can we have a debate on that important issue?

Can we also have a debate, or a statement from the Home Secretary, on the use of figures and the compilation of statistics by the Home Office? I ask that in the light of a Home Office reply to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). He asked how many people have been arrested under anti-terrorism legislation and how long they were kept before being charged or released. The Leader of the House will realise that that is crucial to the debate on the time for which people may be held without charge and on 28 days versus 90 days.

The reply from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety was clear:

“The Home Office does not collate information on the length of time an individual is detained prior to being charged or released”.—[Official Report, 18 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 2490W.]

In other words, he does not have a clue. We know that the Home Office has trouble with its figures, but surely when Ministers come to the House to propose restrictions of our civil liberties, they ought to know the facts.

Talking of Ministers knowing facts, on Tuesday the Defence Secretary made a statement on Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), referring to the Prime Minister’s promise that the troops in Afghanistan could have whatever resources they needed, asked how many helicopters were available to go to Afghanistan. The reply from the Defence Secretary was, again, clear:

“candidly, I do not have the information to be able to answer.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 179.]

Given that this is a subject of much public debate, I would have thought that the Defence Secretary would know how many helicopters we have. Can the Leader of the House please ensure that Ministers are properly briefed before they come to the House to make statements?

Today, in figures published by the Healthcare Commission, we learn that more than half the NHS bodies in England need to improve their quality of service, and that nine out of 10 primary care trusts have been rated only weak or fair. When will the Health Secretary make a statement to the House on those results?

Will the Health Secretary also come to the House and explain how much money has been spent reorganising the NHS in the past 10 years? As Polly Toynbee, whom I do not often quote, said of the Government in The Guardian:

“minister after minister reversed direction, created then tore up 10-year plans, dismantled then resurrected a market the party inherited. It invented new primary care groups, remade them into primary care trusts, then merged them again into half the number. It demolished regional health authorities, put in 28 Strategic Health Authorities, then merged them back down to the 10 original regions”.

Money has been wasted on bureaucratic changes, and this House deserves an explanation.

On the subject of wasting money, when will the Government put before the House the money resolution needed to pay for the office of the Deputy Prime Minister? Questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) have shown that, while the Deputy Prime Minister may not have a job, he does have 18 staff and will cost the taxpayer £2 million a year. I would have said that that was money for old rope, but I think that a piece of old rope would be more useful than the Deputy Prime Minister—

Order. Members must always use temperate language. That comment is unworthy of the right hon. Lady.

I apologise for suggesting that there was any link between the Deputy Prime Minister and a piece of old rope. But when will the House have a chance to vote on the question of the value of the Deputy Prime Minister and the money necessary to pay for his office?

I am sure that the Leader of the House will have concern for the well-being of Members, and an interest in ensuring that they are properly counselled after traumatic experiences. Can we therefore have a debate in which advice can be given to those Members suffering the after-effects of involvement in a failed coup bid?

I knew that I had been missing something over the 11 weeks of the summer—it was the right hon. Lady’s jokes. A serious gap was left in my enjoyment.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her congratulations on the introduction of recess written questions. It seems that that was widely welcomed across the House—more than 100 Members asked 732 questions. We are currently analysing those, including how many were, and how many were not, answered on time. In addition, 35 written ministerial statements were made. I am in no doubt that, if we keep to the current recess arrangements, September questions are an important element. I also say to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that there will be an opportunity to debate the issue of September sittings, and I intend that that should take place before Prorogation in mid-November. That leads to the right hon. Lady’s second question about the Modernisation Committee recommendations for changing the legislative process. I hope to make an announcement about that shortly. Although I cannot absolutely guarantee this at the moment, I hope that that will also be dealt with on the same day before Prorogation.

I have received many representations about recess dates. As we have not made a decision about September sittings, I cannot give all the recess dates. As I know that that is causing difficulties on both sides of the House, I hope to announce the immediate recess dates, for Christmas and the half-term holiday in February, at business questions next Thursday.

On the Bali bomb, I appreciate, of course, that today is the anniversary, as I was Foreign Secretary when I got the news of that terrible bombing. One Member of this House had a much closer and most terrible experience of that bombing. Consideration continues of the exact way in which we help victims of terrorism, abroad as well as at home, but we have sought, not least in consultation with the victims and relatives of victims of such terrible events, to ensure that we improve the support that we give.

On Home Office statistics, I will look into the right hon. Lady’s point, but I hope that she does not then start going on about the problem of form-filling by police officers, as forms are filled in by police officers to enable statistics to be provided. I make that as a serious point. She cannot have it both ways.

On defence, I sat through the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the matériel being provided in Afghanistan. He made it clear that additional flying hours by helicopters, as well as by fixed-wing planes, were being provided. I am not sure whether he judges that it is in the national interest for the exact number of helicopters to be announced, but I will take that up with him.

I am not surprised that the right hon. Lady left the issue of the NHS until low down in her questions, because I sat through the debate on the subject yesterday and it was a disaster for the Opposition. In one of the lamest Opposition speeches I have heard for a long time, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) was holed below the water line as he protested about alleged cuts. The Conservative party has had to admit in its “NHS Campaign Pack” that

“Labour have doubled spending on the NHS since 1997.”

