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Business of the House

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

The business for next week will be as follows:

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 entitled “Controls on Immigration” followed by a debate on the Olympic legacy. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

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 provisional business for the week commencing 27 October will include:

Monday 27 October—Remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 28 October—Remaining stages of the Climate Change Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 29 October—Opposition Day (11th allotted day) (Second Part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced; followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 30 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence policy.

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 inform the House that the Commons calendar from December 2008 until October 2009 is available in the Vote Office.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week, which includes the debate on Wednesday on the remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. There are reports today that the Prime Minister and the right hon. and learned Lady have fallen out over the amount of time that should be allowed for that debate. Will she confirm that she will make every effort to ensure that there are no statements that day, and that there will indeed be a full debate on the remaining stages of the Bill?

The Leader of the House referred to the debate in the following week on defence policy. On 13 October, the Prime Minister of Iraq stated that he wants British troops to withdraw. May we have a statement from the Defence Secretary, before that debate, on whether that changes the Government’s strategy in Iraq?

I raised the matter of annuities with the Leader of the House last week and yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pressed her on it again, but neither of us got a satisfactory answer. Given that thousands of pensioners are being forced to buy an annuity that locks them into a lower income for the rest of their lives, the need to address the issue is urgent. Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions make an urgent statement to the House on whether the Government will adopt our proposal to suspend the rule on annuities?

In July, I asked for a statement from the Chancellor on the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Lady ignored two questions on Equitable Life. The ombudsman has clearly stated that the Government must take some responsibility for the failures in Equitable Life and should be compensating policyholders, so may we have an urgent statement from the Chancellor apologising for the Government’s failures and setting out the compensation scheme for policyholders?

On Monday, the Home Secretary took the unprecedented step of interrupting House business and making a statement about the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords on the issue of 42 days’ pre-charge detention. Why was the statement not made on the following day in the usual way, thus giving Members proper notice, or was it that the Government wanted to give the statement when fewer Members were in the Chamber to question the Home Secretary? Can the Leader of the House confirm that this sets a new precedent and that in future Ministers will always make an immediate statement to the House whenever the Government are defeated in the House of Lords?

In the past year the Government have lost the personal details of 25 million men, women and children from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, 45,000 people from the Department for Work and Pensions, 3 million learner drivers from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, 84,000 prisoners from the Home Office and over 2 million people from the Ministry of Defence, but yesterday the Home Secretary announced plans for a massive increase in the Government’s ability to access people’s personal data. What reassurance can the Home Secretary give that the Government will protect the integrity of any new data? Given the huge data losses so far, would it not be easier for the Home Secretary to make a statement listing the people whose data have not been lost by this Government?

Finally, the previous Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was also the Government’s anti-corruption champion. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister has found it necessary to remove that responsibility from Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, and will she explain why? While the Prime Minister is looking at the noble Lord’s responsibilities, will he also be removing his Department’s work on regulating mortgages?

On the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, there is no truth in the report that the right hon. Lady mentioned. She asked me to make every effort to ensure that no statement is made on the day the House debates the Bill. As I said this time last week, the House has had a great deal of time, rightly, to discuss this important and controversial Bill. It has been debated for a total of 81 hours on the Floors of both Houses, with 10 sessions in the Lords and, so far, seven in the Commons, and I hope that here will be a further full day of debate. I will seek to ensure that there is no statement that day. Obviously, I will need the flexibility to allow a statement for an urgent reason, but just as it is our intention to avoid making statements on Opposition days, we will try to ensure that we do not have a statement on the day we debate the Bill.

On defence, as the right hon. Lady acknowledged, there is to be a general debate on defence on Thursday week, in which the issues can be fully explored.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of those who need to buy annuities because they are approaching their 75th birthday. I have nothing to add to what I told the House yesterday. As I said then, this issue does affect some people; it is only a small number of people, but it does affect a number of people—[Interruption.] That is not what I said. I said that it is only a small number of people, but it is an issue of concern and it is being considered.

The right hon. Lady asked about the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. On 8 October, the Chancellor repeated what he had said in the summer, after the ombudsman’s report was published: this was an extensive and important report, and that he would make a statement on the Government’s response in the autumn. That remains the case.

