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Business of the House

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 1 March 2007

Before I announce business for the next two weeks, may I wish all my Welsh colleagues and the people of Wales a happy St. David’s day?

The provisional business for the week commencing 5 March will be:

Monday 5 March—Second Reading of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 6 March—Debate on House of Lords reform.

Wednesday 7 March—Conclusion of debate on House of Lords reform.

Thursday 8 March—To mark international women’s day, a debate entitled “Women, Justice and Gender Equality in the UK” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 9 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 12 March will be:

Monday 12 March—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee.

Tuesday 13 March—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill.

Wednesday 14 March—A debate on Trident on a Government motion.

Thursday 15 March—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Subject to be announced.

Friday 16 March—The House will not be sitting.

I should like to say a brief word about proceedings for the debate on House of Lords reform on Tuesday and Wednesday next week. It is a two-day debate which, under the terms of a business motion agreed by the House earlier this week, will come to a conclusion earlier than the usual finishing time on a Wednesday, ending at 5.30 pm, to allow more time for the number of Divisions that may be required. A total of nine motions have been tabled in my name. In accordance with the precedent set in 2003, and as permitted by the business motion that has already been agreed, the Government intend to move all nine motions, to allow the House to express its view on each proposition, even if one option has already received a majority, or appears to be inconsistent with the next option to be put.

The House will be aware that as part of the review of House services Members will receive a survey in their pigeonholes next week, and I encourage all of them to complete it. There are sometimes complaints about services provided by different departments, so if Members wish to contribute constructively to improvements, it is important that they fill in the survey.

I join the Leader of the House in his best wishes to all Welsh colleagues, and thank him for acceding to our request for a debate on Welsh affairs today. I also thank him for giving us all the future business.

The Government’s consultation on post office closures is due to end next week. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the results will be announced to the House in a statement before they are given to the media?

It was good to see the Chancellor make a rare visit to the House for Treasury questions just before the business question. On Tuesday he gave yet another leadership campaign speech, and said that immigrants should do community work before they become British citizens—but this policy was blocked by the Chancellor himself four years ago, on the grounds of cost. On Wednesday the Minister for Children and Families announced that the Chancellor’s youth opportunity card would be abandoned, again on the grounds of cost. It seems that the prudent Chancellor is not so prudent when it comes to his own leadership ambitions. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s policy proposals?

The Chancellor seems to be talking about all sorts of issues these days—perhaps that is why his colleagues are so ready to be open about what they think of him—but on the many issues for which he is responsible, he is surprisingly reticent. The Leader of the House will, as Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Olympic games, be aware of the budget for 2012. First, we were told that the games would cost £2.35 billion; then we were told they would cost £3.3 billion. Now we are told that the cost could run to £9 billion. Will the Chancellor come to the House to make a statement? He likes talking about hosting the football World cup. Why is he so shy about the Olympics?

Another matter that the Chancellor is not keen to talk about is the soaring deficits in NHS trusts. Three quarters of primary care trusts are restricting access to treatment, half are delaying operations and 60 per cent. of acute hospital trusts are already closing wards. All we have had from the Government is a guide on how to spin the news to the media. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s NHS cuts?

Next week we will debate reform of the House of Lords. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for setting out the procedure that will be followed for the voting. House of Lords reform is another issue in which the Chancellor does not seem to be interested. Since he was elected on a manifesto promising

“to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative”,

there have been 21 separate votes on that. How many times has the Chancellor voted? Not once. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on what will happen to Lords reform when the Chancellor completes his smooth transition? You never know—perhaps next week we will see him voting for an entirely elected House. After all, that is about the only way he can avoid giving the Prime Minister a peerage.

We have a Prime Minister who is in office and not in power. We have a Chancellor in the office next door longing for power. People want to see Cabinet Ministers running the country, not running political campaigns. Everyone is sick of “waiting for Gordo”, but if the Prime Minister will not go now, should not the Chancellor just get on with his job?

She did not read it; she made it up—it was entirely spontaneous. That is the problem.

The right hon. Lady must have a crush on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. She kept obsessing about him in every other sentence, and she has just had an hour of ogling him. It is curious. Apparently he never comes to the House—but he has just been here, answering questions in his normal robust style.

