Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 9 October 2008

The business next week will be as follows:

Monday 13 October—A general debate on promoting democracy and human rights.

Tuesday 14 October—Second Reading of the Banking Bill.

Wednesday 15 October—Consideration of a supplementary estimate relating to HM Treasury, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 3) Bill, followed by a general debate on local government delivering for local people.

Thursday 16 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on access to primary care.

Friday 17 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 20 October will include:

Monday 20 October—Second Reading of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 21 October—Opposition Day [19th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 22 October—Remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Thursday 23 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

The information is as follows:

That this House takes note of the 5th, the 8th, the 14th to the 29th, the 31st to the 35th, the 37th, the 38th, the 42nd and the 50th Reports and the 1st and 2nd Special Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Sessions 2007-08, and of the Treasury Minutes on these Reports (Cm 7366 and 7453).

I thank the Leader of the House for her business statement. All Conservative Members welcomed the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, and both my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) have made clear our commitment to work with the Government through these difficult times. Next week, as she has just announced, we will debate the banking reform Bill, which includes changes to the powers of the Bank of England. Obviously, I welcome today’s topical debate on financial stability, but the general public will rightly expect Parliament to spend more than an hour and a half debating the financial crisis. Will the Leader of the House therefore change next week’s business to provide for a full debate on the financial crisis?

One group of people particularly hard hit by the ups and downs of the stock markets are those who, at age 75, are obliged to take out an annuity. Given the current economic conditions, we think it important that people should have the freedom to choose to delay buying their annuity. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has today written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking him to put a temporary moratorium on this rule, and offering to work together on this. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will indeed consider this, so that these people are not unduly penalised by circumstances completely out of their control?

In recent days, our attention has obviously been focused on the financial markets, but there are problems lying ahead for everyone. The International Monetary Fund said yesterday that the world was entering a major downturn, with Europe and the US either already in, or on the brink of, recession. It predicts that the UK economy will contract by 0.1 per cent. next year. These conditions will of course require the Chancellor to revise his economic forecasts, which makes his autumn statement even more significant than usual. Will the Leader of the House therefore now give us the date for the Chancellor’s pre-Budget Report?

Earlier this week The Times reported that the Government plan to drop their unpopular proposal to hold terror suspects for 42 days without charge because it is widely expected that the measure will be resoundingly defeated in the House of Lords next Monday. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the report in The Times was accurate, or, if not, when we should expect to debate the measure again in this House?

Finally, I turn to two, more parochial House points. I welcome the right hon. and learned Lady’s written statement this morning extending the consultation period on her proposals regarding the audit and assurance of MPs’ allowances—something that I suggested to her over the recess. Can she tell us how many responses she has received so far, and will she confirm that she will not hold any further such consultations over a recess? Can she also confirm that the chairmanship of Select Committees is a matter for the decision of those Committees? If so, will she explain why, over the recess, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) was reportedly offered the chairmanship of the south-west regional committee—a committee that has not even been established by this House, let alone had decisions made on its membership? The right hon. and learned Lady has already suspended Standing Orders once to parachute in the Government’s choice to the chairmanship of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Will she now guarantee this will not happen again, and that from now on she will stand up for the independence of Select Committees and the rights of this House?

The right hon. Lady is right in saying that the chairmanship of a Select Committee is a matter for the members of the relevant Committee.

The consultation paper on the audit and assurance of Members’ allowances was issued late on—at the end of July or even early August—and because the consultation was under way during the recess, and because a very small number of colleagues have responded, we have accepted the right hon. Lady’s suggestion that we extend the consultation period. Work is already under way, following the resolutions of this House—including the abolition of the John Lewis list, among a number of measures—to improve the audit and assurance of Members’ allowances, but further steps need consideration. We want the full involvement of Members in this, to make absolutely sure that they have the resources they need to do their work, and to ensure that the public have full confidence that public money is being properly spent.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Counter-Terrorism Bill. She will be aware that, following debate and discussion in this House and the House having formed its view, the Bill is now under consideration in the House of Lords. Following their lordships’ consideration of it, it will be dealt with in the usual way and will return to this House.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I could give the House the date of the pre-Budget report. I will announce that in due course in the normal way. She also raised the issue of how this House makes sure that we have proper debates on the very important issue of the moment—the stability of the economy. As she said, the Chancellor made a statement yesterday; the Conservatives chose the economy as the subject of their Opposition day debate on Tuesday; and we have arranged a further debate in this House, to be led by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury this afternoon. We can all be clear that we agree on two things. First, when there is a matter of such national importance as this, it is right that the Government involve the Opposition and that we all work together on the issue. Secondly, if legislation is needed, consultation should take place, the terms of it should be respected and the House should be able to legislate on the matters promptly—that is very important. I know that all hon. Members will bear with us if we need to change the business of the House to accommodate important legislation on economic matters.

