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Business of the House

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 25 January 2007

The business for next week will be as follows:

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 education provision for children with special needs, followed by a debate entitled “The Government Decision on the Sale of a Radar System to Tanzania”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

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.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 5 February—Second Reading of the UK Borders Bill.

Tuesday 6 February—Remaining stages of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Wednesday 7 February—Opposition day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate—or debates—on a Liberal Democrat motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 8 February—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Subject to be announced.

Friday 9 February—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 8 February will be:

Thursday 8 February—A debate on world-class skills for 2020—equipping the UK to compete in the global economy.

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

Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House the question of the arrangements for Public Bill Committees. To ensure that the new procedures run as smoothly as possible, will he confirm that responsibility for deciding evidence sessions and witnesses should rest with the Programming Sub-Committee of the Public Bill Committee, and that the Public Bill Committee can take oral evidence at any time during the Committee stage of the Bill? Also, I understand that it has been proposed that there should be two weekends between the meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee and the first meeting of the Public Bill Committee, to give time for witnesses to be called. Sadly, that is not happening with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. Will he confirm that that two-weekend separation should be the norm?

May we have a statement on the cost overruns on the Olympics? I have raised this matter before. On 6 July 2005, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), the Leader of the House, who was then Foreign Secretary, said:

“the financial systems that are being put in place will be robust, as has been the planning that has already been done.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 416.]

When he said that, did he know that the Treasury had not decided whether VAT should be paid? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, or from the right hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the relevant Cabinet Sub-Committee, on the real cost of the Olympics and how they got the budget so wrong?

Yesterday, when challenged about plans to split the Home Office, the Prime Minister said:

“we will make an announcement to the House in the normal way.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1413.]

Will the Leader of the House confirm that, when a decision is taken, there will be a statement to the House on the subject, and will he say whether that statement will be made before or after the announcement to the “Today” programme?

May we have a debate on personnel management in Government Departments, following today’s revelation, based on an internal Government report, that staff at the Treasury are suffering from low morale, and that one in 10 are worried about bullying? The report shows that more people have departed from the ministerial services team, which works closely with the Chancellor, than any other section. Does that not show that there are serious problems at the Treasury under the current Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Finally, last week, the Leader of the House referred to the dossier that I issued before Christmas, showing that there were 1,000 unanswered parliamentary questions in the last Session. He claimed then, and last week, that my figures were wrong. Sadly, he has been guilty of a certain amount of spin. Rather than going into all the details now, I will write to him, but to give just a taster, he said that an unanswered question about the number of pupils in each local authority in England who left school without any GCSE qualifications, excluding equivalents, since 1997 had indeed been answered. Well, it had not; the answer did not give the number of pupils, did not give a local authority breakdown, and used a different definition of qualifications.

The right hon. Gentleman also made no apology for the “proper” use of the Prorogation system. Is it really proper use of that system for an hon. Member who tables a question in February to be told, nine months later in November, that there has not been time to answer the question? I hardly think so. Is it really an excuse to say that some answers had not been published in Hansard? Written parliamentary answers should be available to all hon. Members and the public, and not just the Member who asked the question. If answers are not being published in Hansard, the House should know, and the right hon. Gentleman should do something about it.

Let me deal with the right hon. Lady’s questions in turn. First, I confirm that under the Standing Orders, it is for the Programming Sub-Committee to determine how many evidence sessions there are, and under Standing Orders the Committee can decide to take evidence at any stage. She has raised the matter with me privately, too. I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, and I know that she, too, is committed to making the system work. As a result of negotiations between the usual channels, an agreement that I think is satisfactory has been reached on the Bill in question.

One of the points that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made was that fewer Bills than had been anticipated would operate under the system. It is worth pointing out that when I put the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee to the House, I said that they would apply to all Bills introduced to the House after 1 January. In fact, the Bill that she asks about was introduced before then. It is a measure of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip’s commitment that we have been anxious to start with that Bill. On the two-weekend separation, it is the rule that there should be two weekends between First Reading—the Bill’s introduction—and Second Reading, but that is not the rule for Committee stage. The Whips will do their best to ensure a reasonable period, but I do not promise two weekends. I doubt that that can be provided, but it depends on the exigencies of the timetable.

