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Business of the House

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 11 January 2007

The business for next week will be as follows:

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

Tuesday 16 January—Second Reading of the Pensions Bill.

Wednesday 17 January—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Conventions, which relates to the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Thursday 18 January—A debate on antisocial behaviour on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 19 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 January will include:

Monday 22 January—Second Reading of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.

Tuesday 23 January—Opposition day [3rd Allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion on a subject to be announced.

Wednesday 24 January—A debate on Iraq and the middle east on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 25 January—Remaining stages of the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill.

Friday 26 January—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the next two weeks, and for announcing that the debate on 24 January will be specifically on Iraq and the middle east, which is in response to the real concern across the House that such a debate should take place. In the past five weeks, the Iraq Study Group report has been published, the Prime Minister has met the President of the United States to discuss policy on Iraq, the Prime Minister has visited the middle east, and the President of the United States has broadcast to the American people on US policy on Iraq. At no time during that period, however, has the Prime Minister come to the House and spoken to the British public about his Government’s policy on Iraq. Will the Leader of the House therefore ensure that there is no passing of the buck, and that the debate on Iraq and the middle east on 24 January is opened by the Prime Minister?

Yesterday, the Home Secretary made a statement about the failure to register details about criminals convicted abroad—some of serious crimes such as murder and rape. The Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) both denied knowing about the issue until Tuesday, but a letter had been sent to the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) by the Association of Chief Police Officers last October, and acknowledged by the Under-Secretary last December. So that hon. Members may be clear about the facts, will the Leader of the House ensure that copies of the relevant letters are placed in the House of Commons Library?

On the wider issue of the general incompetence of the Home Office, the Home Secretary said last May that he had 100 days to bring forward reforms. Getting on for 300 days into his tenure of office, we have seen no sign of effective reform of the Home Office. We have had foreign prisoners walking free because the Home Office has failed to deport them; we have had UK criminals convicted abroad walking free without public protection because of a failure to register them; and we have had murderers walking free from open prisons. Given such recurring incompetence in the Home Office, will the Leader of the House ensure that we have regular statements by the Home Secretary to the House about what is going on—or perhaps we should say what is going wrong—in the Home Office?

May we have a statement on the operation of the 2006 single farm payment scheme? Official figures show that, for the 2005 scheme, only 1,700 farmers are awaiting final payments, but figures reported yesterday show that more than 10 times that number—some 19,000 farmers, or one in six—are still waiting for 2005 payments to be resolved.

On 16 November, the Leader of the House said that the traffic light system for marking parliamentary questions in the Department for Work and Pensions had been implemented

“to ensure that difficult questions requiring a full answer received one in time.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 134.]

However, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), said that the system had been implemented

“to identify questions of which press office should be aware, and for which Ministers wish separate media briefing to be developed.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 184W.]

Does the Leader of the House wish to correct his earlier answer?

On 14 December, the Leader of the House said that the order to implement new constituency boundaries would be laid in February. Yesterday, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), said that the order would now be laid in mid-March. Will the Leader of the House confirm the timetable for laying that order and guarantee that the next general election will be fought on the new constituency boundaries?

Finally, may we have a debate on campaign techniques? That would enable hon. Members to get some tips from the chairman of the Labour party, the Minister without Portfolio, on how to campaign against Government policy.

The right hon. Lady asked me first about the debate on the middle east. I am grateful to her for acknowledging that I have responded to concerns on both sides of the House that there should be a debate on Iraq and the middle east, and there will be. I should also tell the House that today my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary are appearing jointly before a joint meeting of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Select Committees. That is a further opportunity for senior members of this House to question both Secretaries of State on that important issue of foreign and defence policy.