We also all agree that there must be adequate time to debate these important issues, because this is not just a question of the problem in the financial services industry and the banking sector; these problems affect homebuyers, small businesses, depositors and those buying annuities, to whom the right hon. Lady referred, all of whom are at the top of our concerns. We want to ensure that these important issues are fully debated in this House and that Ministers are fully accountable to this House.

First, may I ask the Leader of the House to pass on our thanks to her colleague, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for her helpfulness when she was Deputy Leader of the House, and to welcome her new Deputy Leader of the House to his position?

In the spirit of co-operation in trying to maximise the opportunity for Parliament urgently to debate matters relating to the national and global financial crisis, which clearly are of huge concern outside this building, may I clarify one thing and ask two questions about the business that the Leader of the House has announced? She announced a debate next week on local government. We have read and heard reports that significant numbers of local councils had invested public money in Icelandic banks that have gone bust. I gather that the figure involved may be up to £500 million and that more than 20 local councils may be involved, as well as police authorities and transport authorities. Will she ensure, before the debate on Wednesday, that Ministers responsible for local government give an indication—it might be better if it were an indication, rather than a final view—of what the Government propose to do to assist local councils? Many councils are already cutting local services, including social services, and, whatever their party affiliation, they want to ensure that further cuts do not have to be made as a result of the present crisis.

Secondly, the Leader of the House rightly mentioned the concerns of small business about the present financial position. Small business organisations have made it clear that they are still receiving letters from banks offering loans at rates of 15 per cent. The majority of the British work force works in small businesses, rather than in big businesses, so can she see whether we can have a debate in this place with the new team at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—with or without the Secretary of State—on what can be done to ensure that huge numbers of small businesses do not go under in the days immediately following the events of the past two weeks?

Thirdly, the Leader of the House knows as well as I do that in boroughs such as ours, and probably in every local authority in the country, affordable housing is one of the most urgent needs. Local authorities and housing associations will clearly be in greater difficulty borrowing money to build the programmes to which they have already committed themselves or that they wanted to build. May we have a debate on how to ensure that the plans of the Government, of London government, of London councils and of all local authorities can be implemented, because loads of people are desperately waiting for the housing that they need?

Lastly, on an in-House matter, I persistently asked before the summer that we ensure that we have time on Report on Government Bills to debate Opposition and Government Back Bencher amendments and new clauses. We know of six Government Bills that are in the pipeline between now and the end of term, including the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Given that, even yesterday, some amendments and new clauses could not be debated for lack of time—such as the important issue of whether smacking should be allowed—can we please ensure that Parliament can do its job properly and debate the issues that colleagues from all parties put on the agenda, instead of having debate closed down by Government guillotines?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments in appreciation of the excellent work of the former Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and I pay tribute to her. I also join hon. Members in welcoming her excellent successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

It is important for the hon. Gentleman to remember that the resources that have been going into local government from central Government have increased year on year. He is right to say that local government services are very important, and we want to ensure that they are protected. There will be an opportunity for hon. Members to ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury questions about local government deposits this afternoon in the topical debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the important issue of the effect of the financial and banking crisis on the work of small businesses. We all agree that small businesses are critical to the economy and to employment prospects, and they need an effective banking system to survive and prosper. It is important that work is undertaken at European level, through the European Investment Bank; at national level, through the actions of the Treasury and other Departments; and at regional level. Small businesses are the focus of the Government’s concern, and we will take all steps necessary to ensure that they can continue their important work.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I remind the House that we have already had 81 hours of debate across the two Houses on that Bill, so we have sought to make adequate time available to debate that important issue. Additionally, there have been two full days of debate on the Floor of the House, followed by a free vote on those issues of conscience. When the Bill comes back to this House, we will have further opportunity for debate.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about housing. The plans are important not only to increase the supply of housing, but because they touch on the question of public sector investment in infrastructure, whether in transport, industry, housing or even people’s skills. The Government have two obligations. First, we must see the country through this immediate crisis, ensuring that we give most support to those who are most directly affected and those who are most vulnerable. Secondly, we must not do anything to undermine the strengthening of the economy in the future. The forecast is that, once we have got through the present difficult circumstances, the economy has bright prospects for the future. For that reason, we do not want to cut infrastructure projects that need further investment, and that is why the Chancellor has announced that he believes that it is sensible to allow borrowing to rise to find our way through the crisis and to sustain investment for the future.