The hon. Gentleman makes the first of what will, no doubt, be many sedentary interventions in business questions. In my 18 years in opposition, I spent too much of my life on the Opposition Front Bench, having to deal with the Committee stage of Bills, and I can say that there were plenty of occasions on which Bills went straight into Committee after Second Reading, and straight out of Committee into Report. That happened all the time, so I think that this Government have probably been more reasonable.

On cost overruns in respect of the Olympics, the financial systems are indeed robust. Detailed discussions are taking place about some of the uncertainties in the financing of the Olympics—uncertainties that are inherent in any project of a similar scale and with a similar time scale, including the best-run of them. I am in close touch with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the subject. I can tell the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that we will indeed make a statement to the House when matters are more settled.

On the proposals, which have yet to be agreed, to split the Home Office, there should be a statement in the House, and I very much hope that it is the House that hears it first, rather than the editors of the “Today” programme. Such is the nature of modern politics, however, that I cannot promise that, but I entirely accept the point made by the right hon. Lady.

The right hon. Lady also referred to an apparently leaked report about morale in the Treasury. All that I can say is that the Treasury has unquestionably been one of the most successful Government Departments in the past 10 years, as shown by the Government’s highly successful ability to deliver on the economy. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just reminded the House, particularly Conservative Members, that we are about to enter the 40th successive quarter of economic growth under the Government—a record unrivalled by any British Government and almost any western Government since 1997. [Hon. Members: “Governments—plural.”] No, it is 40 successive quarters under this Administration since 1997. It is 58 quarters if we include the previous Administration, but I am very happy indeed to look at the first 10 years of the Conservative Administration. Of those 40 quarters, I recollect that there were a good 10 quarters in which there was no growth, and a good 10 quarters in the early 1980s and again in the late 1980s in which, far from any growth at all, there was a depression.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the dossier published in early November in which she said that there were 1,000 unanswered questions. It will be embarrassing for her—and some of us remember with acute embarrassment her research into the titles of pop songs, which she tried to name in July—but the research turned out to be wrong. I deprecate the practice of leaving any question unanswered, and I particularly deprecate the failure to answer a question tabled in February until November. That is quite unacceptable, and I have always made that clear. My colleagues are told in terms if there are such problems. I do not want any unanswered questions, but may I tell the right hon. Lady—she and I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—that Ministers and officials have to work hard to answer all questions on time? It is an issue for the whole House, and it would affect any Government with whom she served, as the number of written questions has expanded, and expanded again. It has almost doubled in the past four years, so it is a serious issue, and the House as a whole needs to tackle it.

Will the Leader of the House find time, either next week or soon after, to consider the number of regulators operating in Parliament? Is he aware that the Electoral Commission commissioned an inquiry into its work—

Of course it is. It commissioned an inquiry into its work by the standards committee, which has reported. Is it not a case of one quango so far up another quango’s backside that they are examining each other’s entrails? Is it not time that we considered a regulator for the regulator?

As this not a late-night Channel 4 programme, I will not proceed with that metaphor. I have to make a confession, because I was the Minister responsible for establishing, with parliamentary approval, the Electoral Commission quango.

No, I will not do so. It was a good idea, but it needs to be improved. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was established under the previous Government by Mr. Major, has made significant criticisms of the Electoral Commission, including the need to trim down, to be more focused in its work, and to ensure that its members include people with political experience so that it understands what it is doing, which is a good thing.

I am sure the Leader of the House is familiar with the practice in restaurants of putting little symbols on the menu to show which dishes are suitable for vegetarians, for coeliacs and so on. Will he consider a similar system for the Order Paper, so that debates are clearly marked as being suitable for the Prime Minister? Before yesterday’s debate, we were told at different points by the Prime Minister’s spokesmen that he does not do Back-Bench debates—apparently, a debate in Government time opened by the Foreign Secretary is a Back-Bench debate—that he does not do foreign affairs debates, and then that he never attends such debates, whatever the topic may be. May we be assured that there are at least some debates that the Prime Minister would feel it appropriate to attend, rather than chumming up to the CBI? Perhaps one of them might be a debate on four years of war in which brave British soldiers are being killed on every day of every week.