The right hon. Lady wants a debate on spending. We can have a debate on tax and spending any time. There will be four whole days of opportunity to debate tax and spending in the Budget debate. That will be a great opportunity for us to debate the latest shift in approach by the Conservative shadow Chancellor. According to The Daily Telegraph, which, as we know, is accurate when it comes to the Conservative party, members of the shadow Cabinet have been “read the Riot Act” by the shadow Chancellor and told to stop making spending pledges without checking with him first. I am not surprised, because last week Grant Thornton said that the increase in spending promised by the Conservatives was £8.9 billion. [Hon. Members: “Is this business questions?”] They ask whether this is business questions, but this is the question that I was asked. I was asked about spending, and I have given the answer.

On the costs of the Olympics, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will make a statement—[Hon. Members: “When?”]. As soon as we have settled the issue. The Conservatives backed the Olympic bid, and now they are trying to back away from it. The simple fact of the matter is that the Stratford site is one of the most complex anywhere, and the costs are bound to be revised in the light of experience. There will be a statement as soon as we have pinned those costs down.

The right hon. Lady asked about deficits in the national health service. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health recently made a statement saying that, allowing for the use of contingency, it looks as though there will be a small surplus this year of £13 million, so I do not know where the right hon. Lady got her point from.

The right hon. Lady then made some spurious comments about debate taking place in the Labour party. There is a debate in the Labour party about its future—[Interruption.] She talks about leadership campaigns, but I have to tell her that that debate is comradely in the extreme compared to what I read on the blog of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) about what is going on—[Interruption.] No, this week, too. [Interruption.]

Indeed, Mr. Speaker. Part of my duty, however, is pastoral care for all Members, so they ought to be aware that I take a close interest in all Members’ blogs. What we are told is that inside the Tory party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)

“swims in shark infested waters”,

and also that

“David knows who the creeps are, you can see it in his eyes.”

And that is about his own side. I look forward to next week’s business.

Can we have a debate on party finance? Some concerns have been expressed on this side of the House recently that our party’s links with the trade unions have been underemphasised. Earlier this week, the Scottish National party claimed that the Short money that it receives from the state was actually raised by the party itself as part of its campaign fund. Surely a debate would allow us to cover those issues and ensure that our voice is heard early in the process.

I would be delighted to have a debate on the funding of political parties. I would be very happy indeed for the relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions to be scrutinised. The Neill committee pointed out in 1998 that the system was working well, and there is no evidence of any impropriety since then. As for the Scottish National party, I am not surprised if it makes claims that do not turn out to be entirely accurate. That, after all, is how it has always operated.

The Leader of the House said that he was not sure where the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had got her details on the health service. I suggest that one possible source that might be the basis for a debate is the survey of NHS trust chief executives published today in the Health Service Journal. It corroborates the right hon. Lady’s points and goes on to reveal that 47 per cent. of trusts are making redundancies and that 69 per cent. of chiefs think that patient care will suffer as a result of short-term financial decisions. When asked about the Government’s handling of the national health service, the chief executives—the people running the health service—said decisions were “knee-jerk” and Ministers “consistently dishonest and disingenuous”. One said:

“It is hard to imagine greater incompetence”.

We need a debate on what is happening in the health service.

While we are talking about incompetence, let us move on to the consultation on post office closures. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will actually answer the question about whether we are to have a statement. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, consultation is to close on 8 March. Is it not extraordinary that neither the Government nor the Post Office thought it appropriate to send the consultation document to the people most affected—the men and women who run sub-post offices around this country, none of whom has received the consultation document unless they have applied for it themselves? If they have received the document, it will have come from a Member of Parliament such as me, who has sent them a copy. Is that not extraordinary incompetence on the part of the Government?

May we have an urgent debate on water charges? I live in a village that is not on mains water, and sometimes has no water at all, but those who do have a water company will be alarmed to see that water bills are going up yet again, by up to 10 per cent. Indeed, South West Water bills will soar by an average of £44, to £483, the highest in the country. Is it acceptable that we can have hosepipe bans and leakage at the same time as rocketing water bills, on top of higher council tax bills and winter fuel payments?

Lastly, may we have a debate on agricultural education? I do not know whether the Leader of the House saw the survey carried out by Dairy Farmers of Britain this week, which revealed that one in 10 eight-year-olds do not know that pork chops come from pigs. A similar number do not know where bacon comes from, and suspect that it may come from sheep. Astonishingly, 2 per cent. think that cows lay eggs. Is it not important that people understand where their food comes from, and the importance of the agriculture industry? Perhaps that is a lesson that would be well learned by Ministers as well.

