Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 19 March—Second Reading of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [Lords]. Followed by a motion to approve a ways and means resolution on the UK Borders Bill.

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.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 March will be as follows:

Monday 26 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 27 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 28 March—Motion to approve a statutory instrument on casinos, followed by motions relating to House of Commons business.

Thursday 29 March—Motion on the Easter recess and Adjournment.

The House will want to be reminded that we will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Thursday 29 March and return on Monday 16 April.

I draw the House’s attention to a written ministerial statement that I made this morning about a small, but I hope helpful, improvement in the procedures of the House for the benefit of Members. We have agreed and I am proposing that when Ministers have already made reference to the fact that they will make an oral statement on a particular date, that notice will be included in the future business of the House and on the Order Paper itself, for the convenience of the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business and his written statement of today on the procedural change, which will definitely be for the convenience of Members of the House.

It has recently been discovered that Ministers have released documents relating to council tax revaluation under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that they had previously refused to release in response to parliamentary questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has raised the matter with Mr. Speaker, who is responding. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, you have always been clear about Ministers’ duty to Parliament. The duty is set out in the ministerial code, which says:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

Does the Leader of the House agree that Ministers have a duty to be more open with Parliament and the public?

This week, we have seen shocking pictures of the injuries sustained by Morgan Tsvangirai while in Zimbabwean police custody. I am sure that the whole House will be disgusted by his treatment and appalled by the wider crisis in that country, which is the direct result of the policies of President Mugabe. Two weeks ago, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Leader of House said that there was a

“need for a debate in Government time.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1074.]

May we now have an urgent debate in Government time on Zimbabwe?

At the beginning of their long friendship, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor fought many battles with old Labour to build new Labour. One of those was over nuclear disarmament. In yesterday’s vote to replace Trident, nearly 100 Labour Members rebelled against the Government. Indeed, one of the Chancellor’s close allies, the former Deputy Leader of the House, resigned over the issue. Not for the first time, the Government would not have carried their business without the support of Conservative Members. May we thus have a debate on the dwindling authority of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor?

Back in those good old days, the Prime Minister and Chancellor promised us that they would be “whiter than white”. On 25 April, Sir Alistair Graham’s term as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life comes to an end. It was the Prime Minister who decided not to renew his term, and it is the Prime Minister who has failed to appoint his successor. Sir Alistair says:

“this Government places a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life”.

May we have a debate on the future of that committee and on why the Prime Minister sacked Sir Alistair for doing his job?

This week, the Government published the draft Climate Change Bill, and the Prime Minister and Chancellor were playing up their green credentials. However, let us judge them by their record. Before my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) became Leader of the Opposition, the Chancellor had not made any major speeches on the environment. Since then, he has made three. On his watch, green taxes have fallen from 9.4 per cent. to 7.7 per cent. of his total tax take. And then there is his policy to provide home insulation: he announced it in 1995, scrapped it in 1998, and reannounced it last year. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s environmental record?

With a Brown-Blair legacy like this, is it any surprise that Labour is turning in on itself? The Labour party is rebelling against the Prime Minister, the Cabinet is briefing against the Chancellor, and the people are turning their backs on all of them. Whenever the Prime Minister hands over to the Chancellor, is not the truth that new Labour is an old idea that has simply run its course?

Let me just deal with those points in turn.

The right hon. Lady makes a serious point about whether Ministers answering parliamentary questions should at least meet the standards set by the Freedom of Information Act. I cannot comment on the specific case that she raises because I do not know the circumstances of it. However, it is certainly the case that Ministers all strive to ensure that, at the very minimum, they are at least as forthcoming with the House in respect of the answers that they give as they would be required to be by the Freedom of Information Act. I will ensure that that is maintained. The matter is being discussed by the Procedure Committee, which is examining written questions.

The right hon. Lady asks me about Morgan Tsvangirai. I entirely share the utter horror of all decent people throughout the world at the way in which the thugs of Robert Mugabe have sought to use the truncheon, rather than debate, to determine the future of that once-wonderful country, which has collapsed into the worst situation of almost any African country that one can think of, because of the total mismanagement of Robert Mugabe. What I said two weeks ago is correct; I promise that the only issue is finding a date on which Foreign Office Ministers can be present for the debate, because they have travel plans—I know that it sounds slightly lame, but it happens to be true. I am sorry that we have not been able to find time, but we will continue to work on that.

