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Business of the House

Volume 454: debated on Thursday 14 December 2006

The business for next week 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.

The business for the week commencing 8 January will be:

Monday 8 January—Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill—[Interruption.] An excellent measure!

Tuesday 9 January—Remaining stages of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Wednesday 10 January—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 11 January—A debate on social exclusion on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 12 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 15 January will include:

Monday 15 January—Second Reading of the Planning-Gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill.

I can also inform the House that Government time will be made available for a debate on foreign affairs, focusing on Iraq and the middle east, by the end of January.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 18 and 25 January and 1 February will be:

Thursday 18 January—A debate on the report from the Transport Committee on parking policy and enforcement.

Thursday 25 January—A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on protecting and preserving our heritage.

Thursday 1 February—A debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on East Asia.

If I may, I would like to wish you, Mr. Speaker, a very happy Christmas on behalf of the Government—though I speak for the whole House. I would also like to thank, through you, all the staff of the House who work so hard. I wish all Members a happy Christmas, too.

If you will allow me a little leeway, Mr. Speaker, before I ask the Leader of the House my business questions, may I just explain the absence of my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara)? His second son was born earlier this week, and we offer him our congratulations. Indeed, his son had the foresight to wait to be born until after the 10 o’clock vote earlier this week, so I am sure that a future in the Whips Office beckons for him.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for indicating that there will be a debate in Government time to focus on the middle east. A number of right hon. and hon. Members and I have been asking for a debate on Iraq for some time, and I am grateful to him for providing that.

I am sure that the Leader of the House has seen the report today showing that Ministers avoided answering more than 1,000 written parliamentary questions in the last Session of Parliament. I commend him for being innocent of this charge, and I am sure that he will tell me that the problem is that there are so many more written questions these days. But the unanswered questions covered issues such as the number of school leavers without any GCSE qualifications, the number of homes built on green-belt land and violent crime committed by murderers released on parole—all issues of concern to our constituents.

The report follows the information from the Department for Work and Pensions that replies to awkward questions are distorted or delayed and some are simply thrown in the bin. On 10 July, the right hon. Gentleman said:

“I attach great importance to the accuracy and timeliness of responses to parliamentary questions”—[Official Report, 10 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1560W.]

He is right: it is the job of Ministers to be accountable, and it is the job of Members to scrutinise the Government. So will he now investigate and make a statement to the House after the recess to set out what steps will be taken to ensure that all parliamentary questions are given full and timely replies in future?

The resolution of the House of 19 March 1997 states:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”—[Official Report, 19 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 1047.]

Can the Leader of the House tell us why it took the Secretary of State for Defence from the end of October to the middle of December to correct the record on his claim that there would be no losers when the Government introduced changes to allowances for troops?

Another example of reducing parliamentary scrutiny is the handling of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order. The order covers 304 pages, 308 articles and 13 schedules, yet it was set for only two and a half hours of debate. In July this year, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), told the House:

“if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable.”

He also said:

“We will...ensure that, whenever possible, we legislate for Northern Ireland through primary legislation.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 766.]

Will the Leader of the House give a commitment to the House that the Government will not in future introduce such lengthy and controversial legislation by unamendable order?

May we have a debate in Government time on financial management in the Department of Health? Ministers have been quick to point out in the past that deficits in NHS trusts were the result of poor financial management locally. Yet the Health Committee report on NHS deficits, which was issued earlier this week, makes it clear that some of the blame lies at the centre. It said:

“Poor central management has contributed to the deficits.”

We need such a debate, so that Members can hold Ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to account for their responsibility for the loss of 21,000 posts in the NHS, the threat to 80 community hospitals and the closure of accident and emergency and maternity units across the country.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, may I join the Leader of the House in sending best wishes for the Christmas festivities? As we look ahead to those festivities, I am sure that if hon. Members want advice on office parties, they could always ask the Deputy Prime Minster, and that if they want to know how much to drink, they can always ask a bishop. May I join the Leader of the House in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members and, indeed, all the staff, who serve us so well throughout the year, a very merry Christmas?

If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I will pass lightly over her last comments. I join in the congratulations to the shadow deputy Leader of the House and I am sure that I am joined in that by all Members of the House. I am also delighted to note that the birth waited until after the 10 o’clock vote, because I have always been of the opinion that the old hours were family friendly and that just underlines the point. They certainly were for me.

