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Business of the House

Volume 472: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

The business for the week commencing 25 February will be:

Monday 25 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.

Tuesday 26 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, followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order relating to Cheshire.

Wednesday 27 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 and remaining amendments on clause 2.

Thursday 28 February—A debate on Welsh affairs.

Friday 29 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 3 March will include:

Monday 3 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [9th allotted day] covering clauses 3 to 7.

Tuesday 4 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [10th allotted day] covering clauses 3 to 7 not completed on 3 March.

Wednesday 5 March—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [11th allotted day] covering clause 8, the schedule, new clauses and new schedules.

Thursday 6 March—A debate on women’s representation in democracy.

Friday 7 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 and 13 March will be:

Thursday 6 March—A debate on the International Health Partnership.

Thursday 13 March—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human rights on the human rights of older people in health care.

My thanks to the Deputy Leader of the House for that information.

The Government promised that, in place of a referendum, we would have line-by-line scrutiny and 20 days of debate on the Lisbon treaty. But the House has been given only 14 days of debate, and last night a group of defence amendments was never even reached. Failing to debate such an important and weighty issue as the defence of our country is unacceptable. Will the Deputy Leader of the House commit to giving an extra day of defence debate?

We found out this week that, to meet Government targets, seriously ill patients are left for hours in ambulances instead of being admitted to accident and emergency. Over the past 15 months, such deplorable treatment of patients has led to at least 44,000 delays being reported. May I suggest that we have a topical debate on the Government’s obsession with targets and the impact that it is having on patient care?

Having lost the personal details of 25 million people and subjected millions of families to the appalling mismanagement of tax credits, staff at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are now in line for record bonuses of £23 million. That is almost £1 for every person whose details have been lost. Will the Chancellor make a statement to explain why the Government are rewarding a Department that has failed our families so badly?

The Government have spent £800 million trying to cut the number of students dropping out of university. But more than one fifth of those students are still dropping out, which is a decrease of a mere 1 per cent. over eight years. Spending £800 million for a 1 per cent. return is a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money. We need the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to make a statement to the House on the disastrous failure of his policy.

Only a small number of illegal immigrants are ever deported from the UK. But we now find that a large number of those people are turned back by the country to which they are deported and returned to the UK because the Home Office has messed up their paperwork. Even when the Home Office tries to deport someone, it cannot get it right. We need an urgent statement from the Home Secretary on the continued mismanagement of her Department.

Finally, two years ago, Tony Blair promised that our troops would get anything that they needed for their protection. But this week, commanders in Afghanistan have said that they do not have funding for helicopters that they desperately need. The Government coroner says that troops have inadequate equipment, and there are reports that defence cuts may be as much as £3 billion. This cannot be right. We need a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence urgently, explaining why the Government are failing properly to protect the brave men and women who daily put their lives at risk in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

This is a Government who have reneged on their pledges to Parliament, failed patients, let down our future generation and betrayed our armed forces. This is a Government who are staggering from one disaster to another. They are incapable, incompetent and in a mess. The British people know that they deserve better and they are not impressed.

The hon. Gentleman began by raising the consideration of the Bill to enact the Lisbon treaty. He knows very well that we wanted to give the House a proper opportunity for substantial consideration of the Bill. We have set out a process, which the House agreed following a full debate, that enables the House to have a discussion on the substantive issues, as well as giving time to consider amendments. The Opposition, moreover, accepted that approach in their own programme motion. Furthermore, the Government promised to be flexible with respect to the timetabling on individual days, and we have been flexible. We were flexible yesterday, giving three hours for the amendments as well as three hours for the general debate. The suggestion that there has not been proper consideration of this Bill is quite ridiculous. We have allowed 12 days for the Committee of the whole House, which is more than the Committee stages for the Nice and Amsterdam treaties and the Single European Act put together.

The hon. Gentleman went on to raise the issue of waits in ambulances for A and E. I do not know whether he is aware of the fact that, in the past two years, 98 per cent. of patients were seen, diagnosed and treated within four hours. In the last quarter for which we have statistics, 2.7 per cent. of people waited more than four hours, and in the quarter before that it was 1.7 per cent. It is quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman to scaremonger in this way.

