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Business of the House

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

The business for the week commencing 10 December will be as follows:

Monday 10 December—Second Reading of the Planning Bill.

Tuesday 11 December—It is expected that there will be an oral statement on the children’s plan, followed by a general debate on European affairs.

Wednesday 12 December—Opposition Day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Northern Rock and the Banking System”, followed by a debate entitled “The Military Covenant”. Both debates arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.

Thursday 13 December—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Crossrail Bill.

Friday 14 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 17 December will be:

Monday 17 December—It is expected that there will be an oral statement following the European Council, followed by Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Tuesday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

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

Later today, the Monetary Policy Committee will decide whether to reduce interest rates—

Now, as we speak. There is serious concern about the property market in the context of an economic slowdown and problems in the banking industry, so can next week’s topical debate be on the housing market?

Back in July, the Prime Minister told the House:

“we seek…an all-party consensus on…new provisions for pre-charge detention”—[Official Report, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 843.]

that is, the 28-day issue. Yet without any consensus, the Home Secretary has leaked her plans to the media and released a paragraph-long excuse for a written statement. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty says:

“It seems more like politics than policy-making”.

Why has the Home Secretary not come to the House to make a proper oral statement so that Members can question her on her policy? Every week, the Leader of the House tells us that she puts Parliament first; every week her colleagues treat Parliament with disdain.

The European Parliament has ruled that the United Kingdom is entitled to one more MEP. On the numbers, that seat should go to the west midlands, but it is rumoured that the Prime Minister wants to give it to Scotland for party political reasons. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the decision concerning which region gets the extra seat is based on fair representation, not party political calculation?

Dave Hartnett, the acting chairman of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, yesterday accepted that the recent data breaches

“indicate a wide systematic failure”.

There have been seven HMRC security breaches “of some significance” in the last two and a half years, but the Chancellor and the Prime Minister continue to hide behind their claim that there is no systematic failure. Why will they not take responsibility and get a grip? Will the Chancellor come back to the House to make a new statement in light of this new information?

While Labour politicians debate ditching the national anthem and changing the Union flag, the Prime Minister is about to break his manifesto promise and sign us up to the renamed European constitution, without a referendum. May I add my support to the European Scrutiny Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), a Labour Member? The Committee says that

“the matters raised should be debated on the Floor of the House before the Treaty is signed…we therefore hold the document under scrutiny”.

May we have a debate, in Government time, specifically on the treaty? Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady said that she wants to

“reform and improve European scrutiny”.—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 444.]

She can make a start here.

Finally, it was reported this morning that Labour officials helped David Abrahams draw up covenants to hide his donations. Since the right hon. and learned Lady’s performance last week, we have found out that she failed to declare a £40,000 loan to the Electoral Commission. However, she told the House that she

“acted at all times within both the letter and the spirit of the law.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 435.]

I ask her again: when will she come to the House to make a full statement about her conduct and the lawbreaking in the Labour party?

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the housing market. She will know that we are concerned that there should be more affordable housing to rent and buy. That is why we have introduced a Bill on housing that will increase the supply of housing for families who need it. I look forward to her supporting that Bill, and to all hon. Members ensuring that their housing supply can be improved in their local authorities. She also mentioned interest rates. She knows that under this Government interest rates have been kept low and stable, whereas under her Government they rose to 15 per cent. and people lost their homes because of negative equity.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the written ministerial statement that the Home Secretary issued to the House this morning, and the letter that she sent to the Home Affairs Committee. She knows that the Government’s position remains that we are concerned to ensure the security of people in this country. That is absolutely essential. We are also concerned to ensure civil liberties and appropriate safeguards for everybody in this country. We are seeking an all-party consensus and we are having talks in order to reach agreement so that we can protect safety and ensure civil liberties.

When the hon. Lady raises this question—[Hon. Members: “Right hon. Lady.”] I am sorry. When the right hon. Lady raises the question, it strikes me that whatever we propose and whatever this House legislates about, defendants and subjects have the protection of the Human Rights Act; but if the Conservative party were in government, they would abolish it. The House awaits the Select Committee’s report.

The right hon. Lady mentioned a number of issues about the European Parliament and European affairs. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is having discussions on how we can do what we all agree we need to do: improve the scrutiny of European affairs. Indeed, the right hon. Lady has put forward 10 suggestions to that effect, and my hon. Friend has said that she has considered them and they are not all mad. [Laughter.]