The Chief Whip—Patronage Secretary—says that that is all right then. It is certainly one contribution to that debate.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to a bit of “research” that Conservative central office issued this morning, in which it is claimed that 1,000 parliamentary questions are unanswered. She invited me to begin an investigation into that research. Among other things, she mentioned a question that she claims is unanswered about the number of school leavers without qualifications. It is an indication of the speed with which my office and I move that I have already started the investigation and I can report to the House that the research to which she referred is defective in many particulars.

The whole House just heard the right hon. Lady claim that there was an unanswered question about the qualifications of school leavers. On 1 November 2006, Hansard states:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what proportion of children left school with no GCSE qualifications in each year since the introduction of the examination.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 443W.]

The Minister for Schools goes on to answer the question. That is only one of a series of examples. Another example, which is also quoted in the press release, is a question to ask the Secretary of State how many suicides have taken place among deployed UK personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. That answer is also given. It looks as though included in the 1,000 questions are a number of questions that were withdrawn before the due date for answer, quite a large number that were transferred to other Departments and then answered, quite a number that, consistent with the policy of all previous Governments, were grouped for answer with other questions, and quite a number of questions that were answered, but were not updated on the database.

I also notice not quite a claim, but an insinuation in the press notice that the information came from “the independent” House of Commons Library. In fact, it came from researchers in the right hon. Lady’s office trying to make use of the database of the House of Commons Library and failing lamentably in that endeavour. All that I can say is that we have been generous to a fault with the Opposition. The amount of money that we have ensured should be paid to the Opposition has gone up from £1 million or so when we were in opposition to over £6 million—and this is the result of that investment. If ever there was a part of British civic society showing a failure in terms of value for money it is the Opposition research departments and the kind of people who work for the right hon. Lady.

That leads me on directly to the right hon. Lady’s request for a debate on the health service. She asked about the important report on NHS deficits. I do not doubt that it will, in due course, be the subject of debate, either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. That is a matter for the Liaison Committee to determine. I will just point out that report says:

“Poor local management is also to blame. For all the added costs imposed by the Department of Health, it is undeniable that the NHS has had a lot more money to spend. Surpluses can be found in PCTs and trusts with a low per capita funding. Deficits exist in trusts with a high per capita funding.”

The right hon. Lady went on to ask me two other things. One was about corrections. Ministers are always assiduous in ensuring that corrections are made. If she wants to know why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence took time to issue a correction, as he did yesterday in a letter to you, Mr. Speaker, which has been made available to Members on both sides of the House, it is because—I know this because I have also gone into it in detail—the changeover in the separation allowance for the armed forces, which was begun three years ago and approved by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, was immensely complicated. There were, with the same pot of money, some winners and losers. The briefing was that even for those who had lost out—those who had experienced a reduction in separation allowance—the bonus payments would more than offset that. That was overwhelmingly true, but it was not the case for some examples that took a long time to come through. When my right hon. Friend made the original announcement about the bonus, he was wholly unaware—he had good reasons for this—of changes to the separation allowance.

Let me come on to the last thing, if the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will hold himself back. None of us regards the arrangements for legislation in respect of Northern Ireland when direct rule is operating as satisfactory. However, those arrangements were introduced in the early 1970s by a Conservative Government. Given the problems of time, it is extraordinarily difficult to know what other arrangements could apply.

Will my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate on today’s announcement in the other place about a consultation on giving prisoners the vote? I know that such a proposal would be enthusiastically supported by the Liberal Democrats, but I and other hon. Members would have strong feelings about it.

My hon. Friend is right. That proposal has been one of the few consistent aspects of Liberal Democrat policy over many years—they continue to support it. Speaking for myself and, I think, all my colleagues, we are wholly opposed to giving prisoners the right to vote. The consultation document arises from an interesting decision taken by the European Court of Human Rights.

The hon. Gentleman is correct about that. I simply say to hon. Members that when the consultation has concluded, this House will make a decision about the way forward.

I shall wait until Tuesday’s pre-recess Adjournment debate to offer Christmas wishes to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for stating that we will finally have a debate on Iraq. I have asked only 14 times for such a debate since the start of this Parliament. We very much look forward to the Foreign Secretary actually attending the House and giving some sort of account of the policy.

A statement on post offices will be made immediately after business questions. If, as many fear, it has the effect of closing a great many post offices throughout the country, which would lead to inevitable social effects, may we not just ask for a debate, but demand one, because such closures would affect the constituency of every hon. Member and I am sure that Members would want the opportunity to express their views?

