Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 476: debated on Thursday 22 May 2008

The business for the week commencing 2 June will be:

Monday 2 June—Remaining stages of the Planning Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 3 June—Consideration 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 on the future of care and support.

Friday 6 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 9 June will include:

Monday 9 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 5 and 12 June will be:

Thursday 5 June—A debate on the report from the Environment Audit Committee entitled “Are Biofuels Sustainable?”

Thursday 12 June—A debate on the European Commission’s annual policy strategy.

On the question of freedom of information requests in relation to Members’ allowances, following the High Court’s decision last Friday I can confirm to the House that there will be no further appeal on the applications for information about the allowances claimed by 14 current and former Members. Tomorrow, information in respect of those 14 will be made public in the terms laid down by the High Court. Information in respect of all other current Members will be given out on a single date in the autumn.

On the question of the home addresses of the 14 Members concerned in this case, the information will be made public, subject to individual consideration of security issues. I should like to tell hon. Members that as far as publishing the addresses of all Members is concerned, as Leader of the House, I am determined that hon. Members should be able to speak in this House on controversial issues without looking over their shoulders because their home addresses are in the public domain. We are considering further how we can be sure that the money for Members’ London homes is properly spent, but we must also ensure that the protection needed for Members to speak out in the House remains.

I am sure that the whole House will have welcomed the statement that the Leader of the House has just made, not only on forthcoming business, but on freedom of information. As she has said, our systems need to ensure not only that money is properly spent and that there is transparency, but that hon. Members are not prevented from speaking out as they wish to in the House.

Two significant Bills completed their passage in the other place almost two months ago, but as yet we have been given no dates for their Second Readings in the House. One is the important Children and Young Persons Bill. The other is the Climate Change Bill—a major piece of legislation of real significance for the future. Will the right hon. and learned Lady now tell the House when the Second Readings of those two Bills will be?

The Treasury Committee has accused the Treasury of treating the Bank of England with “contempt” because of the Treasury’s handling of key appointments. The contracts of three members of the Bank’s court of directors expire in two weeks’ time, yet none has been told whether they will be reappointed. Added to that, the deputy governor will be leaving next month and as yet no replacement has been announced. During these times of financial and economic uncertainty, it seems astonishing that the Government should be dithering over those key roles. May we have a statement from the Chancellor in which he tells the House who has been holding up those appointments and whether he will follow the appointments guidelines first proposed by the shadow Chancellor and subsequently adopted by the Prime Minister last year?

It was revealed this week that failures in the tax credit system have cost the taxpayer £10 billion in the past four years; that is an unacceptable sum for the Government to have given out by mistake. Like other hon. Members, I am sure, I hear regularly from hard-working constituency families that repeated such errors have had a serious financial impact on family budgets. Will the Financial Secretary make a statement on what her Department is doing to improve the performance of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?

This week, the chief inspector of schools said that progress in raising school standards has stalled and that one in five pupils are failing to master basic English and maths when they leave primary school. The Government promised “Education, education, education”, yet they are still failing our children. Is it not about time for a debate in Government time on standards in our schools? On the subject of education, may we also have a statement from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families explaining why schools have had to pull out of the Government’s flagship diploma scheme because of inadequate facilities and a lack of training for teachers?

It has been 11 years since the Government promised to end mixed-sex wards. Despite the claim by the Secretary of State for Health last month that the Government were in touching distance of achieving that, we found out this week that in 64 per cent. of hospital trusts, patients still had to walk past patients of the opposite sex to wash. When will the rest of the Government own up and admit, as Lord Darzi has already done, that they have failed on that manifesto commitment? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the issue, as a matter of urgency?

Yesterday, the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s College university published a report that clearly showed that the Government’s strategy on youth crime is failing. Spending has soared by 45 per cent. since 2000 to £650 million, yet the policy has had “no measurable impact”. The Government promised to make cutting the causes of crime a priority, yet they have failed dismally. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on the issue, as a matter of urgency?

The Government have hit hard-working families. Taxes and prices are up and promises on schools, hospitals and crime have been broken. After 11 years, people feel betrayed and let down. Is it any wonder that they are saying it is time for change?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments in response to my points about the freedom of information issues. We all want to emphasise that we want probity in how public money is spent, but we must also have democracy, in that people must be able to speak up freely in this Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), whose early-day motion on this issue is attracting a lot of support.

