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Business of the House

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 8 May 2008

The business for the week commencing 12 May will be:

Monday 12 May—Second Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 13 May—Remaining stages of the Education and Skills Bill, followed by motion to consider the statement of changes in Immigration Rules Order 2008 (HC 321).

Wednesday 14 May—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled “Pensioner Poverty”, followed by a debate entitled “Vehicle Excise Duty”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 15 May—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Friday 16 May—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 May will include:

Monday 19 May—Consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 21 May—Second Reading of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [Lords].

Thursday 22 May—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

Following is the information: The 41st and the 42nd, and the 46th to the 65th, reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2006-07, and the Treasury Minutes on these reports (Cm 7275, 7276 and 7322); and the 1st to the 4th, the 6th, and the 9th to the 13th reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2007-08, and the Treasury Minutes on these reports (Cm 7323 and 7364).

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that information.

During yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that Wendy Alexander, the leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, had not called for an immediate referendum on Scottish independence. However, on Tuesday evening, she was asked on Scottish television:

“Is Gordon Brown endorsing your decision to call for a Referendum?”

She replied, “Yes.” She was asked:

“He is endorsing it and he has told you that?”

She again said, “Yes.” They cannot both be right, so which is it?

Today, the Health Committee published a damning report on the junior doctors recruitment crisis last year. It described the Government’s handling as “inept”. May I suggest a topical debate on the Government’s treatment of junior doctors?

During Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, the Prime Minister claimed that the Government had lifted 1 million children out of poverty. However, during Cabinet Office questions earlier, the Minister for the Cabinet Office cited the figure as “600,000”. Where did the Prime Minister’s extra 400,000 come from? May we have a statement from the Prime Minister to explain his exaggeration?

Sir Ian Blair has admitted that when giving evidence to MPs in support of 42-day detention without trial he gave misleading figures regarding the number of serious terrorist plots disrupted by the police since 2005. This is a matter of grave concern, as is the fact that the Government have asked both Sir Ian and Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick to argue the case for 42 days. Politicising the police in that way is unacceptable. It smacks of desperation and further undermines the Government’s position. We need a statement urgently from the Home Secretary on her manipulation of the police for political gain.

Last week, the Government chose the day before the local elections to slip out a written statement on the backlog of inquests into the deaths of our brave servicemen and women. It confirmed that, despite numerous assurances from the Leader of the House and others, the Government have failed to reduce the backlog significantly. This issue deserves an oral statement from the Secretary of State for Justice.

The Government have spent more than £1 billion on trying to tackle truancy. But data released this week show that more than 40,000 children are missing at least two days of school every week—an increase on the previous term. So if the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families can find the time to break away from his usual plotting and scheming, perhaps he would like to make a statement explaining why the Government are failing to tackle truancy.

The Government continue to dither instead of taking decisive action, they are incapable of giving straight answers to straight questions, and their Back Benchers are in open revolt over their policies—

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should take more note of what the newspapers are saying about his colleagues, instead of making unnecessary interruptions from a sedentary position.

Is it any wonder that the Deputy Leader of the House said in the Northern Echo that

“it is unacceptable to have policies like the 10p tax rate coming from a Labour Government.”

Last week’s council elections showed that voters from Sunderland to Southampton agree with her. The question is, does the Prime Minister?

The hon. Gentleman began by asking about Scotland. I do not know whether he is aware of the letter that the Prime Minister has sent to the Leader of the Opposition, but to clarify matters for the House I shall quote from it. The Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition that his letter showed

“that you do not understand this important issue relating to Scotland and the Union. Today you suggested there were plans to have a referendum now. As Wendy Alexander has said this afternoon, there is nobody seeking legislation at Westminster to have a referendum. The procedures of the Scottish Parliament mean that even if the SNP or anyone else introduced a Bill at Holyrood it would take up to 12 months to complete.”