The local government White Paper opened a Pandora’s box on unitary status. However, it also had interesting and valuable things to say about first-tier authorities. May we have a debate in the near future about the role and functions of parish and town councils? I take this opportunity in the Chamber to offer my best wishes and thanks to all the volunteers who serve on town and parish councils throughout the country, whose efforts are often unsung.

May we have a debate on stationery? The Leader of the House may be aware that a National Audit Office report reveals that the Government are losing £660 million a year simply by not ordering stationery from the cheapest sources. Apparently, they pay twice as much for Post-it notes as they would at the local corner shop. That is a disgraceful waste of public money.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) drew attention to parliamentary questions. It seems that we have a continuing problem with the traffic light system in the Department for Work and Pensions because a letter from the Secretary of State says:

“In October the Department began trialling an informal system that involves colour-coding Questions depending on whether separate press briefing may be required.”

In other words, hon. Members’ questions have to wait for spin to be applied before they can be answered. Surely that cannot be satisfactory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ask

“how many parliamentary written questions his Department received … were not answered because of disproportionate cost”.

He received the answer:

“The hon. Member’s question cannot be answered without incurring disproportionate costs.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 958W.]

Does that not say it all?

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman will at least offer Christmas greetings on behalf of his party on Tuesday. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are having to debate whether they recognise Christmas. The hon. Gentleman is a generous character, so for the life of me I do not understand why he cannot say “Happy Christmas” today. I have been trying to discover the source of all the politically correct nonsense; I strongly suspect that it is somewhere in the heart of the Liberal Democrat party.

To continue, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his acceptance that there will be a debate on Iraq and the middle east in January. The title will be “Foreign Policy”, because issues may have arisen in Afghanistan and it is important that the House has a timeous opportunity to discuss them. It is not correct to say that there have been no debates in Government time on the subject for three years; I am happy to give him a list of the occasions on which such debates have taken place.

On post offices, the hon. Gentleman should listen to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has to say. If there is demand for a debate, it will be considered in the normal way by the usual channels. However, I say to him and to the House that what we need in relation to change in the Post Office is a grown-up debate on the fact that there have been changes—not caused by anyone in the House or directly by anyone outside, but resulting from the internet—which have dramatically changed the use made of the Post Office. The hon. Gentleman knows that; he also knows that in the unlikely event of the Liberals being in government, they would face precisely the same issues as we do. [Interruption.] We are in government, as the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) says from a sedentary position, and we are happy to make the decisions.

Oh—that is because of the voting system.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asks me about the local government White Paper. That will be the subject of debate, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has stimulated a good debate on flexibility of arrangements. The Bill will be published and have its Second Reading early in the new year, and there will be many opportunities in this Chamber and in Committee for debate on that.

On stationery, those of us who have to run Government Departments constantly search for savings. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will draw to wider attention the need for centralised purchasing at one level, and for people to find the bargain in the corner shop at another.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, that answer is not acceptable. I shall follow it up and ensure that he gets an answer to his question.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate, or perhaps a statement from the Minister for Housing and Planning, on the development of community empowerment in housing in Birmingham, in which my constituency has been a pioneer? The Minister for Housing and Planning made it a condition on the local council to be responsive to local solutions that were proposed. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that Birmingham city council has now announced that it is to wind up the community-based housing organisation in my constituency? That is a matter of great public concern and we need a debate on it. Does he agree that if the Liberal Democrats truly agree with localism, it is about time that they stood up to their coalition partners in Birmingham?

Having gone into the matter in detail, I fear that it is another example of saying one thing and doing another. As the Minister for Housing and Planning made clear, we greatly value locally based housing organisations such as the Northfield community-based housing organisation, and we in the Government expect the city council to consider those organisations in any reorganisation of housing provision. I share my hon. Friend’s concern and hope that we can find him an opportunity to raise the subject.

Can the Leader of the House make time for a debate on British waterways, to assist the education of the Prime Minister? Waterways play a crucial role in the lives of my constituents, yet the Prime Minister knew nothing yesterday about the deep cuts that are taking place. His ignorance can be seen in all its glory at column 869 in Hansard. My constituents are worried that the Prime Minister is so out of touch, especially in view of the fact that he has a “save our waterways” petition on his own website, listed at No. 9.