I am not able to announce the dates for the Children and Young Persons Bill and the Climate Change Bill as part of today’s statement, but they will be announced shortly.

The right hon. Lady mentioned Government appointments in relation to the Treasury and the Bank of England, and she might be aware that we have made quite a lot of progress in involving this House in that process through the Select Committee system and pre-appointment hearings. There was an informal discussion between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Liaison Committee yesterday about the involvement of Select Committees in pre-appointment hearings. With regard to the hearings that the right hon. Lady is talking about, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will give evidence to the Treasury Committee when we return after the recess, and the matter could be raised then if members of that Committee so wished.

The right hon. Lady is always quick to point out any problems with tax credits, but I ask her and other hon. Members to recognise that they are an enormously important support for low and middle-income families, particularly—but not only—those with children. Obviously, we want to do more to cut down on fraud and mistakes, and there is a major programme in that respect.

The right hon. Lady mentioned standards in schools. I remind her that there are fewer failing schools and smaller class sizes in primary schools than when we came into government, and that standards are rising. She can put questions on the diploma scheme to the Secretary of State for children, families and schools, but there is a phased roll-out. It was always going to be a phased roll-out in order to give more choice to pupils in the qualifications that they seek to take.

Hon. Members can take up the question of mixed-sex wards with the Secretary of State for Health. I hope that the right hon. Lady’s comments on youth crime mean that she will be backing the youth clubs programme that we expect to roll out in all neighbourhoods.

I am aware, Mr. Speaker, that in responding to these points I do not want to trespass on the injunction that you gave last week that we should not make business questions a rerun of Prime Minister’s Punch and Judy questions; we should try to make them about the business of the House. I do try to do so, but the trouble is that I feel obliged to respond if the right hon. Lady makes a whole load of party political point-scoring points. I apologise for having to respond, but once again, I have been provoked.

I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1509.

[That this House commends the postal staff in the Palace of Westminster for their continued excellent service, loyal dedication and their willingness to go that extra mile for the benefit of all hon. Members; is alarmed that the House authorities are intending to privatise the post services within the Palace; and calls upon those authorities to reconsider immediately.]

May we have a debate on this issue? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that a tendering process involving the Royal Mail postal staff in this House has started. Part of the criteria that the House authorities have laid down is that a tender has to be made off site as well as on site. Does she agree that it would be appalling if we lost our Royal Mail postal service and brought in a private competitor that may want to do things more cheaply off site? That would raise all sorts of problems for security and the very good standard of service that we get in the House.

All hon. Members appreciate the postal services made available to us in this House so that we can communicate with our constituents and more widely. My hon. Friend has drawn my attention to her early-day motion, and I will consider it and write to her. If there is anything further to tell the House about the matter, I shall make a written ministerial statement or communicate with hon. Members in some other way. I do not know whether my hon. Friend had an opportunity to raise the matter with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but she may want to speak further about it during the debate on the Adjournment of the House later this afternoon.

At the risk of further provoking the Leader of the House, may I thank her for the statement she made on freedom of information and the decisions that have been made in that case? We look forward to further information on how things will be implemented in the autumn.

The House last debated Zimbabwe in Government time in July 2007, and the last oral statement given on the subject was on 2 April. We now have a date for the second round of presidential elections in Zimbabwe, and given that since the first round of elections, 40 Movement for Democratic Change activists and supporters have been murdered in that country, is it not time that we had a debate in Government time so that the House, on behalf of the whole country, can send the message to Robert Mugabe that murder and intimidation are not tactics to be used in a democracy and that they cannot be accepted? The eyes of the world will be upon him and his party when it comes to the next round of elections.

Secondly, may we have an opportunity in Government time—perhaps through a statement from the Secretary of State for Health—to explore why the Government’s attempts to bear down on hospital-acquired infections have stalled? Indeed, surveys now show that the majority of hospitals are failing to isolate patients found with MRSA and clostridium difficile.