In fact, spending has more than trebled. The Conservatives also say that there are now some “23,000 more doctors”, but they have transposed the digits, because the true number is 32,000—

Order. We should now move on from the document. The Leader of the House may place it in the Library if he wishes.

A close reading of the document reveals the huge improvements that the Conservatives have had to admit that we have made in the health service. Those are confirmed by an interesting article by the independent chief economist of the King’s Fund in today’s Evening Standard, which discusses today’s report and states that, behind the headline scores, the performance of the NHS shows

“some significant improvements. In particular, the Government’s key targets on waiting times have produced dramatic reductions.”

It is about time that the right hon. Lady and other Opposition Members started to celebrate the success of the NHS instead of running it down.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have welcomed the statement made at Labour party conference by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on his intentions to give local communities and local transport authorities the powers they need to provide decent bus services. Given that watershed announcement, can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House arrange a debate, so that we may discuss in some detail the measures that are needed to reverse the 20 years of decline that have accompanied the deregulation of bus services outside London, which was introduced by the Conservatives?

I acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend raises and he will be the first to celebrate the improvements in public transport that have happened, including a vast increase in travel by rail and a significant increase in bus use in London, which makes his point. We have Transport questions on Tuesday and I hope that he will be able to make his point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State then.

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. I understand the need for flexibility at this time of year. For a start, of the first four Divisions in the House of Lords since the recess, three have been lost by the Government, one by a margin of more than two to one. I fully understand that it may be necessary for matters to pass between the two Houses over the next few weeks.

Can the Leader of the House tell me, however, why we do not have a clear timetable for those Bills that are now before the House? The Fraud Bill seems to have disappeared without trace, the Charities Bill has disappeared temporarily and nobody has yet seen the Wireless Telegraphy Bill, which, allegedly, is in this House.

At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) asked about maternity services, and she virtually declared her interest at the time. In his reply, the Prime Minister mentioned maternity pay and leave, but for some reason he omitted to mention maternity hospitals, probably because they are being closed up and down the country. Maternity services are being reorganised to suit the bureaucracy rather than mothers. May we have a debate on the provision of maternity services, because it is an important issue that affects all communities?

I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, but we are in the unique position of having two armies in the field at present, one of which is facing probably the most severe fighting for a generation. Is it not right that we should have an urgent debate on matters relating to those servicemen who are fighting so bravely in the field, such as military medical services, equipment, overstretch and the position of reservists, who are often overlooked? We need more than the routine defence debate. The debate should be targeted at the soldiers, sailors and air personnel presently risking their lives in the service of their country.

Finally, the Leader of the House has already shown himself to be innovative, and I hope that he will introduce another innovation. We will have the Gracious Speech in a few weeks. Can he arrange to have ready in the Vote Office on that day a clear and unambiguous list of the Bills that the Government intend to introduce? The list should also present the Bills’ subject matter in broad terms, and mention the responsible Department. As things stand, armies of people have to try to decipher what the Gracious Speech might mean, and that is nonsense. We need a clear list of Bills on the day, so that we know what is to be introduced. I acknowledge that other Bills may come later and that plans may change, but such a list would be a service to the House and to people outside it.

I shall look at the respective timetables for the Fraud, Charities and Wireless Telegraphy Bills and let the hon. Gentleman know, but I assure him that the matter is in hand. Those Bills are significant, but I somehow doubt that his constituents are gagging for information about them.

I do not mean to undermine the significance of any of those Bills.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important issue in respect of maternity services. There used to be three maternity hospitals in the area that I and a couple of colleagues represent. The two smaller ones were closed when the Conservatives were in power, but we tried to ensure that public concern was balanced by the promise that the services to be provided in the main general hospital would be better. Although people had affection for the old maternity units, we argued that it would be better to concentrate the services. The key issue that hon. Members of all parties must understand is that the nature of medical care has changed, with mothers who have just delivered their babies spending much less time in hospital. There is bound to be some reconfiguration, but the important questions have to do with whether the services provide effective care before, at the time of and after birth, and whether ill babies are more likely to recover. According to those indicators, the service is getting better and not worse.

I shall discuss the matter of Afghanistan and Iraq with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Patronage Secretary. The truth is, however, that we have been able to debate Afghanistan and Iraq on many occasions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Queen’s Speech. I know that some of the things that the Government do are a bit obscure, but the Queen’s Speech is pretty straightforward, in terms of the Bills that we are proposing. Moreover, the website that my office prepares contains details of all Bills, as well as departmental contact details.

Following yesterday’s Opposition day debate on the NHS, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on nurse education? I was unable to take part yesterday, but I note that the subject of nurse education was woefully absent from the debate. There have been tremendous advances in nurse education, and university facilities have been expanded. The Open university’s distance learning opportunities are fantastic, and the fact that it is able to place a great many nurses in jobs soon after training is something to be admired. Sadly, no mention was made of that in yesterday’s debate.

My hon. Friend has great experience and knowledge of these matters, and I am glad that she has raised that issue. I shall certainly consider holding a debate on nurse education, not least so that the House can look at the changes and improvements that this Government have introduced. The number of nurses has increased by many thousands, and their real-terms pay has risen by more than 25 per cent. above inflation.