The Prime Minister and Wendy Alexander are agreed on the importance of exposing the hollowness of the SNP’s position.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the recruitment of junior doctors last year. As he knows, the Health Committee produced a thorough report that examines the detailed management structures and makes suggestions about how they should be improved. As he may also be aware, the system for recruitment has changed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned child poverty. He should recall that in addition to the reductions in child poverty that the Government have already achieved—unlike the increases that we saw under the previous Administration—the recent Budget will take a further quarter of a million children out of poverty.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about terrorist plots. As he knows, the Government take the subject very seriously. That is why we introduced the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which is upstairs in Committee. As he also knows, additional resources have been provided to the police to facilitate their work on this matter.

The hon. Gentleman talked next about inquests. As he knows, the Government have produced a draft coroners Bill. He also raised the question of the 10p tax rate. The Government are considering the need to review that situation and will come forward with proposals. Finally, he talked about truancy. As he knows, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has a positive action programme to reduce truancy among children.

On the 10p tax rate, will the Deputy Leader of the House give us an early indication of when the Report stage of the Finance Bill will be? Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Question Time the Prime Minister yet again refused to give any indication of the time scale over which an attempt to deal with the problems of doubling the 10p tax rate would be made. He told my party that we should be willing to wait for the Chancellor. It is not only parties that have to wait for the Chancellor, but our constituents. The 10p tax rate was doubled in April and it hit them in the pocket then. They want to know how to budget for their bills. They will be able to do that only if they get the details of what the Government will do. By definition, as the lower earners in our country, they are the most unable to cope with sudden cash flow hits. We need details of what the Chancellor will do, and we need them before Report. Will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us when the Bill will be debated on Report, as that is the last chance that the House will have to address the issue through this Finance Bill, if the Government fail to do so?

Will she ask the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to make an early statement on the closure of post offices? On 28 May, the north-east of Scotland will hear the fate of its post offices. We need the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs to announce a suspension of the closure programme so that he can make concrete proposals to bring new business into post offices.

Following the hon. Lady’s answer on referendums, we need an early debate on communication between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster so that we can clear up the Government’s exact stance on referendums and the strategy for taking the issue forward. Clearly, the confusion created by Wendy Alexander and the Prime Minister does not help us to tackle the agenda and does not bring clarity to the future of our constitution.

Later today, the House will have the opportunity to pay tribute to the courageous work of our armed forces in Afghanistan. The hon. Lady will know that the Government’s reply to the International Development Committee’s report on Afghanistan was published last week. Will she therefore arrange a wider debate on Afghanistan? I am a member of the Committee and when we visited Afghanistan we saw the work that is being done by Department for International Development staff on the ground, not just in Helmand but throughout Afghanistan. A lot of essential development work is being done and it is important for the House to see and hear about the work and to focus a debate on our priorities for Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman began by asking when the Finance Bill will be debated on Report. I am afraid that I do not have that information at the moment, but, as he knows, provisional business is always announced two weeks ahead, so he will get good notice of the debate. He will be aware that the Treasury Committee is looking into the issue, and it is aiming to publish a report that will inform our debate.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that, in the past six months, there have been 16 debates on post office closures. The debates have mainly been specific to communities, but there will be a general debate in Westminster Hall next week. In addition, the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has produced a report, and all Select Committee reports can, of course, be debated in Westminster Hall.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned communications between London and Scotland. As he knows, when urgent matters arise, as they did over Grangemouth, practical solutions can be reached. What he is trying to get at is a political disagreement, to which I cannot respond in business questions.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the serious issues facing our armed forces in Afghanistan. Those issues could be raised in this afternoon’s debate on defence in the world, but he rightly states that there is an overseas aid aspect, which, of course, can be raised with the Department for International Development.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for us to debate the Corston report in this Chamber? It was published months ago, yet there has been no opportunity for a full debate on how the Government will implement the report’s very sensible recommendations on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.

My hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience as a former Home Office Minister, and she is quite right: the Corston report is important and the Government have welcomed it. I will take back her suggestion of holding a topical debate on the report.

May we have a debate on the rising cost of living, in which we could debate the cost of fuel? It was abundantly clear yesterday that the Prime Minister had absolutely no idea how much it cost to fill up a family car in his constituency. Why are the Government so out of touch?

