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Business of the House

Volume 476: debated on Thursday 5 June 2008

The business for next week will be as follows.

Monday 9 June—Second Reading of the Climate Change Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 10 June—Remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism Bill (Day1).

Wednesday 11 June—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

Thursday 12 June—It is expected that there will be an oral statement on the HMS Tireless board of inquiry. Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Friday 13 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 16 June will include:

Monday 16 June—Second Reading of the Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 17 June—Opposition Day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 18 June—A general debate on the pre-European Council.

Thursday 19 June—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence procurement.

Friday 20 June—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 19 and 26 June and 3 July will be:

Thursday 19 June—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee entitled “The Best Start in Life? Alleviating Deprivation, Improving Social Mobility and Eradicating Child Poverty”.

Thursday 26 June—A debate on skills for life.

Thursday 3 July—A debate on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.

May I remind the House that we will rise for the summer recess on Tuesday 22 July? The dates for the tabling and answering of written questions during the summer recess were agreed by the House yesterday.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. I note that the business for next Monday has changed. Will she tell us what has happened to the second day’s debate on the Planning Bill?

Robert Mugabe’s actions have directly caused appalling malnutrition and famine in Zimbabwe. His presence at the UN food summit earlier this week, in defiance of EU sanctions, has rightly caused outrage. On 1 May, the right hon. and learned Lady said she would consider a topical debate on Zimbabwe. On 22 May, she said:

“I think that the House will want a debate soon…I will report back shortly”.—[Official Report, 22 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 403.]

Lord Malloch-Brown is giving a briefing to the all-party group on Zimbabwe next week. That is welcome, but it is no substitute for a full debate in Government time in this House, as promised, on Zimbabwe. So when will we have that debate?

Food security is a matter of concern globally, so why was the UK the only country not to send a Minister to the recent meeting of European Agriculture Ministers? I understand that the Environment Secretary was at a meeting of the G8 Environment Ministers, but where was the rest of his team? May we have a statement to the House explaining why no Minister attended?

This week, the National Audit Office told the Ministry of Defence that the Ministry had wasted £500 million on eight Chinook helicopters that have never been flown. Today, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has taken the unprecedented step of publicly asking the Government for more funding for our troops. Moreover, he has called for the Government to set out their priorities. Will the Defence Secretary make a statement to the House to do just that, and explain why, when troops in Afghanistan need more helicopters, his Department has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on helicopters that are sitting in a hangar in Wiltshire? The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has called this a “gold-standard cock-up”, so why is the debate in a fortnight’s time on defence procurement being held on a Thursday, when it will be cut short by an hour and a half?

The disclosure by Post Office Ltd that a further 4,000 post offices could be closed, including profitable ones, in addition to the current 2,500 closures, has justifiably angered many people. In London, the current round of closures is pushing ahead, despite the fact that the Mayor has said he will launch a legal case on this matter. This comes on top of the news that Post Office managers have not even agreed on the minimum number of post offices that the service requires. We are lurching from closure programme to closure programme with no end in sight. Members on both sides of the House have highlighted the disastrous consequences of post office closures for their constituents. May we have a statement from the Business Secretary on what strategy, if any, his Department has in place on post offices?

Days after the British Medical Association called on the Government to dump the polyclinic plan, a report published today by the King’s Fund has found that all patients would have to make “major sacrifices” under Government plans to centralise health services, and that the elderly and those in rural communities would be the worst hit. May we have a statement from the Health Secretary on the number of family doctors’ practices that would have to close under the Government’s plan for polyclinics?

Under this Government, rural communities such as those in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies have lost their post office, their local shop and their police station; now they are threatened with losing their family doctor. Furthermore, the Government are pushing up the tax on their elderly family cars. The Government simply do not understand rural communities. May we have a debate on how Government policy is slowly eroding our rural communities?

The Government are failing to represent the UK abroad, they are failing our armed services and they are failing our rural communities. The Prime Minister says that he is going to listen, but when is he going to learn?

The right hon. Lady asked about the Planning Bill. The business of the House has indeed changed: it had been announced that the Bill was in the House next week. On Second Reading, a number of hon. Members from all parts of the House raised concerns about the Bill. Further, there have been meetings between Ministers and hon. Members. With the Minister who is responsible for the Bill, I too have met the Chairs of various Select Committees who are concerned about the processes involved in the Bill.