May we have a debate on the air passenger duty, which was raised by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) in Chancellor’s questions? Not only are there questions about the implementation, but there are practical difficulties. The Leader of the House knows that we support a tax on aviation, although we support a tax on the pollution caused by planes, rather than on the passengers who travel in them. Is it not the case that because the duty is retrospective, it will cause chaos in our airports and great difficulties for both travellers and airlines, as well as huge financial disadvantage to tour operators? A tour operator in my constituency, Gerry Copsey, points out in a letter to me that the tour operator has to absorb the first 2 per cent. of any surcharge, which he has not collected because the tax did not exist. That is therefore a direct and substantial windfall tax on tour operators. It cannot be right, and the House should have the opportunity to debate it.

Last week the President of the United States gave the State of the Union address. May we have a debate on the state of the Union—in this case, the Act of Union between Scotland and England? We could explore the huge advantages to both Scotland and England of the Union, we could address those who wish to split us asunder on any basis, some explicitly and some implicitly, and we could look at the ways in which we could improve the Union to ensure that every part of the Union feels that it has a fair voice.

Lastly, on written questions—a matter which I often ask the Leader of the House to look into—my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) last week asked the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how many libraries closed in London. The reply from the Department was that it could not provide the information because

“focusing on the number of closures is less helpful as a measure of overall provision than the net number of public library service points in each year”—[Official Report, 23 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1620W.]

In other words, Departments now want to provide not only the answers, but the questions. Will the right hon. Gentleman remind his colleagues that we ask the questions and they are supposed to answer?

I hear the second sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), but it would be sensible to take the questions in order.

On the Prime Minister’s attendance, we dealt with the matter last week. My right hon. Friend has led 23 debates since he became Prime Minister, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) knows. My right hon. Friend has also delivered more oral statements in the House than previous Prime Ministers, and has appeared before the Liaison Committee. As a result of the decision to merge the Tuesday and Thursday Prime Minister’s questions into one, he misses Prime Minister’s questions far less frequently than did previous Prime Ministers. It has been the practice in the House for as long as I can remember—over 28 years—for Foreign Secretaries to lead debates on foreign policy. I would like another debate on Iraq, not least so that the House can be informed of the views of the previous leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Lord Ashdown—it is a terrible shame that this did not come out yesterday—who writes today in The Independent excoriating the policy of the current leader of the Liberal Democrat party and his irresponsibility in proposing that we should cut and run from our responsibilities in Iraq. I commend the article to a wider readership.

We were treated to a wonderful illustration of the Liberal Democrats’ logic chopping. The hon. Gentleman agrees with the principle of air passenger duty but believes that the tax should be on the pollution rather than the passengers—[Hon. Members: “On the planes.”] The problem with a tax on planes—the hon. Gentleman may not have spotted it—is that they do not have bank accounts. I sometimes wish that they did. It is a brilliant idea and my constituents would vote for it, but only people have bank accounts.

Yes, but in the end, companies, too, depend on people for their business. The taxes go back to individuals. If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome wants to encourage people to travel less, the individuals should be taxed. Air passenger duty is a good idea. It is common practice for the rate changes to all major duties to have immediate or near immediate effect. Previous changes to APD have always applied on the basis of when the flight takes place, irrespective of when it is booked.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could have a “State of the Union” speech. We have an equivalent in the Queen’s Speech debate each year, which the Prime Minister always leads. The hon. Gentleman suggests a debate on the Act of Union and three centuries of our being joined with Scotland in a Union. That is a good idea. I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I hope to make an announcement in due course.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a written question. I agree with him—I do not know why a Department could not answer a question about how many libraries had closed or how many remained open. I shall follow it up.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on aviation, especially given the intense interest that The Independent has taken in Ministers’ travel? When I wrote to that newspaper to ask about travel by its journalists and its board, it displayed a singular reluctance, in spite of its proclamation of freedom of information, to reveal its activities. Indeed, the editor wrote that the paper was engaged in an audit process with the Carbon Trust, a reply of which Sir Humphrey would have been proud. May we have a debate in which such hypocrisy could be exposed, and we could discuss the transparency that journalists appear to be interested in imposing on everyone but themselves?

