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Business of the House

Volume 479: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 21 July—Topical debate on the Bercow review of services for children and young people (0-19) with speech, language and communication needs followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill.

Tuesday 22 July—Motion on the summer recess Adjournment followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Crossrail Bill. Colleagues will wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 11.30 am on this day. The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent.

The business for the week commencing 6 October will include:

Monday 6 October—Second Reading of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 7 October—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 8 October—Remaining stages of the Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords].

Thursday 9 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced followed by a general debate on defence in the UK.

I should like to wish all hon. Members and all staff of the House—the whole team of staff, from my excellent private office to the dedicated House of Commons cleaners—a good recess.

I am sorry—I did not turn the page over. It is that hard being Leader of the House!

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for October will be:

Thursday 9 October—A debate on the report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee on testing and assessment.

Thursday 16 October—A debate on the report from the Business and Enterprise Committee entitled “Jobs for the Girls: Two years on”.

Thursday 23 October—A debate on the 30th annual House of Commons Commission report.

Thursday 30 October—A debate on the report from the Public Administration Committee entitled “Politics and Administration: Ministers and civil servants”.

I think that the Leader of the House has lost the plot as well as the page. I echo the comments that she made, however, and as this is the last business questions before the recess, Mr. Speaker, I wish you, all right hon. and hon. Members, all staff of this House and Members’ staff a happy summer recess.

The Prime Minister is expected to make an oral statement to this House on Tuesday on Iraq or other matters relating to the middle east. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm today that the Prime Minister will be making such an oral statement on Tuesday?

Last week, I asked the Leader of the House whether the Chancellor would make a statement to the House when the report on Equitable Life was published. Her response was:

“Let us see what it says and then we can consider how to deal with it.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2008; Vol. 478, c. 1567.]

That report is published today. It reveals serious regulatory failure and calls for compensation for policyholders. The Chancellor has made a written statement today, but given that Members of all parties have constituents affected by this failure, and will want to question him on it, will the Leader of the House guarantee that the Chancellor will make a oral statement to the House on the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life when the House returns?

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) raised the issue of the Modernisation Committee’s report on regional accountability. The report was passed on the casting vote of the Chairman, the right hon. and learned Lady, who is a member of the Government. The report endorses her Government’s proposals, as set out in the Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”. The Committee’s recent report on debating departmental objectives also arose from the Government’s Green Paper, as did the Committee’s current inquiry on the recall and dissolution of Parliament. Select Committees of this House do not exist to execute Government policy, so may we have a debate on the future role of the Modernisation Committee?

Talking of that Committee, the Leader of the House today issued an illuminating single-paragraph written statement, saying that she will publish the Government’s response to the Committee’s report on regional accountability on Monday. As this is the last business questions before the recess, and the last real opportunity for the Leader of the House to take questions on future business, will she tell us when she intends to table the Standing Orders on regional Select Committees?

When the right hon. and learned Lady announced her proposals on the Equality Bill on 26 June, she said:

“Next month I will publish a further paper setting out our proposals in greater detail”.—[Official Report, 26 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 501.]

As the House rises on Tuesday, will she guarantee today that that paper will be published before the recess?

On a similar theme, on 12 June, when asked about the procedure for choosing topical debates, the Leader of the House said:

“we are reviewing the operation of topical debates…I shall report to the House before the summer recess.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 462.]

Again, as the House rises on Tuesday, will she guarantee today that that report will be published before the recess?

In her written statement yesterday on Members’ allowances, the Leader of the House said that she had had

“a number of positive discussions…with many hon. Members.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 31WS.]

Will she now list those Members, and, as the House rises on Tuesday, will she guarantee that her consultation document on Members’ allowances will be circulated to Members before the recess?

Those questions can all be answered by the right hon. and learned Lady today. They are not matters on which she can pass the buck to other members of the Cabinet. They are important matters for this House and our constituents. Perhaps she should stop dreaming about becoming leader of the country, and start acting as the leader of this House.

In respect of the consultation document on allowances, which I announced by way of a written ministerial statement yesterday morning—we had an opportunity to discuss these issues during an Opposition day debate yesterday—it would be preferable for us to produce the consultation document before the House rises, but I cannot guarantee that. We had an opportunity in the ministerial statement to map out the issues that will be addressed in the consultation document, and they were the subject of the debate yesterday.