The right hon. Lady asked me about the Prime Minister and said that at no time has he come to this House to talk about Iraq or the middle east. That is not quite correct because, as everyone who was in the House for Prime Minister’s questions yesterday knows, the leader of the Liberal Democrats asked the Prime Minister two questions about Iraq and my right hon. Friend responded in some detail. It is no good referring to the situation in the United States. The simple fact is that British Prime Ministers are more directly accountable to their Parliament than Heads of Government in almost any other state across the world. It is normal for debates on foreign policy to be opened by the Foreign Secretary. That was the arrangement during the 18 years of Conservative government as well. My right hon. Friend has already intimated to the House—I think that he did so yesterday—that at an appropriate time he will make a full statement about Iraq, but that he wishes to do so when what is known as Operation Sinbad has been completed.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I would have the Home Office letters placed in the Library. I will certainly communicate that request to the Home Secretary. She then made some rather wild insinuations from the fact that two prisoners escaped from Sudbury open prison a couple of days ago. I should just tell Conservative Members what they seem to forget with some ease: our record on prison escapes is fantastic compared with that of the previous Conservative Government. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Total escapes from prisons in the seven years up to 1997 were 1,339. In the nine years since then, the number is one tenth of that, at 137. The number of category A escapes has dropped from 18 to zero since 1997 and the number of absconds from closed prisons is the lowest for 10 years.

That allows me to offer this warm advice to the Opposition. Of course the Home Office could always do better—that was true when I was Home Secretary, it is true today and it was true when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary—but I advise the Conservatives against implying that if and when they get into government the Home Office will achieve a state of grace and perfection and there will be no occasion on which a Home Secretary will be required to come here to explain some difficulty. [Hon. Members: “Of course not.”] I am offering the advice on that basis. Our record, in sharp contrast to that of the Conservatives, is one of falling crime, falling victimisation and rising police numbers. The reverse was the case under the Conservatives.

I will pass the request for a debate on the single farm payment scheme to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. What I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have said about the traffic light scheme is entirely consistent. On constituency boundaries, I regret the fact that there has been a short delay, but I see no reason why the order should not be in force well before the next general election.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the campaign by Age Concern, which is supported by the Leicester Mercury, for an increase in the winter fuel allowance for pensioners? The House is aware of what the Government have done for pensioners over the past 10 years, but 1,000 people have now backed that campaign. May we have a debate on that important issue?

I will make a note of my right hon. Friend’s request. I am glad that he acknowledges what the Government have done. We introduced and then increased the winter fuel payment, and reduced VAT on fuel from 8 per cent to the lowest possible level at 5 per cent. My right hon. Friend will recall that the Conservatives introduced VAT on fuel and then doubled it to 17.5 per cent. Over the past three years an additional £300 million has been provided for the poorest pensioners to have central heating, with a £300 discount on central heating systems for all other pensioners who do not have one.

The Leader of the House seemed prepared for questions on the Prison Service, but when he said that two people charged with and convicted of murder escaped from Sudbury prison yesterday, he was not telling the full story. In fact, five people charged with either murder or manslaughter are on the run from Sudbury prison, and there is growing concern in the local area. There have been more than 665 absconds from Sudbury in the past 10 years. If more people accused of serious offences are put into open prisons, it is no wonder that the Government can have a good record on people not absconding from prison. Prisoners do not have to escape from open prisons; they just walk out. Is not it time for the Home Secretary to come to the House to make a statement on this deplorable situation?

It is a delight to welcome the Opposition Chief Whip to a speaking position on the Back Benches. I do not know whether that tells us something about his future career.

I know that, of course, but I can still be friendly towards him. [Interruption.] Well, we do not know that yet. That might come next.

I understand the public concern about these absconds. The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) will be aware that life prisoners convicted of murder are not transferred to open prison conditions except on the recommendation of the Parole Board and with the approval of the Home Secretary. The number of refusals of such approval has increased to 41 per cent. in recent years.

The right hon. Gentleman will also know that, for the vast majority of murderers who are given a sentence—which is bound to end at some stage, when they will be released into the community—there has to be a transition from closed conditions to open prisons and then to the community. I am afraid that it is a necessary characteristic of open prisons that sometimes prisoners abscond—they do not escape, because it is very easy just to walk out as they are open prisons. However, when they do so, they are taken back into closed conditions, and they have shown that they have failed the first test, which is whether it is safe to release them.