Some of them are useful contributions to the debate, and I thank her for that.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned party funding. I answered questions about that at business questions last week, the House considered it during an Opposition day debate on Tuesday, the Prime Minister answered questions about it on Wednesday and the House had a further opportunity to discuss it during a debate on standards in public life yesterday. We have had a great deal of discussion in this House, but we are yet to see the Tories returning to all-party talks, and I hope that they will do so now.

May we have a debate in this House on the report from Energywatch that shows that people who use prepayment meters spend on average £195 a year more than those who pay by direct debit? That is an attack on poor people.

It is topical; people cannot afford their heating when it gets colder. I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate, and I thank my hon. Friend for making it.

I start by returning to the issue of detention without charge. Given the huge importance of the issue, and the clear opposition of Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party, many Members in the Labour party and other parties, the previous Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith, the Director of Public Prosecutions and Lord West, the Minister responsible for security—until he was sat on—will the Leader of the House insist that the Home Secretary comes to the House on Monday to make the oral statement that this issue merits? A written statement attached to documents in the Library that are complex as well as controversial is not an appropriate way for the Leader of the House to honour her obligation to the House; she said that Ministers would report to the House first and answer questions. She must insist that the Home Secretary does so.

On a linked civil liberties issue, when will we have a debate on identity cards? Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said yesterday in front of the Justice Committee:

“Keeping this massive database with records of every time the card is swiped through a terminal is distinctly unattractive and would increase the risks.”

Surely the subject of identity cards, and the nonsensical Government policy of pursuing them, is appropriate for a Government debate or a topical one between now and the end of term.

Given that the Information Commissioner also told the Justice Committee that, in the wake of the loss of 25 million names of benefit recipients and their families,

“It is important that the law is changed to make security breaches of this magnitude a criminal offence”,

may we have a debate on the legal implications of the use and misuse of information? In particular, can the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions explain whether the same principles apply to Ministers for revealing information about funds as apply to the tens of thousands of people who are prosecuted by the Department for Work and Pensions for not declaring sums that they have received and who are convicted in the courts up and down the land?

Lastly, may we have a debate soon—and then annually—on the relative position of Britain among the 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries? We recently came bottom in the league table of childhood happiness. We have been reported as dropping from seventh to 17th in our reading ability and from eighth to 24th in our maths ability. With 148 out of every 100,000 people in prison, we have the highest number of people in prison in the whole of western Europe. Why is it that on so many different occasions and different subjects Britain is now gaining the reputation of being one of the failing states of western Europe?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of the Home Secretary’s giving information about a further proposal for consideration to deal with extended detention. If I think that information that should have been announced first to the House has been announced on “Today” and has then been the subject of an oral statement, or if major policy has been announced without reference to the House, I will not accept that situation. That is my commitment. However, on this occasion I do not think that it would have been right for me to say to the Home Secretary, “Come to the House and make an oral statement.” No hon. Member tabled an urgent question, so clearly no one else in the House thought that there should be an oral statement. She has produced a written memorandum to the Select Committee and a written ministerial statement. The Home Secretary is very forthcoming to the House on these issues. She is a respecter of the House. She is not a spinner. She answers questions, and therefore I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that she has not respected the House and that I, as Leader of the House, should suggest that she come here. I simply do not accept that.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about identity cards and asked for them to be chosen as a topic for debate. His party has just chosen two topics for debate next week. Neither is identity cards: one is Northern Rock while the other is the military. Yesterday, there was a debate on identity in Westminster Hall—

Indeed it was. The House has opportunities to discuss that important issue.

The hon. Gentleman then launched off on to our being a failing state for children. My constituency is in the same borough as his, and is its neighbour. He will know, as all hon. Members do, of the huge change that there has been in the investment in children’s education. He will know that every secondary school and primary school has had capital investment. He will know that there are 40,000 extra teachers and 100,000 extra teaching assistants. He will know that there are more nursery places for children and that more young people go into further and higher education. He will know that we are moving on to increase the education leaving age from 16 to 18. I do not know on which planet he is living when he says that there is a failing state for children. The Government have made children and education a priority and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman listens to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families when he sets out the children plan in the House next week.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and the Prime Minister on the announcement that was made earlier today about a badge for land army girls. That is something that I have felt very passionate about. After the Bevin boys were rewarded, it was only right that the women who worked so hard during the war to keep the home fires burning and everybody fed should be honoured in the same way.

