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Business of the House

Volume 471: debated on Thursday 7 February 2008

The business for the week commencing 18 February will be:

Monday 18 February—Remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill.

Tuesday 19 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to foreign, security and defence policy, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [5th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to foreign, security and defence policy, followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order relating to Shropshire.

Wednesday 20 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to international development, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [6th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to international development.

Thursday 21 February— Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in force of sections 1 to 9) Order 2008, followed by motion to approve the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2008 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2008.

Friday 22 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 25 February will include:

Monday 25 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [7th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making.

Tuesday 26 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to climate change, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [8th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to climate change, followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order.

Wednesday 27 February—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [9th Allotted Day] covering clauses 3 to 7.

Thursday 28 February—A debate on Welsh affairs.

Friday 29 february—Private Members’ Bills.

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

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has been the subject of intense debate in another place and raises ethical questions on which opinions are sharply divided. Last week the right hon. and learned Lady said:

“I intend to ensure that we have sufficient time for a serious and good debate on that important measure in this House.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2008; Vol. 471, c. 478.]

Will she make a statement to the House immediately after the recess on how the Government intend to handle that Bill?

This morning it was announced in the media that the Prime Minister had axed plans for a super-casino in Manchester, but yet again no announcement has been made to the House. When will the Prime Minister make a statement to the House on the matter? Every week the Leader of the House tells us that she puts Parliament first, but every week her colleagues from the Prime Minister down show their disdain for Parliament.

The Prime Minister consistently brags about his tax credit system, yet the latest report by the Public Accounts Committee said that losses to fraud and overpayments in the system were a “great cause for concern”. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has written off £2.3 billion in overpayments, often made because of its own errors, 2 million families a year are still struggling to pay back overpayments, and on top of that, HMRC has lost the personal details of 25 million tax credit claimants. May we have a debate in Government time on the failures of HMRC?

This morning, it was confirmed that £24 billion of Northern Rock debt is being moved on to the Treasury’s balance sheet. That comes on top of the £35 billion of debt from housing associations being put on to the Treasury’s balance sheet due to an incompetence by the Government in the drafting of the Housing and Regeneration Bill. We also know that another of the Prime Minister’s blunders—the failure of the public-private partnership scheme for the tube—will cost the taxpayer at least £2 billion. A further £55 billion of debt is off the public balance sheet in private finance initiative schemes. How much of that will now have to be put on to the Treasury’s balance sheet, and will the Chancellor make a statement to the House on how much the Government’s economic incompetence is costing the British taxpayer?

Perhaps the Prime Minister has other things on his mind. It is reported that Downing street is encouraging Tony Blair as he decides whether to stand as president of the European Union. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that Tony Blair is the Government’s preferred candidate, and can we have a statement on the matter from the Prime Minister? From tube privatisation, to HMRC, to Tony Blair: are those not just examples of the Prime Minister’s chickens coming home to roost? Blunders, indecision and incompetence—little wonder that, according to the Financial Times, No.10 has become so chaotic that insiders have begun to describe the Prime Minister as being at the helm of the GST, otherwise known as the good ship Titanic. The Government are sinking, and sinking fast, but it is the British people who are suffering.

If we can return to the real world for a moment, let me say that we will announce the business on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the usual way. It is an important Bill, which has had good consideration in the Lords. The House of Lords has deliberated at length on a number of ethical issues. Similarly, this House will want to scrutinise the Bill.

The Prime Minister told the House that he was going to initiate a review on casinos so that the original decisions could be reconsidered. The devolved Administrations have been consulted. No announcement has been made; when a decision has been taken, an announcement will be made to the House.

On tax credits, the information mentioned by the right hon. Lady is of some years’ standing. Since then, the issues that arose on the back of the report have been addressed and the system has been simplified. Tax credits have made a great difference to hundreds of thousands of families up and down the country. The Government’s policy is to back up hard-working families bringing up children and ensure that they have a better standard of living. The tax credit system plays an important part in that.