The right hon. Lady mentioned that I said that I had had discussions with several hon. Members after the debate on 3 July. I would never think it right to list hon. Members to whom I spoke as Leader of the House. I discuss many issues with many hon. Members and they do not expect their names to be published for having discussions with me. Hon. Members know that I welcome discussion with anybody who wants talk to me about such issues. The discussions have been positive, which is probably more than can be said about those that the right hon. Lady held with many Conservative Members.

I intend to issue the results of our review on topical debates before the House rises for the summer recess. I will also publish the detailed paper on the Equality Bill in response to the discrimination law review before the House rises. Standing Orders for regional Committees will be placed before the House in the autumn.

The right hon. Lady made several points about the “Governance of Britain” proposals for the House, which the Modernisation Committee considered. We could deal with the matter in several ways: the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice could make proposals and we could simply lay them before the House for debate and agreement, or the issue could be given to the Select Committee that is responsible for considering changes in the House—the Modernisation Committee. We think that the latter is preferable. If the right hon. Lady objects to the matter being discussed in the Modernisation Committee—

Indeed. We are not ideological about the matter. If something is more appropriate for the Procedure Committee to discuss, we are happy for it to go to that Committee. As a member of the Modernisation Committee, if the right hon. Lady believes that it is more appropriate to discuss some aspect of the “Governance of Britain” proposals in the Procedure Committee rather than the Modernisation Committee, she has only to say so and I am sure that we would be prepared to take up her suggestion.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Equitable Life report, which has been published, and I thank the ombudsman for her work on that. The report is detailed and comprehensive, and considers matters that range back over the past 20 years. It has some 2,000 pages, which the Government will consider. I note the right hon. Lady’s request that, when the Chancellor gives his response to that important report, not only about the past but for the future, he come to the House to make an oral statement.

The right hon. Lady asked whether the Prime Minister will make an oral statement on Iraq before the House rises. If there is to be an oral statement on Monday or Tuesday next week, it will be announced in the usual way.

May we have a debate on inaccurate reporting by the British press? The Leader of the House may know that I had a ten-minute Bill on Tuesday on the inadequate powers of the Press Complaints Commission. During my contribution, I highlighted the case of Robert Murat, who was found guilty and convicted by the British press in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. How many more Robert Murats will it take before action is taken to impress on the press its responsibility to society to report what is going on accurately?

I commend my hon. Friend for the points that he raised in his ten-minute Bill. We all believe that the press should report accurately and that, if they make a mistake, they should retract and apologise promptly. The Press Complaints Commission should act vigorously, and the Government will keep those issues under review.

I join the rest of the House in conveying best wishes to everyone for the summer recess. Although Members of Parliament may not be here, many staff will be working extra hard to ensure that the House remains in good order for when we return in October. I wish all the staff the best in their endeavours.

On Equitable Life, does the Leader of the House think that it would have been more appropriate for the Chancellor to make an oral statement today? The Government had the draft report for 17 months and every hon. Member will have constituents who have been affected. Should not the Chancellor have come here today to give at least an initial apology, even if he has to take time to consider exactly how he will respond to the need for compensation? I agree that there should definitely be an oral statement in October, when hon. Members can question the Chancellor about his reaction to the ombudsman.

On coastguard pay, which my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) raised with the Prime Minister yesterday, will the Leader of the House make sure that the Prime Minister comes to the House to clarify that the coastguard pay dispute is not part of the recent public sector pay round, but a long, ongoing dispute, which has been so badly handled that coastguards are having to have compulsory pay rises to make sure that they do not fall foul of minimum wage provisions? It is a totally different issue from the ongoing public sector pay dispute.

On Members’ pay, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), in question reference number 217714, asked the Leader of the House how the calculation for Members’ pay would work and whether she could give him examples of the results that the formula would have produced over the past 10 years. Her deputy replied:

“The information requested is not easily obtainable within the normal time scale for answering written parliamentary questions. I will write to the hon. Member shortly”—[Official Report, 15 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 229W.]

Surely, the fact that the House has a pay system that is so complicated that even the right hon. and learned Lady’s own Department cannot answer questions on it within the time scale available suggests that we have come up with a rather inappropriate system, and the House will have to revisit that.

