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Business of the House

Volume 469: debated on Thursday 13 December 2007

The business for the week commencing 17 December will be:

Monday 17 December—There will be a statement on the European Council. There will also be a statement on the Poynter review, followed by Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Tuesday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The business for the week commencing 7 January 2008 will be:

Monday 7 January—Second Reading of the Pensions Bill.

Tuesday 8 January—Opposition Day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 9 January—Remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Thursday 10 January—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.

Friday 11 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 14 January will include:

Monday 14 January—Second Reading of the Education and Skills Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first week back will be:

Thursday 10 January—A debate on the report from the Home Affairs Committee on Police Funding.

Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I extend the warm wishes of all hon. Members to the Clerks of the House, the Officers of the House, the catering team, the cleaners, the police, the doorkeepers and all who keep the House running smoothly? A happy Christmas to one and all.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. I should like to join her in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, all the staff in the House who provide us with support and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

The right hon. and learned Lady said that there would be a debate on the armed forces on Thursday 10 January, but, given the topical debate on that day, we will have less than half a day for that important subject. It seems that we will now have a part-time debate for a part-time Secretary of State for Defence. Will she rearrange the business so that we can have a full-time debate on the armed forces?

Last week I suggested that the right hon. and learned Lady should select the housing market as the subject for this week’s topical debate. If she looks at the front pages of today’s newspapers, she will see that it is not only a topical issue, but an extremely worrying one for millions for families. Will she now commit to a debate on the economic slow-down, and the problems in the banking industry and their effects on the housing market?

Last weekend the Prime Minister went to Basra, where he promised that the troops would be home by Christmas. Why did he not make a proper statement about that to the House? How many troops will come home? When will they come home? Will they go back if there is trouble in Basra? How many troops will stay to train Iraqi forces? It is to answer questions such as those and many more that we need a statement. Every week the Leader of House tells us that she puts Parliament first; every week her colleagues, from the Prime Minister down, treat Parliament with disdain.

The Pensions Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions want to compensate the 125,000 people who lost their savings after their pension schemes went bust, but the Prime Minister and the Chancellor appear to have blocked them. Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Cross-Bench Peers, Labour MPs and Peers, Ros Altmann, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and now the Work and Pensions Secretary all now believe that those innocent people deserve full compensation. They did the right thing and saved for their pensions, but lost everything through no fault of their own, so will the Work and Pensions Secretary make a statement on why the Government refuse to compensate fully those innocent victims?

Some 89 Labour MPs have signed a motion calling for the Government to honour the police pay award recommended by the Police Arbitration Tribunal. According to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, 10 Ministers oppose the Home Secretary’s policy. Police authorities in England and Wales have already budgeted to meet the cost and the Police Federation has called it “a betrayal of trust”, so can we have a debate in Government time on the breakdown in the crucial relationship between the police and the Home Secretary?

On Europe, the Prime Minister said this morning:

“I think you’ll find we are leading the way.”

However, he is reluctantly making his way to Lisbon today to sign the renamed constitution, explicitly breaking his manifesto promise not to sign without a referendum. He is too frightened to let the people decide, and too frightened to be photographed with the other Heads of Government. Is this really what the Prime Minister means by “leading the way”?

The right hon. Lady mentioned the debate on the armed forces on Thursday 10 January, and the topical debate on the same day. I would say two things in response. First, she supported the introduction of topical debates, as did the whole House. I believe that they are going to be very important. Secondly, we have five days’ debate on defence as well as Defence oral questions and other statements that are made from time to time. Defence and our armed services are of importance at all times to Members on both sides of the House, and we ensure that they are debated regularly and that they remain at the forefront of the concerns of the House.

On the housing market, the right hon. Lady will know that it is important for that market that we have low inflation, and that people can pay their mortgages because they are able to remain in work and because interest rates are low. She will also know that it is important for that market that there is affordable housing, and that means that there should be a greater supply of housing. If she is as concerned as she says she is, I hope that the Opposition will support our Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will make the biggest possible contribution to the housing market.

