The business of the House for next week will be as follows:
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 entitled “The al-Yamamah Arms Agreement and Related Matters”, followed by a debate entitled “The Government’s Failing Record on Crime”. Both debates arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.
Thursday 8 February—A debate on the future of buses on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 9 February—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 February will include:
Monday 19 February—Motions relating to benefits up-rating, followed by a debate on “Human Rights: Values, Rights and Responsibilities”, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Tuesday 20 February—Remaining stages of the Planning Gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Income Tax Bill.
Wednesday 21 February—Opposition day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.
Thursday 22 February—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, subject to be announced.
Friday 23 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 22 February, 1 March and 8 March will be:
Thursday 22 February—A debate on the report from the Quadripartite Committee on Strategic Export Controls: Annual Report for 2004, Quarterly Reports for 2005, Licensing Policy and Parliamentary Scrutiny.
Thursday 1 March—A debate on sport and young people.
Thursday 8 March—A debate on the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee on reform of the coroners system and death certification.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House. On 1 March, can we have a St. David’s day debate on Wales, in Government time, so that hon. Members can examine Labour’s catalogue of failure there? Last year, the Government refused such a debate, saying that there was enough Welsh business in the House, so can we have a debate this year so that the voice of the people of Wales can be heard?
It has been shown that under this Government it costs more to send a child to nursery than to many public schools. Access to affordable child care is crucial for women wanting to get back to work, particularly lone parents, so can we have a debate on child care?
Can we have a debate on the costs of Government restructuring? Since 1997 there have been nine major reorganisations of the NHS in nine years, two of which alone cost £320 million. We have seen millions wasted on abortive police mergers, on setting up then abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority, and on setting up then abolishing social care inspection bodies. Now the Government want to spend up to £2 billion reorganising local government. That sounds like moving the deckchairs on a sinking ship. We should debate this utter waste of money, and show how the money could have been better spent on patients, passengers and services.
Linked to that, can we have a debate on joined-up government? The chief inspector of prisons says that one of the problems for the prison service is that money promised by the NHS for mentally ill convicts has not come through because of the “upheaval” caused by, for example, the reorganisation of primary care trusts. It is not just health care that suffers from all that restructuring. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is available for that debate, so that he can explain how his decisions to freeze the Home Office budget and block new private finance initiative prison projects have contributed to the current crisis in our prisons?
The press report that the White Paper on Lords reform is expected next week, but it is suggested that it may not be supported by all members of the Cabinet. Will the Leader of the House encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to vote on this issue when the time comes? In the past nine years he has not voted on Lords reform, and if he is to be Prime Minister, we would like to know what he thinks about it. Perhaps his views, like those of the Northern Ireland Secretary and the International Development Secretary, do not accord with those of the Prime Minister.
Finally, I have a paper here containing details of a parliamentary campaign among Labour Members. It sets out the strategy outline, and which Members are willing to go public and which are not. However, it does not say what the campaign is. Some of my cynical colleagues have suggested to me that it is a deputy leadership campaign. I was more generous and assumed that it must be a campaign against Government health policy. May we have a statement on what this campaign is, so that other Members can get involved, should they wish to?
With the Chancellor blocking prison places, the Foreign Secretary blocking Home Office reform, the Chief Whip campaigning against health policy, Labour Members campaigning against each other, and the Deputy Prime Minister telling us yesterday that he is demob happy, is it not clear that the Government are in paralysis and that the only answer for the country is for the Prime Minister to go, and go now?
That was original.
The right hon. Lady asked whether there would be a St. David’s day debate. Yes, one is planned for 1 March, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be delighted to talk in great detail about Labour’s success in Wales. That includes, for example, 7,500 additional police officers. On health, which is a devolved issue, the Labour-led Welsh Government have done extremely well, providing 400 more consultants, over 7,000 more nurses and 100 more dentists since 1999. There has been an extraordinary increase in resources devoted to education, and 1,700 more teachers since 1998. Employment is at a record high, with 1.3 million people in work. It is a fantastic record and we are delighted to debate it.
