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Commons Chamber

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 3 April 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read a Third time on Thursday 24 April.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill(By Order)

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 24 April.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Secretary of State was asked—

Anglo-French Nuclear Co-operation

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

At the Anglo-French summit last week, in order to improve the speed and effectiveness of nuclear development projects, our national regulators agreed to establish a joint project approach to the regulation of the European pressurised water reactor should it proceed to the next stage of generic design assessment. The project will include ways of dividing up assessment work on specific aspects of the design, sharing experience and technical findings from their safety and security assessments, and looking for opportunities for further staff exchanges.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing that level of detail. It has been difficult to obtain a copy of what was agreed, so will he lay a copy of that and any other details in the Library of the House for further study? May I seek his reassurance that, welcome as co-operation with the French is in advancing the cause of new nuclear reactors in this country, the agreement in no way rules out others, such as Toshiba Westinghouse, playing their part in expanding new nuclear capacity, both in the reactor design and the provision of fuel manufactured in the United Kingdom?

I will certainly ensure that there is a proper statement for the right hon. Gentleman and others who are interested to peruse. He is perfectly right to say that the UK Government are giving active consideration to other technologies and designs for new nuclear reactors. The agreement that we have made in relation to regulatory co-operation with the French authorities is a perfectly sensible one and I hope that it will shorten the time required for the important reactor assessment work, but we are also looking at other designs, and the agreement does not exclude proper consideration of other technologies.

In this brave new world that our Prime Minister and the French President have been fashioning, have they taken account of the full commercial cost of decommissioning and nuclear waste disposal? A report published by Ian Jackson just a few days ago estimated that unless the charges to the new nuclear station operators are kept at about 10 per cent. or less of the full commercial cost being charged to external and foreign disposers now, the whole project will be imperilled and we shall be adding yet further to the £73 billion national cost of cleaning up existing waste. That is not a very impressive equation, is it?

The Government are looking at and taking advice on a variety of different sources, as one would imagine, but it is important, as we have always made clear both in the White Paper and other ministerial statements, that we expect the operators of any new nuclear plants to meet the full commercial costs of decommissioning and waste disposal. Dr. Tim Stone, my principal adviser on the matter, is in consultation with the potential developers as we speak, a document has been published and the process is full, transparent and open. We are building a proper margin into the fixed price for waste disposal and decommissioning to ensure that the taxpayer does not meet any residual liabilities, and it is important that we are all clear that we should proceed with new nuclear development in the UK on that basis.

The Government claim 100,000 new jobs from new nuclear, presumably some of them British. Will the Secretary of State place in the Library a copy of the detailed analysis on which he bases that number, and will he undertake a similar analysis of quite how many more new jobs could be created from a credible renewables and energy efficiency strategy?

The hon. Gentleman and others want to present the argument as a choice between nuclear and renewables. My firm belief is that we should do both. Doing both will create significant economic and energy gains for the United Kingdom. I am happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman in more detail the numbers that he cited. However, in relation to renewables, there is a significant opportunity for significant engineering jobs as well. We should proceed along both tracks, not just one. If we can do that sensibly—and I think that we can—our people can look forward to a new generation of green-collar jobs that will provide an important opportunity for hundreds of thousands of British workers and their families to enjoy a prosperous future. We should embrace that.

Whatever the Secretary of State’s plans for a new generation of Anglo-French nuclear plants, he will be aware that a majority in the Scottish Parliament, including many from his own party, are thoroughly opposed to new nuclear plants. Will he take this opportunity to deny weekend reports that he is seeking to remove the Scottish Parliament’s planning powers in respect of nuclear stations?

I am not going to comment on inaccurate and ridiculous press comment. In relation to nuclear power, we have to think seriously about energy interdependence within the United Kingdom. My concern about the stance taken by the hon. Gentleman and his party is that there is a real danger that that interdependence will be compromised. It is one thing for Scottish National party politicians to strut around with their rhetoric about nuclear, but another for them to continue, at the same time, to rely on nuclear power generated in the United Kingdom.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), why has it taken until now for the Government suddenly to wake up to the fact that we should be co-operating with France over nuclear power? In 2005, for example, the Italians took a 12.5 per cent. stake in a major nuclear power plant right on the Normandy coast, our nearest geographical point in France. Is it not the case that over 10 years, the Government have been very indolent in planning for our nuclear power decommissioning and left the UK very exposed, given the length of time that it will take to build a new nuclear power station?

There has been significant co-operation for many years between French and UK regulatory authorities. What I announced today, and what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed with the President of France, Monsieur Sarkozy, was an acceleration of that programme, not its beginning.

On the hon. Gentleman’s wider point on nuclear matters, I must say that it is pretty tongue-in-cheek of him to come here and complain about dilatoriness in relation to nuclear power; I have counted four different policy changes on nuclear from the Conservative party in the past six months.

Order. I like to give the Secretary of State a little leeway, but we should now get back to ministerial replies.

Construction Industry

2. If he will allocate responsibility for policy on the construction industry to a Minister with sole responsibility for that matter. (198412)

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

My noble Friend Baroness Vadera, the Minister with responsibility for business and competitiveness in my Department, already has responsibility for the construction sector.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Construction is such an important factor, not only in the local economies but in the national economy, that many of the industry’s stakeholders despair at the fact that no single Minister is responsible for construction. The responsibility is spread between a number of Ministers and Departments. Indeed, the Federation of Master Builders is very concerned about skills in case the workers do not continue to operate in this country, and there is a question of design as well. The construction industry deserves a single Minister. When will the Secretary of State deliver on that?

As I just said, there is a Minister in the Government with overall responsibility for the construction sector. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the prospects for the sector look incredibly positive. Major investment is going into Britain’s infrastructure developments for the future, including Crossrail and the M25 extension. There are major opportunities for the sector. I hope that he agrees that the construction industry has prospered in the past 10 years and that it looks set to prosper in the next 10 years.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this week we have been celebrating much in respect of “Constructing Excellence” and the training around it? Most people in the industry are pleased with the current arrangements. However, does he agree that one thing that we should look at carefully is the sustainability of construction, in terms of using the supply chain to draw through good training and apprenticeships and using our trading and subcontracting system to get more measures for sustainable construction and a low-carbon footprint?

