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Business of the House

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 22 March 2007

The business for the next week will be:

Monday 26 March—Continuation of the Budget debate. Just before that, there will be an oral statement on Zimbabwe.

Tuesday 27 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate. Just before that, there will be an oral statement on Northern Ireland.

Wednesday 28 March—Motions relating to communications allowance, notices of questions during September, Select Committee reports and parliamentary contributory pension fund, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument on casinos.

Thursday 29 March—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the beginning of the week commencing 16 April, when we return after the Easter recess, is:

Monday 16 April—Second Reading of the Mental Health Bill [Lords].

May I remind right hon. and hon. Members that tomorrow is the closing date for submitting responses to the survey of Members’ services, which provides an important opportunity for all Members to tell the House authorities, including the House of Commons Commission, on which the shadow Leader of the House and I sit, what they think about the services provided for Members and their staff? If they wish to improve services or simply celebrate the excellence of the services that are already provided, including IT services, it is extremely important that they complete and submit the survey.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. In particular, I welcome the statement on Zimbabwe promised for Monday. We are indeed witnessing a tragedy in that country. A failing regime is brutally repressing Zimbabwe’s future, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for listening to the House. I also welcome the announcement of a statement on Northern Ireland, and I am sure the whole House will be hopeful that a settlement can be reached and devolution restored.

Last weekend, Sir Alistair Graham told the truth about the Government’s attitude to ministerial accountability. He said that the Prime Minister

“has helped to undermine trust in politicians through the way he has handled alleged breaches of the ministerial code.”

Last week the Leader of the House said that Sir Alistair

“served his five years and we are grateful to him.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 442.]

Is he still grateful to him? On the same day as Sir Alistair’s interview, two Ministers were accused of helping a lobbying company by giving it sensitive information. May we have a debate on Ministers’ adherence to the ministerial code?

This week the Treasury’s ex-permanent secretary said that the Chancellor has a

“very cynical view of mankind and his colleagues”.

That is not just name-calling; it has serious consequences for Government policy.

Perhaps it was the Chancellor’s cynical view of mankind that made him think that he would get away with presenting yesterday’s tax con as a tax cut. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 3.5 million families will be worse off. It is a con because when the Chancellor says that he is cutting income tax, people opening their pay packets will realise that his so-called tax cut is cancelled out by stealth taxes elsewhere; it is a con because when he says he is cutting business taxes, small businesses will know that their corporation tax is going up; and it is a con because the changes to income tax will not even come into effect for another year. Will the Leader of the House confirm that when we vote next Tuesday, we will be voting for the existing income tax system—a 10p starting rate and a 22p basic rate?

Given his smoke and mirrors performance, it is perhaps no wonder that the Chancellor went quiet on the Lyons review—another tax bombshell waiting to hit hard-working families. Given his reluctance to talk about council tax, may we have a debate on the Lyons review?

When he is hitting hard-working families, the Chancellor likes to talk about his tax credits, but Sarah Walker, his director of benefits and credits, says that officials do not expect claimants to understand their tax credit

“because it can be quite complicated”.

It is no wonder that four in 10 of those eligible do not claim it, but how typical of the Chancellor that he takes people’s money with one hand and gives it back with the other, but only if they have filled in a form first. May we have a debate about the chaos of the tax credit system?

Before the Budget, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister gave keynote speeches on increasing choice in the NHS, but it is the Chancellor’s Stalinist desire for central state control that has caused the cuts in NHS services. Last weekend, 12,000 doctors turned out on the streets of London to protest against the Government. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Health refused to apologise to them. Yesterday in his Budget speech, the Chancellor referred to himself 96 times, yet he mentioned the NHS just once, and that was to re-announce what he said three years ago. May we have a debate on the crisis in the NHS?

I am sure that, like Macavity, the Chancellor and the Leader of the House will have an alibi or two to spare, but to describe yesterday’s Budget as a tax-cutting Budget was worthy of propaganda from Stalin’s Politburo. Was not yesterday’s tax cut yet another tax con for Britain’s hard-working families?