Autumn has not finished yet.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Counter-Terrorism Bill and the Home Secretary’s statement to the House after the defeat of the 42-day provision in the House of Lords. Our view was that it was important for the House to hear the Government’s intention as soon as possible, following the defeat of the clause in the House of Lords. If we had waited until the next day, speculation would have run overnight and there would have been a great many speculative news reports; but we thought that the House would need to hear as soon as possible, and therefore the statement was brought before the House. In fact, many Members of the House were present when the Home Secretary made the statement; the Chamber was packed, and it was an extensive statement.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the communications data Bill, which the Home Office proposed and was included in the draft legislative programme. As she will know, instead of simply announcing the Bills for the legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, we have given the public an opportunity to see the Government’s intentions by publishing the draft legislative programme in early summer, enabling people to comment before the Queen’s Speech clarifies the Government’s fixed intention for the legislative programme. The draft communications data Bill was in the draft legislative programme, and a number of issues and concerns have been raised about it.

The Home Secretary has made it clear that at all times on important issues such as these, she wants to listen to people’s concerns, consider them and consult on a wide, bipartisan basis. She has said that instead of pressing forward with legislation in the next Session, she will seek to consult further, including publishing draft clauses or possibly even a draft Bill. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) misunderstands the position: having published the measure in the draft legislative programme, we will undertake further consultation before we introduce the Bill in the House. It sounds as though she would probably welcome that, now that I have had an opportunity to explain the position.

The right hon. Lady talked about anti-corruption. Anti-corruption responsibility runs across a number of Government Departments. At one stage in the past, the lead responsibility was with the Department for International Development; at another stage, it was with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is currently with the Ministry of Justice, but the point is that all Government Departments need to focus on the issue, and indeed they do so. The question of where the lead is is less important; more important is the fact that across government the agenda is delivered, and it certainly will be.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make time available for a full debate in the Chamber on the unfolding catastrophe in Sri Lanka? We had a short debate earlier this week in Westminster Hall, for which I thank Mr. Speaker, but the situation is so serious, with the compulsory withdrawal of aid agencies from the Vanni region and the continued indiscriminate bombing of innocent Tamils, that a number of Members wish to speak on the issue. We need to hear a fuller response from Government—I acknowledge the extra aid that the Government have made available—so a full debate in the Chamber would be appropriate.

I will take my right hon. Friend’s proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate. I considered the forward business as she made that point, and I cannot see an immediate opportunity, as the business stands, for hon. Members to raise the important issue that she brings to the House’s attention, so I will consider it for a topical debate and think further on it.

May I endorse the request from the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), as there was a very large attendance in Westminster Hall, and I am sure that there would be interest across the House among Members from all parties in a substantive debate? Ministers have always been accommodating if the time has been provided.

May I return to matters raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which are of huge significance in relation to Home Office business this week? First, to go back to Monday night, it was unacceptable that an important debate in Government time on democracy and human rights around the world was interrupted by the making of a statement in the middle of it. Why could the statement not have been made at 10 o’clock, as is traditionally the case if an urgent statement is made? We could have had the full debate as planned, and the statement, and everyone would have been alerted in the normal way. [Interruption.] It was indeed about news management, as it was hoped it would be covered by the financial discussions being conducted on Monday, which, as we know, was a difficult but important day financially.

Out of the hat on Monday night the Home Secretary produced the rabbit, the temporary provisions Bill, as her fig leaf to cover her major U-turn. If she is serious about another Bill in the wings, may we have proper pre-legislative scrutiny of it, with the opportunity to take evidence on whether it is needed? We have a provision whereby Special Standing Committees consider a Bill and take evidence. Given the widespread opposition to the Bill—opposition that is massive in the House of Lords, significant in this place and very large in the country—the justification for it has not been made out, and we need to have the debate before the Home Secretary has the Bill ready to introduce.

On the other home affairs matter properly raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, I have read the Home Secretary’s speech from yesterday, including her references to the communications data Bill and I understand the exchange that has just taken place, but to some of us, on the back of the DNA database, the plan for ID cards and the proposal for 42-day detention without charge, the idea of an Orwellian super-database adds the final nail in the coffin, turning us from a people of liberty to a people of suspects—a completely unacceptable proposal.

May we have a debate, therefore, in this place so that we can hear the Home Secretary, the proposal and the representations that she has received and see whether there is any public support for the idea that every phone call we ever make and its location, for example, is kept for the rest of our lives on some great Government system? The Government do not appear to be able to hold the data that they already have, let alone any more.

