Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 451: debated on Thursday 2 November 2006

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 6 November—Consideration of Lords messages to the NHS Redress Bill [Lords], proceedings on the National Health Service Bill [Lords], followed by proceedings on the National Health Service (Consequential Provisions) Bill [Lords], followed by proceedings on the National Health Service (Wales) Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Animal Welfare Bill, followed by consideration of Lords message to the Police and Justice Bill, followed by consideration of Lords message to the Road Safety Bill [Lords], consideration of Lords message to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords], followed by, if necessary, consideration of other Lords messages.

Tuesday 7 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords messages followed by a motion to approve a ways and means resolution on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Armed Forces Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords messages.

Wednesday 8 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords messages

The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

I am pleased to be able to announce the Commons calendar until October 2007. We plan to rise for the Easter recess on Thursday 29 March and return on Monday 16 April. For the Whitsun recess, the House will rise on Thursday 24 May and return on Monday4 June. For the summer recess, the House will rise on Thursday 26 July and return on Monday 8 October. That is, of course, subject to the progress of business.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week and the calendar for next year. That was very helpful.

The Stern report, published last week, was the subject of a statement in the House. Members normally have access to such reports immediately, but I understand that the Vote Office will only print copies on request. The report may be an environmental measure, but will the Leader of the House tell us whether that rule will apply in future to reports that are the subject of statements in the House?

It has been reported that the 2012 Olympics are already way over budget, and that the Government are considering a windfall land tax in east London to cover the increase. Will the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport come to the House to make an urgent statement on the Olympics, on their current projected costs and on who will pay for the overrun?

The Local Government Association has calculated that council social services this year will have a funding shortfall of £1.8 billion. The situation is made worse by the fact that with many NHS trusts in deficit, social care is now often having to replace care in hospital. Councils are having to revise their eligibility criteria, which means, for example, that some vulnerable people are going to have to pay more for services such as home care. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government did not address the issue in her statement last week. Will she now come to the House to make an urgent statement on the impact of Government policy on the provision of social services?

The Leader of the House will be aware that there has been widespread concern and anger that Abu Hamza was able to sell and buy property while on remand and in jail, and while his assets supposedly had been frozen by the Treasury. He had apparently transferred his assets to his son. Last week at Treasury questions, the Economic Secretary—following questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) and for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands)—said:

“The transfer of property, which was discussed between ourselves and the police, was not an illegal act.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1651.]

In other words, when suspected terrorists’ assets are frozen, they can get round the rule by transferring assets to a member of their family. Does not this expose a very big loophole in the Government’s legislation? How was Abu Hamza able to transfer assets to his son when they had been frozen by the Treasury? Will the Economic Secretary now come to this House to explain the position and tell the House what the Government have done to close this loophole?

Yeldall Manor is a very effective drug rehabilitation centre in my constituency. It is facing problems because it is receiving fewer referrals from local authorities and others, something that is a problem across the country. Indeed, as the noble Lord Taverne, chairman of Alcohol and Drug Prevention and Treatment Ltd, said in a recent letter to The Times:

“Several units providing residential treatment now have occupancy rates below 40 per cent and many may have to close before Christmas.”

Lord Taverne also said that the problem was that local drug action teams have been set targets, but find in practice that they can meet them most easily and cheaply by maintaining addicts on methadone or by sending them to short treatment courses that include day treatment centres, which are often unregulated. Yet recent research in Scotland has shown that giving methadone to heroin addicts has a 97 per cent. failure rate. Research has also shown that the overall reconviction rate for those on drug treatment and testing orders was 80 per cent. Will the Home Secretary come to the House to make an urgent statement on the failings in the Government’s drug treatment programme?

Finally, the Leader of the House has always been clear that he expects Government Ministers to reply in a timely and helpful fashion to questions from hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) recently asked the Deputy Prime Minister a written question about his trip to the far east, including who had gone with him at public expense, how they had travelled and how much the trip had cost. The answer he received, effectively, was that the cost would be published next July and that it was all in accordance with the ministerial code. In other words, the answer told us precisely nothing. When will the Government come clean on how much the Deputy Prime Minister is costing the taxpayer for doing nothing?

We on this side all accept that the arrangements for issuing printed copies of the Stern report were not satisfactory, and I apologise to the House for that. I wanted to get hold of a hard copy—not a hard disc copy, but one that could be read on paper—and I spotted that that was not available in the Vote Office, as it should have been. Steps have been taken to ensure that that does not happen again. It is a substantial report and obviously it is cheaper if colleagues are able to make use of the hard disc or internet versions. But there are many circumstances in which that is not convenient and it is accepted that it is a duty of all Government Departments to make sure that sufficient copies of printed versions of these reports are placed in the Vote Office before the documents are published.

