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Business of the House

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

The business for next week will be as follows:

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—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 June will include:

Monday 2 June—Remaining stages of the Planning Bill—day 1.

Tuesday 3 June—Conclusion of Lords amendments to the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to the promotion of energy from renewable resources, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to maritime policy.

Wednesday 4 June—Opposition day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 June—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate, subject to be announced.

Friday 6 June—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business of the House.

As the Leader of the House will be aware, it is normal practice to give the House advance notice of statements by the Prime Minister. Last week, I asked the right hon. and learned Lady when the Government would announce their draft legislative programme. She would not give a date to the House. Yet, at the weekend, the date was given to the media. Why were the media given advance notice but not Members of this House?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the House that the Chancellor had to announce his taxation proposals on Tuesday, during a by-election campaign, if they were to go into the Finance Bill. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that that was incorrect and that, for example, the proposals could have been introduced simply as a new clause on Report after 22 May? Was that not just a blatant attempt at an election bribe?

Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England warned the country to brace itself for a recession. Every day, the cost of living is creeping up, and earlier this week, the Minister for Housing inadvertently revealed that there is a real danger of a housing market crash. The Governor reaffirmed that in his statement and said that interest rates should not be cut for at least two years, which will deeply worry those who are struggling with their mortgages. So will next week’s topical debate be on the decline in the housing market?

In the international women’s day debate on 6 March, the right hon. and learned Lady said that the Walsh review on flexible working was

“not into whether we should increase the age of children whose parents can have flexible working, but into how we will go about doing it.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 1934.]

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will take forward the review’s recommendations but said that they will now consult on implementation—another consultation on top of a review. Is that not just a delaying tactic that will create more uncertainty for business? May we have a statement from the right hon. and learned Lady, as the Minister for Women and Equality, to clarify the Government’s position?

We learned this week that a High Court judge has allowed a disabled women to seek a judicial review of the Government’s decision to shut thousands of post offices on the grounds that it discriminates against disabled people. That comes on the back of reports that 3,000 further post offices are threatened with closure on top of the 2,500 previously announced. It has also been revealed that the Saturday delivery service is under threat and that Postcomm has called for parts of Royal Mail to be privatised. Post offices are a lifeline for both urban and rural communities. We are committed to the universal service, but the Government are presiding over a reduction in services. So may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the Government’s position on the future of the Post Office and Royal Mail?

The Government are dithering over flexible working and presiding over the decline in our post offices, and their economic policy is a shambles. They have backed down on capital gains tax, the taxation of non-doms and the 10p tax rate, and we learned this week that they are backing down on changes to the corporate tax regime. Policy is set to grab the headlines, with no thought for the consequences. Speaking of which, will the right hon. and learned Lady now tell the House the impact of the Chancellor’s commitment to change income tax thresholds in the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords?

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Prime Minister’s statement on the draft legislative programme. I have made it clear to the House before that my view is that there is a distinction to be made. If a statement has new content, it is important that it be made to the House first. On the timing of statements, the most important thing is that everybody in the House understands that a statement is to be made, and that that information gets to all Members. I do not think that the House should be so jealous of its right to hear when a statement will be made, but it should be jealous of its right to hear the content of the statement.

On the timing of the changes that will be made to the Finance Bill as a result of the adjustments made after the abolition of the 10p rate of tax, the right hon. Lady will note that the changes will indeed be made to the Bill before the Crewe by-election, but after the local council elections. The fact is that the Chancellor agreed that the adjustments should be made; the issue of how to go about making them has been considered, and he has come to the House with his proposals.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the housing market. The Chancellor and Prime Minister have made it clear that we are concerned about what is happening in the housing market, especially with so many people coming to the end of the fixed-rate part of their mortgage. Uncertainty in the banking system is causing what is being described as the credit crunch. That is why there has been a considerable number of proposals on how to put liquidity into the banking system to enable greater availability of mortgages. For that reason, we have come forward with proposals to help first-time buyers and broaden the opportunity for shared equity schemes. If the right hon. Lady wants a debate on the subject, I will take her remarks as a proposal for a topical debate, but she can of course make the issue the subject of an Opposition day debate, if she sees fit.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Walsh review, published this morning. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has tabled a written ministerial statement on the report by Imelda Walsh, who conducted her review at the Government’s request. I thank her warmly for the work that she has done, and for her report. The Government accept the proposals in the report, but it is right that people be given time to read it. The Prime Minister has said that we expect to introduce her proposals early next year.