We are delighted to debate the national health service on any occasion. As the hon. Gentleman is quoting the survey, he may like to note that, on reform, 90 per cent. of those surveyed apparently think that the Government need to hold their nerve on difficult reconfigurations. If we are debating the health service, what we need to debate is the very significant improvements in the quality and amount of care provided for our constituents. In his constituency—[Interruption.] I said this last week because he does not say it often enough, and I am having to do his job as a constituency Member for Frome. Thanks to somebody—but obviously not him—£100 million is now going into a new hospital configuration in his constituency.

I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman’s indolence; he has just admitted that there is sometimes no water at all in the village where he lives. What is the local MP doing about that? On a serious point, I am not here to defend the water companies. They are private companies that need to be strictly regulated. There is great concern across the country about the level of water charges and the need for Ofwat to be vigorous in regulating the companies. I look forward to his making strong representations to the water companies, as I do in my area. On a matter of fact, winter fuel costs have gone down this winter because the price of fuel has fallen—but I do not expect that the facts would be of great concern to him.

On post offices, I apologise to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead for omitting to answer her question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has been assiduous in coming to the House on this and other matters, will of course make a statement. I cannot guarantee at this stage whether it will be an oral or a written statement, but I say to everybody who is concerned about the formation of the number and distribution of post offices that there needs to be a slightly higher level of debate. Recognition is needed that the reason why the Post Office is facing this shrinkage is the internet, and people’s changing habits. We have put an astonishing amount of money into rural post offices, and we will continue to do so, but there has to be some change.

The last thing that the hon. Gentleman asked for is a debate on agricultural education. I agree, as I remember having a discussion some years ago with a child who told me that he was vegetarian. I said that in that case he would not be eating the sausages, and he said, “No, that’s different; they come from somewhere else.” The level of appreciation is rather limited, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about what we can do about that.

Yet again, throughout my constituency residents are receiving bullying letters from ground rent and chief rent companies asking for information, and sometimes for substantial amounts of money to which they are not entitled. Can we have an urgent debate on this important issue, which is causing a great deal of anxiety to many local residents, particularly pensioners?

I am aware of that problem, which is particularly serious in the north-west. There are clear legal rights for people who are in that position to commute the ground rent for a relatively small fee. I encourage my hon. Friend to make use of an opportunity to debate this in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House.

The Leader of the House has confirmed that next Wednesday we will vote on Lords reform—again, and at some length. He has often said that the best should not be the enemy of the good, so can he confirm that he will not only support the 50 per cent. option in his White Paper but vote for the higher elected options as well, and encourage his right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same?

Yes, I can. I will not vote for a wholly elected Chamber, because I am against that, but I will certainly vote for 50 per cent. and the higher options.

Can my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate in this Chamber on the use of privilege? We all know that privilege is used to stop rich individuals out there using the threat of legal action to prevent Members from raising issues here, but it cannot be right for Members to make allegations against ordinary working people in this country. That cowardly use of privilege only detracts from the status of every Member of this House.

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I am aware of the background. There are opportunities to debate this matter. I would advise my hon. Friend, if he has not already done so, to talk to the Clerk of the House and, through him, to the Speaker, about whether it could be referred to the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

Like all other Members, I am very much looking forward to the debate on Trident. Does the Leader of the House believe that Members who say something publicly on Trident should follow that through in the way that they vote in the Division following the debate? Eighty per cent. of the Scottish people oppose Trident and 45 per cent. say that they will switch their vote away from parties that support it. The majority of Scottish Members of Parliament oppose Trident. Would not the public therefore be right to punish those who say one thing and vote another way?

The people who say one thing and do another are Scottish National party Members and their allies; they are the experts on this. I hope that when we come to the day for the debate on Trident there will be a very serious discussion about what is in the United Kingdom’s long-term defence interests. It is not a trivial matter; it is about the future defence of this country, and, indeed, the security of the world. That applies as much to people who are resident in Scotland as it does to other parts of the United Kingdom.

In September, the all-party group on anti-Semitism produced a report that the Government will respond to in the next few weeks. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this issue would be an appropriate subject for proper and thorough debate in this House? If so, will he consult his ministerial colleagues on how best to achieve that?

I certainly accept the very great importance of this matter. Although I cannot make a promise about the use of time, I will look to see what we can do, whether in Government time or not, on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

Three years ago the Government announced that the House’s scrutiny of European legislation was inadequate and secretive, and had lost the confidence of the public. Two years ago the Modernisation Committee, which is always chaired by the Leader of the House, recommended sweeping changes. Why have the Government done absolutely nothing to implement those proposals? It is said that this has been blocked by the Labour Whips. Could the Leader of the House account for Government inaction, and for back-pedalling on previous proposals?