May we have a debate in the light of today’s news that criminals appear to be walking free as a result of the Crown Prosecution Service dropping cases, not because it had no evidence but because it had lost evidence and frequently failed to record it? Another aspect of data management is that millions of NHS patients are seen each year without doctors having access to full medical records. May we have a debate on the Government’s handling of personal data to ensure that lessons are being learned? In that debate, perhaps we can also explore why the incompetent data practices that have become inherent under the Government now also appear to be infecting the Conservative party, which sent an e-mail only yesterday containing 8,000 personal records with financial status data to a local radio station in the north.

May I draw attention to early-day motion 1547 on personality disorder treatment at the Henderson hospital?

[That this House welcomes the decision to hold the largest ever statutory consultation about the organisation and provision of tier 4 mental health services for people with personality disorders; is concerned that the Henderson Hospital personality service has been temporarily closed ahead of the consultation; notes that the Henderson democratic residential therapeutic community model is an effective treatment of complex personality disorder which reduces acute readmissions and interventions by the criminal justice system; is concerned that flaws in NHS commissioning arrangements have put this specialist mental health service at risk of permanent closure; and calls on the Department of Heath and NHS London to take the steps necessary to safeguard the Henderson model and strengthen arrangements for commissioning specialist residential tier 4 mental health services for severe personality disorder in the future.]

May we have a debate on that?

Finally, I would like to ask about the business statement. Why do we get only eight days of business at this point? Surely the Government should know what they are doing at least two weeks ahead. Surely the Whitsun recess should not be a reason for not giving more information on business, or are events so far out of the Government’s control that they do not even know two weeks of their business?

The hon. Gentleman asked when the House will have the opportunity to debate Zimbabwe. I know that hon. Members have raised that matter on several occasions and I have been in contact with Foreign Office Ministers about it. I think that the House will want a debate soon, especially with the elections happening next month. I will report back shortly.

On MRSA, the Government continue to press forward with tackling hospital-acquired infection. The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Health or perhaps in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which immediately follows the business statement.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Crown Prosecution Service and criminals walking free. He will know that there has been an increase in the number of offenders brought to justice in recent years. The CPS has responded to Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate’s important report. It is important not only that there is good working between the police, the CPS and the courts but that files are effectively case-managed. The CPS has responded to the report by saying that it will act on its recommendations.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned personal data. He will know that a communications data Bill was announced in our consultation on the Government’s draft legislative programme. It is important that we have the opportunity to ensure that both counter-terrorist and criminal investigation can take place through data sharing and that there is proper protection and privacy for data. I therefore think that everybody will be dismayed that the Conservative party has sent to the public the names, addresses, phone numbers, financial status and voting intentions of 8,000 people in Crewe and Nantwich. I hope that it will ensure that that information is destroyed.

I fully endorse my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments about security considerations for Members of Parliament. We must be in a position to speak our mind in the House without threats. Otherwise, does she share my view that the High Court decision on our allowances was right and justified, and that whatever money we claim should be known to the public? Would not it also be useful if more were done to explain why we claim the money and that it is essential to carry out our duties? There is no need for apology, because that money makes it possible for Members of Parliament to do their work here and in their constituencies.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, with which I am sure the whole House will agree. It is important for the public that the House of Commons works effectively, and it is important that Members of Parliament work in their constituencies and in Westminster, so they need a home in their constituency and in Westminster and they need to travel between the two. They also need properly staffed offices to deal with the many requests for help and support that we receive from our constituents and to engage with them on public policy. We need to justify the allowances that are available, in the public interest, to Members, and we must ensure that there is public confidence in that. We must therefore do as he suggests and make that explanation clearer.

Of course, in respect of the High Court decision, there is no question. This House makes and passes the law, but the courts interpret the law and we obey it as it is laid down by them. It is in the public interest that the public have the information that they need and have confidence in the allowance, and that hon. Members have the ability to speak freely in the House.

Given that the Government support the closure of 2,500 post offices and the huge public interest in the fact that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is opposing the closure of a post office in his own constituency, will the Leader of the House encourage him to make a statement to the House explaining why he seems to be going against the policy of his own Government?

