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Commons Chamber

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 19 June 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant for the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County Constituency of Haltemprice and Howden in the room of the Right Honourable David Michael Davis, who since his election for the said County Constituency has accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]


London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 26 June.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading (12 June).

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 26 June.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 26 June.

Oral Answers to Questions

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.


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.


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.


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.

Business of the House

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.

Royal assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

European Union (Amendment) Act 2008

St. Austell Market Act 2008

topical debate


I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of eco-towns.

Eco-towns offer us a unique opportunity not only to address the housing shortage and to tackle climate change but to trigger substantial economic growth across entire areas. I know that hon. Members will be familiar with the significant housing shortages that the country is facing. The fact is that we are all living longer, thankfully, and, as a result of the growing ageing population, far more people are living alone. That in itself contributes to a major shortfall in housing. It also means that, as we grow older and want to live more independently, we need services that can be provided in our communities, closer to or in our own homes. The people who will provide those services also need access to homes, particularly affordable homes, either to buy or to rent.

Is not that just part of the story? Is not the need for housing in our country increasingly being driven by immigration, which is carrying on at an unchecked rate because of the policies of the present Government?

Of course, some of those hard-working migrants also contribute to building more houses in this country. Migration is a factor, but it is not the only factor. The point is that we have not built enough homes for the past 15 years or more. That is a recognised fact. Given this country’s present population, we need to build more homes, including homes that are suitable for older people. Let us also recognise the hidden numbers of people who are not necessarily on housing waiting lists but who are living in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation. Many young men and women, for example, have to live at home with their parents for longer because they cannot afford to get a foot on the property ladder. Let us talk about this in a reasonable manner and recognise that there is a real need to supply more homes of various shapes and sizes.

I understand what the Minister is saying and I agree with her. However, regarding the Ford eco-town proposal, she will be aware that Arun district council, in its core strategy document, has already identified and allocated land for 9,500 houses, of which between 30 and 40 per cent. will be social housing. The council has done what was required of it, and it is therefore wrong to suggest that the Minister needs to intervene to impose housing numbers on the council and to say where those houses should be.

We have discussed housing needs with local authorities and we will continue to do so. Of all the new homes built in the hon. Gentleman’s area in the past year, only 4 per cent. were affordable. So, more houses are being built, but there is a challenge that cannot be ducked: are all the people whom hon. Members represent—those who can afford to buy and those who cannot—getting the chance to have a home that they can rely on, whether to rent or to buy?

I will continue to work with local authorities, as will my colleagues in the Department, to ensure that we recognise the need for housing and that we engage in meaningful debate about where the houses should be. My point to all hon. Members—who are looking at proposals at the moment; this is no done deal—is that, if, at the end of this process, an eco-town is not built in their area, they will still have to face up to the challenge of meeting the need for housing in their community—[Interruption.] There are mutterings of “Of course” from those on the Opposition Benches, but the reality is that there are not enough houses being built in many parts of the country, including the areas of the proposed eco-towns, and there are certainly not enough for the people who cannot afford to get on to the property ladder or find homes to rent.

I entirely agree with the Minister about the challenge that people face in finding housing, and I recognise that the Government have invested in existing housing in order to raise standards, but will she explain why, under this Labour Government, so few houses have been built? Is she really confident that more top-down targets will deliver the change in housing provision that this country so badly needs?

I will look at the Hansard record of that intervention, because it seemed to be a bit of a pushmi-pullyu question. The hon. Gentleman started off by acknowledging the need for housing but then went on to deny it.

At national level, we provide comprehensive data on the housing needs of different communities across the country. For example, we can prove the gap in affordability, which varies around the country but which is increasingly becoming an issue not only for London and the south-east but for other regions, including my own. We can provide that overview, but we also negotiate with local authorities about how to meet the demand. We expect them to meet that demand, but to do so constructively. That is the way in which we work, and how we will continue to work.

There are now 1 million more home owners than there were in 1997, but we have also had to make tough choices as a result of the legacy that we inherited of poorly maintained, and poorly invested in social housing stock, in order to get it up to standard. We have now reached the point at which we can seek to see what more we can do, and it would serve hon. Members well if, instead of nit-picking, they helped us to get on with that by supporting our discussions with local authorities on building more homes, including affordable homes.