I think that the right hon. Lady would agree that we were correct to introduce a right to request flexible working for parents with children aged up to six. Many parents have made such a request and have had it granted by employers, but we need to make sure that more people are aware of their rights. We recognise that the difficulty in balancing working life with bringing up children does not end when the child reaches its sixth birthday, and that is why we agree with Imelda Walsh’s proposals to raise that age to 16.

Okay; the reality is that a lot of changes have come forward. Maternity pay and leave have been extended and paternity leave has been introduced for the first time. Sure Start children’s centres, nurseries, tax credits—a great many measures have been introduced to help working mothers, and working parents in general. The truth is that they were brought forward by a Labour Government against the dragged anchor of Tory opposition. We are planning to build on those measures, and if the Conservative Opposition now intend to support that, we welcome it. However, to say that the suggested measures are Conservative proposals is an attempt to rewrite history, and the Conservatives really should not treat the public as fools.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned the Post Office and Royal Mail. She said that she is committed to universal post offices. Against a background of falling revenue for the Post Office and falling numbers of people at post offices, perhaps she will say how she would fund keeping all the post offices open. She knows that there has been a review of the Royal Mail, evidence has been taken and interim findings have been reported, but the full report will be presented to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform next year.

In this age of greater freedom of information and transparency, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a debate on the Short money that flows to Opposition parties? It is many millions of pounds, and parliamentarians find it impossible to discover who gets the money, how it is used and how it is balanced between Ashcroft money and other money. Greater transparency should work for one and for all. It is about time that we lifted the lid on that money, who gets it and for what purposes.

That is a very good proposal from my hon. Friend. I will take it up and report back to him and the House, if necessary. As he says, the Short money is millions of pounds. It is available to enable Opposition parties to develop policy, not for party political campaigning. It should be subject to greater transparency and I will report back on the matter.

First, can the Leader of the House tell us when she was first told that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to make an additional Budget statement on Tuesday? Secondly, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister keep on telling us that the announcement on Tuesday was nothing at all to do with the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, but the people of Crewe and Nantwich, like everyone else, might have some concerns about the matters that affect the pockets, homes and livelihoods of our people. Given that fact, and that this week we have heard that unemployment has risen for the third month in a row, food prices have gone up more than 6 per cent. in the past year, and we face probably the greatest uncertainty in the housing market, which everybody knew but the Minister for Housing inadvertently confirmed on Tuesday, could we move next Wednesday’s business so that that day—the day before the by-election—there could be a debate on the economy in Britain, possibly entitled, “Are the Government still on the people’s side?”

Out there in the real world, everybody realises that the Government are scrambling to undo all the things that they have done. In the Chamber there appears to be a state of total denial among those on the Government Benches. Housing, which featured in the draft legislative programme, is clearly important. May we have an early debate on how many affordable houses have been provided so far, how many will be provided under the Government’s current spending plans, and how many additional houses will be available after the announcements made by the Prime Minister yesterday? All the analysis suggests that it is a matter of hundreds or a thousand or two, rather than tens of thousands, and that there has been a lot of hype and very little delivery.

I join the plea for another debate on post offices. It is bad enough that most of the proposed closures in London have just been confirmed, that many other closures are proposed around the country and that Crown post offices are facing franchising, as is the one in the borough that the right hon. and learned Lady and I represent, but hearing that we are to lose our Saturday delivery as well suggests that something is pretty rotten in the state of the Post Office. The Government take responsibility. They have been in power for 11 years. Will the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform come to the House and explain whether that, too, will be Government policy, just as all the closures have been Government policy or supported by the Government?

Lastly, the Leader of the House has said, to her credit, that she is keen to get the processes of the House reformed so that we do things logically. She knows that on Tuesday night, we at last debated the “Statement of Changes in the Immigration Rules”. The only trouble was that the rules came into force at the end of February and we could not have the debate until the middle of May.

And it has done so for many years. May we please bring to an end the nonsensical system whereby secondary legislation comes into force before either House has had a chance to debate it and decide whether it agrees with it, and whether or not there has been consultation? The Minister for Borders and Immigration, to his credit, had to make a major concession because he accepted the arguments put in opposition to some of the rules, and the rules will now effectively have to be redrawn.