Tomorrow, we will debate private Members’ Bills: there are 51 on the Order Paper. The Government have always wanted to be helpful and the job of the Leader of the House is to be helpful to private Members. The right hon. and learned Lady may know that in the past six years nine out of 10 Government Bills have received Royal Assent. She may also know that only about one in 10 private Members’ Bills have received Royal Assent. Will she seriously consider ways of giving better opportunity for private Members on her own side and others to get their proposals into legislation, and not hog all the time for Government business?

We look for an assurance today that there will be no Government guillotine or timetable on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that prevents debate on related fertilisation, embryology or abortion if colleagues on either side wish to raise them. May we have an assurance not only that we will have a full day, but that the Government will not seek to manage the business to prevent that debate?

Lastly, we will have a welcome debate next week on the Olympic legacy and building on the Olympic achievement. I invite the Leader of the House to join me and, I am sure, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, on the day when the nation celebrates our fantastic Olympic achievement, in saying that we are hugely proud of our athletes in both games and many of us are greatly excited by the prospect not only of the games in London in four years’ time, but of even better success then.

The Deputy Leader of the House and I will consider what the hon. Gentleman said about private Members’ Bills and see whether we can make more progress.

I take note of the fact that the hon. Gentleman backed up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) about Sri Lanka, and I shall consider that as a request for a topical debate.

Like the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) raised the topic of the statement on 42 days. We wanted to ensure that the House was told first and at the earliest possible opportunity. [Interruption.] I see that the Opposition are now arguing that the statement should have been delayed until 10 o’clock. There are pros and cons to each timing. The most important aspect is the question of substance and the fact that the House was told expeditiously.

The hon. Gentleman asked about pre-legislative scrutiny of the temporary provisions Bill, which is a matter for the Home Affairs Committee. If it wants to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of the provisions and how they would be introduced and what effect they would have, that is a matter for the Committee. Of course, it carried out extensive pre-legislative scrutiny of the 42-day clause in the Counter-Terrorism Bill and took evidence on that.

With reference to the communications data Bill, I cannot say more than what I said to the shadow Leader of the House. There will be further time for consultation. There will be publication, probably of draft clauses, if not of the whole draft Bill. There will be an opportunity for people to look at the objectives that the Bill seeks to achieve and whether the measures appropriately protect personal data and human rights. With all these measures, it should be recognised that as well as protecting personal privacy and confidentiality and human rights, it is important that we are able to help the police investigate and detect crime. The hon. Gentleman complains about the DNA database, but I remember the rape offenders who were brought to justice because DNA data were held on a database.

There have been welcome noises from the Government this week about helping people at work to maintain their jobs. May we have a statement from the Treasury about the decision by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to attack seafarers and mariners under the seafarers’ earnings deduction, which will leave my constituent, Mr. Penny, facing a future in which, he says, the ruling has

“devastated my family life to the verge of collapse, bankruptcy is looming and the only alternative for many UK based mariners will be to leave the Industry or live outside of the UK”?

The decision can be reversed so that people can remain in the industry and not be 25 per cent. worse off in their salaries.

I will raise the matter with Treasury Ministers and ask them to write to my hon. Friend and deal with the point he raises.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the continuing press reports surrounding the relationship between the Secretary of State for Business when he was EU Trade Commissioner and Mr. Oleg Deripaska, who I understand is banned from the United States following an FBI inquiry into his business activities. Given the very serious nature of some of the allegations, may we have a debate next week to try to ascertain the nature of that relationship when the Business Secretary was EU Trade Commissioner, in relation to the ownership dispute within the Russian insurance company Ingosstrakh and the aluminium tariffs situation in Russia?

I do not think that business questions and the privilege that attaches to them should be used by hon. Members to make unjustified smears and allegations.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, in line with usual procedure, when the House considers the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on Wednesday, new clause 1 will be considered first?

In the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill the clauses, new clauses and amendments will be considered in the normal way.

May we please have a statement next week on the intended publication date for the delayed child health strategy and an indication of an early parliamentary opportunity to debate its contents? Given that early intervention and integrated commissioning between health, education and social services are vital to achieving better health outcomes for children, will the right hon. and learned Lady recognise that this important strategy needs to be published sooner rather than later, with explicit and funded commitments to meet the very high expectations that rightly now exist?