Those are tired old lines that should have been used yesterday.

On Zimbabwe, I am glad that the right hon. Lady welcomes the proposed statement. She is absolutely right in what she says about the way in which that once wonderful country has collapsed as a result of the mismanagement, and much worse, of President Mugabe. One figure tells it all: life expectancy has shifted in recent years from the age of 60 to 34.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady welcomes the statement on Northern Ireland, too. Let me make it clear again, as I did last Thursday, that the choice for the Northern Ireland parties on 26 March—next Monday—is either devolution or dissolution. There can and will be no legislation to alter that date. Her Majesty’s Government believe that the people of Northern Ireland want to see the institutions restored and very much hope that the parties will seize the opportunity of restoration on 26 March.

On Alistair Graham, I pointed out last week that it was perfectly normal for the term of office of the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to end after one term, and that has indeed been the consistent practice. In respect of trust in politics, I will send the right hon. Lady interesting opinion survey material which shows that in recent years trust in politicians has actually increased. It is particularly high where people know and appreciate the work of their own politicians. That may have something to do with the fact that we have been returned to office in three successive general elections.

The right hon. Lady then wittered on about the Chancellor and a tax-adding Budget. She has obviously not read the Red Book, or the National Audit Office endorsement of the figures in it, because if she looks down the figures in table 1.2, to take one of the many tables, she will see that hard-working families have in fact benefited significantly as a result of my right hon. Friend’s Budget. She talks about 3.5 million families. Since she raises the issue of tax credits, let me tell her that their introduction has transformed the lives of millions of hard-working families. Moreover, it has ended the genuine and serious evil under the Conservatives whereby people were trapped in unemployment and unable to get out of that trap because it would cost them more to go back to work than to stay on benefit.

I also say to the right hon. Lady that what we have had from the Chancellor—who has been a brilliant Chancellor over the past 10 years, setting this country on a course, from bottom among the G7 countries to second only to the United States—is sensible prudence in being able to balance moderate increases in public spending against what the country can afford. I contrast that with the utter failure of the shadow Chancellor in recent months. He says that he is going to read the riot act to his shadow Cabinet colleagues to avoid their making further spending plans. The shadow Transport Secretary evidently did not hear that, because he went on to announce just recently that he was going to spend an extra £14 billion on building a new rail link from Scotland to London.

Conservative Members do not like my mentioning this, but if one adds up Conservative spending plans and then takes account of their pledges to cut taxes, one sees that Conservative economic policies simply do not add up one little jot, whereas Labour’s economic policies for the past 10 years, and going forward, not only added up but produced unparalleled prosperity, investment in public services and jobs.

Finally, the right hon. Lady asked me about a debate on the national health service. I would be delighted to have such a debate any time. Part of that debate can be about the huge improvement in East Berkshire primary care trust in the right hon. Lady’s constituency. She forgot to welcome the fact that yesterday there was a £38 million increase in spending for her PCT, announced as part of the £8 billion increase for the health service.

May I also thank the Leader of the House for the innovation of announcing statements in advance?

In the Budget statement, the Chancellor said:

“Nearly 2 million people will see their income tax bills cut in half, and take home 90p of every pound they earn.”—[Official Report, 9 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 188.]

Of course, that was when he introduced the 10p rate in 1999. He has now removed it by sleight of hand. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) did not notice, but we did. The effect is to increase higher marginal tax rates for the low paid, discourage work and increase in-work poverty. Following the Budget, can we have a debate on inequality, because inequality is increasing in this country, as the Young Foundation report on rural poverty—often hidden in this country—pointed out yet again? It is time that we had a debate on the effects of what the Chancellor is doing.

May we also have a debate on the position of small businesses? The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) mentioned small businesses, but did not refer to the fact that small businesses are facing a £900 million hike in corporation tax. Earlier, we heard the extraordinary, preposterous argument from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that that would somehow benefit small businesses, who would be delighted to pay £900 million more, because they might be able to claim some of it back in allowances. The increase will hurt small businesses, and we should have a debate.