Can we have a debate on county council road schemes? Is the Leader of the House aware that counties such as Norfolk used to be able to set the priorities for non-trunk, A-road schemes that would then attract Government grant? However, since 2004, the priorities are set on a regional basis by the East Anglia regional assembly—a bloated, unpopular and unaccountable body. That means that local bypasses, such as the Westbridge bypass in my constituency, lose out. What will the Government do about that?

I shall consider the matter, but the bloated and unpopular body to which the hon. Gentleman refers has quite a number of Conservative councillors. I suggest that he talk to them.

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on crane safety, following the tragic accident in my constituency in which two people died? Such a debate would allow the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to report to the House on the number of similar fatalities, and review the need for further changes in crane safety. That would benefit people who work on cranes, and those who work next to building sites and who look nervously at the cranes towering over them.

The accident in my hon. Friend’s Battersea constituency was a terrible one. On behalf of the Government and the House, I should like to send our condolences to the relatives of those who were killed, and our sympathy to those who were injured. It will be no comfort to them to know that safety at work has improved in recent years, but even one accident or fatality is one too many. I shall of course raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I know that my hon. Friend is raising the matter with the Health and Safety Executive.

Will the Leader of the House please find time for a debate on the implications of British Airways’ proposal to close its cabin crew base at Manchester airport? The move will affect several dozen residents in my constituency and in neighbouring areas, where jobs are now at risk. It also calls into question the commitment of our national airline to regional centres such as Manchester. Does he recognise that this very serious matter deserves to be considered by the House?

Manchester airport is a fantastic airport, and the increases in passengers and services there have been huge. It is also municipally owned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds an opportunity to raise the issue to which he refers in an Adjournment debate or at next Tuesday’s Transport questions.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate early-day motion 2689, tabled by me and supported by a number of other hon. Members?

[That this House expresses its extreme concern at the handling of immigration cases by the Manchester firm of solicitors, Thornhills; notes that Thornhills often take up, for money, immigration application cases that do not require the involvement of solicitors; further notes that repeatedly they handle these cases so incompetently that applicants feel obliged to consult their hon. Member in order to obtain the outcome that Thornhills have failed to achieve; is deeply concerned that in one recent case whose applicants felt obliged to consult their hon. Member Thornhills refused to hand over important documents in their possession until an exorbitant bill had been paid; and warns people in Manchester to have nothing whatever to do with this firm.]

The motion deals with Thornhills solicitors in Manchester, who take on immigration cases and botch them. They charge a great deal of money for the cases, which often end up with Members of Parliament. Will he pay special attention to a case in my constituency, in which Thornhills, even though they failed to deal with it, held on to the papers until my constituents paid them an exorbitant bill?

All of us in the House who have any experience of dealing with immigration cases will recognise the seriousness of the issue that my right hon. Friend raises, and the outrageous way in which some solicitors firms behave. I hope that the appropriate disciplinary authorities will look at the very important facts that he has put before the House.

The Leader of the House told the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) a moment ago that the House had many opportunities to debate Afghanistan and Iraq. Does he agree that the situation there has sadly deteriorated since we rose for the summer recess? Would it not be appropriate to have a whole-day debate in Government time on this matter, instead of a debate about whether we should sit in September?

I acknowledge that a case can always be made for the Government to find time for defence and foreign affairs debates. It happens that five days each year are earmarked for defence-related debates, although no specific Government-time debates are earmarked for foreign policy. One matter that I am considering, in the context of the Modernisation Committee, is whether we should aim for a better allocation of subject-day debates in Government time to take account of the fact that this country is far more involved in military action overseas than was the case, say, a decade ago.

The Leader of the House might be aware that the £69 million Turner and Newall asbestos fund comes into existence today. Victims of the terrible disease that asbestos causes, and their families, can be found in my constituency and elsewhere. They can claim between 17p and 20p in the pound for their illness, which stands in stark contrast to the fact that lawyers and accountants dealing with the parent company can claim 100p in the pound of the £70 million made available to cover administrative fees. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the matter, so that the House can consider whether the cut in compensation that disease victims have had to accept should also apply to the scheme’s administrators?

I understand exactly my hon. Friend’s point. Solicitors’ administration charges in some of those cases are exorbitant and unacceptable, so I am not surprised that his constituents feel as they do.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a debate about the Post Office on a motion that is drawn widely enough for me to raise both the threat to Letchworth Garden City main post office, which it is proposed to move from the town centre to the edge of the industrial area, and also the attitude of Post Office senior management, particularly Mr. Cook, the director responsible, who has refused to meet me to discuss the matter and has not even replied personally? Does the Leader of the House agree that that is disgraceful from a publicly owned company?

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I can give him immediate satisfaction on his request for a debate. Care of the Liberal Democrats, there will be a debate on Monday, so they were obviously listening to somebody. The Post Office is having to cope with changes quite beyond its control—[Interruption.] Of course it is. There has been a serious decline in traditional letters since the introduction of e-mail and the internet, so the Post Office has to make changes. There is no point in laughing about it; that is the situation. To cope with those changes, we have ensured that £2 billion has been put in to maintain the network, including £750 million for the rural network. That is a high level of subsidy—far higher, I suggest, than we would have seen from a Conservative Government.