In fact, the Prime Minister is well informed about that subject. I have a waterway running through my constituency—the Leeds-Liverpool canal—which has been transformed as a result of fantastic extra investment by the Government in the past 10 years. We have put in huge extra sums; those sums are down a little, but the investment that we are making in the waterways is still significantly more than the investment put in by the previous Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

May we have a debate on the standards expected of local councillors who have been convicted of electoral fraud? My constituents would welcome the opportunity that such a debate would provide to hear the views of all Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople, especially those of the Liberal Democrats given that it is councillors from their party in my constituency, Mozaquir Ali and Manzoor Hussein, who have not yet resigned their seats, despite the basis on which they were elected having been proved in court to be fraudulent.

I accept my hon. Friend’s concern. Because we share local newspapers, I am aware of the case. It is shameful for the Liberal Democrat party not to have required the resignation of those people.

First, may I thank the Leader of the House for his generous hospitality at Dover house on Tuesday evening? It was a most convivial occasion. [Hon. Members: “Why weren’t we invited?”]

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, with the Government Chief Whip present, whether in the new year, when dealing with Bills that are to be dealt with under the new Public Bill procedure, he will seek a more consensual and flexible approach to the programme motion, to ensure that the new method is successful and that the House, with more outside information, is able to scrutinise legislation more successfully than in the past?

I hope that I get no parliamentary questions about this, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement of our hospitality. I should say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that it was an entirely ecumenical gathering, to which members of relevant Select Committees were invited. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] However, if it proves to be a popular event, next year I shall extend the list.

I shall make sure that that happens.

If I may lift the veil on Cabinet proceedings, my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip was an active supporter of the changes. I told the Modernisation Committee that. To be frank, without her active support and that of her colleagues in the Whips’ Office, it would not have been possible not only for us to have approved the changes, but to ensure that they have a fair wind behind them. I am in no doubt at all that my right hon. Friend will ensure that.

May we have a debate on computer error and medical prescriptions? I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has seen the reports this week about GPs in Scotland who thought that they were prescribing anti-smoking tablets, but they turned out to be Viagra.

I suspect that that will result in a large number of people who gave up smoking years ago suddenly going to the doctor and saying that they require further help to quit. I shall certainly look into the problem and report back to my hon. Friend. I regret to say that my very boring prescriptions are all too accurate.

The Leader of the House will have seen press speculation about an imminent general election. It would be convenient for English Members to know on what basis that election might be fought. Three weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked when the relevant order would be laid, and the right hon. Gentleman said that it would be as soon as possible, but it is still not on the parliamentary radar. When will the order be laid?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because, as is my habit, I looked into the detail of the matter after it was raised by the shadow Leader of the House. As the House knows, the relevant Secretary of State received the Boundary Commission’s report on 31 October. The report must be laid before Parliament at the same time as the draft order to implement the new boundaries, and we intend the order to be laid before the House in February 2007, which, in parliamentary time, is only a few weeks away.

What action does the Leader of the House plan to take about the Conservative cash for canapés scandal revealed by my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann)? I understand that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is investigating no fewer than 32 fundraising dinners or lunches held in the Commons to line the coffers of the Tory party. When will the House have the chance to debate—

Order. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that has nothing to do with the business for next week.

May I ask the Leader of the House about the way in which Ministers respond to written parliamentary questions? He will be aware that, during oral questions, it has been the trend in recent years for Ministers who are asked difficult questions to answer the question that they would have liked to have been asked, rather than the question actually asked. That is now extending to written questions. Will he look into why so many questions are being given holding answers, although, on the face of it, there is no reason whatever for simple, factual questions to receive a holding answer?

The reason there are delays, which in some cases are unacceptable, is the huge increase in the volume of questions. The hon. Gentleman screws up his face, but the number of questions has risen—the figures are from comparable long Sessions—from 53,000 in 1997-98, to 73,000 in 2001-02, and 95,000 in the last Session. That is an 80 per cent. increase in questions. I work very hard, as do my ministerial colleagues, to ensure that questions are answered on time and fully. Opposition Members know as well as Labour Members that I am always happy to follow up the matter when answers are not given properly, and so are my ministerial colleagues. No Minister wants a reputation for delaying answers or for giving poor quality answers. I want as many questions as possible to be answered, and that is why the Procedure Committee, under the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), is looking into the matter. The issue is fundamental to the working of our parliamentary democracy, but there must also be acceptance that hon. Members on both sides of the House have a responsibility to operate the system.