Please may we have a proper, timetabled sequence for secondary legislation so that we see, debate and decide a draft, and the measure comes into force some time later?

The hon. Gentleman asked when I was first told that the Chancellor had reached a conclusion about the proposals that he was to put before the House on the 10p rate of tax and when he asked to make an oral statement on them. I do not like not answering questions, but this might be one of those issues on which there is not supposed to be complete, utter transparency and openness. So I will not answer the question at this point, but I will take advice on whether the issue is one of those Government things that remain as part of internal discussions between Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about the economy of Britain. I remind him that although in the last quarter unemployment figures showed an increase, unemployment is lower now than it was this time last year. There is a continuous increase in employment, and that is very important. That is one of the reasons why the Chancellor and the Prime Minister set a great deal of store on ensuring that liquidity remains in the banking system, so that continuous finance is available for small businesses and they can continue to employ people. The economy remains on track. The international situation is difficult, of course, and people are concerned. However, we are doing all that we can to keep the economy stable and growing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned housing. He will know that a great deal has been done on housing in the past 10 years. In his constituency and mine, more or less every flat on every council estate has had new windows, doors, roofing and lifts. There has been massive investment in housing. He will also know that more social housing—flats and houses—has been built. Furthermore, there are 1 million more homeowners than when we came into government, and we are planning for there to be 1 million more still. Of course, there are difficulties in the housing market at the moment because of the credit crunch, which started with the sub-prime mortgage problems in America. However, we intend to do all that we can as a Government, and we are working to ensure that the housing market is as stable and protected as possible.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the Royal Mail. It is right that there should be a review because of changes in how people are communicating, particularly in respect of electronic communications. I thank Richard Hooper, formerly of Ofcom, who has undertaken the review on behalf of the Government. What is important is that we have a fair deal for Royal Mail users and employees and for taxpayers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of this House having debated secondary legislation after it had come into effect. It certainly seems odd that we should debate something that has already gone into law. However, I am sure that there is a perfectly good reason for it; I just cannot remember what it is at the moment. I am sure that I will be reminded by my colleagues before the end of oral questions about why something that seems rather illogical is in fact entirely logical. If I am not, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the issue.

The Government rightly keep banging on about cutting vehicle emissions. Outside your official residence, Mr. Speaker, is where Ministers’ cars sit. In inclement weather, the drivers sit there with the motors running, presumably to keep warm. When it is hot, they also sit there with the motors running, presumably to keep the air conditioning on. Yet there are serried ranks of Toyota Prius hybrids out there, run by Ministers to cut emissions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend liaise with her colleagues and perhaps provide suitable facilities so that the drivers can have a room adjacent to that parking area and stay warm in winter and cool in summer without unnecessarily polluting the atmosphere?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which I shall raise with my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport.

When does the right hon. and learned Lady expect to receive the Baker report on MPs’ pay, and when does she expect a debate on it?

On 24 January, the House agreed that Sir John Baker would look into the question of MPs’ pay in respect of pegging it to a rate that would obviate the need for Members of the House to decide on our own pay. It was agreed that Sir John would report, and that we would have an opportunity to debate and decide on the report’s conclusions, before the House rose for the summer recess. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that Sir John is proceeding with his work and is on track. There will be enough time for hon. Members to look at his report before it is debated, which will be well before the House rises in the summer.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for the House to look at the level of support provided by our consular services to business men abroad? I am speaking of my constituent Norman Mark, among others. He sunk his life savings into a café in Turkey, only to find it occupied by local villagers. He has had little meaningful support from our consular services overseas and Turkish services here.

My hon. Friend has reinforced the importance of the role of consular services. I will bring her constituent’s case to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the National Insurance Contributions Bill? After the panic Budget statement on Tuesday, there may be implications for the Bill—although there may not; I do not know—before it starts to pass through the House of Lords. After all, the whole idea was to put national insurance contributions and income tax into line. Will we need another panic statement on that issue?

As I understand it, making changes to the National Insurance Contributions Bill [Lords] in respect of the 10p tax rate would be out of scope. Matters of taxation are taken through the Finance Bill.