During the summer recess, my right hon. Friend will no doubt have been contacted by constituents who were charged severe penalties by banks, even when they were only slightly overdrawn. Despite such charges being clearly disproportionate to the costs incurred, all banks seem to impose them, so may we have a debate to determine what steps the Government can take to stop that blatant profiteering by high street banks?

I understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises. There are questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry next Thursday, and I hope that my hon. Friend will raise the matter as it is of profound concern to constituents across the country.

The Leader of the House will well remember those bright days of “Your Right to Know”—the Government White Paper of which he was a signatory; indeed, he steered the freedom of information legislation through the House. Has he had an opportunity to read early-day motion 2699?

[That this House welcomes the finding of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (HC991) that the Freedom of Information Act has ‘already brought about the release of significant new information and....this information is being used in a constructive and positive way' and the committee's conclusion that it sees ‘no need to change' the Act's charging arrangements; views with concern reports that the Government is considering changing these arrangements to permit an application fee to be charged for all requests or to allow authorities to refuse, on cost grounds, a significant proportion of requests which they currently must answer; and considers that such changes could undermine the Act's benefits of increased openness, accountability and trust in the work of public authorities.]

The early-day motion was signed by Members on both sides of the House, and is in respect of the strong rumours that the Government are considering changing the present fee arrangements, which will have a deleterious effect on access and on the objectives that the Government stated in their White Paper and in its support through legislation.

It is not rumour but fact. When we began operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, 18 months ago at the beginning of 2005, we said that we would review its operation after it had been in force for a year. That is what my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has been doing, in consultation with colleagues. Subsequently, a report was produced by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, to which, as is entirely proper, my noble Friend, in consultation with his Cabinet colleagues, is considering the Government’s response, so that we can put our views before the Select Committee and the House. That is the appropriate way to proceed.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could find time for a debate on human trafficking. I was a member of the Council of Europe for six years so I am well aware of the problems arising from that terrible trade. I am also well aware of the fact that the Government are concerned and that last week they opened a new centre in Sheffield. What I am not sure about is the fate of women so trafficked. It may be demonstrated that, yes, they have been trafficked but it may also be demonstrated that they are in this country illegally. I should like to know just what their fate will be.

I thank my hon. Friend for all the concern she has shown about this very difficult issue; it is a serious matter. I will certainly pursue her concerns with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We have all heard of harrowing cases of that kind, where women subjected to enforced trafficking end up in this country, but they have no papers and no right to remain, so decisions have to be made on compassionate grounds to allow them to stay. We have to ensure—as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does—that the interests of the women in those very distressing cases are high on the list of considerations.

May we have a debate not only on compensation for sufferers of mesothelioma but also on their care and treatment? The Leader of the House will remember that just before the summer recess I raised the case of my constituent, Mr. Harward, who was unable to get the only drug licensed to treat mesothelioma, as it had not been funded by his primary care trust. He died because he did not receive treatment, but it is still not too late for the Government to take tough action to ensure that treatment is available for surviving sufferers of that terminal condition. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to hold a debate and to rattle the chains of the Secretary of State for Health so that she is slightly more proactive on the topic than she was during the summer when I wrote to her on several occasions?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responds promptly to a very large number of understandable concerns. I am sorry to hear of the death of the hon. Lady’s constituent. Without commenting on that case, I am glad that yesterday the parties were agreed on at least one thing in respect of the national health service—that the arrangements of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which gives independent judgment about the efficacy of drugs, should stand. Yesterday, when pressed—very heavily—from the Back Benches by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the Conservative spokesman on health, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), made it absolutely clear that he would not disturb the arrangements for NICE, as he was being requested to do.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2081?

[That this House notes the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain of Leeds who holds dual British/Pakistani nationality and is facing the death penalty on 3rd June; further notes that he was 18 years old when he travelled to Pakistan in 1988, has been accused of murder and robbing a taxi driver, that these claims have not been verified beyond reasonable doubt or to the standards laid by the European and Human Rights Commission and that in 1992 and 1996 the High Court quashed the sentence and acquitted him of all charges; and urges the Government to petition the President of Pakistan to prevent the execution of Mirza Tahir Hussain.]

Mr. Mirza Tahir Hussain from Leeds has been imprisoned in Pakistan since 1988 on what is widely regarded as an unsafe conviction. Since May, when the early-day motion was tabled, his execution has been postponed five times, but it is widely rumoured that he will be executed at the end of this month. I urge my right hon. Friend to get the Government to step up demands to stop that death sentence and I urge all colleagues to sign the early-day motion, as it could help to save the life of someone who has been unjustly convicted.

I am all too well aware of the circumstances of the case, not least from my time as Foreign Secretary. Representations at the very highest level of the British Government have been made to His Excellency President Musharraf and to other appropriate Ministers in his Government. We shall continue to do everything we can to ensure that the stays of execution are turned into a reprieve from the death sentence.

May we have a debate on restoring face-to-face interviews as the normal provision for pensioners and disabled people claiming social security benefits, as there is much dissatisfaction with the current telephone system? Now that the Leader of the House has asserted his right to face-to-face interviews, will he do the same for that most vulnerable group?