I declare my interest: I was at Dover house on Tuesday night with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton).

May we have an urgent debate on the appointments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to the new equality and human rights commission? Only one of the people appointed has any track record in race equality issues. Speaking at the Dispatch Box, the then Secretary of State promised hon. Members—as did the Chief Whip, when she was a Minister—that the new body would be representative of the country as a whole. Please may we have a debate on that important issue?

I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns. I have not been able to look into the matter in detail, but I will report his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and I will ensure that she writes back to him.

Following the revelations on last night’s “Channel 4 News”, I would like to ask at what stage, after police investigations and proceedings, does the Leader of the House envisage that we will have a full-scale debate on cash for peerages, or loans for lords? I hope that he does not make the same mistake as his predecessor, who thought that the matter was not in the public interest, and that it did not stimulate his political antennae.

My answer to my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is that I am responsible for a lot, but not the “Channel 4 News”. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) make allegations that have no substance, and he knows very well that there are proper systems of scrutiny for all honours. He also knows that the issue of honours is not a matter for the House.

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that we have a full debate on the value for money provided to the House by the threefold increase in Short money, which seems to have led to no perceptible improvement in the quality of research? Perhaps he could present the full results of his inquiries into the so-called “unanswered” questions, and perhaps he could consider claims about the national health service, such as the claim that there were 21,000 lost posts, although we all know that there has been a huge increase in the number of national health service staff.

There is a consistent record of poor quality research by overpaid researchers who dine out on the public’s money. It is one of the few cases in which expenditure of public money is not subject to any effective public audit, such as the kind of audit that applies to Government Departments. I share my hon. Friend’s view, and I am happy to proceed with that investigation.

Yesterday, I received a letter from Mrs. Dee Smith, a constituent who works for the Department for Constitutional Affairs. She has worked for the civil service for 32 years, but unfortunately she is suffering from cancer. In February this year, her brave, highly respected and much-loved 23-year-old son, Carl, was killed in Iraq while on active service. In September, the DCA introduced a flexible early retirement scheme, and given the circumstances, I would have thought that Mrs. Smith was an ideal candidate for the scheme. Unfortunately, the Department turned down her application on the ground of cost. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on the DCA’s operation of its flexible early retirement scheme?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I do not know the details of the case, but of course I understand his concern. Rather than arranging a debate, I think it would be appropriate if I took the matter up with the Lord Chancellor, and ensured that he wrote back to the hon. Gentleman and me about the case.

Christmas is a time for families, so I was particularly pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) announce the news of a Christmas baby for her deputy, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). Would it not be timely to consider the Government’s family policies, too? In particular, should we not consider the way in which the Government should support families, without dictating how they should live? Should we not consider how Departments support families, and the relationship between Departments? Let us look into how policies on the working families tax credit, child care policies, Sure Start and maternity and paternity leave work together, and have a debate on that.

I shall do my best to arrange that. The simple truth is that the policies that we have pursued and implemented have made a big, positive difference to families, but I regret to say that the Conservative party has mainly voted against the changes.

With the publication today of the future of air transport progress report—in the case of Heathrow, that is a bit of an oxymoron—would it be possible to arrange a debate about aviation policy? It affects many of our constituents, and I would like the opportunity to tell Ministers exactly how the lives of my constituents and many others will be shattered by a third runway and a sixth terminal. I would also like them to explain what good such developments would do, as regards climate change.

The handling of today’s statement was, I understand, the subject of discussion, and acceptance, by the usual channels. There will be Transport questions next Tuesday, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is obviously keen to ensure that he answers questions on the subject. As for debate later on, there will be many opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to raise constituency aspects of the matter. On the wider policy, we will consider what he says.

I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement that there will be a debate on foreign affairs in Government time before the end of January. May I look to him to ensure that it gives us the opportunity properly to recognise the important job that so many servicemen and women are doing for us in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, and to recognise the brave politicians of the young democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan? I ask him to take the opportunity, as we are also thinking of families, to—

May I complete my hon. Friend’s sentence, as we need to think about all the families of our brave service personnel? Those of us who have family connections with the services know all too well the intensity of feeling among those families, particularly when they are separated during the holidays. In many ways, the pressure on the families is even worse than the pressure on individuals, and I applaud the work that my hon. Friend does on behalf of her many constituents. When I attended Navy day in Plymouth in late summer, I was impressed by the work not just of members of the Navy, but of all the services represented in her constituency.