When the hapless Home Secretary and his hopeless Ministers come to the Dispatch Box on Monday for Home Office questions, would it not be a good idea if they simply stayed to answer all the other questions that are bound to arise as a result of the events of the past few days? It is simply not acceptable for the Home Secretary to say that when he finally found out about the fiasco to do with police national computer entries he applied additional resources as a matter of urgency, as we now know that those resources were requested back in October. Dangerous prisoners have absconded, and that is unacceptable, especially if there is the slightest suspicion that they were in open prison because of a failure of assessment or overcrowding in the secure estate—that is not a criticism of the open prison system. This is a matter of proper concern to the House, and we should have a debate on public safety.

I welcome the debate on Iraq, although I regret that it will not be on a substantive motion and that the Prime Minister will not open it. We need an urgent statement from the Prime Minister on the implications of President Bush’s decision announced yesterday, particularly as it appears to be contrary to the advice of his military commanders. Many of us do not accept the apparent belief of the Prime Minister that US action in Baghdad can have no conceivable effect on the security position in southern Iraq, and on that basis we need a statement.

Before further damage is done to the reputation and integrity of the City of London, may we have a debate on corruption, so that we can learn when Britain intends to meet its Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development commitments on bribery and explore the roles and actions of the Attorney-General? For the benefit of businesses, perhaps we ought to list those countries in which United Kingdom companies can, apparently, engage in corrupt practices in the national interest, and those in which they cannot.

Lastly, I thank the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for rehearsing again my lines from previous business questions on the traffic light scheme. May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a new reply from the Department for Work and Pensions? When asked how many questions fall into each traffic light category, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) said:

“As there is no formal departmental monitoring system in place related to the trialling, the information on numbers is not available.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1997W.]

In a separate answer, it was said that the Department does not keep formal records. That is a trial of which the Home Office would be proud.

On the Home Office issues, there is no point in my offering the Liberal Democrats any fraternal advice about when or if they get into government, as the one certain thing is that under no circumstances will they do so over the next 50 years. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is well aware of the issue now, but it is impossible for a Home Secretary—I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting otherwise—to be fully aware, until they are aware, of everything that is going on in that wonderful Department of State. As an American said in a different context, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and whoever is Home Secretary wakes up every day wondering which unknown unknown will turn into a known unknown and undermine their career. However, I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

I have already dealt with the issue of Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not say that what would happen in Baghdad would have no conceivable effect on what happens in Basra. He said:

“however: in relation to Basra, the situation is different in some very critical respects”—[Official Report, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 278.]

and he spelt out how it is different. Indeed it is different. One of the ways in which it is different is that while, tragically, the number of civilian casualties has increased in the Baghdad area, it has fallen significantly in Basra, as the Cabinet was informed earlier today. There are many other differences as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about a debate on corruption and then made wild assertions, implying that there was clear evidence of corruption. I assume that he was referring to the BAE Systems Saudi Arabia case. If he bothered to read the statement made by the director general of the Serious Fraud Office, as well as that made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, he would see that the whole point of the decision was a judgment that there would be insufficient evidence to justify a prosecution even if there were another year and a half’s inquiry. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman is unnecessarily and unjustifiably damaging the reputation of this country, and he should be aware of that. The truth is that on any international analysis—for example, that by Transparency International—the United Kingdom scores very highly, and far better than many of our European and other competitors.

On the issue of the traffic light system in the Department for Work and Pensions, I think that I need to have a conversation with my hon. Friends in that Department about the wiring of the system.

Will my right hon. Friend give time for a discussion on a hideous crime and the subsequent sentencing? A nine-year-old boy was raped and the man concerned was sentenced to six years, but that has been reduced to five. I find that the sentence was too lenient in the beginning for such a hideous and sickening crime. That has got to be changed, and the parents are rightly very upset. Why can we not have a system like the American system, so that we do not say what the maximum sentence ought to be, but what the minimum sentence is to be? Therefore, in this case there should have been a minimum sentence of six years, and if the convicted person misbehaves in prison it can go up to eight or 12 years. Surely the time has now come to enable the public to understand the sentencing system and for the victims to be put first, rather than the perpetrators?