It is correct to say that we have not yet put forward proposals for change. That is a matter of frustration to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, to the Minister for Europe and to myself, as well as to others. It is not true, however, that we are just sitting on this. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the deputy Chief Whip will confirm that he and I, and the new Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, had a discussion about the way forward within the past week or so. The issue for everybody is how best to change the system so that the new system is more effective than the current one, and how to ensure that the changes are not only supported in principle but backed in practice by sufficient Members on both sides of the House who are willing to turn up and do the work. That is the only obstacle in the way of reform.

The chief executive of Royal Mail recently expressed concern that the universal service obligation could be at risk if Royal Mail continues to lose lucrative business contracts. That happens because of unfair competition, in that its competitors can offer discounts, whereas Postcomm does not allow Royal Mail to do that. An early-day motion that I tabled in January expressing similar sentiments received more than 85 signatures from Members. Is it not time that we had a debate on the future of Royal Mail, and on the impact of the regulator?

I note my hon. Friend’s concerns and applaud the interest that she shows in the issue. There are opportunities to raise it in debate. This is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, not for me, but I think that with a certain amount of ingenuity she may be able to make some remarks that are in order during the Budget debates.

A debate on integration and cohesion would give the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) a chance to raise the important issue of anti-Semitism. It would also give the House a chance to discuss relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. When I asked the Leader of the House about this a fortnight ago, he said that business was tight but that it was an idea that we should actively consider. How is that active consideration getting on?

The active consideration goes on. I am not being facetious; there is a limited amount of time, but I am aware of the importance of the issue, along with that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).

When can we have a debate on early-day motion 997?

[That this House congratulates the Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen for his work Queen and Country, which depicts photographs of 98 British soldiers killed in Iraq printed in a stamp format; and calls on the Royal Mail to respect the wish of the artist and the loved ones of the fallen soldiers and produce a commemorative issue of stamps displaying this powerful and moving work of art.]

It is the wish of the artist and many of the relatives of the soldiers who died that a commemorative stamp should be issued using this work of art. That would be appropriate, not only because it is a strong and powerful work of art but because it would be reminder to us all of the true cost of war.

I have the early-day motion in front of me. Of course it is correct that we should honour those 98 and the others who have tragically fallen since, as well as all those who have been injured in Iraq and other theatres. My hon. Friend is aware that there is quite a lot of consideration before any particular image is used on Royal Mail stamps, but there is no argument about the need to honour, and to continue to honour, those who have fallen in Iraq.

In Birmingham perhaps £1 million a year, and in my constituency perhaps £100,000 a year, is spent on clearing up graffiti tagging, yet it seems to be the Government’s policy that unless someone does more than £5,000-worth of damage, no more than a caution is necessary. Can we have a debate about how we can deter youths from tagging, perhaps by making them clear up the mess that they create?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman what we will have a debate about as soon as possible—Liberal Democrats saying one thing here and a very different thing in their constituencies. Time and again they criticise us for tough sentences and for introducing more offences, and now this hon. Gentleman stands up to say that we should be doing more, not less. I hope that he will talk to his leader and to those who speak on home affairs for the Liberal Democrat party, and explain to his constituents how time and again he votes for soft policies here, and then parades himself in Birmingham as being in favour of harder policies.

Next week’s Northern Ireland elections are important not only to the people of Northern Ireland but to each and every one of us. Why, therefore, did nobody in my right hon. Friend’s department or in the Northern Ireland Office tap him on the shoulder and say that it is inappropriate to have those important votes on Lords reform on the same day as those elections, in which some hon. Members are candidates? Moreover, from three of the Northern Ireland Members we solicit support for this Government. It seems unfair and unreasonable that that happened, and I want to know why it happened.

No, but there is a problem. Of course we are aware of that clash. When business is discussed by Government business managers, and then with Opposition business managers, we always look at what else is coming up, but there is never a correct date for some debates. We had to ensure that we could get those debates in at an appropriate time within the programme, taking account of legislation such as the Budget, well before Easter. That was the difficulty. I have already spoken to two of my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland and apologised to them for the fact that there is that clash, which is inconvenient.

Can we have an oral statement on the ongoing investigation into the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko? We had an oral statement in November shortly after the assassination, but an awful lot has happened since. There have been various comings and goings of British and Russian police officers between the two capitals. Serious implications were raised by the incident in terms of both our relations with Russia and the safety and security of dissidents and other prominent persons in this country. We need to take another look at that.

