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Business of the House

Volume 454: debated on Thursday 7 December 2006

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 11 december—Second Reading of the Offender Management Bill, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Tuesday 12 December—Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill.

Wednesday 13 December—Second Reading of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Thursday 14 December—A debate on fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 15 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 December will be as follows:

Monday 18 December—Second reading of the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

Tuesday 19 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

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

Yesterday, in the United States, the Iraq study group published its report. It is a chilling commentary on the management of the Iraq war and its aftermath. The Prime Minister is in the United States today for talks with President Bush following the report’s publication. Undoubtedly those talks will cover not only the report but the response of both Governments to its findings, and proposals for the future of our involvement in Iraq. May we have a statement from the Prime Minister before the recess on the Iraq study group report and future UK involvement in Iraq?

The Department of Trade and Industry is expected to issue a report on the future of the Post Office next week. It should cover support for rural post offices and the replacement for the Post Office card account. Can the Leader of the House confirm that there will be an oral statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry so that Members can question him on the report? Given that the subject is of great concern to Members in all parts of the House, as Government decisions have led to the closure of many post offices—not just in rural areas, but in urban areas such as Ross road and Woodlands Park in my constituency—may we have a debate on the future of the Post Office in the new year, in Government time?

The Leader of the House will be aware that new procedures have been introduced for the Committee stages of Bills. The House voted on them only a few weeks ago. Among other things, the new procedures allow Public Bill Committees to take evidence during consideration of Bills. I think that when the Leader of the House said that they would come into force after 1 January, many Members thought that that meant that any Committees sitting after that date would be able to take public evidence. However, I understand that the new procedures will not apply to any Bill introduced—not just any that has had its Second Reading—before 1 January. That means, for example, that the Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill will not be able to take evidence from either the Mayor of London or from London borough council leaders. Is that another sleight of hand by the Government, or will the Leader of the House reconsider, to ensure that the will of the House is put into practice?

Yesterday the Chancellor gave us the pre-Budget report. There is a pattern to such things—Labour Members cheer them on the day in the House, and a few days later the Chancellor’s promises start to unravel. This one, however, started unravelling as soon as he sat down. Not only did he give us reheated spin on education and fail to mention the crisis in the NHS once—which, I presume, means that he supports the cuts in the NHS—but his claim to be addressing green issues struck a false note. Under this Government, carbon emissions have gone up and the burden of green taxes has fallen. The verdict on the Chancellor from Ed Matthews of Friends of the Earth was:

“I would give him probably one out of 10…I think it’s pretty feeble really. He’s got a terrible record. For 10 years he’s failed to provide a green budget.”

Hon. Members may recall that earlier this year, in the Budget, the Chancellor promised

“to radically reform vehicle excise duty…introducing…a zero rate for a small number of cars with the very lowest carbon emissions”.—[Official Report, 22 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 295.]

As it turned out, no cars eligible for that zero-rated road tax are currently available to buy in Britain.

Yesterday we heard about zero-carbon homes. The Chancellor announced

“plans to ensure that within 10 years every new home will be a zero-carbon home”.—[Official Report, 6 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 309.]

Last night on “Newsnight”, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that there were already some zero-carbon homes in the UK. How many are there? He was not quite sure. Where are they? In a development somewhere, he said. What part of the country are they in? He did not know. So—

Order. The right hon. Lady must understand that a lot of Members want to speak today. We have two debates to come, and Members will be disappointed if they are not able to participate. Her case about the business of next week must be concise. I do not want a rehash of yesterday’s pre-Budget report.

My very next sentence, Mr. Speaker, was to be as follows: can we have a statement from the Chancellor clarifying his policy and explaining how many zero-carbon homes there are, where they are and what exactly qualifies as a zero-carbon home? Alternatively, will we find out that, as with every announcement from the Chancellor, he smiles on the day and people suffer ever after?

The right hon. Lady asked me first about the Iraq study group’s important and timely report. The Prime Minister will give his initial reactions to that at a press conference later today in Washington—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, that is where he is. Even with his great skills, there is no way that he can suddenly whisk back here to make a statement. On the issue of a statement, it is not usual to make statements on bilateral visits of that kind. There will, of course, be Prime Minister’s questions next Wednesday—[Interruption.] It will be good enough.