Thirdly, the right hon. Lady referred to our debate yesterday. I should just say that it was actually my noble Friend Lord Kinnock who resolved the issue of nuclear disarmament for us, and there was much relief that he did so before my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took over. It is true that the issue of nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons has always been difficult for the Labour party. I take one view on the subject and some of my colleagues take another, but I do not think that a party should be criticised for agonising over what is unquestionably not just a defence and security issue but, in many people’s eyes, an issue of conscience and morality. I draw to the right hon. Lady’s attention the fact that although the numbers involved were slightly smaller, some rather senior people in the Conservative party rebelled against their party Whip, including the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram).

Well, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that, but the point is that we are talking about a man who, only a few months ago, was shadow Foreign Secretary and deputy leader of the Conservative party, and who has taken a completely different view on the issue. If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead wants to swap stories about divisions inside parties, I suggest that she tries to pull the beam out of her own eye before she examines the mote in the eyes of others; she ought to examine what happened upstairs in Committee with regard to the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. Apparently—

Order. I must say that I am going to urge Back Benchers to be brief because there are two statements today, one of which will be made by the Leader of the House, so exchanging stories is not what I am looking for.

You are right to admonish me, Mr. Speaker, and it means that I can dispatch the next two issues raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead very quickly. Alistair Graham served his five years and we are grateful to him. I do not recall hearing similar complaints when Lord Nolan and Patrick Neill moved over to make way for their successors. As for the environment and the draft Climate Change Bill, I had wondered what the Conservatives would say about that terrific Bill. The answer is that they are saying virtually nothing, but are taking an awfully long time to say it.

May I welcome the announcement about the way in which Government statements will be dealt with in future? If the Leader of the House wishes to see evidence of Ministers failing to give answers, I refer him to the answer that the Secretary of State for Health gave to three specific questions that I tabled well in advance of Health questions this week. I did not get a reply to a single one of them; the responses were entirely evasive.

While the Leader of the House was away thinking last week, his then deputy, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), fielded my question about the medical training application service. He suggested that my idea that it should be suspended was “absolutely cuckoo”—he then flew the nest. If I am absolutely cuckoo, so is the entire British Medical Association, and so are junior doctors across the country. Will the Leader of the House look again at the issue? A review has been published, but there has been no suspension of the system that is causing so much damage to doctors’ careers.

Last night, a press officer announced that it was the Government’s intention to appeal against the administrative review High Court decision on pensions. That has not been formally reported to the House, but it will have profound consequences for pensioners who are still waiting for recompense. It also has consequences for the conduct of the Pensions Bill and for the way in which amendments are dealt with before Report. May we have statement from the Department for Work and Pensions on how it intends to proceed, so that it can allay the pensioners’ fears that they are again being ignored by the Government?

May we have a statement on the formal rebuke to the Government issued yesterday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the discontinuation of the investigation into the al-Yamamah arms deal, and on the fact that the OECD is going to send investigators to question the Attorney-General about why the UK outlawed bribes of foreign officials in 1998, yet not a single prosecution has ensued?

Lastly, we anticipate that the Government’s response to the Lyons report on local government spending will be encompassed within the Budget statement and debate. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is not expected to participate in that debate, but the matter is of huge interest to people up and down the country who are worried about council tax bills and seek a fairer replacement, so it would be proper to have a full statement and, in due course, a debate on local government finance.

On the issue of Health questions, I need notice of the questions and sight of the answers. However, Ministers are making every effort to ensure that accurate answers are given within the due notice time. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there has been a huge increase in the volume of questions—they have increased by 40,000 in two or three years—which places an unacceptable burden on everyone involved. It is bound to have an overall effect on the quality of answers, which is something that the Procedure Committee is trying to resolve.

On the medical training application service, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is under review, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced about a week ago. We are well aware of the problems that have arisen, and she has said that she will seek to tackle them. On the pension judgment, I can confirm that the Government are appealing that judgment, as we are entitled to do. The issue is not whether we were right or wrong to make the original decision, and of course, we understand the concern of pensioners who have lost part or all of their pension; we all have constituents in that position. However, if we are to try to recompense them fully—we have already achieved partial recompense—that entails a very substantial cost to the public purse, so the issue of fairness arises.