It is not usual for statements to be made by Ministers while investigations are continuing, but I will pass on to the Home and Foreign Secretaries the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and invite them to make a statement, probably a written one, at an appropriate moment.

In the sayonara period of the Prime Minister's term of office, can the Leader of the House tempt him to come to the House for the debate just before the European Council? Can he tempt him to lead the debate himself, on a Government motion and on a vote, to explain the advantages of being in the European Union and the disastrous consequences of the relentless hostility of the Conservative party even to its sister Conservative parties in Europe, which is deeply damaging to the national interest?

I would be delighted to do so. Of course, the Prime Minister, even if he cannot be tempted into that debate, will be making a statement straight after the European Council. One of the central issues there will be whether we act on climate change through co-operation in Europe, which is fundamental to our approach, or whether we take the approach of the Conservative party, which is to act unilaterally and to eschew any co-operation with mainstream centre-right parties in Europe. The result of that will be greatly to weaken our ability to make progress on climate change and on many other issues.

May I make a sincere plea to the Leader of the House for a debate on Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate of 1,594 per cent., which is putting even basic foodstuffs beyond the reach of many families. More than 1 million people, mainly orphans and schoolchildren, are in receipt of food aid. Hospitals are on strike; doctors and nurses are refusing to work. University lecturers are on strike, supported by their students, and the Government have banned any form of public meeting. Zimbabwe is deteriorating into complete chaos and anarchy. Is not it time that the House had a debate in Government time to show the people of Zimbabwe that we care for their plight? It is a wonderful country with a wonderful people and they deserve more from the civilised world.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his consistent concern about Zimbabwe. I agree with him both about the terrible plight of Zimbabwe and the need for a debate in Government time. The only bit of slightly better news relatively is that the European Union recently agreed for the fifth year running to roll over the sanctions against Zimbabwe. I have to say, as the Foreign Secretary who got those sanctions under orders to begin with, that that was quite difficult because of resistance from some of our continental colleagues. This morning, I was talking about a date to the Chief Whip and the Minister in the Foreign Office who would handle the debate. Frankly, the issue is to ensure that we have a debate when he is in the country. However, we are actively considering the matter.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that we are in the middle of fair trade fortnight. Can we have a debate in order that we can promote even further the benefits of fair trade not just to the British consumer, but to those less fortunate than ourselves? That would also give us the opportunity to congratulate the local authorities, volunteers and retailers who work all year round promoting fair trade products.

I commend the work of my hon. Friend on that matter. I hope very much that it will be possible to find time in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment to raise that important issue.

Did not Monday's statement by the Defence Secretary deploying further troops to Afghanistan underline how important it is that we have a debate in Government time on Afghanistan? It cannot be right for us to put at risk the lives of so many young men and women in our armed forces without the House properly debating what is going on in Afghanistan. Can we have an urgent debate?

I do not deny for a second the importance of that issue. There has been one occasion this year when the matter has been debated—in the defence and the world debate. I accept the need for that matter to continue to be debated. I cannot promise a debate before Easter, but I will look at opportunities after that.

Can my right hon. Friend, or the appropriate Minister, investigate the recent actions of American troops in Iraq, who, on three occasions in the past two weeks, have raided trade union offices, destroyed equipment, confiscated computers and fax machines and arrested some of the employees?

I will certainly pass on to the Foreign Secretary the concerns raised by my hon. Friend for the trade union movement in Iraq. Although I know nothing about that particular incident, I know a lot about the bravery and commitment of the trade union officials and movement in Iraq.

In welcoming the 14 March debate on Trident on behalf of the shadow Defence Ministers, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he will guarantee that there will be no intrusion by statements on the time for that debate? Will there be protected time—six and a half hours—for that debate? Does he agree that it would send the wrong signal about the importance of this as a defence issue for the Defence Secretary to be relegated, as appears to be the case, to winding up the debate, rather than presenting the case, which he is perfectly capable of doing?

I accept the hon. Gentleman's first point. Unless there is some emergency, we will do everything we can to avoid any statement before the debate begins. Frankly, I think that the second point is rather trivial. The responsibility for that kind of major issue has always been shared between the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary. If I were still Foreign Secretary, it is quite likely that I would open the debate on the issue.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his best wishes on St. David's day. He will be aware that on 3 May there are elections to the Welsh Assembly. Two of the candidates are members of a party called Forward Wales. However, they are standing in that election as independents. Can we have a debate on whether that deceitful practice is in breach of electoral law?