Speaking from my own constituency, I have few complaints about how the Department for Work and Pensions deals with the concerns of pensioners. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but I think the current arrangements, whereby initial contact is by telephone and, if necessary, there can be a home visit, are probably appropriate. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman has specific cases of concern I will see that they are followed up.

There was yet another tragic death this summer of one of my constituents from a suspected deep vein thrombosis following a long-haul flight—that of Mr. Les Rogers, aged 38, who was flying out to Australia to represent his country in the Commonwealth bowling championship. Although I welcome the provisions in the Civil Aviation Bill, which will come before the House today, will my right hon. Friend find time to debate in the House the need to place exactly the same duty of care in law on airlines for the health and well-being of their passengers as exists for all other passenger carriers?

Our hearts go out to the relatives of the gentleman who died as a result of deep vein thrombosis. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have taken some steps better to ensure that the incidence of that condition is lessened. I will certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I remind my hon. Friend that Transport questions are coming up next Tuesday.

Following the remarks made by the Leader of the House about discouraging Muslim ladies from wearing the veil, will he help to clarify for the House some confusion in Government policy? He must be aware that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport suggested during the summer that the BBC should be encouraged to use more TV presenters who wear Muslim headgear, so that we can all get more used to the idea. Can he help to clarify what the Government mean on this issue?

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate miscarriages of justice? Last night, my constituent, Mr. Michael O’Brien, accepted £300,000 in an out-of-court settlement with South Wales police, but there was no apology and no acknowledgement of the events that led up to that decision. Sadly, today is the 19th anniversary of the death of the murder victim, Phillip Saunders—a Cardiff newsagent, who lived in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan)—and I want express my sympathy to his family. The investigation into his murder still goes on. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on those issues?

I hope very much that my hon. Friend can find an opportunity for such a debate—for example, in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment. I understand her concern. In the past 10 years, as a result of legislation initiated by the previous Government in 1996, and the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, as well as other improvements, under this Administration, there has been a significant improvement in dealing with alleged miscarriages of justice. However, that does not in any sense undermine the profound anger that will be felt by that person at the miscarriage of justice perpetrated on him; nor, above all, does it reduce the deep concern of the victim’s relatives about the fact that, so many years on, no guilty person has been brought to justice.

The Leader of the House has said that the future of the Post Office depends on the uncertainties that it faces, but many of them stem from the Government. Will he ensure that Ministers use Monday’s debate to respond to today’s publication by Postcomm, the postal regulator? Paragraph 19 of its foreword says:

“A decision is urgently needed from the Government on the future of the Post Office network.”

If the many sub-postmasters throughout the country who provide vital services to rural areas are to make a decision about their future, they need to know what the Government have decided that that future should be.

I am sorry to say that the fundamental uncertainty faced by the Post Office arises from the extraordinary pace of change in the introduction of information technology. [Interruption.] That is absolutely true. It is affecting post offices all over the world. There is a dramatic change both in the number of letters posted and in the payment of benefits, which is a core business, particularly for sub-post offices. I repeat that we have recognised the fact that the Post Office faces a very big transitional problem. That is why we have put in £2 billion to help to maintain the network, including £750 million for the rural network. Of course my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—who represents a Scottish constituency, albeit an urban one—is well aware of the problem in far-flung rural constituencies in Scotland and elsewhere, and he will ensure that there is an effective response to the motion that is, no doubt, being tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent, definitive and clear statement from the Home Secretary on whether the Government will impose employment restrictions on the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania when they join the EU in 11 weeks’ time? As a champion of enlargement, my right hon. Friend will know how important it is that we consult our potential EU partners and that we are clear about whether there will be such restrictions to avoid a repeat of the hysteria of the tabloid press before the last enlargement process on 1 May 2004.

I accept my right hon. Friend’s point. As we have made clear, Romanians and Bulgarians will be subject to restricted access to our labour markets, once their countries join the European Union on 1 January 2007. We believe that a gradual approach is required, and more details of our approach will be given to the House by the end of this month.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on having the courage over the summer to raise the issue of veils and say something that many people in the country think, but that no one has previously dared to say. Will he consider a debate on forced marriages? Legislation to outlaw that practice was dropped by the Government just before the summer recess. I am sure that he cannot believe that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear veils, but should be able to be forced into marriages against their will. May we have a debate to judge the mood of the House and to bring back plans to legislate to outlaw that outrageous practice?

We are all agreed on the need to outlaw forced marriages. During my period as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary and during that of my successors, the Government have taken a great deal of action to ensure better enforcement against forced marriages and to provide far better support—especially in Pakistan, where the main problem arises—for the victims of forced marriages. I am always happy to ensure that we do more.

My right hon. Friend will have noticed this week how warm it is in the Palace of Westminster. His ministerial colleagues are for ever, rightly, urging us and our constituents to conserve energy in our private lives. Will he have an urgent discussion with the House authorities, so that we can practice what we preach and do out bit in this place?

I think that we have all lost a few pounds this week, as a result of the fact that the atmosphere in the House has been even more sweltering than it has been outside, where it is unusually warm. My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is a debate on climate change today, and she may wish to put her remarks in that debate as well.

