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Business of the House

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 23 June—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Sale of Student Loans Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2008, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2008.

Tuesday 24 June—Opposition day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Cost of Living”, followed by a debate on the 60th anniversary of the NHS. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 25 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning Bill.

Thursday 26 June—A general debate on the draft Legislative Programme.

Friday 27 June—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 30 June will include:

Monday 30 June—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Tuesday 1 July—The House will be asked to approve Ways and Means resolutions on the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill—day 1.

Wednesday 2 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 3 July—Topical debate on Zimbabwe followed by motions relating to MPs’ pay and allowances.

Friday 4 July—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business. As she has just announced, on 3 July we are scheduled to have a topical debate on Zimbabwe, but does she not think that the situation there is so serious that we should have not a one and a half hour debate but a full debate on the subject, in Government time? She announced that on 3 July we will also have two other debates—one on the Baker review on Members’ pay, and the other on the Members Estimate Committee review of allowances—but we will have only four hours for them. Will she at least guarantee that on that day there will be no ministerial oral statements to eat further into the time available for debate?

On 5 July we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS, so may we have a debate before the summer recess on the NHS? Not only are a quarter of NHS trusts in England failing to meet at least one of the Government’s standards on hygiene, but babies are being turned away from hospitals owing to a lack of cots and specialist staff. That comes at a time when the Government are closing maternity units across the country, so may we have a debate on NHS priorities?

In the past week, there have been five separate security breaches, with Government documents and computers containing highly sensitive information being left on trains and stolen from offices. There have been clear breaches of security rules. That follows the Government’s loss of the personal details of 25 million people last autumn. Clearly, there is a culture of carelessness at the heart of this Government. Last December, the Minister for the Cabinet Office told the House that a report would be published this spring on the procedure for and storage of sensitive data, yet we have heard nothing. Will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that the report is published before the summer recess, and that Members will have the opportunity to challenge Ministers in this House and to ensure that data security is improved?

The Casey report, commissioned by the Prime Minister, calls for a revolution in the treatment of victims of crime, and claims that the criminal justice system is patronising in its attitude to the public. That comes on top of Sir Ian Blair saying that there is “almost no public faith” in crime figures in the UK, that Government police targets should be scrapped, and that there should be a return to common-sense policing. Crime levels are of grave concern to us all, so can we have a debate on approaches to policing and crime prevention?

Finally, there will be an Opposition day debate on the cost of living next week. We face rising mortgage costs, growing unemployment, soaring prices for fuel, electricity, gas and food, and the prospect of higher interest rates. It is no good telling people that those are global issues and nothing to do with this Government. The Government have no room for manoeuvre because they failed to put money aside in the good times. Will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that, before that Opposition day debate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes a full, clear statement showing that the Government are finally willing to take responsibility for their actions?

The right hon. Lady raised the subject of the terrible situation in Zimbabwe, which I know is of concern to all Members. Indeed, the subject was raised in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. She will be aware that I have announced there is to be a topical debate on the issue, which the Foreign Secretary will lead. In addition, we will have Foreign Office questions, including topical questions, next Tuesday, so there will be an opportunity for hon. Members to raise points on that occasion.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Baker review and allowances. Those issues will be debated, and the House will have an opportunity to decide on them on 3 July. She asked for a debate on the national health service; as she will know, her party has an Opposition day debate on the NHS next week, so no doubt she can raise any points that she wants to make then. In that debate, the Government will no doubt set out how we have made unprecedented investment in the national health service, providing more doctors and nurses and shorter waiting lists, and how we will continue to improve the provision of health care.

The right hon. Lady asked us to focus on procedures for the storage of sensitive data. She will know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made a statement on the issue last Thursday. We keep the House up to date with information of that nature, and the report will be forthcoming.

The right hon. Lady mentioned crime levels and whether there would be an opportunity to debate them. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to thank Louise Casey for her thoughtful and helpful report. The right hon. Lady will no doubt acknowledge that crime levels have been falling, but there is concern about serious and organised crime, particularly about gang crime among young people, and that is why, on the Thursday before last or last Thursday, we arranged a topical debate on knife crime.

