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Business of the House

Volume 465: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week. It will include:

Monday 29 October—If necessary consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the UK Borders Bill, followed by a debate on Burma on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, followed, if necessary, by consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 30 October—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments. The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

Colleagues will wish to be aware that business may go beyond the moment of interruption on both days.

I am sure that Members understood all that, but I am aware that the formal way in which business statements are made can be incomprehensible. I hope that the Clerks will not start tearing the hair out of their wigs, but I have already asked the Procedure Committee to consider looking at how we can use plain English, and I hope that in future my statements will be more in humanspeak and less in gobbledegook.

On oral questions, following representations from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I have reflected on their comments and confirm to the House that, following agreement through the usual channels, the Government will bring forward a revised questions rota which is intended to result in better accountability for the larger Departments and, subject to the views of the House today, even greater topicality.

I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has reflected on the issue of the question cycle. It is important that Departments such as the Ministry of Justice are able to have longer than the half hour that is in the current cycle. I thank her for giving us the future business, such as it is at this stage of the Session.

Last week, the Leader of the House told the House that the Government were

“not committed to an equalities Bill for the Queen’s Speech this November”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 965.]

Yet last month she told the media:

“We have promised a new equalities Bill next year”.

Will she make a statement on what exactly is happening with the equalities Bill?

This morning, the Government announced in a written statement that motorway hard shoulders will be used to curb congestion. The Transport Secretary has not come to the House to take questions from hon. Members. Can the Leader of the House confirm that that decision hides cuts to the Government’s motorway widening programme; and when will the Transport Secretary come to the House to explain it?

Yesterday, speaking about the changes to capital gains tax, the Minister for Trade Promotion and Investment, Lord Jones of Birmingham, said that

“medium sized businesses think it is a terrible thing”.

Can we have a debate, in Government time, so that we may decide who is right about capital gains tax—the Chancellor or the Minister?

The Prime Minister said:

“As far as the statement on the constitution is concerned I'm not going to pre-announce what we're going to say to the House of Commons.”

However, we have just had a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice, the details of which were reported by The Guardian this morning. It is now clear that with this Government no spin has become the new spin. Who can trust the Prime Minister on the constitution? He abused his constitutional position by planning and then bottling a general election for party political reasons. Can we have a full debate, in Government time, on the Prime Minister's abuse of the constitution?

Cancelling a general election for party political purposes is cynical; making a mess of the Scottish elections for partisan reasons is unforgivable. The Gould report says that

“party self-interest was evident in ministerial decision making”.

Will the Secretary of State for International Development come to the House to apologise and make a personal statement? One experienced parliamentarian has said that

“we have to approach change in electoral administration and systems on a non-party basis.”

That was the Leader of the House herself. Will she arrange a debate, in Government time, on the lessons of the Gould report?

Democracy and electoral processes will undoubtedly be raised in next week’s important debate on Burma. Who will be speaking for the Government in that debate—the Foreign Secretary or the International Development Secretary?

The British population will increase to over 70 million by 2031, and at least 70 per cent. of that increase will be down to immigration. What is the Government’s big idea on immigration? They borrow British National party slogans such as “British jobs for British workers”—even though everyone knows that that would be illegal. Can we have a debate, in Government time, on Labour’s failed immigration policy?

The issues tell a bigger story. We have a Prime Minister with no long-term vision, just short-term tactics, and no serious answers, just spin. He spent a lifetime working to get to No. 10, but now he has got there, he has no idea what to do.

The first point that the right hon. Lady asked me about concerned the equality Bill. I very much welcome her new interest in equality, particularly on the question of equal pay. However, I remember that she voted against what was, in itself, the biggest contribution to narrowing the pay gap between women and men: the minimum wage. Nevertheless, I welcome her commitment to equality.

As far as the Bill is concerned, the original plan was to issue a consultation and following that to publish a draft Bill this spring for inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of November 2008. Following the response to the consultation, a number of proposals have been made that we think are worthy of consideration in order to improve the Bill. As I told the right hon. Lady previously, we want to keep our slot for a new equality Bill, fit for the 21st century, in 2008. It might not be possible to publish the whole Bill in draft, but we would seek to publish some draft clauses. I attended a reception at the TUC in September—the House was not sitting at the time—where I gave that answer to a question about our response to the consultation on the equality Bill. If the House had been sitting, I would have taken the opportunity to come to the House to make that point.