The right hon. Lady asked a number of questions about the Prime Minister and Iraq. Perhaps she will remember that, only yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister answered questions about Iraq, as he does nearly every Wednesday at this Dispatch Box. Indeed, he also made a statement on Afghanistan.

On pensions, the right hon. Lady will know that we have just concluded deliberation in this House on one Pensions Bill, and that our legislative programme contains another pensions Bill. She raised the question of the police pay award, and I want to pay tribute to the police for their important and courageous work. She will know that it is Government policy to ensure that we deal with police pay within the overall context of the Government’s public sector pay policy.

The right hon. Lady raised a range of issues about Europe. She will know that, because the Prime Minister believes in the importance of the House, he was answering questions before the Liaison Committee this morning. He cannot be in two places at once, so he has answered the Committee’s questions and he is now travelling to sign the treaty. She then raised a whole load of other spurious questions about Europe—I know that this is the festive season, but this is supposed to be business questions, not panto.

It is perfectly clear that the Government are not going to move on the vexed question of police pay. I am very sympathetic to the position of the police, because the matter has been to arbitration. How would my friend describe the meaning of arbitration in this context?

My hon. Friend will know that it is the responsibility of the Home Secretary to set the level of police pay. He will also be aware that negotiations and discussions are taking place on a new mechanism for setting police pay fairly; more information will no doubt be given to the House on that in due course. He will also know that, because of the importance that the Government place on the police, there has been an increase in police pay of 39 per cent. since 1997, and justly so. That is 9 per cent. above the rate of inflation. Police numbers are also increasing. There is no doubt that the Government place huge value on the work of the police in this country.

I was tempted to say in response to the earlier reply from the Leader of the House that we could have both business questions and panto, which might be more acceptable.

I am grateful for the announcement of a debate on police funding on 10 January. I join the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House in extending my best wishes and thanks not just to the police, but to all Officers of the House and, of course, to you, Mr. Speaker, as we approach Christmas and the new year.

May we have a debate about the growing number of Government policy reviews? After the recent announcement by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families of four more such reviews, they are now up to 31. As Tony Travers said this week, evidence-based policy is a good thing, but it is necessary to have the policy and the policy making. It would be good to know how the Government are seeking to develop policy and whether Parliament is going to play a part in that.

I understand that the Government were intending to produce the results of their review of electoral systems across the UK, including those used in this year’s Scottish elections, by the end of the year, but that it has now been postponed. May we have a statement announcing the new timetable, as the Leader of the House must ensure that the review does not disappear into the long grass?

The Prime Minister is probably just about to set off to Lisbon to sign the European treaty. Presuming that he gets there and he signs it, when can we expect to start debates on the legislation to implement that treaty? We know that the debates will take a long time and we know that they will be on the Floor of the House, but it would be helpful for colleagues to know—

Some colleagues, like the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), cannot wait! Many of us would like to know when that process is going to begin, as it will require a considerable time commitment.

As we approach Christmas, may we have an opportunity before the break to discuss when the Farepak victims—I know we had a written statement about it yesterday—are likely to receive any money that, following the company’s collapse, they may get? After the Ministry of Justice report showing that conciliation is not working, may we have a debate on conflict resolution in families? Finally, may we have a debate on the important issue of conflict resolution policy in government, especially given that it looks like we may have to be further engaged around the world in Kosovo and elsewhere? The more we can do to prevent and resolve conflicts rather than fight over them, the better. Many of us would view that as not just seasonally appropriate, but the best option all year round.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the number of policy reviews. If the Government are concerned that policy needs to be changed, surely the whole House would agree that they should reflect openly, consult, gather evidence, announce what they are going to do and only then put proposals before the House. Hon. Members would have much more to complain about if we brought proposals for change before the House without announcing or undertaking any review. I know that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that we are following what has been described as the Bercow report and that we are now moving to the next stage of reviewing special educational needs, which is both welcome and important. I think that the hon. Gentleman would also welcome how we are reviewing the way in which child mental health services work with schools. I believe that there is nothing wrong with reviews and that it is right for us to announce the results of them to the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the electoral systems review and I agree with him that the House expected to hear the results shortly. A great deal of change has resulted from the introduction of different systems in Scotland, Wales and England for European elections, local elections, mayoral elections and so forth. All of that needs to be analysed and the results understood before they can be reported back to the House. I will convey the hon. Gentleman’s points to the Secretary of State for Justice.