First, may I correct a comment by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who is no longer in the Chamber, about the localisation of housing services in Birmingham? I am reliably informed by Birmingham city council’s housing department that it was incorrect, and I wish to correct the record. Today, the Department of Health made a written statement on the review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. I very much welcome the statement, but will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on that incredibly important policy development. There will be a huge amount of media interest but, unfortunately, much of it will be skewed. Will the Leader of the House ask his hon. Friend—

It is an important issue and we will look at the opportunities for debate, either in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber.

May we have a debate on bank charges, particularly for customers who have an overdraft? Is my right hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 500, which is supported by many hon. Members?

[That this House expresses its concern at the penalty charging policies of banks and credit card companies; welcomes the news that more and more customers are applying to have these charges repaid; applauds the work of the team and supports the ongoing investigation of penalty charging practices by the Office of Fair Trading.]

Notwithstanding the costs that banks incur as a result of overdrafts, they are far less than the charges that customers pay. Will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting, which has campaigned for the charges to be refunded to customers?

I strongly applaud my hon. Friend’s campaign. Some charges, particularly for poorer people, are quite unacceptable.

May we have a debate in Government time on provision in schools, especially in areas of high deprivation, to assist children with special educational needs? In my constituency, some primary school principals have reported that it takes five to six years for an educational psychologist to assess children so that they can be statemented? That is clearly unacceptable, so may we have a debate to explore those issues?

I cannot promise a debate, but I am aware of that concern, which I shall certainly draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I invite the hon. Gentleman, too, to seek an opportunity to debate the issue on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

May we have a debate on the profits of big banks, particularly Halifax Bank of Scotland, which announced profits this morning of more than £5.3 billion—up £0.5 billion from last year. That is £600,000 an hour or £10,000 a minute. HBOS stole Christmas from hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working families in the Farepak collapse, as it took at least £30 million from that fund, so will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the bank—

The whole House has noted my hon. Friend’s concerns. Yet again, may I applaud the indefatigable campaign that he has waged on behalf of the Farepak victims? I hope that HBOS listens to his concerns and to those of the whole House.

In the debate on Iraq announced by the Leader of the House, will he ensure that Ministers come to the House prepared to answer for the advice given to them by Iraqi exiles and expatriates in the run-up to the war in Iraq that informed their policy of the “de-Ba’athification” of junior officials, which led to our failure to establish a credible police force and army, and to the shambles in Iraq?

No doubt, that issue will be raised. I was party to those decisions, and the situation was much more complicated than the hon. Gentleman implied. The pressure for “de-Ba’athification” came not from Washington but from the Shi’a and the Kurds, who suffered for a long time under members of the Ba’ath party.

May I echo the call made by the shadow Leader of the House for an early debate on the NHS, as 21,000 posts may be at risk and 900 jobs subject to compulsory redundancy? At the same time, we could have a discussion about the 160,000 workers who were made redundant during 18 years of Tory misrule.

We are always happy to debate the health service. There is not a single constituency in the United Kingdom that has not benefited hugely from the additional investment that we have made in the health service over the past 10 years, nor a constituency where the number of health workers of all grades has failed to increase.

I welcome the news that we can discuss the future of Iraq next month but, given that it was the Prime Minister who led us to war, and given his apparent willingness to discuss the issue with everyone else, including US politicians, will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend to come to the House and lead that debate? If he will not do so, will he explain why not?

Normally, debates on foreign policy are led by the Foreign Secretary, and that is the plan. I think that that is entirely appropriate, and it was the arrangement when I was Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister is not slow to come forward and make statements, and he has a very good record on doing so. If we wish to make a comparison of Heads of Government, British Prime Ministers, whatever their party, are subject to far more routine and intensive scrutiny by Parliament than almost any other Head of Government.

Last month, I raised with the Leader of the House my concerns about the decision by the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, to distribute its products via a single source—namely, UniChem. It appears that AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical manufacturers are set to follow suit. Pharmacists not only in my constituency but throughout the UK have expressed concern about that, so may we have an urgent debate or ministerial statement to reassure our constituents that those monopolistic deals will not have a detrimental effect on patient care?