The whole House should recognise and pay tribute to the efforts of my hon. Friend, without whom that would not have happened. It was right that she brought the subject to the attention of the House and relevant Ministers and that she insisted and argued cogently that the efforts of the members of the Women’s Land Army should be recognised, just as those of the Bevin boys have been. Justice has been done because of her efforts, and I want to thank her.

When does the Leader of the House intend to come to the House to make public the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body? The Government have had the report for more than six months. Members’ pay—I am concerned about hon. Members in all parties—is falling further and further behind. Is it not time that the Government came to the House, presented the report and allowed the House to debate the recommendations?

It is St. Nicholas’s day today, so I was expecting the hon. Gentleman to get to his feet. We will bring forward the debate for discussion, but I cannot say that it will be debated before Christmas.

May we have a debate on the plight of the Palestinians, particularly regarding the new middle east peace initiatives?

I know that that is a priority for the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. I shall take that as a suggestion for a topical debate; the whole House is concerned about it.

Will the Leader of the House find time at an early date for a debate on an issue that those directly concerned find the most important of all, namely the availability of the drug Alimta for the treatment of mesothelioma? Is the Leader of the House aware that the drug has been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and is available through some primary care trusts, but not through others who have taken legal action to prevent the requirement that they should use it? Does she agree that the debate might allow opinion from both sides of the House to bring pressure to bear so that the intolerable situation can be drawn to a conclusion?

I will bring the question that the hon. Gentleman has raised to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. There will be Health questions before Christmas, so I shall give my right hon. Friend notice and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can seek to raise that point then.

Further to the helpful answer that my right hon. and learned Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about the potential for a topical debate on the differential between the charge for those who pay for gas and electricity by direct debit and the higher charge for those who pay by other means, which is effectively a tax on the poor, will she add to that debate the need for the same consideration of telephone charges? Those who do not pay by direct debit can be charged up to £15 more. In the modern world, although the situation is not exactly the same as that for gas and electricity, the telephone is now a vital service for many people, particularly the elderly alone in their homes.

I will take the suggestion for a topical debate. On the question of the higher charges that are paid by those who can least afford them, in order both to stay in touch by using the telephone with standing charges and to buy fuel, my hon. Friend will be aware that we have done a great deal to lift the income of pensioners and families with children. We know that that is still an issue, and I shall bring it forward as a suggestion for consideration for a topical debate.

May we have an early statement from the Home Secretary about her intention to renege on honouring the police pay settlement in full? In it perhaps she could congratulate the Scottish Government, who have made clear their intention to honour the commitment in full and pay the Scottish Police force what they are entitled to. Does that not contrast the difference between the two Governments and suggest why the Scottish National party is 11 points ahead of Labour in Scotland?

I think the House will know that since the Government came into office there are more police than there were before and that they are better paid—and rightly so. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Secretary issued a written ministerial statement on police pay this morning.

Following on from the question that the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) asked about Alimta, I am honoured to have been made patron of the East London Mesothelioma Society. I am proud of that. May we have a topical debate on the cancer reform strategy? We have not yet debated it.

That is a good suggestion for a topical debate. Our cancer plan has meant that mortality rates from cancer have fallen by 17 per cent. However, we all agree that we can do more, through not only treatment and caring for those who have cancer but early detection. The cancer reform plan is determined to do that. I therefore agree that it would be useful to have a debate on it in the House.

The Leader of the House has vital functions in defending Parliament on behalf of Parliament as whole. Does she accept that the European Scrutiny Committee report on the reform treaty is highly critical of the Government? Does she also accept that, as the Chairman of the Committee said last week, the report warrants discussion on a substantive motion on the Floor of the House before the treaty is signed, that the Government are not offering that and that the Leader of the House is therefore in derogation of her duties, which is a disgrace?

There will be a debate before the treaty is signed and a statement afterwards. The hon. Gentleman knows that we will spend many days on the Floor of the House debating the matter—we have set that out in our legislative programme.

I look forward to concluding the institutional changes that are necessary as a result of enlargement. It is important to revert to and stay focused on the agenda of the contribution that our membership of the European Union can make to our economy and our efforts to tackle climate change and transnational crime. I know that many hon. Members want to spend a huge amount of time discussing the structures—I acknowledge that structures are important—but many more people want to discuss the way in which we, as EU members, can improve matters for people in this country and Europe as a whole.

