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Business of the House

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

The business for the week commencing 21 April will be:

Monday 21 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 22 April—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill.

Wednesday 23 April—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 24 April—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on a points-based immigration system.

Friday 25 April—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 April will include:

Monday 28 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 29 April—Conclusion of Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 30 April—Remaining stages of the Energy Bill.

Thursday 1 May—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate. Subject to be announced.

Friday 2 May—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business. May I congratulate her on her performance yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions?

The number of people affected by eating disorders in the UK is 1.1 million. On Tuesday, Professor Janet Treasure said that the fashion industry’s obsession with thinness has

“a dangerous influence on the public.”

Yesterday, the Periodical Publishers Association announced that its editors were reconsidering the practice of airbrushing pictures of models in their magazines. The private sector is developing a clear strategy for dealing with eating disorders, but when will the Government do the same? Will the right hon. and learned Lady make a statement outlining Government policy on eating disorders, body image and the media?

Today, a report on the Counter-Terrorism Bill was published by the Committee of Selection. Although more than 50 Labour MPs oppose the Government’s plans for pre-charge detention, not one of them has been put forward by the Labour Whips to serve on the Public Bill Committee. Does not that manipulative repression of legitimate dissent totally undermine the Prime Minister’s statement about restoring power to Parliament? Membership of the Public Bill Committee should reflect the balance of views in the House, so will the Leader of the House take up the matter with the Government Chief Whip?

Yesterday, in conflict with the opinion of many Labour Members, the Leader of the House denied that the abolition of the 10p income tax rate would have any effect on poor families. With household bills, mortgage repayments and everyday prices rising—even the Daily Mirror today published a table showing how the poorest will be worse off, under the headline “Fury at 10p Tax Axe”—her denial seems staggering. However, it may be no wonder that we should learn today that although the Government usually publish the annual child poverty figures in March, this year they will bury the bad news by delaying publication until after the local elections. So can we have a statement from the Work and Pensions Secretary to explain that decision?

This morning the Housing Minister issued a written statement on eco-towns, two thirds of which are planned to be in Conservative seats. On 1 February, as is recorded at column 635 of Hansard, the Minister agreed with the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) that acceptance of an eco-town was “an important consideration” for local communities. Many eco-towns are the subject of fierce local opposition, and there are real concerns about the planning process that will apply to them. Will the Leader of the House do her job and give hon. Members the opportunity to represent their constituents by allowing a debate on eco-towns in Government time?

This week, the Defence Secretary made a statement announcing that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be delayed. Last October, with blatant disregard for Parliament, the Prime Minister announced planned troop withdrawals to the media in the middle of the Conservative party conference in order to grab a headline. May we have a debate on the Government’s misuse of the media?

Finally, may we have a debate about the teaching of English literature? We learned this week that politicians around the world had been asked to name their favourite poem for a new book. Tony Blair chose Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”, but what poem did the current Prime Minister choose? He chose part of a PhD thesis

“about the individual’s limited powers of self-sufficiency”.

The author said that it had been intended as

“a critique of John Locke’s ideas about the self-sufficient individual in the state of nature”.

That tells us rather a lot about the Prime Minister—but why did he not choose a poem by Rabbie Burns? Given the recent goings on in No. 10, there are a few that would seem appropriate. Perhaps he could choose “Despondency: An Ode” or “Ah, Woe is Me, My Mother Dear”—although most of us would probably settle for “The Farewell”.

With that, may I wish all Members of the House, and its staff, a very enjoyable recess?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her congratulations to me on yesterday—and I think that she would have done a much better job for the Opposition than her right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

The right hon. Lady mentioned eating disorders, an important public health issue that particularly affects girls and young women. It is of concern to the Department of Health, which works with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the media play their part in helping to prevent young women from falling prey to eating disorders. I shall ask the relevant Ministers to write to the right hon. Lady with an update on the latest action being taken.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Counter-Terrorism Bill, but she will know that the membership of the Public Bill Committee is a matter for the Committee of Selection. I note, however, that the Opposition did not put forward the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) for membership of the Committee.

The right hon. Lady mentioned tax rates. I remind the House that we have always been concerned about low-income families, pensioners and child poverty. We have done a great deal to lift pensioners out of poverty, but we have also been concerned about the standard of living of single people. That is why we have been determined to ensure that everyone can have a job, that there is a national minimum wage and that we keep inflation as low as possible.