On the Post Office, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry intends to make an oral statement. As the right hon. Lady is trying to help position her party as an alternative Government—I am glad to notice the smirking laughter from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) with regard to that statement—let me say that the idea that “the Government are to blame for the closure of post offices” is simply incorrect. Post office closures have been caused by technological changes that have led to a catastrophic drop in customers, which would have happened under any Government. What would not have happened under the previous Government, however, is the £2 billion of additional subsidy to help rural post offices in particular, many of which have fewer than 15 to 20 customers a week.

On Committee stages of Bills, I do not have the exact text of what I said, but I made it clear when introducing the measures that we were putting before the House a plan that the default setting of evidence sessions should apply in respect of Bills that had their Second Reading after 1 January. I am pretty certain that I said to the House that, for that reason, we anticipated that only five Bills or so would have the procedure during the current Session.

However, on the Greater London Authority Bill and the Offender Management Bill, I undertake, without commitment, to talk to my right hon. Friends who are handling those Bills to see whether they are willing to introduce such sessions. There is no sleight of hand; we proposed the measure to ensure that this change, which is of profound importance to the way in which the House scrutinises Bills, gets properly bedded in.

Lastly, at some length, the right hon. Lady went on about yesterday’s brilliant statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The problem that the Conservative party has is that we have had an unparalleled rate of economic success over the last 10 years, which puts into dismal perspective the record of the previous Government. She asks for a statement; we had a statement yesterday.

If the right hon. Lady wants to ask detailed questions about the statement, she should table some written parliamentary questions. Also, the Chancellor has just been here for a whole hour answering questions—when, to my certain knowledge, the right hon. Lady was not in the Chamber.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of recent reports from some employers who are frightened or reluctant to display festive decorations in the workplace for fear of offending other religious cultures? Will he join me in sending out a signal that that is absolute nonsense, and that we should be able to celebrate accordingly in this country?

I am aware of the reports and I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is total nonsense. My column in the Lancashire Telegraph this week is about exactly that subject. The simple truth is that my Muslim constituents and friends also wish to see Christmas celebrated. What is forgotten by those who come out with this nonsense is that those of the Muslim faith honour our prophets, and those of the Jewish religion, as much as they honour their own prophets.

I am afraid that a press conference in Washington DC is not an appropriate response to this House to a fundamental review of policy in Iraq that has inevitable consequences for British policy. We need a statement here; what is more, we need a debate here on our position on Iraq.

I understand that the Andaman islanders have only five numbers in their language—one, two, one more, some more and all. That is approximately the level of financial scrutiny that the House is able to give Government spending. Today is Estimates day, and we will discuss the lamentable record of the Government on affordable housing and the scandalous response of the Government to the ombudsman on pensions. What we will not have an opportunity to do is to debate the estimates. Is there not a case for better scrutiny by this House of the Government’s spending? That is our primary function, and it is one that I think we do not perform properly.

Will there be a statement next week on the BBC licence fee, as we will discuss the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill on Monday week, and it is important that the licence fee decision be made before the Bill is debated? Can we have a statement, and a subsequent debate on an amendable motion, to give Members the opportunity to discuss the BBC licence fee properly?

Lastly, may we have a debate on, and perhaps a review of, the Licensing Act 2003—in respect not of alcohol licences, the area that has so often engendered debate, but of public performances? Here I ought to declare an interest, as honorary president of the National Association of Brass Band Conductors, west of England area. The Leader of the House may be aware that a council in Cornwall determined that a brass band in its area could perfectly properly play Christmas carols, provided that it restricted itself to carols such as “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night”—but that if it strayed to playing anything that did not have a directly religious content, such as “Jingle Bells”, “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”, it would have to pay a licence fee. Happily, that particular situation has been satisfactorily resolved, but there are huge discrepancies between council licensing committees throughout the country as to what comprises a public performance. Can we not have some degree of consistency, and one that errs in favour of the Christmas spirit?