My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of the untimely death of Scottish football legend Tommy Burns, who died earlier today. Tommy was a well-respected figure, not only in Scottish football, but throughout the UK. He was recognised for his contribution to the Scottish national football team and his beloved Celtic football club. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join the all-party Scottish football group and others in sending the House’s condolences to Tommy’s wife Rosemary and his four daughters? He will be sadly missed.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am sure that the whole House will join him in paying tribute to Tommy Burns and in sending our condolences to Tommy’s wife Rosemary and his four children. Tommy was a highly respected figure in the football community, both as player and coach. Like his close friend and team mate Phil O’Donnell, he was a family man. Both of them will be sadly missed.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady consider allowing a topical debate on dentistry? Clearly, I have a declared interest in the subject; because of that, I get considerable pressure from outside the House. The debate should be broad and cover not only the national health service, although the Select Committee on Health has a report coming out soon, and to be fair, national health service dentistry is in a shambolic state. Could the debate be very broad, and cover prevention and education? It should also consider the General Dental Council, which is a very expensive, authoritarian, invasive and unpleasant organisation in many ways. For example, I cannot understand why it asks dentists and dental nurses about their sexual interests in a questionnaire. The GDC is asking whether—

Dentistry, as the hon. Gentleman says, is an important public health issue. He will have an opportunity to raise it in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, if he so chooses. I shall consider his suggestion as a proposal for a topical debate.

I warmly welcome the Government’s proposals to extend the opportunity to request flexible working to the parents of older children. The Labour Government have a great record on helping parents to balance family life and work. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that since 1997 the number of women in work in Wales has risen by nearly 13 per cent.? Does she agree that our proposals will be of great help to those women? When may we have a debate on the subject of family balance and work?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and I shall bring them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The fact that the stay-at-home mother now goes out to work has been a huge social revolution. We must ensure that women who go out to work can help the family finances and contribute to our economy and our services and can be the sort of parents that they want to be as they bring up their children. It is important that work is flexible around family needs, rather than the other way around. Some people have said in the past that such provisions are a burden on business, but we think that it is important for the whole of society that children are well brought up.

The next frontier in the question of flexible work is the care of older people. Just as the stay-at-home mother now goes out to work and is not available for the full-time care of her children, the stay-at-home daughter who used to care for elderly relatives goes out to work, too. We need to ensure that work is flexible not only for parents but for people who care for older relatives. I hope that the Opposition, as well as the whole House, will back us when we move forward on that.

May we have a debate on the online filing system? A recent Public Accounts Committee report showed that 3 million people filled the forms in wrongly, and understated their situation by £3 billion. The problem is that the online filing system was thought up by committee. It is complicated and difficult. I defy almost anybody to fill it in correctly. In America, which has many more taxpayers, the Internal Revenue Service administers the system through the public sector. That is highly successful and has worked well for years. Why can we not go down that route?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to raise that subject during the debate on the Public Accounts Committee motion this afternoon. I think that that would be an appropriate issue on which he could seek to catch the Speaker’s eye.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony with local children to celebrate the complete rebuilding of Washington school in my constituency, which is part of a £120 million investment in secondary education in the city of Sunderland. Will the Leader of the House try to make time available for a debate on the benefits of that level of investment for young people in our constituencies, and the impact it has in transforming their lives and life chances?

I am sure that the parents, teachers and pupils of Washington school will be glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to raise the issue in the House today. We think that investment in schools is investment for the future. An investment in education for the next generation has sometimes been characterised as spending—there have been complaints that we have not mended the roof while the sun is shining—but investment in children’s education is the best foundation for the future economy.

May I make a plea that the right hon. and learned Lady use the weekly business questions to respond to Members’ requests for debates rather than indulge in long party political statements?

I am consistent, and my question concerns the fact that Zimbabwe is dropping out of the picture, despite the fact its people continue to suffer. An election has been held and no proper results have been declared. Is it not time that the House held a debate on Zimbabwe, for which we are responsible as we put Mr. Mugabe in power in the first place? May we have a debate on the Floor of the House, in Government time, so that we can urge action and try to bring some peace and stability to that part of the world and to its long-suffering people?

I will try to refrain from making party political points in business questions. The problem is that I am severely provoked by the Opposition. I will try to heed the hon. Gentleman’s words because he, at least, is consistent in raising business issues in business questions. Indeed, he is consistent in expressing concern about Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, torture seems to be on the increase, more people are being killed and there is displacement. The electoral commission has said that there should elections in August, but torture, killing and displacement are not a background for free and fair elections. There was an Adjournment debate two weeks ago on Zimbabwe, but the hon. Gentleman is right and, although we do not want to provide Mugabe with an opportunity to say that everybody should rally around him because it is all the fault of the British Government, we need to have a debate on the subject soon.