The right hon. Lady asked about motorway hard shoulders. There was a written ministerial statement on that, and I am not aware of any request for an urgent question from hon. Members, but there will be Transport questions in the future—[Interruption.] I apologise; an urgent question was requested, but not accepted.

The right hon. Lady asked about capital gains tax. There is an opportunity during consideration of the Queen’s Speech for the Opposition to choose the subjects for whole-day debates. I have no doubt that the economy will be one of them, and hon. Members can revisit those issues.

The right hon. Lady accused the Secretary of State for Justice and the Prime Minister of briefing the newspapers before the statement given by the Secretary of State. The information that was new in the Secretary of State’s statement was first announced in this House, but a lot of the information discussed in the papers this morning was in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, which had already been given to the House by the Prime Minister in July. That information was already in the public domain. Although we can discuss things already in the public domain in the newspapers, if Ministers have new information, I regard it as important that they bring it in a statement to this House. As I understand it, that is what the Secretary of State for Justice did today.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the Scottish elections. It is deeply regrettable that 150,000 or so people did not have their vote counted in those elections. The point is that everyone should have a vote and we have always wanted to increase the turnout from its diminishing level. One of the reasons why proportional systems, which operate in the European elections, and in London, Wales and Scotland, were introduced was the belief that it might increase turnout, based on the argument that every vote counted for more. As we have seen, the reality is that it makes the system more complex.

I remind the House that in the 2004 London elections, 220,000 votes were ruled out because we had the European, the Greater London authority and the mayoral elections on the same day. We tried to have a perfectly fair system for each election, but the result was too much complexity. The Electoral Commission is on hand to deal with the matter, and we established that independent commission to assist with election questions when we came into government. However, the question of how the new electoral systems are knitting together is the subject of a review that is being led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

On the question of Burma, I am sure that the House will welcome the fact that a Minister in the Foreign Office has been in talks in the region, in Singapore on Monday, and with Chinese and Indian Ministers in Tonga, so work is going ahead—[Hon. Members: “Who is the Minister?”] I shall get to that in a moment. I know that the matter is very important, and I wanted to report to the House the work of Ministers on the important question of Burma. We hope that it is a sign of progress that Aung San Suu Kyi has been called for talks by the Burmese authorities, and the Foreign Office are still considering who will lead an important debate on the matter on Monday.

As far as Labour’s immigration policy is concerned. I will repeat what I have said before. This country was built on successive waves of immigration. No doubt, many Members would not be in this House if it were not for immigration, and I am sure that they play a very important role in this country. If they want to debate the issues further, they can raise them on the occasion of the Queen’s Speech debate.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Government have for several months had the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body. Can she let the House know when it is likely to be published and when it is likely to be considered by the House?

I can say that it will be very shortly. I know that the question of pay and the important support services for Members that enable us to do our job properly are of concern to the House. We will publish the Government’s response at the same time as the SSRB report, enabling the House to debate it very shortly thereafter.

The Leader of the House’s announcement about plain English statements and a new timetable for questions is welcome. I assume that there will be a chance over a year to consider how the latter works. I hope that there is a case for doing the one thing that, despite her best efforts, she has been unable to achieve: ensuring that the Department for International Development has a full slot like the other major Departments. I am sure that that would be popular and welcome and I hope that we can do it as soon as possible.

May I join the calls that hon. Members of all parties made yesterday and that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made today for the earliest possible debate about elections in the United Kingdom? The Gould report contained the telling phrase

“a notable level of party self interest”—

Indeed. However, we also have the report that the Leader of the House mentioned, which has been completed in the Ministry of Justice and reviews all the elections in recent years. May I urge giving serious consideration to ending the real mischief, which is holding elections for different levels of government throughout the country on the same day? That means that people do not vote on the issues that are relevant to the various authorities. We are desperately keen to get quick rather than accurate results. There is no public support for counting by machine, when people cannot see what is going on. People prefer counting by individuals, which means that people can see what is happening. Ultimately, somebody has to take responsibility for elections.

