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Business of the House

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 8 March 2007

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 12 March—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on National Health Service deficits, followed by a debate on local transport planning and funding. Details will be given in the Official Report.

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 widening participation in higher education on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 16 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 March will be as follows:

Monday 19 March—Second Reading of the Consumer, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 March—A debate on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 21 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 22 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Friday 23 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 15 and 22 March will be:

Thursday 15 March—A debate on the report from the Treasury Committee on the administration of tax credits.

Thursday 22 March—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on conflict and development: peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction.

The information is as follows:

Health: in so far as they relate to national health service deficits (First Report from the Health Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 73-I, on National Health Service Deficits, and the Government response thereto, Cm 7028; and the Department of Health Departmental Report 2006, Cm 6814).

Transport: in so far as they relate to local transport planning and funding (Twelfth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, on Local Transport Planning and Funding, HC 1120, and the Government’s response thereto, Fourth Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 334).

The House of Commons expressed a clear view last night. It was indeed an historic moment for the House, but we must of course respect the right of the other House both to debate and to vote on reform next week. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said last night that he believed that a cross-party working group should reconvene in the near future, and expressed a willingness to talk to minority parties. Once we have taken stock of the decisions of both this House and the other place, my right hon. Friend will come to the House to make a detailed statement on the way forward, following reflection.

Finally, let me welcome the shadow Deputy Leader of the House to our proceedings.

My thanks to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I understand that the Leader of the House is unable to be with us today because he is on an awayday with the rest of the Cabinet. The idea of the Prime Minister, along with the Chancellor and the rest of the Cabinet engaging in team-building exercises is somewhat breathtaking. Perhaps on their return the Prime Minister could give us a statement as to who were the team players—or perhaps more importantly, who was not.

As the Deputy Leader of the House has said, last night was a truly historic occasion. I welcome his preliminary comments. However, there are some detailed issues that need to be addressed. This House voted for a substantially or wholly elected upper Chamber, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Leader of the House, said afterwards, it is only a first step and raises further questions. Indeed, two options were approved, there was obvious tactical voting by some hon. Members and there were reports of Government Whips encouraging Members to vote for a wholly elected Chamber in order to wreck the reform. Will the hon. Gentleman make a statement on how the Government interpret what is the settled view of the House?

The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that he just has. If she were listening carefully, she would have noted that there were warm words but nothing specific. I am asking for specific responses.

Last night, the Leader of the House gave us his immediate thoughts on the next steps and I am grateful for that, but the next steps for reform of the other place will be complex, controversial and undoubtedly will take time. Will the Leader of the House come to this place and set out a clear timetable for the next steps? Is the expectation of the Government to fulfil their manifesto pledge and to legislate in this Parliament? Now that the Chancellor has finally expressed his views, will he confirm that the Chancellor will drive forward these reforms?

Last night, this House clearly voted against the 50:50 proposal put forward by the Leader of the House and as such the House rejected the White Paper. Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that the White Paper is now scrapped? Will there, following the cross-party talks that he referred to, be a statement from the Leader of the House saying that there will be a new White Paper based on the votes of last night? When any legislation is put forward, will he undertake that all stages of the legislative process will take place on the Floor of this House, and not in Committee?

As I said, last night was a momentous occasion but, given the complexity and controversy inherent in this constitutional reform, we must do all we can, working together, to ensure that reform does indeed go ahead. I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House would enlighten us with his thoughts.

I congratulate the hon. Member. I realise that he has a difficult job to do. He has to reconcile the very diverse opinions on his side after the late conversion to the cause of reforming the House of Lords, and he has to overcome the difficulty of this being, in the words of his leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), a third-term priority. For us, it is a priority. Having sat through most of the 40 plus speeches that we had on the issue, it is clear that the overwhelming will of the House of Commons is for change in the upper Chamber. That is what was decisively voted on last night. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has given us an undertaking that this subject will be considered again by, I hope, the cross-party working group on House of Lords reform, which sat eight times to deliberate on the matter in the lead-up to the White Paper. The time for White Papers is, I believe, over. Indeed, after 98 years considering the issue, the time for talking is over. Now it is time for us to take action. We await the House of Lords’ consideration of the issue next week. Then will be the time when we decide the way forward to achieve what are clearly the wishes of the vast majority of Members of this House from both sides, as well as, of course, the wishes of the people of the country.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just announced that he will be publishing a climate change Bill next Tuesday. This will be a ground-breaking piece of legislation, and it will have a period of pre-legislative scrutiny, which means that Second Reading is some way off. Will it be possible for a statement to be made in the House on publication so that Back Benchers will have an opportunity to question the Secretary of State?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just sat down after answering questions on this matter. I welcome the support that my hon. Friend is giving to the statement that will be made next week. It will undoubtedly be the subject of debate in this House. I hope that it will also be the subject of consensus among hon. Members from all parties. Climate change is an issue that is exercising everyone. It is time that even more action was taken; drastic action is necessary. I am sure that a vision will be set out next week to which most—I hope all—hon. Members can subscribe. I assure my hon. Friend that that will be the subject of proper consideration and debate by the House.