The eco-town programme will be subject to the full planning process at local level, and, as far as I am aware, there are no plans for the commission to have a role in relation to eco-towns.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but how does that fit in with the Hanley Grange proposal in Cambridgeshire, where the organisation responsible for delivering the very many housing proposals in Cambridgeshire—Cambridgeshire Horizons—is saying that this extra proposal will undermine the deliverability of the existing proposals, never mind the fact that the chosen site is so far out of town that no plausible public transport system can be used to reach it, which means that it will not be very eco?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. As I make progress in my speech, I will address the process of engagement involved. He referred to Hanley Grange as a proposal, and that is what it is. We asked for expressions of interest, and about 57 bids came in. We drew up a shortlist of 15, after looking at a number of issues, including whether the bids had the potential—I stress the word “potential”—to move forward to the next phase. Every proposal has been thoroughly interrogated, including in terms of looking at existing developments in the areas concerned and how they might complement any new developments or, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, how they might hinder development in other areas.

This is work in progress, and there are no done deals on any of these sites. In this part of the process—prior to the shortlist that I will announce later in the year, and prior to the applications—it is healthy to ensure that we scrutinise the bids and get as much community engagement as possible in order to clarify the matters that local people, local authorities and parliamentary colleagues are concerned about.

I will give way to my hon. Friend, who is the only Labour Member to intervene so far. After that, I shall definitely want to make some progress.

Many among the population have seen through the “vote blue, go green” slogan as a pretty fatuous one and they are also becoming suspicious of eco-labelling, which they see as an underhand way of building new towns in quick time to the detriment of the local environment and to the profit of property developers. Will the Minister thus defend the concept in the light of the widespread concern that exists in Leicestershire, the east midlands and, indeed, more widely?

Given the contribution of the built environment to our emissions, the challenge of tackling both housing supply and climate change must be faced. The eco-town programme allows us to see whether we can demonstrate within a whole town’s development, and in the light of the skills, technology and innovation available, that this country can be a world leader in building the houses that we will need increasingly in the future. For example, we also face the challenge of meeting zero carbon emissions targets; we are working with the industry on that front and I think that eco-towns may offer something else to that process.

The planning policy statement that we will produce in the next month will help to ensure that eco-towns are benchmarked against very high standards and it will also help local authorities that may be receiving submissions from developers who put “green” or “eco” in front of their applications to assess them. The process will allow us to develop the sort of tools that can be used better to define what eco and green really mean, what standards should apply to public transport and house building, what energy resources can be utilised and how waste can be better managed. That will be beneficial for the eco-town programme and it will add to the capacity of local authorities to make good decisions on other applications—not only now, but 10 or 20 years in the future.

This is such a fast-moving area that we, too, will need to update as advances in technology are made. The work of my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in looking at energy supply renewables is another factor that plays into the opportunities that both small and large-scale developments can offer. This is an exciting programme. It does not sit on its own; it complements the very important work that we must do across the built environment—commercial, as well as domestic.

As I said, in view of the challenges that we face, we have to find new ways of designing and building our homes. We have to cut carbon emissions from our housing and build homes that are resilient and adaptable to a changing climate. The need for more housing and more sustainable housing is why we have developed the concept of eco-towns; we believe that in some way—they are not the only solution—they will allow us to address both needs.

I also see eco-towns as making a substantial contribution to overall economic development. Jobs and homes are important to families. Where people live is important, but having a job to provide the means to buy a home and enjoy a successful family life is equally important. I commend the work done in the west midlands by the Minister for the West Midlands, who carried out a jobs and homes road show last year that incorporated all those factors.

Some eco-towns are proposed for areas where a lack of housing is effectively putting a handbrake on economic growth, preventing businesses in the community from expanding as far as they could. For example, I recently visited one of the locations and saw that the local market town was absolutely bursting at the seams. There was no more room for building housing or business units without jeopardising the character that makes that market town so special. The local authority says that an eco-town location in the vicinity will allow it to do a number of things. First, it will be able to expand economically and continue to have a thriving local economy. That development will also prevent urban sprawl around the market town, while at the same time provide the much-needed homes for the community. I am talking about the Manby site in Lincolnshire. I was very pleased to visit that area and I shall be visiting all the other locations in the next month or two.