The hon. Gentleman then went on to talk about the HM Revenue and Customs bonuses. The bonuses that were paid in—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much conversation going on, and that is unfair. The hon. Lady has been asked several questions, and she is entitled to answer them.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The bonuses paid in 2007-08 were for work carried out in 2006-07. In line with the wider civil service, bonuses are paid to encourage and reward officials and to enable HMRC to improve its performance and service to taxpayers and the Government.

The hon. Gentleman then complained about student drop-outs. The truth is that we rank fifth in the OECD in the first degree completion rates. We have a survival rate of 78 per cent., which is far better than that of most countries in the European Union.

On defence spending, the hon. Gentleman once again indulged in some quite ridiculous scaremongering. The truth is that, in cash terms, the United Kingdom is the second highest spender on defence; we are second only to the United States. The increases that have been agreed in the comprehensive spending review baseline represent an average 1.5 per cent. real-terms increase over the next few years.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of deportations. I think that those points were perfectly well answered by the Prime Minister yesterday, but if the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has any further questions on the issue, they can raise them in Home Office questions on Monday.

The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware of the long-standing support of three Home Secretaries and 180 MPs of all parties, as well as Amnesty International, women’s organisations, faith groups and thousands of individuals, for the Jane Longhurst campaign against violent internet pornography. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to deliver quickly on the assurances given at the Dispatch Box by the Justice Secretary to include the promised measures in the forthcoming Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that is currently in the other place?

Of course I am well aware of this important issue, and of the effective campaigning that my hon. Friend has done to raise the issue with Ministers and in the House. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill contains many good, important measures. As he knows, it is vital that the Bill secures support in both Houses to a reasonable timetable. That means that difficult decisions sometimes have to be made. However, I am sure that my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are aware of the public support for the measures that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I will refer the matter to the Secretary of State.

In answering the question about defence, the Deputy Leader of the House talked about the amount of money spent by the Government, but the crucial issue is the burden placed by the Government on soldiers in the front line. The International Development Committee visit to Afghanistan revealed how vital it is to have adequate helicopter support because the transport situation is so difficult. A defence statement would be useful, so we could ask questions on the real impact on the ground of helicopter deployments.

When the Government brought in modernisation, it was put to us that the whole point of timetabling was to improve scrutiny, but as we saw with the Northern Rock Bill, if timetabling is not handled properly, we do not get effective scrutiny, and the Government were unable to deal adequately with concerns in the House about the Granite vehicle, which so affected what exactly the Government were nationalising. Will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that, on vital issues such as Northern Rock, we have proper time for debate?

I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests in respect of energy matters to do with my shareholding in Shell and to do with the offshore oil and gas industry. I also remind the House that I am vice-president of Energy Action Scotland, a fuel poverty charity. I call for a debate on fuel prices and note that yet more price rises for the country to contend with are revealed today. The Government have relied on low fuel prices to tackle fuel poverty, but we desperately need more investment and effective measures for warm homes. The Government need to explain how they intend to deal with their increased VAT take as prices rise and with the increased profits for the fuel companies that have come from carbon tax allocations.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has prayed against the changes in immigration regulations and would like to see that matter debated on the Floor of the House so that Members can express their concerns about how those changes might impact on people. In previous questions, my hon. Friend has welcomed the fact that we are to have debates on Welsh affairs and women’s affairs, but when Commonwealth day comes, may we also have a debate on Commonwealth issues, which would allow a wide range of concerns to be raised across the House?

Finally, in the Christmas Adjournment debate I raised issues about the Post Office and the Deputy Leader of the House arranged for the Minister with responsibility for the Post Office to reply in writing, but it would be useful to have a debate now on the progress of the post office closure programme, so that Members confronted by it could inform the House how it is working on the ground. Those of us who represent the north-east of Scotland will have to wait until May to find out, but we still need to know how the closure programme will happen. The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs has said that if we save a post office, we do not necessarily have to close another one in lieu. Many Members are saying, apocryphally, that that is not the message they are getting on the ground with the current closure programme. A debate on the post office closure programme would therefore be extremely timely and would help us to understand exactly what the Government require of the Post Office.

The hon. Gentleman began by raising the issue of resources in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I am sure he is aware that the financial resources for work in those countries is over and above the normal defence budget expenditure. He went on to raise questions about the handling of the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill. When it was decided to bring that measure forward, it was felt important that the House should have the opportunity to agree how it would progress. That is why there was a debate on the programme motion on Tuesday. All stages are being properly gone through here and in the other place. Opposition Members tend to want it both ways: on the one hand, they say they understand the reasons for expediting the legislation, but on the other hand, they complain when it is handled quickly.