It is only right that if hon. Members, including Chairs of Select Committees, raise questions about a piece of Government legislation, the appropriate thing to do is to reflect on what changes might need to be made. Without arranging it formally, the Bill will probably come back to the House the week after next, probably on Monday 23 June—if that is the week after next. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways. Either they raise issues and want us to address them, or they raise issues and criticise us if we plough ahead—[Interruption.] At all stages, it is right for the Government to respond to hon. Members.

The right hon. Lady’s second point was on Zimbabwe, and she pressed me on that. It is a matter of concern to the whole House. The second elections in Zimbabwe will be held on 27 June. The House has strong feelings about Zimbabwe, and the issue has been raised repeatedly in business questions. Both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown, are well aware of the strong feelings in the House and of the views of all hon. Members. They stand ready to meet them to discuss our diplomatic work in support of the democratic movements in Zimbabwe. The Foreign Office has contacted the offices of all those hon. Members who have raised Zimbabwe in business questions, and they will be invited to the all-party briefing next Tuesday, to which the right hon. Lady referred.

I can assure the House that we will have a debate on Zimbabwe. It will not be before the elections because the democratic movements in Zimbabwe do not want the views of the UK to be used as an alibi by Mugabe. However, I can assure the House that it will be before the House rises for the summer recess.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of ministerial attendance at, and Government involvement in, the food security EU summit. I shall arrange for the relevant Department to write to her about that.

I understand that the Chinook helicopters were procured in 1995. I believe that there has been a written ministerial statement on that, but if there has not I will arrange for the Secretary of State for Defence to write to the right hon. Lady. As she said, there will be a debate on defence procurement on Thursday week, and that will give her colleagues and all hon. Members an opportunity to raise the issue.

The right hon. Lady mentioned armed forces pay, as did other hon. Members in Treasury questions, which were the business of the House this morning. The independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommends the level of pay increases for the armed forces. If hon. Members want a different system for setting the level of pay for the armed forces, perhaps they should make that clear. The Government have accepted the body’s recommendations in full and without staging. That is the first point. We have a process, and no one is suggesting a different one—unless they come forward with proposals. We have complied with the process in full.

We have also increased the defence budget. By 2010, it will be 11 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1997. The UK is currently second only to the US in terms of defence spending as a nation. I have not heard Opposition Members propose how they would increase defence spending beyond what we are doing or which operations—Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo or elsewhere—they would cut back.

I remind Members that a soldier’s salary does not constitute the entire remunerative package. Housing and council tax relief for soldiers on operations and, in some cases, school allowances should also be taken into account. Defence questions will take place on Monday week, and the general debate on defence on Thursday week will give Members an opportunity to raise the matter.

The right hon. Lady will know that the consultation on the post office network is still under way. She will also know that the issue has been raised repeatedly in Westminster Hall. The schedule for Westminster Hall debates shows what an important opportunity they provide for Members to raise questions about their localities.

As the right hon. Lady is aware, we have invested in the Post Office and are committed to further such investment, in contrast to the cuts—not cuts, but lack of subsidy—[Interruption.] We have invested public money in the post office network, and we remain committed to investing public money in the post office network. Under the regime of the right hon. Lady’s party, there was no public investment in the network.

I can refute the right hon. Lady’s suggestion that there is a threat to general practitioner or primary care services. Let me remind her of what has happened over the past few years. In my constituency, there used to be closed lists. People who had recently moved into an area could not get on to a GP’s list unless they appealed, and once they were on the list they could not get an appointment for more than a week because the practice was so hard pressed. When they did manage to see the GP, the GP would be absolutely knackered because he or she was so overstretched—[Interruption.]

Order. I must point out to the Leader of the House, and the shadow Leader, that we are entering a debate situation. I always think that business questions are best when Back Benchers are attentive. Let us leave it at that.

May I remind the Leader of the House that a number of our colleagues have suffered various forms of harassment, some of it from constituents, and have been stalked? Given the concern of many Members in all parts of the House about the possibility of Members’ private addresses being put in the public domain, would the Leader of the House be able to consult the police and others about whether that is a wise move?