The hon. Gentleman asked about debates on the Bill to implement the European treaty. I can tell him and the House that as we become fully engaged with the European debates, we will find them plentiful and likely to take quite a long time. I believe that it is very important that as we scrutinise effectively the structural changes brought about by the treaty, we must not lose sight of what is most important to people in the country. They are less concerned about the minutiae of the structures and more concerned about how being a member of Europe contributes to our economy, to our work on climate change internationally and to how we tackle human trafficking. I hope that the House will sometimes be able to focus not just on the structures of Europe, but on what being in Europe means to people in this country.

The hon. Gentleman asked for debate and discussion on the important matter of Farepak. One of the reasons why I chose the subject for this afternoon’s topical debate was precisely in order to allow Farepak to be raised. There are concerns that people with the least money are most at risk when it comes to savings; those with the least money spend most when they are trying to save. That is why I chose the subject of the availability of financial services for low-income families for this afternoon’s topical debate. Farepak is not in the title, so I accept that it was not good enough as a signal to the hon. Gentleman, but I expect it to be discussed.

The hon. Gentleman asked about conflict resolution. He will know that the Foreign Secretary has made a number of statements about conflict resolution—for example, on the Government’s work in Kosovo and other parts of the world. If any further information or proposals should be brought before the House, I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will do exactly that.

May we have a debate on local democracy and devolution? I ask that because of the growing scandal in Scotland, where the Scottish National party Government have been interfering in an unprecedented way in the local planning process in support of a development proposed by the Trump Organisation. Should not the First Minister be reminded that the point of devolution was to bring power closer to the people, not to have power devolved to Edinburgh, only to have it taken away from local government and centralised in Edinburgh?

I will take up my hon. Friend’s point with the Secretary of State for Scotland. The whole point of having a Scottish Parliament was to devolve power from Westminster to people in Scotland, not to suck up power from local authorities in Scotland and place it in Edinburgh instead.

Legal aid is currently being extended to bogus asylum seekers, foreign terrorists, imprisoned murderers who want to have children and Ministry of Defence officials attending inquests, so may we have a debate on why legal aid is not being extended to the wives and families of British servicemen who have lost their lives in the service of their country? Many people would want that disgraceful injustice to be aired in Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman might remember that that point was put by one of his hon. Friends in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday and that my right hon. Friend said that he would look further into it.

Following this morning’s announcement by the Post Office on various branch restructurings in my area, could my right hon. and learned Friend find time for the House to debate the Post Office’s handling of the issue? The Westfield avenue branch in Goole was down for closure on the basis of incorrect public transport information, but that closure is to go ahead anyway. The plan for outreach services for the villages of Eastoft, Reedness, West Butterwick and Wroot is to go ahead, but we have not yet heard how or when. This morning, we suddenly find that the Wrawby post office, which was unaffected by the regional consultation, is now up for closure. There is no rhyme or reason to any of that, so will my right hon. and learned Friend please speak to the relevant Minister to ensure that Members are able to debate how the Post Office has acted in our constituencies?

Post offices are a matter of concern to all hon. Members. It is topical at the moment because of the programme of consultation that the Post Office is engaging in, so I will take my hon. Friend’s comments as a proposal for a topical debate in January.

May I reinforce the request of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on police pay? We all recognise that the Government have allowed public spending to get out of control and that they have increased the public sector wage bill to an unsustainable extent. That said, the decision not to backdate is unjust, unwise and mean-spirited. Next week, the House needs to have the opportunity to say so.