After last night’s votes, I can fully understand why the Leader of the House wants time away to think. To mark what was clearly an historic vote, whatever its consequences in this place—I hope that there is not now a queue of noble Lords asking for a refund—there is a need for a statement, as the Deputy Leader of the House suggested, from his right hon. Friend after the Lords have had their debate and vote. Such a statement will need to set out the Government’s intentions, but must not hide behind the normal conventions regarding the Queen’s Speech. We want now not a White Paper but legislation to be put before this House in the next Session of Parliament so that we can resolve this matter once and for all.

To show that I believe that some good work does happen in the other place, may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether he will find time properly to debate two private Member’s Bills that emanate from the Lords? The first is the Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill in the name of Lord Dubs, which builds on the intergovernmental conference on cluster munitions and the Oslo declaration. Many of us feel that it is time that cluster munitions were banned. The Bill will provide the opportunity to do so.

The other Bill is the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill, in the name of my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) yesterday. Those excellent measures should be given proper time for debate in this House.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the future of the medical training application service? It is in complete disarray. Many junior doctors find it impossible to make proper applications for the jobs that they should be pursuing in order to further their careers. The Secretary of State has said in a statement that the service is to be reviewed, but the appointment process is continuing. Can she be brought to the House to explain why she is not suspending the process until such time as proper arrangements can be made before irreparable damage is done to the careers of many young doctors and some of them are lost to the country?

A lot of play was made in the debates of the past two days about the importance that the House attaches to its right to vote on Supply. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why on Monday we will have an estimates day, but we will not consider the estimates that are put before us? We will not have a debate on those estimates. We will not have any real opportunity to amend them, and many of us would like to have the opportunity, for instance, to look at the supplementary estimate of £587,000 extra to go to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office for functions that, frankly, elude most of us in this House.

The Ministry of Defence obviously keeps the effectiveness of, and the consequences of the use of, munitions under constant review and acts accordingly. The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday was supported then by the Prime Minister, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he was there. I am sure that it will also be incorporated in today’s discussions on the important issue of equality that will be before us later. Health questions are on Tuesday, so the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to put his points directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health then. However, I should tell the hon. Gentleman that his proposal to suspend the application process is absolutely cuckoo. Many dozens—indeed, hundreds—of young doctors are going through that process, so to suspend it without replacing it would be absolute folly. My right hon. Friend is revising the procedures to take on board the criticisms that have been made, and the British Medical Association and other organisations are very much part of that process.

The Liaison Committee of this House can examine the estimates issue, as can its other Committees; it is less a Government matter than a Committee one. On the Lords, I recognise that the hon. Gentleman, who had problems with some of his Back Benchers concerning the definition of predominance, is on very weak ground. It is not the Government whom he must persuade to have this issue debated here; he will have to go 300 yd away to the other House and persuade some of his noble Friends, such as his former leader, Lord Steel, who said that the minute that there was an elected second Chamber, it would destroy the relationship between the two Houses. Does the hon. Gentleman subscribe to what his former leader is saying, and how will he persuade him to take a constructive part in endorsing the present Liberal Democrat policy—for as long as that lasts?

May I be greedy and request that, after last night’s historic moment, we have another champagne moment? May we consider, on international women’s day, introducing gender-neutral language into all future legislation in this House?

I am a strong supporter of that, which I understand has been achieved by the Scottish Parliament and, I think, the Welsh Assembly. Ministers are endeavouring to ensure that gender-neutral language is used where possible. I can see no cases where it cannot be used, so I will ensure that they are aware of my hon. Friend’s strong feelings on this issue; I think that she speaks for many in this place.