The right hon. Lady mentioned Northern Rock. I remind her and the House that the Chancellor has kept the House informed on that matter and will continue to do so. Our principles are that we should ensure stability in the financial system. We have to ensure that those with savings and mortgages at Northern Rock are reassured that their money is safe, and that those working at the bank do not face too much insecurity. Those are our objectives and we will do whatever we can to achieve them.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Housing and Regeneration Bill. Its objective is for us to have more housing, particularly housing that is affordable to rent or buy. The right hon. Lady always has objections to any public investment in things that help people—especially those at the bottom of society, who need housing. I am sorry that she is nit-picking about that issue. Similarly, she is picking holes in the finance system of the underground. We have said that for the strengthening of the economy, we want investment in people, industry and infrastructure—that includes London’s transport infrastructure, which includes the underground. That investment will go in and help London’s passengers and economy. It will continue.

The right hon. Lady talks about economic incompetence. She should recognise that we have the highest growth rates, the lowest inflation and the highest levels of employment that we have had for years, and that is the real world that we are going to continue in.

The right hon. Lady asks about the EU presidency. I would say that when leading British politicians play a role in Europe, whether they are Chris Patten, Leon Brittan, Paddy Ashdown, Roy Jenkins or Neil Kinnock, they make a big difference. If British politicians can play a leading role in Europe, that is good for Britain as well as good for Europe.

The Leader of the House is aware that you, Mr. Speaker, and the Members Estimate Committee have been given the major responsibility of bringing the issue of allowances, and that of transparency, to a satisfactory conclusion. Will she give an absolute undertaking to the House that whatever resources are needed to complete that work will be made available?

I will give that undertaking to the House. I think that the whole House will regard this review as very important indeed. The public need to have confidence in the structure and policing of the system, and hon. Members will want to be sure that we can command public confidence in that respect.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) reminded us, and the Leader of the House responded, that we are about to start the process of debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. In addition to a very careful decision as to how we proceed, may I ask the Leader of the House to consider whether some of the Committee stage can be taken on the Floor of the House on those matters that I am sure we can discuss and identify across parties as being of wider general concern? Will she talk with her colleagues at the other end of the building about whether it is time to have a joint Committee of both Houses on bioethics, on a standing basis, which will reflect some of the strong views expressed in the House of Lords during the recent debates?

As the Leader of the House will know, today is Chinese new year, but surprisingly the House has not had a debate on UK-China relations for a considerable time. Given the large number of Chinese people living and working in the UK, will she consider whether that is a possible topic for debate after we come back for the second half of term?

The Leader of the House will realise from this week’s comments that there is great concern in relation to the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill. The concern is that a little part has been slipped in dealing with coroners’ inquests, particularly those that take place in private. Will she come back to us after the recess and tell us whether they can reconsider that matter so that coroners’ matters and inquests can be debated in the context that she wants, namely a new Bill on coroners’ matters and inquests, rather than by trying to slip into the Counter-Terrorism Bill an unsatisfactory and secretive proposal on inquests?

In relation to the much wider concern at the moment about the nature of authoritarian imposition by the Government on the citizen, we have not had a debate on the surveillance state for a very long time. There is considerable concern, not just about Members of Parliament appearing to be followed and having their activities monitored illegally, but about DNA and fingerprints being held and children’s records being kept. May we have, in prime time, a debate to allow the House to express its view that the Government are going too far in seeking powers over the citizen and that we need to roll back the powers of the state, not increase them?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is not a party political matter but a matter of concern across the parties, on Front Benches and Back Benches alike. We will have to have discussions to ensure that when I announce that business to the House it is regarded as satisfactory in terms of debate on this important issue.