The right hon. Lady asked for a debate about the cost of living, but she herself has scheduled an Opposition day debate about it. We are pointing out to the House that the increases in the cost of petrol, gas, electricity and food, which are putting a great deal of pressure on family finances, come from world issues—global issues. But we have to make absolutely sure, and we will, that this country has a path through those difficult economic circumstances that have arisen internationally, and that, as we respond to the short-term problems, we do not create longer-term problems. We understand the pressures that people are under, and we are taking action nationally and internationally to ensure that this country can weather the economic storm.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in the coalfields in particular there has been investment during the good times, and that we could usefully have a debate on the subject? In the past 10 years, every single pit tip has been flattened, and instead of those pit tips we have factories on the sites. Unemployment in Bolsover is now 10 per cent. below the national average. We have been investing in the good times to provide for the bad times. That is why on Friday I will be opening what is commonly known as Skinner’s junction on the M1 to provide another 5,000 jobs: investment in the good times producing jobs in the bad times.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is because of the investment in our people in this country—in their skills, in our industry, particularly in science, and in infrastructure, including public transport—that our economy is in a good position to weather the difficult storm. It might well be that the Opposition think that was not a worthwhile investment. I should like to hear from any of them who think that it was not worth investing in their local school, in their local transport infrastructure and in their local industries. That is what we have been doing over the past 10 years, and that is why we can be confident that, in difficult times, the economy will be strong enough to find a way forward.

Obviously, we are pleased that next week there will be a half-day debate on the cost of living, but given that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) asked about the mismatch between oil companies’ huge profits—windfalls of £9 billion—and the fact that people on the lowest incomes are having to pay higher prices for their energy than other people are, may we have a debate specifically on the energy and power companies, their profits and their social responsibility? Out there, in the real world, the public think that some people are making a huge profit while others struggle to pay the weekly bills.

It is good that the Leader of the House has announced that we will have a debate on Zimbabwe at an early opportunity. I join those who say that we should have enough time for the full contributions from across the House that I am sure that subject needs. May we also have in the near future a debate on the opportunity that there now is for some progress to be made in Palestine and Gaza, given the ceasefire that has been announced today?

On Tuesday, the Government’s Defence and Security Organisation announced that for the first time ever the United Kingdom has become the world’s largest arms exporter. Given that in the recent past there have been some difficulties, to put it gently, to do with arms sales such as the ones between BAe Systems and Saudi Arabia, and if we are going to be the people who lead in this industry, may we have an early debate on the ethics and responsibility of the arms trade around the world, where far too much business ends up with arms going into the wrong hands?

This week there was a significant report by the King’s Fund saying that the cost of treating people with dementia is likely to double over the next 20 years. That is an issue of concern that is often raised around the House. May we have a debate on how we are going to care for and pay for the care of those with dementia or Alzheimer’s and the adult mentally infirm?

Yesterday there was a very important announcement by the Law Lords—I expect that the Leader of the House has seen it—that a murder conviction was quashed because it is wrong to give anonymity to witnesses other than in cases relating to children and in rape cases. Could the Justice Secretary come to the House and seek a way forward, with consensus on both sides of the House, as to how very nasty people can be convicted and the convictions upheld, if necessary by changing the rules to give more anonymity to witnesses so that crimes can be dealt with and the innocent and the victims supported?

The hon. Gentleman raised a question that concerns everybody: the increase in fuel prices. He will know that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee has been looking into the operation of energy companies and energy prices. He will also bear in mind the fact that we have already taken action through the winter fuel payments to protect pensioners, through tax credits to help low-income families, particularly those with children, and through an insulation programme. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are keeping a very clear focus on ensuring that the fuel and energy companies are competitive and play their part in these difficult times. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Prime Minister is going to Saudi Arabia to discuss oil supply. There will be an opportunity for Members who want to raise these issues to do so next week in the debates on the Finance Bill.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the opportunity that might present itself for much greater peace and a more hopeful future as between Israel and Palestine. I should like to thank Tony Blair for his work on this, which has been very important in the international process. Hon. Members will be aware that he gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is looking into the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about arms trading. There is a debate on defence procurement later today.