I am in close touch with the preparations for the Olympics, as chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Olympics. Many speculative stories about the Olympics appear with great regularity. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture. Media and Sport were to come to this House to answer each of them, there would be little else she could do. The truth is that we had a brilliant success in achieving the nomination for the 2012 Olympics and that preparations for the Olympics are well advanced and within the plans laid down. If there are going to be any major and significant changes to the costs already proposed, announcements will be made in due course to this House.

I shall now give a joint answer on social services and drug rehabilitation. It strikes me that every week the right hon. Lady reads out a list of Government activities where our offence is that we should be spending even more money than we are spending, rather than less. She will cost the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), a huge amount, not least in terms of his credibility, when he tries to go to the country—[Interruption.] I was listening to what the right hon. Lady was saying, and I wrote it down as usual. She will cost him a huge amount in terms of his credibility when he goes to the country and tries to say that his party will cut taxes as well. However, we know that it will certainly cut spending, so it does not lie in her mouth—or any other Conservative Member’s mouth—to complain about the fact that some social services departments and some drug rehabilitation centres, which are operating on a base of very high levels of spending compared with 1997, are having to ensure that they live within their means.

In respect of social services, I can say, having been a Member of this House for as long as I have, that every year, as surely as night follows day, various local government departments claim that it will be the end of the world if they do not get more money. But we should look at the facts. [Interruption.] There is no point in tut-tutting about this. The facts are that there have been substantial increases in spending on social services since 1997, which is illustrated by the improvements that there have been in the effectiveness of social services departments.

As for drug rehabilitation centres, I started the current Government programme of greatly increased support for drug addicts. It is absolutely right that the drug action teams, which are in touch with the drug problems in their area, should be able to make their own decisions at local level about what is appropriate. Sometimes methadone is appropriate. Very often, the use of day treatment centres is appropriate. Sometimes, full-time residential drug rehabilitation centres are appropriate. Decisions on such matters should be made by the DAT concerned.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has already written to Members on Abu Hamza, and I believe that he has offered the right hon. Lady a meeting on the matter. In this difficult and complicated area, we are always searching for ways to improve the current regime in respect of how we freeze criminals’ assets. I only wish that we had received the same full-hearted support when we were putting in place the mechanisms on such matters under the Bill that became the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That is fundamental to this subject, as the right hon. Lady is now implying.

On parliamentary questions, I and my colleagues are insistent about ensuring that there is accurate and timely information. But it has long been accepted in this House—I think that this was the practice before the current Administration came to power—that there be annual publication of the costs of flights and who went on them, by all Ministers. That was the procedure that I adopted, in accordance with standard practice, when I was Foreign Secretary, and it worked to general approval of this House.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there was a joint announcement last week by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury to exempt the trust of former Turner and Newalls workers in respect of the compensation recovery unit and benefits claw-back. I am talking about those workers who came into contact with asbestos and the families of those victims. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a right, proper and decent thing for the Government to do, and will he ensure that he uses his considerable powers and influence to ensure that the necessary regulations are laid before the House and dealt with as quickly as possible?

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend approves of the Government’s decision, and I shall, of course, do everything that I can to ensure that the regulations are brought forward as soon as possible.

Before the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill returns to us on Tuesday, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement on the applicability of the Bill to the Scotland Act 1998, given the unsatisfactory answers that we have had on that in another place?

The Leader of the House has on several occasions said how much he would welcome the opportunity to have generic debates on a number of subjects before the House. Parliamentary business for next week gives him that opportunity. Given that the House originally intended to prorogue on Thursday, and that it is now anticipated that it can do so on Wednesday, he could use the time effectively on Wednesday and give us a debate on a number of subjects—for instance, Iraq. The situation there is parlous, and there is confusion among Government Ministers about the subject of the inquiry. The Prime Minister said that an inquiry

“would have dismayed our coalition allies”—[Official Report,1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 293.]

However, it was our coalition allies who themselves instituted the Baker group inquiry.