The House authorities have consulted the police and the security services. As the House will know, following a freedom of information request the question of whether the private London addresses of 14 Members should be put in the public domain will be subject to case-by-case consideration in the context of security issues involving those individuals.

I know that there is concern in all parts of the House about two aspects of this matter. The first is the personal security of Members. The second, which I consider even more important, is the need for Members to feel absolutely confident that they can speak in the House on difficult issues without fearing that, when they leave the Chamber having spoken about what they believe in, they will have to look over their shoulders because their addresses are in the public domain. In that regard, the House authorities are seeking legal advice on whether or not the Freedom of Information Act provides an opportunity for the House to defend Members’ right to speak without having to look over their shoulders thereafter.

Following the exciting success of Barack Obama in winning the Democratic nomination and the strong showing by Hillary Clinton, and given that the Government are due to announce the publication of a White Paper on House of Lords reform—we have been given a date for that—may we have a full day’s debate in the House so that, recognising the progress made by the Labour party in particular, we can discuss how we in Britain can modernise our political system to make it truly representative of both women and men, and of all our communities throughout the United Kingdom?

Will the Leader of the House also provide time for a debate on the 10th report of the Public Administration Committee, on the Government’s draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which was produced two weeks ago today? In particular, will she allow the House to put pressure on the Government so that we can get real opportunities to transfer power from the Executive to Parliament? The report says that there is only one proposal in the Bill to give more powers to the citizen. That cannot be what the public want, so may we have an opportunity to put pressure on the Government to change that?

This Friday, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan)—she was in the Chamber a moment ago—presents her Bill to give votes to people from the age of 16. Will the Government now come off the fence, and will the Leader of the House tell us today whether it is now Government policy that older teenagers should be able to take part in the democratic process, because they are subject to our laws and many of them would feel absolutely willing and able to participate in formulating those laws through the electoral system?

Lastly, we are about to have a very important debate on knife crime. Following on from that, will the Leader of the House consider having an online consultation on behalf of the House of Commons, between now and the end of next month, with the young people of Britain on how they might suggest that we make our homes, schools, colleges and streets safer, particularly from the threats of knife crime and gun crime? Like me, the right hon. and learned Lady is well aware that this is a very big issue in the homes of many of our constituents.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the US elections by way of a point about the House of Lords and the Constitutional Renewal Bill. Whatever the outcome of the Democratic nomination or the presidential election, I want to take this opportunity to pay my personal tribute to Hillary Clinton, who is and will remain a beacon to women across the world. The Justice Secretary has kept the House updated on our progress on Lords reform; we have already made progress and will continue to do so. He will update the House when it is appropriate. A Joint Committee of this House and the Lords is scrutinising the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and that will afford part of the scrutiny that this House will give to this important Bill.

The hon. Gentleman asked about older teenagers and their involvement in the democratic process. He will know that we have already reduced the age at which people can stand for election as a Member of the House of Commons or as a councillor, and that we have introduced citizenship classes in the national curriculum. We keep the voting age under review as one of a number of issues that we need to look at to increase participation in democracy across the board, and to tackle falling voter turnout and participation.

The hon. Gentleman made a sensible and thoughtful proposal on what more we can do to involve young people themselves in tackling knife crime. As he knows, there is a topical debate on knife crime in the House this afternoon, and no doubt we can explore his suggestion further.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider holding a debate on the benefits of regional railways? On Saturday, for the first time in 44 years, passenger trains will run from the towns of Ashington and Bedlington to Newcastle. Although it is a demonstration project, it will prove that for very little extra investment this valuable service could become permanent.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He has raised in this House on numerous occasions, and occasioned debates to be had on, the issue of railway passenger services in his constituency. I congratulate him on the success of his campaign for passenger trains to be reintroduced on the line between Ashington and Bedlington for the first time in 44 years. He has truly been a champion of his constituents.

Will the Leader of the House please bring early-day motion 1349, which requests a statement on the upgrading of the A14 in Cambridgeshire, to the attention of her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport?