On the first item that the hon. Gentleman raises about the Iraq study group, we accept that that is an important review and, as I have told the House, the Prime Minister will answer questions here for half an hour next Wednesday. The hon. Gentleman asks for a debate as well. I cannot promise that there will be a debate on Iraq, or foreign policy more generally, before Christmas, but I shall certainly note that he has made a request for one after Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman also asks whether we can have better opportunities to debate estimates. The Modernisation Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the use of non-legislative time in this House—which I think is eccentrically distributed at present—and I hope that he will put forward his own evidence on that, as I think he has raised an important issue.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about the BBC licence fee, and on his final point, on which I think it is fair to say that he was blowing his own trumpet—

At least my last comment was unscripted—although I accept that it was just as bad as many of the right hon. Lady’s. The hon. Gentleman has a strong case for an immediate review, based on what he says about the kinds of difficulties that local authorities are getting into over Christmas carols. I promise to draw what he says to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Will my right hon. Friend give time for a debate on the teaching hospitals and other hospitals in Lancashire, because of the effect that the independent treatment centre might have on them? We know that consideration is being given to handing over 60 per cent. of work. That poses a threat to the staff who work in those hospitals. The time has come to ensure that we have a full debate on that matter—and I know that my right hon. Friend is sympathetic to that point of view.

I am always sympathetic to my hon. Friend; I do not necessarily always agree with him, but that is a different matter. As he knows, there has been huge investment in the national health service in Lancashire, including in the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, Blackburn, the sum for which is £110 million, the Lancashire teaching hospitals and the Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust, the Royal Albert Edward infirmary and Blackpool and Fylde cardiac centre. I have talked to my hon. Friend about the effect of the so-called CATS scheme—capture, assess, treat and support—and I understand the concerns that there are about it. Like him, I am in urgent discussions with the strategic health authority and the trusts involved, and we will follow that up. I also hope that he has an opportunity to raise the matter in a debate in Westminster Hall.

Week after week, the Leader of the House shows that he does not understand what has happened to the post office network. His hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), is chairman of the all-party group on sub-post offices, of which I have the honour to be secretary. Is it possible for her to inform him that the real problem is that some of my post offices used to get 70 per cent. of their income from benefits, and that more than £400 million in benefit income has been deliberately taken away by this Government, along with TV licences, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency documents and so forth? They are now left floundering. What is the role of the post office network? Adam Crozier, the chief executive, said that he needed only 4,000 of the 14,400. Can we have a full debate and a statement in the House from the Minister concerned?

I understand the point about the role of post offices, and post offices in my constituency have also been closed, but there is a reason for that. There is no point in the hon. Gentleman trying to make mischief out of a seminal change in people’s behaviour. People no longer go to the post office to buy their TV licences and to get their benefits. They now prefer to have their benefits paid into their bank account and to buy their TV licences by direct debit. [Interruption.]

Last week, the Leader of the House turned down a request for a debate on home helps no longer being provided for many frail and vulnerable people. At the same time as he turned down that request, a 90-year-old war veteran in a wheelchair was in my constituency office because he had been assessed as being ineligible for a home help. How can a warm-hearted, generous Leader of the House such as my right hon. Friend grant a debate on fisheries next week, but refuse one on the frail and vulnerable being denied home helps?

I suppose it is because I must have made a mistake last week. I share my hon. Friend’s profound concern about this issue. I was not trying to turn down his request—I made some other points and said that it was difficult to find Government time for such a debate—but I very much hope that will be able to use the many opportunities in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment to raise the issue. Meanwhile, I will do again what I did last week—draw his concern to the attention of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Yesterday, as column 307 of Hansard shows, the Chancellor made a fleeting reference to a very significant reorganisation of NHS clinical research and the Medical Research Council, which will have a combined budget of £1 billion. On the same day, David Cooksey produced one of the most far-reaching reports on how we deal with clinical and pure medical research. Will the Leader of the House ask the appropriate Minister to make a statement to this House on the Cooksey report, and may we have a full debate on this issue, which will affect every Member of this House?

It is an important report, and although we cannot have statements on every such report, I accept the basis of what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will consult my colleagues on whether we can have a debate on the issue.

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the workings of the NHS Appointments Commission, which again in Warrington has managed to appoint only two out of the seven primary care trust members from Warrington, North? The PCT is stuffed full of business people and accountants, but there are no representatives of the most health-deprived areas. Will he draw to the attention of our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health to how profoundly dissatisfied many Members of this House are with the way in which the commission is operating, and its failure to widen participation?

