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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Church Buildings

1. What factors the Church Commissioners take into account in deciding on the preservation of church buildings. (212130)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. May I, with your permission, congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) on his knighthood? Since this is Church Commissioners Question Time, I almost said, “priesthood”. He has been a colleague of mine in this House for many years. We have had adjacent offices, and from time to time, sparing the blushes of the Whips Office, we have paired together. His elevation is well deserved and worthy of him and this House. He has the singular distinction of having come into the House in February 1974 with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), so they share that particular election.

Where a suitable alternative use cannot be found for a church that has closed for worship, the commissioners determine its future having consulted the Church Buildings Council about its qualities. In considering the possibility of preservation by the Churches Conservation Trust, the commissioners take into account the trust’s ability to meet the repair and maintenance cost, other sources of funding, and competing claims for vesting in the trust.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) takes a big interest in his own constituency affairs, I am sure that he will be interested to know that St. Mary’s, Thornton-le-Moors is a grade I listed church near Stanwell oil refinery that was declared redundant in 2002. Lengthy negotiations for a possible alternative use did not bear fruit, and I expect that the commissioners will consider preservation in the near future.

In considering the future use of redundant church buildings, what consultation takes place with local communities? In particular, what consideration is given to the building’s potential in the context of faith tourism?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for returning to the theme of faith tourism, which is very important for the Church. He would wish to know that the commissioners’ involvement in any preservation matter begins once a decision has been taken to close a particular church of worship. Since 1969, the future of 1,741 redundant churches has been decided under the pastoral measure. Alternative uses have been found for 1,007, while 352 have been preserved and 382 have been demolished. Preservation and faith tourism are extremely important, and how we can link them together as part of our English heritage is a matter of some concern to the Church.

My hon. Friend will know that there are at least three proposals to consider how the Church of England could receive a massive boost to bring their buildings up to scratch for all the reasons he has just set out. Will he explain what is happening and tell us of any deliberations he has had with Ministers on how we can provide this massive investment, which, as he knows more than me, is sadly needed?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the relationship between Church and state. It is not generally known that the state does not help us by financing the preservation of churches, although we work closely with English Heritage, from which we receive funds. There is a great concern in the Church that funds might be diverted from the heritage fund to the Olympic games, which would not assist in the preservation of churches. I will be happy to write to my hon. Friend on the specific matters to which he refers, and put a copy of my letter to him in the Library.

My question is not about a church that is closing—quite the opposite. My question is about St. Peter’s church in the village of Prestbury, just outside Macclesfield, which is a flourishing and highly popular church. It is a valuable listed building, but there is a huge debate in the village about the proposal to extend the exterior of the church, rather than alter it inside. Can the hon. Gentleman indicate what factors the Church Commissioners would take into account to allow this substantial alteration to a beautiful church that is much valued? There is great debate in the village. I am not taking sides—that is not my business—but I want to know which factors are taken into account.

That looks like a planning matter for the local community, but there are several aspects to what the hon. Gentleman says. First, it is a beautiful church; secondly, it is well attended; and thirdly, there is the question whether it should expand from within or without. The gospel has already expanded from without, which is why it has lasted for 2,000 years. I would be happy to look into the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and to give him a proper written answer.

I expected to be answering questions today rather than asking them, but the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who tabled a question on postal voting has unstarred his question, which deprives several hon. Members in my party of the chance to raise the issue.

May I take the opportunity of using a question relating to churches to thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell)? I particularly value his kind comments. Does he agree that the burden of maintaining one of the glories of this country, namely our old churches, falls heavily on the modest number of people in the congregations? If the state were minded to divert more resources to churches, many people would warmly welcome that.

That question gives me two opportunities. The first is to return to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), and to say that faith tourism will be considered by the General Synod next month. On state involvement in Church funding and maintaining our heritage through the preservation of our buildings, it was someone else who said,

“Render…unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”.

The state has steadily withdrawn over many years from its Church involvement. It is a matter of great concern in the Church that secularism seems to be on the march, and that the Church and its majority community is somehow falling behind in the stakes. Everything that we say in this House on the Church, the preservation of churches and our heritage, is welcomed, and it is listened to elsewhere.