[That this House is alarmed by the 52 deaths on the A14 in Cambridgeshire in the last 10 years; notes with concern there have been 12 serious accidents on the trunk road this year causing two fatalities; is concerned at the delays and spiralling costs of long-proposed improvements to this lethal highway; congratulates the Cambridge News on its A14 - We Need Action Now campaign; and calls on the Government and Highways Agency urgently to commence the upgrading of the A14 to full dual carriageway and near motorway standard throughout Cambridgeshire to prevent more accidents, deaths and injuries.]

The early-day motion has attracted all-party support and emphasises the urgency of upgrading the A14 in Cambridgeshire, which has seen 52 fatalities in the past 10 years and 12 accidents this year, including two fatalities.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady also remind her right hon. Friend that in an answer to me during Transport questions a few weeks ago, she did say that an announcement was imminent? We are still waiting.

I will draw the points made by the hon. Gentleman to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that next week, during consideration on Report of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, we will be dealing with one of the most difficult issues facing any democracy: fighting terrorism and at the same time trying to preserve our traditional civil liberties? Does she also agree that as far as Labour Members are concerned, we will be debating the case on the merits—be they those presented by our colleagues who support the Government, or those who, like me, are opposed to any extension beyond 28 days?

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a matter both of fighting terrorism and defending civil liberties—of getting the balance right. The House will have ample opportunity to debate this next week, and I remind him and all hon. Members on this side of the House that this is Government business.

Since I last raised the question of the judges’ dangerous decision that MPs’ home addresses should all be published, the number of signatories to early-day motion 1620 has risen from 77 to 159.

[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.]

Every party in the House, including independent and minority parties, is well represented among those signatories. May we therefore have a debate on this topic, preferably with a vote at the end? That would enable me to lay before the House interesting facts such as that the Information Commissioner has gone out of his way to tell me that he never wanted the addresses to be published in the first place, that this was added by the appeal tribunal and the judges, and that I have just received a letter from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills)—the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information—in response to my freedom of information request for the publication of judges’ home addresses. In it, he says that he is refusing the request because

“High Court Judges, whilst certainly public figures, are entitled to a private life and levels of privacy that accord with this…It is my view that routinely to disclose the personal addresses of judges would breach their privacy and would be unfair.”

Unfortunately, he does not say anything about security, which ought to be the overriding consideration in both cases.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his early-day motion, which I would indeed sign were protocol not there to prevent me from doing so. The point that he makes about judges is that it is right that their home addresses are not published because they need to mete out justice without fear or favour when they sit in court. I would think that something of the same argument applies to Members of this House. Our addresses should not be published so that we are able to speak freely on democratic issues of importance in this House without looking over our shoulders.

May I first comment on the issues raised earlier in relation to the Planning Bill? As one of the four Select Committee Chairs involved in detailed discussions with the Leader of the House on the matter of parliamentary scrutiny during the proposed new planning process, I want to put on the record the helpfulness of those discussions, the real give and take and the real changes that are going to be introduced as a result of those discussions. That was the Leader of the House working with Select Committee Chairs in the most positive way, and it should be commended by all. Of course, two of the Chairs are Members of the Opposition, and I think they would agree with me on that.

I want to raise—[Interruption.]

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. As Leader of the House working with Select Committee Chairs, irrespective of what party they come from, it is indeed my responsibility to make sure that the House is listened to and responded to.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on why the Department for Work and Pensions, through Jobcentre Plus, provides free advertising for sex clubs? Such a debate would give the House an opportunity to debate whether job advertisements requiring women to work naked or semi-naked on the national minimum wage constitute exploitation. I am sure that such a debate would be very helpful; the Leader of the House might even want the opportunity to put on record whether she condones such activities of the DWP; given her previous statements, I am sure that she does not.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I shall draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I had meetings with the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the question of ensuring that those seeking jobs who have an obligation to take a job rather than remain on jobseeker’s allowance should not be obliged to take a job in some lawful but sleazy activity. This is a difficult line to be drawn, whether in respect of lap-dancing clubs or escort agencies. I shall draw the matter to the attention of the current Secretary of State. There is also a question about the licensing of lap-dancing clubs. We must ensure that where the local community and the local council do not want a new lap-dancing club, the law ensures that they get their way in this respect.