I want to make a bit of progress before giving way again.

The Hanley Grange proposal in Cambridge—I acknowledge the concerns about that site—would build 8,000 homes on the borders of what is known as the Silicon Fen, the region’s flourishing high-tech sector, which currently faces extreme house affordability pressure.

I will give way in few moments.

Similarly, the Curborough proposal in Stafford would provide 5,000 homes on the doorstep of a business park that currently employs 3,000 people, but has room to expand to 7,000 jobs.

I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that we are already committed to building 42,500 new homes around Cambridge, of which 17,000 will be affordable homes. I am sure that she will not have seen—it was published only today—a study by Cambridge Healthcare and Biotech, conducted on its own initiative. It surveyed the companies with locations closest to the proposed site at Hanley Grange—in Babraham, Granta Park, Chesterford Park and the Human Genome campus of the Wellcome Trust. There were 20 respondents and I would like to quote the conclusion:

“All respondents feel that a major housing conurbation adjacent to their business would make their location less attractive. Many have deliberately chosen their current location because of its rural nature. None believe Hanley Grange would help in their efforts to attract high calibre staff. Many believe that it will hinder their efforts.”

They need the homes, but they do not need an urban environment where they have built their companies. They need the transport there to be accessible, which it is—

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak in the debate. All those concerns—transport, the environment, the green spaces, the character of the buildings in these communities—will need to be considered, and not just at Hanley Grange. Again, however, I stress that there are no done deals here. We have an opportunity to set our sights as high as possible, particularly in respect of how we engage with communities. On that front, it is important to listen to people who are against these proposals or have significant concerns about them, but there are also the silent voices, often not heard, of the people who have no home or are living in very difficult circumstances.

I know that the right hon. Lady is very reasonable, so I am delighted to hear that she is coming to see the eco-town proposed in my constituency. When she does, she will realise that there is no hidden need. I freely admit that housing need exists, but it is in completely different areas—not where the town is proposed. When she comes, will she please co-ordinate her visit not just with Warwickshire county council and Stratford-on-Avon district council, but with Worcestershire county council and Wychavon district council, because, contrary to everything her Department says, the eco-town is in two district council areas, not just one?

At all the locations I have visited, I have met local authority representatives of all the affected councils. In order to ensure that I do not miss anyone out, when we get the details about the date on which I am visiting the hon. Gentleman’s area, I will double-check with his office that nobody has been left off the list.

Developers have an important role to play in making sure that people know what their plans are—it is their job to do that—how they would affect them, and what role local people can have in shaping the proposals. Rather than just say, “No, no, no”, it would be worth engaging with what is on offer. As I look at the different schemes, I have to say that they offer exciting ways in which some of people’s concerns can be addressed. I have already said that I have visited some of the proposed locations and I intend to visit them all during July and August. We are ensuring that every voice is heard—not just those with the time and resources, but those who are in desperate need of affordable housing.

We have published a document, “Living a Greener Future”, asking for views on the benefits and principles of eco-towns. We are asking people to tell us what they want and expect in terms of development standards, housing, green space, travel and the wider benefits they would like to see. At the same time, we are seeking views on the 15 shortlisted locations.

The second phase of consultation will focus on the sustainability appraisal, which will run for three months, and the eco-towns policy statement that I mentioned earlier. The sustainability appraisal will be a detailed assessment of each of the locations, setting out the likely environmental, social and economic impact. As I said earlier, the eco-towns policy statement will set out how eco-towns will fit within the existing planning system and relate to existing local plans. Parliamentary colleagues raised in earlier interventions—

When the eco-town idea was first suggested, it involved just five eco-towns and it must have sounded a bit like motherhood and apple pie—who could argue against the idea of having more housing and making it environmentally sustainable? What a great idea. The problem is that there is almost nothing green left about those plans. They have descended into the kind of farce that we thought we had seen the last of with home information packs, but it has made its way into eco-towns.