The hon. Gentleman also asked an important question about dementia. There is a written ministerial statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), on the development of a national dementia strategy. This is a subject of great concern, given that the number of people aged over 85 is set to double over the next 20 years. There has been increased investment in the national health service and in social care, but we need to look at the trends and ensure that we prepare for them. As well as focusing on health and social services, one important element that we will not lose sight of is how we support families as they care for older relatives.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important matter of the House of Lords judgment cutting back on anonymity for witnesses. We will consider that judgment. However, we are absolutely clear that we must ensure that offenders are brought to justice and that this is not such an ordeal for victims and witnesses that they dare not step forward. Should legislation be necessary, there will be an opportunity to bring forward measures in the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill that is to be included in the Queen’s Speech. The draft legislative programme will be debated next Thursday.

After the death of 10 women in Northwick Park hospital in my constituency through complications in childbirth, the maternity unit there was put into special measures. It came out of special measures in September last year, but since those original 10 deaths three more women have died in that unit from childbirth complications. Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my absolute incredulity that the chair of the hospital trust is still refusing to hold an independent inquiry into the matter, and will she ensure that time is made available for Members to discuss it in this House?

Without waiting for the opportunity to debate it, I shall raise with the Secretary of State for Health the points that my hon. Friend has made. There will be an opportunity to raise the issue on the Floor of the House in the debate next Tuesday. Fewer women now die in childbirth and fewer babies die when they are born, but we have to be determined that every single maternity unit lives up to the standards of the best. I know that is what my hon. Friend is determined to see for his constituents and his local hospital.

May we have a debate on domestic violence? Is the Leader of the House aware that section 12 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, which brought in restraining orders to protect partners from abuse, has not been implemented? Is it true that Baroness Thornton, a Minister in another place, has now admitted that that delay in implementation is due entirely to pressure on prison places? Is it not a disgrace that spouse beaters are avoiding jail because of the prisons crisis?

It is not the case that wife beaters or men involved in domestic violence are avoiding prison because of the increase in the prison population. It is important that the courts know that every offender who is convicted of a serious violent offence, such as domestic violence, will be sent to prison where appropriate. The hon. Gentleman mentions section 12, which I agree should be implemented as soon as possible.

The price of oil is the single biggest factor underlying all the current global economic difficulties. Although increasing the supply of oil may give some temporary relief, in the long term the problem is that supply is running out. We know that we have passed the peak of production of UK oil, and many petroleum geologists now believe that we are approaching the peak of global production of oil. May we have a debate about peak oil? Would that not give us the opportunity to consider what happened during the boom years of North sea oil, when the Conservatives were in control, and what they did with the money? Did they put it aside, or did they use it to—

I can tell my hon. Friend that the North sea oil revenues were spent on unemployment benefit because of the vast number of people who were unemployed instead of earning a living and paying taxes. Because of the terrible toll of unemployment, North sea oil revenues went straight out of the North sea and into unemployment benefit. That is why we put full employment right at the top of our agenda. My hon. Friend made an important point about the price of oil, which affects not only family budgets but business budgets. It is important that we develop more public transport to assist people, that we have more renewable energy supplies, and that we have more insulation. We have to ensure that fuel is affordable, but for the long term we must look at alternatives.

I used to ask almost weekly for a debate on post office closures. It is now too late for my constituency, where nine post offices are to be closed irrespective of the views and needs of local communities. May we have a debate on the award of the Post Office card account contract? The National Federation of SubPostmasters estimates that if that contract is awarded to anyone other than the Post Office, a further 3,000 post offices may close, to the great detriment of our communities and our constituents.

The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise that matter in oral questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, or he might consider a debate in Westminster Hall. I know that a number of hon. Members may want to join him in that.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider finding time for a debate on the impact of the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007, which threatens to put a considerable number of my constituents out of work, and about which, I am sorry to say, Ministers appear to be in denial at the moment?

