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Business of the House

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 18 January 2007

The business of the House for next week is as follows:

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 health-care-acquired infections, followed by a debate on life chances of disabled children.

Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

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.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 29 January—Remaining stages of the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

Tuesday 30 January—Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 31 January—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 1 February—A debate on “Defence in the World” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 2 February—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.

In September 2005, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that he had commissioned a report into opportunities to support economic development in Israel and Palestine. I am sure that the Leader of the House was party to that decision as he was Foreign Secretary at the time. More than one year on, the report has still not been published. Will it be published before the debate on Iraq and the middle east next week, and if not, why not?

Talking of the Chancellor’s promises, in his 2004 Budget he announced the Building Schools for the Future programme. The plans showed that 300 new schools would be open by the end of 2008. Now we know that there will be only 70. I am sure that when the Leader of the House replies, he will give us the usual spending list, but I ask a specific question: why is the programme so behind schedule and will the Chancellor come to the House to explain his failure to deliver on yet another of his promises?

Last year, the House agreed new procedures for the Committee stage of Bills. The new Public Bill Committees can take oral and written evidence, and the Leader of the House made it clear that that would not apply to Bills introduced in the House before Christmas, but the decision as to which Bills are covered appears to be at the whim of the Government. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill received its First Reading before Christmas and will take oral evidence. On the other hand, the Pensions Bill, which also had its First Reading before Christmas, cannot take oral evidence, yet the Minister for Pensions Reform tabled an amendment on the written evidence for the Committee yesterday—so it is subject to some of the new procedures but not all of them. Surely, the decision as to the powers of Bill Committees is a matter for the House and not for the Government. Will the Leader of the House confirm that under Standing Order 83C decisions about the number of evidence sessions should be taken by the relevant Public Bill Committee through its Programming Sub-Committee? Will he also confirm that a Public Bill Committee can decide to take evidence notwithstanding a decision to the contrary by the Government? To aid clarity, will he make a statement to the House setting out how the new arrangement should operate, the responsibilities of the various parties and the criteria that have been used by the Government to decide which Committees could take oral evidence?

I am sure that the Leader of the House is concerned to ensure proper access to information for Members. On Monday, the Government published research described as

“an important new insight into the public’s thinking”.

Yesterday, it was shown that the Government had deleted nearly 90 pages of damaging results from that report, which showed, for example, that 46 per cent. of the public think that the NHS will get worse over the next few years and concerns about the political culture of spin and deceit. Why did the Cabinet Office doctor that research, and will the Leader of the House ensure that a full, unadulterated copy of the report is placed in the Library?

Poor train services along the First Great Western line are causing major problems for many Members’ constituents, including mine. A key issue is overcrowding. Health and safety on the railways is the responsibility of the Office of Rail Regulation, yet nothing is being done. Indeed, the Department for Transport says that people can stand for up to half an hour. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on the responsibilities of the ORR and the role of independent railway regulation?

Finally, may we have a debate on the operation of health and safety rules? There are regulations to stop the overcrowding of chickens on trains, but not of people. Meanwhile, health and safety rules mean that firemen in Humberside have been stopped going up ladders to fit smoke alarms because

“a firefighter on a stepladder not much more than 6ft from the floor may be contravening the Health and Safety Executive Work at Height Regulations 2005”.

Chickens are protected but not people, firemen are stopped from going up ladders—we could not make it up if we tried, so may we have a debate to expose the utter stupidity of many health and safety regulations that are seriously damaging our way of life?

Let me seek to answer those questions in turn. The first was on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s report, or investigations—which were in fact handled by the Economic Secretary—into economic development in Israel and Palestine. I shall certainly talk to my right hon. Friend about whether the information is in sufficient form to be published. Of course, the situation between Israel and the occupied territories has become much more serious, I am afraid, not least because of the Lebanon war.

The right hon. Lady’s first point was not bad, but she then made a terrible one, by drawing a contrast between our record on school building and her own. I advise her not to pursue that, because our record on school building is astonishing when compared with hers. I remember when I was shadow Education Secretary that, year after year, I had to publish a dossier on crumbling schools because of the terrible state of the buildings. That is illustrated by the fact that in 1997, just £700 million was being spent on school buildings, and that figure has now risen to £6.4 thousand million. I say to the right hon. Lady that on this, as on NHS spending, she voted against such increases in public spending, and everyone knows that the unquestionable improvements that have taken place in every school across the country under our Government would not have taken place under her Government. The Building Schools for the Future programme, from which thousands of children will benefit, is simply a further stage in the brilliant programme that we have followed—[Interruption.] One or two Conservative Members may well—

I just have. Some Conservative Members may be laughing about this, but all they have to do is look at the state of school buildings in their constituencies and compare what they are like now with what they were like before 1997. They should remember that they voted against the increases in spending.