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and above all the concern of the parents. There are certain circumstances in which indeterminate sentences can be issued by the courts; that applies specifically in respect of life sentences, which have to be imposed where there is a conviction for murder, but they may be imposed by the court in respect of a range of other serious offences, including rape. Obviously, I do not know why in this case a determinate sentence was issued rather than what would have amounted to an indeterminate sentence. The Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor are looking at the sentencing system to see whether it can be made more comprehensible and understandable to the public.

Is the Leader of the House as appalled as I am at the daily scenes of harassment by the paparazzi of an ordinary citizen of this country? Will he arrange for an early debate so that the House can reflect whether adequate powers are available to deal with this wholly unacceptable behaviour?

I am, indeed, absolutely appalled by the scenes. I commend News International for saying that it will have nothing to do with the photographs, but we need to hear from all other newspaper groups in this country and abroad that they will ban this practice. I will certainly look into whether we can find time to debate this important issue.

On Tuesday, I tabled early-day motion 586 on Chinese human rights activist, Chen Guang Cheng.

[That this House notes the four years and three months' imprisonment of 34 year old Chen Guang Cheng, a blind Chinese human rights activist; notes his crime consisted of acting on behalf of women being forcibly aborted and sterilised; notes that 130,000 women undergo forcible abortions per year as part of the coercive one-child policy; notes that Cheng, a self-taught lawyer, acting for two women, whose babies were forcibly aborted only days before birth, approached the State Family Planning Commission asking them to halt such outrages; notes that in response he was placed under house arrest for three months during which he and his wife were persistently threatened by hired thugs; notes that nonetheless he succeeded in bringing the case before the Beijing courts; notes that this failed and Cheng was subsequently imprisoned for trumped up charges of damaging public property and organising villages to disrupt traffic; notes that his attorneys were detained and prevented from appearing and that neither witnesses nor evidence were presented for the defence; notes with shame that the Chinese policy is supported with British taxpayers' money through government grants made to the UNFPA, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International, all of which finance Chinese family planning yet have failed in 20 years to change the policy of coercive abortion and sterilisation; and calls on the Government to cancel all grants to groups providing money to countries with coercive family planning policies as well as demanding that Mr Cheng be released from prison without delay.]

Chen Guang Cheng’s only crime, for which he has been locked up for more than four years, was to defend the interests of Chinese women who are forced to have abortions and forcibly sterilised as part of the coercive one-child family policy of the Government; 130,000 women in China have that fate each year. As that type of policy is underpinned by Marie Stopes International and the International Planned Parenthood Federation and others, which are partly financed by British Government grants, is it not about time that we had a debate in this place on the way in which British taxpayers’ hard-earned money is on occasions used abroad to underpin human rights abuses of that kind and on such scale?

I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern about this matter. It is no part of Government policy that money from British taxpayers should be used to “underpin”, as he put it, such unacceptable practices, but I shall certainly raise his question with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

On a point of clarification, will the Leader of the House say whether the debate on Iraq and the middle east will also cover Afghanistan? My substantive question deals with a matter that is very much the right hon. Gentleman’s responsibility. He knows that the Modernisation Committee is beginning an inquiry into enhancing the role of Back-Bench MPs and the use of non-legislative time. Will he arrange for a debate on those matters to take place while the inquiry is going on, so that as many hon. Members as possible can contribute? Speeches could be time limited but perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you might also care to use the short speeches procedure recommended some time ago by the Procedure Committee. That would enable as many hon. Members as possible to participate.

First, the hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be in order to include Afghanistan in the debate about foreign policy on the middle east and Iraq, which will be held on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I fancy that that might be slightly out of order but of course, Mr. Speaker, that will be a matter for you and your colleagues in the Chair, and not for me. However, I can advise the House that we have every intention of holding a debate on the wider issue of defence and that that will almost certainly take place the week after next. There will be every opportunity for hon. Members to speak about Afghanistan in that debate.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, which I chair, and I am glad to have his support on the very important question of how we strengthen the role of Back Benchers. I noticed that the Opposition Chief Whip was cheering when the question was asked, so I assume that he is about to engage in a career move shortly.