In 2004, the Secretary of State for Health announced an annual £40 million to go towards the treatment of incarcerated drug offenders, yet recent meetings seem to suggest that only half the prison estate is being covered. It certainly will not be covered by 2008 if the funding carries on at the same rate. Can the Secretary of State make a statement to the House on where we are in rolling out the programme to ensure that we get the integrated drug treatment that we agreed on?

I will ensure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns. He will be grateful that there is support and encouragement in all parts of the House for tackling some of these tricky issues, and I am sure that doing so is already on his list. Although I cannot promise a debate on the Floor of the House, there are many opportunities for the hon. Lady to raise this issue, have it debated and have a Minister respond.

Will my hon. Friend consider setting aside time for a discussion on the capping of the police precept in Wales? Police budgets in Wales have gone up by 33 per cent. over the past 10 years and include a 273 per cent. increase in the police precept in north Wales. Those increases would be understandable if the funding was going to frontline services, but the North Wales police authority is spending £300,000 on police horses and £3.5 million on refurbishing and redecorating its headquarters. Other expenses include baseball caps for police officers, electric bikes so that police constables do not have to pedal and blogs and websites. Yesterday, the Tories and the other opposition parties in Wales decided to vote against capping the North Wales police authority. Does that decision run contrary to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—

Obviously, the spending of local police budgets is a matter for the chief constable in conjunction with the accountable police authorities and—I would hope—in consultation with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly. I note that my hon. Friend has highlighted a few anomalies and doubtless he will want to press the chief constable for an explanation of each of those spending categories and priorities.

May I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to address the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) about how last night’s result should be interpreted? Has the Deputy Leader done an analysis of the voting figures to determine how many right hon. and hon. Members voted for an appointed House or even for a unicameral Parliament and then subsequently voted for a 100 per cent. elected upper Chamber? Does not that suggest that a number of Members voted for a 100 per cent. election simply to embarrass the Government and frustrate their policy? Those Members voted for what amounts to not a revising Chamber, but a rogue Chamber, about which the Government’s White Paper says hardly anything.

They should also ask for a debate, and I am not sure that the last question did so. We seem to be having the debate now. Let me be frank with the hon. Gentleman and say that I do not think that there was any inconsistency. Some hon. Members are unicameralists and wanted to abolish the House of Lords. That was the first vote. After that vote was disposed of and they did not get their first choice, they then firmly believed that the House of Lords should be fully elected. Other hon. Members will have gone through similar thought processes in the votes. Some decided to vote, as I did myself, for each of the elected options as they came up, although some votes were not called. That is the honest explanation. The end result was that the vast majority of the House who voted did so for at least the 80 per cent. option and even more voted for the 100 per cent. option. Each individual Member of Parliament must of course explain that to his or her constituents.

I voted for up to 80 per cent. last night, and that had a large majority in favour. If there is to be a statement next week to tell us that talks and negotiations are continuing or will take place arising from those historic decisions, would it not be useful to making progress—bearing in mind one of the important votes last night in which there was a clear majority—for a brief Bill to be introduced to amend the House of Lords Act 1999 and remove the remaining 92 hereditaries who sit in the Lords solely because they are hereditaries? Would it not be useful to make progress in that direction as quickly as possible?

After 98 years, I am reluctant to advise my hon. Friend that we could bring in a fast Bill, and act in haste and repent at leisure. I apologise if my hon. Friend has inadvertently misinterpreted what I said about a statement. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House does not intend to make a statement next week, but to wait for the House of Lords to deliberate on the decisions of this House, to reflect on them and then make a statement on the way forward. My hon. Friend and everyone else will then have a chance to question him and make their point of view clear.

May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House about a point of procedure? If and when legislation is introduced to deal with the other place, will it be exempt from the programming regime because it is a constitutional matter? Secondly, to pick up a question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), which the Deputy Leader of the House did not answer, will it also have all its stages taken on the Floor of the House, including the Committee stage?

Order. I am going to stop this here. These questions should be about the business for next week. This is more like proceedings on a statement on the reform of the other place. The Deputy Leader of the House has already said that a statement on that will come, and that is when such questions may be put. Unless questions are on the business for next week, I shall stop them dead.