The hon. Gentleman asked about what the OECD said yesterday. He should be very clear that it has not reached any conclusion that the decision was incompatible with the OECD convention, and no other state has come out and said that they thought the decision was incompatible with it or that they would have reached a different decision. I have to say that I thoroughly object to the way in which the Liberal Democrat party seeks to damage the country’s reputation for probity and integrity across the world.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that reputation is not one that we are protesting: it is confirmed by the rankings of Transparency International, which ranks us sixth in the world, only just behind Canada, Sweden and Switzerland, above Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States, and well above France. He should take that into account and cease to damage our reputation.

Earlier, in Education and Skills questions, we spent about two minutes on the building schools for the future programme, which is the most ambitious programme of public sector investment to which any British Government have ever committed themselves—and all credit to the Government for planning it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that since the publication of the Stern review and the draft Climate Change Bill, we should consider seriously the environmental standards to which the new generation of schools will be built? Does he accept, too, that that issue affects every single hon. Member, and—

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the issue.

I failed to respond to the question that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about the Lyons report. There will be plenty of opportunities in the Budget debate, if he is correct about the report, to raise the issue of the financing of local taxation.

This morning, I, with many others, attended at short notice the Delegated Legislation Committee debating the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. Does the Leader of the House not accept that there is something wrong with proceedings if, a week after we discussed in the House the pre-eminence of the Commons in debates, such an important matter was dealt with in a Delegated Legislation Committee, which meant it was not possible for us to debate it extensively and vote on it in the Chamber? He will say that it is a matter for Front-Bench teams but, as the champion of Back-Bench issues in the House, does he not accept that we should have an opportunity to debate those issues properly? It is possible to be in favour of the principle, but worry about its impact, and we still do not have an answer to many issues surrounding adoption and education legislation. Will the Leader of the House champion Back-Bench issues and tell his colleagues that it is time to drag this matter back to the Floor of the House and debate it properly?

The right hon. Gentleman was leader of his party for quite a long period. He said that the matter was agreed by the Front-Bench teams, and he will know that it is very difficult to get the quart pot of demand for debates on the Floor of the House into the pint pot of available time. The matter was discussed in Committee with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). It was a subject of considerable debate, as is demonstrated by the fact that the Conservatives split 3:2 on it. We always do our best to ensure that debates take place in the House, but sometimes that is not possible.

The Leader of the House will know of my enthusiastic support for the introduction of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. I still believe that it is vital to ensuring the availability of effective treatment and value for money in the NHS. Nevertheless, he will be aware of growing disquiet both among Labour Members and throughout the House about delays in the assessment of treatments and about some recent NICE decisions. May I draw his attention to early-day motion 1138?

[That this House notes that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued new draft recommendations for the treatment of osteoporosis; believes that this new draft represents some steps forward but regrets that many women aged under 70 who are at risk of breaking a bone due to osteoporosis still do not qualify for treatment; notes that the development of recommendations by NICE on the use of osteoporosis drugs is now into its fifth year, whereas recommendations for treatments usually take just one to two years; fears that as a consequence of this delay, existing mandatory recommendations are not being implemented while doctors wait for them to be reviewed; notes that there are 10.6 million women aged over 50 in the UK and that almost half of these women will break a bone during their lifetime mainly due to osteoporosis and that one in five men will suffer a fracture after the age of 50; believes that treatment at just 27 pence per day is cost-effective in preventing a broken hip which would cost the health service over £12,000 a year as well as resulting in huge personal and social care costs, and calls on NICE urgently to review its decision and allow preventative treatment to all patients at risk of fracture.]

The cost in hospital and social care of osteoporotic fractures is £1.7 billion a year, yet recent NICE guidance denies effective preventive treatment to people under 70. Will the Leader of the House make provision in Government time for a debate on the workings of NICE?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I shall certainly draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary. On the question of a debate, I very much hope that he can raise the matter in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment. There will be other opportunities, too, including Health questions, to raise it.

The reply from the Leader of the House on the Lyons report was perfunctory to the point of being epigrammatic. The rumour is that the report will be published on Wednesday, to be buried in the Budget. It is of great importance to millions of people, but it has been hugely delayed and, it appears, widely leaked. There is no earthly reason why it should not be published on Monday, when we are debating estate agents, or on Tuesday, so that the House has a chance to see its conclusions and, if it is debated in the Budget, to be informed. In any case, there should be a debate before the local elections, so that the parties can set out their stalls for the electorate.