We could have a debate on health on that day, including on the continuing difficulties with cleanliness in our hospitals and the 10 per cent. increase in tuberculosis in the past year. We could have a debate on transport, so that the Secretary of State for Transport could offer a review—or, perhaps more accurately, a rethink—of the aviation White Paper in the context of the Stern report. The Home Office could tell us about the largest DNA database in the world, which is without appropriate safeguards, as clearly illustrated by the comments of Sir Alec Jeffreys last week. Or we could have a debate on agriculture—the forgotten subject for many of us in rural constituencies—and in particular on the state of dairy farming in my own constituency, which needs to be debated. Why do we not use the opportunities that we have in this House to debate the things that matter to our constituents?

Lastly, I wonder whether the Leader of the House noticed that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) entertained the world last night with “An evening of shoes, shopping and politics”? Does he have any similar plans?

I will discuss the applicability of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill to Scotland with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has made better points about the issue of generic debates than he has today. In fact, it was not really a very good try, because he knows very well—it has been announced for long enough—that at the end of a parliamentary Session, business is inevitably dominated by ping-pong with the Lords. If he wishes to enter into a proper pact with us and agree that we can have the business—[Interruption.] I am sorry to raise this, but if he wants a pact with us, and if he is willing to ensure that, at the very least, Liberal Democrat peers follow a line similar to Liberal Democrat MPs, at least for starters, and then recognise the wisdom of the Government’s case on these Bills, there is a possibility—I do not think that we could manage it this time—of arranging slightly more time for debates on such subjects. But in the real world that we inhabit, in which Liberal Democrats at both ends of the House spend their time opposing very sensible legislation, I cannot—

As we learned, the point and trick of opposition is to oppose legislation where the public is on one’s side and there is a good case for doing so, but not to oppose legislation that, although it has come from the Government, is none the less to be supported. [Interruption.] I know that, unlike the Tories, the hon. Gentleman has volunteered for a lifetime in opposition because he cannot cope with the idea of responsibility in government. If he carries on opposing everything for its own sake, he will stay permanently in opposition.

It is complete and utter nonsense to suggest that there are no safeguards for the DNA database. My constituents are delighted that there is a DNA database that is now ensuring the conviction of rapists who were previously going free. I dare say the same is true in his own constituency, and what he needs to do is to explain to law-abiding members of the public there that, under his policy, all these criminals would be going free, but for the introduction of the DNA database.

As for the evening of shoes, shopping and politics, I am mortified that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, despite our very close association, did not invite me. I hope that she puts that right next time.

Last Friday, the Football Association council ratified the Burns report on the future of football, which was very welcome. The report, together with the independent European sports review, could shape the future of the game that means so much to people in this country. However, neither contains measures that would prevent unscrupulous business men from buying football clubs for their own purposes and, often, jeopardising the club’s future. May we have a full debate, in Government time, on what is the most important sport in this country, and—not least—the lack of any teeth in the “fit and proper person” measure, which allows unscrupulous figures to acquire football clubs to the detriment of the communities in which those clubs operate?

Like my hon. Friend, I applaud the FA’s decision to implement the Burns report and I entirely understand the point that he makes about unscrupulous business men who still operate in football. As for a debate, we will add it to the long list of potential subjects, but he may be able to raise the matter on the Adjournment in this House or in Westminster Hall.

The Ministry of Defence is carrying out a study of the naval bases at Devonport, Portsmouth and the Clyde, with a view to rationalisation, which is of course another word for cuts and closures. Is the Leader of the House aware that that is a matter of great strategic importance and local concern, because some 17,000 jobs depend directly on Portsmouth naval yard? The killer fact is that most naval families have made their homes in the Gosport, Portsmouth and south Hampshire area, and any basing of ships away from that area would cause immense domestic difficulty and, possibly, loss of personnel from the Navy. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the subject?

Of course we all understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses and the anxieties that are felt by service personnel, especially in the area of Portsmouth and Gosport, which I happen to know well. He will also appreciate that there are bound to be changes from time to time in the configuration of our operations—it happened when his party was in government. We are operating today in a situation in which we have been able to achieve the longest period of sustained real growth in defence spending for more than 20 years, and that will continue. There are many opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to raise the issue in debate, but I will of course communicate his anxieties to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Has my right hon. Friend read in this morning’s press of the plans enunciated by the Leader of the Opposition to end the arrangements for civil servants’ pensions, should the Conservatives ever be in government? Given that that will create some concern among the very valued people working in the public interest—

I appreciate the hilarity, but the pensions proposals will be a matter of considerable concern for many people. Will my right hon. Friend therefore bring to the House next week, as a matter of urgency, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions so that he may reassure those valued public service workers that their pensions are safe and secure with this Government?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about security for public sector as well as private sector pensioners. I was shocked by the comments of the shadow Chancellor in the Daily Mail that he intends to ditch the public sector pension deal. That will undermine the security of hundreds of thousands of public servants and looks very odd when Opposition parties are trying to claim that they support the public sector.

