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Business of the House

Volume 464: debated on Thursday 11 October 2007

The business for the week commencing 15 October will be:

Monday 15 October—Remaining stages of the Legal Services Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 16 October—A debate on defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 17 October—Opposition Day [20th Allotted Day] (First part). There will be a debate entitled “Incompetent Government Handling of the Outbreaks of Foot and Mouth and Bluetongue Disease”, followed by a debate on dealing with bullying in schools on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 18 October—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on the review of the third sector on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 19 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 October will include:

Monday 22 October—Remaining stages of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords]. Straight after the business statement, the Chancellor will come to the House to make a statement about Northern Rock.

I look forward to answering hon. Members’ questions today, but I just want to remind them that I am always available to talk to them in my room at the back of the Speaker’s Chair.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the future business. Yesterday, the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Justice published an update of the Department’s organisational review, in which the National Offender Management Service could be abolished, on the Ministry’s website. Why is that important announcement being made by a civil servant and not by a Minister, and on the internet rather than to the House of Commons?

On Monday the Leader of House said that she was the “policewoman in the Cabinet”, enforcing the “Parliament first” rule, whereby statements are made first to Parliament, not to the media. Will she make a statement to the House about why the Prime Minister went to Basra for a photo call, announced a troop withdrawal to the media before he came to Parliament and shamefully double-counted the number of troops coming home?

The Prime Minister keeps boasting that he has dealt with the outbreak of foot and mouth, but as he crows, the livestock industry has lost £135 million, the EU export ban remains for much of the country and the official inquiry is reported to blame a Government facility for the outbreak. We will, as the Leader of the House has just announced, have a debate on this in Opposition time next week, but when the inquiries currently under way report, can we have full debates in Government time on the lessons to be learnt?

On Tuesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his pre-Budget report proposed action on inheritance tax, on non-domiciles, on aviation tax and on the simplification of national insurance and PAYE. Where the Conservatives lead, this Government follow. Can we have, therefore, a debate on the protection of intellectual property rights?

With this Chancellor, as with his predecessor, we always have to look at the small print. The new Chancellor said that his PBR included an “affordable tax cut”, but far from cutting taxes he is increasing taxes on families by £2,600 a year and there is a £2 billion raid on pensions. The inheritance tax threshold has not been doubled; the Chancellor is just taking credit for what half a million families already do. The Prime Minister’s last Budget was a tax con, the Chancellor’s first PBR is a tax con, so can we have a debate on the Government’s tax cons?

Incompetent, lacking in vision, with the same old spin—the Prime Minister is running scared of the people’s verdict. Yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions his excuse for not calling an election was that only 26 people had signed a Downing street petition calling for one. I checked the website this morning and there are now 4,408 signatures and rising. Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to give us an update on the petition every week in Prime Minister’s questions?

The Prime Minister is running scared of a general election and he is also running scared of a referendum on the renamed European constitution. That is despite the fact that the Labour Chairman of the Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee says:

“the red lines will not be sustainable…eventually all of the treaty will apply to the UK.”

Can we have a debate in Government time on the report of the European Scrutiny Committee?

Finally, if the Prime Minister wants to prove that he is not a bottler, why does he not keep his word and give us the referendum that he promised?

We had the party political point scoring at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. Having had the Punch and Judy then, we can spare the House the Judy and Judy show today. This is a statement on the business of the House, and it will be business as usual.

Turning to the points of business that the right hon. Lady raised, on the Ministry of Justice, there is an ongoing review. There has been no announcement. [Interruption.] The announcement was of an ongoing review and it was notified on the website. If there are any proposals for change, we rightly would expect them to be notified to the House by the Secretary of State for Justice. There are no such proposals at present; the matter is simply under review.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the “Parliament first” rule. We in this House all think it is very important indeed that if there is information that the House should hear first, that is exactly what happens. When the House is not sitting, obviously there is not the option of a statement to the House first. I agree with all hon. Members who think that information should be given to the House first. Indeed the Prime Minister came to the House and made a statement of further information about Iraq.