I was not being perfunctory, but I was brief, because I had been admonished for being prolix. If the report is published with the Budget—I am not confirming that it will be—it will hardly be buried, as the Budget is the most observed moment in the parliamentary calendar. There will be ample opportunity, including a four-day debate on the Budget, for right hon. and hon. Members to express their concerns about or their support for it.

May I ask the Leader of the House to use his imagination to try to find a way of providing an urgent debate on Zimbabwe before the Easter recess and before the Foreign Secretary visits South Africa, as it is important that she give the South African Government a clear statement that the House believes that they are falling down on their responsibilities as the lead power in southern Africa?

I understand the frustration of everyone in the House, but my right hon. Friends in the Foreign Office are as frustrated about their diary problems, as they too want to ensure that the matter is debated. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that there are Foreign Office questions next Tuesday. May I tell her, as we have known one another for a very long time, that it is not lack of imagination that is the problem but the much more prosaic matter of finding a Minister whose diary fits both the requirements of the House and their overseas duties?

May I take the Leader of the House back to his earlier answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)? This morning, in Committee Room 11, at least 10 Back Benchers were denied the opportunity to speak on the sexual orientation regulations. That highly contentious piece of legislation is wholly unsuited to the form of a statutory instrument. Next week, we will deal with a statutory instrument on casinos, of all things, on the Floor of the House, yet those sexual orientation regulations will be buried. Will the Leader of the House give us a clear undertaking that they will not be put through on a vote late at night, or on a deferred Division until, at the very least, the Easter Adjournment debate, so that the House can debate them on the Adjournment?

First, if the measure had been debated on the Floor of the House, it might easily have been the case that 10 hon. Members on either or both sides could not get in to speak, as there is great demand to participate in such debates. Secondly, the case for protection on grounds of sexual orientation was made and extensively debated during the passage of the Equality Act 2006, which is the substantive legislation that gave rise to the consequential statutory—[Interruption.] It is true. The debate today was on subordinate legislation, which is based on primary legislation. On the question how a vote is taken on the Floor of the House, my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip is in her place, and we will take into account representations that are made.

May we have a debate on the right to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal? The medal was awarded to all Australian, New Zealand, Fiji and British servicemen, but only the British have been refused permission to wear it. How can I justify that to my constituent Walter Stewart, who is asking for the right to wear the medal?

The honest answer is, with great difficulty. Some of us who have had to deal with similar questions have found the rules in relation to the wearing of overseas decorations quite difficult to comprehend. I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister continues to take a close interest in the matter.

In my constituency is the Coventry road, on which on Saturday and Sunday nights there is racing. It is a road with an ordinary 40 mph limit. May we have a debate on why the Government have laws on antisocial behaviour that are unenforceable?

The hon. Gentleman always comes back for more. Two weeks ago he asked for a debate. I said that we could have a debate about the softness of the Liberal Democrats, who say one thing in their constituencies and do another in the House. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about antisocial behaviour, he should start voting for the effective measures that we have taken against it, and he should stop supporting the criminals, rather than the victims.

May we have a debate before the Easter recess on nurses’ pay? In Scotland nurses are being paid 2.5 per cent., according to the pay review. In England they are being paid 1.9 per cent. and being told that they are being paid 2.5 per cent. They are incensed by that. May we have a debate as a matter of urgency?

This is a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament. With devolution, it is inevitable that different Administrations will come to different decisions within a financial envelope provided by the United Kingdom Parliament. I note what my hon. Friend says about the concern of nurses in England, and I will pass on his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Does the Leader of the House accept that there is increasing concern about the proposal by the Lord Chancellor’s Department to gut the interior of Middlesex guildhall, which is one of the finest examples of Edwardian secular architecture in London, and also an important part of London’s historic heritage as the former home of the Middlesex county council, to make way for the venue for the new Supreme Court? Will he undertake that the Lord Chancellor’s Department will not proceed with plans to rip out the interior within two and a half weeks of the court’s closure on 30 March, and will take no action until the Constitutional Affairs Committee has held its proposed inquiry into the matter or there has been a debate in Government time?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that there are very strict rules in respect of listed buildings, for the interior of the buildings as well as the exterior. I am sure the Department for Constitutional Affairs is following those. Having spent many happy hours earning an honest penny or two in Middlesex Sessions across the road when I was a young barrister, I do not quite share the hon. Gentleman’s view about the architectural merit of the building, but that is a matter of choice.