The hon. Gentleman went on to raise the issue of rising fuel prices and fuel poverty. Let me remind him that this Government introduced the winter fuel allowance, which has now been increased to £300 for older pensioners. We are also spending record sums on Warm Front, the programme to insulate houses and improve heating, which gets to the fundamental issues that the hon. Gentleman was trying to raise.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are taking advice from Ofgem on the competition issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the prayer laid by his colleague the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) against the immigration regulations. Obviously, colleagues at the Home Office are fully aware of that.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) also requested, in essence, two topical debates; that is what I shall take his suggestion to be. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman speaks from a sedentary position. The fact of the matter is that topical debates are in Government time. He asked for a debate on the Commonwealth and another on the Post Office restructuring programme, which is under way. I well know that that is a matter of concern across the House, particularly in relation to rural issues. The truth is that the Government have spent £2.2 billion on supporting the Post Office and will spend a further £1.7 billion, so Royal Mail should be able to manage a proper network within those resources.

As the hon. Gentleman said, consultations are under way. I want to emphasise the fact that those consultations have a real impact on outcomes. For example, across the 11 areas for which final decisions have been announced, 23 closure decisions have been withdrawn. In addition, with 19 area plans so far published, an average of more than 10 per cent. of the initial proposals have been changed, so it is important that people take part in the consultations.

Further to the assurances that the Deputy Leader of the House has just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on legislation to deal with violent internet pornography, she will be aware that the need for such legislation was highlighted by the brutal murder some five years ago of my constituent, Jane Longhurst, a respected teacher.

Assurances have been given in the past by the Government. In addition to the reminders that the Deputy Leader of the House has undertaken to give to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, will she remind them of the 50,000-signature petition on the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and I presented to Parliament, and of the fact that the Dutch Parliament, as well as other European Parliaments, is carefully watching what happens in the House with a view to introducing legislation along similar lines?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points, which I shall relay to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

When does the Deputy Leader of the House expect to receive the Electoral Commission proposal for the single registration of Members’ interests?

When are we going to get the regional Select Committees that we were promised so that we can begin to hold to account some of the quangos that operate in our regions?

My hon. Friend is quite right: it is important that the accountability of regional development authorities and other regional bodies is improved, which is why the proposal was made in the summer in the White Paper “The Governance of Britain”. The way that that should be done is being considered by the Modernisation Committee, and it will report soon.

Given that the Government disgracefully rigged the business of the House yesterday—discussion of the Lisbon treaty—may we have an urgent debate on the foreign policy, defence and security elements of that treaty so that we can send out a clear message from the House that we care about these matters, unlike the Government?

The truth is that there was a debate yesterday about the defence aspects. Furthermore, next Monday there will be time for a debate on the international development aspects.

Will my hon. Friend consider holding a debate on the regulation of the life insurance industry? When my constituent, Mrs. Susan Hurrell, was diagnosed as being terminally ill with ovarian cancer and contacted her insurance company to claim as she was convinced that she had terminal illness cover, the company said that she did not. Her husband contacted the company again some weeks later; again, they were told that they did not have that cover. Some months later, the company agreed that they did in fact have cover, but it refused to pay out because they had not claimed within the 13-week period.

Does my hon. Friend agree—

My hon. Friend has made a powerful case and raised an important issue. I will take away his suggestion for a topical debate on the matter.

This week, the United Kingdom Government recognised that independence in Europe represents optimal relations for nations in Europe—except Scotland, of course. A Scotland Office Minister said that there should be no changes to the devolved settlement, in the same week that Wendy Alexander wants more and the Prime Minister wants more and less all at the same time. When can we have a debate in Government time on that confusing approach by the Whitehall Government?

I do not believe that there is any confusion at all on that matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise any concerns that he has with Scotland Office Ministers in questions.

Mr. Speaker, you will know that this week it was announced that 169 sub-post offices are to close in London, many of them in deprived areas. I have one in my constituency, in Vauxhall street—a little town centre that has just been regenerated, but which will now have its heart torn out. As the Leader of the House herself has some such post offices in her constituency, will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for a debate on post offices, because people do not believe that the consultation is anything other than a sham?