I strongly agree. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are pursuing a number of initiatives in that area, including the zero-carbon housing initiative and others. In the next few years, I hope that we can make significant progress in shifting towards a more sustainable agenda, as he has suggested that we should.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the work done by the national construction college and CITB-ConstructionSkills, both of which have their headquarters and their main training establishments in west Norfolk in my constituency? They employ a large number of people and play a vital role in nurturing our construction and skills base. Can he give a pledge that the levy will stay in place?

The hon. Gentleman asks me to answer a very tough question. I am happy to express my appreciation and respect for the work that is done in his constituency by the CITB, which does an excellent job in sustaining the skills of the construction sector. As he will know, questions to do with the levy are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Universities, Innovation and Skills.

National Minimum Wage

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

The national minimum wage is just one of a number of issues that I discuss with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the national minimum wage for adult workers will increase from £5.52 to £5.73 an hour from this October—around 37 per cent. higher in real terms than at its introduction in 1999.

There is no doubt that the minimum wage legislation has enhanced the life of millions of our constituents, but elements of it need to be reviewed. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he highlight the case of workers who are given tips by the public that are then put towards the minimum wage, so that the consumer in effect subsidises unscrupulous employers? Given that America has now decided to challenge such legislation, will he do likewise and perhaps meet a small delegation of like-minded colleagues?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who are interested in what is becoming accepted as a very important issue, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done in highlighting it. The Government are looking seriously at the points that he and others have raised, and I look forward to discussing them with him in more detail.

How widespread is the problem of employers undermining the national minimum wage by making their employees, often foreign employees, pay through the nose for substandard accommodation, and what does the Secretary of State intend to do about it?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the merits of the national minimum wage. We welcome all the sinners who repent on the Conservative Benches. There is a problem—that is why we are reinforcing the work that we are doing on enforcing the national minimum wage. Legislation currently in another place that is shortly to come here will improve the enforcement measures and strengthen the penalties. It is wrong for legislation that has been passed in this House to be flouted, and particularly unfair and inappropriate for employers to try to take advantage of migrant workers in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentions. We are determined to crack down on the problem. The law passed by this House must be properly enforced, and we are determined to do that.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s reply to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), can I take this a bit further and ask what plans his Department has to bring into the excellent minimum wage legislation workers who are involved in temporary and agency work? May I also ask about those, mainly women, who are involved in home working and who are paid peanuts much of the time?

The national minimum wage legislation deals with the issue of home workers through the provisions on piece rates, and temporary and agency workers are covered by the legislation itself. We are in discussion with a variety of interested groups about how we can take forward discussions in Europe on the agency workers directive. I believe that progress is being made on that, and I hope that a further statement will be made in due course.

Post Office Closures

The local economy is one of a number of factors taken into account by Post Office Ltd in developing its proposals. In the London area, which covers the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, there will be no change to the post office currently used by some 89 per cent. of people, and more than 99 per cent. will see no change or be within 1 mile of an alternative branch.

In my area, four post offices have been proposed for closure, and the closure of three of them will threaten a parade of shops and the local economy in that part of Southwark. Can the Minister assure me at the Dispatch Box that the Post Office will take into account the effect on the whole business community of each of those closures, and in each case, before any decision, will it talk to the local authority about any alternative that might keep open post offices that are crucial and central to a business, trading and social community?

As I said, Post Office Ltd does take the local economy into account. We have encouraged it to talk to local authorities, and although it takes all such matters into account, I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that this process is happening because the Post Office is losing £500,000 a day, and those losses have to be addressed.

In the case of a post office such as the one in Burnham lane in Slough, which is threatened with closure, one of the difficulties that local businesses have pointed out to me is that the alternatives offered are difficult to get to and a relatively long way away. People will have to queue for a long time with parcels, and those who run businesses that require them to send things from home will have their costs added to by a formula that means long queues in alternative post offices. Will the Minister think about that in his decisions?

Another factor that has to be taken into account is the capacity of alternative branches to absorb custom. My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that point, and it is one of the factors that Post Office Ltd will have to look at in making what are difficult decisions.

With 30 post offices in Shropshire due for closure, and three in my constituency—Sambrook, King Street Wellington and Church Aston—does the Minister share the concern of local residents and the many local businesses that have to use those post offices? If he does share the concern of my constituents, and of six of his Cabinet colleagues, will he it put on the record that if a business case is made that those post offices are viable and needed in the community, he will intervene with the Post Office and stop the closures?

With regard to viability, the hon. Gentleman will know that the fact that the Government are putting in up to £1.7 billion in support of the post office network keeps viable thousands of post office branches that would otherwise be threatened with closure. I remind him that his own Front Bench spokesman said during a recent debate:

“we fully expect the network to shrink in size.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 947.]

His own party, therefore, accepts the need for closures, too.

May I inform my hon. Friend the Minister that on Monday I met a Post Office representative at the start of the consultation period? He told me that 2,500 post offices were to close. I said, “I think you’ve got that wrong. It might finish up being 1,983, but every post office should be considered on its merits.” What is the point of having a consultation period when I, like many of my colleagues in the House, have been given a figure of three that will shut in our constituencies? Is it because there are three non-viable post offices in everyone’s constituency, or are we just sharing the misery out? While going through the consultation period with my constituents, I have recognised that one or two post offices might be non-viable, but not three. What chance of success—

Of the 14,000 branches currently in the network, some 4,000 would run as a commercial network. We do not believe that the network should be reduced to that size, which is why we subsidise it to the extent that we do. As the Post Office made clear last summer, the consultation concerns the detail of how the change is to be implemented, and the overall figures were announced to Parliament in May of last year.

May I offer to the Minister as a working example the post office in Levenwick in the south end of Shetland, which is due for closure? It operates as part of the shop there, and if the post office closes, the community fears that the shop will not be far behind. If the shop closes, not many people will want to use the campsite in the summer months, and the campsite subsidises the village hall. When he was setting up this whole process in the first place, what instructions did he give to the Post Office about considering such a domino effect on local economies?