Last week, I asked whether we could have a statement on the Lyons report. The Leader of the House said that that would be encapsulated in the Budget debate. However, the Budget statement did not mention council tax once. It mentioned the Lyons report, but only in respect of industrial property. Council tax is the tax that has the biggest impact on pensioners and those on fixed incomes. After long cogitation, the Lyons report says that the answer to reforming council tax is to carry on with council tax. The only answer to council tax, however, is to scrap it. Can we have a debate on that?

Lastly, can we have a debate on surveillance? The Leader of the House may have noticed the innovative plans by the Conservative-run Ealing borough council to put spy cameras in tin cans to catch people putting out wheelie bins early. Obviously, for Ealing borough council, beans means fines. May we have a debate on whether Big Brother is getting out of hand?

I award the hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House’s prize for a very good line: far better than the ones that we get from the Conservative Front Bench.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, is about to announce an inquiry into issues of surveillance. I hope that he will ensure that the activities of Conservative-controlled Ealing borough council and its spy cameras in tin cans are given a wider audience in evidence to his Select Committee.

On the more serious matters of the Budget, the hon. Gentleman needs to look not only at what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor spelled out in great detail in his excellent Budget statement yesterday but at what is in the Red Book and the National Audit Office endorsement of the Red Book figures. He will see that small businesses, and business overall, have benefited, as have the majority of working people, as has become clear from the individual examples given by many newspapers, not necessarily Labour-supporting, in their Budget analysis today.

The hon. Gentleman has every opportunity to debate the issue of the Lyons report and the effect on small businesses in the next three days of debate on the Budget. As I am sure that you will confirm, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is absolutely in order. I am interested that the Liberals have decided to lead with their chin on their demand to abolish the council tax. We all accept that it is not a particularly popular tax, but the one thing that can be said about it is that it is infinitely better than the alternative so often trumpeted by the Liberal Democrats—a local income tax.

The hon. Gentleman has failed to read what Lyons says about the local income tax on page 272 of his report. For the sake of greater accuracy, let me read an extract. The report states that a local income tax

“might mean substantial increases in tax for the working population.”

The hon. Gentleman sheds crocodile tears for small businesses. The report says:

“Particular attention should be given to the likely costs to employers, and particularly small business, of administering locally-variable income tax rates.”

If ever we had a local income tax, a Liberal Democrat Government would not last a week.

Order. It seems to have become the custom for Front-Bench exchanges during business questions to be somewhat amply padded. I hope that questions hereafter, if I am to fit them in before the resumption of the Budget debate, will be leaner and fitter.

I will do my best, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend will have read the very serious stories about the stabbing to death of a young boy in the streets of London. He may also be aware that three people were killed in Greater Manchester in entirely separate incidents involving the use of knives. It is a fact that in our society the knife is probably the most dangerous weapon of choice when it comes to serious injury or death. May we have a serious debate about how we can begin to roll back this menace in our society, and how we can change the culture that dictates that the knife and the gun are acceptable and tell our young people that it is necessary to carry knives to be safe and secure in our streets at night?

The whole House will share my right hon. Friend’s concern, and we will of course seek an opportunity to ensure that the issue can be debated properly in the House.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) yesterday in Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that tomorrow the Government would

“sign the convention on human trafficking.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 809.]

Apart from the fact that it has taken months for that to happen, for no apparent good reason the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) said this morning that measures would be taken and that the treaty would then be ratified. It is, of course, the measures and the ratification that matter, not the signing of the convention. May we have a debate on human trafficking in Government time, so that we can hear from a Minister what measures will be taken and when ratification will take place?

The hon. Gentleman knows that a standard process has always been followed in respect of international treaties and conventions: a signature is followed by a pause to ensure that the necessary measures can be taken to ensure that it is ratified and comes into force. That is what has happened with this convention. As for opportunities for debate, if the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the issue he has an opportunity to raise it on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that yesterday the Home Office’s Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration held a seminar at the British Museum on the introduction of the new tests in English language and life in the United Kingdom for applicants for indefinite leave to remain? Many Members have anxieties about the implementation of the regulations. Might time be found for a debate along the lines of the seminar, so that Members can be better informed about the regulations?