In relation to foot and mouth and bluetongue, I agree with the right hon. Lady that farmers have had a difficult summer. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came to the House on Monday and announced a package of support for hill farmers who are the most seriously affected. I note that the hon. Lady has made this the subject of her Opposition day debate. If there is any further information, it will be brought to the House. This is a serious problem. We need to identify the problems, contain them and eradicate the diseases which are so damaging.

The right hon. Lady talked about the protection of intellectual property rights. I am sure that she can raise that subject with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

The right hon. Lady asked about tax. As she knows, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be answering Treasury questions next Thursday, and no doubt her hon. Friends can raise those questions then.

The right hon. Lady mentioned issues relating to the EU reform treaty and European scrutiny. There will be public confidence in how we deal with issues proposed by Europe only if there are processes in the House that we all agree are working properly, and I do not think that that is the case. The point has been raised by a number of hon. Members on many occasions, including members of the Modernisation Committee, and we shall have to look into it further to make sure that we are doing the best we can in the House to scrutinise proposals from Europe.

The right hon. Lady referred to how the House is dealing with the European reform treaty. She will know that if the Government reach an agreement on intergovernmental issues relating to Europe it will come to the House for ratification— [Hon. Members: “That’s not a referendum.”] Perhaps hon. Members will let me finish. It will come to the House. It is for hon. Members to decide the amendments that they want to table and it is for the Speaker to decide which amendments he accepts.

Given the growth in the number of agency workers, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on how the law protects agency workers? The welcome improvements that the Government have made through the minimum wage and employment rights need to apply fully to agency workers, not only so that some of the lowest paid people in our economy get all the benefits from their work but so that good agencies, which do the right thing, are not undercut by their less scrupulous competitors.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue that was also the subject of a private Member’s Bill—the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004—promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). We all agree that we need to do more to protect vulnerable migrant workers from exploitation, as well as those who have been working hard in this country for a long time, to ensure that their terms and conditions are not undermined and undercut by unscrupulous agencies. Consideration of what more we can do in relation to vulnerable workers will be raised with my hon. Friends at Question Time, but I will bring my hon. Friend’s point to their attention.

I return to the Prime Minister’s welcome statement in July that his new intention would be always to make statements on important issues to the House whenever appropriate, yet within three months we saw him go back to the bad old habit of making a statement that could absolutely have waited until Parliament came back this week. Will the Leader of the House go back to the Prime Minister and Ministers and make it clear that it is not acceptable that statements are made in the recess, willy-nilly, whatever the subject, when they could wait to be made in Parliament. That completely undermines what the Prime Minister said to the House after his election in the summer.

On a similar issue, the Prime Minister indicated the intention to be open-minded—as the Leader of the House has always been—about constitutional reform, which is very welcome. Given the little local difficulty that the Prime Minister got into last weekend, will the right hon. and learned Lady encourage him to let the House discuss the merits of fixed-term Parliaments, with a guarantee that people are on electoral registers and not off them, and possibly the idea that we hold elections on both days of the weekend to maximise turnout? I am sure that people throughout the country would welcome an unwhipped debate on that subject to test the view of the House.

We heard a welcome statement from the Chancellor earlier this week on public sector borrowing and the comprehensive spending review, but there is to be no extended debate about that, as there usually is after the Budget. Will the Leader of the House suggest that in future we have a full, proper economic debate twice yearly, because then we could ask whether Labour was about to adopt our policy on long-term care funding for the elderly and test whether the flood defence moneys would be adequate or, as all the independent experts suggest, inadequate to meet the damage of recent months.

Finally, rather than having to respond on Opposition days when subjects affecting agriculture and rural communities are put on the agenda or as a matter of urgency when there is a crisis, will the right hon. Lady provide regular opportunities to debate agriculture and the rural economy, not just after the latest outbreak of BSE or bluetongue disease? We must understand that unless we have a healthy agricultural industry which feels supported, the UK will face severe economic and financial difficulties?