May I ask the Leader of the House to go further on the debate on the European Union on Tuesday? It will be the last time that the House has a chance to discuss issues before the Prime Minister is expected to sign the treaty of Lisbon. Will she ensure that an up-to-date version of the text of the treaty is available to hon. Members on Tuesday because that is the last chance to debate it?

Returning to the detention of terrorist suspects without charge, may we have a debate specifically about the separation of powers? The Home Secretary’s proposal appeared to involve votes by hon. Members effectively on whether individuals should be detained. Frankly, that is repugnant. It smacks of the institutions of the French revolution, such as the Committee of General Security. Is no constitutional principle safe in the Government’s hands?

We want to ensure that people are physically safe from the threat of terrorism. That is what we want to make sure is safe in the Government’s hands. I share Liberal Democrats’ concerns about civil liberties and I want to be sure that proper safeguards exist. However, the absolute bottom line is that we must ensure that we have the right provisions so that people in this country are safe and so that, if terrorists are suspected and arrested, they are not allowed to slip through our hands and perpetrate a terrible crime. I hope that Liberal Democrat Members will join us in acknowledging that. We are all concerned about safeguards and ensuring that the Home Secretary, the judiciary and the House have the right role. All those matters will be discussed.

Could the Leader of the House take it into account that, whenever a request is made to debate MPs’ salaries, it always comes from the Tory side? Most Labour Members believe that you can’t starve on £60,000 a year. If the taxpayer’s money is to be spent wisely, let us use it for such things as free personal care for the elderly in nursing homes. That is much more important than the inflated MPs’ pay that the Tories always demand.

I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution to the debate on the SSRB report when I can present it to the House.

Has the Leader of the House reflected further on choosing subjects for topical debate? It is now clear that the Standing Orders of the House do not place an obligation on her to make the choice. Would it not be fairer if the choice were made by Mr. Speaker or by ballot?

The hon. Gentleman will remember that the Modernisation Committee—[Hon. Members: “Just say no.”] I think I am probably saying no. The Modernisation Committee proposed that some Government time—we are not considering Opposition day debates—should be used to allow the Chamber to discuss issues of topical importance. The Committee suggested that that should be done through the usual channels, although the debates were to be an opportunity for Back Benchers. The Government gave their response and we passed Standing Order No. 24A, which simply provides that the topic will be chosen by the Leader of the House. I issued a written ministerial statement to outline my criteria for subjects for the debates. They are: the subject should be topical; the House has not had an opportunity to debate it; it is a matter of public policy; it is a matter of public concern, and it is of international, national or regional importance.

It is early days. We have had only three topical debates. We need to reflect on the matter in the new year in light of our experience of the debates, and ascertain whether we need to change the process and the Standing Orders.

However, one of my concerns is that the topical debates are supposed to be Back-Bench debates but, because Front Benchers make so many interventions and have many interesting things to say, many Back-Bench colleagues have not been able to speak in the important debates. I therefore want to consider how we ensure that there is more time for Back Benchers in the topical debates.

Norton Hill secondary school in my constituency, under the headship of Peter Beaven, has just had an Ofsted report. The school was deemed outstanding under each of the headings under which it was assessed. That is a highly unique status. However, although schools and pupils throughout the country have attained much better results under a Labour Government in the past 10 years, many pupils, especially those from more modest backgrounds who are in the first generation to go to university, still do not aspire to the very highest and most traditional universities. They avoid applying to, for example, Oxford or Cambridge. May we have an early debate on how to encourage those young people, who are now achieving terrific grades, to aspire to the very highest standards in our land?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I congratulate all those—the head, the teaching team, the parents and pupils—involved in Norton Hill secondary school and acknowledge my hon. Friend’s support for it. However, his comments reflect the revolution in our expectations of the number of young people whom we want to go into further and higher education. The Tories were happy for only a few young people to go on to further and higher education. We believe two things: first, parents want the best for their children; secondly, in a globalised market, our economy needs the children to be the best, so higher education is essential.

Order. Eleven hon. Members are standing. I want to take you all, so let us have one brief supplementary from each hon. Member.