The Post Office considered the special and specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As matters stand, there are more than 70 post offices—I believe that the figure is 73—there, and I understand that six are to go. The access criteria are specifically designed to protect rural and sparsely populated parts of the United Kingdom such as that that the hon. Gentleman represents.

National Minimum Wage

5. How many cities were visited by the Government’s campaign bus promoting the national minimum wage in the last six months; and how many people used its services. (198415)

The national minimum wage bus visited 64 locations during a nine-week tour this year. The team spoke directly to approximately 90,000 people and distributed around 130,000 leaflets. The bus campaign also received extensive media coverage, which reached many more people. That is only one element of the minimum wage information campaign, which also includes posters, online information and radio advertising.

The minimum wage guidelines have always recognised the special role of volunteers. Can the Minister do more to remove the barriers to volunteering that some voluntary organisations believe exist under the current minimum wage regime, without leaving the door open to the abuse of voluntary workers?

My hon. Friend asks an important question, which many leading voluntary organisations have also raised with us. I am glad to tell her that the Government have tabled an amendment to the Employment Bill, which is currently being discussed in Parliament, to broaden the range of expenses that can be paid to volunteers without unintentionally triggering entitlement to the minimum wage. That will remove a hurdle to volunteering and assist volunteers, who may need help with, for example, child care costs. It is an important step to boost volunteering in the country.

Small Business Regulation

In December 2007, the Government announced that we had delivered £800 million of annual savings for business by reducing red tape. For example, from this Sunday, private companies will no longer need to have a company secretary, saving each of them an estimated £50 to £100.

Indeed, we have several other measures. For example, private companies no longer need to hold an annual general meeting, firms will have to apply for small business rate relief only once every five years rather than every year, and heavy goods vehicle operators can carry out their licensing transactions online. Those are examples of several measures that we have taken because, although the World Bank ranks Britain as the sixth best economy in the world to do business, we are not complacent. We want to ensure that Britain remains one of the best places in the world to do business.

The Minister knows that a batty European directive has been quietly pushed through the House without a vote. It places pub landlords in jeopardy if customers call the staff “love” or “darling”; I personally use “angel”.

More seriously, the directive places a further burden of some £10 million on small business to enforce and monitor it. What steps did the Minister take to stop that farcical additional burden on small businesses? When will the Government start saying no to stupid European regulations, which are unenforceable, encourage troublemakers and generally bring the law into disrepute?

There are certain rules about language in the House, but outwith those, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to call me anything he wishes and I assure him that I will not take offence.

This country has led the way in making the European Union alive to the need to ensure that regulation is proportionate and not over-burdensome. We have pushed hard for the European Commission to adopt a similar position to the one in this country, where we have a target of reducing the administrative burdens from the European proposals by 25 per cent. We intend to continue to push that with the Commission and other member states.

In his Budget speech, the Chancellor announced that there would be

“radical new proposals to impose a limit on the amount of regulation that can be imposed by Whitehall Departments.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 292.]

Given that regulation is six times more burdensome on small business than on large business, can the Minister throw any light on when those radical new proposals will be brought forward?

The hon. Lady will also have seen the enterprise strategy that was published alongside the Budget, which precisely discussed consulting on, for example, the introduction of regulatory budgets. She raises the burden of regulation, but let me remind her to look at her party’s policy programme, where she may find extensive proposals for additional regulation. Perhaps we should bear that in mind, as well as the Government’s record.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is absolutely right. The burden of regulation and bureaucracy falls far more heavily on small business than on large business, which can afford to employ the staff to deal with it. Does the Minister agree that regulation is damaging for smaller business because it takes the attention of the sole proprietor—or perhaps he and a co-partner—away from the purpose of their business, thereby causing the business to suffer and the Government’s tax take to fall?

I outlined several measures that are a specific help to small businesses, such as the requirements on AGMs and the lightening of the requirements on company secretaries. We are alive to the burdens on small businesses. That is why we have brought forward those measures and why we have introduced commencement dates, so that people know when any regulations will be introduced. We published the enterprise strategy alongside the Budget precisely to work with business to ensure that any regulatory burden is not over-burdensome.

Since 1997, the total burden of regulation has risen by £65 billion, according to the British Chambers of Commerce. Of that total, more than £32 billion has come from one Department—the one represented by those sitting opposite on the Treasury Bench. So despite the Minister’s earlier claims and offers for future action, his record shows that his Department is responsible for nearly half the total regulatory burden on small businesses. Given that, will he now stand at the Dispatch Box and tell us exactly how much of his £32 billion he will cut in the next 12 months?

The Department has a commitment to reduce its burden by £700 million. However, I take issue with the allegation that business burdens have risen by £66 billion, because that includes a number of measures that I would not classify as a burden, but which the hon. Gentleman might, such as access to transport for the disabled. Does he think that that is a burden? Those measures also include controls over asbestos. Does he think that health and safety measures such as those are a burden? Some of those measures are not burdens on business, but appropriate regulations, which are a mark of a decent and civilised society.

Post Office Closures

7. What recent discussions he has had with the managing director of Post Office Ltd on the process of consultation on the closure of sub-post offices. (198417)

I regularly meet and discuss issues relating to the post office network with the managing director of Post Office Ltd, which of course include the current consultation process, which we are in the middle of, and the proposed new outreach services.

There is a widespread and increasingly desperate view that every conceivable question on post offices has already been asked, with not a single acceptable answer given, but let me try this. Of the nine closures in my constituency, at least two—Bayford and Charlton Horethorne—are close to the border with Dorset, which has a different consultation process. Many communities in Dorset will be affected by those closures, but their views are not being sought. Do people not count if they live the wrong side of a line?

Of course they count, but any proposal based on a geographical area will involve people on either side of a line. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I am sure that the Post Office will do its best to take local views into account in what is a difficult process. I say again, however, that without the extensive subsidy that the Government are putting in, thousands more branches could be under threat. We have given financial certainty to the network over the next few years, which is something that it did not always enjoy in the past.