Informally, I can tell the House that I am not certain that it would be a good idea to hold such a debate while the Modernisation Committee’s inquiry is taking place. I hope that we can encourage hon. Members of all parties to give evidence to that Committee, and that a debate on the Floor of the House can be held subsequently.

Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate on the way in which BAA conducts its business? Many of our constituents were greatly inconvenienced by the fog at Heathrow before Christmas. We cannot help the weather, but BAA handled the problem very incompetently. People were put in tents in sub-zero temperatures, and many had their luggage lost for days, if not weeks. The company now has no shareholders and has little accountability to anyone, even though it has a monopoly on many airports and brings discredit on the travel sector.

I note what my hon. Friend says. We are all aware of the terrible conditions faced by travellers at Heathrow and other airports over the Christmas period. However, it is not the case that BAA has no shareholder: it is now owned by the Spanish company Ferrovial, which is not listed in this country. Even so, I shall ensure that his concerns are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 25 October, the Prime Minister told the House from the Dispatch Box that he would be happy to debate Iraq anywhere. However, six days later, on 31 October—Halloween—during a debate initiated by the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, he was nowhere to be seen. Does not the Leader of the House have a right and a duty to urge the Prime Minister to be present for the coming Iraq debate, so that he can explain the debacle and mess that has occurred in that country? The Prime Minister must be here.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and I have said repeatedly that debates on foreign affairs are usually taken—not surprisingly—by the Foreign Secretary. That applied when I held that post, and for decades before that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that he will make a statement at an appropriate time. Moreover—and despite the danger that I might be repeating myself—I remind the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend is available every Wednesday to answer questions, many of which are, and will continue to be, about Iraq.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Bill received Royal Assent late last year, and the Home Office has indicated that the necessary commencement orders are to be brought before the House next month. Will he do everything in his power to expedite the legislation so that it can be operational as soon as possible? The Sunderland Echo has campaigned for the measure, which will protect emergency workers—such as those in the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service and others in the voluntary sector—who often risk their lives to protect the lives of our constituents.

I commend my hon. Friend and the Sunderland Echo on their campaign, and of course I shall do what I can to ensure that the Bill’s commencement orders are brought before the House as soon as possible.

In Westminster Hall yesterday there was a debate on the new boatmaster licence. The consensus among hon. Members of all parties was that the new licence was inadequate to protect safety standards on the tidal Thames. Only the Minister defended it, so may we have a full debate on the Floor of the House? We need to examine the detail of the new licence so that we can ensure that correct standards, adequate for the conditions on the tidal Thames, can be maintained.

I understand what the hon. Lady says, but it is not unusual for a Minister to defend Government policy in Westminster Hall or during Adjournment debates, or for others to put the contrary point of view. However, my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department for Transport told hon. Members:

“Let me make something crystal clear: if I thought for one second that the proposals would reduce safety standards on the Thames, I would not introduce them.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 96WH.]

He went on to explain why the proposals were being introduced. I cannot promise further time on the Floor of the House, as the subject is one for Westminster Hall, but I will relate the hon. Lady’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the public concern about the proliferation of quangos that spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. The latest example concerns the vision boards set up by the Northwest Regional Development Agency. May we have a debate on the purpose, powers, funding and accountability of those boards?

My hon. Friend is a fellow north-west Member of Parliament, and I think that such a debate would be a good idea. My understanding of the so-called vision boards is obscure—although I do not think that that is my fault—and I agree that we have to be concerned that unelected, non-departmental bodies such as the Northwest Regional Development Agency are much less accountable than elected bodies. Such bodies must be very careful about how they spend money, and they must consult the people who are elected before they do so.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the Floor of the House on police resourcing, especially in respect of Greater Manchester? The independent chairman of the police authority there is forecasting a shortfall of £26 million in 2008-09, but that does not take account of the need to find resources to pay for police community support officers. Without an urgent review of funding, further cuts in police numbers in Manchester may follow the 200 officers cut this year.