Order. I seek the co-operation of hon. Members. There is heavy demand to participate in the two time-limited debates that follow business questions. I cannot promise to call every hon. Member who wishes to put a question to the Leader of the House, but we will make more progress if we have one question per Member, especially if it relates to next week’s business. I am sure that the Leader of the House will also give as concise answers as she can.

First, may I say to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that she should not believe everything she reads in the papers? I, too, express my good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his appointment, which is richly deserved.

May I tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House that I am pleased to see how much time is being allocated to discuss the financial crisis? She will be well aware that Labour Members and Opposition Members are particularly concerned about the important merger between HBOS and Lloyds TSB. A lot of concern has already been expressed by Front and Back Benchers about jobs in Yorkshire and in Scotland. May I add to that my concern—

Order. I did ask for brief questions and the hon. Gentleman has done pretty well. I heard three, if not four, points there.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I know that he is assiduous in his attention to his constituents—those whose jobs are affected by the crisis, depositors who are concerned about whether their deposits will be assured, and shareholders. I know that he will continue to play an important part in future debates and we will ensure that those debates are available to the House.

Last year, the pre-Budget report was published on 9 October—today’s date. It is disappointing that the Leader of the House was unable to give any indication of when it might be published this year. Last year, inexcusably, the Government gave the House no time whatsoever to debate the pre-Budget report. In view of its importance this year, will the Leader of the House guarantee time to debate it?

Consideration has been given to how we allocate days for debate following the Queen’s Speech and the Budget and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to the opportunities for a full-day debate following the pre-Budget report. He will find that there will be ample time to debate all the issues and I shall make the announcement about the date of the pre-Budget report in the normal way.

Given all that went on during the summer recess—the war between Russia and Georgia and the crisis in the global financial markets—will my right hon. and learned Friend consider bringing Parliament back for two weeks in September on a permanent basis, as we once agreed to do? We quietly reneged on that agreement when the public attention was off us. Would that not enhance the esteem in which we are held, as well as the democratic process?

My hon. Friend is consistent—I will say that—in raising that point. The Chancellor has made a statement on the financial markets since the House returned. My hon. Friend will know that next Monday, as I just have announced, there will be an opportunity, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, to debate democracy and human rights. It will be an opportunity for Members to debate the things that have happened in Georgia over the summer.

Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that one of the historic and most important functions of this House is to control supply? That being so, will she ensure that yesterday’s proposals are enshrined either in primary legislation or, alternatively, in amendable resolutions of this House, so that we can change them if we do not agree or reject them if we think that they are entirely wrong?

When the Government seek to take action that requires primary legislation, we will come before the House. If secondary legislation is required, there are procedures for that. If action does not require either secondary or primary legislation, the information will be given to the House by way of written or oral statements or will be supplied in debates. There will be an opportunity for the House to hold Ministers to account for all the actions that they take.

In the summer recess, two schoolchildren in Aberdeenshire were killed when they got off their school bus. The Yellow School Bus Commission, which was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), also published its report. The commission took evidence in Aberdeen from Robert Gordon’s school, which uses yellow buses. I understand that the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) hopes to table a Bill later in the Session that will address some of the issues to do with school bus safety and the safety of our children travelling to and from school. Will my right hon. and learned Friend guarantee that she will give that Bill clear passage?

I express my condolences to the families mentioned by my hon. Friend. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) on his work on the Yellow School Bus Commission. These are important issues that affect congestion as well as safety, pollution and the affordability of school travel, and I will ensure that we take into account the points that my hon. Friend raises.

Is the Leader of the House aware that during this time of acute crisis in the banking sector, more of our constituents are moving deposits into the Post Office and into National Savings accounts? Surely, now is not the time for the Department for Work and Pensions even to consider getting rid of the Post Office card account. Will the right hon. and learned Lady guarantee today that in these tumultuous times the Post Office card account will be kept in place?