The Leader of the House mentioned justice issues for debate. I ask her to put two items on the agenda as soon as possible. The first is prisons. We now learn that some prisons are dedicated entirely to foreign prisoners, yet in other prisons, there are many people suffering from mental illness who should not be in prison. We must put prison issues on top of the political agenda.

Secondly, tribunals in this country are now full of people—for example, female local government workers pursuing equal pay cases—but we cannot have group actions, which would resolve many individual issues at the same time.

I asked the Leader of the House a written question, as I said I would, about the draft legislative programme and the consultation that has taken place on it. I know that she cannot tell us today what changes the consultation has brought about, but, given that the Government published a draft legislative programme for the Queen’s Speech and then consulted, are any changes likely as a result of responses to the consultation, or was the consultation simply a presentation exercise—spin rather than substance?

We will keep the rota of questions under review after we have changed it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned elections in the UK. It is in the interests of all hon. Members to get everybody who is entitled to vote on the electoral register. Currently, 3 million to 4 million people do not get a chance to cast their vote because they are not on the electoral register. It is also in our interests to ensure that all those on the register vote. A high percentage of people voting gives legitimacy to institutions. That should be our only interest in UK elections when we legislate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned different levels of elections—European elections, local elections, Scottish or Welsh elections—on the same day. The reason for holding them on the same day is to increase turnout—there is concern about low turnout in some important local elections. There is a balance to be struck. Is it best to hold several elections on the same day, with people perhaps not distinguishing between the responsibility of the different tiers of government, or to have chronically low turnout? We must reflect on those matters.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about counting by machine. Extensive piloting of machine counting has taken place. Obviously, we must keep all those issues under review. He asked who takes responsibility for the elections. Hon. Members of all parties are responsible for legislation on elections. The Electoral Commission has independent responsibility, and all parties have a responsibility to work together to improve the position.

The hon. Gentleman asked about accountability and scrutiny of prisons. I agree—I am sure that that applies to all hon. Members—that that is an important issue. One of the improvements that he and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) proposed for our rota of questions is that the Justice Ministry, which is now responsible for prisons, should have an hour’s Question Time instead of half an hour, which is clearly inadequate given the importance of prisons as well other Ministry of Justice issues.

The hon. Gentleman asked about group actions on equal pay. Several organisations—women’s organisations and trade unions—raised that in response to our consultation and we are reflecting on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be changes in the draft legislative programme as a result of our publishing it in advance. As I acknowledged at the time, publication was very late in the day in the context of the gestation of the Government’s legislative programme. The new Prime Minister did not make the decision—

Well, just listen. A new Prime Minister took office in June and the decision was then made to publish the draft legislative programme. Hon. Members know that an awful lot of a draft legislative programme that is to be presented to the House in November is pretty finalised, as one would expect. [Interruption.] It is the Government’s legislative programme. Next year, we intend to go beyond simply conducting an exercise in transparency—hon. Members should bear it in mind that the draft legislative programme would be secret until November had we not changed the position in July. We also had a chance to debate it in July. We hope that, next year, we will publish the draft legislative programme earlier so that there is a genuine opportunity for people to influence the outcome and propose Bills that they want. There is a big demand for people to be more engaged in the contents of our draft legislative programme. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will set aside his cynicism for a moment and agree that it is a good idea to be more transparent and have more consultation. We are striving to achieve that.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend read early-day motion 2175 in my name and those of several other hon. Members?

[That this House expresses its disgust at and condemnation of, Mobile Connections of Bordesley Green, Birmingham, which has cheated a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton out of hundreds of pounds and has failed to answer a series of letters, over a period of months, from the right hon. Member; and calls on potential customers to have nothing to do with this dishonest organisation.]

It condemns and expresses disgust at the theft by an organisation called Mobile Connections of Bordesley Green, Birmingham of hundreds of pounds from a constituent of mine. Will my right hon. and learned Friend provide time for a debate on the matter? Will she also ask the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to draw the matter to the attention of the director general of fair trading?

I will certainly do what my right hon. Friend asks on that important issue and draw it to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

May we have an early debate in Government time on the appalling state of the roads and the rip-off of the motorist? Now that taxes on petrol are more than 60p a litre and we are told that we may have to use the hard shoulder because the Government have not provided enough road space, surely the crisis is urgent enough for even this Government to believe that we need a proper debate to explore positive options to get more capacity on our road system.