I will not add to what I have already said about that, except to say that I remember when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was part of a Conservative Government. Since then, and since we have had a Labour Government, my constituents and his have had more police on their streets, and more police community support officers—and those police officers are better paid than ever they were under a Conservative Government. The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee today that he would love to pay the police more, but that he must be certain that we have a growing economy with stable public finances—and that is another thing that we did not have when the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s party was in Government.

Could my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate about residential care for the elderly, the provision of which is diminishing and becoming worryingly fragmented? In my constituency, Anchor housing association’s decision to present its proposal to close St. Clements Court in south Kirkby as a fait accompli has caused real anxiety and consternation, as well as some anger. It has become clear that the supply of residential care for the elderly in the area is diminishing, and that the local authority’s role has been significantly weakened. All that is creating some trouble in the local community, and the local authority, as strategic provider, appears to lack the powers necessary for it to step in and fill the breach. May we have a debate about this important matter?

It is indeed important, for the reasons that my hon. Friend has given. The number of elderly people is growing. We need to make absolutely sure that they have the care and support that they need, and that families caring for them have the backing that they require as well. As my hon. Friend knows, there will be many debates in the House on the Health and Social Care Bill. He will also know of the review dealing with the existing support for carers, including those caring for older people. However, we remain concerned not only about residential care of the elderly but about domiciliary services, and I will raise my hon. Friend’s points with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

During the 1980s, the Libyan Government brought hundreds of tons of guns and explosives into Northern Ireland to help the IRA. As a result, hundreds of people were killed, thousands were maimed, and businesses worth millions of pounds were destroyed. Many of the victims groups have been demanding that the Government seek compensation from the Libyan Government, just as compensation was sought for the victims of the destruction of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. This week the groups were informed that the Government did not intend to pursue the case. Will the Leader of the House find time to bring the Foreign Secretary along to make a statement explaining why victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism in Northern Ireland are being treated differently from victims of the same state in Lockerbie?

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that I raise the issue with both the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Foreign Secretary. He could then receive a letter, which could be placed in the Library so that all other Members could also be informed about that important matter.

I strongly support what my right hon. and learned Friend said a few minutes ago about Britain’s membership of the European Union, but I want to raise a different subject. Could she find time for a debate on urban regeneration companies? The centre of my own city of Leicester is being transformed through a combination of private and public sector investment, and similar transformations are taking place in cities across our country. I think it is time the House discussed that success and how we can build on it in future.

My right hon. Friend’s words will find an echo among a number of Members. I think it would be good to examine the important work of urban regeneration companies across the piece, on the basis of experience in different constituencies. I will seek an opportunity for it to be debated in Government time, either here or in Westminster Hall.

The courageous and outspoken Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, cut up his clerical collar recently on the Andrew Marr Show and vowed not to wear it again until the tyrant Mugabe was removed from office in Zimbabwe. When will the Government find time for a debate on the subject on the Floor of the House—and when will the Government of this country, which was responsible for putting Mr. Mugabe in power, take action to save the people of Zimbabwe from the tyrannical rule that they are currently experiencing?

I know that the whole House shares the hon. Gentleman’s concern—a view that was expressed strongly during our recent debate in the House on the subject. He will know that the Government share it as well, that we are working closely with other countries internationally to put pressure—in all respects—on the Zimbabwean regime. We are working particularly closely with the African Union. We are very concerned indeed about the plight of the people in Zimbabwe, and want to support them while also tackling the terrible abuses of the Zimbabwean Government.

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware of reports in the media today that a convicted paedophile who viewed online child pornography has effectively had his sentence reduced from life to one year, although he had been viewing level 5 pornography, which involves material involving babies and bestiality. He is also the founder of an organisation that lobbies for sex with under-age children. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that viewing online child abuse is every bit as serious as production and distribution, and will she please make time, as a matter of urgency, for a debate in the House on sentencing for this very serious crime?

My hon. Friend will know of a recent review by the Sentencing Guidelines Council of sentencing for sexual offending. It is extremely important that new sexual offences are tackled effectively as they appear. My hon. Friend will, of course, be aware that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, the House sets the framework through legislation, and in a current Bill there are further measures to tackle the crime of child abuse via the internet.