Following today’s publication of the report by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, may we have a debate as soon as possible on openness in party political donations so that this House and the country can be fully aware of the systematic deception in the funding of individual shadow cabinet Members’ offices, and the way in which donations have been made to individual Members that have not been registered as they ought to have been in the Register of Members’ Interests?

Order. We cannot accuse the shadow Cabinet or any other hon. Member of deception. [Interruption.] I have seen the report and I know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Perhaps he should withdraw the statement about deception. That would be the best thing to do.

I withdraw the suggestion of deception, but I would like an opportunity to expand on my comments as soon as possible.

The Prime Minister made his statement on the pre-legislative programme yesterday. It included £200 million to fund the purchase of properties for rent or for use in shared equity schemes. However, The Press and Journal reports today that that £200 million is already with the Housing Corporation and is intended to help those who are unable to buy homes of their own. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to make another emergency relaunch statement to explain that the money is being recycled and that it applies to England only and to explain which of the spending programmes are to be slashed to fund yesterday’s headline?

The draft legislative programme, which we published yesterday, is, I believe, an important opportunity to set out the key points of the Government’s forthcoming legislative programme, which will form the basis of the Queen’s Speech, together with other important issues that run alongside that programme. It is an opportunity for the public to see work that was previously undertaken behind closed doors. There will also be an opportunity to debate the draft legislative programme, with a full-day debate before the House rises in the summer.

Will the Leader of the House look at early-day motion 1567?

[That this House welcomes the launch of the Fair Tips Charter Campaign by the Daily Mirror and Unite the UNION, while recognising there are honourable owners of hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality outlets who ensure that all gratuities are paid to their staff in addition to at least the minimum wage without deductions; is also aware that HM Revenue and Customs class service charges, cover charges, gratuities and tips all as gratuities for national insurance contributions purposes yet many hospitality establishments still treat these as extra payments to the proprietors and do not pass them on to their staff in addition to at least the minimum wage; understands that this practice is legally allowed at the moment because of regulation 31 subsection 1(e) governing the Minimum Wage Act 1998; and calls on all other trades unions and media to support the Fair Tips Charter, all hospitality outlets and their trade associations to sign up to and operate the four pledges in the Charter and the Government to introduce an amendment in the Queen’s Speech that will ensure that all tips will be paid to staff in addition to the minimum wage.]

The motion is tabled in my name and has been signed by 42 Members from across the Benches. It welcomes the launch of the fair tips charter campaign by Unite the Union and the Daily Mirror. As many as 1.5 million people are not getting their tips on top of their minimum wage. The Leader of the House might recall that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform promised on 3 April that he would meet my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). Will he extend that meeting to the Unite group in Parliament, which is backing the campaign? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State about how he will bring about the change? It does not require legislation, merely a change to the regulations, and I assume that it was left out of the promises for the Queen’s Speech on that basis.

I congratulate the Unite group of MPs and Unite on their work on the fair tips charter. Obviously, it makes good sense for tips to be in cash. However, even when tips are given in cash, there is a question about whether they reach those who have provided the service for which the tip is meant. I know that the subject is being reviewed by the regulatory reform department in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and no doubt its representatives will meet hon. Members, Unite and employers to discuss it further.

May we have a topical debate on whether anything could or should be done to stem the flow of increasingly tacky political memoirs? Does the Leader of the House agree that authors who do not meet a certain quality threshold should perhaps be required to donate the proceeds to charity?

That is not a question about the business of the House, and I will therefore quickly pass over it.

This morning, I have become aware that there has been another problem on the west coast main line to the south of Milton Keynes. This time it appears to be a massive signal failure; last week, it was blamed on a power failure. Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate in this House on the reliability of the west coast main line and transparency on the part of Network Rail about why problems occur and when it is going to put them right?

My hon. Friend brings to the House a matter that is obviously of great importance to her constituents. I will bring it to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Transport, but she might also seek an opportunity to raise it in the pre-recess Adjournment debate.