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to an important strand of work. As to the timing of the publication of the health strategy for children, I will make inquiries to see whether I can be more specific and inform either him or the House.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware from her constituency both of the considerable distress that is often caused when family members, particularly those coming from the subcontinent, are unable to obtain visas or are refused entry clearance into this country and, therefore, of the importance of the representations that Members of Parliament can make on their behalf. She will also be aware that the realignment of the UK Border Agency and UK visa services has led to a considerable delay and, I understand, a change in how Members’ representations have been treated, so that it is now quite normal to experience delays of six to eight weeks. Will she investigate the matter and ensure that something is done, so that our constituents are not exposed to further distress?

There has been a considerable speeding up of responses to hon. Members in respect of their constituents in recent years. I will certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend raises and invite the Minister with responsibility for immigration to write to him and to place a copy in the Library so that it is available for all Members.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? In line with convention, Back Benchers in all parts of the House and on both sides of the argument have tabled important amendments to the Abortion Act 1967, for debate on the Bill on Report next Wednesday, giving the chance to debate the 1967 Act for only the second time in 40 years. If the new clauses are selected by you, Mr. Speaker, they will fall in the first group. Can the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will not be a Government business motion relegating that group of amendments to a point where there will not be protected time, which would be most unfortunate and undemocratic given the free vote on those matters, and an assurance that they will be reached?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have already had a whole day’s debate on the question of abortion amendments that were raised on the Floor of the House in the summer. When we come back to the House I will seek to protect the time by doing my best to ensure that there are no statements on that day. The Bill will be debated according to the procedures in the normal way.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time, preferably before the autumn statement, to debate the impact of the imposition of the business rate on empty business and commercial property, which is potentially devastating in regeneration areas such as the one that I represent? Indeed, factories and businesses in Sunderland are already demolishing premises rather than pay the tax. The Pallion Engineering company, which is based in an old shipyard in Sunderland, faces an increase from £55,000 to £277,000 in a single leap, which will of course put it out of business and mean that the 200 people working there will lose their jobs.

There is particular concern about business in this difficult economic climate. I will draw the points that my hon. Friend makes to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my right hon. Friends in the Treasury, who will no doubt take them seriously.

Does the right hon. and learned Lady still plan to proceed with her wholly misguided policy of setting up a range of regional Select Committees? If she does, will she publish the relevant Standing Orders way in advance of any debate?

Yes, we are planning to proceed with what the right hon. Gentleman regards as the wholly misguided proposal to set up regional Select Committees. We will publish the Standing Orders in advance, on the basis of his request, so that he and other hon. Members will have an opportunity to scrutinise them in detail. Let me also take this opportunity to inform the House that the Regional Ministers are being brought together today in the Council of Regional Ministers to discuss the economic impact, region by region, of the current economic crisis. When the regional Select Committees are established, they will be able to hold that sort of activity to account better in the House.

The Leader of the House will recall that on 5 July 1991, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was closed. Thousands of people were put out of work and depositors, including the Western Isles in Scotland and Channel 4, lost their money. They were told at that stage that they would not get their money back. Some 84 per cent. of depositors have got their money back, but the liquidation has now been ongoing for 17 years. Could we have a statement from the Government or a debate about what is now the longest insolvency in this country’s history, so that it can be brought to an end as swiftly as possible?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to consider whether the best way to convey the information to my right hon. Friend and other Members who are concerned about the matter is to issue a written ministerial statement or to write to him.

Can we have a debate on fuel pricing in this country? Although there has been a welcome reduction in the petrol and diesel prices charged at the pumps in recent days, many motorists and households remain concerned about the extra costs imposed through the heavy levies of duty on fuel. They are also concerned about the practice of many retailers of operating a differential pricing policy depending on geographical location, so that the same retailer can charge different prices to motorists depending on where they live. That is clearly unfair and discriminatory, particularly to my constituents in Northern Ireland. I would therefore be grateful if we could have a debate to discuss those issues.

At the end of this business statement there will be an oral statement on the subject of energy from the Department for Energy and Climate Change, immediately after which there will be a topical debate on the subject of energy providers, so the hon. Gentleman should have two opportunities to make that point.

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2254, which stands in my name?

[That this House calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to accept the recommendation of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, whose report it has been considering since August 2008, and declare A14 Osteoarthritis of the Knee a prescribed disease in relation to coalmining with an early implementation date, opening the way for this group of mostly elderly sufferers to claim an award of industrial injuries benefit.]