Bell Ringing

2. If the Church Commissioners will hold discussions with the General Synod on policy on bell ringing in churches; and if he will make a statement. (212132)

To my knowledge, the General Synod has no plans to discuss bell ringing. Many bells in England have been heard by their communities for 400 years and they are a cherished English custom. On the rare occasions when there are allegations of nuisance from bell music, it is the Church’s aim always to settle through mediation.

I pay homage to our bell ringers up and down the land. They are conscientious about giving notice of prolonged ringing and use methods to control noise if the bells are so loud as to cause nuisance. In a parish church, the incumbent has the final say about when the bells can be rung. As I said earlier, church bell ringing began in England in the 16th century and it has been a particularly English custom ever since. Church bells are almost always the longest surviving sound in the area—that does not apply in Scotland, of course, where the bagpipes are played. There are more than 40,000 ringers in the United Kingdom. I should add that the Churchcare website gives useful guidance on church bells and the law. There is a law on bell ringers, as there is on most other things.

I am grateful for that reply. Of course, John Betjeman wrote more about church bells than about Sunday hedge-trimming, lawnmowers or football matches. I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all the nation’s bell ringers. It is very much a part of English culture and tradition. Does he share my concern that in some villages and towns in this country, over-eager public officials, some weak-kneed vicars and human rights advocates who take the Human Rights Act 1998 to extremes want to silence this nation’s bells? Will he put on record his concern and the fact that he will join me to fight any proposals to silence them? As he rightly said, they have rung out for more than 400 years—since long before the lawnmower.

We have certainly ranged far and wide today. It is Royal Ascot day, so it is not surprising that the Chamber is not as full as it might be.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter of churches and cathedrals, particularly Hereford cathedral, which recently celebrated the centenary of the dedication of its west front. He makes a potent and pertinent plea for bell ringers, wherever they are. They render a great service and are a great comfort to many of our majority community, which is Christian, when they hear them rung wherever they are. We are keen to keep that situation going.

The Church Buildings Council has produced a code of practice for the conservation and repair of bells, and many local communities give extremely generously towards the upkeep and refurbishment of bells and the enlargement of groups of local ringers.

I am sure that the bells were ringing loud and clear at Great St. Bartholomew in Smithfield a couple of weeks ago when Rev. Martin Dudley, who is far from weak-kneed, performed a service to celebrate the civil partnership of two members of his congregation.

Around the world, 95 per cent. of the churches whose bells can be change rung—in other words, the order of the bells can be changed—are in England. As the Second Church Estates Commissioner said, it is a peculiarly English tradition. Are the Church Commissioners satisfied that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is sufficiently appreciative of that fact?

Yes. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, and we would be happy to draw attention to it again. It should be noted and on record that the Church Commissioners and the Church in general work closely with that Department and remind it of its great duties to the Church as well as to secular society, and its duty to maintain the Church in its thinking. We shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to its attention.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Comptroller and Auditor General

I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission. He last met the Comptroller and Auditor General on 4 March, when the Commission considered the National Audit Office estimates for 2008-09. The issues discussed included the lower rate of increase in the NAO’s estimates than in previous years, the appropriate balance between in-house auditing and outsourcing of audit work and the Commission’s response to the Tyner review of the NAO’s corporate governance.

Sir John Bourn, the previous Comptroller and Auditor General, recently excoriated senior civil servants for what he called their profound incompetence in handling defence programmes, taxation schemes and private finance initiative projects. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that Sir John’s successor will ensure that the NAO watchdog, which has so often failed to bark, will sink its teeth into those matters—not least PFI, which is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence for the taxpayers, citizens and employees in our land?

My hon. Friend is a most assiduous auditor of the auditors, and he was kind enough to send me Sir John Bourn’s remarks, which I shall take the trouble to circulate to the Public Accounts Commission and the Public Accounts Committee. However, I have to remind him that that is the work of the Public Accounts Committee. The Commission audits only the budget to see that the NAO can carry on its work.

Sir John Bourn’s reflections were the serious reflections of a distinguished public servant on his life’s work at the NAO. The new Comptroller and Auditor General has already taken over the ongoing programme, which includes the audit of public procurement projects by the Ministry of Defence and across Whitehall, for example on food procurement, the use of consultants, IT procurement and, of course, PFI contracts. We have issued several hard-hitting reports on that, and that work will go on. However, I must tell my hon. Friend with a tinge of sadness in my voice that PFI is a Government policy.