That is a terrific idea, for which I commend my right hon. Friend. Since newspapers present themselves as public institutions, there is a case for extending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to them—

Apart from sketch writers, because they do not necessarily deal in information and there should be a special exemption for them. The Freedom of Information Act covers the BBC as a public body. That is a two-headed hydra because, although the BBC makes many Freedom of Information Act requests, anyone who has made such a request to the BBC finds that it is more constipated and less forthcoming than the worst Department.

Although I deplore inadequate and late replies to parliamentary questions—the Leader of the House has apologised for the inadequacy of some of them—I support the right hon. Gentleman’s appeal to the House for more responsible tabling of written questions. Just because people have got more research assistants, there is no point in their spending all their time tabling large numbers of questions as a sort of virility symbol.

Has the House forgotten the tragedy of Zimbabwe, where there is 1,000 per cent. inflation, shortage of water and electricity, and starvation? Is not it time for the House to hold a debate on that tragic country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Chairman of the Procedure Committee and a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, for his remarks about parliamentary questions. I hope that we can reach agreement, through the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, on the matter on an all-party basis. I have no interest in restricting hon. Members’ opportunities to question Ministers effectively. However, quantity is currently getting in the way of quality. If we got back to where we were even four years ago, there would be even less excuse for Departments’ failure to answer questions on time. Questions are all answered in the end, but sometimes the delay is too great.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of Zimbabwe and the way in which it has slipped from the headlines and, in some cases, from the inside pages. I shall follow up his suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

I wish to widen the request of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on environmental taxation, especially in the days before the introduction of the increased air passenger duty. In such a debate, may we consider the comments of Mr. Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, on the airwaves, in the printed media and elsewhere about his attitude to such taxation? He appears to wish to present himself as the Robin Hood of the modern world in maintaining access for poorer people to cheaper holidays. However, in reality, is he not the Al Capone of the aviation industry, defending the indefensible, trying to create a taxation-free zone, with an arrogance and breathless contempt for politicians which he revealed in his comments—

Order. Many hon. Members want to ask questions. One brief supplementary is expected. Now is the time not to make a case but to ask for next week’s business or a debate.

Will the Leader of the House make time to debate the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on Guantanamo Bay? It states that the Committee was advised by the International Committee of the Red Cross that its members could not meet detainees in Guantanamo because that contravened the Geneva convention. The ICRC strenuously denies making such a claim. Given such blatant inaccuracy, how can the House have confidence in the report? Will the right hon. Gentleman make time available for us to debate the report in full?

Arrangements can be made through the Liaison Committee for debating Select Committee reports. I shall refer the hon. Lady’s comments to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee.

Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House know that the business plan for the refurbishment and renewal of the 26-year-old Tyne and Wear metro system has been submitted to the Government this week? The metro contributes to social mobility, economic development, the relief of traffic congestion and the fight against climate change. May we have an early debate on the value of light rail systems such as the metro and their contribution to our citizens’ quality of life?

I know the contribution that the metro—a great achievement of the previous Labour Government—makes to the vibrancy of the economy and society on Tyneside. I shall discuss my hon. Friend’s suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

The Leader of the House knows that one of the most important functions of the House of Commons is to vote Supply—to approve increases in taxation that the Government propose. When did the House of Commons approve the increase in airport duty that comes into effect next Thursday?

The right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament long enough to know that some duties are subject to specific approval at the time and others are made by order, based on previous legislation.

There is a general point about the way in which the House deals with Supply, but that is a matter for consideration by the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee.

First, may I declare an interest as chair of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent campaign in The Independent newspaper on domestic and commercial waste, which are of great concern to many of our constituents? A debate would help to clarify some of the relevant issues associated with waste and the Government’s strategy for dealing with them.

Speaking as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs who visited Guantanamo Bay, I echo the call for a debate on that Committee’s report. I want to tell my right hon. Friend that the reason why members of that Committee did not visit inmates at Guantanamo had absolutely nothing to do with the International Red Cross.