Will the Prime Minister come to the House next Wednesday and, in the light of the decisive vote for reform last night, tell us that he respects the wishes of the House and will make no more political appointments?

Following the clear success of the huge number of Downing street online petitions, will the Deputy Leader of the House persuade a Cabinet Office Minister to come to the Dispatch Box next week to make a statement giving us a categorical assurance that all the data and information will not be passed on to the Labour party for electoral advantage, which would be in breach of the data protection legislation?

It is usual for any political party to target supporters with mailings. I gather that among the petitions he mentions there were not too many people supporting the Government’s position on matters, so I would caution my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office against coming to the House and explaining how it might be useful to spend money targeting those people. On a more serious point, all the information is of course covered by data protection legislation, but I think that the House welcomes the use of petition procedures—as has also happened in devolved Administrations. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is considering recommendations for how the House may more effectively use the petitions procedure, as happens in the Scottish Parliament.

What progress may we expect on the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill in the next week or weeks? Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the channel ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise, which claimed 193 lives and was the worst peacetime maritime disaster since the loss of the Titanic. It resulted in P&O European Ferries being charged with, but not convicted of, corporate manslaughter.

The emergency services were heroic on that night, but the support provided by the ship’s crew has never been fully acknowledged. Will my hon. Friend make every effort to progress the Bill, but will he also join me in paying tribute to the bravery of the crew on that terrible night in 1987 and to the Dover counselling service, which to this day is still dealing with the aftermath of that awful night?

I certainly do pay tribute to those heroic people and their efforts. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend for being a tireless champion of that cause. As he knows, ministerial colleagues have introduced a Bill to ensure that, whatever the circumstances, never again can those at the top of a company avoid the responsibility for their actions, whether for reasons of cost-cutting or not. I make no reference to previous cases that have resulted in the deaths of people. There must be some level of personal responsibility at the top of the company and the Government are determined to ensure that we have a practical Bill that will bring that about.

What progress has been made towards having a debate on the Act of Union? The Leader of the House has said that he wants to have that debate. The other place is able to debate the Act of Union, so why cannot we have a debate in here?

There is a terrific debate going on about that in Scotland at the moment, in the lead-up to the elections there—

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that his party is winning that debate, but he deludes himself. As far as I know, his party has not managed to persuade the people of Scotland of the value of what some comparable smaller states have achieved—that is, value added tax at 25 per cent., an income tax rate of 50p and a pint of beer costing £8. However, I wish him all the best in his attempts to spread that message to as many people as possible. If he does not do that, I certainly will.

May we have a statement from the Attorney-General next week about the remarkable headline on the front page of this morning’s Daily Mail? It finds a Member of the other place guilty of charges in connection with a current inquiry. Every time there is a leak from the inquiry, MPs of the Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist parties release highly prejudicial statements, so how on earth can a judge for the case be found—let alone jurors—who will not have had his mind made up by the press and politicians?

The judiciary takes very seriously issues of prejudicial comment and contempt of court. I am sure that editors will be aware of that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for issuing that reminder, but it is very much a matter for the courts and the judiciary, and not for the Government at this stage.

May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether we can have a statement shortly from a Treasury Minister about that Department’s policy in respect of answering written parliamentary questions? Last week, I tabled a question for answer today about the Treasury’s estimate of the public cost of meeting the ombudsman’s judgment on the failure of occupational pension schemes. I was told that it was a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, not the Treasury. However, I put the question to the Treasury on purpose, as I want it to answer, not another Department. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why I cannot have an answer from the Department to which I directed the question?

The hon. and learned Member should seek an explanation from the Table Office. Its staff are highly qualified and give advice about which Departments are responsible for answering questions. It is not uncommon for Members of Parliament to fail to seek that advice, or to ignore it, and as a result put a question to the wrong Department—

The hon. and learned Gentleman has been given very clear advice. If he wants his question addressed by the relevant Department, he should follow that advice. I am sure that staff in that Department will respond to the best of their ability.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why a request from the Defence Committee for an extension to Wednesday’s debate on Trident was not granted? Is it too late to extend the debate from 7 pm to 10 pm, as that would give more Back Benchers a chance to contribute? We have just had two days of debate on a subject that is not of great importance to people outside the House, and it therefore seems wrong to devote only one day to the Trident debate.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend, as I think that such a major constitutional change merited two days of debate. There are tremendous pressures on the House’s time, but I believe that there will be adequate time on Wednesday for as many Members as possible to express their views. Moreover, all Members of the House will have an opportunity to vote on the matter. The debate will be the first of its kind to be held in advance of a decision on such an issue, and it shows the Government’s commitment to making sure that that decision is subject to the fullest and frankest discussion. In the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question, I accept that the matter is one of the most serious currently facing the House.