Solicitor-General

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Domestic Violence

4. What proposals for changes in prosecution of domestic violence offences there will be as a result of the Crown Prosecution Service’s violence against women strategy. (212145)

The Crown Prosecution Service, after public consultation and extensive work, now has a single, cohesive violence against women strategy, which the Attorney-General will launch on 24 June. That will strengthen the prosecution response to domestic violence, through better co-ordination of guidance, training and performance management, and by supporting CPS work on victim satisfaction.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does she agree, however, that because some women who suffer serious domestic violence feel that less harsh penalties are available if they report the fact that they have been violated domestically, we need far stronger penalties and more prosecutions, to ensure that we give women who suffer from this dreadful thing an incentive to come forward?

I do not know that that is the case, to be honest. The number of prosecutions has increased markedly. In 2005-06, 59.7 per cent. of prosecutions were successful and in the last quarter of last year, 70.1 per cent. were successful. The Sentencing Guidelines Council has done a lot of work on domestic violence. We have got away in the courts from the notion that domestic violence is a softer form of violence, which should be treated more leniently than public violence. In fact, domestic violence is a much graver kind of violence. If one is attacked on the street, one can run home; if one is attacked in one’s own home, one has nowhere to go to. I hope that we have got over that hurdle and that people are being sentenced appropriately when they are convicted, as they increasingly are, of such offences.

Does the Solicitor-General accept that any improvements in the prosecution of domestic violence are being undermined by the long delays experienced in many parts of the country in sending offenders who have been sentenced on the effective and excellent domestic violence programmes? There are delays of six months in many parts of the country and delays of up to four years in others. That is completely unacceptable.

By no means all domestic violence perpetrators are put on what are called perpetrator programmes—in the United States they are called batterer programmes. Availability varies from one part of the country to another. Delays are unfortunate. However, I am not sure that such programmes are the magic formula or cure that the hon. Gentleman suggests they are. There are other ways in which perpetrators can be brought to understand that their violence simply cannot continue. For instance, there is often a salutary lesson in the fact that when the woman finally complains, the authorities come down forcefully on her side and against the man. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There must be more of those programmes—the ones that are successful—and he can take it from me that the issue is being looked into.

We obviously need increased support for victims of domestic violence, to enable them to bring the perpetrators to justice, but we also need early intervention, to prevent escalation to serious injury and, in some cases, death. Will my hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the recent Select Committee on Home Affairs report, which noted the positive outcomes of the one-stop shop model, of which the family justice centre in Croydon that I visited is an example? The report recommended further evaluation of the model, which I hope—and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend agrees with me—will lead to a one-stop shop centre in every local authority area.

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. It was very pleasing that the Home Affairs Committee report was positive about the work of the Crown Prosecution Service on domestic violence, as well as on forced marriage and honour crimes. I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. There is an organisation in Middlesbrough, near my constituency, called My Sister’s Place, which is a one-stop shop. Domestic violence complainants are now supported by independent domestic violence advisers, who befriend them and stand beside them, right through from the point at which they make a complaint, helping them with public services and the difficulties that can follow making a complaint about domestic violence. For instance, sometimes the children have to move school and sometimes child care stops, perhaps because the in-laws were helping with it. IDVAs, as they are called, can help with all those practicalities. More of that holistic support is vital. However, we already have a large amount in place. That must be a major reason why the conviction rate has got so much higher; few complainants now give up.

The Solicitor-General was quite right to say that there was a need for more provision for domestic violence treatment courses, if I may describe them in the vernacular. The truth is that two thirds of probation areas report huge delays of up to 12 months in some cases. The hon. and learned Lady has made it clear that we need more provision; will she now lobby her Cabinet colleagues to make that provision?

Yes. It is not so easy simply to roll out perpetrator programmes. First, they have to be properly evaluated and monitored, and they have to be successful, so it is not just a question of getting money and, as it were, doing more automatically. A programme of work is being undertaken to evaluate the programmes, but it is quite difficult to determine how good they are. We have to rely on the victim to say whether the violence has stopped, and, almost by definition, that is historically the person who has been oppressed by the perpetrator of the violence. So there are difficulties involved in ensuring that we do not roll out programmes that are not as effective as they should be. A programme of evaluation is under way, however, and I hope that that will give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

As the Solicitor-General will be aware, a key issue is the treatment of victims by the police as well as by the prosecution services. What more can be done to ensure that women feel that their allegations are being taken seriously when they come forward to report them?