Might I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it would help if we could have an earnest statement from the Home Secretary about the operation of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, especially with regard to the two cases of MK and Abu Doha? The right hon. Gentleman will know that many of us are very concerned about the secretive nature of the proceedings and the risk of injustice. He will also know that, in the case of MK, the judge has found that false information was supplied by the Home Office to the tribunal and, furthermore, that there was wholly inadequate disclosure, and the Home Secretary was criticised. Can we please know what the Home Secretary will do to meet the criticisms made of the Home Office by the trial judge?

Of course the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises a very serious matter, but it was the subject of an exchange between the shadow Attorney-General and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General just before I stood up to speak. My hon. and learned Friend said that what had happened was unacceptable—it certainly is—but it is a very unusual case.

On the overall issue of the standing of SIAC, the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is extraordinarily difficult to set up a forum that is both fair and necessarily protects the intelligence that must be protected in such cases. SIAC, as I remember, was originally a creation of the previous Government, with our endorsement. We have developed it, and it has worked satisfactorily. As he will accept, one hard case should not be allowed to lead to a general change in what, overall, has been a satisfactory arrangement.

Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the policies that the Royal Mail is pursuing? I am thinking, in particular, of the decision to announce the closure of both the Gloucester and Reading sorting offices and to centralise those services on Swindon. Will he ask, through his good offices, for the report on which that decision is based to be made available to us? Dare I say—on a day when environmental concerns are uppermost in all our minds—that it is not very bright to have a letter that is posted in Stroud possibly taken to Swindon and then perhaps via Bristol back to Stroud. That is not the way forward. Would he care to comment on that?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There are questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry next Thursday and I hope that he can raise that matter then. Meanwhile, I will certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are all concerned. What he is talking about applies not only to the Post Office, but to supermarkets: goods travel huge distances around the country, apparently for no great purpose.

Now that we have a Lord Chief Justice who pursues an agenda by posing as a criminal on community service and who makes a speech comparing present-day sentencing to barbaric past practices, may we have a debate on the Government’s policy on the protection of the public from violent crime now that the prisons are full?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is totally unacceptable for any of us to start parodying the position taken by as distinguished and senior a judge as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips? I happen to know the Lord Chief Justice, as I knew his predecessors, and he is as concerned as anybody in this House or the other place about protecting the public. [Interruption.] Of course he is. There is no suggestion whatever that he or his Court of Appeal criminal division are going to go soft on violent offenders. That has never been part of what he has been talking about. What he has talked about is what successive Home Secretaries and Governments have talked about: a balance between custodial and non-custodial sentences for non-violent offenders, and ensuring—this is necessary under any Government—that the available prison places are used sensibly and the prisons are not full to bursting point. It certainly does not lie in the mouth of any Opposition Member to start complaining about the number of prison places now, because there are many, many thousands more than there were in 1997 and there were very few plans for any increase in the last Budget of the last Conservative Government.

Those of us who recently visited RAF Odiham heard at first hand of the courage of our air crews who are flying Chinooks in Afghanistan. Bearing it in mind that and other sources, many of us were greatly surprised to hear the breezily uttered comments by the Prime Minister on the British Forces Broadcasting Service that all the equipment that the armed forces need would be made available. May we have a debate on what extra equipment the armed forces require, what actually exists and what the Government propose to do about the shortfall?

First, like the hon. Gentleman, I pay tribute to the service personnel and civilians operating from the air base in his constituency, as well as those around the country. They show extraordinary bravery and skill, as I know personally. I said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) earlier that I acknowledge the case for a debate on these important issues and I hope to ensure that there will be an opportunity for such a debate to be provided.

Does the Leader of the House think that it is right for a spouse or a partner of somebody serving a prison sentence to be eligible for council tax benefit, if a spouse or a partner of somebody who is serving their country in a war zone such as Afghanistan, Iraq or the Balkans is not? If he agrees that that is wrong, will he arrange for a Minister to make an urgent statement in the House next week?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. To put it at its mildest, it is anomalous, and the matter is being reviewed as I speak.

Will the Leader of the House place on the Order Paper next week the necessary motions to put an end to the scandal in a free Parliament of the European Scrutiny Committee meeting in secret? That is for the fourth time of asking.

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there are actually quite good reasons, in a free and democratic Parliament, for the Scrutiny Committee to meet not in secret, but in private. He knows that plenty of Select Committees hold meetings in private. There are good explanations in the report of the Modernisation Committee on European scrutiny, and much else besides, as to why that practice is sensible.

When I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Skills earlier about the paucity of core skills, you will have been surprised and disappointed by his answer, Mr. Speaker. He ignored the fact that one in three employers now have to provide remedial training to teach staff how to read, write and count. The skills crisis is affecting our economy and we need a debate on it. I hope that the Leader of the House will treat that as a matter of some urgency.

There are plenty of opportunities to debate our excellent record on skills training. We can always do more, but we have invested hugely in further education vocational training and that is showing in the increasing number of young people on modern apprenticeships, as well as much else besides.

May we please have a statement or debate next week on the continuing crisis in Darfur, western Sudan? Given that murder and rape continue unabated and that foot-stamping by the Sudanese Government has already effectively vetoed a vital United Nations troop deployment to the region, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be timely for the House to debate whether the responsibility of the United Nations to protect is a serious attempt to avert genocide or simply a rather futile exercise in vacuous moral posturing?