The House will rise until October. Come October, it will be almost too late for the Government to come up with a serious strategy for tackling the rising cost of fuel as it affects our constituents going into the winter—particularly those who are not on the gas main, because the price of oil has gone through the roof. We need concrete proposals from the Government now, because the time taken to implement them will be an important factor. Will the Leader of the House make sure before the House rises that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform makes proposals to tackle fuel poverty among those who are not on the gas main?

Finally, will the Leader of the House ensure before the House rises that the Department for Work and Pensions makes a statement saying what is happening to the card account and the payment of pensions and benefits. The Post Office is a unique institution—it is the only one with outlets throughout the rural areas of this country—but the Government have imposed access criteria on it. If the Department for Work and Pensions, for administrative convenience, awards the card account contract to anyone but the Post Office, people throughout rural Britain will find it difficult to collect their pensions in the way that the Government have promised they will be able to. Will the Leader of the House therefore ensure that a statement is made on the issue before the House rises so that Members can question and respond to it? Will she ensure that the statement is not left until the recess? If the Government do wait until the recess, will that not send a warning to our many constituents that the Government are planning yet again to ditch the Post Office and take more business away from it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his appearance on the Front Bench at business questions, which is clearly very popular. He raised the issue of pay in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which has been raised on many occasions in the House. Great value is placed on the work of those in the agency, and there is concern that there should be a settlement that is acceptable to all as soon as possible.

On Equitable Life, we have all been concerned about the many individuals who have been affected one way or another by the problems there. That has had a very big impact. We are obviously pleased that the report has been completed, but the time for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement about which of the proposals arising from the review he will take forward is when the report has been published and everybody has had the opportunity to reflect on it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, who wrote to ask what Members’ pay increases would have been in the past if the formula had been the same as the one that we have agreed for the future. There is no complexity about the formula, which takes the median increase for a basket of 15 different occupations; it is about tracking back to see what the pay increases for those different occupations have been over previous years so that we can do what is in fact a very simple calculation. However, I will deal with that as soon as possible.

On fuel poverty, the fact that the House is rising does not mean that the Government will not remain completely focused on and concerned about how we can do more to ensure that people have their homes insulated and that businesses are energy efficient, how we can increase the supply of energy through renewables and how we can deal with all the problems relating to energy. The fact that the House is rising will not mean that the issue will not be a major Government concern.

The hon. Gentleman raised another issue that is a concern in the House and more widely—the Post Office card account. Hon. Members will know that it is subject to public procurement rules, but the Post Office has put in a bid. However, no hon. Members will be in any doubt about how important the issue is to the post office network.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a debate on sentencing policy for those found guilty of human trafficking and modern forms of slavery? I ask that not in the light of highly paid footballers, but because of a recent case where an accountant trafficked a 14-year-old Ghanaian girl into the UK and kept her as an unpaid servant—or possibly slave—for a number of years, but was sentenced to only 18 months in prison. Should the courts not be giving exemplary sentences, to ensure that we send out the signal that those who traffic human beings will face the wrath of the courts and the retribution of the British legal system?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is important that those who have committed human trafficking offences are brought to justice, not only for the sake of their victims, but as a deterrent to others. It is important, too, that the courts pass sentences that make it clear to people all around the world that this country will not be a safe haven for human traffickers. My hon. Friend made a point about sentencing. I understand that the Sentencing Advisory Panel considered the issue of human trafficking a couple of years ago, along with sexual offences more broadly. However, if I am not right on that, I will ask the Home Secretary whether it would be appropriate to refer the issue to the Sentencing Advisory Panel, bearing in mind the fact that she is looking into the question of human trafficking.

The Leader of the House will know that the instrument of ratification for the Lisbon treaty was deposited by written statement only about an hour ago. Does she accept that that is, effectively, bullying the Irish, who voted no unequivocally, that it is unprecedented, in the sense that when the French and the Dutch voted no, the Government did not proceed with ratification, and furthermore that there are a number of legal actions outstanding, including my own against the Foreign Secretary in the High Court, on the question of ratification. This is a gross impertinence and a disgraceful—

Order. Questions are supposed to be about the business for the following week, but the hon. Gentleman has put his complaint on the record, so I will move on.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a debate on Northern Rock, particularly in the light of the revelation in the Daily Mirror this week that the current management are spending £130,000 pursuing the whistleblower who exposed the outrageous bonuses that the previous management were paying themselves? Is it right that what is now our money should be used in that way?