The answer to my hon. Friend’s first question—[Interruption.] Well, I am not going to get involved in a private argument about what did or did not happen on that Foreign Affairs Committee trip as I was not there and I am not a member of that Committee. On packaging, I have seen The Independent’s campaign to reduce it and I commend my hon. Friend’s chairmanship of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group. I will look for an opportunity to have this matter debated.

May we have a debate on early-day motion 663 on the amalgamation of agencies to combat crime?

[That this House notes the recent announcement by the Home Office about the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency; and calls upon the Government to spell out the resources, commitment and determination that the new organisation will be expected to have in order that the fight against organised criminal activity, particularly in Northern Ireland, will be stepped up rather than decreased.]

There is concern about the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, particularly in Northern Ireland where there is so much organised crime and paramilitary groups are involved in such activity. Can we have a debate to ensure that efforts to disrupt those criminal gangs and take away their assets will be stepped up? We do not want those efforts to be at all reduced.

The idea of the amalgamation is to ensure that those efforts are stepped up and made more effective. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be opportunities to debate that matter, which is the subject of a Bill that is currently before the House.

I wonder whether we could set some time aside to debate procedures of the House. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the shambles that took place last night. At the end of the debate, an SNP Member who was not a Teller actually shouted “Aye”, then shouted “No”—

Order. We take one day at a time in the House, and what happened last night has nothing to do with next week’s business.

As the Leader of the House jealously guards the House’s reputation and is anxious to ensure that it is more relevant to the people of this country, does he not accept that it is absolutely essential that the Prime Minister soon attend a debate on the war in Iraq? To say that he does not normally take part in foreign affairs debates entirely misses the point. To say that he has spoken in 23 separate debates, when he has only done so twice a year, does not seem to most people a very good batting record.

I answered that question when I responded to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). The Prime Minister has already made it clear that he will come to the House and make a detailed statement once Operation Sinbad is through. That will be the case.

May we have a debate on what can only be described as the plight of children in India, where modern-day slavery is going on? I do not know whether my right hon. Friend saw Sky News last week, which showed the blatant selling of young children in India. It is going on under everybody’s nose and nothing is being done about it. I would like us to debate that. I find it ironic that we are all debating what is going on in “Big Brother” on Channel 4 rather than rising up to defend the rights of those children in India.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and there will be a number of opportunities—on the Adjournment in this place or in Westminster Hall—to debate the issue. I hope that my hon. Friend is successful in doing so.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement about the use of 0844, 0845 and 0870 numbers? One of my constituents has to ring an 0844 number to contact the local GP, and I found out that 12 GP surgeries across the Bradford district are making people phone those numbers to book an appointment. I am sure that the Leader of the House knows that it is more expensive to ring those numbers than ordinary local numbers. Will the Secretary of State for Health thus make a statement about the use of those numbers across the national health service?

I am aware that those numbers are charged at a slightly higher rate, depending on which precise exchange number is used. I will follow it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

May we have a debate about the way in which some councils are using the threat of council tax capping as an excuse for cutting services? Wandsworth council, for example, is using an entirely bogus threat of capping as a reason for cutting funding to very popular and widely respected local facilities such as the Wandsworth museum and Battersea arts centre.

I will certainly look for an opportunity to have such a debate. I am afraid that Wandsworth Conservatives have been using bogus figures to justify cuts for at least the three decades in which I have been a Member in this House. I dare say that they will carry on doing so. The fact that they are putting at risk such highly valued community services in my hon. Friend’s constituency illustrates their distorted sense of priorities.

The Leader of the House may be aware of yesterday’s judgment of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, which ruled that it would be unlawful for the Scottish Parliament elections to go ahead in May unless the issue of voting rights for serving prisoners were addressed. Understandably, the prospect of the elections being cancelled is causing considerable concern north of the border, so will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement to the House about his plans to deal with the problem and ensure that the elections go ahead as planned?