As I said earlier to another hon. Member, I do not believe that the consultations are a sham. However, I accept that there is strong feeling across the House on the matter and we will keep the question whether to have further consideration—in addition to the Adjournment and Westminster Hall debates—under review.

May I put it to the Deputy Leader of the House that when she says that we are spending 12 days considering the Lisbon treaty in Committee, she is saying something that is not true? Half the time is spent on debates of the Government’s own choosing—as a platform for their own views, not for Ministers to respond to amendments tabled by hon. and right hon. Members. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that line-by-line scrutiny is taking place when whole rafts of amendments—for example, on defence and foreign policy—have been simply passed over and not discussed at all.

May I endorse the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for at least an extra day on the defence aspects of the treaty? Otherwise, the Government will not have delivered their promise of line-by-line scrutiny.

The truth is that the approach that has been taken to consideration of the Bill and the treaty allows for consideration of amendments and for debates on the underlying issues in the Lisbon treaty. That is what concerns the British public.

Can we have a statement from my hon. Friend on the process for the root and branch review of Members’ expenses, which is under way? As I understand it, the House gave authority to the Members Estimate Committee to carry out that review, but if press and media reports are to be believed, everyone and their granny wants a piece of the action. Can we have clarity on the issue, if for no other reason than that the authority of the House be undermined no longer?

My hon. Friend is quite right that this is an important issue and the public need to know that the resources that Members have for fulfilling their responsibilities are adequate and properly accounted for. As he knows, before the Standards and Privileges Committee looked into the case of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), the House decided to refer the question of all the allowances to the Members Estimate Committee for a root and branch review. That review and that work are now under way.

In the light of the case of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, the Standards and Privileges Committee has proposed some changes in the operation of the Register of Members’ Interests. That makes an important contribution to debate on the matter. It would be helpful if the House considered all the issues together, and examined the Committee’s suggestions in the light of the report from the Members Estimate Committee, in order to resolve the matter before the summer recess.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House take very seriously the questions that have been put about programme motions, not least those relating to the Lisbon treaty? I am sorry, but the hon. Lady is utterly wrong. Not only many Members but many people outside believe that, because of the programme motions, the House cannot undertake the job it is here to do: scrutinise legislation—in this instance, a treaty. Large tranches of amendments are not being debated at all. Will the hon. Lady ask the Leader of the House and the Government to provide time for a debate on programme motions and their destructive effect on the House’s ability to do its job?

As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, a whole day’s debate was devoted to the programming of the business, and the motion that followed the debate was passed. The hon. Gentleman is frustrated, but the House’s overall view was made clear on that occasion.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that fair trade fortnight begins next Monday. Is she also aware that Cardiff became the world’s first fair trade capital in 2004, and that it now contains more than 150 outlets—cafés, shops, businesses and other organisations—that use and sell fair trade products? Does she not consider this important movement to be worthy of a debate?

Fair trade is indeed a very important movement in this country. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the city of Cardiff on the significant progress they have made in expanding fair trade in the city, and I will consider her request for a debate.

Over the past few months more and more research has been published calling into question the Government’s policy on biofuels, including an excellent report by the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. I declare an interest as a member of the Committee. In the light of that research, will the Government find time for a debate so that the House can reach a view on an issue that may affect the country’s environmental future?

The hon. Lady is right: biofuels are an important new development. DEFRA will consider the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, but, as the hon. Lady knows, all Select Committee reports can be debated in Westminster Hall.

The Deputy Leader of the House will recall that before the recess we made some important decisions on the Standing Orders of the European Scrutiny Committee and its Sub-Committees. May I urge her to look at the account of those decisions, which I have passed to her? As a result of one of them, we held our first public meeting yesterday, in line with the Modernisation Committee’s recommendation that we should examine documents and conduct pre and post-Council scrutiny in public.

The Deputy Leader of the House said that she would try to involve Members more in European scrutiny. Five debates are outstanding that are to take place in the new European Committees, but they are not listed on the papers that have been circulated among Members. Will the Deputy Leader of the House undertake to list the debates we have arranged each week and circulate them by some method, so that Members with an interest can let it be known that they wish to take part?

My hon. Friend is an excellent Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, and he makes a good point. We have made important decisions on improving European scrutiny, and I am glad that the Committee reached agreement yesterday on how that improvement should operate in practice.