Cyberbullying is of major concern to many people. Several constituents have approached me, expressing anxiety about incidents of happy slapping, which have been uploaded on to the internet. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate on cyberbullying?

I will; and I will also suggest that it would be good for my hon. Friend to contribute to the new guidance on bullying that will be sent to education authorities and all schools, on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is currently consulting.

Should not the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions make a statement next week about the future of Mr. Paul Myners, the chairman of the personal accounts delivery authority, in the light of his controversial remarks on last week’s “Question Time” and, as importantly, the fact that, as we have now learned, he made substantial contributions to the Prime Minister’s leadership election campaign, even though we were told at the time of his appointment that he had made no political donations whatever?

I watched the programme to which the right hon. Gentleman refers and I could not see anything controversial about Paul Myners’s remarks. He said that we had an exceptionally strong economy with steady growth, which was down to the expert management of the Chancellor at the time, who has now turned into a first-rate Prime Minister. I could not see anything about that to disagree with.

May we have a debate on whether people should have to opt out of kidney transplantation, rather than opt in to it? My constituent, Mark Schofield, recently travelled to the Philippines in an attempt to buy a kidney for £40,000, when the one donated by his mother Jean failed. We are now at the stage where 380 people in Wales are waiting for kidney transplants. Could we consider moving the situation forward, to an opt-out rather than an opt-in?

I will draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We all know that transplantation of a donated organ can transform the life of the recipient. We also all know that many people suffer while they are waiting for a transplant or even die before it becomes available. We know, too, that relatives of many people who would be happy to donate their organs often do not receive a request on their behalf. I will bring that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Tuesday morning will be the second anniversary of the Buncefield disaster, which destroyed many parts of my constituency. Sadly, two years on, we have had just one statement, on the Monday immediately after, but not one written or oral statement to the House. We have had planning blight; an inquiry is being held behind closed doors; the water table is contaminated; and now disfigured animals are being born, which the Government’s chief scientist has been informed of. Can we have the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs come here to tell us what is going on in my community and what is going to happen at Buncefield?

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue previously. It is an important issue for his constituency, but it also raises national concerns. I take the points that he has made and will raise them with the relevant Ministers. I will write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library, and hopefully we will see further action on that.

Notwithstanding our Government’s generally good record on animal policy, there is growing public concern that unfinished business remains in areas such as animal husbandry and animals in the laboratory. It is for those reasons that a number of us tabled early-day motion 480 yesterday, on a cross-party basis, which calls for an animal protection commission to drive forward improvements in that area.

[That this House notes the growing body of scientific evidence showing animals to have complex mental and emotional lives; considers all vertebrates and possibly some invertebrates to be conscious, feeling beings with an interest in living, avoiding suffering and experiencing pleasure; acknowledges that each animal has inherent value and is worthy of serious moral consideration; considers respect for animals to be indicative of the level of civilisation; is concerned that policy-making is led by industries that inevitably compromise animals’ welfare and interests, and thus the most essential interests of animals and the public's concern for their protection are given insufficient consideration; endorses the Prime Minister’s call for constitutional reform that entrusts more power to Parliament and the British people’; notes that there is no Government body whose primary purpose is to protect the interests of animals in policy-making; and calls upon the Government to establish an Animal Protection Commission or similar body, answerable to Parliament via a Minister, with a remit which includes the ongoing examination of the ethical status and rights of animals and how they are affected by policy-making, the facilitation of genuine public participation throughout policy processes which affect animals, and the development of a cross-Government agenda for animal protection.]

Could the Leader of the House take this as a submission for a debate on that early-day motion?

We recently had legislation on animal health, and I know that there is concern throughout the House. While we continue to have farming and the opportunity for experimentation on animals for necessary medical research, there is always a concern about animal safety. I will bring my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of my right hon. Friends the relevant Ministers.

One year on from the horrific murders in Ipswich, can we have a debate on what the Government are doing to improve the safety of vulnerable prostitute women?

I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. Ministers across Government are concerned to ensure that women are not vulnerable. Many of the women involved in prostitution are brought here from abroad, and we have raised the issue of human trafficking in the European Council. Also, many of the women on the streets suffer from alcohol or drug abuse and mental health problems. I shall bring the issue to the attention of my hon. Friends, and perhaps the hon. Lady could raise it in a Westminster Hall debate.