The right hon. Lady asked about new procedures for Bills. If she looks at what I said when the matter was debated—I was very grateful for her support for this important change, both on the Modernisation Committee and on the Floor of the House—she will see that I said that the new procedures would be introduced for all Bills that were introduced into this House after Christmas. I made it clear that the number of Bills to which the procedure would apply in this Session would be limited. The reason for that is to ensure that this change—unlike, for example, the change to Special Standing Committees, which was a good idea, but never properly bedded down—is properly bedded down.

On the powers of the House, I regret that I cannot recall every detail of Standing Order No. 83C and it is a matter for the Chair, not for me. We are very committed—I include in this my right hon. Friends the Chief Whip and the Deputy Chief Whip—to making this system effective. If the Standing Orders say that not only the Programming Sub-Committee but the Public Bill Committee can decide on whether to have evidence sessions, that is correct. It depends on what the Standing Order says.

The right hon. Lady asked me about the national health service and I have to say that I have not seen the document to which she refers—either in expurgated or unexpurgated form—but I will make inquiries about it. I also remind her that she has voted against all the increases in spending on health care. My Blackburn constituency is one of 650 examples of where increases in spending have made a great difference to health care. When I visited a friend in the Royal Blackburn hospital on Saturday, people came up to me—they did not know that I was going to be there—to say, “Mr. Straw, the service that we are now getting in this new hospital is fantastic”.

The right hon. Lady then asked about train services. I would be delighted to invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to talk about responsibilities for that service, because the principal responsibility for current train services—[Interruption.] Oh no, Conservative Members voted for railway privatisation back in 1994. Yes, we are responsible now and we have brought back Network Rail into public ownership—and a very good thing, too, as it has transformed the quality of the infrastructure. The decision by First Great Western, which I do not understand, to take out good carriages and replace them with fewer bad carriages, comes directly from the sort of financial regime that the right hon. Lady’s Government established for the rolling stock companies.

I was also asked about the operation of health and safety rules. I suspect that we all agree about this. I heard on the radio this morning the story about the Humberside fire service. If it is correct, it is barmy. I go up ladders quite frequently—

And down. [Interruption.] I dare say many do. This is certainly a ludicrous interpretation of health and safety rules.

On the right hon. Lady’s final point, I have been waiting patiently for her to return to the report, which she published with such a fanfare just before Christmas, saying that the Government had failed to answer 1,000 questions. At the time, on 16 December, I mentioned two questions that had already been answered; actually the number is 260. I will give her a report later today that sets out the details of what has happened to the others as well.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the entry clearance system in Islamabad, with particular reference to the appeals system? I have constituents whose spouses have won appeals and the delay is interminable. I refer, for example, to my constituent, Mr. Mohammed Waheed, whose wife won her appeal on 31 October 2005. She is still waiting for entry clearance. My constituent Mrs. Shamim Akhtar won her appeal in April 2006 and is still waiting for entry clearance. I have lots of examples of such cases. A judge has made a determination in these cases. It should be more or less automatic for those visas to be issued. These shameful delays are causing problems between husbands and wives and the wider family network. The delays are indefensible and—

Order. It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman might want to apply for an Adjournment debate. He seems to have plenty of material.

I am,sadly, familiar with the situation. It is unacceptable. The Home Office and the entry clearance service have a limited period once an appeal has been found in favour of the applicant of, I think, 28 days to decide whether they will enter a further appeal. After that, the visas ought to be issued. I pursued this matter when I was Foreign Secretary. I know that my right hon. Friend the current Foreign Secretary is very concerned about it and I will take it up with her.