I shall raise my hon. Friend’s point with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

If, as seems inevitable, the other place amends the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill, can the right hon. and learned Lady say when the Bill will return to this House? Will she guarantee that there will be adequate time to debate any amendments, and can she say whether the Treasury will be able to afford another Government win?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, debates in the other place are not programmed: it is simply a question of when the other place concludes its debates on the matter. The Bill will then follow the usual course of events. It is important for this House to ensure that, against a mounting threat of terrorism, we have the right laws for the police and courts to apply, and that we have the right safeguards for civil liberties. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the police and the prosecutors who, week in, week out, protect us by prosecuting serious terrorist offences in courts, and whose achievement in doing so is considerable.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the difficulties caused by academic selection to non-grammar schools in places such as Kent, and I know that she shares my support for the Government’s national challenge. However, is she aware of the damage done to the 638 schools that were named and shamed last week, three of which were in my constituency of Dover, in the Deal area? Will she consider scheduling a debate on this important issue?

The purpose of the national challenge, which the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families set out, is to make absolutely sure that every child has the best opportunities in their education, every day they go to school. The intention is not to demoralise staff or to stigmatise schools, but to make absolutely sure that every school is a good school. Given that children spend only one period of time at school, we cannot afford to allow a situation to develop whereby they are not getting the best education each day they are there.

Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree with paragraph 66 of the report of Sir John Baker on pay and allowances, which says that there needs to be

“a clear distinction between salary and reimbursement of expenses”?

To that end, would she facilitate such a distinction by ensuring that we have two separate debates on salary and expenses on 3 July?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will take up his proposal, and we will have separate debates: one on remuneration, pay and pensions, and the other on reimbursement of expenditure, which hon. Members need to run their offices, to travel to and from their constituencies and to live away from their constituencies when the House is sitting.

In the next few weeks, a decision will be taken on the contract on the clean-up of Sellafield and the country’s stockpile of nuclear waste, which could cost up to £75,000 million, based on the Government’s figures. May we have a debate on the management of nuclear waste, in the context of the Government’s restated policy vastly to expand the nuclear industry?

There was a statement on nuclear waste by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last week, but I will raise with colleagues the points that my hon. Friend makes.

I fully support the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for a longer debate on Zimbabwe, although I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for arranging a topical debate on 3 July. May I help the Leader of the House in responding to the concerns about Zimbabwe by asking whether she would arrange for the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs or a Foreign Office Minister to come to the House next week to give information on the number of election observers and monitors who will be in place when that election occurs? As the Leader of the House knows, it will take place before the debate in this House. That election cannot be free and fair unless there are independent international observers present to witness it.

Foreign Office questions are next Tuesday, and there will be an opportunity for topical questions to be asked. The election will then be on Friday, and the following week there will be the debate led by the Foreign Secretary. The whole House is concerned about the situation, and we will keep the matter under review and ensure that the House has an opportunity to have a debate and play its part in expressing to the world, to African countries and to people in Zimbabwe the fact that we stand behind the Zimbabwean people and their right to vote and choose their own Government.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend agree to publish the Government’s final proposals for the equality Bill ahead of next Thursday’s general debate on the draft legislative programme, the better to inform the debate on such important matters as outlawing age discrimination and enabling mothers to breast-feed their babies in public?

I will quite shortly be setting out to the House the provisions that we expect to be included in the Government’s new equality Bill. Hon. Members and many outside organisations have said that they feel that the last frontier of equality is ensuring that the growing number of older people in this country do not unfairly face prejudice and discrimination.

My hon. Friend mentioned breast-feeding. I confirm to him that we intend to make it clear in the Bill that it is not acceptable for women who are breast-feeding their babies to be shooed out of restaurants, public galleries or other public places. It is important that we encourage and support women who are breast-feeding their children, so the law should make it clear that it is not possible to exclude a woman on that basis.

Is it not clear that the sheer magnitude of the evil tyranny in Zimbabwe dictates that we should have a longer debate rather than just a topical debate or rely on the vagaries of Foreign Office questions next week?

The Leader of the House mentioned Prime Minister’s Question Time. Will she comment on why the Prime Minister did not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) about China’s role in bankrolling Mugabe?