There will be opportunities for hon. Members to raise questions about the Post Office in several forthcoming Westminster Hall debates. They may also seek Adjournment debates on the issue and table questions to Ministers from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend commend the Prime Minister’s personal intervention in the negotiations taking place in Dublin on cluster munitions? Many hon. Members have long argued that such munitions have no part to play in the protection of our forces, because they do much more damage to civilian populations. If the British Government are saying that they wish to have a full ban on those munitions, let me congratulate them heartily and say what a wonderful campaign there has been.

My hon. Friend will know that this country has led the way in negotiations to end the use of land mines. International negotiations about cluster bombs are under way in Dublin, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will report on any issues that arise from those negotiations.

May I thank the Leader of the House for her statement robustly defending the right of Members of Parliament to enjoy the same degree of privacy and security that any other citizen is entitled to enjoy if he wishes to keep his private address private? May I thank her also for drawing attention to my early-day motion 1620, which has so far been signed by 88 hon. and right hon. Members?

[That this House believes that the home address of any hon. or Rt. hon. Member should not be published if he or she objects to publication on grounds of privacy or personal security.]

May I express my bafflement that the judges and the Information Commissioner do not appear to have appreciated the security considerations in this matter? May I also draw attention to early-day motions 1623 and 1628, which were tabled by a Liberal Democrat and a Labour Member respectively, asking for the release of similar information about the home addresses of judges and senior civil servants?

[That this House notes the reasons given by the High Court as to why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and considers in the same spirit of openness and public accountability that the home addresses of High Court judges, who are adult, law-abiding citizens and holders of public office in the public eye, should also be published along with a detailed break-down of the expenses which they charge to the public purse.]

[That this House notes the High Court’s reasons for why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and in the same spirit of openness and public accountability, the home addresses of High Court judges, chief police officers, fire chiefs, chief executives of local authorities, chairs of public bodies and senior Crown civil servants should also be published alongside detailed breakdowns of the expenses which each charge to the public purse.]

I have already made freedom of information requests for that information to be released. What arrangements will be in place for individual MPs to register their specific objections before the release of their addresses? Have any of the 14 MPs concerned been given the opportunity to object to their individual addresses being disclosed in that irresponsible way?

We are in a different position to other people. We have to be subject to the appropriate level of scrutiny because the money being spent on housing, communication, office staff and travel is public money, and the public must have confidence that it is being spent properly. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the points that I have made—indeed, he has made them himself on many occasions—that, above all, it is important that hon. Members are able to speak freely in this House according to their conscience and concerns.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the 14 Members. It is the practice of the House authorities to consult individual Members regarding the handling of freedom of information requests, and that will be the case following the High Court decision. Those Members will be consulted in respect of their individual security situations. However, we will be looking to have a general position on addresses that satisfies the public that there is proper scrutiny of the money being spent on London homes. We need to consider this matter further, so I shall not say any more at this stage, but I know that it is of concern. I invite hon. Members to speak to me and the Deputy Leader of the House about this; we need as much information about and discussion on the issue as possible, and then we need to move forward appropriately.

Considering the depth of damage done to coalfield communities under the Conservative Administration, the Labour Government have made major moves forward in regeneration. Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for a debate to discuss the regeneration of former coalfield areas, so that we can celebrate the work of the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and English Partnerships? I should like to press for further regeneration in the Featherstone town area, which is one of those areas that have not yet been fully regenerated.

I will consider that as a suggestion for a topical debate, but I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the Modernisation Committee will shortly make proposals for regional Select Committees. Regional policies can make a big difference to the development of former coalfield communities through regional development agencies and other agencies, but they need to be held accountable to hon. Members such as my hon. Friend.

Does the Leader of the House agree that the House of Commons was at its best on Monday and Tuesday, in terms of debate, when it debated controversial issues in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? Will she accept my thanks for guaranteeing that there was a free vote on both sides of the House? That was a good thing, despite some people, who lost the vote, showing sour grapes by claiming, without any evidence, that it was not a free vote. Will she guarantee that there will also be a free vote on those issues on Report, if they come up again, and adequate time for the House to debate them fully?

