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Business of the House

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 14 June 2007


The business of the House for next week is as follows:

Monday 18 June—Remaining stages of the Mental Health Bill [Lords]—day one.

Tuesday 19 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Mental Health Bill [Lords]. It is also expected that a statement will be made on the Fulton and Hall reports into the hostage situation in Iran.

Wednesday 20 June—There will be a debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 21 June—There will be a debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 22 June—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 25 June will be:

Monday 25 June—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill—day one.

Tuesday 26 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 27 June—Remaining stages of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords].

Thursday 28 June—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [Lords].

Friday 29 June—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.

Today is Falkland Islands liberation day, marking the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the islands. I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me in encouraging all members to sign early-day motion 1685, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to mark the courage of Her Majesty’s armed forces and to acknowledge the sacrifice of the 255 men who fell.

[That this House notes that 14th June is Falkland Islands Liberation Day; recalls the enormous courage and determination of Her Majesty's armed forces in liberating the Islands; pays tribute to the inspirational leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, with the support of Parliament, helped restore the Islanders' democratic way of life; remains resolutely dedicated to strengthening the historic ties between Britain and the Falkland Islands; reaffirms Britain's sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and her commitment to defend their right to choose their own future; and acknowledges with deep gratitude the sacrifice of 255 men who gave their lives for this cause.]

The motion is a reminder of the debt we owe all our armed forces for the service they have given, and continue to give, to our country.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is grave, as fighting continues between Hamas and Fatah. Reports suggest that Hamas is now in control of almost the whole Gaza strip. That obviously has serious consequences for the middle east peace process. May we, therefore, have a debate on the situation in Gaza and on the peace process?

This week, Mahmod Mahmod and Ari Mahmod were convicted of the murder of Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old woman who fell in love with the wrong man. The human rights lawyer, Usha Sood, says that

“honour crimes are being perpetrated in the hundreds every year”.

The police say that there are as many as 12 honour killings in the UK each year. Miss Mahmod was clearly let down by the authorities, who failed to protect her from her father, despite several warnings. May we have a debate on how we can prevent these despicable crimes?

According to a study published today, hundreds of thousands of elderly people are suffering physical and psychological abuse, neglect and theft. The care services Minister has committed to new guidelines for handling cases of abuse. With an ageing population, the fear is that this terrible problem will become increasingly prevalent, so may we have a debate on how to protect vulnerable elderly people?

Ahead of the EU intergovernmental conference, the French President says that he has agreed

“the framework for a simplified treaty”

with the Prime Minister, and the German Chancellor says that the treaty will have the same “legal substance” as the failed constitution. Surely any treaty on the transfer of powers to the EU must be put to the country in a referendum, so may we have a debate on the circumstances required for a referendum?

I reiterate my request for a debate on home information packs. This week, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Minister for Housing and Planning have got into another fine mess. Now, taxpayers’ money is being spent on subsidising the first home information packs, the Home Information Organisation is threatening to sue for billions of pounds, and the Government tell us that they have not even been able to find a legal definition of a bedroom, so may we have a debate on home information packs?

Finally, the Chancellor’s camp says that he is going to scrap the Department of Trade and Industry and create a Department for energy—but we have heard that before. Two years ago, the Government changed the DTI’s name to the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, but they changed it back again within days—I see the Deputy Leader of the House smiling—when they realised what the initials spelled out. I am too much of a lady to mention it in this House—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I am sure that hon. Members can work it out for themselves. The Lord Chancellor’s Department became the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and is now the Ministry of Justice. The Department for Transport became the DETR, then the DTLR, and now it is the Department for Transport again. But after all those changes, voters have seen no improvement in delivery. How much has that cost? In total, this Government have blown £2 million of taxpayers’ money on shuffling the Whitehall pack, so may we have a debate on this Government’s obsession with spin and presentation?

I endorse what the right hon. Lady says about the Falkland Islands. All of us, whether we were Members of Parliament or not, remember the dreadful events that led, in the end, to the liberation of the Falklands, and the terrible loss of life among British soldiers and personnel and, I may say, among Argentine personnel, most of whom were conscripts. As I have said before, those of us who were Members of Parliament recognise the steadfast courage and leadership shown by Margaret Thatcher. I salute that again, but above all I salute the courage and bravery of those who fell and of all who fought in that military action.

The situation in Gaza is indeed grave. Violence, whoever is causing it, provides no answer to the deep-seated problems in the occupied territories; nor does it provide any future. There is a heavy responsibility on Hamas and Fatah, and on the Government of Israel, to recognise, in their own separate ways, their responsibilities to work towards the only peaceful prospect for that area: a political process leading to negotiations and the fulfilment of United Nations resolutions. I will certainly bear in mind what the right hon. Lady says about the need for a debate and, I might add, a statement before that.