Ensuring that the United Nations always practises what it preaches is an enduring challenge for all of us who are, or have been, involved in international diplomacy. The issue is really serious. I hope that it can be debated in the House and that the concern that everybody feels on the issue of Darfur is made very vocal. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, the United Nations committed itself last year to intervening under its responsibility to protect. I am sorry to say that one permanent member, at least, of the Security Council was very reluctant to ensure that that happened. The result is that that member of the Security Council is effectively protecting the regime in Khartoum.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister stated, in relation to hospital operations:

“We now have no one waiting for more than six months”.—[Official Report, 11 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 291.]

The Department of Health has confirmed to me that there are many people waiting more than six months for an NHS in-patient operation and that figure is increasing, rather than decreasing. What mechanisms are available to ensure that the Prime Minister corrects his inaccurate statement?

Well, the hon. Gentleman can put a question down for the Prime Minister and ask him to correct a statement that the hon. Gentleman considers to be inaccurate, but it is not for the Chair to intervene in these matters.

Orders of the Day

Civil Aviation Bill

Lords Reasons for insisting on certain of their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed, considered.

Clause 1

Aerodrome charges: noise and emissions

Lords Reasons: 1B, 2B, 4B.

I beg to move, That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments and proposes Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu thereof.

Commencing with amendment No. 1, we simply do not believe that it would be appropriate to impose a legal duty on all 140-odd licensed aerodromes to impose noise-related and emissions charges. Such a move would be disproportionate and would represent gross over-regulation. Many of the aerodromes are relatively small in size and will cause little or no significant disturbance or local air quality problems. Such a move would be at odds with the Government’s policy of not imposing unnecessary regulation on business. On that we have been, and continue to be, steadfastly clear.

I respectfully point out to hon. Members that the proposal in the Lords amendments would run contrary to guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organisation that noise-related charges should be levied only at airports experiencing noise problems. Airports have had a statutory power to charge for aircraft by reference to their noise for some 25 years, but our policy on aircraft noise is that whenever possible, local controls rather than Government diktat are the best way of managing the local environmental impact of aviation.

The Minister must accept that the movement of aircraft noise over that period has been in one direction only—upwards—and that that has caused many people living around airports great inconvenience and discomfort. If we do not accept this proposal, what should we do? It is clear that the status quo is not working.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s view, but the question is whether the proposal deals with the point that he makes, and I suggest that it does not. The Bill as a whole takes us forward. Perhaps he will allow me to continue to outline how we can continue to take forward aviation for all stakeholders, including local communities.

Such a policy on the management of the local environmental impact of aviation was underscored in “The Future of Air Transport” White Paper. Many of our larger airports have regard to noise when setting their charges. BAA already applies an emissions-related charge at Heathrow and Gatwick by using the airports’ conditions of use. However, it is important to put it beyond any doubt that any licensed aerodrome has the power to set such charges if their local circumstances make that necessary. That is the purpose of clause 1.

Will the Minister explain how we get around the conundrum that was raised in another place about the contrast between Birmingham and Coventry? She says that an airport can raise charges when there is a problem, but if it has no duty to monitor, how will it recognise that there is a problem? If there is no duty to monitor and a duty to charge, how do we impose the same constraints on an airport such as Coventry as those that apply to the designated airports?

It might help my hon. Friend if I outline why a blanket duty for airports such as that proposed is not the right way forward. A problem arises due to the evidence that exists.

Imposing a uniform requirement that an airport’s charges must be set by reference to noise and emissions would undercut an airport’s ability to reflect its local circumstances. I emphasise that we are considering not whether airports should be able to do that, but whether we should require them all to do so in exactly the same way. Charges are not the only lever—or even, in the case of aircraft noise, the most significant one—that we will expect airport operators to use to address the impact of their operations on local people. I emphasise to hon. Members that clauses 3 and 4 will do far more than that to drive improvements in the noise climate around airports. They will enable airport operators to impose penalties for breaches of the noise control measures that they have in place, such as noise limits on departing aircraft and noise-preferential routes. The revenue raised from the penalties will have to be put towards purposes that are of benefit to the wider community around the airport.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend from the east midlands region for allowing me to make an intervention. The Minister will be aware of the long campaign to get East Midlands airport—or Nottingham East Midlands airport, as it is now unfortunately named—designated under the Civil Aviation Act 1982. She and her predecessors have declined so to do and have fallen back on the suggestion that local agreement will resolve the problems. However, East Midlands airport’s 10-point plan has been imposed on local communities, and they rejected it several months ago at the independent consulting committee by 15 votes to one. What options do those communities have, unless we can require regional airports with a larger number of night-time flights than Heathrow to impose charges to reflect quota counts and noisy aircraft? Why can we not make that compulsory? The local agreement is not working.

Although I appreciate the worries about local noise that my hon. Friend and others have expressed, it is believed that the airport is fully committed to responding effectively. Several changes have taken place over the years. It is not necessarily the case that designation delivers fewer night flights or tougher controls. Additionally, NEMA has indicated that it wishes to take advantage of the powers in the Bill by taking tougher local action to protect the noise environment. The draft master plan—my hon. Friend will realise that the consultation recently closed—set out details of plans to minimise impacts and to respond to community concerns. I would not say that the specific matter before the House relates to designation, but I note my hon. Friend’s concerns about NEMA. Of course, should NEMA wish to put forward a further application for designation, it will be considered properly and fully.