May we have an urgent debate on standards in education? Yesterday, the chief inspector of schools told the Children, Schools and Families Committee that improvements in standards had stalled. After the Prime Minister’s lamentable performance yesterday, is it not clear that not only our children’s education but this Government are irrevocably stalled?

I think that that is one of those provocative questions. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who was sitting next to the hon. Gentleman a moment ago—[Interruption.] Well, I thought that the question was party political point scoring, but I will answer it in any event.

I thank the Select Committee for its work on testing and on standards across the piece. This Government have given great priority to investing in education and to ensuring that there is a fair and open system of testing that is helpful for parents, pupils and teachers, and that there is individual personal tuition for each child. We want more people to get education further on in their lives. That is why we are introducing an apprenticeship programme and increasing to 18 the age at which some education should still be going on. If the Opposition are as concerned as we are not only that every individual should achieve their potential but that the economy should have the supply of skilled and qualified workers it needs, I hope that they will back us in these proposals.

May I encourage the Leader of the House to respond more positively to suggestions by the Conservatives that we discuss interest rates in this House? It would offer an opportunity to remind people who are anxious about interest rates that, for five years under the Conservative party, interest rates were over 10 per cent., and that although they are creating worry for people, they will not reach those levels because of this Government’s good stewardship of the economy.

My hon. Friend will have heard the Chancellor earlier this week, and the Prime Minister yesterday, express the Government’s commitment to doing all we can to keep inflation low so that the Bank of England can keep interest rates low. Over the past 10 years, the Government have ensured that the economy has been run in such a way that we keep interest rates low. That has been the most important thing, alongside people having jobs and being secure in them, in ensuring that the housing market remains stable. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point.

May we have a debate on the Highways Agency’s investment in trunk roads in the south-west? I have often drawn attention to the safety improvements that are necessary on the A303, but may I also highlight the A36, particularly the stretch that runs through Standerwick, climbs over Black Dog hill, and straddles the Somerset and Wiltshire border? That road has a proven accident record. Standerwick has no protection at all as regards the speed limit, and it is time that something was done. The Highways Agency seems to be dragging its feet.

That can be raised with Ministers in the Department for Transport; no doubt the hon. Gentleman has done so. Highways, particularly the ones that he mentioned, are a huge issue in the south-west. That is partly why it is important that we come forward with our proposals for regional committees of this House. If the Highways Agency, regional development agencies, the Learning and Skills Council and regional organisations are making decisions that are hugely important to a region, we must have proper accountability to this House. I hope that in future south-west regional MPs will be able to hold the Highways Agency properly to account for what it does in their region as well as ensuring that Transport Ministers hold the Highways Agency to account nationally.

Yesterday, there was a very good debate in Westminster Hall on the Royal Mail and the Post Office. If we had known then what we know today about the views of Mr. Stapleton from Postcomm, there would have been universal condemnation from Labour Members, at least. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a debate on the role of regulators and whether they should initiate policy, particularly in such a sensitive area as the Post Office, and is not this so important that we should have it as a matter of urgency?

I will refer my hon. Friend’s point to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who will no doubt have seen and taken seriously the points made in that debate.

May we have an early debate next week entitled, “Consideration of Bills in Public Bill Committees”? The right hon. and learned Lady will know that I am serving on the Committee that is considering the Counter-Terrorism Bill. Does she agree that parliamentary scrutiny of Bills is essential? In that context, is it not profoundly wrong that Government Whips should confine membership of the Committee to those who agree with them? Furthermore, is it not wrong that they dissuade Labour Back Benchers from participating in the debate and instead ask them merely to attend to their private correspondence? That surely undermines the highly important process of parliamentary scrutiny.

We want the process of parliamentary scrutiny to be improved. That is why we are publishing the draft legislative programme, why more Bills are published in draft, and why we have the Public Bill Committee process. The question of who serves on a Committee is for the Committee of Selection, and the proceedings of that Committee are a matter for its Chair.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bring to the House details of the funding of the parliamentary research unit in order that we may have a proper debate on state funding of political parties and add to the information that will be coming out in the next four weeks, as required, on shadow Cabinet members, who now have to reveal the full details of the private, hidden funding that has been secretly funding their offices over the past year?

I think that my hon. Friend refers, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), to the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, “Conduct of Mr George Osborne”. I thank the Committee for its report, in which it accepts the conclusions of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. There is no further action for this House if the commissioner’s conclusions, as endorsed by the Committee, are accepted.