Will the Leader of the House make time, as a matter of urgency, for a debate on the audit function of local authorities, with particular reference to the situation in the Greater London authority and the London Development Agency? Some £2.5 million of public money appears to have been given to organisations controlled by associates of the Mayor’s policy director, Lee Jasper, without adequate audit trails or, now, any proper account of where many hundreds of thousands of pounds of that money has gone.

Of course the work of the Audit Commission is important. It is important that the work of all local authorities in London, the Greater London authority and the Mayor is properly audited—as it is.

I wish to complain about the hon. Gentleman tossing out allegations against Lee Jasper, who has done, and continues to do, a great deal of public work. I do not want to hear his name besmirched in the House for party political purposes, just because we are in the run-up to a mayoral election. I want to register my support for the work being done.

May we have a debate on the 20 per cent. Government cut in funding for science research and its impact on science departments at universities, including the one in Liverpool? It follows the merger of two science research councils, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Surely a cut of 20 per cent. is not compatible with the Government’s wish to support science.

The Government are strongly committed to supporting science with investment in industry and also in educational institutions. I am not sure that the figures given by my hon. Friend accord with my understanding of the position. There has not been a cut of £80 million in spending on physics. One research council—the Science and Technology Facilities Council—has decided to reduce the amount of support available for particle physics and astronomy in universities, but is continuing to invest heavily in those disciplines in CERN and elsewhere. Our commitment to science has led to funding rising from £1.3 billion to £3.4 billion this year. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to take into account the points my hon. Friend raises, and to write to her to clarify the position.

May we have an urgent debate on the Thames Gateway? Following a recent very critical report by the Public Accounts Committee, which was devastating in its view of how the Government and various Departments have handled the issue over several years, the Department for Communities and Local Government has moved with remarkable speed and efficiency to sack not one of its Ministers, but the chief executive of the Thames Gateway, whom it appointed about 18 months ago, in what looks like a clear case of scapegoating. I would like the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to come to the House for a debate so that she can explain why someone else is carrying the can for the Government’s failure.

Over the next couple of days, Ministers will be returning from the world summit in Bali, at the end of which there are almost certain to be no binding agreements on targets and no recognition of the urgent action that needs to be taken on the basis of the intergovernmental panel on climate change report on the six to eight-year window of opportunity that we have in front of us. I am surprised that no statement is to be made to the House on Monday by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because that means that there will be no debate on this matter until the new year. Given that the Government’s programme is also ill equipped to deal with the scale of change in that six to eight years, will the Leader of the House not revisit the prospect of such a statement by the Secretary of State?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to inform the House of the outcome at Bali and how we see the way forward. My hon. Friend knows that we take the view that there should be binding targets for reduction of carbon emissions; that is why that will be in the Climate Change Bill, which will shortly come before this House.

Concerns have been expressed in all parts of the House about the regime in Guantanamo Bay, and I am sure there is a welcome for the fact that the place is at last being run down, but may we have a debate in the House about the extraordinary Government decision to invite five terror suspects, none of whom are British citizens and one of whom stayed here for only a relatively short period, to come to this country, rather than being repatriated to their own countries?

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The hon. Gentleman will know that we abhor the Guantanamo Bay regime, which is quite outwith the rule of law, and that we pressed for British citizens to be taken out of there and brought back to this country. As for the five remaining internees in Guantanamo Bay who are customarily resident in this country, I understand that in respect of three of them arrangements are being made to return to this country, but it is of course open to the Government to review their status and their right to stay here on their return.

At 9 o’clock this morning, an outrage was perpetrated against the Hindu community in this country, when a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals vet, accompanied by three police officers, went unannounced to Bhaktivedanta manor and put down a sacred cow, which had been nursed by the herdsmen at the manor for 14 months. I must stress that this cow was not contagious in any way and was not diseased; she had a muscle-wasting problem and was nursed for bedsores alone. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate the serious concern that this has caused within the Hindu community, and I ask her to take the matter up not only with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I understand that DEFRA was not involved this morning—but with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. This has caused great concern in the community. We have laws in this country against blasphemy, and I believe it is now time for us to have a debate about how to deal with such issues sensitively across the board.