I reaffirm what the hon. Gentleman says. There was a full debate over two days, and on our side there was absolutely and emphatically a free vote on those four issues—and it is right that there was. The Bill will be dealt with in the usual way on Report, and if there are any conscience issues, they will, of course, be subject to a free vote at that stage. I agree that the House was at its best on Monday and Tuesday. Usually, when people say that the House was at its best, I think that it was at its worst, but on this occasion I agree. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the part that he played in the debate.

Further to the question that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked, may I ask for a debate on security issues in relation to MPs? I and other members of the Administration Committee were dismayed this week to hear that no advice on security was taken before the appeal. As part of that debate, may we debate the advice that the Members Estimate Committee gets on such matters, as well as mechanisms to ensure that the head of finance and administration is under proper parliamentary scrutiny and control, rather than taking decisions that, as we heard the other day, are his alone?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the information tribunal did not have specific information about security when it was dealing with the requests for the private London addresses of the 14 current and former Members of Parliament. The tribunal said that it regretted the paucity of information, and that is something that needs to be reflected on. I will take steps in the coming days and weeks to ensure that I get the views, experience, background and circumstances of all hon. Members, so that when a decision comes to be made in the future it can be made on the basis of properly gathered evidence. I think that that is the way we need to go forward.

I am another apprentice.

I had understood that the Government’s so-called, much-vaunted modernisation programme would lead to our having two weeks’ business announced to the House in advance. For some reason, 10 and 11 June have been left out of today’s announcement, and it is rumoured that that is connected with the Counter-Terrorism Bill. Why cannot the Leader of the House announce that now, if she already knows what is happening? Are the Government dithering as usual, while awaiting the outcome of the vote in Crewe?

I apologise; I did not answer the point about announcing business in advance. We have sought to announce more business to the House in advance in order to enable hon. Members to plan. We are about to have a week’s recess, which is why we have announced two weeks’ business today. One of those weeks is the recess and the second is the week beginning 2 June, so really the hon. Gentleman is talking about the third week. We need to strike a balance between ensuring that hon. Members have sufficient notice and having the flexibility to deal with any issues that might arise.

Does the Leader of the House, like me, feel a sense of frustration that so many months after the publication of Baroness Corston’s excellent report on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, there has been no Government-led debate on it and no proper debate on it in this Chamber? Will she do something about that matter urgently?

The Government have been considering their full response to the Corston report and will come forward with proposals very shortly. That might well provide an opportunity for a full debate on the important proposals that Baroness Corston made on ensuring that fewer women go to prison and that those who do are able to be housed nearer their families.

Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the right hon. and learned Lady said that it was important for hon. Members to be given notice of the business of the House. Is it not the case that Government Ministers have been given notice that they should cancel overseas visits on 10 and 11 June? Why are Ministers being kept in the picture while hon. Members are being kept in the dark by the Government?

The business of the House will be announced when it is decided and concluded, and it will be announced on a Thursday in the usual way.

Order! Order!

Bearing in mind the fact that there is no parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services, and that Ministers consistently refuse to answer any questions on these matters, can we have a specific debate on the relationship between the United Kingdom security and intelligence services and the former South African apartheid regime, and, in particular, with the regime’s Dr. Mengele, Wouter Basson, and Project Coast? The House needs to be able to examine whether there was ministerial cover for that illicit—and, I believe, illegal—relationship. Wouter Basson was allowed to come in and out of this country and to work here during the years of the apartheid regime. It is time that this matter was exposed.

We have taken steps to improve the accountability of the security and intelligence services. There will be further steps in that direction in the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which has been published in draft. As I mentioned in response to an earlier question, there will be a possibility for pre-appointment hearings by Select Committees, which are an important measure of accountability. I have heard my hon. Friend’s points, and I will bring them to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, when the House debated the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the programme motion tabled by the Government was such that voting on one group of amendments did not eat into the debating time for the next group. The Leader of the House will know that that procedure is not normally followed for Government Bills, and that debates on amendments and on Third Reading are often severely truncated because of voting. Will she apply the regime that operated on Monday and Tuesday to future Government Bills in order that the House may properly hold the Government to account?

That was a Committee stage rather than a Report stage. Of course, whenever a programme motion is tabled, there is an opportunity for Members to debate it and to say whether they think it is appropriate—[Hon. Members: “No there isn’t!”] There is always an opportunity to debate a programme motion, and it has to be agreed by the House.