The hon. Gentleman suggested the Chinese new year as the subject of a topical debate. I thank him for that suggestion. He also referred to the provisions dealing with coroners’ inquests that involve matters of national security, and he said that we had gone about introducing them secretively. I say to him that we have published those provisions as clauses in the Counter-Terrorism Bill, so it is not a question of something being “slipped in”. They have been published in a Bill. I do not need to come back after the recess to tell him this; I can tell him right away. When material relating to national security is brought in as evidence in the criminal and civil courts, the court sometimes has to sit in camera. That is the case in those courts, and the clauses in the Bill simply bring the coroners’ courts in line with the situation that currently obtains, and which he no doubt supports, in civil and criminal courts.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we have not debated the surveillance state. I would say that we do not have a surveillance state, so we do not need to debate it. [Interruption.] We had a statement from the Ministry of Justice on Monday relating to surveillance. On Wednesday, we had a further statement pertaining to surveillance, read by the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman talks about the extension of what he regards as the invasion of people’s civil liberties by the state, but would he say the same thing to rape victims who have seen perpetrators of rape brought to justice, in a way that they never could have been in the past, because of the collection of DNA? Our purpose in Government is to keep people safe, which is why we take the measures we do on surveillance and security. Our purpose is also to bring offenders to justice, which is why we take the measures we take on DNA and fingerprints. I hope that he would agree with that action.

Further to the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), I wonder whether the Leader of the House would find time for a Government statement expressing full support for the root-and-branch review being undertaken under the leadership of Mr. Speaker? Could that statement include support for inclusion in the review of a reappraisal of the register of journalists’ interests?

May we have an early debate on the structure of the review on Members’ allowances? We will not regain public confidence unless that review is undertaken by a totally independent body.

I think that the public could be forgiven for finding the current situation very complex. We have the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is independent; the Standards and Privileges Committee, which is a Committee of this House but is supported by an independent commissioner; the National Audit Office reporting to the Public Accounts Committee, which is a Committee of this House; the Public Administration Committee; and the Register of Members’ interests. Every time there has been a problem, we have bolted on a new bit of machinery.

We now have chronic hybridity, with some issues being dealt with by this House, and some by independent elements. The public are unable to see the clear picture that they need. They need to be able to see that public money is properly spent according to clear rules, and if those rules are breached, they must see that people are held to account and that the money is paid back. The review led by Mr. Speaker will consider such matters. We will have a review in the right sense of the word: we will think about the matter, deliberate on it, examine the evidence and then get to the right solution.

I had better call the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth). She seems very impatient to be called.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Can we find time for a debate about the most effective methods of reducing reoffending among 15 to 18-year-olds who receive a custodial sentence, particularly in view of the Youth Justice Board’s decision to withdraw funding from Thorn Cross young offenders institute? At the institute, which is in my constituency, people can currently get vocational qualifications, join the fire cadet service with Cheshire fire service and get music tuition from the Hallé orchestra. A debt is repaid to the community with the help of local voluntary organisations, but most importantly, there are activities on offer to address offending behaviour. From April, there will only be enclosed institutions with none of the resources to do those things.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about Thorn Cross young offenders institution. It must be a priority that young offenders are not only punished, but rehabilitated when they come out of institutions so that they are able to get on the straight and narrow. I shall bring her comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

In recent weeks, Members of all parties have raised genuine concerns about the post office closure programme, which the Leader of the House accepted is a sensitive issue. In my constituency, it is so sensitive that the whole network change programme consultation has had to be postponed, apparently under the instructions of the Government. The Post Office has written to postmasters and postmistresses, delaying the consultation until after the local elections. Will the Leader of the House please reconsider a request that has been made several times for a debate in Government time on the genuine concerns that exist in our communities about this important issue?

Before the Leader of the House answers, let me say that I want to call all hon. and right hon. Members standing, but I have to get briefer supplementaries than we have had so far.

I shall try to aim for briefer answers, Mr. Speaker.

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform gave evidence on this issue to the Select Committee a couple of days ago. The Committee will report on the issue and there will be further debate in this House in future.

May we have a debate on the standards and costings of election promises? Prior to the Scottish elections last May, the people were presented with an uncosted fantasy manifesto, which has led to an unprecedented number of about-turns and broken promises. Does the Leader of the House agree that treating our electorate with such contempt only furthers public mistrust of politics, politicians and the political process?

My hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of his constituents. He wants to ensure that they have the services they need, and that they are not subject to broken promises or a postcode lottery by the Scottish Executive.

Please may we have a debate on the accountability of English Heritage to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and this House? The current funding crisis involves Salisbury, Canterbury, Durham and Lichfield cathedrals and concerns the best way to conserve mediaeval stone. It has been described by Sir Hayden Phillips, a distinguished former permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Lord Chancellor’s Department, as

“falling short of the best standards of public administration in the decision-making process”.

That is a very serious matter, and this House should discuss it.

I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I will ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.

May I thank the Leader of the House for selecting Holocaust memorial day as a subject for topical debate last week? I am sure that she will have been impressed by the attendance and quality of contributions in that debate. Will she ascertain through the usual channels whether a debate on this important topic could become a scheduled annual event? That would be widely appreciated in the House and elsewhere.

The topical debate on Holocaust memorial day was a good example of the role that can be played by such debates. I congratulate all Members who took part and I will certainly consider my right hon. Friend’s suggestion.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the long-standing convention observed by all previous Governments that to inform debates in this House, Ministers place on the Table documents relating to policies under debate. Surely, therefore, they should place on the Table the positions taken by Ministers in respect of clauses debated on the European convention on the constitution, which are mirrored word for word in the current legislation on the Lisbon treaty. Yet they have refused to do so. Surely they cannot be arguing that this is a matter of national security, as this information is available to every Government in Europe, although it is not available to Members of this House. She cannot say that it is not related to the debate, because it has been debated repeatedly by those few Members who do have access to the documents. Will she at least think about whether those documents should be placed on the Table to inform the rest of the debate on this constitutional treaty?

We obviously want the debate to be as well informed as possible, with all the appropriate supporting documentary evidence. That is certainly the position of Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I am sure that that will happen.

When may we have a debate on women in prison so that we can discuss the recommendations of the Corston review? I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend knows that, last week, the English children’s commissioner produced a report on mothers in prison, showing the damaging effect of that on young children. Could that be a subject for a topical debate?

That is a good suggestion for a topical debate and I thank my hon. Friend for it. Today the House of Lords will hear a debate, led by Baroness Corston, about women in prison. I believe that we can ensure that more women are prevented from offending and reoffending. We can also ensure that more women have effective non-custodial sentences and that, when they have to be put in prison, they are in prisons nearer their families and more is done to rehabilitate them.

Will the Leader of the House find Government time or grant a topical debate on family courts, where it is increasingly apparent that natural parents have no rights and they are denied even the transcripts to enable them best to represent the interests of their case and their natural children?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a concerning lack of transparency in the family courts, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is examining. We need to be sure that the privacy of children and families is protected, and that justice is done and seen to be done. I emphasise that topical debates happen in Government time.

President Karzai has blamed British troops for the increased suffering of his people in Helmand province. He has rejected the UK Government’s advice on the expulsion of diplomats and on the appointment of a UN envoy. Until we went to Helmand province, only seven of our brave British soldiers had died. The total is now 87. Should not we have a debate before we order our troops to put their lives at risk for the ungrateful, misguided Karzai Government?

I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tackled that in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and it is constantly the subject of debate and discussion in oral questions and Committees of the House.

Will the Leader of the House please consider a debate on consultancies awarding contracts in the national health service, in the light of the fact that two previous chief executives from NHS trusts, including mine—Barking, Havering and Redbridge—who received large pay-offs, leaving their trusts with a deficit of £39.9 million, have now set up a business to advise the NHS on how to run hospitals? Surely that should be called “Not Fit for the Future”.

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. Everyone wants the resources that go into the health service to be used for care and support for those who need it and those who work on the front line, caring for patients.

May we have a debate on publicly funded bodies, such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the members of which are well rewarded? My constituent received a letter and visit from that organisation and was offered a £10 gift voucher to take part in a survey of standards in public life,

“Even if you don’t feel you know much about the subject”.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is a waste of taxpayers’ money and should be investigated?