I shall refer the matter that my hon. Friend raises to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Everyone is agreed that those in the private sector should receive big rewards only where something has been successful—there should not be rewards for failure. People should bear in mind the law that the House passed setting out that remuneration must be decided while also reflecting on the average levels of remuneration in the company as a whole.

May we have a debate on the Government’s pharmacy White Paper? There is an awful lot of good in the White Paper, which I would support, but there is also a proposal that would devastate rural GP practices that dispense, such as Langport in my constituency. If I had had any doubts about the value that local people put on that GP dispensary, they would have been corrected by the volume of letters that I have received. May we have a debate about the implications of the White Paper on rural GP dispensing? Is the proposal perhaps not another example of the Government simply not understanding the needs of rural areas?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the issue is subject to consultation, which will precede the health Bill, which is in the Government’s draft legislative programme. However, he makes an important point about how we ensure that we understand the implications of all Government policy and Bills for rural areas, as well as for urban areas. Therefore, I will raise the point that he makes not only with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has already answered questions in the House this morning.

May we have a debate on delivering quality public services? I should like to congratulate Lothian Buses—the only publicly owned bus company in Scotland and the largest in the UK—on winning the prestigious best bus operator award 2008. Pilmar Smith, the chairman, who lives in north Berwick in my constituency, has played an exemplary role in support of the work force and in the company’s success.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Pilmar Smith and the work force of Lothian buses. I understand that this is not the first time that it has won that award, which is a demonstration of a public company delivering quality public services.

What is the exact position after the vote on 3 July on the definition of main residence for tax purposes, and that for claiming parliamentary allowances?

What is clear is that we need to have a congruence—that the main residence for tax purposes should be the same as the main residence for the purposes of claiming from the additional costs allowance. However, if hon. Members think that it would be helpful, I can, following the debate, write to them setting out the changes that have been agreed to main or second residences.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend have discussions during the recess through the usual channels about the arrangements for 11 November, which this year is a Tuesday? She will notice that this year is the 90th anniversary of the ending of world war one, with all the social, political, military and legal implications that go with that. Would this year not be a good occasion on which to reinstate the wreath-laying ceremony, which used to take place at our war memorial at St. Stephen’s entrance, but which was lost when the security boxes were put there some decades ago? This year will be a great occasion for Parliament to commemorate and use our war memorial in a very decent way, so I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will discuss this with you, Mr. Speaker, and others.

My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion. I will, as he proposes, discuss it with Mr. Speaker and I hope to make progress on it.

May I thank the Leader of the House for what she has just said? In view of the fact that there are many, in all parts of the House, who do not think that Front Benchers from any party should be on Select Committees, will she at least give us the assurance that when we debate the report on regional Committees, there will be a completely free vote, as there always should be on House of Commons matters?

Ever since it was established, the Modernisation Committee has been different from other Select Committees, in that not only does its membership include a Minister, but it is chaired by the Leader of the House, who is the Leader of the House, a Minister and a member of the Cabinet. On regional Committees, it is always the case that matters relating to the formation of Committees are matters for the House.

May we have a debate on the minimum wage—one of the great historic achievements of the first phase of our Labour Government—so that we can celebrate the current upgrading that will affect 1 million people, 100,000 of them in Yorkshire and the Humber? Could we use such a debate to say that we are going to get very tough indeed on firms such as the one in my constituency that employs young women on a day-by-day basis and gives them £25 cash after nine hours of work, only to tell them that they are no longer needed? The women are expected to keep quiet and not blow the whistle. Is it not time that we got tough with rogue or cowboy employers of that kind?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need strict laws to protect vulnerable employees from exploitation and we also need to ensure that they are effectively enforced. I congratulate him on the work that he, along with other hon. Members, has done to make sure that that is what happens.

I join others in thanking all the Officers and staff of the House for their hard work over this parliamentary Session and I wish them a restful recess.

Will the Government make it clear that over the summer recess period they will not join other European Governments and Heads of Government in the growing campaign led by President Sarkozy, who is due to visit the Irish Republic shortly, to bully and harass people who, on a free vote, made it clear that they reject the Lisbon treaty? Will the Government use the recess period finally to make up their minds to abandon a treaty that is, frankly, unwanted and undemocratic?