As I have told the House on previous occasions, there is a procurement process and the contract, pursuant to the normal rules, is under consideration. No decision has been announced as yet.

Will the Leader of the House consider making room for a debate on an issue of great importance to rail travellers in Milton Keynes? London Midland appears to have taken the opportunity of “fare simplification” to increase off-peak fares by about 10 per cent. At a time when we should be encouraging people to use rail rather than the roads, that seems highly unfortunate and worthy of a debate in this House.

I shall take that as a useful suggestion for a topical debate. Perhaps we could discuss investment in rail as well as fare prices for passengers and freight.

With the best will in the world, surely the Leader of the House must realise that the public will think that it is totally inadequate that on most days next week we will not be discussing the economic crisis. With the problems of pensions and annuities already mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), will the Leader of the House at least assure us that she will keep matters under review and will return early next week to change the business so that we look relevant to the public? Otherwise, it will do huge damage to this House.

We will debate matters touching on the economy on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, but the right hon. Gentleman does not need to wait that long. He need wait only until the end of this business, when he can raise issues in the topical debate. I assure the House that as well as ensuring that the Government’s general business gets through we will bend over backwards to ensure that the House has the opportunity to debate the very important economic issues.

Earlier this week, an independent report commissioned by local councillors in my area showed that the economic impact of tolls on the Humber bridge was costing the region more than £1 billion in economic activity. Given the difficulties that we are facing in our local economies, could the subject of next week’s topical debate be Government initiatives that could help economic growth in areas across the whole country? Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that Humber bridge tolls are part of such a debate?

I will consider my hon. Friend’s request for a topical debate. I will also bring his point to the attention of the new Secretary of State for Transport.

My local authority, on a cross-party basis, is very concerned about the fate of the £5.5 million that it had deposited with a subsidiary of Landsbanki and wants to know when it will hear in the House a debate that will ensure that we can get the reassurances from Treasury Ministers that have been offered to retail depositors. There is a concern on behalf of council tax payers that the money invested in line with guidelines set by the Treasury will be lost and that as a consequence council tax will rise.

As I said to other hon. Members, there will be an opportunity to raise such questions with the Financial Secretary at the end of business questions.

Can we find time next week for a debate on parliamentary protocol, in particular on the importance of respecting confidentiality when a bipartisan approach to a national crisis leads to off-the-record briefings by senior Opposition politicians? It was a little unseemly to see the shadow Chancellor haring round TV studios last weekend, sharing with the nation the thoughts of the Governor of the Bank of England, his new best friend.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He reinforces the point that I made at the outset about the importance of the Government’s acting decisively but, wherever possible, on a bipartisan basis. The markets are sensitive to debate and discussion and things that are said can affect people’s living standards by affecting share prices and confidence, so it is very important that when any confidential discussions are entered into, that confidentiality is respected.

Was the Leader of the House surprised that Parliament was not recalled from recess, when we face the worst economic crisis for 100 years and are going from boom to bust? Is it not a good idea to amend Standing Order No. 13 to ensure that it is up to the Speaker whether the House is recalled in future?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister raised the question of the call and recall of Parliament in “The Governance of Britain”, which the Modernisation Committee is due to consider shortly.

In June, Michelle and six-year-old Jayden had their gas cut off by Scottish Power, leaving them without cooking, heating and lighting for more than four months. Scottish Power is owned by a company that made a profit of €200 million last year, and it wants my constituent to pay £350 for extra pipe work to install a rip-off pre-charge meter. Can we have a debate in the near future to examine the social responsibility of utilities such as Scottish Power to help people such as Michelle across the country?

That is an important and timely suggestion for a topical debate, and no doubt it will attract the support of many hon. Members. As the Prime Minister said yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, we must ensure that the energy companies operate fairly in respect of hard-pressed consumers at this difficult time.

Will the Leader of the House promise not to waste the time of the House by providing an opportunity to debate the ridiculous, absurd and unsustainable proposition that we should have regional Select Committees?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. When one thinks of the effect of the current economic climate on businesses big and small, one sees that the work of regional development agencies and of strategic regional authorities is even more important. The fact that such bodies are not properly accountable to Members of this House needs to be acted on. When the Modernisation Committee conducted an inquiry on regional Committees, there was not agreement in Committee on how they should be established, but there was full agreement that there is a need for this House better to hold to account such agencies, which are very important at the regional level. We will proceed in due course, and the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to join the debate and vote on the matter.