I will certainly consider the issue sympathetically. My hon. Friend and I share a particular interest in ensuring that adequate resources are available for the teaching of English as a second language. The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), recently announced improvements in the system, and, as my hon. Friend will know, we have trebled the resources for English as a second language in recent years.

I am sure that the whole House shares my sense of shock at the loss of two Royal Navy submariners on HMS Tireless.

Although the Leader of the House did not refer to an upcoming statement on what we hope will be happy news about the ordering, at long last, of the two aircraft carriers, if and when such a statement is forthcoming will he seek to ensure that it is in sufficiently broad terms to allow us to consider also the future size of the Type 45 frigate force and the Astute submarine force, which will be part and parcel of any fleet package centred on the new aircraft carriers?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House in expressing his condolences for the loss of those two brave sailors who were killed. We send our sympathy to their families and colleagues. Those of us who have been on board submarines know what a potentially dangerous environment it is, and the safety record of the Royal Navy overall is second to none.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Defence questions will take place on Monday, and also that we are planning a day’s debate on defence towards the end of April.

Does the Leader of the House welcome early-day motion 1137, in support of Anti-Fascist Fortnight?

[That this House warmly welcomes the Anti-Fascist Fortnight being organised by Searchlight between 24th March and 7th April 2007; commends the trades unions and other organisations who are supporting this initiative; believes that the British National Party promotes the politics of hate and bigotry and stands opposed to the creation of a harmonious and cohesive society; and believes that the Anti-Fascist Fortnight will be a chance for all decent people, particularly at a community level, to celebrate the positive diversity of British society.]

A campaign by Searchlight, the Daily Mirror, trade unions and many other organisations has organised the “Hope not Hate” tour to oppose the message of poison and bigotry peddled by the British National party and other far-right groups.

Yes, I greatly welcome that. I also welcome an article in today’s Daily Mirror which contains information about two men from my constituency, Khadim Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan, who gave years of brave service for the British forces in the last world war, as their fathers had in the first world war. Hundreds of thousands of people whom the BNP and their allies now wish to denigrate gave their lives to save this country from fascism. We all need to remember that.

May we have a debate on the workings of the Electoral Commission, which seems to be seriously overstretching itself at taxpayers’ expense? To encourage the Leader of the House, may I refer to a document entitled “Guidance for candidates and agents” and subtitled “Local government elections in England, 3 May 2007”? It stretches to 115 glossy pages, and is being sent to every candidate and every agent. It is a total waste of taxpayers’ money. We need to get the commission back under control, or scrap it.

I met the chairman and deputy chief executive of the Electoral Commission just two days ago to discuss the commission’s plans to ensure, as I think is the will of the House—it is certainly in recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Phillips committee and the Constitutional Affairs Committee—that the operations of the Electoral Commission should be slimmed down and focused on the core work of regulation. That is, I think, now accepted by the chairman.

The Leader of the House will recall that on 1 February I raised with him the case of my constituent Rafiq Gorgi, whose wife was killed in Saudi Arabia. He promised to raise it with the Foreign Secretary. Despite numerous attempts, the Saudi Arabian Government refuse to give Mr. Gorgi a copy of the police report on his wife’s death. I think that that is appalling, in view of our very close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the work done by the Leader of the House in setting up the haj committee when he was Foreign Secretary. May we please have an urgent debate on our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the way in which it treats our citizens?

It is plain from what my right hon. Friend says that the Gorgi family have not received the service that they are entitled to expect, notwithstanding the great assistance that they have had from consular officials of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I will certainly raise the matter again with the Foreign Secretary. In the meantime, I hope very much that my right hon. Friend will find an opportunity to raise the matter either in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment.