The right hon. Lady asked about eco-towns. She will know that a written ministerial statement has been laid before the House today. She will also know that there is a four-stage consultation. The first stage has been announced by way of that written ministerial statement: a three-month consultation to allow preliminary views to be expressed on the shortlisted locations, which are published today. Stage 2 will then involve a sustainability appraisal. Stage 3 will involve the planning policy statement, which will be discussed and debated in the House. Stage 4 will involve the submission of planning applications. So there will be full consultation and discussion all the way through.

The right hon. Lady mentioned troop numbers in Iraq. She will remember that about 45,000 British troops were engaged in the original invasion of Iraq. About a year ago, about 7,000 British troops were engaged. That number then came down to 4,500, and it is now down to 4,000. As the Secretary of State for Defence said in his statement earlier this week, he will continue to keep the House informed.

To conclude, I notice that one hon. Member is not in his place who is normally in his place absolutely without fail during business questions—the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—but he has a very good excuse for not being here. I should like us all to welcome Jemima Bercow, who has arrived in the world this week. I hope that the hon. Gentleman enjoys his paternity leave.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend point me in the direction of any early opportunity there might be to debate bilateral relations with The Gambia—a small but important country in west Africa, which has a good tourism trade with this country? That would give me the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent’s brother, Charlie Northfield, who is awaiting trial in The Gambia on a case of economic theft, and to reassure his family, who live in Plymouth, that all the usual diplomatic tools are being used to support him.

My hon. Friend has already raised that case with the Foreign Office, and she will know that Mr. Northfield is receiving full consular support. I understand that he is out on bail, and I know that she will keep in touch with the Foreign Office to ensure that it does all that it can to support him.

First, I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) for suggesting that he is not here doing his duties. I served with him on a Programming Sub-Committee at 9 o’clock this morning. He is in the House, so he is certainly discharging his duties to this place.

Shortly after I attended that meeting, I was alerted by Mr. Muttiah, a sub-postmaster in my constituency, that he had received in a letter—dated, unhappily, 1 April—news that his post office is now proposed for closure, in addition to those that have already been proposed for closure. May we please have a debate on this next round of the post office closure programme?

We have recently had a full debate on post offices, and we have just finished topical questions to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has responsibility for post offices, so there has been a great deal of opportunity to debate the issue in the House. The important thing now is for Members to make representations as part of the consultation.

May I join the congratulations to the right hon. and learned Lady on her historic first as a woman Labour MP answering Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and on a good south London robust performance, which was very welcome.

The right hon. and learned Lady has announced two pieces of legislation for remaining stages debates in the first fortnight back after the April break. May I ask her to reflect on the fact that on Monday, when we debated the remaining stages of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, all that we feared came to pass? We completed consideration of only one of six groups of amendments. There was full debate on only three of 20 Government new clauses, only 29 of 109 Government amendments, only five of 18 Opposition new clauses, and only four of 98 Opposition amendments. Clearly, it was a completely ridiculous failure to scrutinise large parts of the Bill. The Leader of the House has helpfully said that she will look into finding a process that means that Government amendments get extra time that does not detract from Opposition scrutiny time. Please may we have a change to the system before we consider the remaining stages of further major Bills, so that they do not suffer the same fate?

The Leader of the House announced that the debate on the Energy Bill—one of the Bills whose remaining stages have yet to be completed—is to be on 30 April. I think that everybody is aware that that is the day before local elections in England and Wales, and many colleagues will probably be elsewhere. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because they may be seeking to advance democracy in their own patch; that is why. Will she reflect on whether the debate might be held on a better date than the day before the known annual local election day, so that we can ensure better attendance when we discuss that important Bill?

Please may we have the debate that many of us have asked for, in different ways, on the OECD’s investigation of Britain’s failure over 10 years to introduce an anti-bribery and anti-corruption policy? The Government have confirmed in a White Paper that they want Law Officers to keep the power to intervene to discontinue proceedings in corruption and national security cases, following the BAE Systems Saudi Arabia case. Will the Leader of the House put it to her colleagues that that is completely unhelpful to the reputation of Britain? May we have that debate, so that we can introduce a decent anti-corruption policy and not be under investigation by an official body working on behalf of the international community?