A huge amount of work has been done with the police and with the Crown Prosecution Service, and it would be surprising if there were still a prevalent sense that domestic violence was not taken seriously when people come forward to report it. Now that we seem to have got the criminal justice agencies to take this matter seriously and to be immensely supportive, I see the need for earlier identification as the greater problem. We need to start putting a lot more resources into that, so that women—at least 90 per cent. of the people who suffer in this way are women—do not suffer for so long before they decide to come forward. We need to enlist all the public authorities to be watchful for the impact of domestic violence, so that there can be earlier intervention.

The CPS strategy document on violence against women states that

“the CPS has had inspections on domestic violence and rape that have highlighted areas for future action”.

Will the Minister please update the House on what those areas are and what further action she proposes to take?

Those reports, particularly the ones on rape, were published in 2002, and then again in 2007. The 2002 proposals were very clear, and the CPS acted on a good number of them. However, in 2007, it was clear that there were still some deficits and that certain matters had not been brought up. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, since then, there has been a powerful, strong and concentrated programme to ensure that the policies—which the inspectors found to be in the right place and of the right kind at the top of the CPS—were being driven all the way through. There is now a powerful system of monitoring and evaluation of the way in which domestic violence and rape are dealt with in the CPS. I therefore hope that we are now well set for the future.

Cannabis Factories (Child Labour)

5. How many prosecutions have been brought against children found working in cannabis factories in the last three years. (212146)

The CPS does not keep data that allow us to identify the number of prosecutions of children found working in cannabis factories; it keeps data on offences. I am, however, aware of one recent case in South Yorkshire in which a young boy was prosecuted for working in a cannabis factory. The CPS has guidance for prosecutors, which advises them that when a youth might have committed an offence involving cannabis cultivation and there is information that they have been trafficked—I assume that that is what the hon. Gentleman is talking about—there is a strong public interest in not prosecuting them at all.

May I first compliment the Solicitor-General on her new pixie look? I hope that that is not inappropriate. Will she explain why on 11 June a 15-year-old Vietnamese boy was jailed for the work of tending cannabis plants in Doncaster when he had clearly been trafficked, threatened with violence, kept prisoner and was desperately scared? Are not the Government supposed to be committed to rescuing child victims of trafficking, not sending them to prison and criminalising them?

First, let me respond to the hon. Gentleman’s effusive personal compliment to me, which I take in very good heart. I am more frequently likened to a goblin than a pixie, but I am doing my best.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about a case in South Yorkshire. I have received information from the chief Crown prosecutor about it, which I can send to the hon. Gentleman in a letter rather than rehearse the facts of an individual case here. Will it suffice for the time being for me to say that it was literally only in mitigation of sentence in the court that the issue of trafficking was raised? The young man was arrested; he was interviewed; he had a solicitor and an appropriate adult—but the issue of trafficking was never raised. The solicitor did not appear to have taken it into account, although she accepted that she was aware that the Crown Prosecution Service would probably not prosecute if there were any evidence of trafficking. If this young man was, in the end, trafficked—there are, of course, lots of Vietnamese families in the UK, so not all Vietnamese young people are trafficked victims—it was clearly not brought to anyone’s notice until the very last time. The magistrate does not seem to have referred in his sentencing to the question whether he was trafficked, but if there is something more to be said, there is still time for an appeal.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Lap-Dancing Clubs (Licensing)

10. What recent representations she has received on the application of the gender equality duty to the licensing of lap-dancing clubs by local authorities.

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): Representations on lap-dancing clubs have been made, among other ways, through my hon. Friend’s early-day motion and again yesterday through the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods). (212136)

I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware of the concern about this issue up and down the country, demonstrated not least by yesterday’s support for the private Member’s Bill. Does she not agree that it is absolutely ridiculous in this day and age that one can object to a neighbour building a porch, but cannot object to a lap-dancing club opening up 200yd up the road? Will she further commit to steering this issue through to a successful conclusion so that we are not subjected to an endless game of ping-pong between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office, which I greatly fear?