I note what the right hon. Lady says about honour killings. The term is a misnomer as there is no honour in those crimes, which are despicable, as are all murders and crimes that take place within families, regardless of the ethnic background of the people involved. It is our responsibility to ensure that the police, and the communities, do all that they can to ensure that such crimes do not take place.

The report published today on vulnerable elderly people is of profound importance. I am glad that it was sponsored by the Government, as it contains much food for thought about how we recognise the signs that vulnerable elderly people are being abused, and about what better measures we can take to detect those who abuse elderly people in the guise of family carers. The problem is very difficult to get at, but I hope that the report will generate a great deal of discussion and, in time, action too.

Unusually, the right hon. Lady is getting a bit ahead of herself with the EU treaty proposals. Nothing has yet been agreed. I am afraid that I was not privy to the discussions between President Sarkozy and the Prime Minister, but my right hon. Friend has set out his interpretation of them already. It is absolutely right for any British Prime Minister to engage in discussions with his opposite numbers in Europe. In the unlikely event—and it is becoming more and more unlikely—that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) ended up as Prime Minister, I hope that he would do the same; otherwise he would be selling this country short. By the way, he would be assisted in his attempts to persuade Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy of his point of view if he decided to keep the Conservatives in the centre-right European People’s party, instead of attaching his party to a far-right rump currently occupied only by the very far-right conservatives in the Czech Republic.

If previous experience is anything to go by, I am sure that the Conservative party will find plenty of opportunities to debate a referendum on the EU constitution, but the real question is whether there would be any significant transfer of power from the UK to Brussels as a result of any treaty. When the matter was discussed before and after the 2005 election, I spelled out endlessly that much in the constitution works to Britain’s advantage. I suggest that the whole House examine the proposals on their merits, and not anticipate decisions that have not been taken yet.

The right hon. Lady asked about HIPs. In her statement in May, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made it clear that HIPs for larger houses of four or more bedrooms will come into force on 1 August, and that they will be phased in for other properties after that. Moreover, I do not think that there will be any difficulty in determining whether a bedroom is a bedroom.

The right hon. Lady’s final question was about the changes of name of Government Departments. The Conservatives made changes to how Departments were organised—some of them perfectly sensible—but we are proud of the delivery that those Departments have been able to achieve since 1997. For example, Britain has, in many ways, enjoyed its best economic record since records began, and there are now 2 million more people in work and 760,000 fewer unemployed. Investment is at record levels, education standards are at record highs and we have had record improvements in the health service.

I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House did not continue the leadership theme begun by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. Perhaps the Conservatives have learned a lesson about that, because I was hoping to have an opportunity to give a wider audience to the blessed Simon Heffer of The Daily Telegraph—

I think that the jury is out on that.

I am warming very much to what Simon Heffer says. The Daily Telegraph is the official organ of the Conservative party, and only yesterday he wrote:

“Where there should be policies, there are stunts. Where competence is required, there has been blithering obtuseness. And, all too often, such open wounds extend and join up with each other.”

How does the Leader of the House intend to ensure that correspondence from MPs on behalf of their constituents is not subject to public disclosure if the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill fails to make progress in the other place?

We are taking every step, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice and with a great deal of consideration by the House of Commons Commission and the Department of Finance and Administration in this place to ensure that it is made absolutely clear to public authorities that where they receive requests for the disclosure of correspondence that involves Members of Parliament, first, in every case the Member of Parliament must be consulted and, secondly, it is probable that in almost every case such correspondence is covered either by the exemptions, which are absolute in respect of confidentiality, or by data protection or by many of the other qualified exemptions within the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Detailed guidance has been drafted. I went through it again last night. Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen are also being consulted. It should lead to a better situation than we faced before. I underline that Members of Parliament, for very good reasons, are not public authorities and therefore are not subject to freedom of information legislation. That was agreed without argument eight years ago.

That guidance will be very welcome in explaining the position to authorities that do not understand the existing law.

May we have a debate on the decision of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to restrict access to lucentis and macugen for wet age-related macular degeneration? I recognise that NICE does a very necessary and difficult job, but often the methodology it employs seems better for assessing life-prolonging therapies than for those that enhance the quality of life. As a former optician, I am only too well aware of the awful devastation that can result from AMD. I hope that the House will discuss the matter.

Last week, I asked the Leader of the House about the Ministry of Defence’s involvement in the al-Yamamah affair. It is ironic that the United States Congress is taking more interest in the matter than the House of Commons. The Attorney-General has now written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) saying that the decision to withhold vital information from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was taken by officials rather than by accountable Ministers—decisions that were politically inept and clearly unsustainable. I renew my request for a statement on the matter.