The right hon. Lady asked about our child care policy. She leads with her chin, does she not? Child care was a lamentable failure under the Conservatives, whereas under this Government, with expenditure that they opposed, we have a good record on child care. Everybody in the country knows that it is thanks to a Labour Government that we now have tax credits giving effective support to families, a network of Sure Start programmes, children’s centres and vouchers for child care. That means that many more working parents can go back to work, where they wish to.
On the costs of reorganisation, my advice to the right hon. Lady is not to trade our reorganisations with hers. For example, there was rail privatisation reorganisation, for which her party voted and on which they all campaigned. It was one of the most catastrophic reorganisations, which we have had to resolve, and having done that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) may mock, but we brought Network Rail into public ownership and invested hundreds of millions of pounds, and the result is a 40 per cent. increase in the number of passengers travelling by train. Where there is a problem—as there is in the right hon. Lady’s area with First Great Western—responsibility for it lies with the train operating company, which she should remember, because she supported privatisation.
There are some proposals for the reorganisation of local government. A few years ago, local government was reorganised in the right hon. Lady’s county, just as it was partially reorganised in my county of Lancashire. Speaking for Lancashire, the transfer of responsibility for all services to a unitary authority has made a big difference to delivery on the ground, and the costs of reorganisation have been tiny by comparison.
On joined-up government, I read and listened carefully to what Anne Owers said about the relationship between the Home Office and mental health provision. There is a continuing long-standing problem, in that many of those who commit crimes also have mental health problems. That is a fact of life, but a great deal of work is going into trying to improve mental health provision inside prisons. As the right hon. Lady wants a serious debate about the problem, she will know that mental health practitioners are often reluctant to take on people diagnosed with mental health problems who happen to be in prison. My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health are looking into the matter.
The right hon. Lady made some points about the Home Office budget being frozen. It has not been frozen. There are certainly restrictions on the growth of bureaucracy in all Departments—I thought that she was in favour of those—but capital building and the expansion of prison places have increased. The proof is that almost 20,000 additional prison places have already been provided in the past 10 years.
The right hon. Lady knows very well when the Lords White Paper is to be published, because I told her. She has been a member of the cross-party group on the Lords, where we have been seeking consensus when it is perfectly obvious—everybody knows—that opinion on reform of the Lords varies very much in all the major parties, and between this House and the other place. It is for that reason that we committed ourselves to a free vote on composition, which will include all Ministers, as we made clear before and at the election. There is not a Government view—
There will be a White Paper, because it is important that there should be a focus for the debate. There will be a statement on it, followed—as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) knows very well—by consideration by this House, not once but twice, before the House comes to a decision, and there will be equivalent processes, which are a matter for the Lords, in the other place.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the UK’s continuing engagement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The country recently held its first elections for more than 40 years, observed by a number of Members and strongly supported by our Government. The DRC has come out of a civil war involving six neighbouring countries and the deaths of 4 million people, but it is little discussed in public debate and I have failed so far to secure an extended debate in Westminster Hall, so will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for that important debate on the Floor of the House?
I commend my hon. Friend’s interest in that issue, which is too often neglected in the public prints in the UK, even though that country is where the largest number of people have been killed in civil strife in the past 30 years. I cannot promise a debate, but I shall certainly consider her request.
It may be helpful if I point out that between the two debates on Wednesday 7 February we will seek a Division of the House, under Standing Order No. 118, on a motion relating to the Merchant Shipping (Inland Waterway and Limited Coastal Operations) (Boatmasters’ Qualifications and Hours of Work) Regulations 2006.
I listened carefully to what the Leader of the House said about the benefits of a unitary authority in his area, but is it not important that a statement be made on the process of local government reorganisation? I am aware that 26 bids have been submitted to the Department, including two from Somerset, where the Conservatives say that a county unitary is unthinkable, although next door in Wiltshire they are not only thinking of it, but bidding for it. The important issue is not the merits or demerits of reorganisation, but whether there is an opportunity to consider those bids properly. Is it sensible to do so in the middle of a hard-fought district council campaign? Will there be an opportunity for local people to give their views, or will only councillors, Members of Parliament and Ministers be able to do so, as seems to be the case at the moment?