I make that commitment to my hon. Friend, many other hon. Friends and all Members who have raised this issue. The important point is that local communities and local authorities need to know that the law is there to back them up. If the local community and the local authority think that it is inappropriate for a lap-dancing club to be opened in a particular area, the law should be there to back them up, but it is evident that that is not the position currently. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said that it was important to make commitments not just to consult, but to act. I can give the House that commitment today.

Gender Pay Gap

The Government are committed to reducing the gender pay gap, which has been brought down from 17.4 per cent. to 12.6 per cent. in the past decade. We have introduced other supportive measures, including increased maternity pay, improved access to child care and Britain’s first ever minimum wage. We have also introduced the right to request flexible working and will announce further measures shortly in the Equality Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can she say what part gender stereotypes play in the pay gap, and what she intends to do about it?

Gender stereotyping leads to occupational segregation. That is crucial in addressing the gender pay gap, and particularly true the older the person or the woman in the work force. Women can be deterred by the lack of part-time and flexible working in male-dominated occupations, as well as by poor information and social stereotypes. That is clear when we realise that the gender pay gap is 20 per cent. in the City and in private businesses as opposed to 10.4 per cent. in public ones.

The Government have taken a range of actions to address that, including the introduction and extension of the right to request flexible working, new support for teachers teaching careers and a series of proposed initiatives including targeted funding to encourage young people to consider atypical career choices when applying for apprenticeships.

Does the Minister share my concern about reports that Nottingham city council is reducing the wages of 1,400 of its employees to achieve equal pay, rather than increasing the salary of the women? Should not equal pay mean levelling up, not levelling down?

Obviously it should, but local authorities are responsible for addressing their equal pay issues and we recognise that that is a difficult and costly pressure for many of them. However, I am glad to say that progress is being made. The latest figures show that 47 per cent. of councils have either implemented or completed their pay reviews with only 3 per cent. yet to start them.

Last year, the Government issued £500 million-worth of capitalisation directions to 46 local authorities, allowing them to borrow against the cost of back pay arising from equal pay deals, thus spreading the load of this one-off cost over a number of years. Councils can also apply for that borrowing facility in the current year.

One of the most resistant councils in respect of equal pay claims would appear to be Bury under its new Conservative leadership. For more than a year, Bury council has refused to negotiate with Unison, and has prevaricated, delayed and rejected the Government’s offer of capitalisation. There is no progress. Will the Minister speak to her Department for Communities and Local Government colleagues to put some pressure on Bury council to move forward on the issue, because it is completely unfair that low-paid women workers in my constituency should have to wait any longer to get their just desserts?

I commend my hon. Friend on his championing of those low-paid women in his constituency and I will discuss the matter with DCLG colleagues, but, as I said, pay is a matter for local authorities and the decision is theirs.

Alternatives to Imprisonment

12. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on alternatives to imprisonment for women. (212138)

The Government are fully committed to reducing the number of women in prison. I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on that matter and the Government have agreed to promote community orders as an alternative to custody, in response to Baroness Corston’s recommendations on women offenders.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She will know that the Corston report talks about the need to inform sentencers of the need for alternatives to custody. What is being done specifically to make non-custodial sentences a reality so that the women who end up in Low Newton prison in my constituency get the support that they need in the community to direct them from crime in the first place?

First, I commend my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing in this particularly difficult area. She is quite right: we need to ensure that more women, who often get sentences for relatively minor offences, are dealt with in the community.

To that end, the Government are considering how we can promote a sentence package that targets offenders who might otherwise have received a custodial sentence with an intensive community order using the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and making use of the mix of requirements available to the courts. I am glad to say that a pilot project is under way in the Derbyshire area to promote such a community order and I look forward to hearing the results.

How many women’s prisons have been closed and converted to mixed asylum centres, a process that has effectively forced the Government’s hand on the issue of finding a viable alternative?

I am afraid that I do not have the information at my fingertips, although I do know that 4,000 of the 82,000 people who are currently in prison in the United Kingdom are women. I will, however, write to the hon. Gentleman with the answer to his question.

Domestic Violence

My Department’s report “Tackling Violence Against Women: A Cross-Government Narrative” provides a detailed summary of the progress made in this vitally important area. The Government have introduced a number of measures, including a dedicated forced marriages unit and specialist domestic violence courts. As a result of those and other measures, the number of successful prosecutions for both domestic violence and rape has increased since 2003.