Spending on roads has increased by 62 per cent. since the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was part left office and we came in. As I understand it, the use of the hard shoulder is about better use of the road space that we already have.

As part of Inside Justice week, a group of children from Adswood primary school in my constituency are visiting a local magistrates court, where they will have the opportunity to participate in a mock trial, question the judge and pass sentence. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is an excellent way of involving children in understanding the justice system and that it should be open to all children? Will she also make time for a debate on the subject?

I will bring that to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Justice. I commend the work that is being done in my hon. Friend’s Stockport constituency on Inside Justice week. I hope that many of those young people will end up in court again as magistrates.

I was always opposed to householders being charged extra for putting rubbish out depending on its weight. However, we understand that the Government junked that idea last night. Ribble Valley council, along with many others that have been rolling out wheelie bins for recycling, were encouraged by the Government to put chips in those bins at an extra cost of thousands of pounds. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to make an oral statement next week to announce the Government’s position and, if the idea has been junked, thereby making the chips possibly the biggest piece of rubbish in the bins, to say what compensation will be made available to local authorities that have put chips in bins?

I thought that the Conservative party was the newly greened party and was concerned about waste. I would therefore have expected Conservative Members to join positively in the discussions taking place nationally, locally and among members of the public on how to ensure that we collect waste effectively and generate less of it.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Kent county council has decided to spend £600,000 on its own TV channel, while putting up home care charges for older people in order to raise £600,000? There is no greater supporter of devolution to local councils than I, but should we not have a debate, so that we can expose how Tory councils abuse those powers?

Heavens above! In the olden days that used to be known as propaganda on the rates. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue, which I will bring to the attention of colleagues in government.

Does the Leader of the House not see that we have been shamefully late in having a debate on Burma, which has sent completely the wrong message to the dreadful military Government there? Her saying that the Foreign Secretary might not necessarily lead the forthcoming debate would send an even worse message. Will she therefore rethink her previous answer and assure us that the Foreign Secretary will be present, as the shadow Foreign Secretary will be?

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not welcome the fact that the House is debating Burma in Government time, bearing in mind the terrible events that have taken place there. He will know that the Foreign Secretary has duties that he must carry out in different parts of the world, including at the United Nations. He has responsibilities to the House, too, which he is well aware of, but I assure hon. Members that we will have an important debate, with information coming forth from the Government and an opportunity for all hon. Members to participate.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel that it might be useful to have a debate on the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which, with a great deal of help from her, was finally given Royal Assent at the end of last Session? Given that the measure received all-party support, which I very much appreciate, it is unfortunate that the press gave it hardly any coverage. The very people who could be protected by that measure through injunctions therefore know nothing of it, and it will not be used until we can get some publicity for it.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will bring to the attention of my hon. Friends dealing with questions of justice. If people do not know about their rights, they cannot be protected. People do not know that Bills have received Royal Assent. We must do more to bring such important pieces of legislation to the attention of the people whom they are supposed to benefit. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s role in bringing the legislation forward.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the aftermath of the postal strike? Postal services in my part of London are still nowhere near back to normal—that is my experience, the experience of my constituents and the experience of my small businesses, too. It is becoming a serious matter when we are not receiving our post. Can we have an urgent statement, so that the issue can be discussed in this place?

I understand from my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who has just informed me, that the Secretary of State met the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on Monday. We are keen to ensure that the backlog is cleared as soon as possible and that the situation is resolved.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the BBC is central to our democracy? Will she agree to encourage an early debate on the BBC, in view of what is happening? We all believe that the BBC should live within the licence fee, but the way in which cuts are being made and people are being selected suggests that members of staff who ask uncomfortable questions are being made scapegoats and getting fired, whereas people such as Alan Yentob and other senior managers seem to survive whatever happens. The BBC is central; it is a wonderful institution. At least it cannot be bought by Lord Ashcroft, as he has bought the Conservative party. Can we ensure that we have an early debate on what is happening in the BBC?