It would not be entirely true if I said that I did not want to make the Home Secretary’s life more difficult, but will he come to the House to make a statement not on prisoners escaping, but on prisoners being locked out of jail? The Prison Service has asked the police, yet again, to house 450 convicts. Only 264 police cells are available. This week, 330 prisoners were locked out of jail. We have an overcrowding problem yet again. The first thing that we need to do is provide more secure accommodation for those with mental illness, who are quite wrongly in our jails.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised a point about rail services—another form of overcrowding. I entirely endorse what she said, particularly with reference to First Great Western. Rail users have all sorts of things to contend with. Only this week, two swans held up a train for half an hour in Worle in Somerset. However, they should not have to put up with having to pay £5,000 a year for a season ticket, only to be told by an official from the Department for Transport that they have no entitlement to a seat. That is not the way to run a rail service and we should have a debate on that.

Touching on the issue of firemen who are not allowed to walk up ladders, may we have a debate on the Better Regulation Commission report, “Risk, Responsibility, Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?”? It seems to have some sensible things to say about nonsense such as that. Two of its key recommendations are:

“reducing knee jerk regulation by educating ministers and civil servants about risk management”


“a campaign against inconsistencies and absurdities”.

Those things seem long overdue. The report was issued last October and I believe that the Government have yet to respond.

Lastly, will the Leader of the House examine carefully his reply to me last week? I raised the issue of the BAE Systems Saudi Arabia case. He said to me:

“If he bothered to read the statement made by the director general of the Serious Fraud Office…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.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 438.]

In fact, what Robert Wardle, the director of the Serious Fraud Office, said was that his team found significant evidence in the Saudi arms inquiry and hoped to find more from Swiss banks. I invite the Leader of the House to correct the record and perhaps to deprecate the use of spin by the Attorney-General in what is becoming an increasingly sordid episode.

The hon. Gentleman says that he does not want to make the Home Secretary’s life difficult, but the record of the Liberal Democrats has been one of making public protection and the responsibilities of the Home Secretary much more difficult. There is no point in the Liberal Democrats complaining about a shortage of prison places when they have campaigned against an increase in those places. I can bet my life that if there were proposals to increase the amount of secure accommodation, they would be campaigning against them as well.

I am also concerned about rail services. I occasionally use First Great Western, and its service is poor and among the worst in the country. However, although the House is responsible for the total investment in the railways, which has increased considerably, and for investment in, and the ultimate control of, Network Rail, which is effectively a publicly owned company, it is not responsible for the private companies. I do not think that the Liberals voted for the idea, but the Conservatives certainly did. The responsibility for the ludicrous decision to take good, new stock out of commission and to replace it with fewer carriages of old stock must rest not with the Government, but with those who run First Great Western.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the Better Regulation Executive. We would be happy to see the matter debated. I have often heard Bill Callaghan, the head of the Health and Safety Commission, say that he wants a common-sense approach to health and safety. He deprecates just as much as the House such ludicrous over-interpretation of the regulations.

Of course I will look at what I said last week about the BAE Systems-Saudi decision. I do not have the record with me, but if it needs correcting I will of course do so. I certainly recall that the combination of what the head of the Serious Fraud Office and the Attorney-General said was that a judgment had been made that continuing the prosecution would not be in the national interest and that a continuation of the process, even for a further 18 months, would be very unlikely to produce evidence that could secure a prosecution. The Liberal Democrats claim to be the first to defend the civil liberties of others. They need to be very careful before they continue to spray around allegations of culpability by anyone, including BAES and the Saudi Government.

May we find time to debate early-day motion 67, which I tabled and which has been signed by 100 Members?

[That this House believes that all ex-servicemen and women should be treated equally in the payment of pensions, regardless of when they served in Her Majesty's armed forces.]

The early-day motion calls for an end to the injustice suffered by servicemen and women who retired from the armed forces before 1 April 1975 and who, if they had served fewer than 22 years, got no service pension at all. The situation changed in 1975, thanks to a Labour Government. It is now time to return to the issue, debate it and consider how we can properly reward the brave men and women who served in the second world war, the Korean war and Suez.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important matter. I hope that he will have an opportunity to debate it on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall. I will follow up what he says with my right hon. Friends the Defence Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Unfortunately, there was no commitment in this year’s Queen’s speech to review or even look at the Abortion Act 1967, which reaches its 40th anniversary this year. I have received representations from women, medical professionals and organisations over the past few weeks informing me that because of deficits and other problems in the NHS, women who have decided to have an abortion are being made to wait until the next month or even the next financial year. Does not the Leader of the House think that that is highly inappropriate behaviour by primary care trusts and in terms of what is happening with abortion in the UK anyway, given that public opinion has changed? Is it not time for us to have a debate in the House?