I congratulate the Government on bringing more such cases to court. Provision of domestic violence outreach services is excellent in some parts of the country, but funding is patchy. Outreach can prevent violence from escalating to a point at which women, children and occasionally men are forced out of the family home and into refuges. What can the Government do to extend its provision?

The Government are considering many ways of extending outreach provision for domestic violence victims, and for women who are victims of sexual violence. We have already done so through, for instance, rape crisis centres and sexual assault referral centres, which are making great progress at present, and we hope to do more soon on the domestic violence front.

A letter that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), acknowledges that the number of domestic violence victims has risen by 12 per cent. in the past year, from 594,000 to 664,00. She attributes the increase to better reporting, but it is quite a large increase. How much of it does the Minister think can be attributed to the 24-hour drinking that takes place nowadays?

The incidence of reporting has certainly increased. I think that women now feel more confident about coming forward, and that there are better systems to protect them. I cannot speculate on how much the increase in the number of reported cases is due to drinking, although I am sure that Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will look into the possibility.

A range of issues are covered by the issue of violence against women. The Government estimate that about 20,000 girls in this country are at risk of genital mutilation, yet they have no national strategy. They have issued no guidance to the police on the issue since 2004, and there has not been a single prosecution under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. I am sure the Minister agrees that that is not acceptable. What is she going to do about it?

It is certainly not acceptable. As the right hon. Lady will know, I have spent a good deal of my life in Africa, and I have seen the results of female genital mutilation both in that continent and in this country. It is something that I abhor. I take the right hon. Lady’s point about the need for a strategy, and we shall be presenting one later this year.

People Trafficking

The Government will build on the positive measures that we have already taken as a result of acceleration of our plans to ratify the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. More than 322 women have been supported by the POPPY project since March 2003.

The worst thing for a young woman who has been trafficked is to feel that no one cares anything about her, her welfare or her future. Does the Minister agree that it is essential for us to give such women identity papers, as set out in the Council of Europe convention, which the Government have signed but still not ratified? Women experience a sense of belonging and security if they have identity papers. Given that it is not necessary to wait for ratification to provide them, what is preventing the Government from getting a move on?

As always, the hon. Gentleman has brought a new slant to a problem on which he has done a great deal of work. We are speeding up our ratification of the convention, and doing as much as we can to move it along. I will raise his point with Home Office Ministers.

May I bring to the attention of the House my early-day motion 1755 on the Women Leaders Council, a new international body for women only put together to combat the crime of human trafficking? Will the Government do all they can to liaise with the new council to prosecute and eradicate human trafficking?

I commend my hon. Friend on the EDM and I particularly commend the work of the Women Leaders Council. Some will have seen the imaginative installation by Emma Thompson in Trafalgar square to publicise it. We need imaginative things such as that, but we also need hard work on human trafficking. Straight after these questions, I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, will be going to Holland to explore what is being done there on human trafficking, on which, frankly, much more needs to be done.

Carers

15. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on support for women who are carers. (212141)

The Prime Minister launched the revised National Carers Strategy on 10 June, which set out a £255 million package of support for carers. Throughout the development of the strategy, I had discussions with ministerial colleagues about support for women carers.

Research by USDAW has shown that working carers are not aware of their right to request flexible working. What will the Government do to advertise more widely that right to make it easier for carers in the workplace?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The research into the knowledge of the right to request flexible working provides some discouraging figures. I have had talks with colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about how we can advertise this. We intend to come forward with a programme.

HOUSE OF COMMONS COMMISSION

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—

Tap Water

17. If the Commission will review the recommendation of the Administration Committee not to provide tap water at meetings held in the House. (212152)

The Commission relies on the advice given by the Administration Committee in matters of this sort and normally proceeds on the basis of a report from the Committee. I would urge the right hon. Gentleman to seek to persuade the Committee to change its advice on this matter.

Is not the hon. Gentleman getting rather embarrassed at continuing to defend this issue when we know that bottled water is hugely environmentally unfriendly? Following my campaign, many Departments have significantly reduced their use of bottled water. Following the Evening Standard campaign, many restaurants in London are providing tables with tap water. When MPs are lecturing the public about reducing waste, and are even imposing fines on people for putting more waste into their bins, is it right for the House of Commons resolutely to refuse to take the issue on board and to save the environment while saving some money?