I hesitate to say anything about the Committee on Standards in Public Life because it is independent and has to be allowed to do its work independently. However, I am not sure that we need to give £10 gift vouchers to members of the public to know that we must get on with our work and ensure that the public have confidence in the way in which the House goes about its business.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that we urgently revisit the security of electoral registration in view of the Council of Europe’s highly critical report? Do she and her fellow Ministers have the faintest idea of the implications for the UK’s reputation if we fall into the monitoring process?

I think that there are two electoral registration problems: people who register when they are not eligible to do so or are falsely registered to rig the vote, and the millions of people who are not entitled to vote and disfranchised because they are not registered to vote. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is examining the matter. We need to be sure that our electoral register is both secure and complete. We cannot continue with a position whereby between 3 million and 4 million people who are eligible to vote cannot do so because they are not on the electoral register.

Every day, my constituents have to endure thousands of belching vehicles travelling through the constituency, which has some of the highest asthma rates in the country. Last week, the Mayor introduced a low emissions zone in London and it will save thousands of lives. Will the Leader of the House kindly make time to discuss that important initiative and the way in which it can be introduced in places such as Sefton so that we, too, can save lives?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to the House’s attention the question of how we ensure that people who have asthma or other respiratory problems are protected from traffic emissions. I join her in congratulating the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, on introducing the pioneering low emissions zone. I know that it will be considered in other cities throughout the country to ascertain whether they can do the same.

May we find time for a debate on the position of UK nationals facing trial overseas, with particular reference to the case of Mr. Simon Mann? We should do what we can to ensure that they have access to lawyers, that they are brought before a judge and that they have full access to this country’s consular facilities, and when appropriate, if there is a shortage of such facilities, to those of friendly countries such as the United States.

I think that that is the current arrangement. The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the consular facilities in countries where British citizens find themselves in difficulty. They are a lifeline. I am sure that what he proposes is already under way, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to write to him to confirm that that is the case.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider holding a debate on employment law, especially the gross misuse and abuse of grievance procedures, particularly by North West Transport Supplies Ltd at Moss Side in Leyland, which has abused one of my constituents, Mr. Glyne Greenidge, in a terrible way?

Twenty-six per cent. of young people in my constituency are not in employment, education or training. We learned this week the shocking statistics that 75 per cent. of young people in social housing are on benefit, and more than 50 per cent. of all age groups in social housing and on benefit, are in workless households. May we have an urgent debate on the Government’s record on welfare dependency and their abysmal failure to deliver social mobility in the past 11 years?

There are now more jobs in the economy. The problem when we came into government was too few jobs. Now, there are 600 vacancies—[Interruption.]—600,000 vacancies across the economy. That is why we have been able to move forward with our welfare-to-work programme so that there is work for those who can as well as security for those who cannot. More lone parents are in work and more people are coming off incapacity benefit into work. We are ensuring that young people in particular have the skills and qualifications to take up the increased number of jobs that are now available.

Arising from what my right hon. and learned Friend has said a number of times today, does she understand the point, which is often made outside this place as well as by hon. Members, that there needs to be public confidence about the allowance system? I am afraid that that confidence is currently lacking. Although I recognise the measures that have so far been taken, it was only a short time ago that attempts were made to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. In those circumstances, there is bound to be a suspicion that what is happening is a clublike investigation that will not lead to real reform.

The public are understandably angry about the facts that were revealed in the case of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). However, hon. Members are every bit as angry, because that case has cast a stain over us all and over the institution of Parliament. All the members of the Members Estimate Committee are fully aware of the situation and determined that we should come up with proposals, under the leadership of the Speaker, that fully restore public confidence and are clear, straightforward and transparent. That is what the House asked the Speaker to do when we debated hon. Members’ pay some weeks ago, and his Members Estimate Committee will be getting on with it.