May I ask the Leader of the House to find time for a debate and the passing into law of the Corruption Bill, which finished its remaining stages in the House of Lords yesterday and would at least enable us to rectify the law?

May we have a debate on the draft Community Drivers’ Hours and Recording Equipment Regulations 2007? There were several unanswered questions in the Delegated Legislation Committee yesterday. The regulations remove the exemptions for rural bus services with a route of more than 31.6 miles. I know that the Leader of the House not only knows the south-west well but knows public transport well. He will know that if he were to catch the 632 service from Taunton to Yeovil via Martock, he would be all right because the route would be 30.3 miles, but if he caught the 54 service from Taunton to Yeovil via Long Sutton, he would not be all right because the route would be 31.8 miles. Is this not nonsense, and should we not revisit the regulations?

In respect of the first point, the hon. Gentleman comes to this issue with a great deal of professional expertise. All of us understand that age-related macular degeneration is a distressing condition for patients and their carers. We are committed to supporting the national health service to deliver improved eye-care services for patients. All primary care trusts are funding photodynamic therapy as a treatment for what is called wet AMD. I underline that what NICE has said is not its final guidance; the guidance has been issued for consultation and the Department of Health will respond in due course. I will make sure that the chief executive of NICE is aware of the hon. Gentleman’s view from his position of expertise.

On BAE, far from the matter not being discussed, it has been discussed at every recent business question time that I can recall, and at Prime Minister’s questions. The suggestion—the insinuation—by the leader of the Liberal Democrats that my noble Friend the Attorney-General ordered investigators to withhold information from the OECD is completely wrong. Instead of wriggling, the Liberal Democrat leader should apologise for making completely unsubstantiated allegations.

Secondly, if the Liberal Democrats are serious, as I think some of them are, about ending their 90 years in opposition and going into government—as a charitable sort of fellow, I have always seen it as part of my role to assist them along that path in whatever way I can—they need to think about the considerations that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had to take into account in making his judgment. The simple fact is that security and co-operation with the Saudis, which is absolutely fundamental not just to the middle east but to our safety in this country, would not merely have been threatened; it would have been undermined had we continued with an inquiry that, on the merits of the case, many of us believe would have proved abortive. There is no point in the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) trying to pretend that it is not an issue—it is an issue for everybody in the House. The Conservatives, to their great credit, understand that, and I am just sorry that the Liberal Democrats try to avoid it altogether.

The third issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was the draft Community Drivers’ Hours and Recording Equipment Regulations 2007, which were, as he said, subject to considerable discussion in a Delegated Legislation Committee. I do not want the House to get the wrong idea; I know the south-west very well, I was just confused last week—unusually, let me say for the record. I am tempted to try the 632 and the 54, but I have always had a conscientious objection to getting on a bus with a Liberal Democrat, so I shall have to avoid that.

If indeed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill is dead and, I hope, buried for ever, my right hon. Friend should be aware that if there is a genuine problem over the disclosure of MPs’ correspondence, I should support a measure that will deal with it. It is a pity that the problem was not dealt with at the beginning, rather than trying to exempt Parliament from freedom of information provisions. Perhaps the Data Protection Act 1998 should be considered with regard to MPs’ correspondence.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his conciliatory words. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) knows, as soon as the issue was raised with me—by two Opposition Members who represent Kent constituencies—I took it up. I held meetings with them and the Information Commissioner, which involved the other parties, too, to try to sort through things. However, the difficulty that had arisen—not caused by the House or the then Department for Constitutional Affairs—was that public authorities were getting ready to issue correspondence without so much as a by your leave from Members of Parliament, still less any consideration of the exemptions that might apply. As there was not a word of argument about the fact that Members of Parliament, as Members of Parliament, should not be classified as public authorities for the purpose of the Act, such an action would have been very serious indeed and would have destroyed the relationship between Members and their constituents, which is fundamental to the way in which we operate on their behalf. That is the issue. If we can arrive by other means at the end that everybody sought, we shall all celebrate.

Has the Leader of the House seen the latest report from the Procedure Committee on corrections to the Official Report? Is he aware that a number of Ministers who inadvertently mislead the House still adhere to the obscure and unsatisfactory practice of putting a correction letter in the Library, which of course nobody sees? Does he know that the Procedure Committee is suggesting an innovation—that errors made in the Official Report should be corrected in the Official Report by way of a corrections page, published when necessary, for the benefit of Members, the public and the press? May we have a debate on the report next week? If not, will the right hon. Gentleman assure members of the Procedure Committee that he will take steps to implement its excellent recommendation as soon as possible?