There will be a debate—if not the week after next, then the week after that—on the police grant order, and that will give the hon. Gentleman every opportunity to raise the concerns that he set out in his question. However, he must acknowledge that, over the past 10 years, policing in Greater Manchester and across the whole country has been infinitely better resourced than it was previously. In his constituency, and in Greater Manchester as a whole, there are now many more police officers and community support officers, and much more in the way of resources has been made available.

May I remind the Leader of the House that, since he and I have been Members of the House, the Animal Procedures Committee has approved 90 million experiments on animals? While the Government have found 250 hours to debate hunting with dogs, they have not yet been able to find a moment to debate one of the Committee’s reports. Given that the Government have a genuine concern for the welfare of animals, may I ask that the Leader of the House find an early opportunity for the Government to be the first Government on the Floor of the House to debate a report by the Animal Procedures Committee?

I note my right hon. Friend’s request. I will do my best. Whoever else was to blame for the many hours that we spent on hunting with dogs, it was not me, because I was in a small minority on our side of those who were not terribly enthusiastic about that measure.

As the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) was obliged this morning to discuss on the “Today” programme a leaked memorandum from the Department of Health outlining the Government’s lamentable performance on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is it not appropriate for the Leader of the House to petition his hon. Friend the Member for Leigh to come to the House to explain to Members of Parliament what has been going on and what he will do to put this right? It is a matter of great importance to our constituents.

I welcome the opportunity to talk about this. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) has obtained an Adjournment debate on clostridium difficile on Tuesday. The explanation of the issue is simple. The targets have been set for 2008. It is now 2006, so it is not surprising that they have not been met. [Hon. Members: “2007.”] Sorry, 2007. Well there we are. That was a good point that turned bad, Mr. Speaker. Under a shock horror headline, “Six ways to fudge a target”, which is allegedly in the report, the first way mentioned is to keep to the target and drive as hard as we can to meet it. That is exactly what the Government are doing.

May we have a debate on the accuracy and accountability of the British press? He may be aware of a report in last week’s Sunday Herald that a Scottish Labour MP was about to defect to the Scottish National party. This was printed without a shred of evidence and without seeking clarification from the Labour party. Putting aside the fact that no sensible person would ever do such a thing, does he agree that this kind of irresponsible reporting from a normally quality newspaper in Scotland undermines politics and the profession of journalism?

If we had a debate in the House every time that allegations were made that the accuracy and credibility of the British press had not been to the standard required, we would talk about nothing else, but I know about the story that my hon. Friend has raised. It is a matter of great concern that a newspaper such as the Sunday Herald, which has a good reputation on the whole should have swallowed what I gather was an SNP fabrication. I hope that it will correct the story in due course.

Rail passengers in west Berkshire are having to suffer the indignity of fewer trains, greater overcrowding and massive inconvenience to them—

And east Berkshire, as my right hon. Friend says. May we have a debate in Government time to consider the workings of some of the franchises that are operating in this country? The travelling public are having to put up with appalling conditions in trying to get to and from areas such as my constituency.

I know of the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[Hon. Members: “Maidenhead.”] Sorry, I mean the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I am doing well today. The right hon. Lady has an Adjournment debate, notwithstanding the fact that she is shadow Leader of the House, next Thursday on train services in Maidenhead and Twyford. Perhaps she will give some time to her hon. Friend from elsewhere in Berkshire. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) needs to look at the huge investment that has been made in rail services and the fact that there has been an extraordinary 40 per cent. increase in the number of passengers. At long last we have managed to turn round the utterly incompetent privatisation of the rail services and ensure that there is now a benign path both of improvement and investment.

May I refer back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) about the north-west vision board? Is this not just a good example of these opaque regional bodies? Do we not need some mechanism within the House whereby we can begin to bring some of these regional bodies to account? It could be a committee of the regions or some other structure that would allow us to debate seriously how central Government resources are applied in the regions and whether they are applied efficiently.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). I do think that we need to look at ways to strengthen the system of checking and approving appointments to quangos and holding them properly to account. Otherwise, we will have a culture in which people in such organisations—it applies to other public bodies as well—think that, because they are above politics, they are accountable to no one. That is dangerous. As Winston Churchill said, democracy has many flaws, but it is better than the alternative. Other countries understand that and go for elections in many more cases than do we, rather than appointments.