Returning to the subject of the Olympics, the Leader of the House will be aware that Tablighi Jamaat is a fundamentalist group that arguably acts as a magnet for extremism. It is seeking to build the largest mosque in Europe in east London, which may act as the Islamic quarter for the Olympics. Given the fact that there have been calls for an independent inquiry and the seriousness of the issue, may we have a debate?

I am not familiar with the proposals for that mosque, but I am familiar with proposals for mosques more widely. The hon. Gentleman will know that mosques have to go through proper planning procedures, like any other application for a building, and if he feels that that application should not be dealt with locally, he—or the local authority—should askmy right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to call in the plan. I am not sure that a debate would be appropriate.

Yesterday, I was contacted by one of my constituents who is involved in organising a visit to the UK from the Jenin cultural centre in the west bank. The musicians who were due to come have been refused visas to enter the UK by the British consulate in Jerusalem. It is suggested that the group does not have sufficient financial resources, but I am told that it is an innocent victim of the present governmental funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority. Will my right hon. Friend ask his colleagues to look into that case, and may we have a debate on the human rights situation in west bank and Gaza and the isolation of those communities, which this case illustrates?

On my hon. Friend’s first point, I will certainly draw the case to the attention of Lord Triesman, who deals with visa matters in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On the second, I invite my hon. Friend to make a contribution in the debate on the Queen’s Speech the week after next, when he will have many opportunities to make his wider point.

May I bring the Leader of the House back to the subject of transport, on which he did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)? The Environmental Audit Committee found that the Department for Transport still believes that carbon emissions are an inevitable consequence of economic growth, and that is why it is still promoting airports and new road schemes. The Stern report found the exact opposite—that we have to put the environment at the heart of all our policies, or there will be an economic disaster. Surely it is time for a fundamental rethink of transport policy.

The environment is indeed at the heart of all our policies. This Government have done more to put climate change, and the need for policy change by all Governments across the world, on the international agenda than any other major Government that I can think of.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will have noted that we had a short but interesting debate on Iraq on Monday because the nationalist parties succeeded in using one of their Opposition Supply days for that occasion. Can he assure us that in the next Session we will have regular debates, in Government time, on foreign policy and specifically on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan? It simply is not good enough just to point to the debate on foreign affairs that is part of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. We need debate in Government time on what is a serious matter that affects the lives of millions of people around the world and is a huge concern to all our constituents.

I have never suggested that the foreign policy debates in the Queen’s Speech, or the opportunity for hon. Members to speak on foreign policy matters—including Iraq—at any stage in that five-day debate, are sufficient—[Interruption.] Well, may I say to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that I mean that they are not sufficient for the whole Session? The opportunity is coming up shortly and I have already told the House on several occasions that I hope that we can have a better arrangement for earmarked foreign policy debates. I would query whether they should be specifically targeted on issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but even if they are not, they will be dominated by those subjects.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House next week following the report yesterday by the Independent Police Complaints Commission on the Derbyshire police, in which the local commissioner for Derbyshire said that the force’s response in the Tania Moore case was “abysmal”? In that case, a lady who had been stalked on numerous occasions was ignored by the local police and was tragically murdered. I hope that lessons can be learned from that case for Derbyshire police and the rest of the country.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that dreadful and appalling case. It is for the Derbyshire constabulary to make the appropriate decisions following the report by the IPCC, and it would meet with approval from the whole House if it took the report very seriously and acted on its recommendations.

The Government’s introduction of the right for carers to request flexible working is welcome, but can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on how that right will operate in practice? Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), have joined me in drawing attention to the fact that the system of financial support for working carers is a disincentive to work and serves to ensure that working carers are kept in poverty.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I shall certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and other ministerial colleagues understand the force of her argument. If we can find an opportunity for debate, of course we will.

The Leader of the House will be aware that hon. Members of all parties, but especially Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, are concerned about the future of NHS facilities in their constituencies. If it is not possible in this Session, will he try and find time early in the new Parliament for a debate on the future of the NHS? I represent Macclesfield, where our unit providing in-patient paediatric, maternity and obstetric services is under threat. It is viable and popular, and it is supported by all the clinicians. Before important decision are taken, should not these matters be explored on the Floor of the House? Surely, that is what the House is about?