There is growing concern, both in this country and abroad, about Japan’s efforts to use aid to countries to encourage them to vote in favour of resuming commercial whaling. Given that the International Whaling Commission meets at the beginning of May, can we have a debate about international whaling before then?

The British Government have taken a resolute approach on whaling. I will certainly ensure that the hon. Lady’s comments are conveyed to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will seek—although I cannot promise—an opportunity for a debate.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on his innovation of announcing statements in advance, not least because I called for it four weeks ago. While I am on a roll, may I suggest to my right hon. Friend that when debating statutory instruments the House sometimes covers itself in glory because it debates them properly, but sometimes an hour and a half simply is not enough time without the opportunity to amend a statutory instrument? This week the House of Commons has not covered itself in glory, although I entirely support the statutory instrument that was carried yesterday.

I always listen to constructive suggestions made from all parts of the House and try to implement them as quickly as possible. However, I am not sure that I can respond as positively on this occasion to my hon. Friend’s request as I have done in the past. As I said last week, the key difficulty is in scheduling the many demands on time, especially in respect of statutory instruments. I should also point out that when there was a discussion in Committee the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said that he had notified the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) of his desire for it to be debated on the Floor of the House and that she had replied after reflection that

“the official Opposition would make no such request.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee 12 DL, 15 March 2007; c. 18.]

It was also made clear that there was a desire for that matter to be raised Upstairs.

May we have a debate on the support that is given to the armed forces and their families? My constituent, Karen Webster, has set up an organisation called “Support our Soldiers”. One of its requests is for a comprehensive free postal system for armed forces on active service and their families back home. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands that if post were constantly to-ing and fro-ing that would provide a good boost to soldiers’ morale and reassure family members back home. This issue is of great importance to our soldiers, who risk their lives each day in the service of this country, and to their families, so may we have a debate on it?

All of us who have family or friends serving in the armed forces are well aware of the pressures on the families, especially when their loved ones are abroad on active service. I cannot give a precise answer to the question asked, but Defence questions will be held on Monday and there will be a defence debate before the end of April, at which I hope the hon. Gentleman will raise that constructive suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

In the name of efficiency targets, Tory-controlled Leicestershire county council plans to levy charges for travel to denominational schools, which is a major blow to the parents of the 1,600 children affected, not least the Catholic families in North-West Leicestershire whose children attend the excellent and good-value De Lisle secondary school in Loughborough. May we have a debate on school transport to examine how best to protect and finance the right of children to attend Catholic schools without that being dependent on the means of their families?

I hope that my hon. Friend has the good fortune to secure an Adjournment debate on that—perhaps in Westminster Hall. The problem he raises is a consequence of Conservative Administrations, both national and local. The Conservatives say one thing but we know what the old Tories always do—they cut, and they cut, and they cut. That was what they did when they were in power for 18 years. We have increased the sums put into education so much that the amount per head has almost doubled in the past 10 years.

To follow on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), may we have an urgent debate on welfare services for Her Majesty’s armed forces, especially telephone services for troops in theatre? Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the fact that Iraqi detainees are allowed to use a phone card for an hour-plus each week to call their families while incarcerated, yet our own troops—brave men and women—are given only 30 minutes a week in which to call home?

I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman says is necessarily correct, but in any event I refer to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is anxious to do everything that he can to ensure that there is the maximum welfare, particularly for troops serving abroad.

The Mental Health Bill has completed its passage through the Lords, and that passage has not been uncontentious. It is due to come to the Commons for Second Reading. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Bill is referred to a special Standing Committee so that written and oral evidence can be given to Committee members on the issues that were of concern to the Lords before the Bill passes on to the full Committee?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have replaced special Standing Committees with Public Bill Committees. We have agreed that it will not be the practice for Bills that were “Lords starters” to have the equivalent of a Select Committee hearing at the beginning. However, I will think about my hon. Friend’s suggestion and discuss it with Ministers and my business-manager colleagues.