As this week’s revelations have brought into question the reputation and integrity of certain Home Office Ministers, does the Leader of the House accept that it is essential that their correspondence with the Association of Chief Police Officers be published immediately? In response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman said that he would pass on her request to the Home Secretary. Should he not as Leader of the House advise the Home Secretary that this is the right thing to do immediately?

Any advice I give to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in private is, with great respect, not something that I am going to offer to the House. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had a policy ever since he took over the job on 5 May of being open with the House. The moment that this broke, he came to the House and explained things. I do not accept for a second that Ministers at the Home Office have had their reputation for integrity brought into question. I think that he will find that the explanation is a different one from that.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday that he had every intention of offering further explanations, probably by way initially of a written ministerial statement in answer to a parliamentary question. Then there will be an opportunity to question him and his colleagues on Monday in Home Office questions.

One of the great success stories of the Government has been the fact that hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid to miners and their families in the form of miners’ compensation for vibration white finger and dust affliction. However, some issues remain to be addressed successfully. I think in particular of the situation of surface workers and widows and the families of deceased individuals who worked for more than one employer. May we have a debate on this issue so that our concerns can be aired satisfactorily?

I understand the problem, not least from the strong briefing that I have received on this matter from my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who is also my parliamentary private secretary and is in his place. He led a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall just a couple of days ago. I understand that the matter of surface workers is currently before the courts.

Order. There are nine hon. Members left standing. Some are regulars of course, but I do not want to disappoint any hon. Member. I will be assisted if they ask one supplementary, as briefly as possible. Then I can get all hon. Members in.

May we have a debate on Government waste? On the Home Office’s own figures, they are spending some £40 million a year housing some 6,000 asylum seekers who the courts say should not be here. One could buy a lot of police officers and police community support officers in Oxfordshire for £40 million. Yet another area of policy that the Government and the Home Office have lost track of is asylum policy.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of asylum. Of course some asylum seekers should not be here, but every time that Ministers try to remove those asylum seekers, we are met with a barrage of protest, including from local Opposition Members of Parliament campaigning for their non-removal. Our removal record has been fantastic compared with the previous Conservative Government’s. In 2005, for example, we removed as many asylum seekers in a single year as were removed in the four years from 1993 to 1996.

I welcome the statement that there will be a debate on the Joint Committee on Conventions next Wednesday. There are honestly held differences of opinion on both sides of the House about the consequences of the report, so will my right hon. Friend explain how the process will develop? We need a fundamental constitutional debate on how to go forward to the next stage—the future reform of the House of Lords.

I commend my hon. Friend’s work as a member of the Joint Committee. The Government welcome the Committee’s reports. Later today, we shall table a motion approving the Joint Committee’s report. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a Government response to the report, but that is not before the House for approval because we want the widest possible consensus behind the Joint Committee’s report itself. Some of the issues raised in the Government’s response necessarily go wider than the Joint Committee’s terms of reference and there will be an opportunity to debate them fully when we publish the White Paper on future reform of the House of Lords.

I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House confirm my constituents’ concerns about the democratic deficit in respect of quangos and regional assemblies. With that in mind, may we have an urgent debate about how the East of England Development Agency can propose thousands of new homes in my constituency when my council has no right to oppose such development? As we do not have enough water for our existing houses, how can more houses be imposed on us?

I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern about water. Indeed, an interesting report on that issue came out today. I hope that he will have an opportunity to raise those matters on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

More than 100 million land mines are scattered around the globe. Scandalously, Pakistan is adding to that number by mining the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Will my Friend join me in condemning unreservedly Pakistan’s decision, and will he reassure the House that the Foreign Secretary will come to the Chamber and explain the Government’s position, as there seems to be a conspiracy of silence on the matter?