Two years after it was commissioned, the report on the terms and conditions of service of Gurkhas in the British Army has been released. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), today issued a written statement to the effect that Gurkhas who left the service after 1 July 1997 would get the same pensions as those offered to other Army personnel. However, those Gurkhas who left before that date still live in poverty in Nepal, and often depend on charity for survival. Will the Deputy Leader of the House tell the Minister that it was entirely inadequate to announce that important change in a written statement, and that he should come to the House to make an oral statement so that hon. Members can question him about it?

I think that the whole House welcomes the action being taken by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to ensure justice for serving Gurkhas, but applying the change retrospectively would be a completely different matter. I am sure that hon. Members will have opportunities to raise the issue, if not on the Floor of the House, then in Westminster Hall and in Adjournment debates. They will be able to put the case about which the hon. Member feels so strongly, and to secure an explanation from a Minister in the Ministry of Defence of exactly what is being done, and why. I hope that such an explanation will wipe the slate clean.

When can we discuss the report published today about the abject failure of drug policy in Britain since 1971, when harsh prohibition was first introduced? At that time, there were fewer than 1,000 addicts in this country, and virtually no drug crimes or deaths. Now, however, 36 years later, we have 280,000 addicts and the worst levels of drug crimes and deaths in our continent. Should we not turn away from the years in which we pursued policies based on the criminal justice system? They were popular and appeared to be tough, but they failed. Should we not adopt the bold policies based on health solutions that have succeeded in other countries?

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a keen and concerned interest in this matter throughout his time in the House, but he will accept that there are no easy or proven solutions from other countries for tackling the problem.

I hear what the hon. Member says from a sedentary position. Of course, legalising drug use means that no crime is committed, but this Government do not intend to introduce any such measures. Action has been taken, and the Government’s drug strategy has been successful in cutting the use of non-class A illegal drugs. The amount of crime related to those drugs is also down. Part of the explosion in drugs use, as I think that my hon. Friend for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) will acknowledge, is due to affluence and people’s ability to buy illegal drugs, and to the fall in their price. A number of my constituents have suffered tragedies, and I am sure that all hon. Members could say the same. I know that there is an overwhelming resistance outside the House to any softer line on drugs. The Government must reach an informed judgment, and I will make sure that my hon. Friend’s comments are passed on to the Ministers responsible for drugs policy.

Last night, this House voted decisively for reform of the upper House. The Deputy Leader of the House has made clear his views as to what business is appropriate for next week, but does he agree that we should have a debate on reform of this House as well, given its woeful failure to hold the Executive to account? Would not our deliberations on reforming the other place have much greater credibility if we were prepared not just to think about removing the speck from our neighbour’s eyes, but about removing the beam from our own?

After the unseemly manoeuvring we witnessed last Friday over two popular and well supported private Members’ Bills, in particular the Temporary and Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill, is there any prospect of either the Deputy Leader of the House or the Leader of the House introducing a saner and more rational method of debating and deciding on the worth of private Members’ Bills?

The House has considered, and indeed reviewed, how private Members’ Bills should be dealt with during my time in Parliament. The issue is kept under review by Back-Bench colleagues on the appropriate Committees. If the Modernisation or Procedure Committees make proposals, I hope they will be available for debate and deliberation. We all support improvements, but when the matter was last considered suggestions about changing the day and times would have brought consequential changes that would not, I believe, command the support of the House. However, the process is not set in aspic and is worthy of consideration at any appropriate stage.