I understand the great concern that is felt on this issue in Britain’s Hindu community, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to raise it in the House. In response, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to write to him with all the background; my hon. Friend can then convey that to the Hindu community, which feels so concerned about the matter, so that it has all the facts and information.

Will the Leader of the House haul the Chairman of the Liaison Committee before the House next week to explain the apparently unreasonable behaviour of his Committee in not allowing the Prime Minister to give evidence to it on another day, thus causing the Prime Minister great embarrassment, as he cannot be in Lisbon to sign the new treaty along with other European leaders?

It seems to be beyond some Members to understand the relatively simple proposition that the Prime Minister wanted to both answer the questions of the Liaison Committee and sign the treaty in person—and that although he has many remarkable qualities, being in two places at once is not one of them.

I listened carefully earlier today to my right hon. and learned Friend’s answers about women in political life, and I wonder whether she would consider holding a topical debate on the issue—and would she broaden it to a discussion of women in public life? I have grave concerns about the number of women being appointed to public bodies in this country, and I believe that there might be some unintentional discrimination against women because of how the criteria are set.

I will look for an opportunity for this matter to be raised in the House. We are committed to ensuring that we get the right decision making in appointments to public boards, whether they are in health, education or industry. The figures show that we have not had sufficient change. About 33 per cent. of public appointments were women in 1997, and that figure has barely risen at all in the past 10 years: it is now only 35 per cent. That is simply not good enough. It is not that women in this country are not good enough; it is that the appointments system is not good enough to recognise the talent and experience that women in this country can bring to public service. Clearly, systemic discrimination is going on in public appointments, and we will have to set some stiff targets and make some progress on that. Inching forward by 2 per cent. in 10 years is simply not good enough.

Farmers in my constituency are dismayed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proposals for winter green cover, which will impact on traditional farming methods. Will the right hon. and learned Lady find time early in the new year for a debate on the nitrates directive?

I will bring that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

May we have a debate about physical and verbal abuse of shop workers, and in particular betting-shop staff—an overwhelmingly female work force, many of whom are expected to accept such treatment as part and parcel of the job? The trade union community has been particularly active in my constituency on this issue. Will the Leader of the House join me in supporting its efforts to reverse the perception that such behaviour is in any way acceptable?

The House should be aware that one of the important things that is helping women at work—and, indeed, anybody who might be vulnerable in their work—is trade union equality reps. The Government have funded a programme of trade union equality reps at work, and I will discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform whether there can be some provision for equality reps in the betting industry, so that they can support women suffering from harassment from customers.

Can we have a debate on my early-day motion 317, entitled “Open university”?

[That this House is concerned that the Government’s decision to withdraw funding from institutions for equivalent or lower qualification students will have a disproportionate impact on the part-time sector in general and on specific institutions such as Birkbeck and the Open University; and urges the Government to consider ways in which it can minimise the damage this measure will do to lifelong learning and the delivery of the Leitch agenda objectives.]

Given that 177 hon. Members from across the House have signed it, does the Leader of the House accept that there is growing unease in the House about the Government’s decision to withdraw funding for students seeking equivalent and lower qualifications, and the disproportionate impact that that will have on the Open university and similar establishments? How does it square with the Government’s commitment to lifelong learning?

We are strongly committed to what the Open university was set up to do: to extend educational opportunities to adults and those who might have missed out at school. A range of educational opportunities that were not available when the Open university was set up now exist, and the university remains very important. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could seek a Westminster Hall debate on the issue.

Can we have a debate about the health impact of open-cast coal mining on local communities? People in Kenfig Hill and Cefn Cribwr in my constituency have suffered years of noise, dust, housing blight and environmental destruction. Is it not time for us to put forward the quality of life for local communities as the first priority, before we allow extensions to open-cast mining and the resulting clouds of potentially toxic dust?