Order. That is not a question about the business for next week. The right hon. and learned Lady will try to answer the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question.

I understand the concern that the right hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members have raised. There is great concern about Zimbabwe, and the House wants an opportunity to debate it widely and hear from the Government. That opportunity will be afforded not only in Foreign Office questions next week but immediately after the election has been held, on 3 July.

The Climate Change Bill will start its Committee stage next week, which is really good news. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that there is no attempt to weaken clause 80, on mandatory reporting of the carbon emissions of larger companies? It has widespread support from the business community, and the CBI is not against it. Non-governmental organisations and many Members of the House have signed up to it, and the changes were agreed without a Division in the other place. Will my right hon. and learned Friend talk to her colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to ensure that we do not change that clause, because it is jolly good as it stands?

I will bring to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in DEFRA the points made by my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of tackling climate change. If we are to make progress, it is important that we can see where progress is being made. Monitoring is part of that.

May we have a debate on the performance of the Office of the Public Guardian? I am sure that hon. Members of all parties have been contacted by constituents who are concerned by the increasing length of time that it is taking to get lasting powers of attorney. In the case of one of my constituents, it has now been some 20 weeks—almost three times the target time in which the OPG says it will deliver it. That is causing major distress to families who are already having to deal with ailing relatives. I simply ask the Leader of the House whether we can look into that matter.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are not a huge number of people affected, but it is a huge issue for those who are. I shall raise it with the relevant Departments and consider how to deal with it.

May I refer to my early-day motion 1839?

That this House is alarmed by the Government’s proposal to abolish the requirement on employers to retain employers’ liability compulsory insurance for 40 years; acknowledges that the existing law is poorly enforced; notes that the Government intend to introduce a statutory instrument before the summer recess to achieve this reform to employment and insurance law; recognises the significant distress of mesothelioma sufferers and their families who have been awarded industrial injury damages in court but cannot trace their former employers’ insurers; believes that this inability to trace the insurers of employers whose workers were exposed to fatal asbestos dust as part of their work illustrates the need for insurance law to be strengthened, not weakened; further believes that the Department for Work and Pensions’ solution will absolve employers and their insurers from responsibility for future victims of industrial illnesses like mesothelioma who are diagnosed with a fatal industrial illness many years after exposure; and calls upon the Government not to introduce this statutory instrument to withdraw and to consult the public further on this matter.

It draws attention to the Government’s proposal to introduce before the summer recess a statutory instrument to weaken insurance law and remove the obligation on employers to retain compulsory employers liability insurance for 40 years. That would have a serious effect on those who are exposed to occupational hazards that are slow to show, such as mesothelioma. If the Leader of the House were to persuade the Government not to introduce that statutory instrument and to put it out to further consultation, that would create more space for the packed range of submissions that she is receiving this morning. The issue is serious and affects many thousands of people, and we do not know what many of them are being exposed to.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. We want to ensure that standards of health and safety at work are as high as possible, and with the most effective regulation. Perhaps I will suggest to my fellow Ministers that they meet him and any other hon. Members who want to raise the issue before the regulations come before the House.

Rushden bowling club, in my constituency, normally gets a water bill for £300 every six months. Recently, £10,000 was debited from its account. It never received a bill, neither the bank nor the water company will do anything about it, and it has turned to me as a last hope. May we have a topical debate on the relevance of the power of utility companies over private citizens?

I have urged Members to put forward proposals for topical debates, and the hon. Gentleman has done exactly that. I shall consider it, but he might also consider applying for an Adjournment debate on the case of his bowling club.

During the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, there has been considerable support in both Houses for the proposal to establish a parliamentary bioethics committee. In my view, it should cover human as well as animal bioethics, because issues such as xenotransplantation and admixed human embryos cross the boundary. Will my right hon. and learned Friend be prepared to take that issue through the usual channels and particularly seek Government support? Perhaps we can have a statement before the Bill’s final stages in this place.

My hon. Friend makes some very good points. I know that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), has said that we will reflect further on that matter. If a Joint Committee were to be set up, it would be an issue for both Houses to consider, and it may be something for myself and other members of the Modernisation Committee or the Procedure Committee to look into.