The Child Support Agency has required one of my constituents to pay several thousand pounds of arrears in 12 months. My constituent does not dispute the arrears, which he wants to pay, and he is currently looking after the children for whom the arrears were incurred. Can we debate the way in which the CSA deals with arrears at this time of economic slowdown? My concern is that those who want to face up to their responsibilities will be penalised by an excessively stringent approach to arrears as the economy slows further, while those who want to avoid their arrears will continue to do so.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. First and foremost, we should examine the issue from the viewpoint of the children. It is right to expect fathers who can do so to pay a fair proportion of their income to their own children. It is therefore best if people do not get into arrears in the first place. Perhaps I can ask him to seek a meeting with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in respect of his individual constituent.

The remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill are due to be taken on 22 October. Will the Leader of the House accept that that Bill is a highly inappropriate vehicle to impose a fundamental change in relation to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland? Given that the communities and all parties in Northern Ireland are united on the issue, if devolution is to mean anything, the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland should be respected in that regard.

Obviously it is very important that the question of the view of the parties in Northern Ireland is taken into account, irrespective of the issue that is being raised. It is also important that the views of men and women are taken into account in all parts of the United Kingdom when services are being considered. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill will come before the House next week, and no doubt he will be able to make his points in the debate.

Can we have a debate on the long-term future of regional airports? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of the recent decision by British Airways to relocate its cabin crew staff from Glasgow airport and other regional airports throughout the UK, which has resulted in significant job losses. Does she agree that British Airways is hardly an appropriate brand name, when it sees regional airports as trading posts? It is happy to take the natives’ money, but it will not trust the natives on its aircraft.

I will raise that important point, which is also the subject of my hon. Friend’s early-day motion 2208 on British Airways job losses at Glasgow airport.

[That this House expresses its concern at the continuing loss of jobs by British Airways staff at Glasgow Airport and other regional airports across the UK; notes that these job losses demonstrate a clear lack of commitment by BA to serving regional airports outside London, is not in the best interests of the travelling public, undermines the long-term security of the workforce and treats regional airports such as Glasgow as trading posts; and believes that British Airways should reconsider this decision or go the whole way and rebrand themselves London Airways.]

I will raise those important points with the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The people of Hertfordshire will be surprised by the Leader of the House’s decision not to call for a statement on local government finance problems due to banks crashing in Iceland. In Hertfordshire, £17 million is invested in those banks. That investment was made in good faith and at the Government’s request, because the assets were being held. That will cause a shortfall in cash flow as well as a shortfall in next year’s funding, because the interest was required to go forward. Can we have an immediate statement on how local government will survive in that situation?

I have put next week’s business before the House. We arranged for this week a debate on financial stability, which will take place shortly. As well as having the opportunity to speak in that debate, Members will be able to ask the Minister questions during his speech.

There is a requirement for utility companies to provide their customers with at least one bill every two years. Here in London my electricity provider does that, but Powergen, my electricity supplier in Bolton, rarely provides me with a bill. As a result, Powergen got me in debt to the tune of £1,000 last year. It read my meter two months ago, but no bill has followed, and several of my constituents are in debt as a result of such terrible behaviour by several power companies. I echo the request for a topical debate on the behaviour of the providers of power to our homes, which could extend to the provision of social tariffs, smart meters and feed-in tariffs.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Without pre-empting myself or anybody else with whom I might discuss the issue, I think that the question of how energy companies are operating in this difficult situation is a front-runner for next week’s topical debate.

Notwithstanding what the Leader of the House has already said, may I appeal to her spirit of generosity and urge her to announce in a statement next week that there will in fact be two days, not one day, for the remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, both because that is right in itself in view of the array of opinions on the subject and, indeed, because it would represent a display of strength and receptiveness on the part of the Government?