The right hon. and learned Lady is aware that the Government are conducting a review of the starring system for unitary authorities and counties, which is taking an inordinate amount of time to complete. Somerset lost a recent British Dyslexia Association standard, but it is hiding behind the starring system, saying, “We’re a four-star council, so we’re okay.” Will the Government please get the situation sorted out as quickly as possible, so that there is a proper system for marking counties and unitaries—I have no problems with that—in a transparent way that is understandable to members of the public?

That is a point that the hon. Gentleman might want to raise in oral questions or in a written question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

There is real concern in my constituency and elsewhere about the corporate strategy of Redcats, a large local employer of female labour in particular. It is likely that there will be hundreds of redundancies. On behalf of myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who cannot be here today, may I press my right hon. and learned Friend to arrange for a statement indicating that the Government will seek to persuade Redcats not to make so many people unemployed, but that if that transpires, the Government will make local agencies available to assist people in finding new work? Otherwise, real devastation will be inflicted on those communities.

This is obviously an important issue for families in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to look into Redcats and at what can be done. I will also ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government works with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to ensure that local agencies rally round and ensure a future for people currently working in that company, should things take a turn for the worse.

I support the calls for a debate on good governance across the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. In that debate, the right hon. and learned Lady might want to congratulate the Scottish National party Government on their historic first budget, passed yesterday—a budget that will freeze council tax, abolish prescription charges and increase police numbers and teachers. Perhaps she will also have a word of advice for her hapless Labour colleagues, who were ritually humiliated yesterday, albeit not by us, but by themselves, demonstrating that they are just as pathetic in opposition as they are in government.

We are dealing with the business of the House. As I cannot immediately detect the business element to that question, I shall just have to say: pass.

In response to an earlier question the Leader of the House referred to the Select Committee inquiry into the post office closure programme. Given the concern about that programme in all parts of the House, will she ensure that we will have an opportunity to debate the Committee’s report on the Floor of the House? Will she also ensure that I have an opportunity to talk about the total disregard for the widespread representations made about the closure of the Walnut Street and Francis Street post offices in my constituency, the sham consultation and the abject failure of Postwatch to represent the interests of residential and business users?

When the Select Committee reports, it will be topical to discuss the post office closure programme, which might be a good subject for a topical debate. During that debate my hon. Friend will have a further opportunity to raise his constituents’ concerns about the Walnut Street and Francis Street post offices.

My constituent, Mr. Simon Mann, has completed his jail sentence in Zimbabwe but has been transferred by the Mugabe regime to a potentially terrible fate in Equatorial Guinea, despite the fact that his appeals processes have not been completed and despite the assurances given to the British ambassador to Zimbabwe that that would not happen. May we have a statement as soon as possible on the Floor of the House from the Foreign Secretary about what action is going to be taken? Quiet diplomacy has failed and we now have to save Mr. Mann, whatever he has or has not done, from torture and a horrible death in a terrible situation.

I will bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

I do not know whether my right hon. and learned Friend has visited a bookmaker recently, but if she has, she will have noticed that many are exploiting an unintended loophole in the Gambling Act 2005, by installing up to four machines, each of which can take a stake on a single play of £100. Such machines are distorting the market for coin-operated machines so much that they are even affecting the seaside arcade industry and threatening jobs where machines are manufactured in my constituency. I have applied for an Adjournment debate on the subject, but perhaps it deserves a wider debate in the House.

My hon. Friend makes two important points on behalf of his constituency. One is about gambling and the other is about the future of seaside towns. The future of seaside towns, including the amusements available, is perhaps something that we should consider for a topical debate when it gets a bit warmer.

It is an awful long time since we had a debate on policing in London. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a topical debate on policing in London, so that we can explore the recent Metropolitan police statistics, which show a significant fall in crime to its lowest level in nine years, with knife crime down 13 per cent. and an increase in offenders brought to justice? Such a debate would also be an opportunity to explore the London Mayor’s record in providing 10,000 extra police officers and police community support officers and his pledge for an extra 1,000, which contrasts with the Conservative candidate’s policy of cuts in the police budget.