First, there have probably been more opportunities to debate aspects of the NHS than any other issue, and that will continue to be the case.

The right hon. Lady says that those opportunities arise on Opposition days, but I remind her that almost a whole day of legislative time next week is devoted to NHS Bills. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is very adept at making sure that his remarks are in order when it comes to anything that has the label “NHS” attached to it. Of course I understand the concerns that arisein communities when there are changes in the arrangements for NHS facilities, but we must do more than shout at each other about the matter. We need to have a serious conversation, which must acknowledge that, in cash terms, spending on the NHS has almost trebled since 1997 and that, in real terms, it has doubled. Moreover, the total number of staff has increased by 300,000, there have been substantial rises in the numbers of clinical staff in every constituency, and outputs are also improving. At the same time, changes in medical practice mean that fewer have to stay in hospital, with more people being day-care cases. While those changes will not affect the improvement in outputs or in morbidity and mortality rates, they will affect how the NHS is delivered on the ground.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on foreign vehicles operating in the UK? They do not contribute to repairing the wear and tear that they cause on the roads or the other damage that they create, and the wagons do not meet the stringent safety and emission standards that we expect. Our hauliers are put at a disadvantage, and the danger is that they could be put out of work as well.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is very aware of the fact that some foreign truck drivers have lower practice standards than UK drivers, and of the difficulties of enforcement. That is why a good deal of effort is being made at ports and elsewhere to ensure that the drivers and owners of foreign trucks get the message that they will be checked much more often in this country, and that they can expect high penalties and even custody if they are found committing offences while driving.

May we have an urgent statement from the Foreign Secretary to clarify once and for all the Government’s policy in respect of an inquiry into the war in Iraq? In this week’s debate initiated by the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, the right hon. Lady consistently ruled out any such inquiry, only for the Defence Secretary to say that one would happen when the time was right. Yesterday, the Prime Minister refused to rule out such an inquiry. What is the Government’s position on the matter? Why has it been left to the SNP and Plaid Cymru to put it at the heart of the political agenda?

I think that we will wait a long time before the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru put anything at the heart of British politics. Sometimes—shock, horror—Ministers say slightly different things, and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s question is like dancing on the head of a pin. All three of my right hon. Friends to whom he referred made the position absolutely clear.

Will my right hon. Friend intercede with the Home Secretary to come to the House to make a statement and lead a debate on the facilities and processes involved in tracing missing persons—especially missing children—and the results that are achieved? The first Adjournment debate that I held in this House took place on the second anniversary of the disappearance of Vicky Hamilton, a 15-year-old girl from Falkirk in my constituency. Ironically, she disappeared from Bathgate bus station, which is now in my constituency area of Linlithgow. She went to school with my children and lived in our community. She has never been traced and yesterday her father launched another private-sector initiative to find her, with the EMCOR group putting photographs of missing children on 450 of its vans. Another initiative involves the charity PACT, which was founded by Lady Meyer. I hope that people know that they can phone 0808 100 8777 if they have any information about missing children, or that they can look at the website www.missingkids.co.uk. However, the problem is that, despite the private initiatives, people do not understand why 100,000 children go missing every year in the UK, many of whom are never traced. I believe that we should have a debate to bring the matter to the public notice, and ensure that we have a consistent approach to it. Vicky Hamilton would have been 30 today, but let us hope that other children can be returned to their parents.

Some of the cases are indeed tragic, and all are desperate for the families concerned. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the matter. The Association of Chief Police Officers—which covers England and Wales, although I am sure that the same is true of its equivalent in Scotland—has an upgraded and very good approach to tracing missing persons,. I recently heard a report about that on the radio.

The Economic Secretary appears inadvertently to have misled the House last week about the freezing of Abu Hamza’s assets, while the Evening Standard reported that Hamza’s son, who has been convicted of terrorist offences in Yemen, has sold the family house. Would it not be more appropriate for the Economic Secretary to make a statement to the House next week, instead of holding discussions behind closed doors with my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) on the subject?

I was never suggesting that a conversation between a Minister and a Member of this House was a substitute for a statement to the House, but we should welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has offered that. I am not familiar with the right hon. Gentleman’s claim that my hon. Friend inadvertently misled the House, although I think it unlikely. Anyone who has had to deal with tracing criminal assets knows that it is a very complex problem that has taxed all Governments, and that we are constantly tightening the law.

