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Business of the House

Volume 481: debated on Thursday 30 October 2008

I welcome back the Leader of the House; we are very pleased that she has made a full recovery. Will she give us the forthcoming business?

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 3 November—Remaining stages of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 4 November—Remaining stages of the Employment Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 5 November—General debate on work and welfare.

Thursday 6 November—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by general debate on public engagement in fighting crime.

The provisional business for the week commencing 10 November will include:

Monday 10 November—Opposition day [20th allotted day]. There will be a debate on a Liberal Democrat motion. Subject to announced.

Tuesday 11 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by general debate: subject to be announced.

Wednesday 12 November—Motions relating to House of Commons business.

Thursday 13 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by general debate: subject to be announced.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 13 November will be:

Thursday 13 November—A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on harmful content on the internet and in video games.

Earlier this month the shadow Justice Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), tabled a written question to the Ministry of Justice on rates of reoffending by prisoners on early release. By 10.30 pm on Monday, he had not received an answer, yet that night the Daily Mirror was going to press with details of the answer. Answers to written questions should surely be given to Members before they go to the press, so what action is the Leader of the House taking to ensure that Ministers follow that rule, respect Parliament and do not leak answers to the press for their own political convenience?

The Leader of the House has just announced a debate on work and welfare, which follows our Opposition day debate on unemployment. On Monday, the House of Lords will hold a general debate on the economy. When will we have a full debate in this House, in Government time, on the state of the economy? Apart from other things, that would give Members an opportunity to debate the Chancellor’s Mais lecture, which was described in The Times as being

“as striking for its lack of introspection as for its vagueness in indicating a way forward. The Government has repeatedly proclaimed an end to boom and bust, yet has produced both.”

We need a debate.

Continuing on the state of the economy, it is reported today that one in 10 small businesses are in danger of going under. Members need to be able to hold Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to account in this House, but the Secretary of State sits in the House of Lords and there is no Minister in this House at Cabinet level. What is more, there is only one Minister in this House dedicated solely to the Department. At this time, when even the Government have admitted that we are heading into a recession, that is simply not good enough. The Select Committee on Business and Enterprise is rightly concerned by that unprecedented lack of accountability, so may we have an urgent statement from the Leader of the House explaining what action she will take to ensure that there is proper accountability by that Department to this House?

May we have a debate on the BBC? There is public outrage at the behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, yet for several days the BBC seemed like a rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to act. We need a debate on the BBC’s handling of the incident, because licence fee payers have a right to know what went wrong and how similar incidents will be avoided in future.

On 7 February, the House agreed a Conservative resolution that the European Scrutiny Committee should meet in public, but I understand that it has been holding the majority of meetings in private, that members of the public have effectively been prevented from attending and that the Committee has now decided to ask the Leader of the House to let it meet in private in future. It is an important Committee and should be open to the public, so may we have a statement from her on why it appears to have been flouting the will of the House?

There are reports that the Cabinet is divided over a third runway at Heathrow. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Lady herself is reported as questioning the Government’s decision for a third runway. Our policy is clear: no to a third runway and yes to a high-speed rail link. Today it is reported that the Government are adopting our policy on high-speed rail. May we have a debate on Heathrow, so that we can find out whether the Government are going to make a U-turn and adopt our policy on a third runway as well?

Finally, two weeks ago the Leader of the House promised a statement on Equitable Life in the autumn. The clocks have changed and London has had its first snowfall. Does she still think that it is autumn, or will she now give us a date for a statement on Equitable Life?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her best wishes to me as I was off with flu last week. I have to confess that I was apprehensive that my failing to reply to business questions might cause alarm and despondency among all parties. However, I was able to watch a few moments on television last week and detected that that was far from the case, and that the House felt it was in very safe hands being looked after by my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I thank him for looking after the shop while I was away.

I agree with the right hon. Lady’s proposition that written answers should go to the Members concerned before they are given to the press. I shall look into that point and write to her about it, because the issue is a serious one. A Department has to be sure that its answer, which it is free to give to the press, has first reached the Member directly; the Member should not see it in a newspaper first.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the economic situation. Whether in statements from the Treasury or from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, in answers at Prime Minister’s questions, in answers at Treasury questions this morning or in debates such as this afternoon’s topical debate on businesses and the regions or last week’s topical debate on skills and employment, the economy is before the House for debate and discussion, and Ministers are being held accountable at all times, and rightly so.