I thank my hon. Friend on the first point. I hope that he is successful in securing a debate on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall on that issue. He may also wish to consider making complaints to the Electoral Commission and to the returning officer because the accurate description of candidates is fundamental to the operation of our democracy.

The Leader of the House may be aware of the Light Bulb (Regulation) Bill that would allow for the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs. If he would like to feel the hand of history on his shoulder, will he find time in this House to debate that important issue?

The hon. Gentleman is trying to garner some green credentials, but I gather that his green credentials are rather tarnished by the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to other serious environmental plans, including the congestion charge in Edinburgh and wind farms in various areas in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend will know that on 25 March we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This morning, a group of walkers have left Hull in chains to walk to Westminster to celebrate this important anniversary. Will there be an opportunity to have a debate on the Floor of the House about the anniversary and the modern context of slavery?

I commend my hon. Friend’s constituents and I can tell her that there will be a debate in Government time about slavery.

The Leader of the House will be aware of early-day motion 964:

[That this House views with concern the plans to cut the number of employees of HM Revenue and Customs in Leicestershire; notes that this will result in the loss of more than 300 jobs; believes that there are already problems with the level of service in this area which would only worsen with a significant cut in staff numbers and budget; and calls on the Paymaster General to reconsider the decision.]

It was tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is in his place, and relates to the review of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the impact that that is having on the abolition of jobs, particularly front-line jobs. Will it be possible to have a debate on that? Will the right hon. Gentleman have a friendly word with the Paymaster General about the criteria used in identifying the job losses across the country, which are causing concern to Members on both sides of the House?

There are plenty of opportunities to question my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, including Treasury questions, which has just finished. Apparently the Conservative party, as from yesterday, is supporting a fairly tight public spending regime. All Governments will be faced with the need to reconfigure operations such as Revenue and Customs in light of the fact that the operations have merged and as improved technology is reducing the need for some jobs in some areas. The difference between any Government led by the hon. Gentleman’s party and ours is that under this Government we have a buoyant economy and good investment in retraining to provide alternative opportunities for any people who are displaced.

As my friend knows, the consultation ended yesterday on the setting up and regulation of marketing departments in NHS hospitals. Can we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Health on that matter, and perhaps a debate afterwards on how the emerging market in health will be policed?

I am happy that my hon. Friend raises that, because getting to a period of stability in the NHS will enable primary care trusts to identify the medical care needs of people in their area and the most appropriate provision. There will be a certain amount of creative competition between different providers. That has always been the case, but it has always been sub rosa and I think that it is better if it is explicit. As a result, we will be able to change the culture of some NHS establishments to ensure that they are absolutely focused on their overwhelming priority—the patient.

My right hon. Friend may not be aware that last week, I had a phone call from Mrs Anne Parker, a constituent from Basegreen in Sheffield. She was extremely distraught at a story in the Daily Mirror to the effect that, as a result of the Hills report, all council tenants and arm's-length management organisation tenants faced the possibility of losing their security of tenure. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on that very important report into social housing by John Hills, so that Ministers can make it absolutely clear that, under this Government, there is no possibility of council, ALMO or housing association tenants losing their security of tenure?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has already made the Government’s position clear, but I will pass on to her my hon. Friend’s concerns and ensure that she writes to him.

May I ask the Leader of the House for a statement on discrimination in the workplace? The head of the new Equality Commission, Sir Trevor Phillips, has demanded that rules forbidding discrimination on the grounds of race or sex be scrapped. Are the Government happy that the head of the equality body believes that people should not be given jobs on merit and should be given jobs based on their race and their sex? Do the Government intend to abide by his demands?

That is a complete parody of what Sir Trevor Phillips had to say. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman spelled out whether he was in favour of efforts to improve the equality of opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and the disabled.

Will my right hon. Friend explain briefly what he anticipates happening after next Wednesday’s votes and, in particular, what is likely to happen in the other place? Will he affirm that the votes in this place will always take primacy over the votes in the other place?

I wish that I could tell my hon. Friend exactly what is going to happen, but that would require clairvoyant facilities greater than mine.

Even greater.

After our debate, there will be a debate in the other place. I thought it important to ensure that these debates did not occur on the same day, so that this House could assert its primacy—something that has been agreed by all parties in this House and in the other place, regardless of shifts in composition. Of course we will take account of the views of the other place but, ultimately, this is a matter of law and this House must decide.