May I ask again for a debate on trains, principally so that I can highlight the concerns of Milton Keynes commuters who can no longer get on a Virgin train during peak hours? The last time I asked for such a debate, the Leader of the House said that he had been on many trains that had stopped at Milton Keynes during peak hours. Now that he has seen the timetables that I sent him and has realised that no such trains exist, will he reconsider?

Following the break-up of the railways—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] The hon. Gentleman forgot to send me the timetable for Silverlink trains as well. When I went through it, I discovered that there is a train about every 15 or 20 minutes from Milton Keynes to London. As on the economy, education and health, commuters in Milton Keynes now have a better service than they had 10 years ago.

I have raised previously with my right hon. Friend the case of Gareth Myatt. The inquest into his death opened and adjourned again pending an appeal to the High Court for judicial review. Gareth’s mother says that as yet no official regret has been expressed at her son’s death. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that she gets a letter expressing real regret at the loss of that very young boy?

We all share my hon. Friend’s concern and distress, and I will do my best to ensure that what she seeks is achieved.

As many people know, the North sea plays a vital role in our energy supplies of oil and gas and many jobs in north-east Scotland are linked to it, yet it is facing great difficulty in attracting investment because of rising costs and increasing difficulties in production. Will the Leader of the House ensure that during the debate on the Budget the Government explain why they have denied to the North sea the cut in corporation tax that large business on the mainland will receive, and why they have therefore not made the North sea more attractive to investors?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the overall tax regime for oil exploration and lifting is a different one from that for corporations generally. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear yesterday that he had no plans to change the oil tax regime. The hon. Gentleman is right that to say that there has been a decline in production from the North sea, which has been unexpectedly sharp, but there was buoyant revenue and production in recent years under the same tax regime, so he cannot suggest that the tax regime has been the cause of the decline.

May we have a debate on the need to educate the British public on the dangers of exposure to asbestos? May I also draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 1179?

[That this House welcomes the Mesothelioma Framework, launched on Action Mesothelioma Day, 27th February 2007, and urges the NHS to implement the guidelines in the Framework as soon as possible; regrets that 37 per cent. of the British public are unaware that exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and that 65 per cent. have never heard of mesothelioma; further regrets that bereaved families report that legal procedures followed by the coroner constitute a distressing chain of events at an extremely difficult time; and welcomes the recommendations contained in the British Lung Foundation's report An Unnatural Death for making this process more sympathetic to the relatives left behind.]

It highlights the facts that 37 per cent. of the British public are unaware that exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and that 65 per cent. have never heard of mesothelioma. We need a debate on the dangers of being exposed to asbestos, not only for workers but for their families, too. Anything that my right hon. Friend can do to educate the British public to stay away from asbestos unless they have protective equipment would be extremely welcome.

I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts in that regard and for his early-day motion. He is right to draw attention to the alarming lack of information that many members of the public have about the often lethal dangers of asbestos and the diseases associated with it. We will certainly look for an opportunity to debate the matter.

The Leader of the House is a distinguished and experienced parliamentarian, but may I request that he devote more of his time at business questions to replying about the business for the following week than to political rhetoric?

He assured me on a number of occasions in the past that there would be a debate on Zimbabwe, and while I welcome that there will be a statement next Monday will he assure me again that there will be a full debate? We are partially responsible for the chaos and brutality in Zimbabwe. I believe that we should have a full day’s debate in Government time on the subject to enable those who are experienced in Rhodesian affairs to contribute fully to a debate to influence Government.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his flattery. I wondered what was coming next, and I was not disappointed.


We could not fit in a debate on Zimbabwe before the recess, for reasons that I am happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman in more detail outside the House, but the Foreign Secretary and I both thought that a statement by a Foreign Office Minister on Monday was the least we could do for the House. I promise the hon. Gentleman that we continue to try to identify a day—it will now have to be after the recess—in Government time for a debate on Zimbabwe.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Thames Water’s announcement of the investment of £2 billion to clean up the Rivers Thames and Lea in my constituency? Some 52 million cu m of waste, which destroys the environment of our rivers and kills our marine life, will thereby be diverted. Will my right hon. Friend make Government time for a debate on the environmental quality of our rivers?