The great increase in the number of British citizens travelling the world inevitably means that many will get into complex difficulties in countries far from home. Recently, constituents of mine in other countries have been involved in serious road traffic accidents or been arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned. In more than one case, constituents of mine have been murdered. That raises important questions about the Foreign Office’s capacity and procedures when it comes to providing assistance through our embassies to British citizens involved in complex legal cases. May we have a debate on the matter?

I made a statement about this matter when I was Foreign Secretary. My hon. Friend will recall that the manifesto on which he and I fought the last general election promised a comprehensive review of our consular services. That has been held, and we have as it were upgraded the consular offer that we make to all our citizens. I know that my right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary would be very happy to take up any specific cases that he raises. Overall, we reckon that our consular services, which are heavily used, are at least as good as the best in the world, but people who travel abroad have to take out their own insurance to cover the risks they incur. Of course, the FCO service is a backstop, but representation by lawyers, medical care and repatriation are matters for which the individual should bear the cost, rather than taxpayers as a whole.

The Leader of the House has given us a calendar for next year, which is splendid. However, may we have an early debate to consider the circumstances in which Parliament is recalled? Many of us believe that the initiative should not lie with the Government, so may I commend to the right hon. Gentleman early-day motion 2695?

[That this House believes that Mr Speaker should have the power to order its recall both at his own discretion and in the event that he receives a formal request from no fewer than 75 hon. and right hon. Members.]

It would give Mr. Speaker, either at his discretion or following a request from no fewer than 75 hon. and right hon. Members, the power to recall. May we rapidly have a debate on that subject?

Indeed. I have it before me on the Dispatch Box for greater accuracy. As you will recall, Mr. Speaker, formally you call the Commons back following representations by Her Majesty’s Ministers.I have been involved in all three cases over the last10 years when Parliament was recalled; in each case the Government were not unwilling to recall Parliament and in 1998, when I was Home Secretary—[Interruption.] I am saying that the current arrangements work pretty well, because they ensure that where there is a real demand—from the Opposition, for example—Parliament is recalled. I am happy to discus the matter with the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the Tea Room or elsewhere—

Well, almost. I have looked at the matter, as have various Committees, and I think that the current arrangements do not work too badly at all.

Recently, a visually impaired constituent contacted me in Braille and I was dismayed to find that there were no facilities in the House to have the letter transcribed and to help me respond in Braille. As that directly affects my ability to respond to a constituent, will my right hon. Friend look into the matter?

The Leader of the House will be aware that pressure on the NHS to address long-standing budget deficits by the end of the current financial year is having a predictable impact on services in many areas, particularly physiotherapy. Given that the vital role of physiotherapy services is not explicitly recognised in waiting list targets and is thus more vulnerable to cuts, may we have an urgent debate on the future of physiotherapy services? Among other issues, it could address the precise reasons why93 per cent. of this year’s 2,900 physiotherapy graduates have no job to go to? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the situation demands the further attention of the House?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are plenty of opportunities to raise such matters on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall. I have to say again that it does not make much sense, even for Opposition Members, to imply that there are continual cuts in the health service when in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, as well as everywhere else, there have been significant increases in the numbers of all clinical staff, including physiotherapists, since 1997.

My right hon. Friend will know that next week is road safety week, and he will also be aware that road accidents are the single biggest killer of young people. Given those circumstances, will he consider a debate on the Floor of the House about early-day motion 2899, signed by Members on both sides of the House?

[That this House deplores the fact that in 2005 846 young drivers were killed on UK roads; notes that the introduction of a graduated licensing system in New Zealand led to a reduction of 23 per cent. in car crashes involving drivers aged 15 to 19 years and a 12 per cent. reduction in crashes involving drivers aged 20 to 24 years, and that the introduction of a graduated licensing system in California led to a 20 per cent. reduction in crashes where drivers aged 16 years were either injured or caused the crash; acknowledges that Department for Transport research suggests that a 12-month minimum learning period would reduce UK deaths and serious injuries by 1,000 each year; and calls for the Government to introduce a graduated licensing system incorporating a minimum 12-month learning period and restrictions on novice drivers for the first two years following their test, including the size of engine they can drive, time of day they can travel, and number of passengers they can carry, to allow young drivers to build skills and experience gradually and help prevent the tragic deaths of young drivers, their passengers, other road users and pedestrians.]

It calls for a graduated licence scheme for new and young drivers to enable them to build up their driving skills, thereby minimising the risk of loss of life to their passengers, themselves and pedestrians.