We can all agree that when the House is sitting and a Minister has an announcement to make, that should be heard first in the House, not read about in the newspapers or heard on the “Today” programme. That is what is important. However, it is perfectly acceptable for the Prime Minister, as he did, to go to Basra and, when he is there, to answer questions about troop numbers.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked about the recall and dissolution of Parliament. The Modernisation Committee, which met yesterday, agreed that under the “Governance of Britain” proposals, we should examine the recall and dissolution of Parliament. Indeed, there will a Speaker’s conference on a number of aspects of building public confidence in our democratic system. It is already possible under the law for voting to take place at weekends. That has been piloted in some areas and it is important that we continue to consider it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the opportunities for discussing flood defences. I draw his attention to what the Chancellor said in the pre-Budget report about the increase in money for flood defences. We must not only tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions—the climate change Bill will be important for that—but invest in adaptation to extreme weather conditions and protect people from floods. That was proposed in the pre-Budget report.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of the House having topical debates. He is aware that the Modernisation Committee has made substantial proposals for topical questions to be asked without notice at Question Time, as in Prime Minister’s Question Time, and for topical debates. I shall shortly present those proposals to the House.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend allow for an early debate on the disgraceful decision by the Liberal Democrat and Scottish nationalist-run council in Edinburgh to deprive thousands of senior citizens of essential home help services from January—services such as ironing, cleaning and even fetching essential messages?

I know that my hon. Friend is extremely concerned about care and support for older people. Despite his criticisms of the provision of services by the local Liberal Democrat-Scottish National party council, he may be aware that the Government are undertaking a review of the support that we give to carers. I invite him to contribute to that review.

Today’s shaming report from the Healthcare Commission shows that 90 people died of c. difficile in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and I am sure that the thoughts of all of us are with the families and friends of those who died in such tragic circumstances. Will the Secretary of State for Health come to the House to debate the lessons to be learnt from this tragedy? In particular, will he reassure my constituents and those of my hon. Friends that patient care will not be sacrificed to Government targets, be they financial or clinical, and specifically that nursing numbers will not be held back because of targets, and also that the new hospital, which will be 100 per cent. single-bedded rooms and therefore a bulwark against such infections in future, will not be jeopardised by any financial consequences from meeting the recommendations of the report?

Hospital-acquired infections, the subject of the report published this morning, have been an absolute tragedy and a scandal. Lessons must be learnt, not only in the three hospitals involved but more widely in the NHS. That is why yesterday the Secretary of State for Health said that he was announcing more investment in provision for isolation, so that when the disease is identified, the relevant patients can be isolated. He also said that there should be an annual deep clean in every hospital, improved cleaning throughout the year and extra screening. Currently, there is screening for planned admissions, but no comprehensive screening for such infectious diseases when people are brought in as a matter of emergency. Our health and social care Bill will strengthen the inspection regime; as the hon. Gentleman will know, that Bill is in the draft legislative programme.

I want to mention a point about targets and patient care. I remember when we did not have targets on waiting lists, and constituents of mine used to die waiting for their heart operations. The targets are to ensure that patients get the health care that they need. The hon. Gentleman asked about new hospitals. He will have noticed that the pre-Budget report included additional investment in new hospital buildings. I conclude by saying that the Secretary of State for Health will give a further written statement on hospital-acquired infections early next week.

When will my right hon. and learned Friend make time available for a debate on the use of the House of Commons communications allowance during any election period? I ask that in the light of the Electoral Commission’s ruling that Plaid Cymru must declare as election expenses the double-page adverts paid for out of its communications allowance. One was placed a week before the Assembly elections by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) in the Llanelli Star, a newspaper read by my constituents.

Order. The hon. Lady should be allowed to answer; I do not need two people to do so. It is best not to use business questions to attack an hon. Member. That is not their purpose; we are discussing next week’s business.

If the Leader of the House had been here earlier, she would have heard a protracted exchange about the problems of our postal services and the current industrial action. I should say that, as a Conservative, I am sympathetic to the postal workers’ position, albeit perhaps not to their leadership. I believe in the universal daily service and that the postal service is essential to the social fabric of this country. Given that there is such protracted industrial action in a national service, should there not be a debate in this House, so that every Member can express a view? Although I believe that managers of postal services need to make their own decisions, this House and the Government should take an interest in matters that in some cases can affect the lives of individuals.