I, too, am glad to welcome this investment. I know extremely well the area that my hon. Friend represents, and there will be a good opportunity to express his interest in this issue during Monday’s Budget debate—after all, it is about the investment of public money—which will be opened by our right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman is a strong and highly respected Leader of the House. Will he reflect on the answer that he gave earlier to the House concerning the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which were not debated by a single Back Bencher? They were taken in a small Committee Room with no television cameras; moreover, there were not enough seats for Members, and officials had to sit on the floor. Will the Leader of the House consider making a written statement on this issue next week, or perhaps meeting me to discuss it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, too, for the compliments that he has paid to me today and yesterday, when he gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee. As I have said, there are far more demands for debates on the Floor of the House than there is time available, and that has always been the case. Ultimately, the Government are responsible for such business and where it transpires, but I point out to him that the decision to take that business Upstairs was agreed across the Benches by the official Opposition.

I was very proud to be elected to this House in 2005, particularly given that I joined a 98-strong group of Labour women MPs. Does my right hon. Friend think it time for a debate on how to increase the number of female MPs in this House, and does he share my disappointment at the fact that so far this year the Conservative party has selected 17 men and no women?

A debate on this issue would be very important. I note that more people called Mark have been selected as Conservative candidates than have women.

This week has been the tale of two anniversaries. It is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and we had a debate on slavery in this House, and there was a prime ministerial apology. It is also the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but there was no prime ministerial apology and no debate in this House. When are we going to have such a debate in this House, led by the Prime Minister, in which he comes to the Dispatch Box and says the three words that everybody wants to hear him say on the war in Iraq: “I am sorry?”

We had a debate just a few weeks ago on Iraq, which was led, as is normal, by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We also had a very full statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Iraq just a couple of weeks ago.

As well as the unfolding tragedy in Zimbabwe, there is a second crisis in Africa, in Darfur. The Government in Khartoum have had weeks in which to agree to the introduction of the joint UN-AU force, but, sadly, it appears that no progress is being made. Will the Leader of the House agree to an early debate on this issue, so that the people of this country, through their representatives, can make known their views on the need to get that force into place as soon as possible, so that the crisis can at least be abated?

I note my hon. Friend’s concern and I commend him for it. I cannot promise a debate in the very near future, but International Development questions will take place next Wednesday, and I very much hope that he can raise this crucial issue with my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary then.

May we have a debate on the performance of the local government ombudsman? The ombudsman who covers the East Riding of Yorkshire, of which my constituency is part, is overwhelmed with complaints and is unable to deal with them properly. A three-person team has been set up to deal with the backlog, but at the rate currently being applied in these extreme circumstances it will take more than a year even to start processing many of the complaints. Without proper coverage, we are letting down people with genuine complaints.

If the hon. Gentleman is lucky, he might get an Adjournment debate. However, it is very important that he say who controls that council, because it is certainly not an excellent Labour group.

May we have a debate on flexible working and job sharing, both of which have been hugely successful for thousands of workers throughout the UK, particularly single parents and carers? A debate on job sharing would also allow us to discuss the position of those Members of the House who believe it possible to combine holding down a job in this place with running a country of more than 5 million people—a view that I regard as a gross insult to the people of Scotland.

I commend my hon. Friend on his ingenuity. I would be very happy to see a debate on job sharing; indeed, there is every opportunity for him to raise these points during the Budget debate, bearing it in mind that we have made flexible working such an important aspect of our economic success.

May we have a debate on the state of the youth justice system? This House has talked briefly about the tragic consequences of youth-on-youth crime in recent weeks, but the reality is that the youth justice system is creaking and unable to cope with the current number of young offenders. The secure estate for young offenders is full and contingency measures are being looked at. The community orders given to young offenders—two thirds of them will get such orders—are being routinely breached. Two thirds of drug rehab orders were breached last year, and 50 per cent. of intensive supervision and surveillance orders were breached. So may we have a serious debate in this House on the youth justice system, which is increasingly the gateway into the justice system for many offenders? I am convinced that, as it stands, it is not set up to succeed.