As my hon. Friend knows, we promised the House that in the autumn we would review the operation of the new procedures. I will consider his point about the European Standing Committees—or the European Committees as they are now to be called—but I remind him that during the debate on European scrutiny I said that those debates would be listed on the Order Paper in future.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House consider arranging an urgent debate on the Environment Agency, which has just announced that in Somerset it will stop cleaning out the waterways and ditches, or reams as we call them? There has been no consultation with anyone, and I do not think even the Government know what is going on. Anyone who knows anything about flooding knows that it is desirable for the water to go into the rivers as quickly as possible so that it flows away. If the waterways and reams are not cleared, we will experience another of the disasters that we have suffered over the past two years, and the situation will get worse.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I will ask my colleagues in DEFRA to write to him about it.

There are about six almost identical local authority private Bills before the House designed to deal with the nuisance that pedlars are causing in many towns and cities throughout the country, and even more such Bills are likely to be presented. Bills of this kind are extremely expensive to promote. Will the Government consider supporting my Pedlars (Street Trading Regulation) Bill? It would save Government time, and an awful lot of public money.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government consider all private Members’ Bills that are presented to the House. He probably also knows that the matter he has raised was considered in some detail last year when we debated the Bill that became the Charities Act 2006. However, I will draw his remarks to the attention of my colleagues in the Cabinet Office.

May I add to the calls for a debate on the post office closure programme? We are seeing savage cuts throughout London: my constituency, for instance, will have lost more than half its post offices since 2003. Given that there is cross-party concern and that post offices are vital community assets, will the Government find time in their programme for a debate?

As I have told other Members, I know that there is strong feeling about the matter across the House. I will relay the hon. Lady’s concerns to Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

The Government frequently say that time for debate in the Chamber is limited. On Thursday 28 February we are to have a one-day debate on Welsh affairs, although many Welsh issues are devolved. The population of my region, the west midlands, is considerably larger than that of Wales, but there is no devolution in the west midlands. When may we have a one-day debate on the west midlands?

My hon. Friend is an effective champion of the west midlands and of his constituency, and he has made an important point. I hope he will be encouraged by the establishment of regional Select Committees, in which it will be possible to consider such matters more thoroughly.

The Deputy Leader of the House has just announced a further two weeks of unremitting European legislation. At the same time, important domestic Bills are stacked up awaiting Report. The Health and Social Care, Housing and Regeneration, Energy, Education and Skills, and Planning Bills are all out of Committee. Can we not vary this rich European diet with some home-grown roughage?

I am sure that many Members are sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman’s concern, but, as he has heard, it is also the case that many Members would like more rather than less discussion of the Lisbon treaty, and I think it important that we complete that process.

May we have a debate on the powers of the police to deal with armed foreign nationals on United Kingdom territory? My question arises from an incident that took place in September 2005, which has just been reported. Apparently, British police were deterred from arresting an alleged war criminal, General Almog, when armed El Al air marshals refused them access although British sovereignty covers planes once they have landed on United Kingdom soil. This is clearly an incredibly important issue, which extends beyond that case to other possible cases.

My hon. Friend raises a significant point, and I will ensure that her remarks are drawn to the Home Secretary’s attention.

As the Deputy Leader of the House might be aware, next week has been designated national eating disorders awareness week. There are currently two early-day motions on the subject, one of them in my name: early-day motion 973.

[That this House, recognising that 25th February to 2nd March has been designated Eating Disorders Awareness Week, notes with growing dismay the increasing number of young people, especially female, suffering from eating disorders; further notes with concern the number of websites encouraging millions of vulnerable young people to become anorexic or bulimic, falsely promoting eating disorders as a lifestyle choice and supplying tips on how to maintain their disorder in secret; believes that these sites should act responsibly towards young people; and calls on the Government to promote awareness of the dangers of these sites and provide support for those affected by eating disorders and their families.]

According to official estimates, up to 1 million people a year now suffer from eating disorders and up to 90,000 are actively seeking help. May we have a debate on these important issues, with particular reference to the poisonous influence of websites that actively encourage vulnerable young people, particularly young women, to choose anorexia or bulimia almost as a lifestyle choice?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and important issue to do with young women’s health, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of not only the Department for Children, Schools and Families, but the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has responsibility for the regulation of the internet.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) have touched on this matter, but may we have a debate on increases in the winter fuel payment, which are necessary as it is not keeping pace with the cost of keeping warm? I must declare an interest in that. May we look, too, at the massive increases in the profits of British Gas?