We will certainly consider that proposal. I believe that my hon. Friend has sought a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment, and I will refer his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. Meanwhile, he may wish to consider making representations to the Office of Fair Trading.

As it is Christmas, may I ask the Leader of the House for a rerun next week of yesterday’s child maintenance statement? He and I are used to Liberal Democrats saying one thing to one voter and something else to another, but it is unusual that their spokesmen say the opposite things in Parliament. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) said that the name and shame policy

“is likely to make almost no difference and will simply be seen as a gimmick”—[Official Report, 13 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 879.]

In another place, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay—

I would be delighted to lay on a debate about the inconsistencies of the Liberal Democrats, who say one thing and do another. I have a long list of examples, as they have done so in different streets in the same town.

May I renew my suggestion that we have a debate on passport policy? Last week, I reminded the Leader of the House that, as from 2009, all applicants for new passports, including renewals, must present themselves for a personal interview, which would mean 6.5 million interviews in 69 offices. He said that he would raise the matter with the Home Secretary, and an early debate would enable his right hon. Friend to tell the House that he will adjust the proposals thoroughly and change them.

I have indeed raised the matter with the Home Secretary. I drew his attention in detail to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, as I always do when such points are made in the House. Let us wait to see what my right hon. Friend says before deciding whether the situation is as bad as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested.

As the Leader of the House knows, this afternoon the House will debate fisheries on the Adjournment. The debate follows the important EU-Norway negotiations on fisheries in the North sea. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider rescheduling the debate in future years so that it takes place before such important negotiations and hon. Members can make their recommendations to the Minister and the Minister can share with them the advice that he gives to the Commission in the negotiations?

May we please have a debate on the Floor of the House on the continuing crisis in Burma, given that Burma Campaign UK will next week publish its annual dirty list of companies that, by trading with or investing in Burma, are propping up the brutal military dictatorship there, and that Britain is the second largest investor? Would not such a debate be a magnificent Christmas present to human rights campaigners in and for Burma, by allowing the Government to announce the imposition of a unilateral investment ban?

I am very happy if the hon. Gentleman is able to obtain a debate on Burma. It is an important issue, which requires international co-operation. However, I refute the suggestion that we are less active on the matter than other countries, when within the European Union, to my certain knowledge, we have been more active than almost any other country.

May we have a debate on early-day motion 361 on the replacement of Trident, tabled by the shadow Defence team in terms very similar indeed to the robust terms of the Prime Minister’s statement?

[That this House believes that the United Kingdom should continue to possess a strategic nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons; and accordingly endorses the principle of preparing to replace the Trident system with a successor generation of the nuclear deterrent.]

If the answer is that we can await the debate and vote in three months’ time, will the Leader of the House at least confirm that he and his hon. Friends will sign the early-day motion, as it is so close to his own Prime Minister’s policy?

Happily, I have been spared any requirement to sign early-day motions since I entered the shadow Cabinet in 1987. We have already said that there will be a debate on Trident and it will be on a substantive motion. It will be in early March, I think. We are not signing the early-day motion—

Because we do not sign early-day motions. The hon. Gentleman knows that very well. As they are all directed at the Government, it would be eccentric if we signed them. Anyway, I am glad to have been spared the requirement. The hon. Gentleman knows what our position is.

As British dairy farms go bust every week, as family members on those that remain are being paid less then the minimum wage, and as we have an annual fisheries debate today, will the Leader of the House consider instituting an annual agriculture debate?

I will certainly consider it. The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Modernisation Committee is considering the use of non-legislative time by the House and in the House. The current arrangements are slightly eccentric, because there are some scheduled debates on issues on which I am not sure the House, on reflection, would want scheduled debates or so many of them, and there other crucial issues on which there are no scheduled debates. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to submit evidence to the Modernisation Committee, we will be pleased to hear from him.

May we have a debate in Government time about why hundreds of thousands of our own citizens do not understand English? If we are spending £100 million a year on publication translation services, how on earth will we build an integrated nation?

We do not need a debate on that. It is part of our history. Because of the Commonwealth, arrangements were made whereby Commonwealth citizens who were settled in the UK could become citizens after five years of settlement. There was no language qualification until we as a Government introduced such qualifications in 2001. Although language qualifications have been in place since then, many people who became citizens before that date have not acquired language skills. On this one, the hon. Gentleman needs to examine the beam in the eye of the Conservative party, rather than the mote in our eye.