The question of how we get the right developments is very much the subject of the Planning Bill, which is a centrepiece of the Government’s legislative programme. As the Bill proceeds through this House, my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will have an opportunity to talk about the quality of life criteria that they would like to be central issues for planning decisions.

May I put myself firmly behind the request of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) for a debate on post offices? Such a debate would allow me to point out the injustices of the five post office closures in my constituency and the appalling effect on people in Thatcham. They recently suffered seriously flooding, and they now have the double whammy of losing their post office. This issue is affecting a number of hon. Members in other parts of the country, so a topical debate would be much appreciated.

I shall take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. The raising of issues by Back Benchers from different parties is a key criterion for indicating that there should be a topical debate. The last time that I said that was in respect of Heathrow, about which lots of hon. Members from both sides of the House—especially Conservatives—expressed their desire to have a topical debate. I was just about to arrange one when I got pipped at the post by a Westminster Hall debate, but had that not happened, I would have done so.

The Leader of the House has asked on many occasions for Members’ suggestions on how best to improve topical debates. She may be aware that during a recent debate the official Opposition Front-Bench team used up a third of the time allocated for a topical debate, thereby denying Back Benchers the opportunity to ask pertinent questions. Will she examine that issue? Will she consider a way of restricting Front-Bench Opposition spokespeople from using up that time?

The point of topical debates is twofold. First, they aim to ensure that when a hot topic is being discussed up and down the country, this House is certain to have an opportunity to discuss it. Secondly, they are an important opportunity for Back Benchers to contribute to a debate on a topic, and to make their constituents’ views and their own wider views known. I have examined the amount of time that has been taken up by Ministers and the Opposition Front-Bench teams in topical debates, and too few Back Benchers appear to be getting in. That is partly because of Back Benchers intervening on Front-Bench spokespeople, but we must examine the issue. There is no point in deterring Back Benchers from participating in topical debates because they think that they will sit for ages waiting and will hear nothing but speeches made from the Front Benches. I very much want to examine this issue and discuss it with all parties to ensure that we reach a sensible conclusion.

In the abbreviated debate on armed forces personnel, will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that her part-time colleague comes to the House prepared to talk about the military covenant in general and to address specifically the raw deal that service children get from a funding formula that completely fails to recognise the cost drivers that apply to schools with a high proportion of service children? I tried to raise this matter during yesterday’s debate, but unfortunately the Minister for the Armed Forces largely ignored my remarks.

The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that he did have an opportunity to raise that issue in the House during yesterday’s Opposition day debate. I shall take this opportunity to remind him that since this Government came to power in 1997, this country has become the second biggest spender on defence—second only to the United States. That investment has rightly gone into equipment, pay and housing for our armed forces. If he and the Conservatives are suggesting that more should be invested, it is incumbent on them also to suggest how much investment they would make and what they would cut to pay for it. Do they want us to overtake even America in our defence spending?

I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) said. Further to remarks made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), it must have been a black day for Her Majesty’s Opposition when the former proprietor of their house magazines was convicted in the United States of America on charges of fraud and obstructing justice. May I make a bid for a topical debate on standards in public life, to examine, among other things, whether the regulations of the two Houses of Parliament on ending someone’s membership should be brought into line with one another?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. On party funding, he will know that the Government will introduce a Bill to ensure that we have fair and open funding of party campaigns, and that a cap is put on the total expenditure in campaigns so that we end the arms race. I hope that we will find support on both sides of the House for that.

My question relates to column 611W of yesterday’s Hansard and a written answer that I received. I thank the Leader of the House and her deputy most warmly for the support that they have been giving to my mini-campaign. When a Minister’s written answer refers to a written answer given to another hon. Member, I would like a hard copy of that answer to be supplied. I also thank them both for the following written answer:

“It is standard practice to provide Members with a copy of any previous response which is referred to in an answer to a question.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 133W.]