The Ministry of Justice announced this week the publication of a consultative document on compensation for pleural plaques sufferers, and that is to be greatly welcomed. Will the Leader of the House ensure not only that Members get a statement in the House from the relevant Minister on the proposals being put forward, but that we get a chance to participate in a full debate on this important issue, which affects tens of thousands of people in this country?

Because of the efforts of hon. Members such as my hon. Friend, the Government have carefully examined the House of Lords decision on the question of pleural plaques. A debate on this matter took place in Westminster Hall this week, in which a number of Members were able to participate. A consultation process will start before the end of this month in respect of the Government’s response to the concerns about the House of Lords judgment, and I know that he and other hon. Members will want to participate in that consultation, which is largely a response to their concerns.

Whichever way MPs voted last month on the abortion time limit, I am sure that they will share my concern at recent figures showing that the number of abortions is continuing to rise. Can we therefore have a debate on the Government’s strategy for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, so that we can discuss why it is not working and how it can be improved?

I understand that there has recently been a Westminster Hall debate on teenage pregnancies, but the hon. Lady makes an important point. Now that the House has decided not to change the time limit, that does not mean that we should leave behind the question of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. I think everybody would agree that if an abortion has to be carried out, it should be done as early as possible, but we want to reduce the number of abortions by ensuring that there is good motivation among girls to postpone pregnancy, that boys take responsibility, and that there is good sex education and good availability of contraception. That is what the House should be addressing now, and I shall look for an opportunity to allow that to happen.

We know from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that over the past 12 months there has been a huge increase in dog fighting and an explosion in the number of ferocious dogs on our streets. Such dogs just intimidate people, so can we have an early debate on the operation and continuing relevance of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and on whether we should bring back a system of dog licensing?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I shall consider as a future subject for a topical debate. As he says, this is not just about cruelty to animals; it is about people striking fear into other people in the local community, and about antisocial behaviour bordering on criminality. We need to examine whether the law and enforcement mechanisms are satisfactory, and I shall look for an opportunity for us to do that.

When the Leader of the House examines the parliamentary week, would she agree that Thursdays have become the poor relation, because they have reduced attendance in the Chamber, fewer votes and fewer meetings of parliamentary Committees and all-party groups? Will she consider stretching the parliamentary week by moving Prime Minister’s questions from Wednesdays to Thursdays?

First, on the question of Thursday being a poor relation, we have a very important debate on knife crime today, and in a couple of Thursdays’ time we will have an important debate on defence procurement and defence more generally. It is down to hon. Members to participate in, and be present for, debates on Thursdays. As to when oral questions take place, the timing of questions to all Departments and to the Prime Minister is always kept under review.

I welcome the inclusion of the equality Bill in the draft legislation programme. When that programme is introduced, will the Bill deal with age discrimination, which is rife throughout my constituency, as must be the case for all constituencies? At a time when our elderly population is growing, it is outrageous that elderly people are being discriminated against in areas such as the take-up of credit and so on. Such discrimination should be outlawed, and surely that should be in the equality Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. He will know that we have outlawed employment discrimination against people on grounds of their age, as part of our approach to tackling unfair discrimination and prejudice. As he rightly says, there is a growing number of older people, and they, too, should have fairness. We will bring forward our proposals in the equality Bill later this month, and I hope that he will be satisfied by what he sees.

May I raise a subject that I know will be close to the heart of the Leader of the House, and will she make time for a debate to which other colleagues who share my concerns can contribute? An ongoing case with which I am concerned involves a very popular local pharmacist in Vale of York. I understand that for the first time, under new procedures, a disciplinary action has been brought against her under the heading “fitness to practise”. She wanted me to undertake any parliamentary proceedings that could expedite an amicable solution before the matter was taken before a legal tribunal. The problem was that the delay that I incurred in trying to obtain a reply to my initial letter to the Department of Health precluded any parliamentary proceedings pre-empting legal action. Could the Leader of the House look into Departments—not just the Department of Health—taking a very long time to reply to both my letters and those of hon. Members, because in this instance the delay could have made a difference?