May we have a debate on the British Library? It is one of our greatest cultural institutions. It is not a place of entertainment, so it is not a place where admission fees are appropriate. In the interests of scholarship, will the House ensure that the British Library is properly maintained?
In the light of today’s revelations about the improper pressure put on the Attorney-General to reverse an opinion, and given the reported views of the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs—herself a recent Solicitor-General—which are that public trust in the role of the Attorney-General has been undermined, and that his advice should be routinely published, may we have an urgent debate on the tarnished role of the Attorney-General?
Lastly, may we have a debate on e-petitions? I note the enormous success of the Prime Minister’s website, which allows people to sign petitions on all sorts of subjects, and I receive a profusion of them. I have one question, which is really a benchmarking exercise: how many signatures are required on an e-petition before anything actually changes?
On local government reorganisation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set out the process in the local government White Paper. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that opinions vary markedly on the issue, and not necessarily according to party. It so happens that it was a Conservative Government who agreed that Blackburn should transfer to a unitary authority in 1996, against the all-party opposition of Lancashire county council, so there is no party point to make. However, someone has to make a decision, because otherwise there will be paralysis and no change. There is never a right time to make such decisions. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s area has elections every year or every four years, but mine has them every year, so there will always be an election coming up, or an election that has just taken place; that is how it is.
We have increased the resources for the British Library, as well as museums, significantly, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport would not do anything to damage the services provided by the British Library.
I wholly resent and reject the implications of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about my noble Friend the Attorney-General. He has carried out the duties of his office to the highest standards of propriety. The role of the Attorney-General is well settled, and I am glad that on 14 December the shadow Attorney-General confirmed the Conservative party’s support for the Attorney-General’s role, when responding to the Solicitor-General’s repetition of the Attorney-General’s statement about the suspension of the investigation of the Saudi matters. There is no way wholly to detach some considerations from the prosecution system, such as considerations of national security, and of national or public interest in the way that the Liberals suggest. Prosecutors are required by law to consider such matters. The hon. Gentleman ought to look abroad, at countries where prosecutors are allegedly entirely independent of Ministers, and see what criticism they are under, because they end up making political judgments, but are totally unaccountable in respect of those judgments. The Liberals would be screaming much more about the issue in that situation.
On e-petitions, the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was timely, because I have looked at the interest in e-petitions on the Downing street website, and I have talked to officials at No. 10 about the way in which those petitions could be linked to petitions in the House; that is an important function performed by the House. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry on petitions, and I will arrange for the people running the Downing street website to talk to the Clerk and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee about how we can better link the two together.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the number of signatures not just on petitions but on early-day motion 132, which raises the issue of illegal logging?
[That this House notes the problem of illegal logging, which is valued at 10 to 15 billion euros per year, costing producer countries billions in lost revenue, causes widespread environmental damage and loss of biodiversity, and increases carbon emissions; notes research by WWF which estimates that the EU is responsible for at least three billion euros of this and that the UK imports over 70 per cent. of its timber and is one of the largest importers of illegal timber within the EU; believes that the current EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Action Plan is inadequate, as it does not prevent illegal imports entering the EU via third countries such as China; supports the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee for legislation to make it illegal to import illegal timber into the EU; further notes that Chatham House has reported that such legislation is WTO compliant; and, therefore, calls on the Government fully to support moves to introduce this legislation as a matter of urgency.]
I tabled the motion, which has been signed by more hon. Members than any other early-day motion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is shocking that, despite the best efforts of companies such as Balfour Beatty, which has gone to great lengths to make sure that it procures sustainable timber, the UK is the third biggest importer of illegal timber? Is it not time that we had a debate in the House so that we can call on the European Community to introduce legislation to stop the import of illegal timber by the UK and the EU?