There will be a good opportunity for my hon. Friend to take part in a debate about the needfor such a scheme during the five-day debate on the Queen’s Speech, if he is able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. Meanwhile, I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to what my hon. Friend has said.

May we have an urgent debate on whether the sex offenders register is protecting people as it was designed to do? Recently, I asked a question of the Home Office about how many people were missing from the register—for example, because they were trying to get away from the police so that the police did not know where they lived. The answer was that such figures are not held centrally. How can we have a sex offenders register if we do not have a central register of where sex offenders are?

A great deal of information on sex offenders is held centrally. In this case, I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the attention of the Home Secretary and ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.

May we have an urgent debate, following the decision of the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust to cut £15 million-worth of services to local people? That will include a freeze on advertisements for new staff and on filling temporary gaps in employment in the health service and restrictions on the prescription of drugs. I appreciate what the Leader of the House said to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton)—the Government have spent a huge amount on the health service over the last 10 years—and I also appreciate the fact that the Secretary of State for Health is a Member of Parliament for Leicester, but the cuts astonish local people and we need an explanation of why they are happening. May we please have a debate?

I thank my right hon. Friend for adding balance to his question. We all understand concern when there are reductions in previously set budgets—[Hon. Members: “Cuts.”] No.

No, these are previously set budgets; they are in no sense cuts compared with spending levels in previous years—[Laughter.] It is no good Conservative Members laughing. These matters have a context that would never have been achieved under a Conservative Administration—a real-terms doubling of NHS spending in less than 10 years. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) had had more time, he would have wanted to spell out the fact that there are to be three new, or refurbished, hospitals in Leicester, including Leicester General hospital in his constituency, where there is a plan, among other things, for a new diabetes centre. The crucial point, which we all have to understand and which explains why otherwise similar health areas—with similar funding and patient profiles—are doing differently and in some cases much better than others, is that the decisions are made by the local primary care trusts and local health trusts. The decisions are taken locally and the people running those primary care and health trusts have to take full responsibility if they run into financial difficulties.

Given the new technical possibilities of the connecting for health programme, the prospect of other Departments and bodies such as the police gaining access to medical records and the express concerns of the Information Commissioner, will the Leader of the House press the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement further clarifying the legal ground rules for handling citizens’ medical data?

I will of course pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health what the hon. Gentleman said, but in fact we have substantial guarantees for the privacy of data, not least through the Data Protection Act 1998. There are also protections, paradoxically, in the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and, under legislation that I introduced, a single commissioner—the Information Commissioner—has powers and responsibilities to police both sets of legislation.

May we have a debate on Farepak, the Christmas savings scheme that collapsed with the result that for hundreds of thousands of hard-working families Christmas is, in effect, cancelled? Last week at a public meeting, I was told that the company had been in trouble last December, its shares crashed in August, a rival company tried to buy it but was rejected and, lastly, that it waited until the vast majority of people had paid in full. The investigation of the company’s directors and chief executive should not just be a matter for the Department for Trade and Industry; the serious fraud squad should be having a look at it, too.

As I said last week, I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House in expressing his concern and anxiety about what has happened and we applaud him for speaking up for his constituents and people across the country who have been defrauded by this company. I am pleased to tell him that there will be a debate on the matter in Westminster Hall on Tuesday from 9.30 am to 11 am. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) obtained the debate and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) will be successful in catching the Chairman’s eye.

The noble Lord Rooker said in the other place earlier this week that the administration of the single farm payments scheme for the coming year will be no better than it was in the previous year. May we have an urgent debate on the single farm payment, so that Opposition Members can put the case for making payments to farmers by Christmas? It is unacceptable for them to suffer as they did last year.

I know that my noble Friend Lord Rooker has been concerned about the problem—I have discussed it with him myself—and is tackling it as explicitly as he can. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that we have just had Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that during yesterday’s debate on September sittings, hon. Members on both sides of the House expressed the concern that coming back in September was equivalent to visiting a building site. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to encourage Members of both genders on both sides of the House to take half an hour out of their busy diaries to visit a local building site, where they will see building workers doing their jobs in extremely dangerous conditions. If they did so, they might have an opportunity to speak to building workers about health and safety and they might return to the House with a more informed view of corporate responsibility and corporate manslaughter.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the fact that, although safety at building sites has improved, too many of them remain dangerous places and construction workers put themselves at considerable risk. As we know from the construction of terminal 5 at Heathrow, spending money on health and safety is not an optional extra. If a real effort is made on health and safety, we end up with a more contented work force and buildings are much more likely to be completed on time.