I do not accept for a minute that the Government are out of touch on fuel prices. We delayed the 2p a litre fuel duty increase precisely because we are aware of the needs of ordinary families and the increase in the cost of filling up a car, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should exaggerate the situation. Since 1999, the cost of fuel duty—both petrol and diesel—has in fact fallen by 16 per cent. The reason petrol prices have gone up is that oil prices have increased. I take it that he will use the opportunity of the Opposition day debate next week to make the points that he wants to.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1280, which looks at pay-day lending?

[That this House notes that the global credit crunch is now impacting on the ability of UK consumers to obtain access to affordable credit; notes that high cost and irresponsible forms of lending such as pay day lending, which charges in excess of 1,000 per cent. APR and traps people on lower incomes in a cycle of credit dependency, are now expanding rapidly as a result; further notes that Dollar Financial, one such US pay day lender, now has over 200 Moneyshop stores providing these loans in the UK; regards this development as extremely worrying for the Governments ambition to eradicate child poverty; and urges the Treasury, the Department for Business and Regulatory Reform, the Office of Fair Trading and the Financial Services Authority to conduct a joint inquiry into the growth of high cost lending, including pay day loans, in order to inform future regulatory action against irresponsible and high cost lenders and to contribute to the Governments aim of ensuring greater access to affordable credit.]

Such lending, which is common in the United States and Canada and is becoming increasingly so in this country, involves someone having to pay out a post-dated cheque on the basis that they will borrow a lesser sum. But, of course, we are talking about much higher rates of interest, and it is really the fault of the legitimate lenders, who have a responsibility to lend to those who have lesser means. The worry is that, if that lending in the formal sense begins to dry up, people will have to go to—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not make a statement but ask a question. There was no question at the end of that, but I dare say that the Deputy Leader of the House will fish something out of it.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that saver protection is as important for those on low incomes as it is for those with large amounts of money. That is why the Government introduced the Consumer Credit Act 2006, but if there are loopholes in some parts of the financial sector I will draw his remarks to the attention of colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

May we have a debate on crime? Despite the valiant efforts of Superintendents Beautridge, Hogbern and Gladstone, antisocial behaviour that in the past would have been dealt with by the police in Gravesham is now not being dealt with. It is almost as though the bar on what is acceptable behaviour and what is not has been raised.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, overall, crime has been falling, although there are problems with some kinds of crime and, indeed, with antisocial behaviour. He can always make the points that he has made with Home Office Ministers in Home Office questions.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1488?

[That this House welcomes the proposal by the Russian Government not to require British fans to apply for visas when they visit Russia for the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United on 21st May 2008; notes that this is an excellent way to celebrate the positive spirit of competitive football; recognises that the British Government is unable to waive visa restrictions in return in respect of the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester between Zenit St Petersburg and Glasgow Rangers on 14th May; and calls on the Government to waive visa fees as a goodwill gesture.]

Will my hon. Friend arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make an urgent statement in response to the Russian Government’s proposal to waive visa fees for British fans who travel to Moscow for the European cup final? Would it not be appropriate for the British Government to reciprocate by waiving fees for the Russian fans who will attend the UEFA cup final in Manchester? Unfortunately, Leicester City is in neither of the finals.

As all hon. Members know, those football matches will be played very soon, so I am not sure whether it will be possible to organise a debate within a time scale that would make a difference, but I will draw my right hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of colleagues in the Foreign Office.

The hon. Lady will be aware that, yesterday, a High Court judgment denied the Home Secretary any further right of appeal in her endeavours to maintain the proscription as a terrorist organisation of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran. The Government are therefore now in clear breach of the judgment of the European Court of First Instance. So, first, when will the Home Secretary come to the House to make a statement and, secondly, when will the Government lay the necessary orders to lift the proscription?

As the hon. Gentleman clearly understands, the judgment was received only yesterday, and the Home Office is actively considering what its response should be.

(Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the ongoing problem of the exploitation of migrant workers? My hon. Friend might be aware of reports in the papers today that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has withdrawn the licence of a company called Timberland Homes Recruitment, which supplies flowers to high street shops the length and breadth of our country. That company has been accused of 15 breaches of regulations, such as those on transportation, accommodation and minimum wage requirements. The families back home have also been threatened by the company. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging a boycott of the company’s products, so that we can clearly demonstrate that the exploitation of workers—whether they are migrants or otherwise—will not be tolerated in this country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The behaviour that he describes is totally unacceptable. That is why the Government are engaged in negotiations at European level on new measures to strengthen the rights of temporary, agency and migrant workers.