The reason that this House and the other place passed the provisions on the Lisbon treaty is that we recognise that, if we want a strong economy, we have to work closely with the European Union. Similarly, if we want to tackle the menace of climate change and cross-border crime, we have to work strongly with our partners in the European Union. We think that it is in Britain’s interest to be at the heart of Europe and that it is in Europe’s interest that Britain should play a leading part in it. We also recognise that, with more member states of the EU, we need to change the rules so that it works as efficiently and effectively as possible. Having established our position and discussed it here and in the other place, there is no question of the Government bullying or harassing any other country.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the concern of animal welfare groups, and particularly dog welfare groups, about the growth in the use of electric shock collars. What she may not be aware of is that both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament are looking at ways of outlawing the use of those devices. Will she arrange for a statement to highlight how our Government will work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that there is a consistent approach, so that English dogs are not dogged by devolution?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he does on the full range of animal welfare issues. I will pass on the matter that he has raised to the relevant Ministers. If we need to make any further changes to promote animal welfare, we will.

In case I created any confusion in my earlier response, let me clarify that the creation of Committees is House business, which means that the creation of regional Committees is House business and it is not whipped. The membership of Committees is whipped, but Select Committees elect their own Chairs.

Reverting to a question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked about Equitable Life, last week the Leader of the House invited us to wait and see what the ombudsman said. What the ombudsman has said is:

“I recognise that my recommendations raise questions which are now properly ones for Parliament and Government together to consider.”

Although I welcome what the right hon. and learned Lady said about the Chancellor making a statement, does she accept that that does not go far enough? What we need is a debate in Government time on a substantive motion on which the House can vote. Will she undertake to provide that?

The right hon. Gentleman has made his position clear, as has the shadow Leader of the House. I think that we are all concerned about people who lost out as a result of what happened to Equitable Life and we are all concerned to understand where the responsibility lies and where regulation should have been improved—as it can and has been. There will be full consideration in government and we will see how we can ensure that this House has a proper chance to question, possibly debate—[Hon. Members: “And vote”]—and even vote on the results.

Will the Leader of the House consider giving time to debate the anti-family friendly policies introduced by Tesco? People can spend £50—say, on alcohol—and get a voucher for 5p off fuel, whereas if they spend £50 on infantile or baby food products, they do not qualify for a voucher. That seems absolutely absurd. It seems that “Every little helps”—except if you are a little one.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising that important point. Tesco will see that the matter has been raised on the Floor of the House and will note the response of hon. Members.

In respect of my previous answer to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the banking reform Bill is in our draft legislative programme, so if hon. Members want to table amendments to deal with issues surrounding Equitable Life, they will have an opportunity to do so and then to debate and vote on them. That is not instead of, but in addition to what I said earlier.

Given that the Chancellor has been panicked into rewriting his Budget in the face of the sustained Scottish National party challenge in Glasgow, East, will he make a full statement to the House? If the fuel duty freeze proves to be too little, too late, will it be the job of the right hon. and learned Lady to go to Downing street next Friday morning and tell this useless Prime Minister to go?

Order. We really must use more temperate language in the House. The hon. Gentleman’s question was not about next week’s business; it was more about a by-election in my native city, so we will leave it there.

This week, the annual report of the chief medical officer was published. It dealt predominantly with tackling problems relating to young people’s health. Will the Leader of the House consider making time available for a debate on that important issue, particularly to allow Members the opportunity to raise concerns about their constituents—for example, about the screening of young women for cervical cancer. It would be beneficial if we had an opportunity to talk about the health issues faced by young people.

Perhaps we should consider that subject for a topical debate at some future time. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that there will be an opportunity to raise those important issues with Health Ministers at oral questions next Tuesday.

The Leader of the House will be aware that earlier this week the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government published a report on community cohesion, which found that the Government’s policy of uncontrolled immigration has caused sustained damage to community relations and community cohesion across the UK, including in my constituency. When may we have a debate on the linked issues of the population statistics of the Office for National Statistics, the audit of local authorities affected by large-scale immigration and the grant funding to authorities—including my own Peterborough city council—particularly affected by this issue?