May we have a debate on sentencing? Many people are increasingly sick and tired of reading about people who have been given life sentences for murder being let out of prison to commit further murders and other crimes without even completing the length of sentence handed down by the courts in the first place. I did a survey in my constituency, which found that 86 per cent. of people believed that prisoners should serve the sentence handed down by the court in full. May we have a debate to see whether hon. Members are in tune with public opinion?

That matter has been debated endlessly. Under the present Government, the number of prison places has increased by around 20,000. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that my constituents are fed up with hearing Conservative Members bleating about the fact that the system is too soft and needs to be toughened up, yet time and again when the Government have sought to toughen up the criminal justice system, they have voted against it.

On Tuesday, we had the disappointing spectacle of a Scottish National party Opposition day, which SNP Members refused to use to discuss their disastrous proposals for divorcing Scotland from the rest of the UK. It was particularly disappointing for those of us in the Scottish parliamentary Labour party who were looking forward to exposing the SNP’s schoolboy economics and hidden agendas aimed at undermining Scotland’s role in the UK. Can we have a debate to highlight the benefits of Scotland’s place in the UK and to expose the policies that the SNP seems so reluctant to discuss.

I would be delighted to have such a debate and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland would be, too. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to make his points during our debate on the Queen’s Speech. It is incontrovertible that the four nations of the UK are stronger together and would be much weaker apart. England would suffer if the Union were broken up and so would the Scottish people.

Does the Leader of the House recognise the concern expressed in the Public Administration Committee’s sixth report about the Government’s unprecedented behaviour in contesting the parliamentary ombudsman’s recent findings of maladministration? Does not that raise fundamental constitutional issues about respect for the position of the parliamentary ombudsman and the relationship between Parliament and the Executive? Is there not a need for an urgent debate?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently published a written ministerial statement, setting out the Government’s response to that Public Administration Committee report. We understand the concern and we have the greatest respect for the ombudsman and the Public Administration Committee. Above all, we have great sympathy for the plight of people in this position. However, for reasons that we have set out, we cannot meet all the proposals that have been made and I do not believe that any Government could do so. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, we hope that what is termed “deemed buy-back” is carefully considered on an individual basis as one means of redressing the suffering that has been felt.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is yet to announce a scheme for supporting hill farmers through this winter. As the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, farmers will be planning their feeding programme for the winter without any certainty about what support they will receive. Will the Leader of the House impress on his right hon. Friend the importance of coming to an early decision and making a statement to the House so that we can debate the adequacies of the arrangements?

Yes, indeed. I am just looking at the list of DEFRA questions this morning and I do not believe that that matter was discussed, so I will certainly pass the point on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

May I draw the House’s attention to the 2005 Audit Committee report, “Tackling Cancer: Improving Patient Journey”, which pointed out that 60 per cent. of all people entitled to benefits did not receive information about their entitlements? I respectfully remind the Leader of the House that the report expressed the hope that the Government would make a statement by the end of 2005. We are nearly at the end of 2006, so can we expect a statement soon?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that matter. I am not familiar with the detail, so I will look into it further and either I or the relevant Minister will write to her.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House is a TOG—“Terry’s Old Geezer”—but I have had a number of complaints, not least from my wife, about this subject. Terry Wogan is currently promoting the sale of TOG calendars and “Janet and John” CDs for the BBC’s “Children in Need” appeal. Unfortunately, 17.5 per cent. of the proceeds go directly to the Government. Has the right hon. Gentleman had any indication from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may also be a TOG, about whether he is prepared to exempt the sale of those products from VAT?

I am told by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that I might be a TOG—[Interruption.]—and the Deputy Chief Whip says, “Self-nominated”! I am very grateful for the translation of TOG, in any case. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s point to the Chancellor.

May we have a debate in Government time on the underfunding of Northamptonshire police force? It faces a £6 million financial crisis next year, which could well lead to a loss of 42 police officer posts, right down to the Home Office minimum of 1,289. Local residents are extremely concerned, not least because Northamptonshire has one of the fastest growing populations in the country.

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that, according to recent data from the inspectorate, Northamptonshire is one of the poorest performing police forces in the country. If I were Home Secretary, I would tell the chief constable and the police authority that they need to sort that out and not use claimed budget problems as an excuse. The simple truth isthat, like every other police force in the country, Northamptonshire has enjoyed a very significant increase in resources and police numbers in recent years.