We all share concerns about young people who drift into crime and disorder. As the Minister who was responsible for setting up the major reforms to youth justice, I can say that, although they have not worked perfectly, they are infinitely better than the utter shambles revealed by the Audit Commission in a 1996 report. That report formed the basis of the very important reforms that we introduced, including significant expansion of secure accommodation for young people and much-improved and enhanced orders. These are difficult youngsters to deal with, and there is no question but that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has further improvements in mind; but my God, compared with where we were a dozen years ago, the situation is infinitely better.

On Tuesday, between 60 and 80 youths from two rival gangs rampaged down Lordship lane, in my constituency, and the result was four knife stabbings. Members in all parts of the House doubtless want to debate gang culture. Will the Leader of the House make time for that important debate? Stiff sentences are important, but all good heads need to get together to make a sustained, not just a short-term, effort to solve the gang culture problem.

We all share the great concern that the hon. Lady has highlighted about these gangs. For our part, the Government, along with local authorities, are doing everything that we can. I hope that she is fortunate in gaining an opportunity to debate that constituency issue on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. I cannot promise anything, but we will also look for other opportunities to debate the matter more widely in the House.

Order. May I now please appeal for extreme brevity? I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will set a good example.

May we please have a statement from the Chancellor next week explaining his fetish for giving to the working poor with one hand and taking away with the other, so that those of us who wish to do so can argue that people on the minimum wage earning less than £10,000 a year should pay no tax at all?

The hon. Gentleman is a real radical. I am sometimes tempted to send him an application form to join a much better party that would suit his principles—the Labour party. If he looks at the Government’s record, he will see that we have been implementing the policies that he seeks.

This week we learned that in the 12 months to April 2006 Cambridgeshire constabulary had to pay £800,000 of taxpayers’ money for interpretation and translation services, which is having a huge impact on policing and the burden on Cambridgeshire taxpayers. When may we have a debate in Government time on the impact across the country of the cost—I believe it is £21 million—of interpretation and translation services and the fact that that money is not therefore going into front-line policing?

There has been a significant increase in funding for the police, including extra grant for Cambridgeshire constabulary. Many police forces face those costs and there was every opportunity to debate the police grant when it was put before the House about three weeks ago.

Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), the overwhelming majority of small enterprises are innovative and entrepreneurial, but as they do not have heavy plant and equipment they will not benefit from the increase in capital allowances. Instead, they will be clobbered by the increase in small business corporation tax. What does the Leader of the House say to those small business organisations that all predict that wealth will be destroyed by those measures?

I simply do not accept that for a second and I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the record over the past 10 years of small business formation, the increase in jobs generated by small businesses and the prospects for small businesses in the future.

When the Leader of the House was asked about the Lyons report, he had some entirely justifiable fun with the Liberal Democrats’ proposals. However, many pensioners in my constituency and many others on fixed incomes want to know what the Government’s reaction will be to the Lyons report. When may we have a statement or a debate on that?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government issued a statement when the Lyons report was published yesterday and, in the intervening period before the matter is debated, I hope that everybody has an opportunity to read that thorough report. The hon. Gentleman is of the party of the poll tax and he should reflect on the fact that the council tax may be unpopular, but most of the alternatives to it, including the Liberals’ local income tax, would be infinitely worse. What Lyons has proposed for consideration includes, on the face of it, some sensible suggestions for improvements in the long term in the way in which the system operates.

I suspect that you are drawing business questions to a close, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I wish to tell the House by way of a point of order, as it were, that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer very much regrets that he will not be able to make the opening of the Budget debate in a moment because he is in a meeting involving representatives from Northern Ireland political parties in the hope—as I expressed, and I know that it met with the approbation of all Members of this House—that agreement can be reached by Monday 26 May and that the new arrangements may come into force.