I will take that as a proposal for a topical debate, because the issue will become increasingly topical as we approach 1 April, when neighbourhood policing will be introduced in all areas in London. That is something that Londoners want. The work that those teams will do could well be the subject for a topical debate, which could include the absolute support of the Labour Mayor and the Labour Government for ensuring extra policing and the resistance to that from a number of Conservatives.

May we have a debate on public sector pay, during which the Government will be able to explain to the House why giving 475,000 teachers a 2.45 per cent. pay rise will control inflation, but giving 140,000 police officers a 2.5 per cent. pay rise will create rampant inflation?

What the hon. Gentleman has done is transpose percentage increase figures from different years. We want to be sure that we can negotiate three-year pay deals, so in the year April 2007 to April 2008 all pay agreements had to be kept to 1.9 per cent. As well as properly rewarding important public sector workers, we are going to make absolutely sure that inflation and interest rates are kept low.

In three days’ time, Churches and other religious organisations will be supporting an international day of prayer for those with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Will the Leader of the House take this as a bid for a topical debate on the issue, which affects hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country? The conditions are under-recognised and under-resourced and they badly need a national strategy, a national taskforce and a well resourced plan for the future.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. For many years, families have struggled to support and care for children with autism, often to a great extent on their own and without the proper back-up of integrated services. There is now a great deal more awareness of the difficulties of autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and a recognition of the importance of early diagnosis and integrated services. I congratulate the Churches on picking this for an international day of prayer, and we would like to work with the Churches, local government and the voluntary sector to ensure that families with a family member who develops autism or Asperger’s have the backing that they need in future.

As today’s important announcement—made outside the House—that the Treasury would take on £24 billion of Northern Rock debt effectively amounts to nationalisation, how come the Chancellor has not come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement? Will the Leader of the House guarantee to us that he will come tomorrow?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made regular statements on Northern Rock. He has also made clear the principles with which he is approaching the matter, which involve giving priority to financial stability and security for those whose savings are invested in Northern Rock. The right hon. Gentleman and others ask for ever more statements. The Chancellor has said that when he has something to announce on Northern Rock, he will come to the House to announce it. Whenever he does so, however, the one thing that is always absent is any sign of a clear alternative strategy from the Opposition.

May we have a topical debate on the irresponsible and inaccurate reporting of the media and, in particular, their failure to follow the Samaritans’ guidelines when reporting suicides? My Bridgend community has been called a “death town”, a “suicide town” and a “suicide cult town”. I have had researchers purporting to be from the BBC “Ten o’clock news” asking for details of the parents and families of those who have died, so that they can interview them. That is irresponsible reporting. May we have a debate on that matter?

I think that we would all wish to express our sympathy and condolences to the families who have lost young people through suicide in this tragic situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know that there is great concern among parents that the press reporting is making the situation more dangerous for young people. Instead of informing them of where to turn, it is simply whipping up fear. I know that my hon. Friend feels angry and aggrieved on behalf of her constituents, and that she is taking things forward herself. I am sure that what she has done by raising the question of the guidelines will go a long way towards ensuring that they are enforced, as she rightly demands.

I strongly support the requests of my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Whatever Simon Mann may have done, or not done, does the Leader of the House accept that he is entitled to reasonable treatment and fair legal representation? There is real concern that he will get neither of those in Equatorial Guinea. Will she try to arrange an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to tell us what the Government are doing to help him?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, when he writes to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), also to send a letter at the same time to set out what the Government are doing in this respect. If there are any further questions to be asked, on the basis of the information that the Foreign Secretary gives to hon. Members, no doubt they can raise the matter again.

On Monday this week, British Waterways announced that it was pulling out of the Cotswold Canal Partnership, which is a major project to reopen a canal that is mainly in my constituency. The news was given really peremptorily by British Waterways, even to the Minister who has line responsibility for the matter. May we have a debate on the relationship between public bodies such as British Waterways, Government Ministers and this place, to discuss how such decisions are reached and whether we could be afforded the courtesy of some forward knowledge of them, so that we could prepare to deal with difficult situations such as these?