I certainly note my hon. Friend’s interest, and I congratulate her on the vigour with which she has pursued the matter. As she knows, there are a number of opportunities to raise the issue, including in Westminster Hall and on the Adjournment, and I will look at her request.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has much on his mind at the moment, so we hope that he has not forgotten about his last Budget. Can the Leader of the House tell us when that event will take place—and in connection with that, is he as confident today as he was last week that today’s air passenger duty has completed all the appropriate processes in the House of Commons?
First, the Budget date will be announced in the appropriate way; the right hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that. I will try to ensure that I send him a personal billet doux with the details, in case he misses it. On his second point, the decision to bring the tax into force today was entirely lawful, proper, and consistent with previous procedures. I do not know why there are complaints from some airlines, because when they impose a fuel surcharge they impose it on passengers who have already booked a ticket and paid the fare.
Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the powers of local government? We read in the papers that local authorities may be given powers to erect more speed cameras. That may be open to misrepresentation by our opponents, so a debate would allow us to restate the case that Labour stands for the hard-working family and the British-assembled motor car.
I would be delighted to try to arrange such a debate. We do indeed stand for hard-working families and for British-manufactured motor cars. The number of cars manufactured in this country is very high; it is not quite at its peak, but it is approaching that level. May I tell my hon. Friend that we have speed cameras because of concern for hard-working families, as we wish to ensure that families, particularly children, are safe from speeding motorists?
It is clear that to avoid continuing Government paralysis the Prime Minister must retire soon—so will the Leader of the House assure us that he will quickly introduce the orders for parliamentary boundary changes, so that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes leader he can fight the election on the new boundaries?
I promise the right hon. Gentleman that I am involved in a spirited discussion with the Department for Constitutional Affairs about introducing the boundary change orders. I have been told that the problem is printing and binding delays—[Hon. Members: “Oh!] I am not convinced that that is the reason, and I am pursuing the matter with vigour. I repeat my commitment to the House that the orders will be introduced in good time for a general election. Everyone knows that by law it is not open to Government to seek to amend the orders, and we shall not do so.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 791, which highlights the plight of hundreds of my constituents who still await a decision on a flood defence scheme seven years after their houses were flooded?
[That this House notes that it is now seven years since hundreds of residents along the Water of Leith in Edinburgh suffered severe flooding; further notes that the City of Edinburgh Council speedily drew up a flood defence scheme which it submitted to the Scottish Executive for approval; further notes that a report was submitted from the public inquiry into the scheme in September 2005, and that a decision on the scheme has been awaited ever since; and urges the Liberal Democrat Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Ross Finnie MSP, not to delay any further in reaching a decision, but to approve the scheme as soon as possible in order to end the uncertainty endured by residents in the affected area.]
Will my right hon. Friend support the call for the Liberal Democrat Minister for Environment and Rural Development, who has been sitting on the plans for two years in the Scottish Executive, to make a decision so that my constituents’ uncertainty can be ended?
Yes, we put large sums of money into flood defences. I am sad that the Liberal Democrat Minister in Scotland has been sitting on his hands for the past two years, but it does not surprise me, because it has always been clear to me that people join the Liberal Democrats only if they are congenitally incapable of accepting responsibility and making decisions.
Last week, the Leader of the House kindly agreed to a debate on the Act of Union. Will he make sure that the motion covers the West Lothian question, so that a Minister can explain to me from the Dispatch Box why it is fair and democratic for Scottish Members of this Parliament not to have a vote on health services in Perth, while, almost perversely, they can vote on health services in Penrith and Penzance? Why should the people of England put up with that for a minute longer?