The motion requests a decision from the Department for Work and Pensions in response to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council’s recommendation that osteoarthritis of the knee should be a prescribed disease in relation to coal miners. Will she urge the Department, which has had the IIAC report since August, to make an early decision, because the group of miners affected are quite elderly?

My hon. Friend has an exceptional track record of prompting Government to act swiftly on such matters. I therefore take his point seriously. He is absolutely right: time is not on the side of people who are suffering from such industrial injuries and diseases. I will get on to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Now that the Government have dealt with the issue of toxic assets, is it not about time that we also looked into the issue of the toxic media? Much of the information in the leaks and scoops on our television screens and in our newspapers seems to be helpful to some, but immensely damaging to many of our constituents. Is it not about time that we had a proper look at how such information is obtained and reported?

I am sure that the Treasury Committee, on behalf of the House, will look at all such issues. As my hon. Friend says, it is very important indeed that when public information is given the economic situation is not made worse.

May I raise with the Leader of the House the serious allegations of match fixing and the unusual betting patterns that apparently took place in Asia in relation to the championship match between Norwich City and Derby on 4 October? I am sure that she would agree that such allegations attack the very integrity of sport in this country and must be treated with the utmost seriousness. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport so that we can establish what contact there has been between him and the Football Association and so that we can see what stage the investigation has reached and ensure that it is given the priority that it deserves?

I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether we can have a review of the effectiveness of topical questions? My understanding was that they were supposed to allow Back Benchers in particular to raise questions of importance to them and their constituents. However, there is clear evidence that the spirit and intent of topical questions is now being abused by Front Benchers, who are using them for their own needs. Does she agree that if Opposition Front Benchers want to ask questions, they should go to the Back Benches and take their chances like the rest of us, and also that Government Front-Bench responses should be a bit shorter?

I think that topical questions have been an important innovation. The House will remember that they were introduced for one Session only, so that they could be reviewed at the end of it. The Standing Orders pertaining to topical questions will lapse at the end of this Session, allowing us an opportunity to review them. I think that, by and large, the House has found them very useful in ensuring that the subjects raised at Question Time are more topical. There is also the issue of whether there is sufficient time for Back Benchers, compared with Opposition Front Benchers. Obviously, that is a matter for the Speaker as well as for Opposition Front Benchers.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House next week to make a statement on the behaviour of the nationalised bank, Northern Rock? This would give many Members an opportunity to query why the bank has passed on only one tenth of the reduction in interest rates to its savers, and why some of my constituents have been told by Northern Rock that, when their fixed mortgages come to an end, those mortgages will not continue, because that is what the Government have told the bank to do. That is unacceptable behaviour at a very difficult time. As Northern Rock has been nationalised, it is now the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he should answer these questions.

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well, because the Chancellor has explained it to the House, that there is arm’s length management of Northern Rock. The arrangements for Northern Rock, and what it has been told by the Government, are a matter of public record on which the House has been informed. The right hon. Gentleman knows that individual decisions on lending are made on an application-by-application basis and are not a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Last weekend, a female constituent of mine went to an Oasis concert Birmingham’s national indoor arena. When she returned to where she had left her car, she found that it had been towed away and that she faced a bill of £300. There were no signs to indicate that there were any problems. She was left isolated, vulnerable and stranded in that city. May we have a debate on how we could better regulate these unscrupulous and unspeakable clampers and towers who wreak such havoc on decent people through the activities that they perpetrate? We really cannot have the angst and inconvenience that my constituent experienced last weekend replicated time and again in cities all over the country on frequent occasions.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Whether it is a question of people towing away cars or clamping them, we need to ensure that there are clear and fair rules and reputable operators. Real problems can be caused by cowboys taking liberties in this respect. This matter crosses a number of Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport, as well as the Treasury. I will give some thought to the point that my hon. Friend has made and see how we can take this matter forward.

Yesterday, the Minister for Local Government informed the House of the situation relating to local authorities exposed to the failure of Icelandic banks. In particular, he was able to tell us that some 13 authorities might have short-term difficulties and that the Department for Communities and Local Government was sending a response team of experts into three of them. Last night, the leader of one of those three authorities, which the Minister had felt unable to name—Tamworth borough council—issued a statement saying:

“Tamworth…is not in any immediate financial difficulty and its budgets will remain unchanged. There is no threat to services…I am shocked at hearing an emergency team is being sent to us. We neither asked for nor need one.”