My hon. Friend will excuse me if I do not offer that condemnation, not least because I am not fully briefed on the matter. I will of course pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and there will be Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday, 16 January.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) that the Royal Navy plays a fundamental role in defending the country and that it must have the resources it needs. May we, therefore, have a statement on the proposal to reduce the number of Royal Navy frigates and destroyers to only 19, given that the Government’s own strategic defence review posited 32 as necessary and that the former First Sea Lord says that we need at least 30 to carry out the number of commitments that the Royal Navy is responsible for fulfilling at present?

I have already given the House an indication that there will be a full debate on defence in which that issue can be raised. However, we have the biggest warship building programme that this country has seen in decades. We are introducing larger and more capable vessels, which means that we need fewer frigates, destroyers and attack submarines than before, but our commitment to maintaining and, indeed, improving the strength of the Royal Navy remains.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that in 2005 First increased bus fares in Sheffield and south Yorkshire on four occasions during a 12-month period. After a short respite, passengers are now faced with a further 14 per cent. fare increase, which is four times the rate of inflation. Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on putting passengers first, and the Secretary of State’s proposals for extra powers for transport authorities on services and fares? As the poorest people in our communities suffer most from such fare increases, we need those powers in place as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is well aware of the concerns of my hon. Friend and many others in the same situation. As my hon. Friend knows, we plan to introduce those powers so that there can be better and more effective regulation of bus services, not least so that we can see outside London what has happened in London—an increase, rather than a decrease, in bus ridership.

May we please have a debate in Government time about sexual health? Given that the incidence of sexually transmitted infections continues to rise, particularly among young people, and that in some cases they can threaten long-term health, as demonstrated in a recent study of the link between gonorrhoea and an increased risk of bladder cancer among men, does the Leader of the House agree that an early debate would allow us to explore how a combination of public policy and private initiative can together tackle that serious scourge?

It is an important issue and an important proposal. I cannot guarantee that time will be found but I will look into the matter, as the hon. Gentleman asks.

May I add to the earlier calls for a debate on prisons and sentencing? Dangerous murderers inappropriately put in open prisons are walking out, more than 1,500 criminals have Sky television in their cells and there is an early release scheme, despite a recent Home Office report showing that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend. May we have an urgent debate on that matter of public concern, so that we start putting the rights of the decent law-abiding citizens of this country above the human rights of criminals?

It is not the case that murderers are inappropriately transferred to open conditions. They cannot be transferred to open conditions without a recommendation from the Parole Board and the decision of the Home Secretary. As I have already told the House, the rejection rate in such cases has risen from 41 per cent. since May 2006, compared to less than 10 per cent. the year before. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes these matters seriously.

On sentence length, one of the reasons we face an increase in the prison population, which I do not regard as adverse—as long as crime is at the current level we need as many prison places as possible—is that courts are awarding longer sentences than before.

Last year, unemployment in Wellingborough increased by more than 20 per cent. It is now 6.5 per cent. higher than it was nine years ago. Unfortunately, unemployment has increased at an even higher rate in 75 other constituencies. May we have a debate on that worrying trend of increasing unemployment, which blights so many families across the United Kingdom?

It is extraordinary that in trying to defend the previous Administration’s lamentable record on unemployment, the hon. Gentleman should make the kind of point he has just made. The simple fact is that unemployment has dropped dramatically across the country in one constituency after another and the employment situation has improved dramatically, with 2 million extra jobs. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise the matter on the Adjournment, he has every opportunity to do so.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to attend the House and make a statement on why it is, in effect, Government policy to force doctors, nurses and ancillary staff to pay to park at their place of work? At Kettering general hospital, 3,000 staff are furious that they are being forced to pay to park their cars when they drive to work, to make up for an £11 million deficit due to Government underfunding of our local hospital.

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that decisions about car parking charges are local matters, for the health trust and the local authority. We should be in a ludicrous position if Secretaries of State, of whatever party complexion, were expected to answer for car parking charges. Where people can be persuaded or encouraged to share vehicles, as well as to take public transport, it is generally to the public benefit. In those circumstances, parking charges can play a part in securing that encouragement.