My hon. Friend’s point touches on the important issue of national agencies making decisions in a locality or region that will have a profound effect on that region. There is sometimes a sense that they are not accountable to the people in the region or locality who will have to suffer the consequences of their action. That is why we are going to bring to the House proposals for regional accountability, in which I know that my hon. Friend will play an important part. Meanwhile, I will bring the question of British Waterways to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

The Leader of the House has already answered two questions on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that will be before the House shortly. May I drill down on that issue a bit further? A ruling has been made that amendments on the question of abortion can be tabled, and I would wish to table an amendment to bring down the upper limit from 24 weeks. Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that abortion will be discussed in Committee on the Floor of the House, and that it will not be hived off upstairs to another Committee? Will she ensure that an issue as important as this can have input from all Members on both sides of the House?

The hon. Lady knows that the selection of amendments for debate is a question not for the Leader of the House but for the Speaker. On the question of abortion, the most important thing is that there is good sex education, that there is responsibility among young boys, and that there is contraception available for young girls—

The hon. Lady asked a question about the selection of amendments, and that is a matter for the Speaker.

In her discussions with the Foreign Secretary to convey the mood of many Members of the House concerning the plight of Simon Mann, will the Leader of the House also tell him that we would like to know what steps the Government are taking to bring in ambassadors or representatives from Equatorial Guinea, to put pressure on EU member states to get behind this case, and to ensure, as we did with those held at Guantanamo Bay, that any citizen—whatever they have or have not done—has the right to a free and fair trial and all rights under the law?

I think we are all concerned that people are entitled to their human rights wherever they are, and that the British Government stand up for human rights internationally and, particularly, look after British citizens whose rights are being breached by foreign Governments. As I mentioned earlier, this is a matter for our consular services, and I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Further to those questions, surely we need more than just a letter; we need a statement on Simon Mann. He has two sons serving in the British Army. The point is that the Equatorial Guinea regime has kidnapped an EU citizen wholly unlawfully; there is no legal basis on which he can be held.

If that is the case, it is certainly a question for our consular representatives to take forward. It is often the case that, working together with other EU partners, we can be more effective than we can acting as a country on our own.

The European Union (Amendment) Bill has so far been debated in Committee for eight and a half hours. On every occasion that it has been debated, we have only reached the first group of amendments, with many Members being left standing when the debate closed. It has been possible, however, to debate general motions about the Lisbon treaty for 15 and a half hours. I know that the Leader of the House wants to have a full debate on this matter. She could make an enormous name for herself by being courageous and bold here. She could do one of two things. She could get rid of the motions on the Lisbon treaty and debate everything in Committee, or she could be even bolder. I understand that Committees can sit even when the rest of the House is not here. We have a constituency week next week. Why does she not allow the Committee to sit next week so that we could have more time to debate these matters?

We are having more debate on the Lisbon treaty and the European Union (Amendment) Bill than we did on the Nice treaty, the Amsterdam treaty and the Single European Act put together. Indeed, we had six hours of debate—effectively a whole day—on the procedure and we have tried to be flexible in our interpretation of the procedure motion. Quite frankly, I do not believe that anything would satisfy Conservative Members. I do not know whether they ever listen to the business statement, but they well know that European business is being amended day in, day out. At the end of it all, however, the only things we know about the Opposition are that they want isolationism and that their only policy is to have a referendum. On that basis, they will never be fit for government.

In support of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) in respect of his constituent Simon Mann and his wife and children, may I ask the Leader of House to implore the Foreign Secretary to talk to our allies, particularly the United States which is so influential in this area? Will she do so as a matter of urgency, because if she does not, it may be too late?

My suggestion to hon. Members who have raised this issue is to ask the Foreign Secretary for a meeting. I will tell my right hon. Friend to expect a request for such a meeting from hon. Members who have expressed interest in the case.