Against that background, will the Leader of the House ask a Minister from that Department to come urgently to the House to clarify exactly what is the basis of the Government’s intervention with these local authorities, on what criteria they were selected, which are the local authorities concerned, and which other institutions, such as regional development associations and housing associations, might also be affected? Drip-feeding only causes speculation, and the suggestion that the Government might be seeking to move attention away from themselves to the councils.

Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government have given information to the House during the course of the debate. There has also been a written ministerial statement. Response teams, which are the joint responsibility of the Department and the Local Government Association, will be sent to the authorities that request help. They will not be sent to those authorities that do not do so. I am sure that all the constituents of Tamworth will be reassured that their funds are safe.

It is two and a half years since the House had the opportunity to debate in Government time the Government’s policies for disabled people. I raised this matter with the right hon. and learned Lady on 1 May, and she very kindly said that she would consider my request and see whether there was an opportunity to debate the matter in the House. Can she tell us, five and a half months later, whether she has been able to give any consideration to the matter and when the House might be able to have a debate on the Government’s policies for disabled people?

Certainly I will consider that as a suggestion for a topical debate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome and engage in the discussion on the Equality Bill, which seeks to give stronger rights and greater opportunities for people with disabilities.

Recent weeks have shown the importance of regulation. May I partly echo the words of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds)? We must have a debate on fuel prices, but may we also have a debate on the contracts between fuel distributors and the oil companies and refineries? Can we look in particular at whether there is adequate funding for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate and regulate those contracts, some of which may be contributing to the slow fall in fuel prices at the pumps?

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to ask those questions in respect of the oral statement and to contribute to the topical debate on energy later this afternoon.

The Government are spending £16,000 for each and every taxpayer on bailing out and funding banks, based on an ill-thought-out and seriously flawed plan. This affects everyone in the country. Is not it extraordinary that we have had no full-day debate on a substantive motion on this matter? Is it not the duty of the Leader of the House to provide such a debate, so that she can test the opinion of Parliament?

The Prime Minister will make a statement next week, following the European Council. Economic issues will no doubt be at the heart of that. The Chancellor made a statement on Monday of this week. The Government have been concerned to ensure that information is being brought to the House, and that the House has an opportunity to hold the Government to account. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about spending in respect of each taxpayer, he will know that the Government needed to act to stabilise the financial situation and that that was necessary action. He does not need to rely on my word for that. Perhaps he will take the word of the Nobel prize winner for economics, Paul Krugman, who said:

“Luckily for the world economy…Gordon Brown and his officials are making sense. And they may have shown us the way through this crisis…The British Government went straight to the heart of the problem—and moved to address it with stunning speed”.

On protection for taxpayers, I should like to refer the hon. Gentleman to the words of Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of the high street store Next, who said that this was

“a very good plan and will probably make money for taxpayers”.

That certainly should not worry people. We undertake to keep the House informed.

Next week, communities across the south of Scotland will learn the fate of their local post offices. Frankly, few people are holding their breath. Confidence in the network as a whole is at rock bottom because nobody knows the fate of the Post Office card account. There are rumours swirling around that it might be given to PayPoint or awarded jointly, each of which would undermine the network. Given the seriousness of the situation, will the Leader of the House urge her colleagues to make an announcement as early as possible, and allow a debate in the House on the matter?

As I have told the House on previous occasions, the contract for the Post Office card account is subject to the procurement processes, and when a decision is reached, I am sure that the House will be informed.

For many years now, my constituents have been sending treats to our troops who are serving around the world on our behalf. Last week, they were dismayed to see press reports telling them not to send parcels to our troops, who are so bravely looking after us, and saying that only family members can send treats to the troops. May we have a statement from the relevant Minister to tell us why, in the 21st century, we cannot send parcels to our troops?

I am sure that the question of public and family support for our troops will be at the heart of the defence debate that I announced in my statement under forthcoming business.

Can we have a statement on the impact of inflation on pensioners? In particular, can the Leader of the House confirm that the state pension rise next April will be at least as high as the 5 per cent. retail prices index rise announced on Monday?

There will be an uprating statement from the Department for Work and Pensions shortly. Pensions and benefits will be uprated in the normal way. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the increase in winter fuel payments and the efforts to ensure that the decrease in wholesale energy costs are passed through to domestic consumers and households.