The right hon. Gentleman knows from discussions that we have had on the matter that I have a great deal of sympathy with what he is saying. We have asked officials of the House to keep in touch with officials from the House of Lords who are investigating the possibility of an on-site watering facility—[Interruption.] I mean a bottling facility; there are plenty of on-site watering facilities. The right hon. Gentleman and those who agree with him must continue to put pressure on the Administration Committee, which looked at the issue recently. I am not sure how scientific its study was. It is essential that the Committee looks at it again.

With the greatest respect, that is rather complacent. Nobody in their right mind in the real world wastes money on bottled water. Chateau Thames water is perfectly acceptable. It is about time that we did not waste money in this House. It brings us into disrepute and the sooner we have ordinary tap water, the better. Why do not we just get on with it?

I will communicate the right hon. Gentleman’s views to the Administration Committee, but I would urge him to do so as well.

Staff Pension Scheme

18. If the Commission will examine the financial implications of extending the House of Commons staff pension scheme to staff of hon. Members. (212153)

The employees of Members of Parliament are not employees of this House. It would therefore not be possible in a technical sense for them to be part of this scheme, which is run by the House for its employees. The contracts of MPs’ staff specify that they are part of the Portcullis pension plan, which means that a contribution equivalent to 10 per cent. of their gross salary is paid by the House to one or more stakeholder pension providers.

None of us could do our jobs as Members of Parliament without the professional support of Clerks, Librarians and the other staff of the House, but, equally, none of us could do our jobs without the support of our staff, in our constituency offices and here in Westminster. It is outrageous that Members and the staff of the House belong to good public sector final salary pension schemes, but other public servants, who serve the public for years, end up on the Portcullis plan and face retirement on a fraction of the incomes of House staff. Will the House of Commons Commission examine this problem and do something about it?

The 10 per cent. employer contribution is about average for similar schemes run by large employers. The current arrangements have been in place for five years, but if the hon. Gentleman feels that the time is right to review the scheme, he should, in the first instance, approach the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances to suggest a review of the scheme.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Topical Debates

19. When she expects to complete the review of the procedures for selection of the subject matter for topical debates. (212155)

The results of the review on topical debates will be published to the House before the summer recess. That will help to inform any decision of the House on whether to make permanent the Standing Orders that introduced topical debates on an experimental basis for the 2007-08 Session, and whether any changes to the Standing Orders may be necessary.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for that helpful and informative reply. Does she not believe that the House as a whole should have more of a say, in a transparent way, in the selection of the subject for the topical debate? At the moment, the decision lies exclusively with her and the Government. Should it not involve a small committee representing parties across the House, so that the debates are genuinely topical and supported by a majority of the House?

The decision on the choice for the topical debate rests with me, as Leader of the House, because that is what the House decided, by way of resolution, should be the system for picking the topical debate. That arrangement is subject to review, because, as I have said, it was introduced on an experimental basis. In order to increase transparency and at the request of a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, we have introduced greater transparency even ahead of the review’s findings, publishing a list of the requests that have been made to me as Leader of the House. I remind the House that I am at pains to ensure that I approach this as business of the House, even though it is Government time. For example, a request was made to me at last week’s business questions for a debate on eco-towns, and that is exactly what we will be debating as the subject of this afternoon’s topical debate.

Debating time in the House’s two Chambers is in short supply, and the initiative of topical debates has been a useful way of widening the range of debates and increasing the number of people who contribute. On the related area of the 90-minute debates in Westminster Hall, could we examine ways of making those a more effective weapon in this place? Far too often, people who have bid for debates, which are granted by Mr. Speaker in good faith, come along with no one else to speak to the matter in hand, and that cannot be the most effective use of Westminster Hall time.

Westminster Hall debates, be they on Select Committee matters, at the initiative of private Members or Government-sponsored debates, have proved a useful additional debating forum for hon. Members to raise issues of concern, but I think that we could further consider the use of Westminster Hall—for example, it is not used on Mondays. I shall take my hon. Friend’s question as a prompt for further consideration and report back to the House on how that might be undertaken.

The Leader of the House said that she would treat this as a House matter, but can she tell us how many times the subject for the topical debate has happened to be the subject about which the Prime Minister has made a speech earlier in the week?