Lastly, may we have a debate on yesterday’s report from the newly independent Office for National Statistics? It shows that after 10 years and more of a Labour Government the poverty gap has not closed, and that three groups in the community continue to have specific disadvantages: disabled people, people from minority ethnic communities and people in disadvantaged areas. The right hon. and learned Lady has a traditional view in favour of social equality but, sadly, in many areas, her Government have not delivered that equality. May we have an honest debate on why that is, and on whether they will do better in their remaining days in office?

The hon. Gentleman has continued to raise concern about the Government’s handling of the Housing and Regeneration Bill—a matter that was brought up last week in business questions. There are two issues: the first is the volume of amendments and the second concerns timing and the question of when the amendments were laid before the House. I think that we all recognise that if points are raised in Committee, and the Government agree to respond to those points, amendments have to be tabled, and I think the majority of the amendments tabled for the remaining stages were the result of issues raised in Committee.

As far as the timing is concerned, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and I looked into the issue. The overwhelming majority of the amendments were tabled on the Tuesday before the debate, which was held on the following Monday. Obviously it would have been better if they had been tabled earlier, but as they were tabled on Tuesday, the House not having sat on the Monday, hon. Members had nearly a full week to consider them, and I do not think that that is an egregious lack of time. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), wrote to Committee members before the amendments were tabled to let them know about them. Of course, the amendments were a matter for the whole House, but my hon. Friend had the courtesy to write to Committee members, who he knew were particularly concerned with the Bill.

The question of the time given to a Bill’s remaining stages is particularly difficult. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has complained about the backlog of Bills awaiting Second Reading; that is part of the problem resulting from the amount of time taken to discuss the Lisbon treaty. There are therefore time constraints on Second Readings and remaining stages. Obviously, it is always desirable to have more time to consider amendments on Report than we get. Because of the concerns about the tabling of amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will ensure that amendments are tabled promptly for subsequent Bills, starting with all the amendments being tabled today to the Local Transport Bill, which will go into Committee when the House comes back from the recess.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Energy Bill. When the House is sitting, House business must be scheduled. All House business is important and the House does not rise for the day before local elections. It is therefore right that we should continue with the business, including the Energy Bill.

On the role of the Law Officers in prosecutions, the hon. Gentleman knows that that matter comes within the scope of the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which has just been published in draft. There will be plenty of scope for consideration of that draft Bill before it comes to the House for its Second Reading.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned inequality and the gap between rich and poor, with particular reference to disabled people and black and Asian people. We are planning to introduce an equality Bill, one of the objectives of which is to narrow the gap between disabled people, and black and Asian people, and the rest of society.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend see in her programme a legislative opportunity for us to improve consumer protection, particularly in relation to the big retailers, which are increasingly using warehouses and distribution methods that fail the consumer? All too often we hear from constituents who cancelled meetings and other activities and waited in, only to receive half-delivered goods—goods that are not complete. Although in theory there is a remedy, it is insufficient. People cannot get hold of the retailers and are held on answerphones, for which they pay. There needs to be naming and shaming of the bad big high street retailers that do not deliver on the goods that people have looked for, ordered and paid for. We want some swift remedy for our constituents. May we look into this matter, please?

My hon. Friend raises an increasingly important issue, especially because more people are ordering goods on the internet. It is a matter of concern that will only grow. I will bring his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have announced job cuts in Northern Ireland that amount to a 25 per cent. reduction in the work force—twice as great as the reduction that will occur in the rest of the United Kingdom. That will have an impact on women, on provincial towns and, most importantly, the ability to take on fuel laundering and construction fraud in Northern Ireland. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in the House so that we can discuss how HMRC will live up to the promise made by the Secretary of State that there will no let-up on fuel-laundering fraud in Northern Ireland?

I will bring the points that the hon. Gentleman makes to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I know that employment is an extremely important issue in Northern Ireland. There has been a great increase in jobs and a fall in unemployment. None the less, the hon. Gentleman’s points about fraud and employment levels are important, and I will make sure that my right hon. Friend writes to him.