Order. I am going to ask again that we should talk about the business for next week. We have to be careful about how we are abusing business questions.

I want to return to the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which rightly seeks to align the level of national insurance contributions with the level of taxation that people pay. Does not the Leader of the House understand the implications of the previous questions? There is likely to be a black hole as a result of the Chancellor’s statement on the 10p tax rate and raising the threshold at which some people pay tax. He has bungled again, and we need to have him back at the Dispatch Box to explain himself. There is a genuine problem, and I urge her to look at it much more carefully than the cavalier approach she has taken so far.

I am certain that the Treasury would have taken those issues into account in their decision. Notwithstanding that, I shall raise with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the points that the shadow Leader of the House and the right hon. Gentleman made.

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to early-day motion 1576?

[That this House notes that 16th to 17th May marks the 65th anniversary of the raid on the Ruhr dams by 617 Squadron RAF (The Dambusters); pays tribute to the extraordinary heroism and skill of the crews, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC DSO DFC, and to the ingenuity of Dr Barnes Wallis who designed the bomb; regrets that of the 133 men who took part in the raid, 53 gave their lives on that mission; and supports the Bomber Command Association in its campaign for the erection of a suitable memorial to commemorate those who served in Bomber Command and their contribution to the eventual liberation of Europe.]

It reminds hon. Members that tomorrow is the 65th anniversary of the Dambusters’ raid, undertaken by Squadron 617, which flew out of Lincolnshire. As one of 11 Lincolnshire Members of Parliament and a born and bred yellow belly, I urge all hon. Members to sign the early-day motion. Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for the Ministry of Defence to make a statement about when a memorial will be erected to commemorate the actions of those brave and heroic men?

I will bring my hon. Friend’s forceful points to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence.

If there is no conflict of interest, will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement or debate next week on the Prime Minister’s intention to remove ministerial severance pay?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, before the debate in the House on 24 January, the Senior Salaries Review Body made some proposals about withdrawing severance pay if a Minister got another job before the period for which it was to be paid had elapsed. The House agreed, and we said that we planned to implement the proposals, which would claw back severance pay. We intend to do that.

First, I concur entirely and sincerely with the tributes to Tommy Burns, who sadly passed away earlier today.

May we have a debate on ring-fencing for local government funding? I am sure that all hon. Members welcomed the recent announcement of more than £4.5 million of extra funding to allow pupils from every school in the UK to visit the former concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland. Unfortunately, the Scottish Executive have refused to ring-fence those moneys, which would guarantee that pupils from every Scottish school could participate in those visits. Such a debate would allow us to expose the Scottish National party’s lack of support for life-changing visits.

Several hon. Members have just returned from visiting Auschwitz, and they felt that it was important. Given that it is so important to understand the international lessons of history, several hon. Members have been incredulous that the Scottish National party should take such a narrow-minded, introverted view and prevent young people from having those opportunities, especially when the money has already been made available.

Given that there will be even more post office closures, is not it time we had an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on plans for the post office network? It has been announced that two more post offices in Putney will close, ignoring my constituents’ concerns. After the local election results, the Government said that they would start listening. Is not it time for the Secretary of State to come to the Chamber and start listening to representatives who reflect the views of millions of Londoners and millions of people throughout the country, who are devastated by post office closures in their communities?

All hon. Members are concerned about the post office network and, since 1997, we have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in it. Under the Conservative Government, there was no public subsidy to the network, but we have made the investment. The hon. Lady should say where she believes that the money would come from—what taxes would increase or services would be cut—to finance the investment in the post office network for which she calls.

May we have an opportunity to question the Information Commissioner in person about his determination—insane in the current security environment—to make Members of Parliament disclose their private home addresses?

While we wait for that, may we have a debate on early-day motion 1476?

[That this House deplores the transfer by Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea of Mr Simon Mann after nearly five years in gaol, in contravention of assurances given to the UK Government that this would not occur while his appeal process was still underway; is appalled that he has been held in shackles in Black Beach Prison ever since; condemns the continuing refusal to grant United Kingdom consular access to him since a single visit in March; and urges the Government to seek the support of the United States and other influential countries to safeguard Mr Mann's human rights in this perilous situation.]