I notice that no statement on immigration policy was announced in next week’s business, but if there is one in the future, will the Deputy Leader of the House reflect on the sort of language used by the Home Secretary, when he talked about foreigners coming to this country and “stealing” services such as the NHS? Will the hon. Gentleman explain how someone who is unconscious or has HIV can steal treatment from the NHS? Given the Labour party’s previously proud history of promoting race relations, is he surprised that Members on the Government Benches, as well as on the Opposition Benches, express concern about language from a Home Secretary that can do nothing to improve race relations?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is forthright in his language at all times. Quite frankly, anyone entering this country illegally—and there is no reason why anyone should—who then uses services to which they have not contributed and to which they have no entitlement, deserves no comfort from the House or from the hon. Gentleman. The advice that he and his party should give is that people should come to Britain only legally; they should not cross other countries to come to Britain, make legally unfounded claims and take resources that should go to other people. If the hon. Gentleman wants to defend pushing his constituents to the end of a queue because treatment is being given to someone who has entered the country illegally, he can do so. I will not; nor will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Next week, may we have an urgent statement from a Health Minister about waiting times for patients needing operations in Leicestershire? My constituent, Mark Golding, has been waiting four months for a hernia operation and is in absolute agony. His surgeon and his GP suggested that he write to me to get the matter brought before the House, so may we have a debate on the subject? I realise that the Government have put a huge amount of money into the local health service, but examples such as I described are very depressing indeed.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s warm words about the huge steps that have been taken to cut waiting lists by 383,000 to record lows, which stops people waiting between 18 months and a year for operations. I hope that he will have the chance to put his question to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health at Health questions on Tuesday, to draw her attention to the matter and to explain why he believes that category should be the Government’s next priority.

Can the Deputy Leader of the House give us an assurance that the wording of the motion on Trident next Wednesday will not be watered down from a clear commitment to continuing to possess, after Trident, a nuclear deterrent based on submarines and Trident missile systems? As the Government are apparently worried about a revolt on their Back Benches, such a watering down of the terminology of the motion would, first, be ineffective in heading off such a revolt and, secondly, be unnecessary given the solid support for the White Paper that they can expect from those on the Conservative Benches?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to congratulate the Government on actually tabling a motion at all. That certainly did not happen under the Conservative Government whom he supported. A motion will be tabled this week and I am sure that it will be clear and that it will allow people to vote accordingly.

In a spirit of cross-party unity, may I express my complete agreement with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) in his request for a debate on the Act of Union? It would be an excellent idea to hold such a debate next week, or at least before 3 May, to allow us to focus on the consequences to Scottish jobs of setting up barriers between Scotland and its main market. It would be pointless to set up a Scottish central bank that had no control over the currency. There will be consequences to England and Scotland from tearing up an economic union that has served both countries well for 300 years.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Such a debate would be welcome, and I am sorry that it is not in next week’s programme. The debate would of course be held in a spirit of persuasion, not in the spirit of bullying Scottish businesses as the leader of the Scottish National party is alleged to have done by Sir David Murray. It is important that there is debate, and even though there may not be detailed debate in the House, it is certainly taking place in Scotland.

The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that unarmoured, so-called soft-skin vehicles are no longer being used on patrolling duties in southern Iraq, yet on the front page of the Hull Daily Mail on Monday the 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment was pictured using just such a vehicle. May I ask that the Secretary of State for Defence comes to the House this week to explain why our soldiers are being exposed to that sort of danger, and whether there will be a quick resolution about armoured vehicles in those theatres?

The hon. Gentleman should have had a chance to ask an urgent question on that matter—I do not know whether he did so and it was rejected. There is no time for such a statement in the House this week, but I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the issue and ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a response to the legitimate concern that he has raised. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the report, but doubtless my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to give the hon. Gentleman an answer.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on the excellent Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill, introduced by Lord Dubs. I hope it finds it way to this place.

While we are still in the throes of radical reform, can we look at the last great anachronism of Parliament—the Lobby? Is not it about time that we put a searchlight on how the Lobby works? We should call for greater transparency, end unattributable briefings and make sure that Parliament is properly reported. Is not that something the Government could bring forward either in a debate or a White Paper?

Obviously, various institutions in the House have undergone reform and the Lobby is no longer subject to the contempt proceedings that would bring its members on bended knee before the House to apologise for inaccurate or misleading reports. Doubtless, the Lobby will have heard my hon. Friend’s words, so I am sorry to disappoint him by saying that the Government have no plans to investigate the matter. Indeed, it would not be appropriate for the Government to do so—it would be very much a House matter.

TV Licensing has just announced a change in policy, and is now saying that anyone who says that they do not have a television set will be inspected. That means that a Government inspector will knock on the door, demand to go in and look in every room to see whether there is a television set in it. Can we have a statement next week on this change of Government policy?