My hon. Friend is right that the BBC is central and important in our democracy. The issue has not had the importance in the House that it perhaps should have. That is one of the reasons why it has been agreed throughout the House that we should increase the time for Culture, Media and Sport questions to 50 minutes.

As we enter the season when the Government will be making statements on the financial settlements for many organisations, I understand that there might be a radical reform of the formula to determine police funding, which could particularly affect Welsh police authorities. There is a statutory consultation document out, but the Welsh police authorities have not received copies and have had to ask for it. Will the Leader of the House therefore gently remind her colleagues in the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government that although policing, and police funding in particular, is a reserved matter for Westminster, the Welsh police authorities want to be involved in that consultation? May we also have a pre-settlement statement on the change of the formula, so that hon. Members can be involved, rather than just reacting to the settlement?

Loughton parish council in my constituency has been forced to hold a parish poll on the subject of an EU referendum—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—by just 10 electors, spearheaded by a local Conservative councillor who seems to be strangely close to UKIP. The poll will cost £1,000, which is 10 per cent. of the parish council’s budget, which would otherwise be used to improve life for people. Both the parish council and the National Association of Local Councils are extremely concerned about the hijacking of parish councils for party political purposes. Could we look seriously at amending the Local Government Act 1972 with urgency, to prevent parishes throughout the country from seeing their funds diverted to a purpose that is wholly outside their purview?

I will certainly ask my hon. Friends to look into that question. Spending by parish councils is supposed to be limited to parish affairs. I remind hon. Members that it is we in this House who will be debating and making a decision on whether to ratify the treaty. It will be for hon. Members, no doubt having consulted their constituents, to bring their views to the House and make them known.

For some weeks now, we have been expecting to see on the Order Paper the names of members of the Regional Select Committees, trailed by the Government’s paper in July. Can we take it from the Modernisation Committee’s announcement that it is consulting on this matter that the Government are having second thoughts? Will the Leader of the House confirm that one option would be not to proceed with this misguided proposal?

I think that the House will want us to proceed with the proposal to have greater regional accountability—[Interruption.] The Modernisation Committee will discuss how we can increase regional accountability in the House. When it has concluded its deliberations, it will make proposals. We remain committed to the principle of regional accountability and we will widely discuss the precise formulation. I hope that all hon. Members will contribute to the consultation.

May we have an early debate on the problem of prostitution, particularly about how we curb demand? There are 25,000 sex slaves operating in Britain, while brothels and massage parlours are growing in importance. It is a huge industry. Young women of only 12, 14, 16—[Interruption.] I see Conservative Members sniggering about this; they should stop it. Young women of those ages are being beaten up and forced to act as sex slaves. It is more a matter of demand than supply, which we cannot do much about. I have a quote from a 12-year-old from the Balkans, who was beaten up:

“I remember vividly the first time I was with a customer. . . He was in his late sixties and smelt awful. As he crouched over me, his hands groping my body, I felt sick, but there was a guard standing outside the room, so I couldn’t escape.”

That is happening in 21st century Britain, and unless we curb demand and make men accept their responsibility for the cruelties they impose on women, it will get a lot worse. We need an urgent debate. Britain must rid itself of this foul and evil trade.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work in this area. This modern-day slavery is a new and evil trade that is emerging in this country, which is one reason why we need to work closely with our European partners. This vile trade is not only going on as my right hon. Friend describes, but is being advertised on the back pages of local newspapers—even local family newspapers—which read, “new girls in every week”, “new girls from eastern Europe, from Africa, from south-east Asia” and so forth. That is advertising slavery and I will meet the Newspaper Society next week to discuss how it can play a part in curbing this evil trade.

As it is international brain tumour awareness week and supporters in several countries across the world have covered twice the circumference of the globe in undertaking fundraising sponsored walks on its behalf, may we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House as a matter of urgency? No fewer than 16,000 people are diagnosed with brain tumours each year, yet survival rates have not risen in line with those for other cancers and the brain tumour research community benefits from only a tiny proportion of the resources available to Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council. Is it not time that we considered how we can do better in the interests of helping those thousands of people who have suffered far too much for far too long with far too little done to help them?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point, as will hon. Members throughout the House. I am pleased to have the opportunity to congratulate all the organisations that are working together as part of brain tumour awareness week as well as throughout the year. I also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s support for those organisations.