A series of strikes, blockades and stoppages by French workers in Calais is causing massive disruption to Dover and to Dover’s cross-channel ferries today and over the coming bank holiday weekend. The M20 has been closed again in order to stack up vehicles. My colleagues and I have raised these matters with Ministers and with Kent county council over a long period of time, but progress in resolving this serious problem has been very slow. It is a problem not only for Dover but for the road haulage system generally and for UK Ltd. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss the matter further?

My hon. Friend is a champion of Dover and of its importance not only regionally but nationally. I will raise his points with my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office and ask them to consider them with the utmost seriousness and to convey their response to my hon. Friend in writing.

The right hon. Lady might be aware of the report in The Times last weekend on the work of the City accountants Grant Thornton, and in particular the work of their excellent economist, Maurice Fitzpatrick. The report showed that Scotland would have a surplus of more than £4 billion if it were independent. The UK currently has a deficit of £40 billion. May we have a debate on Scotland’s big surplus and the UK’s massive deficit?

That is a point that the hon. Gentleman could raise in oral questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

May I once again raise with my right hon. Friend my serious concern about the complexity of the benefits system? I do not think that any other country in Europe has three Government agencies to deliver benefits. This problem is compounded by a morass of means-testing. I know that the Work and Pensions Select Committee has looked at this issue, but may we have a full debate in which we can discuss, among other things, my suggestion that benefits ought to be brought within one Government agency, namely the Department for Work and Pensions? We should also look at ways to reduce the amount of means-testing.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important points. He will know that there will be an opportunity to raise the matter on the Monday when the House returns after the recess at Department for Work and Pensions questions. Perhaps he will seek an opportunity to raise those points then.

May I support the request of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for a debate on the Corston report as soon as possible? May I also draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the parlous state of the consultation process on eco-towns that is going on—or rather, not going on—at the moment? In my own constituency, the Government apparently intend to build a town twice the size of Market Harborough in the middle of rural Harborough, yet we have no idea about any of the details of the proposals from the Department for Communities and Local Government or from the developers, namely the Co-operative Wholesale Society and English Partnerships. This will not do. If the Government are going to build a town of 40,000 people in an area of rural England without any infrastructure and with less than 1 per cent. unemployment, I believe they ought to condescend to be rather more candid. May we have a debate on this as soon as we get back?

There will be a debate on eco-towns in Westminster Hall on the Tuesday after the House returns from the recess, so perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members will have an opportunity to participate in it.

I need to return to an issue that I have put to the Leader of the House before. May we have a debate on Somerset county council and the corruption that is going on there? Yesterday, 24 hours ago, the county solicitor, David Corry, met the resources director, Roger Kershaw, and agreed secretly to move 500 pages from a crucial contract. That contract now puts at risk hundreds of jobs and more than half a billion pounds of public money. The deal with IBM was signed last September, but the details have never been seen by a single elected councillor in Somerset. I am afraid that what has happened has been uncovered and there is now an attempt to suppress the truth. These matters are, unfortunately, outside the remit of the district auditor, so I believe that the Serious Fraud Office needs to be brought in as quickly as possible. This is a cover-up and corruption at the highest level. May we please have a debate to discuss this important matter?

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there has been criminal activity, he should approach the police and the Serious Fraud Office. It is not appropriate, in my view, to raise this matter with the Leader of the House and to ask me to bring in the police and the Serious Fraud Office. It is not a good idea for hon. Members—although they obviously have to decide for themselves what they say—to use the privilege of the House to make allegations of corruption in respect of individuals who can be identified. That is really quite a serious matter, which the hon. Gentleman should have referred first to the police and the Serious Fraud Office.

The findings of the review on sex and relationship education delivery are due to be published this summer, but I understand that no consultation on them is planned. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House so that hon. Members can express their views on this important matter before any policy changes are made?

I understand that we had a debate on sex education a number of weeks ago, but I think that the handling of the findings will be announced at the time.