I sometimes wonder why the House should put up with the hon. Gentleman for a minute longer—but I am a generous man. What I said was that I would consider the request, but there have already been debates on the West Lothian question, which is central to the issue of how we bind the Union or whether we wish, as he does, to destroy it. Equally, he could ask why, within the Union, Members from England have a dominant role in the financing of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As I said two weeks ago, the system is asymmetrical, but it is very fair, and it takes account of the fact that, as he knows, proportionately, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland represent only 16 per cent. of the United Kingdom’s total population and resources. English MPs, whatever their party, wholly dominate spending decisions that affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I think that that system works, and I am in absolutely no doubt that if a referendum on independence were held in Scotland it would be wholly rejected.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that on 24 February, the British National party will effectively be recognised as a trade union by the certification officer? May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that that organisation will not be allowed to exploit employment laws to spread its obnoxious policies?
Will the Leader of the House allow us to have a debate on access to drug treatment for sufferers of ultra-orphan conditions, which are extremely rare. Last March, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence proposed that the Department of Health introduce different guidelines so that it could review those drugs, which are necessarily more expensive, as the costs are spread among fewer patients. Last year, however, the Department rejected the NICE proposal so that sufferers of rare conditions in Britain have no prospect of access to new treatment. May we have a debate, because that is not the right way to progress the issue?
Of course I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. Health questions will take place next Tuesday, and she has not missed the deadline, so I suggest that she table a question. There is, I think, cross-party agreement that the NICE arrangement for independent assessment of new drug treatments is sensible, and better than the alternative. Whoever is in government, there are critical and difficult questions about whether to approve drugs and make them generally available. That is the reality, but I am aware that some individuals at the margin are disadvantaged and are in a difficult position.
Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the independence of the civil service, particularly the duty of hon. Members not to attack civil servants unfairly? May I draw his attention to the case of Mockbul Ali, with whom I believe he has been in contact? Mr. Ali was attacked by the Conservative party in its recent policy document on national security, but he could not answer, so perhaps we ought to address that in the House.
That is a good idea. Having read that Conservative document, which is an assemblage of various allegations off Google, I thought that the attack on Mr. Mockbul Ali, who is an official who worked for me in the Foreign Office, was wholly unwarranted and unworthy of the Conservative party. As far as I could see, his only offence is that he happens to be a Muslim working as a civil servant. I hope that the Conservative party will withdraw that, and much else in that document.
I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 108 concerning the Epsom and St. Helier NHS Trust.
[That this House recognises the vital role which the St Helier Hospital plays in providing healthcare services to residents of the London boroughs of Sutton and Merton and of Surrey; notes with alarm that the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust has been asked to make cuts of £20 million over the next two years; expresses its concern at the growing body of evidence suggesting that the hospital may be closed or that significant cuts will be made to hospital services; acknowledges the widespread support for the hospital from local residents; notes that any closure of services would have a significant impact on local people, resulting in longer travel times, inconvenience and a lower standard of care; and calls on the Government urgently to guarantee that the full range of existing healthcare services will continue to be provided at sites within the London Borough of Sutton.]
May we have a debate on the freedom of information rules that have been used by the trust to refuse to disclose information about the pay-off made to the former chief executive of the trust, which is believed to be about £600,000, at a time when the trust is cash-strapped and being forced to make cuts in both beds and clinical staff?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the matter in an Adjournment debate, he is aware of the opportunities. As he knows, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which I introduced as Home Secretary, if the health trust has indeed turned down the request, as he says, those who make the request have a right of appeal to an independent tribunal. I hope they are pursuing that.
Will the Leader of the House investigate an allegation that I received recently about the treatment of Public and Commercial Service Union members following an incident in Parliament square yesterday? The PCS members drove in an open-top coach along Whitehall and through Parliament square and parked in Horse Guards parade. Those who came off the bus were asked by the police to give their names and addresses because African drums and a megaphone had been used as they drove through Parliament square. Is that not a heavy-handed approach to demonstrations outside Parliament, as the bus was merely passing through? I am sorry that I have not put the allegations in writing, but I have been able to verify them only in the past 20 minutes.
I have many responsibilities, but the investigation of complaints against the police is not one of them. The hon. Gentleman knows, and can advise his constituents, that there are obvious well-tried routes laid down in statute by which, if they are concerned, they can make a complaint against the police.