I could never be accused of being a sook or a sycophant, or of ever asking a planted question, but on this occasion I want to put on record the sterling performance that my right hon. and learned Friend gave yesterday at the Dispatch Box. Does she share my concern that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has refused to reclassify cannabis? As a former psychiatric nurse I have seen the ravages that that drug can cause. It should be reclassified, and people should be made aware of its harmful effects on mental health and family stability.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred the reclassification of cannabis to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and we have yet to receive its advice. Irrespective of classification, we are all clear that cannabis remains illegal, that there is new evidence of the dangers that it poses because a much stronger version of cannabis is being used, and that there is new evidence of the risk of psychosis caused by cannabis, which the Maudsley hospital in my constituency has been keen to point out. We await the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

The Leader of the House has announced that there will be a debate on the points-based immigration system. She will be aware that earlier this week the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee produced a report which, in effect, demolished the economic rationale of the Government’s policy. Will she request the Home Secretary or the Minister who replies to that debate to come equipped with an answer, or attempted answer, to the detailed and lengthy inquiry conducted by the House of Lords, rather than the arrogant out-of-hand dismissal that we saw from the Prime Minister this week?

The House of Lords Committee makes a number of recommendations, most of which are accepted by the Government and are already being acted on. We can all recognise and pay tribute to the work of hard-working migrants who come to the United Kingdom and work in our businesses and public services. We want to make sure that we restrict unskilled migrants coming to this country. That is what the points-based system, which to be debated in the House in the coming weeks, is designed to do. The Conservative policy does not have a shred of credibility. The Opposition say they want a cap on migration, but they will not say what the level of the cap would be. They say they want to help businesses, but they would deny them the skilled workers who are needed. They say they want to help the economy, but they reject the proposals that we are bringing forward to help British people obtain the skills that businesses and services in this country need.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider an urgent debate, when the House returns, on greed in the financial services sector? Many of my constituents want to know why unscrupulous people were put on bonuses of 60 to 100 times their annual income to sell products to people who patently could not afford to buy them. All that, across the world and especially in Britain, has undermined the banking and financial services sector. May we have a debate on that so that we can clear the air and find out who was guilty of such malpractice?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which touches on a number of issues. It is totally unacceptable for employees to get big bonuses unconnected to their performance in the company, or even in spite of disastrous performance in the company. People think that is very unfair. That is why the Government have introduced measures to ensure that there is transparency and shareholders can see what remuneration committees are deciding about the awarding of bonuses. It is also why new proposals will be introduced so that companies will have to report on the relationship between the bonuses being offered to those at the very top of the company and the remuneration of all the other workers in the company.

May we have another debate in Government time on tuberculosis? The rise in TB in my constituency in the time for which I have been MP, which is only since 2001, has been relentless. It has crossed Exmoor and is in the Somerset levels. Last week it got into areas that have not seen TB for more than 60 years, and it is costing the country billions every year. It has still not been decided what we are going to do about the situation. May we therefore have a formal debate on the matter?

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to bovine TB. That is a matter of concern to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised it on a number of occasions. He knows that the Department is keen to support farming and the dairy industry. How the disease is dealt with is a scientific question, but I will make sure that his concern about what is happening in his constituency is brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the democratic accountability of local authorities? Yesterday, East Riding of Yorkshire council, which has a large Tory majority, voted to support proposals to cut fire services in Goole in my constituency. Goole is a Tory-free zone, with no Tory representatives at town and district council or parliamentary level, but, despite strong local views, the views of local representatives and of me—and, in fairness, of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)—it is proposed that those cuts go ahead. Can we ensure that local authorities accurately reflect the views of the communities that they are supposed to serve?

There is no excuse for East Riding council to cut fire services. My hon. Friend knows that there has been a big increase in local authority funding—a 45 per cent. real-terms increase in the last 10 years—and I am sure that he will raise the matter with the relevant Secretary of State.

Will the Leader of the House give time for a debate on the number of illegal, unroadworthy cars being allowed into our country, ostensibly from eastern Europe? What checks are being done at our borders to prevent such cars from going on to our roads? Such cars are causing many accidents and many fatalities. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would like a debate on the subject.

I recommend that the hon. Gentleman raise the matter with the Department for Transport during Question Time, which takes place on the Tuesday after the recess.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give time for an early debate on the subject matter of early-day motion 1205, which relates to the prevention of forced marriages?

[That this House wishes to put on record its appreciation of the work of Philip Balmforth in protecting thousands of vulnerable girls in the Bradford district; further wishes to commend West Yorkshire Police and Bradford social services for having the foresight to engage Philip 12 years ago, thus enabling him to give so many young women the right to choose whom and when to marry; and believes that these young women have good reason to thank Mr Balmforth and hope that he will have many more years serving their community in his own unassuming and courteous way.]