My hon. Friend makes a surprising revelation in her question on the winter fuel allowance. The Department for Work and Pensions keeps the level of benefits under constant review and, as she knows, Ofgem is looking at competition in the energy market.

May I offer my support to calls for a debate on Commonwealth issues? It would give us an opportunity to find out what discussions the Government have had, particularly with African Commonwealth countries about what they are doing to help influence change in Zimbabwe. As President Mugabe tucks into his birthday cake today—it is his 84th birthday—he will do so safe in the knowledge that many of the other inhabitants of his country are starving because of a lack of food and an inflation rate running at 100,000 per cent. African Commonwealth countries must do more to influence change in Zimbabwe.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the serious situation in Zimbabwe. I know that Foreign Office Ministers do pay attention to it, and that they raise it with colleagues at international meetings.

During last week’s recess, we learned that the security of this building was badly compromised: an illegal immigrant who ran away from security guards at Heathrow in December 2004 was found to have been working here for almost two months on a false pass. Home Office Ministers tried to cover that up, but failed to do so as the information was leaked to a Sunday newspaper. Will the Home Secretary—who, happily, has just arrived in the Chamber—be asked to make a statement on this issue, which is clearly of huge importance to the security of all of us?

I think that what the hon. Gentleman has been led to believe from reading the newspapers is inaccurate. I will ask the Home Secretary to write to him.

Kent has several ports of entry, and in recent years it has taken delivery of a number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum. The cost of providing the support they need has now risen to just over £10 million, and Kent county council is having considerable trouble reclaiming that money from the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Will the Deputy Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on this important subject?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the general policy on these issues was discussed yesterday following the Home Secretary’s oral statement. If he has further concerns, he should write to Home Office Ministers.

Will the Deputy Leader arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House next week to make a statement justifying the changes to the regulations governing the granting to supermarkets of licences to run pharmacies. I want the Secretary of State to explain why the Government have changed the rules, which will tie the hands of primary care trusts so they have to grant any application to any supermarket that promises to stay open for 100 hours or more. That will put out of business many small, family-run pharmacies that have served their customers well over many years.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Obviously, the first consideration is the safety and well-being of patients, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of Health Ministers.

May I draw the Deputy Leader’s attention to early-day motion 987 on tandoori and curry chefs?

[That this House notes the concern of Asian restaurateurs that new immigration regulations are causing a shortage of tandoori and curry chefs; further notes that this shortage is threatening the viability of many restaurants that have contributed both financially and culturally to the UK; and calls on the Government to review the regulations, such as the need to speak good English before arrival, so as to ensure an adequate supply of temporary work visas for tandoori and curry chefs.]

The Deputy Leader will no doubt be aware of the contribution Asian businesses have made to this country, both financially and culturally—indeed, chicken tikka masala was voted this country’s favourite dish. Such businesses are struggling to recruit new chefs, however, because of immigration regulations. May we have a statement on the workings of the regulations so that we can look at how such businesses can continue to prosper for this country?

It is, of course, important that Indian restaurants in this country retain their high standards. However, I do not think that anyone can seriously suggest that different immigration regulations should apply to the sector. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there was a debate yesterday on this matter following the Home Secretary’s statement, and he can raise his detailed point in Home Office questions on Monday.

Order. I see that I am now down to my Thursday regulars. I will take them all, but I must have one supplementary and one alone. I am sure that Mr. Mackay will lead the way.

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House share the concern felt by me and many taxpayers in my constituency about the huge costs of certain inquests, particularly those involving juries? May we have a debate on that next week?

As the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, coroners’ courts are, like all civil and criminal courts, run independently; the processes are under the control of the judiciary, which is totally independent. He will also, however, be aware that we have published a draft Coroners Bill, which we hope to introduce at some point, and which would modernise the coroner service.

Given our current foreign policy and defence commitments, would it not show this House in a bad light if we did not have proper line-by-line scrutiny of the Lisbon treaty, not least because it contains new provisions with possible new defence commitments, including a contingent commitment to European common defence? I ask for more time, please, to save the honour of this House.

The hon. Gentleman’s point has been raised by several other Members. I have answered it, and I do not have anything further to add.

Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren are currently choosing their A-level options, yet the Government are reducing the number of modules at A-level from six to four. Many schools think that, as a consequence, A-levels are being devalued and that, therefore, children should take more A-levels than they otherwise would have. May we have a clear response to that, which we failed to get earlier in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)?