May we have an urgent debate on surface coal mining in Shropshire? Is the Leader of the House aware of a proposal by UK Coal to mine 900,000 tonnes of coal in new works in my constituency? Will he comment on what impact he thinks that will have on local wildlife, residents and roads and, most of all, on the area of outstanding natural beauty that will be affected?

The hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not accept his invitation because I assume, although I am not certain, that that is subject to a planning application—and, if that is turned down, an inquiry, subject to the outcome of which a decision may have to be made personally by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I invite the hon. Gentleman to make strong representations, as he is doing here, at every stage of the process.

May we have an urgent statement or a debate on the very serious allegations in today’s edition of The Times by Chief Superintendent Dizaei, who states that he was subjected to a campaign of harassment by his fellow officers in the Met, that his phone was bugged and that there was an investigation by 44 officers that cost millions of pounds? He also states that the Mayor of London’s race adviser, Lee Jasper, was also the subject of bugging. These are very serious matters because the chief superintendent is the borough commander of Hounslow. I know that the Leader of the House was committed to diversity when he was Home Secretary. This matter creates real problems for the image of the Met, so could we please have a statement?

It was not only me who was committed to diversity—and the Government actually did something about it—so, too, were Sir Paul Condon and Sir John Stevens, former Commissioners of the Metropolitan police. On the very specific allegations, my right hon. Friend will be aware that those who feel that the intelligence and security services have acted inappropriately or unlawfully have a right to make strong representations, and have those investigated, to the intelligence services commissioner or the interception commissioner.

In common, I suspect, with many other hon. Members, I am receiving strong representations from people who are studying English as a second language, and who are worried that the Government plan to cut funding for those courses. Given the Chancellor’s professed support for Britishness and citizenship, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) alluded, and the recommendations in the Leitch report about the importance of language as a preparation for work, is there any possibility of having a debate on this important issue?

We are all aware of the pressures on the English as a second language service, not least my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The hon. Gentleman may be fortunate in gaining an Adjournment debate on the matter, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on holding a St. David’s day debate today, and I ask him to consider allowing a similar debate on St. George’s day, so that all Members who believe in the Union can celebrate the patron saint of England. Does he agree that that would send the important message to the racist parties, such as the British National party, that we will never allow them to hijack St. George’s day for their own brand of narrow-minded extremism?

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. My two Scottish colleagues who are currently sitting on the Front Bench—the Defence Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), who is the longest-serving Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence ever in the history of the world, as he himself told me not long ago—have both endorsed that as a good idea. As an Englishman, I think that it is a good idea. In reply to the question, I cannot make an absolute promise, but we will look into that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) spoke movingly about the situation in Zimbabwe. However, given that the numbers of people dead, dying and destitute in Darfur are increasing exponentially on a daily basis, and given that no fewer than 14 United Nations agencies have warned that malnutrition rates there are

“edging perilously close to the emergency threshold”,

can we please also have next week a statement—or, better still, a full-day debate—on Darfur to seek to establish how the international community will secure a properly equipped United Nations or African Union presence in that region before the genocide has been completed?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise his concerns, which are shared by all Members and all parties. We continually look for opportunities to debate such matters. I simply say—although I know that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting this—that there is not a competition between Zimbabwe and Darfur. We must debate both matters, but there are special responsibilities on the United Kingdom in respect of Zimbabwe, and we have been in the lead in the European Union in getting sanctions. There is great frustration about Darfur, but the hon. Gentleman might wish to know that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is today asking judges to consider summonses in respect of two individuals. He might also wish to know that as a result of very strong representations that I made—I claim credit for this—the United States lifted its potential veto on a Security Council resolution that effectively brought the ICC into play in respect of Darfur.

As is traditional, the Leader of the House has announced the business for the next two weeks, but he has announced only the main business; he has not announced any statements that there might be. Of course, many statements are responses to emergencies and nobody would expect there to be foreknowledge of those, but I suspect that there might be a Minister or two who already knows, or is almost certain, that they will make a statement within the next two weeks. Might it be possible for the Leader of the House to start to make announcements in advance in respect of statements that he knows will definitely be given, for the better forewarning of the House and so that we do not get up in the morning and, by listening to the “Today” programme or watching the television news, hear that a Minister will make an announcement later in the day when no Members of this House have been informed of that? Might it be possible to send an e-mail? Instead of having a piece of paper stuck up outside the Chamber saying that there will be a statement later in the day, my right hon. Friend could arrange for e-mails to be sent to all Members.