Well, I have not got the actual list, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I follow the Standing Orders, and the letter and spirit of the resolution, and consider whether the debate is topical; whether it is an issue of concern or national importance; and whether there have been other opportunities to debate the issue in the House. The questions that have been the subject of topical debates come from both sides of the House. Sometimes they coincide with an issue on which the Prime Minister has put forward a proposal, but they often do not.

On what basis does the Leader of the House, under the current procedures, decide on some Mondays that life is so uneventful that we do not need a topical debate at all?

I do not decide not to have a topical debate because life is uneventful. It is a question of what other business we might have that the House wants to debate. For example, on 3 July, the Foreign Secretary will lead a debate on Zimbabwe and we will also debate Members’ allowances. Sometimes I take the view that issues of concern need a full day for debate, and that should be the priority for the House. It is not that there is no issue of topicality that the House might want to debate, but that on that day there is another issue that we will want to spend the whole day debating. If there is any particular Thursday that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to raise, because he thinks that we should have had a topical debate but did not, he should do so.

I should point out that there is a dearth of proposals for topical debates. I would not want anyone to get the impression that there is a vast number of topical debate requests that I ignore in favour of a topic chosen by the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Well, that is absolutely not the case. Hon. Members are being cynical, but instead of their snorting cynicism, they should make some proposals for topical debates.

Programme Motions

20. If she will bring forward proposals to amend Standing Orders to provide for debate on all programme motions. (212156)

We have no plans to bring forward motions to amend the present programming arrangements in that respect; they already allow for most such motions to be debated directly or, subject to the Chair, to be brought into debate on related business.

With due respect to the Deputy Leader of the House, I do not think that that is quite correct. We cannot debate Second Reading programme motions: they have to be put forthwith. I am surprised that the Leader of the House has not corrected her earlier statement when she promised to look into this matter. Would it not be better if these horrible programme motions—if we have to have them at all—were handled by a business Committee of this House, rather than the usual channels?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Standing Order indicates that the question on the programme motion should be put forthwith, but that does not mean that it cannot be debated. It can be debated as part of the Second Reading debate, with the agreement of the Chair. I am grateful to him for motivating me to consider the way in which the Order Paper is drafted. As he knows, at the moment the programme motion, which usually follows the Second Reading motion on the Order Paper, says that there will be no debate on it. It might be clearer if it stated “No further debate.” If the House would prefer that, we could raise it with the House authorities. It might be a more helpful way to set the issues out on the Order Paper.

On Report on the Counter-Terrorism Bill, Members had only three hours to discuss 16 new clauses and dozens of new amendments. With the Planning Bill, 218 new amendments were tabled at a very late stage. Late amendments were also tabled for the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, meaning that they could not be debated. When will the Leader of the House provide proper time for Members to discuss vital issues?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition that proper time is not being given. I want to give him some other facts that will demonstrate how flexible we are and how we take account of the needs of the House to debate particular matters. Let us take as an example the European Union (Amendment) Bill. We spent a whole day discussing a motion—it was not a programme motion, but a motion on how the House would handle the Bill—and agreed how we would handle it. Let us take Finance Bills. They are not programmed at all. Let us take the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. It spent two days before the Committee of the whole House, as was agreed in a programme motion on Second Reading. Let us take, as the hon. Gentleman does, the Counter-Terrorism Bill. We had two days on Report and the programme motion was debated for 45 minutes at the beginning of that stage. Let us take the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill, where we had an allocation—[Interruption.]

The Leader of the House and her deputy are being far too defensive. They might be the Opposition in two years’ time, not the Government. As the Leader of the House said to me a few weeks ago, there is a very good case for ensuring that Government amendments and new clauses receive extra time on Report, because otherwise they eat into time that is meant not for the Government but for the rest of the House of Commons so that we can ask questions.

Can we look again at programme motions? If this place is meant to hold the Executive to account, one of the best ways that we can do it is by delaying Government business. If they take away that weapon, the Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the House might live to regret it as much as others do now.

The hon. Gentleman, as ever, puts his case most persuasively. Of course, it is right that on Report hon. Members should have a proper opportunity to discuss all the issues. In particular, Back-Bench Members should have their share of the time. I would, however, like to point out that, following the introduction of programme motions, there has been a declining trend in the number of groups of amendments that have not been reached. Of course, we always keep these matters under review.