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s key question is yes. I welcome the Procedure Committee’s report. He will know that I followed up the representations first made in the House about nine months ago by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and others, and indeed spoke to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about the suggestion. It is not satisfactory for Ministers either that corrections to the record are scattered through Hansard or are to be found in the Library by those who can scurry through letters in the Library.

The Government welcome the Procedure Committee’s sensible proposals that there should be a dedicated section of Hansard for corrections by Ministers in respect of any proceedings, oral or written, in the House, cross-referenced with the original error. I shall table a motion later today to allow the House to approve the Committee’s report with a view to its coming into force at the beginning of the next Session.

I do not know whether I am on or off message, but may I join the Prime Minister in calling for a wide-ranging debate on the relationship between politics and the media? It has long concerned me that good policies, such as home condition surveys, can be abandoned or bad policies adopted simply to placate the media. There should be more straightforwardness and transparency in the way we make our policy.

For this week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) raises a serious problem and I am glad he approves of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday. The issue is serious not only for politicians on both sides of the House but for the press. I know from many serious political journalists that they, too, share the frustration felt throughout the Chamber and by many others about the way in which serious reporting of Parliament and politics is squeezed out in the ever-competitive scurry that leads to the dumbing down of newspapers.

Will it be possible to make time for a ministerial statement on the effectiveness of the child trust fund? Today, a Treasury Minister said that information would be made available about participation in the scheme by different socio-economic groups, but a Freedom of Information Act request shows that research already carried out states that

“those who open an account are considerably more likely than those who haven’t to be older (30+) and from higher social classes”.

Given that the research has already been undertaken, will the Leader of the House ask the Treasury to make a statement as soon as possible so that we can discuss the value for money and effectiveness of the policy?

I will certainly take that up with Treasury Ministers. There is always a problem in that the more articulate are readier to take up benefits, but that does not undermine the principle behind them. We have to ensure that everybody understands they are available and makes use of them.

This is a great month for engineers and engineering in the UK. We celebrate the 100th birthday of Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine and, crucially, the Olympic Delivery Authority announced yesterday that its first construction project has been delivered on time and on budget under the stewardship of Howard Shiplee. When can we make time in the House to discuss the role of engineers and engineering and their contribution to our British economy?

I pay tribute to what the ODA has been able to do—I am chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Olympics, and have therefore watched progress. We must make sure that progress continues, but projects could not be delivered without the fine service and great skill of British engineers. I shall certainly bear what my hon. Friend says in mind.

Although the police in our country face daily perils, for which I salute them, the tasks and hazards involved in making arrests and detentions in, say, Brixton pale in comparison with the tasks and hazards faced by our armed servicemen trying to arrest insurgents and terrorists in, say, Basra. It is desirable that there should be different legal jurisdictions for those activities, reflecting the very different circumstances. May I take it that that is still the Government’s view? If it is, what are they going to do about the House of Lords ruling that has applied the Human Rights Act 1998—on top of the tri-service discipline legislation and the International Criminal Court—to all the legal problems faced by our armed servicemen, thus putting them in an increasingly impossible position? I invite the Leader of the House to allow a debate on this subject. Is there any chance that a Minister will give a statement to the House at an early date?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the Law Officers are studying the judgment with care. As I understand it, the judgment indicated that the Human Rights Act applied in respect of British-run detention facilities in Basra, and not elsewhere. The House of Lords did not make a judgment on the merits of the particular proceedings initiated on behalf of Baha Mousa, who died while in British custody. That has to be the subject of a separate trial. We will consider the matter very carefully.

May I ask for a debate on pricing policies at UK departure points? I bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention early-day motion 1599, which has the support of all parties in the House.

[That this House expresses its concern that the British travelling public are treated as captive audiences at the UK's ports, airports and railway stations in terms of charging for goods and services; and calls on the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the pricing policies at these departure points on behalf of British consumers.]

The motion calls on the Office of Fair Trading to investigate why the British travelling public are seen as a captive audience when they enter an airport, an aircraft, or a train. Surely the travelling public have a right to know why they are being charged inflated prices at departure points throughout the UK.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue for retailers, as well as for Government. I will pass his concerns on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Will the Leader of the House allow a debate in the near future on the hospital conditions at Selly Oak? It was my sad privilege last Saturday to visit Corporal Nick Davis from Newark, who lost his right leg and buttock in an incident in Afghanistan. Conditions of security were curious, but the staff were absolutely first class and our wounded heroes conducted themselves wonderfully. That is curiously at odds with the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), who said:

“The soldiers seem to want a little empire consisting of their own designated staff and facilities, a fiefdom.”

Will the Leader of the House join me in distancing himself from those disgraceful words?

I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I pay tribute to all the staff at Selly Oak hospital, as well as saluting the courage of the very brave men and women who find themselves there. There will be a debate next Thursday on defence personnel, which will be a good opportunity for him to raise his concerns.