The early-day motion, which was tabled on 18 March, has attracted 65 signatures from Members of all parties. Philip Balmforth faces a disciplinary hearing next week, brought about by complaints made to West Yorkshire police by Bradford council for obscure reasons that I do not understand.

My hon. Friend has done more than anybody in the House to bring to the attention of the general public the outrageous problem of forced marriages. The Government have acted on many of her suggestions, and I will raise with the Home Secretary the points that my hon. Friend has raised today. Home Office Question Time takes place on the Monday after the recess. I suggest that she try to catch the eye of Mr. Speaker and raise the matter with the Home Secretary at that point.

Will the Leader of the House show support for the House by recognising that programme motions on consideration of the remaining stages of major Bills are preventing the House from doing the job that it is here to do—that is, scrutinise legislation? The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) highlighted the number of amendments—Opposition and Government—that were not debated but should have been. Will she find time for a debate on that subject?

Quickly, on another matter, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on Zimbabwe when the situation in that country has been clarified following the elections? That would enable those of us who are interested to indicate what we believe this country should do to help the people of Zimbabwe, who have suffered so much under Mr. Mugabe.

The House always has an opportunity to debate a programme motion, so in respect of each Bill the motion and how the clauses are to be dealt with are discussed.

Once again, the hon. Gentleman raises the question of Zimbabwe, which he has raised in the House over weeks, months and, indeed, years. I know that it is of major concern to him, as it is to all hon. Members. He will know that a statement on Zimbabwe was made yesterday. The situation will be kept under careful review.

We all feel that if there is to be a second stage election, there must be proper election monitoring. We need a proper free press to report the second stage of elections, which was denied in the first round. A telling sign will be the BBC being able to report from that country once again, instead of having to report from neighbouring countries or under cover from within Zimbabwe.

Can we have a debate on health and safety in the workplace? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of a recent debate on Iraq in which Members on both sides of the House raised the question of the untimely deaths of 170 of our service personnel. Over the same period, double that number of workers in the construction industry have lost their lives. Therefore, will she assure the House that every British worker’s life is important? Can we have an inquiry or a debate on why so many people are losing their lives in the construction industry?

My hon. Friend makes an important point; he has raised the question of health and safety for people at work on numerous occasions. He knows that, as a result of his work and that of other hon. Members, there is particular work going on between the Department for Work and Pensions and the construction industry to ensure that we cut the appalling toll of death and injury at work.

Through my office, Senator Stuart Syvret of the States of Jersey has raised with the new Lord Chancellor the question of the rule of law in Jersey. Can we have a debate on the rule of law? We need to look at three issues in particular—Crown dependencies; the use of section 54(4) of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which can prevent cases from going to the House of Lords; and access for the parties to recordings of proceedings in secret courts.

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of important and complex interconnected points. I suggest that he seek a meeting with the Solicitor-General to see how those matters could be taken forward.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), I should have mentioned that the DWP is meeting not just the construction industry, but, of course, the construction unions.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend keep a weather eye on the publication in the autumn of the final Competition Commission report on supermarkets? That is likely to be a major report, and it would be helpful if we got time in the House to debate the implications of the power of supermarkets, with particular regard to out-of-town shopping, land banks and the supply chain. It is only right and proper that we know what that report has to say and that we have our view on how we best represent our constituents.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is a question of town centres and the rights of consumers. It is also an important issue for local food suppliers, which I know he is concerned about. Perhaps I will invite him to suggest this as a subject for topical debate when the report is published.

Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to make a statement when we return from the recess on how effectively he believes the Post Office is providing Crown post office services to those areas where the Crown post offices have been closed and moved to the first floor of WH Smith?

In particular, will the Secretary of State be able to comment on the situation with the Crown post office in Chelmsford, about which many constituents are complaining? The access to it by the bus stops involves going down four steep steps, which is impossible if people are in wheelchairs, are frail or have mobility problems. The walk round to the other entrance is too far. There is only one escalator, which goes up but not down.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the management of Crown post office services and of the branch office network are operational matters for the Post Office, not for Ministers.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a topical debate on affordable and social housing, so that we can urgently consider the impact of policies that advocate that we should abandon the 50 per cent. rule in relation to new developments and that people require an income of £75,000 to qualify for an affordable assisted purchase, as proposed by the Conservative party in the London elections?