I find it odd that of all the issues that a Liberal Democrat could raise, the hon. Lady asks about providing votes for rapists and murderers while they are serving their sentences—[Interruption.] That is the issue. The wider issue of what we do about a European Court judgment, which would not require us to give votes to rapists and murderers while they are serving their sentences, is the subject of consideration within the Government. I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats would do better to worry about the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime.

May we have a debate as soon as possible on parliamentary hypocrisy? Many Members—[Interruption.]

I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker.

Nearly every Member of the House and the Government have condemned the fact that many electrical appliances around the country use up the same or nearly the same amount of electricity when they are on standby as when they are switched on. If we are serious about facing up to global climate change, we have to address that problem, yet the televisions in the Palace of Westminster cannot be switched off. They are nearly all either permanently on or on standby.

I bow to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, on the absence of hypocrites in this place. My hon. Friend raises an important issue, but I have to say that it is possible to find the on/off button—

Well, I have two old televisions in my room just along the corridor and if I just press a button, they go off. A problem can arise when the televisions are placed high on a wall. I will raise the issue with the House of Commons Commission and we will see what can be done.

The Magistrates Association has expressed concern about the continuing closure of magistrates courts. In my constituency, some cases cannot proceed because witnesses, victims or defendants cannot attend because of transport problems, and yet another court is threatened with closure. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the working of the magistrates court system, which is the core of this country’s criminal justice system?

On the specific constituency issue of concern to the hon. Gentleman, there are opportunities to debate the matter on the Adjournment. On the wider issue, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is doing a great deal to concentrate court services in some cases, but that is in the context of making those services more efficient in delivering justice for victims. The throughput of cases is better now than it has been.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the National Audit Office’s criticisms of Ofwat, the water regulator, which has supinely failed to control the water companies in respect of stopping leaks from their water systems, thereby increasing the charges to the paying customer? As has been pointed out before, it is the customer’s pocket that is hit. We are not getting value for money from our regulators: whether we are talking about the energy regulator or the water regulator, prices are going up. Can we have a debate on the role of regulation in this country and the need for regulators to serve the public interest?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I will certainly note his suggestion that we use one of the debates on the Adjournment for a wider debate on the role of regulation.

May we have a debate on crime against young people? Last year, 30 per cent. of all muggings recorded in England and Wales were perpetrated on 11 to 16-year-olds, but that is the tip of the iceberg, because only 21 per cent. of muggings make it into the recorded police figures, and the British crime survey does not even interview people under 16. May we have a debate in the House to bring this issue to people’s attention and to discuss what needs to be done to combat the problem?

I would be happy to have a debate on the crime figures. Sadly, it has long been the case that young people have been the principal victims of street robbery, as well as the principal perpetrators. In that debate, I would be delighted to hear about the excellent crime figures that were announced today, which I notice that no member of the Opposition has mentioned, because they are good news. They are not the British crime survey figures but the recorded crime figures, and they show that the most feared crime, violence that causes injury, is down 7 per cent. compared with last year, that sexual offences are down 4 per cent. and that crimes involving firearms are down 14 per cent. All recorded crime is down 3 per cent., and—[Interruption.] I am sorry to have to tell the shadow Leader of the House this, but according to the British crime survey, crime is down 35 per cent. since 1997.

May we have a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on whether he intends to ask Ofcom to undertake a public interest test of BSkyB’s acquisition of 20 per cent. of the shares in ITV? Is there not an overwhelming case for such a test, given that the Office of Fair Trading has found provisionally that there could be a relevant merger issue?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has this matter under active consideration. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that my right hon. Friend has to act in a quasi-judicial manner, and strictly in accordance with the relevant legal criteria. I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s remarks to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Speaker, may I wish you and the Leader of the House a good Burns day? In this crucial year for our nation, it is worth reminding the House that, in the words of the bard,

“Nae man can tether time nor tide”.

I am delighted that the Leader of the House has agreed to a debate on the Act of Union, given that his colleagues in Scotland are running a mile from debating the subject properly with us. Will he check his list, to see whether it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to lead that debate? Given the Prime Minister’s overwhelming popularity in Scotland, surely he would be a massive asset to the Union’s cause.