Can we have a debate on the recent decision by the Law Lords to deny compensation to victims of asbestos-related disease? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that the Scottish Parliament has committed itself to overturning that decision. I sincerely hope that it is genuine in its endeavours. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that if the Scottish Parliament is successful, the same effort and commitment will be applied throughout the UK for victims of asbestos-related diseases?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s point, particularly on the effect of the recent House of Lords judgment on pleural plaques, which is being studied. We want to do everything that we can not only to prevent people from suffering from industrial disease, but to compensate and support those who have tragically had their lives ruined simply by working in unhealthy workplaces.

When we next consider party funding in this place, will the Leader of the House give consideration to the propriety or otherwise of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s appearance this week at a Labour fundraising event hosted by Deutsche bank, which is a party to the consortium hoping to take over Northern Rock? Does she think that there is a possible conflict of interest in that issue?

I am sure that there is no conflict of interest. The appearance that I would like to see is that of the Conservative party at the all-party talks.

May we have a debate on the provision of post offices here in the Palace of Westminster? Why do pensioners in the villages of Sandsend, Ruswarp and Fyling Thorpe in my constituency have to travel more than 3 miles to a post office, whereas other pensioners such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) have the benefit of three post offices within 100 yd?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which is a concern throughout the House. He will know that up to 2009 there will be £1.7 billion-worth of extra investment in post offices. This is a time of big change in post offices. They are important to local communities, and there was a debate in Westminster Hall either last week or earlier this week, so the issue is constantly debated in the House.

Further to the highly pertinent inquiry from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), may I ask the right hon. and learned Lady why the long-awaited and much delayed report by the Senior Salaries Review Body cannot be published and debated next week? Given that the matter has been raised several times with her, not least on 5 and 26 July, on 11, 18 and 25 October and on 8 and 15 November, by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, including the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), would she concede that it is high time we discuss the matter, that it would be intolerable to slip out the report quietly with Government recommendations during the Christmas recess and that she would of course contemplate doing no such thing?

I would contemplate doing no such thing; the hon. Gentleman can be assured that there will be no slipping out of the report over the Christmas recess. I know that the House is eager to see the proposals and to debate and vote on them, and there will be an opportunity for that in the new year.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the recent local government finance settlement, so that we could discuss two things in particular? One is the severe—

Order. Perhaps I am mistaken, but if the hon. Gentleman is referring to the local government finance settlement, that is the next statement coming up. We have a Minister coming to discuss that matter, and the hon. Gentleman might catch the Deputy Speaker’s eye at that stage. However, perhaps he is talking about something else.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. We are indeed about to get a local government settlement. Can the Leader of the House make special representations in that settlement, so that we secure one that represents all the unfunded items that the Government keep loading on local authorities, which in turn will increase the council tax, which will have a severe impact on some of the poorest in our society? Perhaps the Minister for Local Government, who is standing beside you, Mr. Speaker, will take that into account.

The Leader of the House will know that there has been confusion about the arrangements for the Government Equalities Office. She will also know that I wrote to the Prime Minister about this matter. On 8 November, the Prime Minister replied to say that he would arrange for the Leader of the House to reply to me directly. I know that the right hon. and learned Lady takes the issue of timely correspondence very seriously, but I have yet to have a reply from her. Might she be able to indulge me with a reply before Christmas?

The answer to that is yes. I have received the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence, and he will get a reply this afternoon. In regard to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), I wonder whether he was practising his question before putting it to the relevant Minister.

Mrs. Carter, a lovely lady in my constituency, suffers from spinal stenosis and is in a lot of pain, if not agony, most of the time. She normally goes to Northampton general hospital four times a year for treatment to alleviate the pain. The last time she went was in June, but she has now been told that she cannot go again until the middle of January, although she is suffering in agony. The reason for the change is apparently so that the hospital can see new patients first. With apologies to Mark Twain, would it be possible to have a debate in Government time entitled “ Lies, damned lies and NHS statistics”?

Obviously, it is important that all hospitals and health services have the right processes and give the right priority to patients. The hon. Gentleman has raised a point that should be the subject not of a debate in the House but of a complaint to the relevant trust or local primary care trust. It is a matter for them, rather than for the House. I know that the hon. Gentleman regularly raises questions on the health treatment of his constituents, and I therefore hope that he will strongly back the extra investment that we have put into the health service in his area over the past 10 years.