The rightly popular Deputy Leader of the House had the good grace to smile and laugh when she was reading out the Prime Minister’s response to the Leader of the Opposition, so I hesitate to ask this question, but I think that I ought to. Should not the part-time Defence Secretary and sometime Secretary of State for Scotland come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement next week because the Prime Minister did not clarify the situation regarding a referendum in Scotland? The hon. Lady and I are very well aware that Wendy Alexander was talking about a referendum initiated by the Scottish Parliament, not this Parliament, and it was disingenuous of the Prime Minister to say otherwise.

I do not accept that the Prime Minister was disingenuous. He was energetically defending the Union, and that is what I would expect Opposition Members to do too.

Will my hon. Friend be able to find time for a debate on the importance of a co-ordinated approach to future land use? One part of Government is looking at the challenge of flood defence, with a making space for water strategy that includes more use of washlands; another is looking for more land to build on; and another is looking at the challenges of food security and the fact that we will have to produce more of our own food in future. Clearly each issue cannot be considered in isolation, so can we have a debate so that all hon. Members can contribute to the discussion on the important challenges that we face?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. These are important long-term issues. Although there have been a number of debates recently about flooding and although a major piece of legislation—the Planning Bill—is going through the House, I will take his proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate.

On 7 April, in response to a freedom of information request, Kettering General Hospital NHS Trust stated:

“The Trust’s occupancy is currently at 92% for the last 12 months as reported nationally.”

On Tuesday, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), said that

“the bed occupancy rate in Kettering general hospital in the latest year for which figures are available was 81 per cent.”.—[Official Report, 6 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 557.]

Bed occupancy rate is an important measure of hospital performance. Clearly, either the freedom of information request response is wrong or the Minister of State is wrong. Will he come to the House next week to clarify the situation?

I will ask my colleagues in the Department of Health to look at the figures that the hon. Gentleman has raised. However, he should set the issue in context. In the NHS east midlands area since 1997, the number of people on waiting lists has fallen from 30,000 to two, and the number of people receiving cancer treatment within two weeks has now reached 96.3 per cent. When he makes complaints, he should contextualise them as well.

I am delighted to hear that there will be a debate on pensioner poverty, but can we have a debate specifically on the state pension? My hon. Friend may be aware that tomorrow sees the centenary of Winston Churchill being elected as a Liberal MP in Dundee. Political historians suggest that he was elected at least in part because of the introduction of the old age pension two days before—in other words, 100 years ago yesterday. A debate on the state pension would allow us to determine where each party stands on this very important issue.

I did not know of the centenary, but my hon. Friend is obviously a worthy successor to Winston Churchill—and he is right to say that tackling pensioner poverty is extremely important. That is why the Government have introduced the pension credit and the winter fuel allowance, and lifted 1 million people out of poverty. I hope that he will have further opportunities to describe that in more detail.

It is worth pointing out that Winston Churchill was then booted out of Dundee by the people, after an unpopular war. There may be a lesson there as well.

Given the confusion yesterday on the Government Benches with regard to constitutional referendums, as witnessed not just by the very odd answers and by the very strange letter to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), which spoke about a Westminster referendum when none had been called for, and as witnessed by the failure to keep the manifesto promise on a referendum on Europe, would it not be possible to have a debate in Government time so that we can tease out the 57 varieties of opinion on the Government Benches with regard to referendums—and, indeed, to tease out just how little dialogue and discussion actually exists between the Prime Minister and the leader of his party in Scotland?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is extremely interested in this subject, but I do not know why his party have been putting back the referendum that it said it wanted. As he also knows, the Calman commission is reviewing the progress of devolution over the past 10 years and, when we have the results of the commission, that will be the time to consider these matters fully.

May I drew my hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1357?

[That this House believes that the creation of a new bank holiday is justified; further believes that such a bank holiday should be created to celebrate and commemorate the contribution of all members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, past and present, in defending United Kingdom democracy and freedom; and considers that such a bank holiday should be known as Veterans Day.]