Pursuant to the question asked by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), my county of Leicestershire suffers more than most from the need to landfill for domestic waste, for instance, which runs at a total of 28 million tonnes nationally, including 3,000 million disposable nappies and vast amounts of excessive product packaging. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether a statement can be made or a debate organised on how to drive up recycling and composting rates, which have stalled at 25 to 26 per cent.? We could probably achieve a national standard for recycling information to be printed on product packaging. We could also work with the Nappy Alliance to promote reusable nappies, which would make a significant contribution.

I will draw my hon. Friend’s points to the attention of my fellow Ministers. I believe that every point that my hon. Friend made was absolutely spot on.

May we have a further clarifying statement on the report into the shambles of this year’s Scottish elections? On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Scotland said that he was minded to accept some of the Gould report’s recommendations, but yesterday the Prime Minister gave the clear impression that he had accepted all the recommendations. What is the Government’s response to the Gould report, and when will the Secretary of State for International Development come before the House to explain his role in this shambles?

We had a statement on the Gould report on Tuesday. As and when specific proposals for action come forward, they will be reported to the House. The same applies to the general question of how we ensure a fair voting system, but one that is not so complex that people find it hard to understand.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, and now that 7.75 million babies have been aborted in this country, is the Leader of the House able to state whether, when the human tissue and embryo Bill comes before the House, it will be possible to move an amendment to reduce the number of weeks within which an abortion may take place, which would enable the views of the House to be heard on the matter?

The issue of what amendments are tabled is a matter for Members and the issue of which amendments are selected is a matter for Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Science and Technology Committee is conducting an important inquiry into this issue. I believe that the most important consideration is to avoid unwanted pregnancies through good sex education, good and available contraception and aspiration among young girls. It is often said that the best contraception is aspiration—and responsibility among boys and young men, as this is not just an issue for young girls. It is exceptionally important that where a termination is necessary, it happens as early as possible. I pay tribute to the doctors, nurses and voluntary organisations that provide important services to women who do not want to have to seek an abortion and do not want a termination, but find that that is the best choice in the circumstances.

As Remembrance day draws near, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the work of the Royal British Legion, particularly its honour the covenant campaign? Such a debate would allow hon. Members to pay tribute to the Legion’s work across our constituencies and to express our support for the campaign. It would also provide an opportunity for the Government to explain what they are doing to ensure that the aims of the covenant are met.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s points and I will bring them to the attention of my ministerial colleagues. We introduced veterans day and we strongly support the work of the Royal British Legion.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Light Dragoons, 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment and 1st Battalion the Sherwood Foresters have just returned from Afghanistan, with more than 30 dead and several hundred wounded. May we have a debate on coroners’ inquiries and the speed at which they are conducted, so that we can help to draw the mourning of the families and loved ones to a close?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. We pay tribute in the House every time one of our soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan dies. However, the coroner system is not yet able promptly to answer the questions of bereaved relatives. We have included in our draft legislative programme a coroners Bill so that we can ensure that we treat bereaved relatives properly and provide them with answers to their questions.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the inadequacies of private insurance cover for members of the armed services? Last week I visited my constituent, Corporal Ryan Knight, who sustained devastating injuries to his arm, leg and pelvis when he was blown up by a bomb in Afghanistan. He is now confined to a wheelchair. His insurance company, PAX—which provides insurance for some 58,000 members of the armed services—is refusing to pay up for his shattered pelvis on the grounds that it does not cover pelvises. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that appears to be outrageous behaviour by the insurance company, and may we have a debate so that we can air the subject more widely?

When people who have paid their insurance premiums expecting to obtain cover find, when they need to make a claim, that small print denies them the cover they feel they have bought, it causes no end of agony and grief. My hon. Friend will know that the Secretary of State for Defence recently announced an increase in MOD compensation. However, he has made an important point about private insurance companies, which I shall bring to the attention of my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Will the Leader of the House look into the operation of the named day questions system? I understood that when the maximum number of questions allowed was reduced to five per day, the other half of the contract was that the Ministries concerned would make serious efforts to answer them on the named day. Nevertheless, I usually add a bit of extra time.