I was just looking for information about the amount of debate that there has already been. In considering whether there will be enough debate, the House should recognise how much debate has already taken place on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. In total, the Bill has been debated on the Floor of both Houses for 81 hours, with 10 sessions in the Lords and, so far, seven in the Commons. We have already had two days on the Floor of the House discussing amendments and new clauses on the basis of free votes on conscience issues. I stand second to no one in believing that the House should debate these heartfelt issues properly, but taking a view across all the business coming through this House, I think that 81 hours probably amounts to adequate debate.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take an early opportunity to correct a false impression created by a question asked earlier today by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone)? The question implied that Commonwealth citizens resident in Britain who have limited leave to remain, such as the wives of British citizens, are not eligible to vote in elections, but they are.

I think that my hon. Friend has taken this opportunity to correct the record, but perhaps I will ask the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Member for Kettering and put him straight.

May we have a debate on the tagging system for prisoners who are on early release, and on the inefficiency and incompetence in a particular case in which a young man in my constituency was returned to prison for an extra three months through no fault of his own? Perhaps a debate could be held in Westminster Hall.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the important issue of recall to prison for those released on licence who are subject to conditions in respect of their tag. I know that that is a very controversial issue, because obviously recall to prison is a drastic step. I suggest that, in the first instance, he raise the question with the Home Secretary.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that a number of Members on both sides of the House have written to express their concern about the deterioration of the situation in Sri Lanka, and about the Sri Lankan Government’s bombing of areas in the north and east of the country. I appreciate that there is a debate next week on human rights, but most Members who have written feel that that would be inadequate to deal with the subject, and that a special debate should be called for.

I will take my hon. Friend’s proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate, but as he anticipated, I think that there will be an opportunity to discuss the important issues relating to Sri Lanka next Monday. I know that he is very concerned about his constituents who have families in Sri Lanka, and he is assiduous in his concern for their welfare and the welfare of their relatives. However, I suggest that he try to catch the Speaker’s eye in the debate on Monday.

Yesterday, amidst all the financial turmoil in the markets, the Government still found time to whip their MPs—and, in a break with usual practice, even members of the Government—to ensure that they voted against my ten-minute Bill in favour of openness and transparency in the making of law. Given that, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in the House on openness and transparency, so that we can establish once and for all whether the Government are actually in favour of it?

It was this Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and we want to make sure that debate is full and fully informed. We will continue to be as open as possible.

It is nearly two years since the collapse of the Farepak Christmas saving scheme. May we have a debate in Government time on the inquiry that was set up last year? It was due to report first at Christmas, then Easter, and then before the recess, but did not do so. Tens of thousands of decent, hard-working families deserve to know what happened to their money. Margaret Rettie in my constituency paid hundreds of pounds at 20 past 3 on the day on which the company collapsed; it did so at a quarter past 4. People like her deserve answers.

The whole House will have every sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. We are all well aware that the people who lost money to Farepak were those who could least afford to do so. The fact that they are still waiting for the report is not acceptable. I thank him for raising the issue, as he has done consistently. We really do need to get the matter sorted out. I will work with the Deputy Leader of the House to make sure that we get some answers fast.

May we have an early statement or debate on the changes proposed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to the seafarers’ earnings deduction scheme? The change will affect people throughout the merchant navy, but it will have a particularly severe impact on those working in the North sea in the offshore oil and gas sector because of the proposals to backdate the changes. It is an issue on which Parliament really ought to have a voice.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has just joined us in the Chamber, is looking into the issue, so perhaps in the first instance the hon. Gentleman might seek a meeting with him to discuss how far my right hon. Friend has got in progressing the matter.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady arrange for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to come to the House next week to make a statement on local government finance? The problem is not just the fact that local authorities have money frozen in Icelandic banks—in Oxfordshire, some £28 million-plus has been frozen or perhaps lost. There is another issue: many local authorities, in the course of their business, work with cash surpluses that they have to deposit. They need guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government on what is acceptable practice, so that they can ensure that the money is protected. They would like to invest it in UK banks—they do not want to hold it themselves—but they want some safeguards and protection. It is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government—

In addition to the opportunity presented by the debate that follows this business statement, there will be a general debate next Wednesday on local government delivering for local people. All the hon. Gentleman’s points can be raised and answered by Ministers in that debate.

Thousands of holidaymakers across the country were recently left stranded, distressed and hugely out of pocket, through no fault of their own, as a result of a number of failures on the part of airlines. In 2004 and 2006, the Select Committee on Transport made a request, which the Civil Aviation Authority supported, that an airline levy be charged covering all passengers, particularly those who book their accommodation independently. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate—possibly a topical debate—next week or the week after to enable all of us who represent those passengers to debate the issue? We could debate the review of the European package travel directive at the same time.