In its report of 8 February, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concerns about certain aspects of the consultation process, many of which could be addressed quite quickly. Despite the significant funding that the Government are putting into the network, we are concerned that there is apparently no policy in place to prevent the further shrinkage of the network from 11,500 to the 7,500 figure that meets the access criteria. Does the Minister therefore understand my disappointment that despite the early indications that the Department would expedite its response to the report, it so far looks unlikely even to meet the informal deadline, which is normally two months?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the serious work that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Select Committee has done on this issue. It has now issued three reports, and we will respond very soon to the report that he mentioned. I note the Committee’s specific proposal to make it clearer that the basis of the consultation was the implementation of the programme rather than it simply being a referendum on whether there should be closures. As we now know, both parties accept the need for closures. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson made that clear in the debate on the subject a couple of weeks ago. The hon. Gentleman’s Committee made a very good point on that subject, and I hope that Post Office Ltd will take it up.

Eight post offices in my constituency are threatened with closure. Two in particular—at Primrose Hill in Lydney and at Ruspidge—have a strong case for remaining open. Will the Minister confirm what the Prime Minister is reported—in one of our excellent local newspapers, The Citizen—to have said, namely that, if people had a strong case against the planned closure of their local post office, they could appeal and take the matter right to the top and to the chairman of Royal Mail, Allan Leighton, if necessary? If those two post offices are told in early May that they must close, will the Minister confirm that Allan Leighton will meet me, and any other Member of Parliament who wishes to meet him, to discuss in person the case for keeping those post offices open, as the Prime Minister promised?

The Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that a review process is built into this procedure. As I have said before, it is triggered by Postwatch and begins at local level. He was also right to say that the process can ultimately go right up to Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Royal Mail Group, if need be. The question of Mr. Leighton’s diary commitments will have to be answered by him, rather than by me, however.

The Minister will be aware that Essex county council has committed £1.5 million to keep certain post offices open, including two profitable branches at Billericay and Wickford in my constituency. Despite assurances from the Minister—which I do not doubt—that he would get in touch with Post Office Ltd, and despite the Secretary of State’s letter of 19 March, Post Office Ltd is still dragging its feet in its negotiations with Essex county council by not releasing essential financial information. Will the Minister now personally ensure that Post Office Ltd does not drag its feet further, and that it engages in full and frank conversation with Essex county council? Will he also ensure that Post Office Ltd does not decommission branches that are set for closure until those negotiations are complete?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have encouraged Post Office Ltd to talk to Essex county council. I have spoken to the chief executive personally about this on two occasions, and I hope that those discussions will take place.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the decommissioning of equipment, he will understand that post offices are normally private businesses owned by their sub-postmasters. The Post Office has said that it will extend the period of notice, at no cost to the sub-postmaster, when there is a local authority expression of interest. On some occasions, however, the sub-postmaster might want the equipment removed so that the rest of the retail premises can be made use of. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but we need to take into account the fact that these businesses are privately owned in most cases.

I am sure the Minister is aware that many other councils share Essex county council’s frustration at the slow progress of their attempts to save some of their local post offices from closure. First, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), they are finding it very difficult to obtain the realistic costings that they need to decide whether to proceed. Secondly, there is a complete lack of clarity from the Department on whether such support would fall foul of European Union state aid rules. Thirdly, in some cases, equipment is removed from post offices while the discussions are still taking place. That is not happening only in post offices that the postmasters wish to close. Will the Minister get a grip on the situation, and ensure that councils receive immediately from his Department any information that they need to proceed? Will he also ensure that no post offices are closed if they have a realistic prospect of being saved?

It is for Post Office Ltd and individual councils to negotiate the details of the process. As I told the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained in his letter of 19 March the basis on which the discussions should take place to both the Post Office and the Local Government Association. That letter refers to the state aid rules. That is the Government’s position, as set out by my right hon. Friend.

Street Trading

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the regulatory framework for street trading. (198418)

No recent assessment has been undertaken of the regulatory framework on street trading. However, the Government are aware that my hon. Friend has tabled a Bill that seeks to extend local authority powers. Our Department is in the process of undertaking research to establish more firmly the evidence about the effectiveness of the current legislation. That will help us to make decisions about how to proceed in a way that balances the interests of business, consumers and, indeed, pedlars.

There have been seven local authority-promoted private Acts of Parliament to control the street trading activities of pedlars. As we have heard this morning, six almost identical Bills are before the House at present, with the possibility of up to 50 more in the queue. Will my hon. Friend consider allowing my Bill to proceed on the grounds that clause 2 would allow councils wishing to adopt it to do so? That would overcome any human rights-based objections that might apply to a blanket Bill.

I know that my colleague Baroness Vadera is prepared to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend. He has persevered on this important matter. We are aware of a number of local authorities with an interest in it, which is why we wish to establish the evidence base. We need to understand the issue more clearly.

Mobile Ringtones

9. What recent discussions he has had with mobile telephone network operators on regulation of the trade in mobile ringtones. (198419)

There has been no recent discussion with the five mobile network operators on the regulation of the trade in mobile ringtones. A code of practice was introduced in the autumn of 2005 by the Mobile Entertainment Forum, which required information providers and aggregators who trade mobile ringtones to be more explicit about cost, terms and conditions. In particular, mobile network operators have made it easier for customers to cancel subscriptions: they simply need to send a message consisting of the word “STOP”. I understand that that has resulted in a reported 62 per cent. fall in the number of complaints.

T-Mobile is the only mobile network operator in the United Kingdom that bans third parties from having direct access to customers’ phone credit for goods and services. A 13-year-old constituent of mine found that out the hard way when she was repeatedly conned out of money for ringtones that never arrived by a company that was trading illegally. Will the Minister look into how the regulator ICSTIS, the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services, could act more effectively to stop this unscrupulous practice?

I agree that many people have had to pay very large sums as a result of being misinformed or misled. The regulator formerly known as ICSTIS—now, I understand, known as PhonepayPlus—is examining the position carefully. It has a close relationship with the major regulator, Ofcom, and I will ensure that the hon. Lady’s concerns are brought to the regulator’s attention.