I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes. As a champion of his constituents, he knows that the question of lack of affordable housing is very important indeed. One thing that London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has done is increase the amount of affordable housing in London. He has pledged to increase it even further—by an extra 50,000 new affordable homes. One choice that people face in the London mayoral election is whether to have more affordable housing, better transport and more policing.

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), surely the House deserves a particular opportunity to debate the House of Lords’ report “The Economic Impact of Immigration”, which I remind the Leader of the House said that there was little or no economic benefit to Britain from the present high levels of immigration. I know that it is considered vulgar to debate these issues in the bourgeois liberal circles of the right hon. and learned Lady where it is all fettuccine and feminism, but out there in the real world our constituents know that high levels of immigration put unsustainable pressure on our infrastructure, are the biggest single driver of housing demand and damage social cohesion. Now we also know that the Government’s claims are based on worthless assumptions and disingenuous assertions, so we need an urgent debate.

There will be an opportunity to debate immigration the week that the House returns on 21 April.

May we have a debate on the implementation by local authorities of the new Government travel concession for pensioners and disabled people? Despite pensioners in Milton Keynes applying well in advance for their new passes, the Liberal Democrat-controlled Milton Keynes council deliberately delayed sending out the passes and then sent them out by second-class post, and as a result, a great many of my constituents are not able to enjoy the concession that they should have been able to from the beginning of this week. May we have a debate to reveal whether this is an isolated incident of incompetence, or a pattern across the board of Liberal Democrat-controlled councils?

Milton Keynes council should get on with it. Councils should not have to be dragged kicking and screaming to ensure that pensioners get their rights to travel. We first introduced this concession in 2000 when we required councils to make half price fares for pensioners and disabled people—that was a struggle, but at least it was brought in. We then required councils to ensure that within their own area all disabled people and people over 60 should have free bus passes, and we now require them to ensure that not only in their own area but in any area pensioners and disabled people can have free travel. This is important. People should be able to get out and about, and public authorities should be seizing this opportunity not dragging their heels.

In my constituency, 14 post offices are due for closure, of which eight will be offered outreach facilities, most of which will be mobile services, yet the people living in those communities, particularly in Llanwrtyd Wells, would prefer a hosted service in a shop, community centre or pub. When I asked the Post Office about this it said that the model shows that a mobile service would be better for the community. Can the Leader of the House assure me that that model will be made available to Members and placed in the Library of the House so that we can test it during the consultation period?

I will ask those Ministers responsible to ask the Post Office to make that information available to hon. Members.

I support everything that has already been said about the shambles on Monday with the Housing and Regeneration Bill, but what has happened to the Planning Bill, which completed its Public Bill stage on 5 February and has sunk without trace? As the Government assert that that will speed up the planning system, is it not counter-productive for the Government to delay its passage through the House?

When it next comes before the House will be announced in the business statement. The right hon. Gentleman will know that following the debates on the Lisbon treaty, a queue of important business is waiting to come back before the House.

May we have an urgent debate on the Government’s policy of coastal abandonment? The Environment Agency has proposed withdrawing support from many of the coastal defences on Sunk island and the South Holderness coast in my constituency, abandoning 2,000 homes around the Humber, and vast tracts of some of the most productive farmland in the country.

This is a matter of great concern to a number of hon. Members that would be suitable for a Westminster Hall debate, so I will raise that with the relevant Ministers.

Despite the devolved Administrations, we still have Welsh and Scottish questions, so will the Leader of the House institute west country questions so that with the advent of the summer season and hundreds of thousands of welcome visitors coming down to the west country, we could discuss why we have the most neglected trunk road in Britain in the A303 and the worst rail service in the country in First Great Western?