Some 235 right hon. and hon. Members have so far signed early-day motion 1620.

[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.]

It is about the dangerous decision of judges that MPs’ home addresses should be published. Will there be an opportunity to consider that matter on 3 July? I should like to tell the House about the three polite but firm notes of refusal that I had from the judges who made that decision, after I asked them whether they would give me their home addresses. Clearly, judges believe that they are more at risk from MPs than MPs are from everybody else.

The hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion has shown two things: that there is great concern across the House and that there is something by way of a consensus. The consensus is that there should be transparency and that we should ensure that the public know that public money is being spent properly, and that there are strict and clear rules. That will be the subject of the Members Estimate Committee’s proposals about Members’ allowances and reimbursement of expenditure. Although hon. Members want to ensure that the public have confidence in how money is spent, it is absolutely clear that we must have the freedom to debate in this Chamber without having to look over our shoulder. It must not be the case that, because our addresses have been published, we cannot speak freely about something controversial.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s point and his early-day motion, I not only propose that the House should have the opportunity to debate the matter on 3 July, but I shall place a resolution before the House so that hon. Members will have the opportunity to vote for the views expressed in the early-day motion.

Can we have a debate on the exploitation of illegal migrant workers in this country by employers? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of recently introduced Government legislation, under which, as of today, companies and company directors who knowingly employ illegal immigrants will be not only fined but named and shamed. Although that is welcome, will the Leader of the House go one step further and use her good offices to influence her Cabinet colleagues, so that when Government contracts are tendered for, the activities of such companies and company directors are taken into account?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has spent many years, before he entered the House and since, ensuring that we protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and that employers should be held to account. He raises an important point. The Government will be doing all that we can to stop employers from exploiting immigrants who enter without leave or whose leave has expired. The practice not only undermines people who are already long-standing legal workers here, but is particularly relevant at a time when major Government contracts will be placed with companies competing to build, for example, the extra homes needed in the construction of the facilities for the Olympics. I will certainly raise the matter with Cabinet colleagues.

As the Leader of the House said, the Baker report has been published and the Members Estimate Committee report is about to be published. In the light of Sir Christopher Kelly’s comments in the report that he has published in his capacity as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, would it not be sensible to invite him formally to comment on both reports before we debate them on 3 July? After all, he chairs the committee whose job it is to maintain standards in public life and his comments will add credibility to our debates.

That is a helpful suggestion. It would help the House’s debate for Sir Christopher Kelly to have an opportunity to put forward his views on the proposals on which the House will decide. He will already have seen the Government’s proposals and the Baker proposals on pay and pensions. When the Members Estimate Committee report comes out—and is made available in good time before the debate for hon. Members to consider it, table any amendments and reflect on it—it might be useful, without pre-empting colleagues on the MEC, formally to forward a copy to Sir Christopher Kelly. That way, if he wants to make any proposals, he can make them to the MEC, which would be better than his perhaps commenting on television afterwards.

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to the excellent early-day motion 1830, which was tabled yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck)?

[That this House recognises that Britain is suffering the effects of a housing affordability crisis; highlights new research by Shelter showing that two million households are being pushed to breaking point by unmanageable housing costs; notes that thousands of households are homeless or trapped in damp, dilapidated or overcrowded housing, because they are unable to afford to rent or buy a decent home; welcomes the launch of Shelter's Now is the Time campaign to make sure everyone has an affordable, decent place to call home; and calls on the Government to meet its commitment on building homes by 2020, ensure that enough social rented homes are built for those who need them most, protect people facing eviction and repossession or living in bad housing, and end the housing divide by making the housing system fairer for everyone.]

The motion deals with housing need and refers to the recent Shelter report, “Now is the Time”. In view of the fact that house sales are now falling, which will undoubtedly put extra pressure on housing waiting lists, and the already serious shortage of housing to rent, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend for a long, serious debate on housing in all its aspects, which would deal with all the issues raised in the early-day motion? That debate should also look into the kind of policies that were successfully adopted by a previous Labour Government in the 1970s, in particular municipalising empty properties that are unsafe and not being sold, but which could in future be rented out to those on waiting lists.