More than 100 hon. Members have signed it and some of the most senior Back Benchers from all parties, including a former Labour party chairman, have sponsored it. It is about the fate of my constituent, Mr. Simon Mann, to whom consular access has been denied since his enforced appearance in a television interview on Channel 4, in which he was obliged to incriminate himself before a trial, which appears to have been put off sine die.

The hon. Gentleman and several of his hon. Friends have raised the matter of Simon Mann, which is of concern to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s concern to its attention again and, if any more information is available, I shall ensure that he gets it. I hope that he will let either me or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office know about any further proposals, and action can be taken on them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Information Commissioner. Hon. Members know that requests have been made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the home addresses of Members who have homes in London, where they stay when they are away from their constituencies. They must have a home in London for when the House is sitting. Journalists have made freedom of information requests for the publication of hon. Members’ addresses in London, where they are often far away from their families, living on their own. There are security considerations and the hon. Gentleman will know that the information has been refused. The information tribunal’s decision that the addresses should be made available has been appealed against and is now before the High Court. I will not therefore say anything further except that the High Court is considering the matter because an appeal was made on the basis that the decisions would breach hon. Members’ security. The point is that, when we come to the House, we need to be able to speak about all sorts of controversial matters, for example, animal rights extremism—

Order. I reminded an hon. Gentleman earlier when the High Court case was mentioned that, for the purposes of the House, the matter is sub judice until their lordships report back to us.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that Departments answer ordinary written questions in a reasonable time? Some time ago, I tabled two questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government. One simply asked whether it would place in the Library the transcript of the conference call between the Minister for Housing and 16 hon. Members about future proposals on eco-towns. It was a straightforward question. My second question asked what proportion of the Western Otmoor proposed eco-town was in the green belt. I have not received an answer to either question yet. It may be that the Minister for Housing undertook in the conference call that no eco-town would be built in the green belt, and 25 per cent. of Western Otmoor is clearly in the Oxford green belt. However, the fact that answers are inconvenient to Ministers is not a reason for not providing timely answers to written questions.

I will chase up the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s written questions. It is important that Ministers answer questions promptly, fully and factually.

May we have an urgent debate on poverty? Despite the Government’s handbrake U-turn on the 10p tax rate, the lowest paid and poorest in society will remain worse off as a result of the changes. Will not 2008 go down as the year that Labour abandoned the poor?

I believe that the Opposition had scheduled a debate on pensioner poverty for Wednesday and it was replaced by a debate on Burma, which was important. I will bear the hon. Gentleman’s points in mind. He knows that the Government have kept tackling poverty at the forefront of our agenda. That is why we want everybody to be able to be in work, and believe that there should be a minimum wage, tax credits and targets for ending child poverty and pensioner poverty. We have made progress on all those aims. Given that the Opposition opposed us on all those issues, it is good that, instead of being a drag anchor of opposition, they are now belatedly backing our objectives.

The Leader of the House mentioned the importance of history. May we, therefore, have a debate on the world heritage site at Saltaire in my constituency? The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently said that the Saltaire village was built by Sir Titus Salt as an act of self-aggrandisement. Many people in my area found that rather offensive, and are very proud of what Sir Titus Salt built in Saltaire. Perhaps a debate would allow the Secretary of State to understand what a fine man he was.

The hon. Gentleman could raise that matter in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, but I shall bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the glorious years of Prime Minister Blair? She will recall that he said that nobody would have to wait more than six months for an NHS operation. Yesterday, the Healthcare Commission published its annual report on the health of the nation. In my local hospital, more than 25 per cent. of patients reported that they have to wait more than six months for an operation. May we have a debate on the difference between what the Government say and the reality in the health service?

The Healthcare Commission has produced its findings, and I would like to thank the commission for its important work. The findings show that more than 90 per cent. of patients report that their care in NHS hospitals was either good or excellent. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not remember what I certainly do: in my constituency advice surgery, people used to come in and literally break down in tears because they were waiting for a hip replacement. Sometimes they would have to wait for one or two years. I also remember the consultant in the local hospital pointing out the number of people who died while waiting for cardiac surgery. We have targets to reduce waiting lists; the Opposition said that they would abolish all central targets. We want to make more progress, and with the extra investment we have put into the NHS that progress is possible. It certainly would not be possible with the public service cuts that would come about under the Opposition’s proposals.