The question of immigration and its effect on different local authorities has been considered, as the hon. Gentleman said, by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. It has produced its report, but it certainly did not include the point that the Government had a policy of “uncontrolled immigration”. The Government will reflect on the report and respond in due course.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, in their wisdom, the football authorities have penalised Luton Town football club by deducting 30 points for misdemeanours perpetrated by previous owners? Will she allow an early debate on ensuring that the football authorities impose penalties on those who are truly responsible rather than on innocent fans, and will she ensure that the football authorities do not have a remit effectively to kill football clubs such as mine?

My hon. Friend has raised on many occasions the question of Luton Town football club, which clearly plays an important role in the life of the city that she represents. I will draw her point to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Next time the Leader of the House bumps into the Secretary of State for Defence—[Interruption.] I know that he is coming in a moment. Will she ask him for a statement on how much time he has been able to spend on the two medium-sized conflicts in which our armed forces are currently engaged, and how much time he has been having to spend, as Secretary of State for Scotland, on the battle for the by-election in Glasgow, East?

Order. To be even-handed, I rule that as the by-election is next week we should worry about that when it comes.

I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House that she intends to publish a Command Paper next Monday responding speedily to the Modernisation Committee’s report on regional accountability. She will know that members of the Committee heard overwhelming evidence of the need for proper accountability for the £2.3 billion a year spent by regional development agencies, and a proper mechanism to hold regional Ministers to account. Will she be equally speedy in bringing forward to the House mechanisms to ensure that the proposals of the Modernisation Committee are put into effect?

When the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government first proposed eco-towns, she brought forward a list of 15 and said that the Government hoped to have at least 10. The only difficulty is that today, the fifth of those dropped out, so from 15 we are now down to 10. Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that no further announcement will be made on eco-towns until the House returns in the autumn, when we can have a topical debate to discuss the merits of those eco-town proposals remaining? That will give the Government an opportunity during the summer recess to reflect on the wisdom of progressing with many of those eco-town proposals.

Over the past month, the House has had a number of opportunities to discuss eco-towns. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing set out, we will make progress on the question of eco-towns, to ensure that we have more housing and that it is sustainable.

That is right.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South about the problems with Luton Town football club, and the fact that it was being treated badly. If she—or someone on behalf of the appropriate Committee—makes representations to the Football Association, will they bear in mind that it seems significant that small clubs such as Luton, and Chesterfield a few years ago, have points deducted, but West Ham got involved in a major wrangle over two players last year and did not have points deducted as was supposed to happen? It looks to me like there is one law for the small clubs and another for those in the premier league. That ought to be brought to the FA’s attention.

Hon. Members are well aware that the small clubs play every bit as important a role as the big clubs, and should be treated fairly. I will bring my hon. Friend’s point, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Can we have an urgent debate on the powers and effectiveness of the Healthcare Commission? In my constituency, Milton Park hospital, run by Brookdale Care, has in its first three years of existence had four inspection reports from the Healthcare Commission, all of which have ranged from poor to appalling. It is currently going through another inquiry following the death of a patient. I am not sure whether the Healthcare Commission has all the powers and effectiveness that it needs, and a debate would help to clarify that.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I suggest that he draws it to the attention of Ministers at oral questions on health next Tuesday.

Can we have a debate on grandparents’ rights? My constituents, Terry and Iris Lightfoot, who look after their grandchild, have been told that they can enjoy the formal and financial protection of becoming foster parents only by putting their grandchild into care with the local authority. They do not want to do that, because of the potential damage that it will do to the child. Although special checks are desperately needed, is it right that grandparents should have to take such action in order to carry on looking after their grandchildren?

With more and more mothers going out to work, the role of grandparents, which has become more important, is absolutely pivotal. Many families just could not cope without the active role of grandparents, and that is the case for all families, whether or not they are in difficulties—although it is particularly the case for families who get into difficulties. Improving support for grandparents is an ongoing concern, and I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

Whether the Leader of the House publishes her recommendations before or after the recess, can she give a statement on the vexed issue of allowances in the near future, and particularly on the relationship between MPs’ allowances and MEPs’ allowances? Yesterday, she said that there is

“an independent financial audit for each”—


“MEP’s total expenditure every year, which is then published on their website.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 272.]

Unfortunately, that is not correct. It is not published anywhere. All that must happen is that

“The Auditors report has to be presented to the EPLP by 31st March.”

As we are discussing the business for next week, I do not want to detain the House on issues that were debated at length yesterday on an Opposition motion. On the question of expenses of MEPs, and how Labour MEPs deal with the issue, my understanding is that there is a voluntary arrangement whereby Labour MEPs put their expenses on their own websites. [Interruption.] That is what I understand the position to be.