I am aware that the House had an opportunity for protracted discussion during Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform questions this morning. I strongly agree that we all respect the work done by the Post Office work force. We all support the universal daily service. We recognise the huge challenges that have faced the Post Office, first, with the advent of the fax and then with the advent of e-mail, which have transformed the situation in which the Post Office works.

I agree that the strike has been damaging, not only to the Post Office but to businesses that depend on it and ordinary members of the public wanting to use postal services. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear, as did the Secretary of State this morning, that in view of the fact that a perfectly decent offer has been made, we want the dispute to end. The industrial action is not justified, as the Secretary of State said.

May we have a debate—or, better still, a Bill in the Queen’s Speech—to close the loophole that allows candidates to spend unlimited amounts of money until four weeks before an election? I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is as alarmed as I am by the sight of Lord Ashcroft roaming the country signing cheques for £25,000 at the drop of a business plan, for the few candidates who win his approval. Does that not smell of the Victorian era, when landowners controlled strings of rotten boroughs and could spend money to ensure that their candidates were elected?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. All in the House are concerned that there should be full confidence in the House and in our democracy. We should all be concerned that people do not like the idea that big money comes in and assists people in buying seats. That has been pervasive in the United States and has undermined public confidence. This “arms race”, in which all sides have been spending more and more on elections, has simply been correlated with a fall in turnout. The public are turned off—[Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) must let the right hon. and learned Lady speak. She is answering business questions.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Department of Health to carry out an urgent inquiry and make a statement next week about how it sometimes answers priority written questions? Can the Department please look into the fact that when I asked an unhelpful question in September about how many scouts at the world jamboree attended Broomfield hospital to be treated and how many were asked to pay for their treatment, the Minister concerned responded by hiding behind the fact that the Department does not collect such information centrally? When I rang up the Minister’s private office to complain that that response seemed to be blocking, people there helpfully considered the issue again. Ten days later, they sent me an e-mail saying that they had checked with the East of England strategic health authority and Mid-Essex hospital trust and that they were unaware that anybody from the jamboree had been treated. Last night, I received a response to my freedom of information application, which told me that 107 scouts had been treated for 173 medical complaints and that 53 of them were not eligible for free NHS treatment. I also learnt that not one had yet been sent an invoice, even though they have all returned to different parts of the world—

Order. We all have a high regard for the scout movement, but perhaps an Adjournment debate on the issue would be appreciated.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about questions. Questions tabled by hon. Members to Government Ministers about issues of public concern or of concern in their constituencies are all helpful, so we should back Members up in asking them.

All answers should be prompt, full and completely accurate. Members should not have to resort to freedom of information requests. If a mistake is made—honest mistakes will sometimes be made and misinformation given in a parliamentary answer—the Department itself should ensure that the answer is corrected and sent directly to the Member concerned. We also need to make arrangements to ensure that corrections are printed in Hansard. At the moment, the relevant Member can be invited to retable the question, but that is a bit clumsy. We are thinking about whether to have a corrections page at the end of Hansard, so that people can see when information has been wrong. I do not want us to seem like The Guardian, but when Government Departments get things wrong, they should correct them; it should not be necessary to make freedom of information requests. As soon as an hon. Member has tabled a question, they should be confident that it will be answered accurately.

On Monday, the House debated the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. As two Government statements were made beforehand, the main debate did not start until 5.39 pm. Back Benchers did not have a chance to make their speeches until two hours later; that meant that some of us got to speak for only five minutes or less. What does my right hon. and learned Friend plan to do to take forward the Modernisation Committee’s recommendation that there should be limits on Front-Bench contributions during such debates?

That is a matter of concern to Back Benchers in all parties and, if I might be so bold, it has been a matter of concern to you, Mr. Speaker, as well. As my hon. Friend said, the Modernisation Committee has introduced proposals that the Government will bring forward for debate shortly. Front-Bench spokesmen need long enough to get their argument across, but not so long that Back Benchers do not have an opportunity to intervene or to make their own speeches.