I cannot promise the hon. Member a statement, but the vast majority of people are very honest about stumping up for their television licences. I am very pleased that the over-75s now get free television licences—a great achievement by the Government. Those who do pay expect everyone else to pay. As long as there is a reasonable suspicion that someone is evading paying for a TV licence, I certainly see no problem with people being checked to establish whether they have a television. I do not think that a burden should fall on honest people because of the actions of dishonest people.

I wonder whether time can be set aside in next week’s Government business to discuss the state of Scottish politics in the light of a report on the front page of this morning’s Daily Record, in which a major political party is described as lacking strategy, lacking initiative and lacking direction. It further argues that the chair of the party should be removed immediately. Apparently, the report was written by the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and it made reference to his Conservative MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.

I have seen the report by the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and I read it with some interest. He did say that there was

“a simple lack of thinkers”

on the Tory Benches at Holyrood. I think that he is being far too generous and that the lack of thinking stems from here, just as the lack of policy comes from here. It is wrong to blame colleagues in the Scottish Parliament for their weak and ineffective opposition up there. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is on his way to Scotland. Doubtless he will leave the airport tomorrow morning, pull up at headquarters and, in the immortal words of Winston Churchill, an empty taxi will draw up and Mr. Cameron will get out.

May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the debacle under which so many of our constituents have had their bodies contaminated by tainted blood products? When the Secretary of State for Health comes to debate the issue or perhaps to give the House a statement, can we have the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) present, as she was the Minister with responsibility for public health at the time? Perhaps she could advise the House whether she sought clarification from the permanent secretary about whether there was a conflict of interest by virtue of the fact that her husband was working for one of the companies implicated in the scandal?

I reject such slurs against my right hon. Friend. I do not need to remind the House that the problem originated under a previous Government, not the present Government, and it is yet another rather tragic mess that we were left to sort out. I would have hoped for some humility on the part of the hon. Member and his colleagues over the role played by the previous Government and that we might reach a cross-party consensus on how to sort out the problem rather than cast aspersions against individuals that have absolutely no foundation in fact and are merely designed to smear someone. I deprecate such behaviour.

May we please have a debate next week on brain tumours, given that they account for 2 per cent. of all cancers, but receive a disproportionately small share of research funding? They are the biggest single disease killing children and, sadly, survival rates have not risen in line with those for childhood leukaemia or a significant number of other cancers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we urgently need a debate about how to tackle this scourge, which has caused far too much suffering to far too many people for far too long?

I respect the hon. Member far too much to make a political point about this and he has quite rightly paid tribute to success in other areas of cancer treatment. I cannot promise a debate, but I hope that he has a chance to raise the matter at Health questions on Tuesday. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of the issue and provides a response to a question that concerns many people.

May we have a debate next week on how the Government respond to public petitions? Last July, I presented to the House a petition signed by 15,000 of my constituents who were concerned about the future of hospital services in Banbury. This week, the Clerk of Public Petitions informs me that the Government intend to make absolutely no observations whatever on that petition. Does not the Deputy Leader of the House think it disgraceful that Ministers in the Department of Health cannot even bestir themselves to draft a two-paragraph response to a petition signed by some 15,000 of my constituents? In this instance, does not the fact of silence indicate contempt?

No, it does not. The procedure for dealing with petitions is no different under this Government as under previous Governments, but I do not say that as an excuse. The Procedure Committee examined the matter and I think that there is a strong case for looking at it again. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already said, in the light of the use of petitions by No. 10 and the Prime Minister, how they may be more effectively vetted and considered by the House so that a response can be given. The hon. Member, who is a very experienced Member and a former Minister, will realise that a massive volume of petitions come before the House. That is not to devalue any of them, but there must be a way of prioritising them. The Procedure Committee may find a means of allowing us better to consider them in a way that neither swamps us nor gives any feeling of a dismissive response. I think that petitions could be handled better and I hope that we can find a way of doing so in the near future.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few moments ago, the Deputy Leader of the House was unhappy with my asking questions about the previous role of a Minister in connection with the tainted blood debacle. I seek your advice. When Back Benchers write to Ministers and get no reply whatever and the question is passed on to other Departments, what alternative do we have other than raising the matter on the Floor of the House?

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to put questions on the Floor of the House and it is my duty to see that that happens on a regular basis.