In 2006-07, 2,500 fixed penalty notices were issued in Northamptonshire for crimes including shoplifting, drunkenness and criminal damage, but only 836 were actually paid. Can we have a debate in Government time about the effectiveness of the fixed penalty notice system as a part of the criminal justice?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a statement on policing later this afternoon, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will raise those issues with her.

Hundreds of thousands of Equitable Life policyholders know that the Government did everything that they could to obstruct the report that has been published, and to delay the time when that investigation reached its conclusions. That has been confirmed by the ombudsman, who said that it was “iniquitous” and “unfair” that the Government failed to establish a single inquiry in 2001. Policyholders, who have been waiting eight years, want to know whether the foot dragging will now end, so that they can find out how much compensation they will get. It seems that we are getting more foot dragging from the Leader of the House right now. Can we at least have a debate, even a short debate, in Government time, to establish the criteria by which compensation will be assessed and paid, or are the Government too fearful of the £4 billion overhang that will hit an already distressed public sector financial deficit?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s points or the implications that lie behind them. I have said how the Government propose to deal with the important report of the ombudsman on Equitable Life. I have nothing further to add.

I hope that the Leader of the House will respond to this question. She said earlier that the press should apologise promptly when they get it wrong. The Government have got it wrong on Equitable Life. Why will they not do the ombudsman’s bidding and apologise now? Why can they not put a stop to their weasel words on the issue?

I do not want to draw out the issue, because two important statements are coming up. However, hon. Members should recognise that the problems in Equitable Life started to arise under a regulatory regime that was the responsibility not of this Government, but of the previous Government. If Conservative Members have joined us in being concerned that there should be proper regulation of the private sector, we welcome that.

I must go back to the vexed question of Somerset. I have carried out the right hon. and learned Lady’s advice, but it now turns out that the deal with IBM, on which I want a debate, was negotiated on 21 February last year. They got the joint venture because of secret meetings, even though the bid was £25 million more expensive than the next nearest bidder. The only councillor who had the guts to stand up was Paul Buchanan, who was taken to the Standards Board for England on 55 charges by the chief executive of the county council. When I tried to sort the case out on his behalf, I was threatened with legal action by the Standards Board—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the questions are getting longer and longer. We have quite a long list of business items to deal with today. I think that the right hon. and learned Lady might have got the sense of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. [Interruption.] The look of puzzlement on her face induces me to allow one final sentence from Mr. Liddell-Grainger.

May we have a debate on the situation in Somerset and the joint venture between Somerset county council and IBM?

I have on previous occasions suggested that if the hon. Gentleman wants such a debate he ought to look to Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate. I was looking slightly dismayed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I think that it is very important that we do not stray into making serious allegations under the protection of the privilege of this House that we would not make outside the House or if we did not have that privilege.

I wish the Leader of the House an enjoyable recess and thank her warmly for next Monday’s debate on speech, language and communication services. May we please have a debate in Government time, preferably on the Floor of the House, on autism? Given that of the estimated 500,000 people in this country on the autistic spectrum only 15 per cent. become independent as adults, 40 per cent. live with their parents all their lives and a mere 12 per cent. are engaged in paid work, is it not timely now for us to debate the Government’s autism strategy in the interests of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his report. As he says, the House will have an opportunity, which I know that it welcomes, to debate the subject on Monday. The question of provision and support for those with autism in their families will be centre stage in that debate.

May I ask the Leader of the House to speak to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and ask him to make a statement to the House on the chaos that has engulfed the key stages 2 and 3 SATs exams? The Secretary of State has admitted that 120,000 pupils will not have their results by the end of term and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, on which I sit, has said that those who have just recently passed A-levels have been marking those papers. Is it not time that the Secretary of State did what he has so far refused to do—that is, that he apologised in this House?

The Secretary of State gave evidence about those issues to the Select Committee yesterday. He has set up an inquiry under Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, which will report in the autumn. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has responsibility for the contract to manage the service. Many key stage 2 results for 11-year-olds went out on Tuesday and more will go out tomorrow. More key stage 3 results will go out tomorrow. The Secretary of State has said clearly that he believes that the situation is unacceptable and that is why he has established the inquiry.