I urge the Leader of the House to allow time for a debate on the report of the European Scrutiny Committee. I draw her attention to the fact that just last week the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed unanimously that there should be a referendum on the European treaty. I urge her to accede to the growing clamour and demand throughout the country for a referendum. Does she accept that the Government have lost the argument on that, and will the Government allow the people finally to have their say, as they promised they would?

All of us who believe that our membership of the European Union is vital for the health of our economy, our work tackling climate change, our commitment to international development and the tackling of crime, which of course knows no boundaries, think that we could make the argument in favour of Europe much more strongly.

As for the European Scrutiny Committee, and how we deal with the ratification of the treaty, the hon. Gentleman is a Member of this House, and if the Government introduce proposals for the House to ratify the treaty, it will be down to hon. Members whether they table amendments or not. The selection of amendments will be a matter for Mr. Speaker, and it will be a matter for this House to vote on them. The point is that the British people should be reassured that no legislation is simply imposed on this country; it is a matter for this House.

Following on from the point of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), does the Leader of the House not think that the public will find it absolutely disgraceful that we are not having a debate on the Royal Mail dispute, so that we can put forward some of the views that are not being put forward by Adam Crozier, on his £1.3 million salary, about the deterioration of services for the public that will take place as a result of the planned changes, such as later deliveries, no Sunday collections and a cut in the pensions of our hard working postmen and women? That case has to be put in the House because our loyal postmen and women are being done down very badly by the fact that the Government are not directly intervening.

Although the Post Office runs along commercial lines, this is a matter of public interest. My hon. Friend has raised some very important points and I will bring them and those made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

On Monday, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came to the House and made a statement on compensation for foot and mouth. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Wales whether the Assembly in Cardiff was going to be fully refunded for any cost. Overnight, there has been some discussion as to whether that contribution by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was withdrawn when it became clear that a general election was not going to go ahead. This is a terrible state to be in. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs comes to the House and clarifies the situation?

The Secretary of State is well aware of the terrible difficulties that foot and mouth and bluetongue have caused, particularly the effect on hill farmers, of whom there are many in Wales. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that this is a devolved matter—[Hon. Members: “No, it is not. It is reserved.”] The devolved Assemblies have formed their own package of compensation—[Hon. Members: “It is reserved.”] I will undertake to look into that matter.

May we have an early debate into the running of price-comparison websites for goods and services? There is a growing concern that those sites for consumers do not always offer the best deal because they hide the payments that they are making to various companies, and they do not necessarily include the whole range of goods and services available. Some people have called for a code of conduct; I am not sure whether that is the right way forward, but I feel that regulation of some kind is needed to ensure the best possible deal for consumers on the web.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Consumers need to know whether the information that they are looking at is genuinely impartial and fair advice that will help them when they spend their money on goods and services. I will bring his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

As my party is now setting the agenda for Parliament, would it not save time if the business statement were made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? In the meantime, if that is not possible, may I press the Leader of the House for a reply to a question she was asked but did not answer? On Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a statement on the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review, setting the financial and political priorities of the Government for the next three years. Surely that statement should be tested in the House of Commons, in an early debate in Government time.

I will draw that point, and those made in support of it by other hon. Members, to the attention of the Chancellor, and we will consider it.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give time for a debate on the proper implementation of the Electoral Administration Act 2006? As the Minister responsible for piloting that Act during the first half of its journey through Parliament, she will be aware that one of its key elements was door-to-door canvassing to increase voter registration. Advice given by the Electoral Commission to electoral registration officers in June said that that was not necessary. This matter needs to be fully discussed in Parliament.

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. He has been a champion of ensuring that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the electoral register, so that they get their vote. It is of particular concern to him that those least likely to be on the electoral register are those who live in inner cities, poorer people, younger people, those in rented accommodation and black and Asian people. We cannot have an unequal democracy and, therefore, the electoral register is an important part of democracy, which underpins this House and its legitimacy. I will raise the point about the recommendation against door-to-door canvassing; that was not the intention of the House when we passed the Act. I will get my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to write to him, and place a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.