If there is evidence to that effect, it needs to be examined carefully by the health authorities. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health would be interested in such evidence, if it is there. The hon. Lady asks about the Queen’s speech, but the 1967 Act arose from a private Member’s Bill, as, to my recollection, did subsequent efforts to change it. I think that that is the appropriate procedure.

When can we have a debate on the problems of the policy that prevents Iraqis who possess the existing S series passports from entering this country? I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the huge difficulties associated with acquiring the new Iraqi G series passports. Several of my constituents have experienced major problems, including one person who was unable to get back into the country, although he had leave to remain here.

I am aware of the problem, which, as my hon. Friend knows, is to do with the security of the earlier series. However, I will certainly pass on her concerns to both the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary.

In this week in which we are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate to mark the occasion that would give us the opportunity to discuss not only the success of the Union so far, but the need for further powers to be given to the Scottish Parliament and for a solution to be found to the English question by devolving powers to England?

I was delighted to take part, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, in the celebrations at Dover House on Tuesday and to commend the wonderful £2 coin that has been produced. The Liberal Democrats have an Opposition day in the week after next, so if the hon. Lady thinks that the matter is important, I suggest that she raises it on that Supply day.

In the light of the interesting statements by Angela Merkel and the recent press comments by Commissioner Mandelson, is it not about time that we had a debate on Europe?

We always have a debate on Europe before each European Council. I would be delighted to have a debate on Europe and the practical European approach that the Government have adopted since 1997. I read the article by Commissioner Mandelson in The Guardian this morning with interest, although I am afraid that I did not regard myself as any more informed about the case that he was making by the time that I finished it than I was when I started.

Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on lock-outs from prisons that occur due to the fact that insufficient spaces are available? On Tuesday night, 17 prisoners spent the entire night at either Croydon magistrates court, which is in my constituency, or in Worthing and Maidstone courts. An internal memo from the boss of the court staff said:

“The impact on all our staff is obvious and unacceptable, with many staff having been on duty for 24 hours.”

Everyone regards the use of police cells for such purposes as unsatisfactory. However, the Opposition cannot have it both ways. It has not been easy to increase the number of prison places, although we have increased the number by getting on for 20,000. However, the Conservatives consistently voted against the public spending that enabled us to increase the number by even that amount. If they had been in power, the crisis would have been much worse.

The Leader of the House might be aware that the number of people who have complained to Ofcom about the racist language used against Shilpa Shetty on “Big Brother” has reached 20,000. The situation is damaging our reputation abroad, especially in India. Later this afternoon, the chief executive of Channel 4, Andy Duncan, is making a plea in Oxford for more public subsidy. May we have an urgent debate on the remit and financing of Channel 4 and the responsibility of broadcasters not to broadcast racial prejudices?

First, I do not think that any of us should have a casual approach to racism. We have managed to change the climate of opinion in this country by being tough on, and unequivocal about, racism both in public and in private. It is important that we maintain that approach.

On the specific point that my right hon. Friend raises, I understand that Ofcom has the power to open investigations while the programme is being broadcast, instead of having to wait until it has finished, which would be risible. I understand his concern that there should be a debate and I will do what I can to assist him.

In case I am not fortunate enough to catch your eye during the next statement, Mr. Speaker, may I ask for a full debate on the implications of the speech made by the head of BBC News last year, in which he spoke of replacing due impartiality in broadcasting with radical impartiality? That would result in the views of people associated with the Taliban and the British National party being given much more air time. That is a serious implication, and it requires a full debate because it sets aside the tradition that public service broadcasting should not be neutral as between the arsonist and the fire brigade.

I can save the hon. Gentleman the job of intervening on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, because she has just given me the answer, and I am grateful to her for that. The new charter has been published, and that charter is a matter for the BBC Trust, which is responsible to licence fee payers. Of course, the head of BBC News is not by any means the most senior executive of the BBC, and all the executives are responsible to the trust. My right hon. Friend and I, and the whole House, are clear about the need for the BBC to have appropriate and due impartiality, rather than the kind of impartiality that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Stockport is considered to be a wealthy borough under most indices, but the two Stockport wards in my constituency share the same socio-economic characteristics as neighbouring Tameside, where I have five wards, and Manchester. That social polarisation means that my constituents in Stockport miss out on the extra funding that is needed. For example, it is at the back of the queue for the Building Schools for the Future programme. Will my right hon. Friend find the time for a debate on social polarisation and funding streams, so that those issues of social justice can be aired with Ministers?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that in the week after next, there will indeed be a debate on the police grant and the local government grant. That will give him the opportunity to air those important issues—and I understand his point—with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government.