When can we debate early-day motion 1690 about the refusal yesterday by the Government to support a proposal to have a commemorative stamp on veterans day to mark the sacrifices of those who have been lost in Iraq?

[That this House notes the Government's refusal to support the proposal to issue commemorative stamps displaying the work of war artist Stephen McQueen on Veterans' Day, because that day's events are celebratory; and believes that the work, Queen and Country, which depicts photographs of 98 British soldiers killed in Iraq, printed in a stamp format, should be used for a commemorative issue on Remembrance Day to respect the wishes of the artist and the loved ones of the fallen soldiers and to provide a powerful reminder of the true cost of war.]

The stamp would be based on the work “Queen and Country” by the war artist Steve McQueen, which shows the portraits of 98 of those who have fallen in Iraq. If that cannot be done on veterans day—for understandable reasons, because the day is designed as a celebration of the work and sacrifices of soldiers—why can we not have a commemorative stamp on Remembrance day to remind us of the true cost of war?

I understand the basis of my hon. Friend’s proposal. There will be an opportunity for him, too, to raise that matter more extensively today week in the debate on defence personnel. That will be an ideal opportunity.

The Chancellor has been talking a lot recently about reforming the House and making Members of Parliament more accountable. Surely a good place to start would be by looking at the Scottish Member of Parliament and his role in the House. May I helpfully suggest that we try to resolve the issue consensually? Perhaps we could consider an all-party initiative to report to the House and make some recommendations.

I know that the hon. Gentleman, who is entitled to his view, wishes to see Scotland wholly detached from the United Kingdom. I do not think for a second that he has the support of the Scottish people for doing that. The role of Scottish Members of Parliament is the same as that of English, Welsh and Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. We are happy to have a debate with him at any stage about the nature of devolution, but he knows that this House is sovereign in respect of the whole United Kingdom, and that is why Members of Parliament, wherever they come from, deserve equal rights.

Has my right hon. Friend had any success in finding a date on which the Foreign Secretary can be here for a long-awaited debate on Zimbabwe? That is particularly important in the light of the view expressed by Chancellor Merkel last week that Mugabe should be invited to any summit between the European Union and the African Union.

As I made clear last week, we continue to seek to identify a date when the debate will take place. I have promised—and I continue to do so—that, God willing, it will take place before the summer recess. I recognise its importance and the impatience of my hon. Friend—and Opposition Members as well—when it comes to the urgent need to debate this issue.

As the right hon. Gentleman has such a proud record of ensuring that the flag of our country is flown on the parliamentary estate, may I draw his attention to early-day motion 1653, and ask him to raise the matter urgently with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that this Saturday, for trooping the colour, the flag of the Falklands Islands, and those of all Her Majesty’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies, are flown from Horseguards parade?

[That this House looks forward to the 2007 Trooping the Colour ceremony on Saturday 16th June to mark the Official Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; notes with pride that the flags of all the nations of the Commonwealth are already displayed in and around Horse Guards Parade in preparation for this great occasion; and calls on the Government to ensure that the flags of all Her Majesty's Realms and Territories are also flown in time for the ceremony, including Her Majesty's Crown Dependencies of The Isle of Man, The Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey and Her Majesty's Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Ocno Islands, St. Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cuhna, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the Turks and Caicos Island.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is bizarre that the flag of a republic such as Mozambique is flown, but the flags of British territories are not?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I am not quite sure that I will be able to deliver that as quickly as he wants, but I will take it up.

On Saturday, the Cardiff-based Actors Workshop will be putting on extracts of a play called “The Lady of Burma” to mark the 62nd birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is in her 12th year of house arrest in Burma. When may we have a debate to discuss what more the Government can do to end that deplorable situation?

Like the whole House, I pay tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi for her courage and forbearance in the face of a most terrible regime in Burma. We will certainly look for an opportunity to do what my hon. Friend seeks.

May we have an early debate in Government time on the two reports by Sir Hayden Phillips on party funding, neither of which has been debated in the House despite their importance to every hon. Member? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot promise a debate, will he give an assurance that, before his possible transfer elsewhere in Whitehall, he plans to bring to a successful conclusion the inter-party talks that he is chairing?

We did have a full discussion on the day of the publication of the Hayden Phillips report, on an oral statement that I made to the House. The right hon. Gentleman—he is normally well informed, and I am sure that he is well informed on this matter—knows very well that part of what was agreed between the parties was that Sir Hayden Phillips, not I, should chair cross-party talks on the issue, and those cross-party talks continue. I am sorry that, as I am not clairvoyant, I cannot predict when they will end.