May we have a debate on the effective use of resources in the health service? I have been trying to discover what lies behind proposals to close Brookfields hospital in my constituency and I have found out that vast amounts of public money are lying unspent in the accounts of strategic health authorities: £960 million last year and a predicted £660 million this year. Surely it makes no sense whatsoever to close hospitals in one part of the country while vast amounts of public money are unspent in other parts.

If the hon. Gentleman wants a response from Health Ministers, and the opportunity to debate and air the issues he has raised, he might consider that a very appropriate subject for a debate in Westminster Hall.

May we have a debate in Government time about the lessons learned from the collapse of Farepak, the Christmas saving company, which happened this week last year? We now know that the Halifax Bank of Scotland and Farepak management met in February of last year because the company was in dire financial straits, but it kept taking money off agents until last October. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the minutes of that meeting should be put into the public domain so that the hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working families can finally learn where their money went?

First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on exposing the scandal of Farepak, alongside that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove). It is a very important issue, and it has led to a tougher regulatory regime to ensure that something similar does not happen in the future. As he says, there are still lessons for those individuals to learn from what happened to Farepak. As he knows, an investigation is being carried out under the powers of the Companies Act. When such an investigation is being carried out, there are technical and complex rules about what is available for publication and what has to remain confidential. We want to be sure that everything that can be published is published, because it is a matter of public interest. I will ask the relevant Minister to ensure that that does happen, and that he writes to hon. Members concerned and places a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.

What has happened to the Senior Salaries Review Body’s report on Members’ salaries, which the Government received before the recess?

The report has been delivered and the Government are considering it. We will publish it, along with our recommendations, and the House will have an opportunity to debate it shortly.

Many people in other parts of the country will be worried about the hospital infection stories emerging from Tunbridge Wells today. I am therefore pleased that there will be a statement. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend encourage her colleagues in the Department of Health to go further and seek positive opportunities to debate what works in controlling hospital infections? For example, Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, based in Derriford hospital, has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and also manages to fulfil other targets.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to her local hospital. It is important to listen to clinicians and others who work in the health service about the way in which we tackle hospital-acquired infection. It is important that we understand the science of hospital-acquired infection and that we listen to patients, who, with their visitors, are the first to complain about dirty facilities in hospitals. The additional use of antibiotics has meant a growing difficulty with tackling hospital-acquired infection once it has taken root. However, I remember complaining that I was not allowed to spend long enough in hospital when I was having my first baby—one was tipped out after a week; it is now 24 hours—and my father, as a doctor, said, “You want to spend as little time as possible in hospital because hospitals always carry a risk of infection.” We are not considering anything new, but the position has become much graver.

As the Leader of the House knows, I had a debate on the EU constitutional treaty referendum in Westminster Hall, where I received a pretty inadequate response from the Minister for Europe. Perhaps we could have a full day’s debate on the subject. One of the reasons that the Prime Minister gave for bottling out of a general election was that polls showed that few people required one. However, poll after poll shows that the vast majority—three quarters of the people of this country—want a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. May we please have a debate on that?

I have friends and relatives who work for Royal Mail as postal workers and on the management side. I am therefore under no illusions about the complexity of the issues involved or the difficulty of the negotiations. Although we had a brief discussion of the matter on a single question earlier this morning, my right hon. and learned Friend must know that it is potentially the most serious industrial dispute of the past 10 years and possibly the past 22 years. On next week’s agenda, we have three Adjournment debates on issues that cannot be considered remotely topical. In view of my right hon. and learned Friend’s express support earlier for more topical questions and debates, will she reconsider the future business so that we can have a debate on the dispute at Royal Mail on the Floor of the House?

My hon. Friend is right that no one doubts the seriousness of the effect of the dispute on those who work in the Post Office, the Post Office as a whole and those who use it. I shall draw his comments to the attention of my fellow Ministers.

Returning to the Leader of the House’s welcome to the “Parliament first” initiative, and given that she inadvertently misled the House when she answered a question from the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), may I invite her to confirm that the Prime Minister was not answering casual questions in Basra, but holding a formal press conference to announce troop reductions? Will she also confirm the number of days that elapsed between that press conference and the return of the House on Monday?