My hon. Friend will know that the topic for debate this afternoon is eco-towns. I know that that is not exactly the point that he made, but the question is how we increase the housing supply. I will raise with my hon. Friends the housing need that he has identified and the important issues raised in that early-day motion and write to him, to let him know how we plan to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate them.

Could we have a debate on sex changes? I am not against sex changes, but given the number of sex changes, which are increasing in the United Kingdom year on year, the cost to the NHS, which has scarce resources, and the fact that sex changes are a matter of choice, is it not time that we had a debate about the issue? Many of my constituents do not have access to Alzheimer’s drugs or cancer drugs, but neither of those diseases do they have through choice.

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the situation. It is not a question of choice: if someone needs to have gender reassignment surgery, it is a question of necessity for them. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise the issue further and ask questions of the relevant Minister, he can do so in the Opposition day debate next week on the NHS.

There are just over 3,800 council tenants in the borough of Kettering. Some 27 per cent. of their weekly rate is siphoned off by the Treasury, and that is happening throughout the country, with 160 local council areas worse off and only 50 better off. Even worse, the Treasury is keeping a surplus of some £200 million of the money and not redistributing it into other social housing projects. Can we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Minister for Housing about why tenants in Kettering and elsewhere are effectively having to pay a stealth tax for living in local authority housing?

The Department for Communities and Local Government, together with the Treasury, is reviewing the operation of the housing revenue account, to ensure a simpler and more transparent system. However, I would hate the hon. Gentleman not to recognise the importance of the increases in housing benefit, which have helped his constituents among many others, and, above all, the fact that more people are able to be in a job and earn a living than previously—as well as the investment made in public housing across the board.

May I, through the Leader of the House, congratulate the Government on their new national strategy for carers and its many positive aspects, including additional funding for breaks and respite? However, can we have a debate on benefits for carers, so that we can discuss why the biggest issue of all was not addressed by that strategy—namely why so many carers live in poverty?

We made a commitment in the national carers strategy to keep the issue under review. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the strategy. It is important that there are good support services for families caring for older and disabled relatives. It is important, too, that there is flexibility at work for those who want to hold down a job but fulfil caring responsibilities. A survey that we undertook recently showed that only 9 per cent. of those caring for older or disabled relatives know that they have the right to request flexible working. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support tax credits, which help those who for whatever reason have to drop their hours to top up their income. However, we will keep the benefits question under review. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), gave evidence on that to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions this week.

Given the Leader of the House’s criteria for topical debates, could we have a topical debate on how our freedoms have been eroded by the Government over the past 11 years, whether they be our freedom of action, freedom of speech or other basic freedoms? Given that the Government appear to lack the courage to defend their position in the by-election in Haltemprice and Howden, surely we should have a debate in the House about a subject that has caught the mood of the British public.

This is not about the Government having the courage to defend their position; it is about the Government having the courage to defend the people of this country from terrorist attacks. I find it most implausible that the hon. Gentleman—or other hon. Members—should try to assume the mantle of defender of civil liberties, when he is opposed to the Human Rights Act 1998. Indeed, his party is pledged to repeal it, if—perish the thought—it ever gets into government.

I may go and help in Howden.

Can we have a debate on regional development agencies? Recently, the South West of England Regional Development Agency sent an e-mail to south-west MPs informing them that it will change the way it operates in relation to inward and external investment. With the demise of the regional assemblies, there has been no consultation about the proposal at all. Indeed, we have been told that it is a fait accompli and that it will happen. The history of the South West of England Regional Development Agency is not good. At best, it has been dilatory in many of the things that it should do; at worst, it has been incompetent in a lot of cases. Can we therefore just talk about that?

We acknowledge that there is a gap in the accountability of regional development agencies to the House, and that is why the Prime Minister proposed, in “The Governance of Britain”, that there should be regional committees to involve Members of the House in scrutinising the work of the regional development agencies. In a week or so, the Modernisation Committee will finalise its report on regional committees, and proposals will be brought forward to the House. There will therefore be a proper system of accountability for the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.