To prove that point, we need look no further than a couple of simple facts, which show the extent to which this is all now about spin rather than genuine housing. It goes like this: if—and it is a big if—this Government build all 10 of the eco-towns that they currently propose, that will create just a quarter of 1 per cent. of all the housing that they say needs to be built each year from 2016. On the basis of the 15 plans that they brought forward and a combination of the 10—

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have never said that eco-towns are the only solution to the housing needs in this country? Does he not accept, that where there are opportunities for developments of this kind, they can contribute? Also, the nature of the development allows us to do things on green energy and sustainable living that sometimes are not possible within an already built environment.

I entirely accept that it may be a good idea to have something that is called a sustainable eco-town community. My point is that what the Government have invented is not it. We know that for sure because when they started to spin their line about five and then 10 eco-towns, they initially said that they could get—these were the headlines in the newspapers—200,000 environmentally friendly eco-sustainable homes. However, when we look at the list of 15 and the list of any combination of 10, we see that we get to about 75,000 homes. Just 75,000, not 200,000. The Government say that, by 2016, they are going to build 240,000 homes a year, so we realise that 75,000 homes overall is a tiny drop in the ocean. So, first, we have the size and scale of the proposal, which start to make people suspicious.

The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that thousands of my constituents are in serious housing need. What they may misunderstand from his comments today is that the Conservative party is opposed to addressing those needs.

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, his constituents need not draw that inference in any way, shape or form. The simple fact is that more homes can be produced by working with communities rather than by coming up with large, centrally-driven, Whitehall-driven, top-down, Soviet-style planning schemes from the centre. That is what this plan has come down to—all this fuss, bother and kerfuffle for just 75,000 homes, because it sounds like the Government are doing something green. In fact, they are not green at all.

The hon. Gentleman, with his facility for basic arithmetic, ought to be shadow Chancellor. He refers to 75,000 houses out of 3 million. That is not one quarter of 1 per cent. It is 2.5 per cent., which is a useful contribution. I do not deny the potential for eco-towns to contribute towards solving the housing shortage, but let us not belittle them by a factor of 10. Come on!

If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard, he will notice that I said that from 2016, when the eco-towns start to come on line, the figures add up. I would be happy to go through them with him, but either way I think we agree that this is a tiny figure: 75,000 out of—from 2016—2 million, even, is very little, but we have all this fuss and many green clothes being put on.

Let me continue with the point. All that suggests that there may be a problem, but the much deeper problem and much more serious concern that the Government should be addressing at this stage is the fact that those homes will not come on line until 2016.

The Minister for Housing and her predecessor have said that, by 2016, all homes will be at sustainability code level 6. When all homes are at code level 6, they will be zero carbon. As every house will be zero carbon when the first eco-town homes come on stream, what, may I ask the Minister, whom I am happy to give way to, is the point of making a big fuss about building eco-towns? At that stage, all homes will in any case be green.

I really think that the hon. Gentleman just does not get it. This is not just about building houses, which is important; it is about whether there is a way to build a sustainable community with the infrastructure necessary to make that happen. People often complain about that when planning applications are submitted. Public transport, tackling waste and renewable energy supplies are all important to a greener, cleaner future. Given what he has said, if, after the shortlist is announced, some of those eco-towns go forward and win at the planning application stage, will he still be against them? That is what it sounds like.

So now we have it. This is not about building zero-carbon, sustainable communities; it is about experimentation with new technologies to see whether we can find new, greener ways to live. This is what is wrong with that approach: according to a speech made by the Minister earlier this week, it turns out that the new eco-town houses will not have to be built at sustainability code level 6. No, the greatest farce of all is the fact that they can be built at sustainability code level 3. When that happens, those eco-towns will be built at a lower environmental level than the houses that will in any case be built at the same time in 2016. I suggest to her that the entire project is now looking rather shabby to say the least.

If the Minister does not agree about the minuscule nature of this grand plan and the fact that it will build very few homes, and if she does not agree that it will not be green because all homes will be more green than those are by the time they are built, perhaps I can tackle her on another issue that is causing considerable concern. It was said repeatedly that these eco-towns will contain up to 50 per cent. affordable housing. Then the Government said that that might be a bit tough, so made the figure one third. Then they said that the developers should aim for 30 per cent. Most recently, looking at the applications that have been submitted, we have learned that the affordable home element is just 26 per cent. In one development, the figure is just 10 per cent. affordable housing. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on how those eco-towns live up even to the original spin—