There are still five convicted murderers on the run from Sudbury prison, as was the case last week. May we have a statement or a debate on the prison governor’s suggestion that when people are recaptured after absconding, they should be taken back to court to face a punishment for their disappearing act? He says that at the moment it is likely that they will simply be returned to the nearest prison, and a few weeks, rather than a longer period, will possibly be added to their sentence. A greater deterrent might prevent them from absconding.

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. My recollection is that when I was Home Secretary, those who absconded were properly punished, because, particularly in the case of open prisons, there has to be pressure on the individual not to walk out of the gates, as that is an obvious temptation. I shall certainly follow up his point and his suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his written response to my concerns about Braille transcribing. A constituent wrote to me in Braille and I needed to have the letter transcribed. However, will my right hon. Friend consider again whether that should be a mainstream duty of the House, so that it is not left to individual MPs to use their incidental expenses provision allowance for that purpose, as transcribing costs for Braille and audio services could amount to a large sum?

I will look into the issue, and I could certainly envisage that certain Members of Parliament, such as those who had a home for the blind in their constituency, would have much more contact with people who are blind than other Members. I shall certainly follow up the matter.

Turning to next Thursday’s debate on Afghanistan and Iraq, would it not be appropriate for the Secretary of State for Wales to speak from the Dispatch Box? Do not his views, as set out in today’s New Statesman, more accurately reflect those of Labour Members than the Foreign Secretary’s views do?

That is a nice one. I should just say that next week, the debate is on the middle east and Iraq; the week following that is a good opportunity for a debate on defence in the world. One of the things that one learns as Foreign Secretary—indeed, it is perfectly obvious even before one reaches that august office—is that one cannot pick and choose whom people elect to foreign Governments. We have to accept foreign Governments as they are and work with them constructively. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear—it is a position backed by the whole Labour party—our alliance with the United States and our union with Europe are the twin pillars of our successful foreign policy and relationships abroad.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the quality of care provided by hospitals—NHS hospitals, I must stress—in Lancashire. He said before Christmas that he would allow a debate on the transfer of work from the public sector to the private sector, which puts those good hospitals at risk. May I point out to him that a consultation is taking place, but that the only people who will be consulted are those in Lancashire county council? That is unacceptable. Surely district councils, MPs, GPs, the public who use the hospital and, more importantly, all the staff in those hospitals should be consulted, too.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously, I am more familiar with the arrangements for east Lancashire, but I speak not only for myself but for all my colleagues representing east Lancashire constituencies when I say that there has indeed been consultation with Members of Parliament and, to my certain knowledge, with the district councils. However, I shall certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s point.

Last week, I reminded the Leader of the House that, on 25 October, the Prime Minister said at the Dispatch Box that he would be happy to debate Iraq any time, yet six days later he failed to turn up and show his face at a Scottish National party and Plaid Cyrmu debate on Iraq. Has the Leader of the House convinced the Prime Minister to be here on 24 January, as I asked him to do last week? I cannot help but think that if this was four years ago, and the debate was on going to war, the Prime Minister would be here, spinning and misleading from the front. Now, with 650,000 dead—

Order. That must be withdrawn. There is a way of putting it—a Member may be said to inadvertently mislead, but they cannot be said to mislead. The hon. Gentleman cannot use that word.

I would have thought that, if one were drawing up a charge sheet against the Government, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, one could do better than the charge that my right hon. Friend was absent from a debate organised by Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. Everybody else was absent, too, and they were probably wise. It is completely untrue that next week’s debate will be the first occasion in four years when Iraq has been debated. It has been debated in Government time, as well as in Opposition time, on a number of occasions, the last of which was the Queen’s Speech.

Will my right hon. Friend set aside time to debate the obscene bonuses paid to 4,000 staff who work in the City of London? The payments ranged from £1 million to £50 million, and this week it was reported that another individual received a payment of £58 million as a bonus. Most of that money, it is alleged, goes into offshore trusts, so not even the Treasury benefits from the payments. Those bonuses distort not only the housing market, but society, and surely something needs to be done.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I think that everybody in the House believes that people’s rewards should be proportionate to their effort and achievement, and where payments are very high, those making the awards have to be very clear that they are justified.