I am aware of that issue. There are two aspects to it. One of them is that sometimes information that should first be given to this House is instead made available outside it, sometimes as a result of Ministers’ decisions— of which I do not approve—and at other times because of leaks. I deprecate that, and all Ministers seek to avoid it. The second aspect is to do with advance notice of statements. I am actively looking into that with my Cabinet colleagues and the Clerk of the House. On occasions when everyone knows that a statement is to be made, such as the Budget—everyone knows the date when that will be delivered—notice of statements might be put on the Order Paper at least on the morning when the statement is to be made, and in some cases well before that.

Can we have a debate on the robustness of the British crime survey? It is an annual survey that the Government put great store by in judging whether crime is rising or falling, yet it does not cover a variety of offences, ranging from commercial offences, murder—because the victims of that cannot be interviewed—and offences that it calls victimless, including drugs offences. Crucially, it also does not cover offences against people who are aged 16 and under because they are not interviewed as part of the survey. Can we have a debate on that matter, to try to discover how we can make the British crime survey relate to crime in today’s Britain, rather than crime in the Britain of 1981 when it was established?

If the hon. Lady has concerns about the crime survey, she needs to raise them with the Office for National Statistics, which we are now making independent of Government. One of the reasons why we are doing that is so that there is complete integrity in terms of the data that are used. It has never been suggested that the British crime survey is a substitute for the recorded crime figures; what the BCS shows, in respect of those groups surveyed and the offences concerned—it shows this in a robust, statistical way—is whether the numbers of offences have increased or fallen. It is able to knock out of consideration some offences which are not notified to the police. As the hon. Lady is aware, the truth is that some offences, such as burglary and thefts of vehicles, traditionally have high and consistent levels of notification whereas others have relatively low levels of notification, including some robberies—so-called minor robberies, although I think that they are all major—and thefts from vehicles. I accept that there is an issue to be addressed, but it is time that the hon. Lady acknowledged that the BCS none the less shows that since 1997, in respect of bulk offences that affect everybody including families and kids under 16, there has been a very significant decline in crime in her constituency, as well as elsewhere. One of the reasons for that might be that there has been an increase in the number of police officers in her area—up from 563 in March 2001 to 589 in January 2007.

Can we have a statement from the Minister with responsibility for prisons on the closure of Her Majesty’s Prison Service office at Crown house in Corby and its relocation to Leicester? Many of my constituents who serve as part of the almost 90-strong work force—many of whom are female and young mums with children who work part-time—will not be able to join in the relocation, and they are aghast to hear from the Prison Service that one of the reasons for the relocation of the office is that the population of Corby is 94 per cent white British whereas the population in Leicester is less than 60 per cent. white British. Is it not appalling that such decisions are made on racial grounds?

I do not believe for a second that the hon. Gentleman’s final point is correct. I have looked into this matter, as I rightly guessed that the hon. Gentleman would raise it, and it is my understanding that this transfer was triggered by a decision to sell the property in Corby that is currently occupied by the National Offender Management Service because there was an approach—presumably by developers, as I am told that the building sits within the phase 2 area of the Corby regeneration programme. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman endorses that from a sedentary position. That is why the building is being closed for the current purposes, and it is then up to the Prison Service to make decisions on where to relocate the staff.

As we have recently had a debate on buses, can we now have a debate on trains? Perhaps that would enable us to get to the bottom of why the Government seem to misunderstand, or misrepresent, why so few Virgin trains—in fact none—now stop at Milton Keynes during peak hours. Bizarrely, one train does stop, but only to set down passengers—it will not allow anybody on. When I asked the Secretary of State about that, he said that the issue was the platform length at Milton Keynes, but in a written answer last week he said that there is nothing wrong with the platform length there. Reading between the lines, it is pretty clear that the Government’s priority is those travelling from the north, but why should local people in Milton Keynes be discriminated against in that way?

I am sorry that although I have used the inter-city west coast main line for 30 years, I do not have the full details of the timetable in my head. However, I have been on plenty of trains that have stopped at Milton Keynes, both at peak hours and at off-peak hours, and both to pick up and to set down passengers. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that as a result of our investment in the railway service, the inter-city west coast main line is more efficient, more punctual and far better patronised. I am surprised that he did not commend what I understand to be an almost definite plan to expand Milton Keynes railway station through the addition of a further platform—is that not correct?—in order to increase its capacity.