Order. The hon. Lady is raising a constituency case. Such cases are important to every hon. Member, but such a lengthy intervention during business questions is out of order. What I say to her is that there are opportunities to raise these things—Adjournment debates, parliamentary questions and others—and it is unfair if hon. Members take up lengthy periods during time that should be about next week’s business.

The hon. Lady raises two points of principle. First, I do not think it is right that parliamentary action should interfere with, or intervene in, what is a legal process, but I totally agree that Secretaries of State should give prompt replies to Members who are raising constituency issues. I shall undertake to get a reply to her letter to her this afternoon from the relevant Minister.

Yesterday, a petition was placed on the No. 10 website. It reads:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Force Brent Council to desist from it’s present policy of closing and refusing new tenancies to community groups, in a cynical bid to raise capital.”

Stonebridge day centre and Roundwood café are just two organisations that are facing closure. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Brent, which is a Lib-Dem/Tory run council, uses the Government as a smokescreen to cover its disgraceful policies?

Order. I am going to stop hon. Members doing this. These questions are about the business of next week; this is not an opportunity to attack a local authority. There are other opportunities to attack local authorities, although I am not advocating that; with a bit of ingenuity hon. Members could try it in other parts of the week.

Perhaps Mr. Mackay can keep in order—I know that he can.

Returning to the business of next week, but not wishing to intrude on the private grief of Labour Members after Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, may I call on the Leader of the House for an urgent debate next week on the proposed increases in vehicle excise duty, which will hit families on low incomes especially hard? It is likely to be this Government’s poll tax, unless they change their mind.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that there was extensive discussion of the matter in Treasury questions this morning. He will also know that our concern is to raise revenue fairly and to cut carbon emissions. The Chancellor also gave evidence to the Treasury Committee yesterday.

May we have a debate about the devaluation of the honours system by the automatic award of honours to top civil servants? Did my right hon. and learned Friend notice the parliamentary reply that showed that all the most recently retired 29 permanent secretaries got a knighthood, without discrimination, and four got a peerage? Is not that a devaluation, bearing in mind—to use the words of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in quoting the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—that some of them presided over gold-standard cock-ups? It really is one in the face for ordinary people when these blighters get such awards.

There is not an automatic award of honours. I know that my hon. Friend agrees that people who spend their lives dedicated to public service are valuable, and we need to pay tribute to them. We believe in people of the greatest talent and ability forgoing what sometimes could have been shed loads of money in the private sector to work in the public service. I for one am glad if they are recognised.

A report this week shows that broadband speeds in rural areas are half those in London and the south-east. That is a considerable inconvenience to rural families and a hindrance to the development of business in rural areas. We also have not-spots, such as Rhiwlas in my constituency, which has no broadband provision at all. May we have a debate on the digital divide, which should be called digital inequality?

This is something that I will bring to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is an important issue not only for individuals, but for commerce.

May we have a debate about the tax on alcoholic drinks? While we should all obviously be concerned about binge drinking and its links to antisocial behaviour, the SNP, not for the first time, seems to have two positions on this issue—one for Edinburgh and another for London. In Edinburgh, it is talking about raising the tax on cut-price budget drinks—those within the reach of people on low incomes—but here in London, the SNP Treasury spokesman demands a freeze on deluxe spirits, specifically mentioning a 15-year-old malt, the Balvenie. Such a debate would allow us to expose this latest example of the SNP penalising the poor while pandering to the rich.

Not so long ago, we had a debate on binge drinking and its contribution to antisocial behaviour, especially its connection with youth crime. My hon. Friend raises an important question about the taxation of alcohol, especially the issues raised north of the border, and I will bring that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, as well as other UK Ministers dealing with tax and health issues connected to alcohol.

May we have an early debate on tax poverty, now that the Government are driving so many people into despair over the ever-rising taxes, charges and impositions? That would give us an opportunity to expose the wasteful and needless expenditure on things such as unelected regional government, over-manned quangos, ID cards and computer schemes, and to offer some relief to people if only the Government would manage things better.

Taxation and poverty are important issues, but I find it a bit much that that request should come from someone who voted for VAT on gas and electricity to be 17.5 per cent. I might consider that request if it came from someone else, but not from the right hon. Gentleman.