I have always been ready to debate this matter, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. What persuaded me overnight was seeing the complete incompetence of the representatives of the Scottish National party last night. The leader of that party has been in this place for 20 years, yet he cannot even organise a minor rebellion—

Is the Leader of the House aware of this morning’s ruling in the European Court of Justice that, under the insolvency directive, the Government have failed to protect pension funds, including those of Allied Steel and Wire’s pensioners in my constituency? They took the case to court through the unions Community and Amicus, but it is up to the British courts to decide whether the Government should pay up. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this struggle for justice has gone on long enough? Will he ask the Chancellor to come to the House and make a statement, and to end this misery for the 125,000 pensioners in the United Kingdom who are affected?

I am aware of this morning’s decision by the European Court of Justice. I am also aware of the indefatigable way in which my hon. Friend has pursued this matter on behalf of her constituents who have been affected. I think that I am right in saying that the judgment by the European Court of Justice arose from a reference from the British courts for a ruling by the ECJ. The judgment will now be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and an announcement will be made to the House in due course. I will, of course, pass on to him what my hon. Friend has said today.

Given the announcement by the Department for Education and Skills that compulsory education is to be extended to the age of 18, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate in the House on the matter, so that we can expose the “common sense” of county councils that are closing schools because of a prediction of overcapacity in those schools? Should not they review their decisions in the light of the Department’s announcement?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that there is a strong case for this change, but it goes without saying that the matter would have to be not only debated but agreed through legislation before it could go ahead. I note the interesting point that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is not always the case that the setting of a secondary school would be appropriate for 16 to 18-year-olds, but it might be, and that should be taken into consideration.

May I return to the issue that was raised at the outset by my friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase)? It used to be the case that we always debated reports from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but that has not been the case recently. The Committee has produced a highly critical report on the Electoral Commission, and, given that its recommendations go to the heart of the way in which our democracy functions—or does not function—surely we should have a debate on it in the Chamber.

There will be a debate on this issue. We are awaiting the report from the inquiry into party funding by Sir Hayden Phillips, which is also looking at the role of the Electoral Commission. I will then make a statement on that report, and when I make that statement I will comment on the proposals in respect of the Electoral Commission. If we then proceed to legislate, which I think we need to in this respect, there will be every opportunity for debate at that stage.

Beverley high school and Beverley grammar school, which are two well-run, successful, over-subscribed comprehensive schools serving mixed areas of Beverley, are facing redundancies of key teaching staff and a worsening financial situation over the next three years. May we have an urgent debate on the allocation of education funding between authorities across the country, on the growing sense of grievance among communities that are seeing cutbacks in everything from transport to NHS beds and on the impression that money is not being allocated fairly across the country?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a debate next Wednesday, on 31 January, on the police grant and the local government finance reports. There will be an opportunity for him to raise those issues in that debate, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, and I wish him luck in that. I hope, however, that he will bring into the equation the huge increase in funding for schools in his area—including the allocations that he has mentioned—that has taken place since 1997.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the growing concern at the increasing number of schools that are collecting data on pupils that are derived from biometrics such as fingerprinting, for use in electronic registration and library systems. He will also be aware of the fact that legal opinion, including that of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, has stated that this practice contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998. Does he agree that it is time to debate this important subject in the House?

I am not aware of the practice, but obviously people have accepted it. There is a problem with ensuring people’s identity, and one of the ways of doing that is to use biometric data. Security in libraries is a big issue for younger and older people. If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that this is an important matter, he can raise it on the Adjournment.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give some consideration to a cross-departmental debate, in Government time, on the Government’s vision for the decades ahead, given our cultural, economic, political and military links with China and India, the great countries of the future? There is a need for joined-up thinking on this subject, and we would all like to hear about the Government’s vision in terms of those links, as well as in respect of other matters, including education and health care.

That is a good idea. The hon. Gentleman has proposed quite a number of subjects for debate on the Adjournment, but I will add it to my list. He is absolutely right to identify China and India as being among those posing the greatest challenges to this country in terms of economic and foreign policies. I know of his work in co-operation with the City of London, and of the City’s excellent work in respect of both those dossiers, and I will pursue the matter.