Balance of Trade

11. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the UK’s balance of trade; and if he will make a statement. (198421)

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

The deficit in trade in goods and services remained at 3.6 per cent. of GDP in 2007, unchanged from the previous two years.

The Government have estimated that, for the whole of 2007, our total deficit in trade was £51 billion. What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the effect of a possible flight of non-doms, perhaps taking their businesses with them, on the trade figures for this year and next year?

The issue of non-doms and their tax status has been addressed and resolved by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is right that people who are non-domiciled for tax purposes should make a fair and reasonable contribution; we all accept that, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not, as those on the Opposition Front-Bench first proposed it. I have just two points to make about the trade deficit: it was much higher at some point in the 1980s than it is now, and, more importantly, UK competitiveness depends more on productivity, so I am glad to be able to say that on that we are narrowing the gap between the UK and our principal economic competitors.

Does my right hon. Friend accept, however, that a worrying long-term trend in terms of our balance of payments is the decline in manufacturing? The balance of payments in manufacturing has deteriorated: the deficit for last year was about £60 billion, which is enormous and, arguably, unsustainable. Given the current pressure in financial services and other sectors, is it not time for manufacturing to be given a strong lead, so that our manufacturers can make inroads into the manufacturing balance of payments deficit?

I strongly agree that we must always look to do what we can to support Britain’s manufacturing industries. It is worth reminding ourselves of something, however: there is a lot of talk about Britain being a post-industrial economy, but that is rubbish. It is not a post-industrial economy at all; Britain is the sixth largest manufacturing economy in the world, and we work very closely with manufacturing companies in the UK to ensure that our performance continues to improve. It is worth reminding ourselves of another important fact: export-led growth has been very strong in the past few years. The total value of the exported trade in goods rose by almost 8 per cent. this year, so we should not pay too much credence to the ne’er-do-wells and gloom-and-doom merchants on the Opposition Benches who predict the decline of Britain’s manufacturing industry.

Topical Questions

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

My Department promotes business growth and a strong enterprise economy, leads the better regulation agenda and champions the case for free and fair markets.

Is it a departmental responsibility to keep the Government’s promises? Does the Secretary of State recognise the following promise made in the rural White Paper:

“we will…retain and renew the rural Post Office network and make banking, internet, pensions, benefits, prescriptions, health and other services available from rural post offices”?

That was a promise to renew and retain, not to cut, and also to make new services available through rural post offices. When will the Government keep the promise that they made?

Obviously, we are always looking at ways to support the rural post office network with new business opportunities, and I know that Alan Cook, the chief executive, is fully committed to doing that. I should also make another point, of which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware. The Government are heavily subsidising the rural post office network. My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs has made clear in questions today the extent of that support and what would happen if it were not available. Post offices in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and in many other rural constituencies, would find it impossible to operate if it were not for that subsidy. So the size of the network is being sustained, and it is being significantly built on compared with what it would be if we were just relying on an ability to run a commercial service. That is the right and proper thing for us to do, because we recognise the important role that post offices play in every constituency in Britain, including our rural areas.

T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that foreign workers are still working on ferries out of British ports for wages of only £1.50 to £2 per hour. Is he considering making changes to the national minimum wage legislation to deal with that loophole? (198405)

I would like my hon. Friend to give me the specific details of that case, because the national minimum wage regulations apply to temporary and agency workers. If she has evidence of those regulations not applying, I would very much like to see it.

Do not worry, Mr. Speaker, I assure you that I am sober. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the number of company directors and entrepreneurs who are choosing to bail out of their shareholdings before the Government’s entirely destructive changes to capital gains tax start on 6 April, and of the consequences of those people’s actions?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has nothing in common with Alan Clark—that is obvious.

With the entrepreneurs’ relief that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has introduced there has been a significant improvement on the previous retirement provisions of capital gains tax. The system is now tailored much more specifically to the needs of serial entrepreneurs, who now have a significant allowance that they can roll over into new businesses without paying any CGT. I hope that that is a way of addressing the real and legitimate concerns that the small business community, in particular, raised in the light of the pre-Budget report. We now have a highly competitive CGT regime that will boost entrepreneurship and enterprise, and will benefit the economy as a result.

On the issue of company directors, we are told that more than 1,500 directors who are disqualified from running a company in the UK are still doing so. The Secretary of State is responsible for overseeing this area. Why is he failing to enforce this properly? What does he intend to do about it?

It is obviously important that the rules on company directors are properly enforced by Companies House. I have regular discussions with that body and this is an issue of ongoing concern. The law must be properly applied. I am not aware of the details of every one of the cases that the hon. Gentleman raised, but if he would like to discuss the details, I would be happy to do so.

T6. Bletchley Park innovation centre in my constituency has, in three years, created 77 jobs and attracted 25 high-tech industries, one of which, Ceravision, has secured a manufacturing deal on a highly energy-efficient microwave-based lighting system. What is the Department doing to support innovation centres, such as that one, further in creating jobs and wealth for this country? (198406)

We work very closely with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on this issue. Together, or just through that Department, we would like to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend. We start from a good base, because we have some of the best science in the world—I believe that we are second only to the United States on the widely referred to “refereed science papers”—our research councils are well funded and we are making great progress on innovation through establishments such as the Technology Strategy Board. I applaud the work being done in her constituency, and am happy to discuss it with her further.

T2. Given the obvious concern expressed today about the abortive nature of post office closure consultations and the deep public cynicism about them, would the Minister object to the National Audit Office conducting a review of the process and its outcome? (198402)

Obviously that is a matter for the NAO to decide. The process is, of course, difficult, but it is necessary for the reasons that we have set out—the network faces losses of £500,000 a day and has lost the custom of some 4 million people a week in recent years. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary and State and I have said, the Post Office would be facing a much greater challenge in responding to that situation were it not for the extensive Government support and public subsidy that goes into the network.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the OECD anti-corruption team is in town this week. Will he give an undertaking that his Government will co-operate fully with the United Systems Department of Justice investigation into allegations of corruption involving BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia?