Following the welcome statement on child sex offenders made yesterday by the Home Secretary, which has received universal support, may we have an early debate on child protection issues so that we can not just examine the excellent record of the Labour Government in the past 10 years in this area, but look seriously at the real challenges that we face in the future if we are to make our children even safer?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his expertise and the way in which he has pursued the issue. We will certainly look for an opportunity to hold a debate.

In response to the question asked by the shadow Leader of the House about elder abuse, the Leader of the House said that he hoped that the report published today would stimulate discussion, and perhaps lead to action later. Given that the report shows that more than 342,000 older people are the victims of neglect, theft and even sexual assault, surely it is not a question of discussion; it is time for action. May we have a statement from the Department of Health setting out that action, and assuring us that it will go beyond simply reissuing the guidance that has so far failed? We should instead place on a statutory footing the measures that are necessary to safeguard vulnerable adults.

Of course there is a serious problem, but if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health had come before the House today and said, “A report has just been published; this is what we’re going to do”, the Liberal Democrats would have been the first to complain that we had not had a chance to digest the report and come to sensible conclusions on it. They need to get serious. Of course the issue is urgent, but the report is the first objective scientific assessment of the prevalence of abuse against the elderly. The prerequisite for effective action, which is what we all want, is to consider the report carefully, although as quickly as possible.

Next week is national markets week, and the all-party markets industry group is encouraging Members of Parliament to visit their local market to show their support. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate next week on the importance of markets in providing employment, strengthening communities, promoting healthy eating, protecting the environment and regenerating town centres?

I shall do my best—and I might add that I use Blackburn market, which is one of the best in the north-west, especially its very fine fish market.

Given the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Union, will he arrange an early debate on the size of the Scottish block vote, so that we can consider the unfairness of English taxpayers having to pay for the cost of scrapping graduate tax, even though English students will not be eligible for that relief at Scottish universities?

That issue was settled in the devolution legislation, and I would like to hear from the hon. Gentleman whether the Conservatives now propose to go back on that. He should also be told that in the House, the English block vote completely outweighs the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish block votes by a margin of about 5:1, yet the House completely controls the size of the block grant that goes to Scotland. Devolution means difference, and I celebrate that, even if he does not. The truth is that there is no evidence that differences in fee regimes encourage more English students to study in Scotland, or deter significant numbers of Scottish students from studying in England. University applications in England are up 6 per cent. to the highest rate ever, and the proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups is up, too.

For the third week in a row, my right hon. Friend has failed to grant the House a debate on the future of grammar schools, so I shall change tack: will he allow us a debate on the future of secondary modern schools, and does he think that the 102,160 pupils who attend secondary modern schools deserve at least an explanation from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)?

I do. I am sorry; I usually try to help my hon. Friend, and the House, but we continue to look for an opportunity to debate grammar school policy, as it is a really important matter. What people used to forget when they celebrated grammar schools is that 20 per cent. of children went to grammar schools, and 80 per cent. were labelled failures and went to secondary moderns. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) is not here, but as I agree with her, I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to put on record what she told The House Magazine:

“The whole issue of grammar schools has been handled very badly indeed.”

I agree with that—and I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that she is not a “right-wing nutter” at all, but a Member of the House. I hope that there will be an opportunity for her to explain her views in more detail in the near future.

May we have a debate on the relocation of 70 Crown post offices to branches of WH Smith? In my constituency, consultation has started on proposals to move the Kirkintilloch post office, and I have no doubt that other areas face a similar situation. Given that the issue is causing a great deal of concern, is it not time that we had a debate in the House specifically on that major change to the post office network?

We have had plenty of debates on the subject, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been assiduous in coming before the House to explain the position, which is not one that any of us wished for. May I offer a bit of helpful advice to the Liberal Democrats? They have to think about the fact that in the past 10 years there has been increased use of the internet. It is now in 55 per cent. of homes, and people now use it when they used to go to the post office. Unfortunately, that has changed the market in which the Post Office has to operate. We have put £2 billion into subsidising the Post Office and helping it to deal with transitional problems.

May we have a debate on the disproportionate effect that debt has on the poor, especially with regard to companies such as BrightHouse, which specifically targets the poor and charges them extortionate rates of interest? The price of the goods is marked up to begin with, too. The poor sometimes feel that they have nowhere else to go, but they do: there are credit unions. Wearsidefirst is one such credit union in Sunderland; it offers hope and an alternative to millions of the poorest and most vulnerable consumers in the country.

I commend my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. I had a terrible case along those lines in my constituency advice service just last Friday, in which usurious rates of interest were being demanded from a poor lady. My hon. Friend is right, but I cannot make a promise about a debate, although we will certainly look for an opportunity.