May we have a debate on the definition of Britishness? My right hon. Friend may recall that when British Airways sought to get rid of its British identity, the then Prime Minister expressed her robust but effective views. Will he do likewise, in light of the fact that British Airways is attempting to get rid of its identity again, at a cost of hundreds of jobs at airports throughout the UK, and effectively to rebrand itself as London Airways?

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend and others, and I recognise the anxiety about job losses or unacceptable transfers. British Airways is of course a commercial organisation, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s remarks are drawn to the attention of those running the company.

Over the past three years in Northern Ireland, there has been an increase in health spending of about 15 per cent., yet despite that, only last week in the House an answer was given that waiting lists for hip operations have gone up by 100 per cent. The same is true for eye operations, and in my constituency ambulance services and local hospitals are being closed. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange a debate in the House so that it can be explained how more money is being spent on the health service, yet service delivery is going down?

I do not accept that service delivery overall is going down. I accept that there are some changes year on year, but if the hon. Gentleman goes back to 1997, he will see that there has been a dramatic improvement in health delivery in Northern Ireland, as in other parts of the Union.

May we have a debate on the draft Climate Change Bill—a radical piece of proposed legislation and the first of its kind in the world? Would it not be interesting to have the debate around the time when the energy and planning White Papers are produced? That is particularly important, given the comments of the shadow Leader of the House about green taxes. They are made up mainly of the fuel duty escalator, so if she is proposing to re-establish that, the public should be told.

That is a good idea, which we will bear in mind. We are also ensuring that the draft Climate Change Bill will be examined by an appropriate Committee of the House, with a debate afterwards.

May I reiterate to the Leader of the House the pleas of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)? As one of the Members of the House who has consistently argued that the Government’s sexual orientation regulations will be a liberating force for millions of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in this country, I implore the Leader of the House, even at this late stage, to arrange for a debate on the Floor of the House on the matter next week, both because it is right that alternative points of view should be aired, and because those of us who believe in the regulations know in our heart of hearts that we will be strengthened as a result of hearing and rebutting the arguments against them.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I cannot add to what I have already said about the matter, except to say that I know there was a vigorous debate upstairs, albeit limited to an hour and a half.

May we have a debate on the future of football? My right hon. Friend may have read recent newspaper reports claiming that the Football League is considering resolving drawn matches by penalty shoot-outs. Does he think that there are merits in that system and, if so, what lessons can he learn for resolving the future composition of the House of Lords?

There may be merits, but I am not sure what they are. I would be delighted to have a debate on the future of football, although I happen to think the much more important issue is to make sure that clubs, particularly premier league clubs, do not price themselves out of the market. I am glad that Blackburn Rovers is leading the way in that respect.

May I bring the Leader of the House back to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the successor to Sir Alistair Graham? In his efforts to be brief, he did not answer the question about whether a successor has been chosen and when the announcement will be made.

A successor has not yet been chosen. That was one of the complaints of Sir Alistair, but the matter is in hand.

In view of the negotiations that are taking place in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a Northern Ireland Minister to come to the House and give us an update on how those negotiations are proceeding? Would such a Minister be able to confirm that the date of 26 March for setting up a devolved Administration will not be varied in any way by the Government?

I can confirm that. Any change to the 26 March date would require emergency legislation, and the Government have made it clear that there is no possibility of further emergency legislation in relation to the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland to extend the deadline.

On the sexual orientation regulations, I associate myself with the question asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and the way in which he asked it. In urging the Leader of the House to think again about a debate on the Floor of the House, I assure him that the detail of the regulations was not debated in the proceedings on the Equality Act, because there was just a regulation-making power. There was no thought about issues such as exemptions for adoption. I urge him to recognise that a debate on the Floor of the House would expose the divisions in some parties in this place and, broadly speaking, the unity among Government Members and Liberal Democrat Members in seeking to have those freedoms for lesbian and gay people.

I note the strength of feeling on the issue by people who hold different positions on the merits of the regulations. With respect, I cannot add to what I have already said about the problems of programming business on the Floor of the House given the demands. However, I note what the hon. Gentleman has said.