Of course, the UK law enforcement authorities always fully comply with requests for information or details about specific cases. That is obviously a matter for the law offices of the Crown.

Farepak collapsed in October 2006. We were promised a report by Christmas, and then by Easter. Both have now passed. I understand that if there is not a criminal prosecution, the report will not be made public. I have to tell my right hon. Friend that that is unacceptable to Members on both sides of the House. Like many others, I believe that the report should be in the public domain.

I think that both sides of the House understand the deep concerns that hon. Members have about Farepak customers and the experience that they went through. The investigation is highly complex because of the number of people involved. I understand what my hon. Friend has said about the delay, but I have to tell him that, in the event of non-prosecution, the position on publication is firmly set down in law and is not simply a matter for ministerial decision.

T3. I handed in a 2,000 signature post office petition to the Department on Monday and I hope that the Minister has received it and will reply to those 2,000 constituents. Will the Minister call on the Post Office to review its plans to close four post offices in Carshalton and Wallington and, in particular, the Seymour Road post office where there are plans to develop housing in the next couple of years? (198403)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is not for me as a Minister to decide which post office stays open and which closes. If he feels that there is a case for review, that process is triggered by Postwatch, which is the consumer body, not by Ministers.

T4. Essex is one of the most enterprising counties in the country, with small companies across Basildon district contributing much to the local community. However, at a recent business breakfast it emerged that three quarters of all eligible businesses were failing to claim £6 million in small business rate relief owing to bureaucratic complexity. Will the Secretary of State make it easier for small businesses to claim that relief, particularly by making it last for the lifetime of the valuation list and by granting it to all those who are eligible in the way that the Federation of Small Businesses wants? (198404)

We will certainly look at what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, those are primarily matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Will my right hon. Friend have a look at the Kirklees Enterprise Foundation, which is based in Huddersfield and has succeeded in its first year of operation in starting 54 new enterprises? Will he have a look at that success, come and visit the centre and see whether we can roll it out to other parts of the country?

I pay tribute to all the excellent work that is done in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Encouraging more people to start and grow businesses is fundamental as we prepare the ground for Britain’s future economic success. If there is an opportunity open to me in the next few weeks and months to visit his constituency and see at first hand the excellent work that is being done there, I will welcome that.

Having ordered the closure of 2,500 post offices, the Government emasculated Postwatch to stop it being an effective voice for the consumer. Not content with that, they now plan to abolish Postwatch. Will the Minister assure us today that the consumer voice will be restored when new arrangements are put in place?

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about Postwatch; I do not believe that that is the case. Postwatch is the consumer body and has an important role to play, as I have said, in the review process. In terms of the future, I believe that all hon. Members would pay tribute to the National Consumer Council, of which Postwatch will become a part, rather than saying that that body did not pay an important role in speaking strongly and forthrightly on behalf of consumers.

T7. Many Members welcomed last month’s announcement that the minimum wage rates will rise again in October, but over 21-year-olds earn £2 more an hour than 16 or 17-year-olds. That means that to earn the same amount of money as would be earned for a typical eight-hour shift, a younger employee must work for 13 hours. That is clearly unfair. When are the Government going to end that unfair age discrimination? (198407)

We always look very carefully at the impact of this regulation to ensure that it is proportionate and reasonable. The Low Pay Commission has looked at the matter from time to time, and I am sure that it will continue to focus its thoughts and opinions on it. Ministers will obviously act on its recommendations in due course.

T8. In my constituency, there are proposals for significant and swingeing cuts to the post office network such that Lewes district council, my local authority, has been trying to engage with the Post Office to make financial arrangements to keep the post offices open. The Post Office has been obstructive of that process and will not provide figures to the district council. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a small delegation from Lewes district council to examine how to engage with the Post Office constructively? (198408)

I am not sure that I should take the advice that my hon. Friend gives from a sedentary position. I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that I am very willing, as I have been throughout this process, to hold a meeting with him about post office closures.

T9. At a recent meeting with businessmen in Scarborough, I asked them for examples of regulations that could be either simplified or scrapped. They pointed out that, whereas an HGV driver who takes his test at 21 can drive for his entire career, drivers of forklift trucks and excavators must take tests repeatedly. In fact, if one wants to drive a small, medium and large excavator, one has to take three separate tests. Will a Minister volunteer to examine the matter and see whether it could be simplified in some way? (198410)

We are always happy to look at sensible ideas of how we can lift the burden of regulation. I shall refer the hon. Gentleman’s points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Will my right hon. Friend look to use his powers to impose minimum pricing on the alcohol that is sold cheaply in our retail outlets? Will he also consider rating retail outlets that sell alcohol, on the part of the premises that is used for that purpose, in the same way as pubs are rated—on turnover rather than on a business rates system?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is of course possible to take action on alcohol pricing through the competition regime. That is not something to be done lightly, although I appreciate the seriousness of his point. It is something that is open to us if we decide to do it, but it is certainly not a decision that has been made at this point.

Business of the House

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.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Just now, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and I both raised with the Leader of the House the absence of a statement from the Minister for Housing about eco-towns. There may be all sorts of reasons why a Minister does not come to the House to make a statement, and I appreciate that it is up to the Government to decide which Ministers come to give which statements to the House.

However, one would have thought it appropriate for a Minister to come to the House on a matter as important as the one that I have mentioned. Is it not of interest that on this last day of term, business appears to be relatively light and there is plenty of opportunity for the Minister to explain herself? It is significant that yet again bad news is being buried on a day convenient for the Government. May I ask you, with the greatest—

I am asking Mr. Speaker, not the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); I dare say he has other qualities that will come before us in due course.

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you could use your influence on the Government and not allow them to abuse the House—and, more particularly, our constituents—in this way? Our constituents have every right to expect Ministers to explain their policies, especially ones that touch as hard as this one does on the constituents that my hon. Friend and I represent.

Well, if I answer the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point of order, perhaps the hon. Lady will not have one. She does not know what I am going to say, does she?