Can we have a debate next week on access to mortgages? I have been approached by mortgage brokers in Banbury who told me:

“Lenders have again put up their rates despite the Bank of England reducing rates last week. They have also reduced the loan to value ratios and we are seeing properties being dramatically down valued to such an extent that it is impossible for people to remortgage when their fixed rates end. We were under the impression that tax payers money being given to these banks was on condition that lenders…began lending at 2007 levels. This is not happening… the situation has worsened to such an extent that we are virtually unable to help any of our clients”.

If the mortgage market does not get going again, there is no hope for the housing market doing the same. May we have a debate some time soon—hopefully next week—on access to mortgages?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. If the Government are in a position next week to make further information available about access to mortgages, a statement will be made.

I declare an interest as a member of the national council of the Royal National Lifeboats Institution.

May we have a statement or a short debate on Ofcom’s proposals for changes to the charging regime for maritime radio users? Those proposed changes will see many voluntary organisations such as the RNLI paying massively increased fees. The Leader of the House must be aware that the RNLI is funded entirely by voluntary contributions and that it provides a crucial service. Frankly, the Government and Government bodies such as Ofcom should be grateful for the provision of those services rather than see them as a cash cow for more income.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the RNLI and I will raise his point with the relevant Ministers and ask them to write to him.

One of the very few things that I have in common politically with the Leader of the House is that we both represent inner London seats. She will be aware that, notionally, our local police force, the Metropolitan police, is run by the Home Secretary. In view of the tumultuous and turbulent events within that organisation during recent weeks, does the right hon. and learned Lady feel that it is time either for the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House or for us to have a debate in Government time on the future strategy for the Metropolitan police?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the process is under way for the recruitment of a new Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Speaking for my own constituency, I pay tribute to the work that continues to be done—day in, day out; week in, week out—by the Metropolitan police in all the boroughs of London.

All through the recess, I wrote to many of my constituents who contacted me saying that I was absolutely sure that Ministers would want to make two statements within the first week or so of our return—one on the Government scheme for insulating homes, which will be of very little benefit to many of my constituents who have stone houses and no cavity walls, and a second one on the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. We have not seen either of those statements yet. Earlier, the Leader of the House rather airily said something about autumn, but will she further define what part of autumn she has in mind and when she believes autumn finishes?

As far as Equitable Life is concerned, I have nothing to add to what the Chancellor told the House on 8 October. As far as insulation and energy conservation are concerned, the hon. Gentleman will see that the Ministers from the Department of Energy and Climate Change are in their places to make a statement and take part in a debate.

Can we have a debate on the Government’s pharmacy White Paper, and particularly the proposals to restrict some GP practices on dispensing prescription drugs—changes that, if implemented, would result in my constituents in Hanslope having to travel some 10 miles just to collect their prescriptions? Is that really a sensible move for some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

In respect of pharmacy issues in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I suggest that he should either write to the relevant Secretary of State or seek a meeting.

Can we have a debate in Government time on parental neglect and binge drinking among schoolchildren? Last year, 250 people were so incapacitated from being drunk that they were admitted to Kettering general hospital, and one fifth of them were children under the age of 16.

We have had a topical debate on excessive drinking, particularly by under-aged children. The hon. Gentleman will know that work is going on across Departments on this issue, which is of concern throughout the country. I will consider how best to find an opportunity for the House to debate it further.

Can we have a debate on issues arising from the extradition of my constituent Gary McKinnon, confirmed this week by the Home Secretary? The Leader of the House will recall the debate regarding the NatWest three, when the Government gave assurances that they would take steps to seek bail. Can at least similar efforts be made on behalf of my constituent, who is a vulnerable young man of little means who was, significantly, recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome?

The best thing would probably be for me to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman after business questions, so that he can tell me the details of the case. I can then work out how to assist him further and raise the matter with the relevant Department. I always call the NatWest three the Enron three.

Can I reiterate the call of many hon. Members for an early statement on Equitable Life? If the Leader of the House continues her unacceptable stonewalling on the subject, can I ask her for a debate on the role of the parliamentary ombudsman? It is unacceptable to many people that the Government can ride roughshod over the ombudsman’s rulings.

The Government are not riding roughshod over the ombudsman’s ruling. The ombudsman produced a substantial report, which required considerable reflection from the Government. We have kept the House updated on how we intend to deal with the matter. The Chancellor said last week that he intends to make a statement on our response to the ombudsman’s Equitable Life report this autumn.