I do not think there is any truth in the suggestion that A-levels are being devalued, and I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman was not satisfied with my hon. Friends’ earlier answer, but they are in control of that situation.

May we have a debate on teaching culture in schools? The subject is close to the Government’s heart. Indeed, last week when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced the Government initiative, he said he felt that it would be, among other things, the

“chance to perform on a stage, to learn a musical instrument”.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House share my concern about the news that funding for Milton Keynes music service will be cut by £113,000, meaning that many of the 5,000 students currently receiving the service will no longer do so? How does that square with this Government commitment?

The truth is that spending on schoolchildren has doubled in the past 10 years, and that has included significant improvements to music teaching and the music service across the country.

May we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the serial abuse of human rights in Burma and the continuing political crisis in that country? Given that only last week the vice-chairman of the Karen National Union, Padoh Mahn Sha, was assassinated at the instigation of the sadistic military dictatorship, would not such a debate allow us to expose in detail the systematic abuse of human rights, to highlight for the sham that it is the proposed political reform in that country and to chart the way to salvation with freedom, peace and justice for the long-suffering people of Burma?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty campaigner for the people of Burma. His concerns were shared across the House when we had a debate on the issue only a few months ago, but I understand that the situation is changing and I shall raise the matter in the Foreign Office.

The Foreign Office replied today to my written questions on the role and duties, and terms and conditions, of the new president of the European Council. It stated:

“Discussions on these issues have not yet started.”

We are therefore handing an open cheque to the EU. May we have a debate on this absurd and irresponsible neglect of our national interest?

The hon. Gentleman knows from the business statement that EU institutional reform will be the subject of debate on Tuesday. He will then be able to make his views clear to the Minister for Europe.

Given that the Government wisely distanced themselves from the suggestions about incorporating sharia law made by my old school friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury—that is the name-dropping bit—may we have a statement on consistency from whichever Minister it was who approved the decision to pay benefits in respect of multiple marriages and polygamous partners provided those arrangements were contracted abroad before people came to this country?

I understand that it is untrue to suggest that husbands with multiple wives have been given the go-ahead to claim extra welfare benefits; the welfare benefits date back to 1987.

I want to take the Deputy Leader of the House back to the business that she announced. She will know that day 11 of the debate on the European Union (Amendment) Bill will include discussion of clause 8, and thus the House will be given the opportunity to vote on whether to carry out the Government’s promise to hold a referendum. That business does not have protected time and will conclude at the moment of interruption. Given that it will take place on a Wednesday, many spare hours in the evening will be available for us to debate it at length. That would be the preferable option, but will she at least confirm that the Government will protect that business? My fear, shared by many Conservative Members, is that a number of statements will be made that day to curtail debate on this incredibly important issue.

The programme motion for the consideration of the Lisbon treaty, including the arrangements for the 11th day, was agreed several weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that, contrary to what he is suggesting, fewer statements have been made on the days when the Lisbon treaty has been debated.

I want to continue the discussion on the lack of available Committee time to consider the Lisbon treaty. I have had the pleasure of attending each Committee sitting. It has not been too tiring, because most sittings have lasted for only one and a half hours. Selected groups of amendments are clearly not being reached—we only ever debate the first group selected. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is keen on protecting the rights of Back Benchers. One thing that would help the House would be if the arrangements for the six allotted hours were changed so that the vast bulk of the time was spent in Committee, rather than discussing a motion. The Government have agreed to be flexible on the matter. Will she examine it and publish the timetable for next week, setting out how the split between the motion and the Committee is to be delivered?

The hon. Gentleman is right—we promised to be flexible, and we have been. We look ahead every week to consider the appropriate balance, taking into account the level of interest and the number of amendments tabled.

Will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement on the national health service’s approach to group B streptococcal infections in newborn babies? Three out of 10 pregnant women carry the GBS bacterium, which is the most common cause of life-threatening infections in newborn babies, affecting 700 babies a year, 75 of whom die as a result. The NHS does not routinely screen for the condition, but if it did, 80 per cent. of the infections could be treated.

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that infant and maternal health has improved in the past 10 years because of this Labour Government’s trebling of spend on the NHS. I am sure that he can write to the Department of Health about the detailed points that he raised.