I am happy to do so; I know that my hon. Friend’s unhappiness is widely shared among Members in all parts of the House. These days, people are reflecting on whether such a commission is an appropriate way to make that kind of appointment.

May I return to the Iraq review report, which is perhaps the most important issue facing this Parliament and other democracies at this time? Is it not important that we in no way undermine the morale of our service personnel in Iraq, while showing total solidarity with, and support for, the fledgling democracy in Iraq? Is it not important, therefore, that the Prime Minister, who is in the United States talking to President Bush about this issue, should make a statement in this House before we rise for the summer recess? [Laughter.]

I can almost guarantee that the Prime Minister will make a statement on Iraq before we rise for the summer recess, but as the for the Christmas recess, I cannot make that promise. I repeat: the Prime Minister, if he is nowhere else, will be here next Wednesday, and I am sure that the Iraq study group and the consequences of it will be a dominant subject for questions during that half hour.

My right hon. Friend may be aware of the recent comments by General Sir Mike Jackson about the care and well-being of our service personnel, which were a typical example of yet another military snob pining for the return of a Conservative Government. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to remind General Jackson and other senior ranks in our armed forces that there was an opportunity during the recent debate on the Armed Forces Bill for him—or, indeed, for any other senior military person—to express concern about the care and well-being of service personnel? Bearing in mind the fact that we asked for a federation for the armed forces, not a trade union—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should be asking about next week’s business. At this time of day, we do not have a forum for complaining about speeches that were made outside this House.

I know that the Leader of the House will accept that he has a great responsibility to ensure that this House is relevant to the people whom we represent. Will he pause and reflect that people out there realise that the Iraq study group report is immensely important? They are pleased that our Prime Minister is visiting President Bush in Washington today, and they are aware that he is returning tomorrow. They simply do not understand, however, why he is not going to make a statement on Monday, and they will not think that Prime Minister’s Question Time—which, as the Leader of the House knows, is diverse—is any substitute.

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. Let me make it clear that the Prime Minister is not slow in coming forward to make statements—

I will of course have a word with him—on this and many other subjects. However, I do not want to hold out the promise of a statement in advance of parliamentary questions to the Prime Minister next Wednesday.

Can we have an urgent statement from the Prime Minister on his latest initiative, e-petitions? I signed one yesterday, and the No. 10 website thanked me and urged me to tell my friends—so here I am, telling my friends. I reflected on this, and I wonder how influential these e-petitions are, and whether I should be signing more.

My hon. Friend should. I know what a friend of the Prime Minister he is, and I must tell him that whenever I go into the Prime Minister’s study, the Prime Minister is at his computer terminal, saying, “Look at this—that young lad Prentice just signed another petition. I must bear him in mind for a job.”

May I return to the subject of Iraq, and the need for a full debate on the Baker-Hamilton report? The Leader of the House will have seen what it says about violence, insurgency and criminality, and about the Iraqi Government’s failure to make any advance on national reconciliation, or even to provide basic services. Is it not important that this House debate at least one question—perhaps he can answer it now, as he was Foreign Secretary at the time in question: to what extent do the Government accept responsibility for the existing situation in Iraq?

Just on that, let me make it clear that we in the Government accept our responsibilities in respect of Iraq. Those of us who made the recommendation to the House—I was one of them—accept our responsibilities, and we have made that clear. Of all of us who accept our responsibilities, the Prime Minister is very clear about them, so that is not an issue. Equally, we now have a responsibility, in a very serious situation, charted by the Iraq study group, to ensure a better future for the Iraqi people—a point on which everybody agrees, regardless of the original position that they took on the war.

I, too, want to raise the issue of Iraq, but to take another line. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees with me that one of the few positives in Iraq has been the development of an independent trade union movement—but is he aware that the Iraqi Government’s decrees are stifling that development? Will he ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement explaining exactly how we will support the Iraqi trade union movement? I am particularly concerned that they need the strength to stand alone, whatever happens in the future.

I have seen my hon. Friend’s early-day motion 405 in that respect and I will certainly tell my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary of his concerns. Iraq started well post-war in defending labour rights, but I know that there has been some backward movement since then.