I would simply confirm to hon. Members that I agree that announcements should be made to the House first. However, I also expect hon. Members to understand that, if the House is not sitting, that does not mean that Ministers cannot make announcements, and that they will continue to be made in the recess. I shall focus on ensuring that, when the House is sitting, information is given to the House first.

Regardless of the way in which the statement was made, thousands of service personnel—men and women—will return to their families from Iraq in the near future. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to use her good offices to encourage local authorities and communities to recognise the work of the service personnel when they return, not jingoistically but in a way that acknowledges their valuable contribution to the safety and security of this country?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s important point. The Secretary of State for Defence believes that it is important that we recognise the work of the armed forces and I will draw his attention to my hon. Friend’s comments.

Will the Leader of the House consider making time available for an urgent debate on the worryingly high levels of personal debt, especially among students and graduates, which threatens to undermine future economic stability? Does she agree that such a debate would be especially pertinent in view of the widely differing predictions in the Government’s pre-Budget spending review, which the independent assessors published this week?

The Government are concerned to protect people against unwise borrowing, which they are at risk of being unable to repay. However, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the statements of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about his confidence in future economic stability.

There are persistent rumours in this place about an early prorogation, so there must be plenty of vacant slots into which debates can be inserted. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on a topic of concern to 15,000 people in my constituency, and, indeed, people in every constituency: the 9 million people who suffer from some form of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis? Tomorrow is world arthritis day and it would be appropriate for a Minister in this place to make a statement next week on the steps that the Government are taking to tackle the problems that are associated with the distressing condition, which affects not only elderly people but those across the spectrum of society.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall draw to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of Health. It may well be right to issue a written ministerial statement on national arthritis day.

May we have a clear, unequivocal statement next week on what is and is not allowed in Parliament square? The right hon. and learned Lady knows that her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), informed the House and the Commission—as you will remember, Mr. Speaker—that the legislation that was passed would deal with the eyesores in Parliament square. Yet we now have more of an eyesore than ever.

What is or is not allowed in Parliament square is a matter for the law that has been passed by the House and its independent enforcement by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. If the hon. Gentleman believes that we should change the law, he should present proposals. The issue is raised in the Green Paper entitled “The Governance of Britain”, to which he could respond.

If the Leader of the House is having difficulty with the constitutional position on foot and mouth compensation, may I commend to her a concise—some might say elegant—statement of the law contained in my point of order at column 416 of yesterday’s Hansard?

Will the Leader of the House ensure that, when we have the debate in Opposition time, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will lead for the Government? On Monday, he gave the House the impression that he had no responsibility for Scotland. That is wrong and an error that is making the important topic a political football for the Scottish National party in Edinburgh. The farmers and crofters in my constituency and throughout Scotland need answers before the economic and animal welfare crisis reaches a peak.

We would all agree that all Departments, Government agencies, local government and the devolved Administrations should work to get the best possible deal to support farmers in that difficult situation and avoid its becoming what the hon. Gentleman describes as a party political football. He is right that there will be a debate next week. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be able to respond in the necessary way.

Does the Leader of the House think that it gives a good impression of this place if all the good ideas for debates and statements from Back Benchers in all parts of the House are turned down, so that the House can plan another holiday, shortly after a 10-week recess? Is the image of the House further enhanced by the proposal that MPs should be able to take precedence over other people in queues?

The right hon. Gentleman raises two points. The first is about the availability of time for hon. Members to get topical debates. As he will know, members of the Modernisation Committee under the previous Leader of the House made some proposals, which will be brought forward, that will enable Back Benchers to have more topical questions and topical debates.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of hon. Members and others who use the Palace of Westminster’s facilities. I understand that it was the existing rules that were reissued. We would all agree that when it comes to running for a vote it is important that the lifts should be available to hon. Members. However, in the 21st century, if two human beings are standing next to each other queuing for a sandwich or cup of coffee, it cannot possibly be right that because one of those people is a Member of Parliament, they go first.