May we have a debate in Government time on armed forces welfare packages for our servicemen and women serving abroad on behalf of this country? Surely, in the 21st century it cannot be beyond the Government to allow packages to be sent post-free to our servicemen and women, especially when those packages often contain equipment to replace the faulty equipment with which they have been issued.

There will be an opportunity to raise that matter next Thursday in the defence in the world debate—[Interruption.] Well, that is an opportunity. Meanwhile I will alert my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the fact that the hon. Gentleman will pose that question to him during the debate.

Is not it time for a debate on the role of religious organisations when carrying out public functions? While I hope that we all accept that religious organisations are capable of doing good work in the provision of public and welfare services, surely if the Government simply said that when in receipt of public funds or under public organisation those organisations should provide such services without discriminating against clients and employees and without proselytising, we could settle the matter once and for all and have clarity. The Government might thereby avoid the unfortunate mess from which I hope that they will extract themselves soon.

I do not mind having a debate on the issue. We had a pretty intensive debate during the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, and I agreed to amendments to try to accommodate the position of religious organisations, particularly the Christian Churches. Without referring to the current controversy, I know that the hon. Gentleman is a secularist, and I respect his views, but his is not the position of the vast majority in this country, 70 per cent. of whom declared themselves to be Christian in the 2001 census, and there are many who subscribe to other religions. He is against faith schools; I am not. We have a long tradition of faith schools in this country. His position, which is partly the Liberal Democrat position, is not ours. I am happy, however, to debate all of that.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government’s proposals in respect of legal aid, and particularly their decision to impose means-testing on legal aid in magistrates courts, is causing huge concern, not just among the legal profession but among many charities that are worried about vulnerable people? On 11 January, a debate on legal aid took place in Westminster Hall, and many visitors could not get into the Gallery. Why was that debate not held in the main Chamber?

The purpose of Westminster Hall is to allow such debates to take place. Because of the pressure on time in this Chamber, we cannot hold all such debates here. Means-testing for legal aid is a good idea. Money was being wasted—I would have thought that the Conservatives would be the first to complain about that—through legal aid being given to people who did not deserve it. We are trying to ensure that legal aid goes to people who need it, but not to people who can afford to pay for their own legal representation.

Given that many of us support early, full and undiluted implementation of the sexual orientation regulations, please may we have a statement next week to confirm that the Cabinet majority has asserted itself in favour of that proposition, to be followed by the speediest possible passage of the regulations, so that gay, lesbian and bisexual people can enjoy equality before the law in the provision of goods, services and facilities, which they have been too long denied?

That remains a proud commitment of the Government. Without commenting on the current considerations—

I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman would be able to make just a standing intervention; he cannot.

On the issue of an announcement, I cannot promise that there will be an oral statement, but I shall take full account of what the hon. Gentleman has asked for, as I always do.

In July 2006, a 92-year-old gentleman in my constituency was told that he had to have a hearing aid. In September 2006, he had the mould made for the hearing aid. Unfortunately, he has now been told that he must wait 15 months for that hearing aid because of cutbacks in Government funding. I do not believe that that was the Government’s intention in their health policy. During the next week of business, would it be possible for the Leader of the House to try and fix this problem?

I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. When the hon. Gentleman tries to make much of such individual cases, I hope that he also tells his constituents that the Northamptonshire Heartlands primary care trust, the old lead trust, had its funding increased by more than 31 per cent. between 2003 and 2006.

May we have a statement next week from the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs about the rules surrounding membership arrangements for private gyms? This is the month for new year’s resolutions, and my constituent, Mrs. Trudi Winnett, joined a ladies-only gym in Kettering. Her circumstances changed, but she has been unable to leave the gym because she has in effect signed up to a two-year financial arrangement, from which she cannot escape. Kettering citizens advice bureau is getting a growing number of complaints about such arrangements. May we have some Government action?

First, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has said to his constituent, people should read the small print carefully before entering into what sounds like an onerous contract. Secondly, I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs to consider the issue, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Government cannot be responsible for onerous contracts that individuals enter into. Other organisations that run gyms are ethical, including that which runs the House of Commons gym.