Rapidly rising transport fuel prices are causing lots of concern across the country, but especially to people living and running businesses in rural areas. The Government are starting to realise the problems those people face because of the lack of public transport. There are measures open to the Government, so will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to consider introducing measures on this issue, especially a derogation from the European Union, to reduce fuel prices in remote and rural areas?

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Government need to focus on quality of life and standard of living issues in rural areas. That means a focus on jobs, health services, education, support for businesses and public transport, as well as on the cost of fuel. I will draw his points to the attention of Ministers in the relevant Departments.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that next Thursday’s topical debate is on the Government’s eco-town policy and that the Minister for Housing condescends to come to the House to be cross-examined by Members about her policies? So far the Minister for Housing has not answered a single debate. We have had two Adjournment debates—one that I was granted on 29 January and one granted to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) in Westminster Hall earlier this week—which were answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright). He is no doubt an eminent Minister, but he was unable to give us any information of any value about the Government’s policy or the particulars of the 15 sites so far identified. It is most important for our constituents that we have the Minister for Housing at the Dispatch Box to be cross-examined by effective constituency Members. So far, all she has done is give us a conference call that was not recorded. There is no transcript of that call, and that is bad practice, quite apart from being unconstitutional.

I will bring the hon. and learned Gentleman’s points to the attention of the Minister responsible for eco-towns, and I will also consider the matter as a subject for topical debate. If he thinks that it continues to be topical, I suggest that he drops me an e-mail and pursues that request.

The Leader of the House will have read early-day motion 1587, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and is about the proposed sale by the Environment Agency of 22 lock-keepers’ houses along the Thames.

[That this House is concerned about the Environment Agency’s proposal to dispose by sale or letting of 22 lock-keepers’ homes along the Thames; recognises the importance of lock-keepers being resident in homes adjacent to locks to maintain safety on the river; fears for the welfare of the lock-keepers and their families; and calls on the Government to ask the Environment Agency to re-examine its decision so as to protect this unique part of the nation’s river heritage and the tradition of lock-keepers living at the site of locks.]

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the motion so that those of us with constituencies adjoining the Thames can express constituents’ concern about the effect of that proposal on river users, lock-keepers and their families, safety and the social ecology of the Thames?

I note the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and suggest that he considers requesting a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor to clarify reports that sales of defence estates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will in future accrue to devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, rather than to the Ministry of Defence estate? She will understand that such a change would represent a significant defence cut and would be of grave concern to us all, especially in the current climate.

As I understand it, there is no suggestion to change how the proceeds of the sale of defence estates are dealt with, but if I am wrong about that, I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is written to and I shall correct the record.

May we have an urgent debate next week on the tender for the successor to the Post Office card account? There is a risk that the Department for Work and Pensions will take that contract away from the Post Office, but that would mean the closure of thousands of post offices, and pensioners on several islands in my constituency would have nowhere to collect their pension. The contract must stay with the Post Office.

I will bring the points that the hon. Gentleman makes to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend to write to the hon. Gentleman on the points that he raises.

May I reiterate calls for a debate on polyclinics? In particular, in my constituency the acute general hospital is closing and we are having a polyclinic imposed on us. That would sound quite good if it were not for the fact that the GP surgery 800 yd away will have to close because it will lose all its patients. Can we have a debate so that we can have the truth about polyclinics?

On the question of primary care services in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, he has no doubt raised the subject with his primary care trust. If he is not satisfied with its response, perhaps he should seek a debate in Westminster Hall. Without getting into a debate, I would say that the Government’s concern and our commitment are to improve primary care services. That is why we have trained and recruited more GPs, paid GPs more and ensured that patients in primary care services get better health care and better outcomes and are satisfied with the services that they get. There will always be disputes about exactly how services are provided, but nobody would think that we should stand still in the 1950s with one model of GPs’ services remaining in perpetuity. There has to be change in order for improvement to occur, and we need to work together to ensure that, with the extra investment that the Government have put in, that is exactly what happens.