She will be aware that there is growing support on both sides of the House for a fresh new bank holiday, and that we have fewer public holidays than most other countries in Europe. If we want to build on the popular appeal of the Government, surely now is the time to introduce a new public holiday. I suggest that my hon. Friend study my short early-day motion, and that we have an early debate on that subject.

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important matter. The number of bank holidays to which people are entitled in addition to their statutory holiday has already been increased by four days, and will increase by a further four days in April next year. However, his suggestion is now clearly on the table.

In the spirit of modernisation, may we have a joint statement from the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)—explaining why he wants a referendum that he would almost certainly lose—and the Prime Minister, explaining why he wants to stop a referendum which, unlike one on the Lisbon treaty, he would almost certainly win? If they have difficulty producing that joint statement, I am sure that Wendy Alexander will be happy to help in the drafting of it.

I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. As he knows, oral statements are made by members of the Government, and only one of the people he mentioned is a member of the Government.

(Wycombe) (Con): As the hon. Lady knows, Lord Patel of Bradford is undertaking a review of the effectiveness of the Government’s strategy for the prevention of violent extremism. Has she received any notice that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will come to the House to make a statement about the outcome of that review? If she has not, will she be able to write to me with whatever information she may be able to glean?

I do not know what the timetable is for that piece of work, but I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and ask her to keep him informed.

Could we have an early debate on last night’s astonishing revelations about airport security? Given that the Government have now said that criminal record checks for those working airside apply only to criminal records in this country, and that wider security checks apply only to those specifically involved in security jobs, can the hon. Lady now confirm that there is no barrier whatever to somebody who has committed a serious terrorist offence abroad working airside in a British airport?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and important matter. I do not think the situation is quite as he describes it. As well as physical security, we already run counter-terrorists checks, which are more detailed than a criminal record check, for all airside workers engaged in security roles. We have also asked Stephen Boys Smith to review whether we should do more in this area. In addition, the Government are taking forward proposals on EU data sharing, which will help significantly on this front, and we are introducing biometric identity cards for foreign nationals and prioritising airside workers. Given that the issue is so important, I simply ask the hon. Gentleman why the Conservative party is not supporting those measures.

Could the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on offender management, and specifically on the chain of bail hostels being established around the country by a private company called ClearSprings Management Ltd on behalf of the Ministry of Justice? In Colwyn Bay in my constituency, at least one such hostel is proposed for a residential area without any consultation whatever with residents, the police or the local authority. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would be concerned that, as a result of the Government’s failure on offender management, criminals are being introduced into their communities. Members would appreciate the opportunity to express such concerns.

I understand the concern of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. My understanding is that the chain of housing for people on bail is discussed with the police and local authority before it is agreed to. However, because there is no change of use, from housing to hostels, proposals do not go through the planning system. Given the importance of the matter, I will of course take it back to my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

Today the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph is launching an important campaign to persuade its readers to install home smoke alarms, because of the 463 homes that had fires in Northamptonshire last year, only 247 were fitted with smoke detectors, and people are twice as likely to die in a fire if they do not have a smoke alarm fitted. May we have a statement from the Minister responsible for the fire service, or a debate in Government time, on home fire safety?

I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on to the Minister responsible. He is right, in so far as the fire service saves many more lives when it does preventive work, and its work is currently being reoriented in that way.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has brought out a report on flooding, which says that there are major structural problems with flood defences. May we have an early debate on that as soon as possible, because my constituency will have problems if the flood defences fail?

There have been debates in Westminster Hall recently about both flood defences and flooding. As the hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, aware, the Government are increasing spending on the flood prevention infrastructure to £800 million by 2010—and so far this year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made three written ministerial statements on the subject.

Order. In the absence of the Secretary of State for Defence—[Hon. Members: “International Development!”] In the absence of the Secretary of State for International Development, who I understand is on his way, and the Secretary of State for Defence, who has the business after that, I have no option but to suspend the sitting for five minutes.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State for International Development is not here. Could it be that he has been detained advising his sister on the mess that she has got the Government into, and he is now getting the Government—and, indeed, this House—into another mess?

Sitting suspended.