I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that I understand the deep concern about constituency housing that every hon. Member has, including myself. The issue is very important to us all. I am being asked on a point of order to raise the matter with a Minister. All I can really say is that that is not a point of order. However, I am sure that the Minister concerned will have heard the hon. and learned Gentleman’s deep concern.

I am most grateful, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on behalf of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and myself? Is the Leader of the House saying that ministerial statements are now regularly being replaced by conference calls? I have never been invited to take part in a conference call before and I would not be given the opportunity to question.

Furthermore, Mr. Speaker, will you give guidance on why I have not been shown in writing whether the specific eco-town in the Vale of York is going ahead—a city region is referred to—whereas details were provided to the press last night?

I am not responsible for the words of the Leader of the House or of any Minister. Therefore, such issues are not a matter for me. On the other matters that the hon. Lady raised, once again all I can say is that she has brought her concerns before the House through her point of order. The fact that she and the hon. and learned Gentleman are deeply concerned about the matter will be recorded.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention a written statement on disability benefits and the European Court of Justice made by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)? It is due to publish information, but only online. I know from your previous responses that you prefer information to be placed before the House, by way of written statement or in the Library. It is much better to have a permanent record of important information. Finally, I should say that just before I came into the Chamber for business questions, the information that I mentioned was still not available online. I should be grateful for some helpful guidance.

The hon. Gentleman should seek an answer through methods other than a point of order. Perhaps he should go to the Table Office to express his deep concern and see what can be done. I think that the Clerks will be able to help him.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on the number of replies to Members’ written questions that refer Members to websites. Given our busy schedules, we do not always have the time to look at websites. If the information has already been published by other Departments, or if there has been a similar reply to a similar question, there is no reason why the Departments cannot print the reply in full. That is not a party political issue, but one for the whole House.

It is for Departments to decide how they answer questions; the important thing is that they do answer questions. We live, of course, in an electronic age and we use computers. If the hon. Gentleman has a deep concern about how written questions are answered, he should take the matter up with the appropriate Minister. I have always been on Ministers’ cases when they do not answer hon. Members’ questions. However if the hon. Gentleman’s issue is about the method of answer, he should pursue that himself.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it correct to describe a reference to a website as a written reply? It seems to me that that changes the procedures of the House in a fundamental way.

It is a written reply. If the hon. Gentleman does not like the reply, there is nothing that I can do to help him. He must pursue the issue again and again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that I am right in recalling that at business questions last week, the Leader of the House gave a very satisfactory response on exactly this point. She explained that she believed that written answers should give the full information, not simply refer to a website. Could you ask the Leader of the House to make a statement after the recess to explain what action she has taken to ensure that that will happen?

Once again I say that there are things for the Speaker to do and things for Ministers to do. The Leader of the House is a Cabinet Minister, and there we are. She spoke about the issue last week in business questions. I do not always listen in detail to what the right hon. and learned Lady is saying, as I have to look around for who I am going to call next. The matter is in Hansard and it is being looked at.

Mr. Speaker, your answers to these points of order have been very helpful. However, because the Leader of the House is here, she might take on board the concerns that people would still like to receive answers in the traditional and conventional way, rather than electronically. I hope that she will give some response to those concerns.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that when someone in a Department is answering a question, if it refers to a previous answer they should not just give the Hansard reference but repeat the previous answer, because they have it in front of them and it saves hon. Members from having to do work that the Department could put in front of them.

As regards a reference to a website, if a small bit of information is being referred to, there is no excuse for referring to the website—they should extract it from the website and put it in the answer. If what they are doing, having answered the question, is making a reference to a more general, bigger document of 200 pages, that is fair enough. However, it is not fair enough for parliamentary answers just to be signposts in six different directions—they should attempt to meet the Member’s point and be accountable. I agree with the specific points that hon. Members have raised. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and I are on the case, and I ask for specific bits of information in respect of this to be given to us, and we will follow them up with Departments. Departments are responsible for running the Government policy for which they have responsibility, but they are also accountable to the House.

It might be helpful for the House to be reminded that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry into written questions, and all this information will be helpfully put before it to further that inquiry.

That is a very good point which allows me to move on to the main business—a topical debate on the drug strategy.

Topical Debate

Drug Strategy

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the Drug Strategy.

Let me start by thanking many of the hon. Members whom I can see around me on both sides of the House for the contribution that they have made to the development of the drug strategy that we published a few weeks ago. Their contribution to what is an incredibly important debate in many of our communities has been welcomed. Although they may not agree with all the various points in the strategy, I hope that they recognise some of the differences and changes that have been made. In particular, some of my hon. Friends—and, to be fair, Opposition Members—have said that while it is important to concentrate on the enforcement side, we must also, in order to reduce harm to communities, consider what to do about dealing in the street, crack houses, and those who run gangs in order to supply drugs in a neighbourhood.

We must also think about treatment. We have been very successful in increasing the numbers going into treatment, which has been welcomed by all Members. We have taken on board what people have said to us about ensuring that treatment is effective, that it is not only about numbers but outcomes, and that when people enter treatment and seek to leave it we not only consider whether abstinence is appropriate but take into account all the other services that are necessary to support somebody in those circumstances. That means closer relationships with housing and employment services, the benefits system and so on. We try to reflect that in the new strategy.

Those important contributions to the debate have enabled us to move on.

I hope that the Minister will focus on the role played by prisons. Far too often, people go into prison as drug addicts having committed volume crimes to feed their addiction. They come out a few months later—a very few months later in many cases—still drug addicts, with no testing beforehand to check whether that is the case. Moreover, there are still too many people who take drugs for the first time in prison. Will he dedicate some time to explaining what is being done in prisons to stop the proliferation of drugs?

Certainly, one of the things to consider is how drugs get into prisons and to ensure that we are robust in that respect. A lot of measures have been put in place. We have increased the amount of money that is available for prison drug treatment, and it is now about trying to ensure that that treatment is effective. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a real interest in these matters. He is right to say that just because somebody is locked up that does not mean that they stop being a drug addict, and we need to take measures to deal with that. We need to consider not only what happens to somebody when they are in prison and what is the effective treatment in that situation, but what support is given to them when they leave prison. There are sometimes difficult issues to deal with involving chaotic lifestyles and so on. If that support is not available for somebody in those circumstances, the possibility of their returning to crime, whatever the rights and wrongs of that, is increased.