When Parliament resumed on 8 October, I was astonished to receive a holding answer to three fairly straightforward questions about the Royal Navy that I had tabled on 26 July. When I tabled another question asking why that had happened, the Minister for the Armed Forces replied:

“The answers were delayed as my weekend ministerial box was not delivered to the office until 9 October as a result of the postal strike.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 766W.]

Does that mean that questions do not get anywhere near Ministers until the last day or two of a 10-week recess? And what are ministerial boxes doing in the postal system?

I will look into the important points raised by the hon. Gentleman, write to him and place a copy of my letter in the Library. We all want questions to be answered promptly and clearly, and not after a delay of months.

I submitted a request for a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate next week on the important subject of tackling fuel poverty. I note that, although business has been announced for next Tuesday, there are to be no Westminster Hall debates on that day. If that remains the case, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that a debate on the subject is held early in the new Session? It is an issue on which important decisions ought to be made by the industry and the regulator before the winter sets in. I am sure that the House would like an opportunity to discuss it early in the Session, not some time after Christmas.

I will reflect on my hon. Friend’s comments, and bring them to the attention of my ministerial colleagues. Although we have done a huge amount to tackle fuel poverty, we want to make fuel poverty history.

Is it possible for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House and explain why, nearly two years after the Buncefield explosion, a report on the explosion has still not been made public and an inquiry is still taking place behind closed doors? The local authority is under huge pressure from oil companies such as BP to allow the terminal to reopen before we know the inquiry’s conclusions, which is of grave concern to my constituents. We have done without the terminal for two years; surely the oil companies could wait a little longer for the conclusions before putting pressure on local authorities.

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

I know that the Leader of the House shares the view that statements to the House should be accurate. On 26 July, the Prime Minister made a machinery of government statement about the Government Equalities Office, in which he announced that the Leader of the House would become Secretary of State for Equality and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), would become Under-Secretary of State for Equality. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether that is still the case? According to the list of ministerial responsibilities that has just been published, she does not appear to be Secretary of State for Equality and the hon. Member for Stevenage does not appear to have any responsibilities at the DWP. Is the Prime Minister’s statement accurate, or do Members need an update?

I can bring the House fully up to date. I am the Minister in the Cabinet responsible for women and equalities, and in that capacity I am responsible for the Government Equalities Office. I am supported by my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), and an excellent deputy she is. The hon. Gentleman will know that I am fully committed to such issues, and I am sure he will feel that everything is well in hand.

May I support the call from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for a debate on immigration, particularly in relation to housing? Of the 3 million houses that the Government have announced will be built before 2020, over 1 million—on their own admission—will be for future immigrants. It was recently announced that my local authority in Bradford has been told to build 50,000 new houses over the next few years by an unelected and unaccountable body, which means that if my constituents do not like it they can do nothing about it. It is all the more galling that much of the new housing is required because the Government cannot control immigration properly. May we have a debate on an issue that is very important to my constituents?

The question of migration into this country is important to everyone, including all hon. Members. Let me reiterate, however, that the country has been built on successive waves of migration. I do not know when the hon. Gentleman’s family came to this country, but many other Members’ parents were immigrants.

Hon. Members can raise these issues in Home Office questions and during deliberations on the Queen’s Speech. In fact, there are many occasions on which the issues can be raised.

This Government have closed more post offices more quickly than any other Government in history. They have now ordered the closure of another 2,500, including those in Hollym, Lockington, Mappleton and Grovehill road in my constituency. May we have an urgent debate on the impact on local communities of the Government’s continuing post office closure programme?

The Government have done no such ordering. This is a question for the Post Office, and has been subject to consultation.

My right hon. and learned Friend has been very active during Black History month. As we approach the end of Black History month, and the end of a year in which we have commemorated the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, will she ensure that we have a debate on how and when we will implement an annual slavery memorial day?

I will reflect on the points that my hon. Friend has raised. I give my full support to the important work that has been done during Black History month. Next week we shall hold a reception for black and Asian women councillors, of whom there are only about 178 in local authorities in this country. To be fully representative, there would have to be 1,000. There is still under-representation here as well as discrimination, but Black History month allows us to celebrate the contribution of black and Asian people to the country and to ensure that there is proper equality.