I have supported the efforts of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on designation, but I want to pick up what the Minister said about localities. Amendment (a) in lieu refers to

“the area in which the aerodrome is situated”,

while clause 1, which will itself amend section 38 of the 1982 Act, uses the phrase

“in the vicinity of the aerodrome”.

No doubt those wonderful expressions make us feel deeply enthused by the Government’s policing activities over airports that allow a lot of noise to happen in their vicinities, localities or areas, but what do the words precisely mean in the context of Nottingham East Midlands airport, which allows aircraft to fly in and out that affect my constituents, because although they are up to 30, 40, or 50 miles away from the airport, they are disturbed by the noise?

I appreciate the representations that the hon. and learned Gentleman makes. No collusion is intended by the use of various words. I am about to move on to the reference to the consideration of local communities, but I will be happy to get back to him if he thinks that today’s debate does not address his concern. We all know the intention of what we are talking about.

A further reason why we do not accept that a blanket duty on airports is right is that the Secretary of State will be able to require an airport to fix its charges in a way that takes account of its local environmental impact. Existing section 38 of the 1982 Act gives the Secretary of State the power to direct specified aerodromes to make use of the charging power with regard to noise. That power, which will be extended to include charging by reference to emissions, is detailed in subsection (4) of proposed new section 38 of the 1982 Act. The power would be used if the introduction of noise and emissions-related charges at an airport seemed to be appropriate, yet the airport operator was unwilling to do that. I hope that that addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson).

Should an airport such as NEMA choose to exercise a charging regime—my hon. Friend has accurately said that it wishes to do so—would it remain within the Secretary of State’s discretion to say that the charges specified were inadequate and to specify other charges that met the objectives of local residents concerned about noise intrusion? Does the point merely relate to the principle and methodology of establishing a charging structure, or does it go on to say whether those charges are adequate for the purpose?

The charging regime has to do a job, so it has regard to appropriateness.

Amendment (a) would qualify the power of direction. The Secretary of State would be required to have regard to the interests of people who live in the area of the airport in determining whether and how to make use of the power. Our intention in moving the amendment is to acknowledge the concern of some stakeholders that the clause does not take sufficient account of the impact of aircraft noise on people living near airports. By giving the Secretary of State a duty to consider that when deciding whether to use his power of direction, we are providing an additional safeguard for the interests of the local community around an airport.

Amendment (b) is a minor, consequential amendment which will ensure that this new provision, like the power of direction to which it relates, is devolved to the Scottish Ministers. Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4 would affect the way in which noise and emission charges are set.

We agree that airport operators should set noise charges that are proportionate. However, International Civil Aviation Organisation guidance already states that noise-related charges should be non-discriminatory between users and should not be established at such levels as to be prohibitively high for the operation of certain aircraft.

Is the Minister aware of the extent to which noise measurement goes on? In my constituency BAA carries out no measurement of the noise impact of Heathrow. Rather than talking about an area that the airport needs to have regard to, the Government may need to be a little more specific about how large that area should be and take account of the glide path of planes as they come in to land.

I can assure the hon. Lady that we take account of the operational noise of aircraft when we consider setting noise abatement objectives, which I know are very important to her and her constituents. I emphasise that in doing so we work towards and contribute to internationally recognised standards.

As I have already remarked, airports have been making use of the power to set noise-related charges for almost a quarter of a century. There has been no suggestion that the powers have been applied inappropriately or disproportionately during that time. We can see no justification for adding to clause 1 the requirement in the Lords amendments. Hon. Members who have expressed concerns should be in no doubt that, should there ever appear to be a problem with the charging scheme, the Secretary of State will have the power to direct an airport operator as to the manner in which its charges are to be fixed.

I ask the House to insist on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4, and I commend amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

The Government have given us something of a dilemma, because Members in all parts of the House agree that the Lords amendments are flawed. Clearly, we do not want to impose regulations on every small airport in the country. The difficulty is that they reflect the frustrations with this empty Bill felt not just in another place but among Opposition Members—and, indeed, many Government Back Benchers.

The Minister’s predecessor admitted that

“the provisions in the Bill have been introduced specifically in response to some airports—I name Manchester airport in particular—that have made it clear that they seek legal clarification of the powers that they wish to use. Manchester airport may want to fix its charges by reference to aircraft noise or emissions, and it seeks the cover of legislation to do so. It intends to make use of the provisions”.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 5 July 2006; c. 6-7.]

In fact, when we last considered these matters on the Floor of the House, on 8 May, the then Minister admitted:

“The power to charge by reference to noise has been available to airports since 1982 and many of the larger airports already use it”.—[Official Report, 8 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 42.]

Tonight I shall be visiting Nottingham East Midlands airport with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Whatever its failings in terms of night flights, and I shall be looking hard at those tonight, NEMA has for many years been charging on the basis of noise.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct: NEMA has levied such charges for some time. I questioned the Minister because those charges have not produced the effects that many people would desire. The key element, therefore, is whether a Minister might intervene and say that a particular charging structure was inadequate for the purpose defined and set out criteria for determining appropriate charges.