I will raise the points that the hon. Lady has brought before the House with the new Secretary of State for Transport. We were all appalled to see what happened to those who were left stranded around the world. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s consular offices across the world did what they could. Many people were eligible for compensation, but some who booked online, or independently, were not.

May we have an urgent debate on the future of general practitioner services? Why are the Government intent on removing the dispensing powers and services of GPs, particularly in rural areas? That will leave patients in my constituency having to travel far further to collect their medicines. Will the Government have a rethink about this?

There will be a general debate on access to primary care next Thursday. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman catch the Speaker’s eye in that debate and raise his constituents’ concerns then. However, I remind him and the House that there has been unprecedented investment in, and improvement to, primary care services since this Government came to power and made the NHS a priority. [Interruption.] I hear Opposition Members say that that has been wasted. Before we came to power, many of my constituents could not even get on a GP’s list, because the lists were closed. When they managed to appeal and did get on a GP’s list, they sometimes found that they had to wait weeks for an appointment, and when they did get to see the GP, it was often a locum who was completely knackered. GP services have been substantially improved.

Order. I hope that the Leader of the House will help me to ensure that colleagues who have not yet asked a question get to speak.

May we have a debate on the performance of the UK Border Agency? A constituent of mine who has been asked to sponsor someone from Sierra Leone has been told that he must send details of all his bank accounts and savings to Sierra Leone, so that the applicant can give them to the embassy there. Why does he have to send all his bank details abroad? Why could he not take them to someone in the UK? It is a ludicrous policy.

When processing visas for entry to this country, those concerned need to be able to look at as much information as they regard necessary in each individual case. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raise that point in writing with the Home Secretary.

My local authority, the London borough of Havering, is one of the councils that has had its accounts with an Icelandic bank frozen. I heard what the Leader of the House said about the opportunities presented by the topical debate, but she will appreciate that the ability to ask questions on this specific issue will be limited. As for waiting until next Wednesday, as we see, a lot of things could happen before then. In light of comments made by a number of hon. Members, will she reconsider speaking to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and will she encourage them to make an urgent statement on the issue on Monday, to allow detailed questioning on it?

Things are getting a bit surreal: hon. Members are taking up time in asking me to find time, but I am telling them that they can put their questions to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is here. I understand that he will report on meetings with the Local Government Association, so instead of asking me, why do those hon. Members not just ask him?

Residents in Kettering have been waiting ages for a long overdue announcement from the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency about the Government’s plans to expand the A14 around Kettering. Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to urge the Department for Transport to make a statement in the House on the issue next week?

I shall raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Transport.

May we have a debate on the administration of the education maintenance allowance system? I have been contacted by a number of young people in my constituency who should have qualified automatically for the allowance, but have waited more than eight weeks for it to be processed. I am concerned that a number of other people across the country might be affected in a similar way. I would appreciate the opportunity for a debate with the Minister.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has already devoted a great deal of attention to that issue. The hon. Lady is right: those who are awarded the education maintenance allowance need it promptly. I shall raise her points with my right hon. Friend and see whether there can be a further written statement or other process to make sure that he is fully accountable to the House on that important issue.

When time allows, may we have a debate about the Black Police Association, a divisive organisation that is stirring up racial tensions? If there were a white police association, the Leader of the House would be first in line to be outraged about it. I cannot see the legal or moral difference between a white police association and a black one. May we have a debate on the issue? Like many other people in the country, I think that the association should be scrapped.

It is very important that the Metropolitan police should command the confidence of the diverse communities in London whose security it is there to protect and whose co-operation it needs to investigate crime and prevent it from happening. Historically, black and Asian people have been under-represented in the Metropolitan police, but a great deal has been done to increase its black and Asian members. Much of that has been due to Sir Ian Blair; I pay tribute to the fact that he has made sure that more black and Asian people have been recruited to the police to ensure full public confidence.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Home Secretary has announced that there will be an inquiry into black and Asian recruitment, not only in the police but across the board. There is the Black Police Association but no white police association because of the under-representation of black and Asian people. That is why we back the work to increase the numbers of black and Asian members of the police service.

Order. I thank the House; we have got through 34 questions in 51 minutes, which shows what can be done when everyone co-operates.