My right hon. Friend knows that the Government have done much to change the law governing rape and sexual offences. May we have a debate on the subject, to enable us to highlight some of the remaining anomalies? For example, a constituent of mine was refused compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority on the absurd grounds that she had not suffered violence.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and I will do what I can to see that there is an opportunity to debate the matter. He will know that under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, there is some limited right of appeal. I cannot comment on that particular case, but I say to the House as a whole that it is widely accepted that under changes that we have made in the past 10 years, treatment of rape victims has improved considerably, to the extent that more rape victims are coming forward to make allegations. One of the results is that the proportion of so-called stranger rapes to acquaintance rapes has changed. The vast majority—getting on for 90 per cent.—of the allegations now made are so-called acquaintance rapes, where the issue is not whether intercourse took place or the identity of the alleged assailant, but whether there was consent. That is very difficult to prove or disprove in court.
May we have a debate on MRSA, even though the House has just had one? In the opening comments of the Secretary of State for Health in the recent debate on MRSA, she cited a visit that she had made to the Royal Marsden hospital the previous day. The Royal Marsden hospital has one of the lowest MRSA rates in the country, and she attributed that to the use of hand rubs, different coloured aprons, and electronic records. What the Secretary of State failed to mention, even though there were several interventions about hospital nurses’ uniforms—
Order. This seems to be an extension of the debate last week. We cannot have that. The hon. Lady should ask for a debate about the matter, not put the case. Perhaps I could help her by suggesting that if she felt that the Secretary of State was not as well informed as she should have been, the hon. Lady could ask for a debate.
When we had a drugs tsar and he produced an annual report, we used to debate it on the Floor of the House. I gather that in the very near future the Government are to review the national drugs strategy. Is it not time that we debated that important policy area again on the Floor of the House?
May I add my voice to those calling for a debate on the process of the restructuring of local government, including the cost of that process? Ministers throw about glib phrases about it being cost-neutral, which most people understand to mean very expensive indeed. This matter needs considering before we proceed.
It is being looked at before we proceed. Areas may decide that they do not want to move. It is always an issue of controversy, but from my own constituency experience, although there were some marginal restructuring costs, the benefits to my constituents, whatever their political affiliations, of changing to a unitary authority have been huge.
May we have a debate on the new £625 million contract for premiership football games to be shown overseas? As far as I can see, the only change that the contract will make is that premiership footballers’ basic salaries will change from £20,000 a week to £60,000 a week. That is obscene. None of the money is flowing down the game to the grass roots, and the gap between the premiership and other lower leagues, especially the one in which Hartlepool United plays, is getting wider. As a Blackburn Rovers fan, will my right hon. Friend arrange time to discuss the matter so that we can redistribute that wealth across football in general?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We look to the premier league to ensure that, with the additional funds, it makes football, whether in the premiership or lower down, more accessible to individuals so that they can go to the grounds. I am indeed a Blackburn Rovers fan. I had the misfortune to go to the away end at Stamford bridge yesterday, and paid £45 for the privilege of watching Blackburn Rovers being beaten 3-0 by Chelsea. I may be able to afford £45, but it is a great deal of money, so there is a real issue. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that Blackburn Rovers are, as ever, in the lead and have already taken steps to lower their prices to attract more people to the game, because the game as a whole, and the premiership offer, will suffer grievously if people see empty stadiums. That is what has happened in other countries. One of the reasons why the premiership is such a saleable product, so to speak, across the world is because of the fans who turn up week after week and support not just the glory teams, but the real teams in any of the leagues.
May we have a debate on why the Prime Minister will not answer questions about the loans scandal? I asked him about it yesterday, and he said that the answer was obvious. It is not entirely obvious to me why he cannot say that he is innocent, or that he has complete confidence in the people who have been arrested. If the answer is the really obvious one, I do not see how he is still Prime Minister.
May we have a debate on equality and balanced reporting in our press and media? Although it is right and proper that we should take every measure possible to stamp out racism and sectarianism, I am somewhat concerned that my sensitivities are being ignored. As someone who is often described as a white, fat, half-bald man, I am genuinely concerned that my views are not taken into consideration. Can my right hon. Friend suggest a way in which my sensitivities can be addressed—or do I just need a wee cuddle?
Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the growing sad army of NEETs—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in employment, education or training—whose numbers have rocketed since this Government came to power? With demand for unskilled labour falling, there is a real chance that we are creating an underclass. That is incompatible with social responsibility, social cohesion or social justice, and it deserves the House’s earnest, ardent and urgent consideration.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important topic, and I will certainly think about whether we can have a debate on it. He will know that part of the purpose of the proposal by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to extend the compulsory education age from 16 to 18 is to deal with that group. We have invested a huge amount of money, for example in welfare-to-work programmes, to provide better opportunities for many such youngsters. I accept that this is a matter for all parties. Because the number of unskilled jobs is declining, we have to work hard almost to stand still in providing opportunities for those who previously would have worked as factory labourers but for whom such opportunities are no longer available.
Could we have an urgent debate about the treatment of British citizens in Saudi Arabia during haj visits? On 9 December the 36-year-old wife of my constituent, Rafiq Gorji, was killed in a coach crash, and he was dragged along the ground, suffering burns to his hands, head and back. When I met the deputy Saudi ambassador yesterday, he referred me to the British ambassador in Riyadh. I spoke to our excellent ambassador there, who clearly stated that this is a matter for the Saudi Government. I know that my right hon. Friend set up the haj committee, and I have spoken to Lord Patel. However, this is a friendly country with which we have strong relations, and it is surely in the public interest to ensure that the case is dealt with. Could we therefore have an urgent debate?
I accept my right hon. Friend’s concern and ask him to send my personal condolences to the family concerned. It is a very distressing case. The Minister for the Middle East has already written to tour operators to draw their attention to the terrible consequences of this accident and the need to enforce regulations on bus safety and bus drivers’ hours. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to raise the matter with the Saudi Foreign Minister.
Can we have a further debate on affordable housing, which remains a priority in Milton Keynes? Does the Leader of the House understand my constituents’ frustration, given that last summer the Government trumpeted the introduction of a new £60,000 house, which we discovered this week had gone on sale for £189,500? Is that what he calls affordable?
I know that it is a dereliction of my duty. I accept the criticism, and I will consider my position. What else can I say? It is an abject failure. [Interruption.] Here comes the Opposition Chief Whip.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about high house prices—for first-time buyers in particular—which we all share. However, we have a done a great deal—rather more than the previous Government—to try to ameliorate the situation.
I hope that the House would agree, Mr. Speaker, that the private religious views of yourself, myself, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and even the Leader of the House, are not and should not be material to Government policy. If the Leader of the House accepts that, may I put to him again the question that I put to him last week? Can we have a debate on the role of religious organisations in delivering public services, with particular regard to whether it would be sensible for them to agree not to discriminate against service receivers or their employees, or to proselytise or harass when delivering welfare, social and other public services, after which they can make their contribution?
As I said last week, I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman’s views, if I do not altogether share them. There are plenty of occasions on which he can raise this matter. For example, the issue of faith schools, and whether their head teachers should be required to adhere to that faith, is regularly debated in this House. As a liberal western democracy, we should absolutely respect people’s right to hold, or not to hold, religious opinions. At the same time, most of us believe that we should take account of our country’s history and the important contribution that faith groups make, not only to private worship but to public services.
The Leader of the House will recall that the Prime Minister showed great courage, generosity and good sense in giving £27 million to the children’s hospice movement to replace the falling off of national lottery funding last year, and in setting up a review to secure fair funding for it. That review is coming to an end, and its recommendations will be presented to the Minister concerned at the end of February. Will the Leader of the House look to hold an early debate after that so that the House can show its strong cross-party support for the children’s hospice movement and its fair funding?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the approbation that he offers to the Prime Minister, who is very committed to this issue. I cannot promise a debate, but I will certainly ensure that his views are made known to the Prime Minister and to the relevant Minister.