Given that Tonderai Ndira, a prominent Movement for Democratic Change activist in Zimbabwe, whom I had the privilege to meet in 2004, was found dead on Tuesday in a Harare hospital mortuary only days after being violently abducted by a group of armed thugs, may I reiterate the pertinent request of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) that the House should debate the escalating crisis in Zimbabwe as a matter of urgency? Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that we are owed that, as the Deputy Leader of the House gave us reason to feel encouraged on that point during business questions on 24 April? We need a full day’s debate in Government time on the Floor of the House in order to determine how on a multilateral basis we can bring the mass murderer Mugabe to book sooner rather than later.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully. I would not seek to add to it other than to say that we take his points and that we will return to them shortly.

May we have a debate about services in our communities? Members have asked for debates on post offices, rural bus services and even village schools, but BT has announced that it is going to remove 5,500 public phone boxes and is in consultation over removing another 8,700. I thought it was bad enough when the traditional red telephone boxes were replaced with ghastly shower cubicles, but to take them away completely is the wrong decision. I understand that it is a private company, but it has a public responsibility. Not everybody has mobile phones, so in an emergency a public phone box could provide the lifeline that people need. Will the Leader of the House use her best offices to ensure that BT understands its responsibilities to the community?

That is a matter for Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and for the regulators. I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s points to their attention.

Yesterday, the “Yes Minister” Bill received its Second Reading, having been debated for two hours and 44 minutes, leaving more than three and a half hours of unused debating time. On the previous day, as the Leader of the House has said, the House was at its best when it considered amendments on abortion in respect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, but that debate lasted for only three hours, with many Members unable to contribute. Was that incompatibility of debating time a deliberate ploy by the Government to curtail debate or was it just another Government cock-up?

We attempted to discuss through the usual channels and with Back Benchers the amount of time necessary for the exceptional debate in Committee on the Floor of the House. There are always going to be demands for more time for debate, but I think we had enough time to air all the issues and for Members to vote accordingly.

May I say how delighted I am to have secured the debate on eco-towns on the Tuesday after the recess? Will the Leader of the House request that the Minister for Housing—I am not asking for the Secretary of State—responds to the debate? Notwithstanding their letters and appeals to the consultation process for information, a number of colleagues are still particularly interested to find out whether the city region will include York so that the site of Skelton in the Vale of York will be included. That is why I want the appropriate Minister to respond to the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her success in securing the debate, which I know concerns a number of hon. Members. I will raise her point with the Minister for Housing.

Notwithstanding what the Leader of the House said earlier, I ask her seriously to consider finding Government time for a further debate on post offices. My constituents were outraged that 12 of their 42 post offices were consulted on and all were closed. They will be watching very carefully to see whether post offices in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform remain open. It would be completely unacceptable to my constituents if Post Office Ltd were to embark on a further round of closures in the near future. That would be totally out of order; we need a further debate to put that point of view across.

I know that hon. Members feel strongly about this issue. There was an opportunity earlier this morning, perhaps in topical questions, to raise such questions with Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to catch the Speaker’s eye—[Interruption.] I understand that he did; no doubt he got a full answer.

May we have an early debate on Belarus? Does the Leader of the House agree that President Lukashenko needs to engage with Europe rather than confront it? Indeed, Europe wants to engage with him, but he first needs to allow freedom of speech and freedom of religion and to release the political prisoners currently suffering in Belarus prisons.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is raising a point about Belarus, but I would like to pay tribute to his and other Members’ work on the all-party Russia group. I will make sure that his points are brought to the attention of appropriate Ministers in the Foreign Office.

Following the excellent point made by the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), may we have a debate in Government time about the inability of the French authorities to protect the interests of members of the British public caught up on the other side of the channel in French industrial disputes? My constituent, Mr. John Shephard from Boughton near Northampton, who sailed across to France on Monday, and 24 other British vessels have been trapped in Cherbourg harbour because French fishing boats are blockading it with ropes and steel cables and firing flares at any vessels that try to escape. The French police are doing absolutely nothing to protect the interests of British citizens caught up in the dispute. May we have a debate in Government time, and will the Leader of the House urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to get involved at an early stage?

I will bring those points to the attention of colleagues in the Foreign Office. I know that they are already involved, but I will explain the constituency issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) as well as the hon. Gentleman have raised.