It is precisely for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that we are committed to introducing regional accountability, so that on important questions concerning the regional infrastructure, regional Government offices and regional health authorities, where there is a democratic deficit—a lack of accountability—the appropriate authorities can be held to account by the House on the important decisions made in respect of the different regions through the process of regional Committees, which the Modernisation Committee is discussing and whose report will be due shortly. I hope that they will be introduced before the House rises for the summer.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House asked the Leader of the House for a debate on eco-towns, following this morning’s announcement. Surely it would have been even more appropriate for the Minister for Housing to have come to the House today to make a statement. This morning at 5 minutes to 9, I was invited to take part in a conference telephone call along with a large number of other Members of Parliament whose constituencies are affected by this announcement. That is not a proper way to cross-examine a Minister about an issue that is not only of local and regional importance, but of national importance, if we are to believe the Government’s propaganda about the necessity for eco-towns. My constituents are dismayed about today’s announcement, and they are even more dismayed, and have every right to be dismayed, that I am unable to cross-examine the Minister in this House today about that matter.

As I said earlier, this is a four-stage consultation, and only stage one is the subject of the announcement in today’s written ministerial statement. Stage one is the three-month consultation process and there will then be the sustainability appraisal and the final planning policy statement, which will be debated in the House before it goes back to local planning applications. I should have thought that hon. Members would welcome the opportunity to ask questions of and discuss matters with the Minister for Housing.

That is completely unacceptable. I read in the paper this morning the long list that must have reached the press last night. I put through a conference call on eco-towns; I was told that I was one of 16 waiting on the end of the phone, and the Minister did not come to the phone at the prescribed time. That is completely unacceptable.

This statement is one of 16 written ministerial statements, and it still does not tell me or my constituents whether the proposed eco-town for Skelton and Clifton Moor in the Vale of York is included. It euphemistically refers to “Leeds City Region, Yorkshire”. York is a city in its own right and I have the privilege to represent 24,000 people living there. This is an unacceptable procedure. It flouts normal planning procedures and the fundamental right of any Member of Parliament to represent their constituents on the Floor of the House and to hold the Minister for Housing to account. She should be ashamed of herself.

I think that the hon. Lady misunderstands this. This process does not flout normal planning procedure. There will be a three-month consultation and the normal planning processes as they apply under the current law will be applied to this matter.

May we have a topical debate on political correctness at the Arts Council, in particular the subject of my early-day motion 1318, with regard to the Arts Council request that people should disclose their sexual orientation on the application form for funding?

[That this House deplores the Arts Council's decision to ask intrusive and irrelevant questions about the sexual orientation of those applying for grants; believes that this should be a private matter and not something that individuals should be asked to reveal; considers that sexual orientation should be completely irrelevant in modern day Britain; notes that the idea of putting people into stereotypical tick boxes is an example of political correctness which is opposed by 80 per cent, of the people in Britain in an ICM poll; urges the Arts Council to take serious note of the many objections raised by eminent actors and actresses who find this both offensive and insulting; and calls on the Arts Council to end the request for this highly personal information immediately.]

I hope that the Leader of the House will agree with me that people’s sexual orientation should be a private matter, not something that public bodies ask to be disclosed before public money is given. May we have a debate on this important matter?

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Departure of Culture—[Interruption.] I shall start again. I shall bring his comments to the attention of the relevant Minister. No doubt he will discuss the issue with the Arts Council; if anything transpires from that discussion, he will write to the hon. Gentleman.

May we have an urgent debate on the importance of faith schools? Why have the Government set their hearts on a class war against faith schools up and down this land, given all the hard-working parents, governors, teachers and pupils involved? Does the Leader of the House not realise that faith schools take pupils from all sorts of socio-demographic and religious backgrounds?

That is certainly accepted. I think that the hon. Gentleman is raising the question of the schools admissions code. All schools need to comply with that code, which was approved by the House. It is the responsibility of the Department for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that it is respected in all areas.

I, too, greatly enjoyed the right hon. and learned Lady’s performance yesterday. May I give her a word of advice? Perhaps she should retain that team of script writers, because I have to say that I have not enjoyed today’s questions as much.

Seriously, Mr. Speaker, you will have noticed an increasing practice among Ministers when they are questioned about their departmental responsibilities. They try to turn things around and ask questions of Opposition Members. Will the right hon. and learned Lady consider the innovation of having questions to Opposition Members? In that way, Ministers could spend the whole of oral questions focusing on answering for their responsibilities and the performance of Her Majesty’s Government, rather than on trying to question us. They will have time to do that after the next general election.

The point of business questions is to give the House an opportunity to air concerns. They are not supposed to be a laugh, but a serious occasion on which hon. Members from both sides can raise questions to do with their constituencies and the business of the House. In that spirit, I attempt to answer questions, not ask them myself.