The Department for Transport’s high-level output specification for the passenger railways is due to be published in July, and it will focus on reliability, safety and capacity. Naturally, those are important issues for every Member of the House, and Ministers have rightly declined to comment on them while the report is in preparation. Next month, will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the implementation of the document, before the recommendations can get buried in the long grass of the summer recess?

I shall certainly look for that opportunity. I might add that I have been encouraging my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to include in the high-level analysis a recognition of the case for the doubling of the track between Blackburn and Bolton.

My right hon. Friend will know that I have raised the issue of violent video games on a number of occasions. Will he join me in condemning Sony for the publication of a new video game that depicts scenes of Manchester cathedral, without the permission of the Church authorities, in a game that is very violent and bloody? Will he join the Prime Minister in stating clearly that there is a responsibility beyond profit on those who produce such games? Can we ask Sony at least to withdraw the game and pay compensation to a Church charity, and may we have a debate on that important matter?

My right hon. Friend is right about the issue, and there has been totally unacceptable practice on Sony’s part. It has a moral duty to withdraw the game and make reparation to a Church charity, but it ought also to have some enlightened self-interest about the damage that it is doing to what was a reputable brand.

I welcome the fact that we are to debate defence next Thursday; that will give the House greater opportunity to celebrate the courage, bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, especially those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Can we make sure that the Secretary of State for Defence comes before the House with evidence about why we pay only £1.51 a day to feed our soldiers in the UK, and £2.63 to feed servicemen abroad? That money is not enough to feed our soldiers in the field, which is why so many servicemen’s families are sending high-protein products out to soldiers in the field, as the Government are not feeding them correctly.

I know about the hon. Gentleman’s experience in the forces; he was a member of the Grenadier Guards for some years. The Ministry of Defence is clear that the allowance for UK-based forces is significantly above that for dogs, and so it should be. That is the information with which I have been provided—[Interruption.] Army dogs. Army dogs have to be fed, too—[Interruption]—as the hon. Member for Buckingham will understand.

Okay. That is unusual, because the hon. Gentleman normally provides a running commentary on everything I say. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) was certainly talking about Army dogs in the Daily Mail yesterday. [Interruption.] If I missed the point of what he was saying, I am sorry, but I thought that he was continuing what he said in the Daily Mail yesterday—[Interruption.] Well, I could be forgiven for thinking that he was.

We are all concerned about the fact that our troops need to be properly fed. We may have different anecdotal evidence, but I know a number of people who have served in Iraq—

I have, too. Although those people were concerned about many things, they were not concerned about the food. None the less, the hon. Gentleman can raise that subject next week in the debate.

In 17 days’ time, we shall see the banning of smoking in public places, which is an enormous leap forward in the prevention of smoking-related disease. However, there is still an awful lot to do. In the 48 minutes that business questions have lasted so far, 12 of our citizens have died of lung disease. Today, in the middle of “breathe easy” week, which was organised by the admirable British Lung Foundation, will the Leader of the House announce that we will have a debate in the House on lung disease? There is a shortage of respiratory specialists and community support, and death rates have remained stubbornly high for a generation, so there is an awful lot more to do. I am sure that, as a Government, we will take further steps to tackle that continuing problem.

My hon. Friend is right to raise that important issue. We have done a very great deal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been in the vanguard of ensuring that the ban is introduced, which has already led to change in public attitudes and to much greater consideration by those who smoke of the importance of no longer smoking. We will certainly look for an opportunity for a debate.

The Leader of the House will have noted in today’s Financial Times a report that the Chancellor’s chief fund raiser, Sir Ronnie Cohen, who is also a leading figure in the private equity world, believes that the Government should change a tax loophole by getting rid of the taper on capital gains tax. Should not the Chancellor come to the House next week to let us know what he is doing on that issue—or would it be better for us to wait until the end of the month for the Leader of the House to do so himself?

The Chancellor has just appeared before the House for a whole hour. It is a very important issue, and I understand that the Treasury Select Committee is considering it.

Could we have an urgent debate on the Chicago convention on international civil aviation, because the only way in which we can reconcile repeated ministerial statements that the Government have no evidence of detainees being rendered through the United Kingdom with the evidence collected by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament—the most recent instance was on 2 June at Mildenhall—of prisoners being rendered through the UK is by reference to a loophole in the convention whereby the US Government are not obliged to inform the UK Government if they are rendering prisoners through UK territory? That is a stain on us.

It is: if prisoners are rendered through UK or European airspace, that is a stain on us. I have to tell the Leader of the House that one of the things that have lost the war for the United States is Guantanamo Bay and the issue of civil rights, so can we have an early debate on the Chicago convention?