Debates in the House recently on the NHS have been rightly dominated by the issue of deficits, but an even more fundamental problem is the fact that morale among nursing staff in the NHS is at an all-time low and is beginning to have an impact on patient care. In addition, 185,000 nurses are due to leave the NHS over the next five years and there has been a reduction in the number of student nurse places. I have asked this question before and I shall ask it again: can nursing staff have their own debate in this House, so that they may have access to their MPs to put their cases forward, instead of doing it through lobbying groups?

I do not accept what the hon. Lady says about the morale of nurses. In the east of England area that covers her constituency, there has been an increase of 8,000 in the number of nurses since 1997, on top of the increased number of GPs and consultants, together with a lot of investment in hospital services and other health services. On the issue of a debate, there are many opportunities to raise issues in the House, although I wish that there were more. I hope that the hon. Lady will give evidence to the Modernisation Committee about how we may better use non-legislative time, both Opposition and Government.

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate about credit companies, especially Provident Personal Credit, which is targeting hard-working families who were caught up in the Farepak scandal? It suggests that they should make their Christmas more affordable, but charges a typical APR of 177 per cent. It is time that we put a cap on such companies, because that is nothing but legalised theft.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the issue and I applaud him for his work on it. When he gave me a copy of the leaflet, I thought that the APR was a misprint, but it is not. I notice that the small print also claims that there are “no hidden charges”—on an APR of 177 per cent. This is a very serious issue and I will draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

You may not know, Mr. Speaker, that I am a member of a great organisation called the Campaign against Political Correctness. An ICM poll has just found that 80 per cent. of people are fed up with political correctness, including 79 per cent. of women and 72 per cent. of people who did not class themselves as white British. Given that widespread concern, may we have a debate on political correctness to find out what we can do to roll back the tide of political correctness that has done so much damage to this country?

The concern about so-called political correctness, for example in respect of the celebration of Christmas, is not confined to white people. My Muslim constituents are just as concerned about it, and so are those of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Everybody is concerned about it. I shall send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the excellent article I wrote for the Lancashire Telegraph today, in which I ask who comes out with such nonsense. Anybody who articulates it is in ignorance about the nature of our culture and religious heritage.

May I put it to the Foreign—I mean Leader of the House—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman moves jobs so quickly. May I put it to the Leader of the House that the Prime Minister is involved in no mere routine bilateral in Washington. He has gone over to witness the seizing of the reins of foreign and defence policy by the grown-ups of American politics from a discredited White House, which is accompanying the collapse of British defence and foreign policy, the central plank of which has been so-called victory in Iraq. It really is not acceptable for the Prime Minister to return to the UK without giving a statement to the House on what amounts to a substantial change in Government policy. I hope that the Leader of the House will prevail on the Prime Minister on that point.

If my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister were to be persuaded to come here next Monday, I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s words would necessarily tip the balance. I note what he says and repeat that if there is no other opportunity, there will be an opportunity at Prime Minister’s questions.

Given the Prime Minister’s shameful refusal to come to the House to respond to the Iraq study group report, we will have plenty of time to discuss future passport policy. Will the Leader of the House keep in mind early-day motion 336?

[That this House notes that it is the intention of the Government that from the Spring of 2007 all first-time applicants for a passport shall present themselves for a personal interview and that from 2009 all applicants for a passport, including renewals, shall present themselves for an interview; further notes that the numbers involved are very great, being over 650,000 in 2007 and rising to an annual figure of around 6,500,000 in 2009 and beyond; believes that the provision of 69 interview offices to meet the demand will be quite inadequate for the purpose; and calls on Ministers to reconsider these proposals, in any event to greatly increase the number of interview offices that will be available, and to abandon the general requirement that applicants for renewal of passports shall submit themselves for a personal interview.]

The proposal for personal interviews for all passport applicants, including renewals, is a catastrophe waiting to happen and the House needs to discuss it so that we can call on the Government to change their policy.

I am not sure that it is a catastrophe waiting to happen, but as I was Home Secretary when there were one or two difficulties in obtaining passports I take such warnings with some seriousness. The idea of the interviews is to cut down on serious passport fraud, but I will raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.