A good place to start would be to look at the outcome of the billions of pounds that have been spent and the results of the policies adopted 10 years ago, which, I am sorry to say, have failed abjectly. One of those policies was to reduce drug taking among young people by 50 per cent. Virtually nothing has worked in 10 years of effort by this Government. Can we not at least say, “Let’s look at what happened—it went wrong”, and examine why it went wrong?

I am sorry about that. I discuss and debate many of these matters with my hon. Friend at great length. We have tried to learn from what happened under the previous drug strategy. I know that he welcomes many of the things in the new strategy, such as support for families and making treatment more effective. I point out to him that the British crime survey figures show a fall in the number of 16 to 59-year-olds using all drugs in the past 10 years, during which period the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds reporting the use of drugs in the past year has also fallen. He asks whether what has happened is good enough, whether we are where we want to be, and whether we want to do more. Of course we want to do more and to be more effective. My point was that in developing the new drug strategy and trying to take forward the agenda, it is important to recognise that the previous drug strategy delivered a reduction in the numbers of those taking drugs, adults and children alike.

Does the Minister agree, though, that one of the most obvious ways in which we could tackle the problem of supply is to end the absurd situation whereby it is possible readily to buy seeds for strong strains of cannabis on the internet, which also gives advice on how to obtain resin from those strains?

As the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed on several occasions, we need to monitor certain things that happen in respect of the internet. We keep all these matters under review. I am concerned about the availability of cannabis seeds on the internet, as well as some of the paraphernalia that is available from shops and elsewhere. He makes a reasonable point, and we need to consider what we can do about it.

The new drug strategy provides the Government and their partners with an opportunity to build on some of the successes of the previous strategy and to achieve a substantial and sustained reduction in the harms caused by drug misuse. Drug misuse poses significant challenges. It damages health, undermines family life and gives rise to high levels of crime. The costs to society are enormous in financial terms and lost opportunities. Reducing the harm caused by drugs must therefore remain one of the Government’s top priorities, and it is obviously a priority for this House.

I probably speak for many Members on both sides of the House in saying that I welcome the Minister’s openness in meeting us and discussing these issues, which are incredibly important to us and to our constituents. I thank him for agreeing to reconsider the question whether khat should be a banned substance. It causes extreme difficulties, particularly within the Somali community, some of whom have recently been in touch with me and are very grateful to him for his intervention on this matter.

A lot of representations have been made to me, particularly from the Somali community and from Members of Parliament. Indeed, I have just written to Members about the issue. We are looking to see what evidence there is with respect to this matter. We have asked for it to be looked into, and we are developing how we deal with it. We shall examine what comes back to determine how we proceed.

The Government are committed to be responsive to the needs of communities and to the views of our stakeholders and partners. The drug strategy will be delivered in partnership, and it is for that reason that it was developed in partnership. It is informed by the findings of a detailed, extensive and independently conducted consultation. Following the consultation, as hon. Members will know, the new drug strategy was launched on 27 February, and we are now working with stakeholders to put in place mechanisms to deliver the strategy in the most effective manner.

I am pleased to note that those same stakeholders, along with representatives of service users and members of the public, have generally welcomed the new strategy and provided very positive feedback. The new strategy builds on the very real achievements of the previous 10 years, while learning lessons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) has pointed out, and it draws on the experience of all those involved in its delivery.

A few of the achievements that we can point to include drug use being at its lowest level since 1998; the fact that the number of people entering drug treatment has more than doubled over the same period, with average waiting times having fallen significantly so that 96 per cent. of clients are receiving treatment within three weeks of being assessed; a fall in drug-related crime of around 20 per cent. since the introduction of the drug interventions programme in 2003; and the introduction of a range of new powers that have allowed the police and other partners to strengthen our enforcement effort, seizing more drugs and drug dealers’ assets and closing crack houses, which can be so destructive to the confidence of communities. I am pleased to say that since the introduction of those powers in 2003, more than 1,000 crack houses have been closed, and all of us would like to see even more of them being closed.

Those achievements have delivered real improvements to the lives and experiences of families and communities all over the country, but we know that more remains to be done, including closing crack houses that are still open. Although we can see where the drug strategy has been successful, we can also see where more work is needed, or where we need a change of approach. For example, while drug-related crime has been driven down, we recognise that further support needs to be given to help people rebuild their lives, so that they do not fall back into drug use and crime—a point made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

The Minister will have seen the representations made by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who has twice, in writing, proposed “shooting galleries”—injecting rooms. Has the Minister had the chance to consider the right hon. Gentleman’s idea, and does he intend to introduce such a proposal? If he does, please do not let it be in my constituency.

We have no intention to introduce so-called shooting galleries anywhere in the country, including my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The Government’s vision is to produce a long-term and sustainable reduction in the harm associated with drugs, where fewer people start using drugs; where early intervention prevents and reduces the harms caused by substance misuse, particularly among those most at risk; where people with drug problems receive the treatment and support that they need to move on to lead healthy, productive lives; where communities are relieved of drug-related crime and the associated nuisance; and where organised trafficking networks are dismantled and their assets are recovered. That means that we want fewer young people and families to be harmed by drug misuse. We want to make sure that treatment is as effective as possible and that people get access to the support they need to re-establish their lives.

We want to continue to drive down drug-related crime, and we want to put communities at the heart of our approach, working with them to tackle problems and communicating more effectively with them to improve confidence. We have set four targets that will help us to achieve that vision: to increase the number of drug users in effective treatment; to reduce drug-related offending; to reduce the number of people who think drug-related antisocial behaviour is a problem in their area; and to reduce substance misuse among young people. The new drug strategy and the associated action plan set out the action that the Government and our partners will take to reach those targets. Both documents are based around the four priorities of protecting communities, preventing harm to children, young people and families, adopting new approaches to drug treatment and social reintegration, and communications and community engagement.