May I therefore ask the Leader of the House to have a word with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg)? He provided a written answer that stated:

“The MOD has never provided this information and has no plans to change its policy.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 611W.]

I know that they are overstretched and part-time, but should they not at least listen to the Leader of the House?

When Ministers answer questions it is important that they recognise that this is about accountability. They should answer questions in a spirit of accountability to this House. They should not provide research pointers or clues so that the Member then has to do some more finding out. A complete answer ought to be given. Referring to other questions, to departmental or agency websites or to previous things is not being as helpful as I would like Ministers to be to Members of this House. Being helpful to Members and carrying on with the business of Government are both responsibilities. One of the responsibilities of Government is to be accountable to this House. I totally dispute what the hon. Gentleman said about the part-time something or other—I cannot remember what it was, but I totally disagree with it—but I strongly agree with him about ministerial accountability.

Order. I am now down to my six regular customers. For me to take them all, they must be very brief.

May we have a debate on the Prime Minister’s busy schedule? The Leader of the House accused us of turning Europe into a pantomime, but the Prime Minister has done that himself. When the rest of the European Union leaders sign the constitutional treaty, they will ask, “Where is the British Prime Minister?” They will be told, “He’s behind you.” If the Prime Minister is signing away British constitutional rights, he should be there—

That hon. Gentleman is not one of the usual suspects, who are much better. I shall sit down and wait to hear from one of them.

May we have a debate on prisons and offender data? Is the Leader of the House aware that Roger Hill, the director of the probation service within the National Offender Management Service, has said that the new computer system—CNOMIS—will be suspended and scaled down for use only in prisons? On the other hand, the Ministers of State at the Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) and the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), have said that that is not the case. Who is correct?

I will get my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to write to the hon. Gentleman with the answer to that question.

May we please have a statement next week on the proposed allocation of time for the consideration on Wednesday 9 January of the remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, given that one very important matter that we will have to consider that day is the Government’s welcome creation of a new offence of homophobic hate crime, to which—sadly—some misguided souls are strongly opposed? Does the Leader of the House accept that it is in the Government’s and the public’s interest to err on the side of generosity and allow adequate time so that the objections can be fully aired and effectively rebutted?

I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s support for that important addition to the Bill. We will of course want to ensure that the Government have time to set out the arguments for its introduction and all sides have the opportunity to explain why they do or do not support it. We will take that into account when allocating time for the debate.

May we have an urgent debate on post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, which affect an increasing number of our armed forces personnel? Will the Leader of the House put on record the Government’s tribute to the hard-working staff of Combat Stress at Audley Court in Newport for all that they do for our brave servicemen and women?

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make those points more fully in the debate on armed services personnel on Thursday 10 January.

I recently asked the Department for Transport how many car miles there were in 1997 and how many there are now. I ripped open the envelope that I received with great joy, but instead of an answer I had been given a 60-character URL. I did not know what to do with that, but my staff did. To add to the insult, the result was given in kilometres, not miles. Was not that done to hide the information from the media? What powers does the Leader of the House have to stop such actions?

I do not accept the implication of some sort of conspiracy, especially in respect of the example that the hon. Gentleman gives. However, as my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House said, the Procedure Committee is reflecting on the quality, timeliness and accuracy of written answers.

Given the importance that the Leader of the House gives to the quality of written answers, perhaps she could speak to her colleague, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so that the named day questions about his Department’s control of information held on the public that were due for answer two and a half weeks ago could be answered before the Christmas recess.

I think that I am getting déjà vu, as I thought that the hon. Gentleman had already asked that question of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House earlier. I ask him to recall her answer, as I am sure it was correct.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport next week about the Government’s role in the new rail service to and from Kettering, which has had a dramatic reduction in services to London and a 50 per cent. cut in train services north? Will the Secretary of State publish the specification against which the new franchise was judged?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport, has recently been to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The hon. Gentleman will know that since we came into government there have been more passengers and more freight on trains, better rolling stock and improved time-keeping. If he has any further concerns, I suggest that he raises them in a debate in Westminster Hall.