May we have a debate in Government time on sentencing guidelines? Figures revealed via a freedom of information request this month show that in Cambridgeshire 389 individuals are subject to a failure to attend warrant. Of those individuals, 83 are category A—the most dangerous criminals, charged with offences such as assault, rape, kidnapping and so on. Is it not time that we reviewed the sentencing guidelines, particularly as magistrates and judges are put in a difficult position in that they cannot remand the most dangerous criminals in prison and have to give them bail, only for them to abscond? And while we are at it, can we also look at the funding for—

There will be questions to the Secretary of State for Justice on Tuesday, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can raise his concerns then. A review of the question of bail is under way and is considering appropriate alternatives to custody, as well as how to ensure that people are remanded in custody in appropriate cases and that those who fail to attend are tracked down, brought before the courts and appropriately sentenced.

I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that one of those alternatives is to allow local constituency MPs, local residents and local councils to be consulted prior to the installation of bail hostels in constituencies. It is completely unacceptable that despite questions to the Ministry of Justice, my constituents remain in the dark about how many bail hostels there are in my constituency and about who is being kept in those bail hostels.

If this is about a registered bail hostel with a measure of security, as people are required to be subject to certain conditions, such as not going out at certain times of the day, consultation is required on the existence of such bail hostels or indeed any plans for new bail hostels. I think that there has been confusion about the question of people who, if they had a home to go to, would be remanded to return to it. Such people are not remanded in custody, but instead go to supportive accommodation. Such accommodation is not a bail hostel as such, and in such cases the services and agencies have a responsibility to consult each other. Beyond that, it is simply at the discretion of the local authority to decide whether it wants to consult the local community. If the hon. Gentleman wants to propose a different regime for change of use and planning and wants to have a different planning classification for the sorts of accommodation that I have talked about, which are really little dissimilar to someone going home to live with mum, then he ought to make that proposal.

Can we have a debate on education? Perhaps then we could discuss the state of education in Milton Keynes and the news we have heard today, which was released only under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That news was that as a direct result of the net £22 million Government cut in funding for schools in Milton Keynes, eight new schools that are desperately needed to cope with the expansion of Milton Keynes will not be built. Why are the Government forcing Milton Keynes to expand but refusing to fund our schools?

The Government are not refusing to invest in schools. There has been a threefold increase in investment in schools across the board. Obviously, it is important to ensure that there is planning ahead. Over the next three years, the Government will invest more in school building than was invested for the whole 18 years of Conservative government. We have to prioritise areas where there is an expansion in the school-age population and we have to prioritise deprived areas. His party has said that it would cut investment in schools, but I will none the less bring his point to the attention of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I know that the other Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), has done so, too.

May I join other Opposition Members in calling for a debate on the taxation of the poor? Even before the 10p tax abolition fiasco, the lowest paid in this country were paying higher rates of tax than the richest. Can we have an urgent debate so that Members from all parties can ask Labour Front Benchers why, in the 12th year of this Government, that ridiculous and oppressive state of taxation is hitting the poorest in the land?

We have just had Treasury questions. Yesterday, the Chancellor appeared before the Treasury Committee. Such questions are raised every week with the Prime Minister. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the subject is never far from the concerns of all Members from all parties.

Last year, there were a staggering 64 programme motions. At the last business questions, the Leader of the House said that

“whenever a programme motion is tabled, there is an opportunity for Members to debate it and to say whether they think it is appropriate…There is always an opportunity to debate a programme motion”.—[Official Report, 22 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 409.]

Under Standing Order No. 83A(7), the question on a programme motion is put forthwith without debate. Unless the Leader of the House was proposing a change to Standing Orders about programme motions, will she make a statement during next week’s business to correct that information?

That is a good point. I looked into it, but I cannot remember what I found out. I will look into it again and not only remember what I found out but report it back to the House. The House will have another opportunity to debate a programme motion next Tuesday in relation to the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I am sure that there will be a full debate.

Can we have a statement next week from the Minister responsible for fire safety about what steps the Government will take to amend building regulations, part B, to reduce the fire risk from faulty domestic electric circuitry? Following the launch of the important campaign by the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph to get more smoke alarms fitted, the Electrical Safety Council wrote to me to say that one fifth of domestic fires are caused by faulty electrical circuitry, causing some 30 deaths and 4,000 injuries a year.

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman’s points. I shall bring them to the attention of the relevant Ministers. I am glad to see that he is clearly of the view that in such cases regulation does not mean the nanny state but saves lives.