The reason why I shook my head is that I made it clear in a statement in December 2005 that Ministry of Defence records, which were examined with the greatest care, showed that there was absolutely no evidence of any cases of rendition having taken place through our airspace or our airports—none whatever. Despite extensive inquiries by the European Parliament and others, they have not been able to produce any evidence whatever. I shook my head because, uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman was giving force to wholly unsubstantiated allegations. It is my belief, on the basis of the most substantial examination, that apart from the two cases, of which I informed the House, and which took place in 1998 in entirely justifiable circumstances and are on the public record, there has been no rendition through the United Kingdom. If he thinks about it for a second he may realise that if there had been, there might have been a scintilla of evidence from somebody somewhere at a British airport saying that they had spotted something. There has been no such evidence, nor do I believe that the United States would have broken clear understandings with us and done this without our knowledge.

Could we please have a full-day debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time, given that both those important topics fall within the scope of current inquiries by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, so ably chaired by the Leader of the House himself, and the fact that we need to decide how to improve the means of scrutiny and the opportunities for representation? Will he take it from me that it would be cruel beyond endurance, both for him and for the House, if he were denied the opportunity to listen and respond to a full-day debate on those matters before he moves to pastures equally lush?

I know of no pasture as lush as that of Leader of the House. If anyone aspires to the position, may I tell them it is a great job? We will leave to one side what will happen, or will not happen, in future—you never know. The hon. Gentleman gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee, on which I commend him. We have concluded our report, and it should be published shortly. I hope and believe that there will indeed be a full debate, as he proposed. Improving the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time is of profound importance to the House.

A constituent of mine was set upon by a group of thugs in a vicious assault, and ended up in hospital for more than a week. The Northamptonshire police did a very good job, and arrested the alleged culprits. The Crown Prosecution Service did its job, and the case went to the magistrates court. However, when it reached the Crown court, the defence lawyer pointed out that there was an error on a form—a court clerk had misrecorded something that the judge had said—and the case was dismissed. The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph—a fine paper in my constituency—has taken up that case under the banner “Rough Justice”. Can we have a statement or a debate to clarify the reason why clerical errors apparently allow justice not to be done?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not comment specifically, as I know no more about that case than what he has told us, but it sounds as if it is a serious matter. Discretion rests with courts to deal with non-material errors without having to require acquittal in certain circumstances. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friends the Attorney-General and the Secretary of State for Justice. If the hon. Gentleman can provide me with more information, I will follow this up.

Can we go back to the issue of Crown post offices? We should have a full-scale debate in Government time on the closure programme. Is the Leader of the House aware of the anger and dismay in King’s Lynn about the fact that services housed in a great historic building are to be moved to a nondescript counter in WH Smith? Despite what he said the other day about the public not using those services, people use that building regularly, so what can he do to help hon. Members on both sides of the House to make the Post Office and the Department of Trade and Industry see sense?

Of course I understand the concerns that arise when those changes take place, but the Post Office and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry face a dilemma that must be shared with the House. How is it possible to maintain the viability of the Post Office when the internet has led to a significant reduction in personal mail as a result of e-mail, and in over-the-counter transactions at post offices because people can now, for example, renew their road fund tax on the internet, rather than going to a post office? That dilemma affects all of us. I understand the anxieties expressed by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents—as he knows, I am familiar with the main post office in King’s Lynn—and I shall certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend.

I want to take the Leader of the House back to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about the House of Lords judgment. It is interesting that the Ministry of Defence was quoted in today’s press as saying that the ruling changed nothing, and that it was a helpful clarification. That raises the question why the MOD appealed the matter to the House of Lords in the first place. I listened carefully to the response from the Leader of the House, who said that the Law Officers and the Secretary of State for Defence were reviewing the judgment carefully. I do not think I heard him say—it would be helpful if he could clarify this for the House—whether, once they have completed that consideration, the Law Officers, the Secretary of State or both will make an oral statement to the House to set out the current legal position of our service personnel when operating abroad.

My understanding is that it was not the Ministry of Defence, but the family, who appealed to the House of Lords. That is how the case ended up there. I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and alert my right hon. Friend to the fact that the hon. Gentleman is likely to raise the matter in the debate that takes place a week today.

May we have an urgent statement from the Minister for Industry and the Regions about the proposed closure at the end of this month of the Kettering Business Venture Trust, and the role of the East Midlands development agency in its demise? KBVT has been helping local businesses start up over the past 22 years, creating thousands of jobs in and around the Kettering constituency. When 43,000 new jobs are required in north Northamptonshire in order to comply with the Government’s sustainable communities plan, the loss of KBVT comes at entirely the wrong time. The Government should step in urgently and save this worthwhile local enterprise agency.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have no briefing on the subject, as it is a question without notice. I understand the concerns that he expresses and I will make them known to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.