May we have what I think would be the first ever debate on the Floor of the House on Burma, given that the brutal military dictatorship there is guilty of some of the most egregious human rights abuses practised by any regime in the world, and that a very modestly worded United Nations Security Council resolution last Friday was opposed by South Africa and vetoed by both Russia and China? Is it not time that right hon. and hon. Members debated how, through the use of concerted international pressure, we can force that despotic regime to stop subjugating its citizens and to start liberating them?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which is House-wide. Like my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I deeply regretted the unusual decision by China and Russia to use their veto, but I shall certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman’s request.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), in the week when we have rightly and warmly celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Union, a raft of research and a slew of polls surveying opinion in England have consistently shown a very clear majority indeed in favour of an English Parliament, which rates more highly as a constitutional issue than Scottish independence or House of Lords reform. As those are the people’s priorities and this is the people’s Parliament, should we not have a full, proper debate on the merits and demerits of an English Parliament?

I am always happy for those issues to be debated, and I remember a Front-Bench request not very long ago that resulted in such a debate in the House. It easy to proclaim the idea of an English Parliament, but it is much more difficult to achieve. In my judgment, we have a Parliament that represents the direct interests of our constituents in England as well as those of constituents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on reserved matters. The House of Commons has worked effectively for centuries, and long may it continue to do so.

While I accept that a debate on defence in the world will be held in a fortnight, does the Leader of the House accept that a debate on housing and accommodation for the armed forces is long overdue? Three or four years ago, I took part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, when I visited many barracks in the UK and operations overseas. The accommodation that we provide for our armed forces is in a desperately bad state, and does not compare with that provided by our allies. May we have a debate in the House in Government time or in Westminster Hall on that very subject?

I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman’s mention of Westminster Hall, but it is indeed an important issue. The standard of armed forces’ accommodation varies. In many cases, it is very good, but in a limited number of cases it is unacceptable. He is an ingenious parliamentarian—

Indeed. I am sure that in the debate on defence in the world the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) can remain in order if he raises the issue of accommodation needed for British troops if we are to play our part in defence in the world.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) pointed out, health and safety regulations have had a disastrous impact on all aspects of national life. The House authorities have failed to fly the flag of our country from Portcullis House for the past 10 years, so will the Leader of the House make arrangements to investigate why the Union flag is never flown there; and will he follow the example of our sovereign, who flies the Union flag every day from Buckingham palace?

I shall look into the issue of flag flying from Portcullis House and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Last week, the Leader of the House promised to speak to the House about the publishing of letters between Home Office Ministers and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Yesterday, the Prime Minister singularly failed to answer any requests for publication, so will the Leader of the House update us on his discussions with the Home Secretary? If the answer is no, will he explain what possible reason there is not to publish those letters?

The Prime Minister made the position very clear, as he said that those letters and any other relevant documents would be published at the same time as the report of the inquiry undertaken by Sir David Normington. That is an appropriate and well settled way in which to proceed.

The Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland is about to implement proposals in “Further Education Means Business”, the implications of which are wide ranging. It is feared that they will decimate many community education projects, exclude people on low incomes from adult education and lead to massive redundancies for lecturers in further education. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on those implications before the proposals are introduced?

I accept the importance of the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I shall follow it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The quicker we get the Assembly going, however, the sooner there will be a full opportunity for those issues to be debated where they should be debated, which, in our judgment, is on the ground in Northern Ireland.

May we have an early debate entitled, “Threats to the Union”, as many of us believe that one of the greatest threats is the perceived injustice created by Members of Parliament who do not represent English constituencies voting on English-only business? We want that matter to be resolved, and if that is uncomfortable for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, may I suggest that that is simply a result of the democratic principle that in the absence of accountability there can be no democratic legitimacy?

It depends on whether I can find the time, but I should be delighted to hold a debate on perceived threats to the Union, one of which is the unacceptable proposal for an English Parliament, with the implication that it is all very simple to deliver. As for the issue of injustice, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman very well knows, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish could equally say that a perceived injustice results from the fact that 85 per cent. of Members of Parliament represent English constituencies. It is we, therefore, who determine the funding that goes to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The arrangements for governance in this country are not symmetrical, precisely because of England’s huge dominance, both in gross domestic product and representation. They are not symmetrical, but they are fair, and as many wiser Conservatives have recognised, to challenge those arrangements and disturb the balance would be very dangerous indeed for the Union.