The right hon. Lady will know that that the director-general of the BBC is today meeting its board of trustees, who represent the interests of licence holders.

In its procedures, the European Scrutiny Committee follows the resolutions passed by this House. There is no question of that Committee flouting the will of the House, because it is not in a position to do so: it has to comply with the Standing Orders at all times. Indeed, those Standing Orders were introduced for a temporary period and will come back to the House to be renewed, re-debated and discussed on 12 November, as I announced, so the right hon. Lady, like all hon. Members, will have an opportunity to make further points then.

The Government’s position on Heathrow is that London has fewer runways than other European capitals. In principle, we are in favour of an additional runway at Heathrow, but we have always said that this was subject to environmental concerns, in particular, and to extensive consultation and the gathering of scientific and other evidence. This is being considered by the Secretary of State for Transport.

As for the investment in rail infrastructure being the Conservative party’s idea, that is a laugh. When we took over, the infrastructure—the network, the stations and the rolling stock—was in a state of disrepair and investment was lacking. We have invested in our national infrastructure. That has been part of our investment in this country while the sun shines, and we will not cut that investment. We will continue it, because it is important to the economy.

The right hon. Lady also asked about Equitable Life. I have given her an answer to the question about the Government’s accountability to the House on all economic issues and the opportunities for this House to debate them. She will remember that the Equitable Life issue arose out of a structure that the company adopted in the 1970s. In the 1990s, that structure meant that a problem surfaced: Equitable Life was not able to meet its obligations to its policyholders. The parliamentary ombudsman spent four years investigating the background to this matter, and produced a weighty report this summer. After four years of investigation into a very complex issue, it is right that the Government should consider the matter seriously and should have the time to do so. As I said, the report will be given to the House this autumn by the Chancellor; he will give his decision to the House. Incidentally, the parliamentary ombudsman is giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee this morning.

As a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since its creation, I have long been disappointed that we devote relatively little time to matters of food and diet. This is against a backdrop of an increase in obesity and diet-related diseases, particularly among younger people, which is linked to foods that have high salt, sugar and fat content. Will the Leader of the House say whether time could be allocated to debate the Food Standards Agency report on food labelling, which considers some of the options that exist, such as guideline daily amounts and traffic-light systems, so that we can get the retail industry behind whatever the chosen best option is and start to tackle some of the health and social problems that we face?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about a what is a major public health issue not only for DEFRA but for the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The latter is especially concerned about child health and what happens in schools. Labelling also raises questions about information for consumers, especially parents. I shall therefore consider whether we can have further opportunities to debate the matter, possibly in a topical debate.

I too welcome the Leader back and hope that she makes a full recovery soon.

I join the Conservative shadow Leader of the House in requesting full-day debates in Government time on the economy and on Heathrow. On the latter, there does not appear to be unanimity in the Government, so there must be some hope that we can change their mind.

Last week, protests were held, yet again, over the short period allowed for the Report stage of Bills. Today the Government announced two Bills returning to the House on Report and Third Reading next week. I bring to the Leader’s attention—I do not know whether she was here at the time—the fact that a further two Bills were not given enough time for debate on Report. At the last minute, the Government tabled loads of their own amendments to the Local Transport Bill. There were nine groups of amendments, but we reached only three, and issues such as bridge tolls, road charging and local transport plans were not properly discussed.

The same happened with the Climate Change Bill—we did not discuss 2020 targets, charges on carrier bags or refundable deposits on recyclable containers. Please will the Leader do what she led us to believe she would do and ensure that we have a timetable that allows Labour Members and Opposition Members the chance to debate all the issues on Report?

For the week after next, the Leader has announced, cryptically, a debate on the business of the House, by which we understand that we will have a debate on the Government’s wish to set up Select Committees for the English regions—

Given the controversial nature of the proposal, and the fact that it got through Committee only by a majority of one and with a lot of good luck—

Indeed. And given that on Tuesday night, as the Deputy Leader knows, real concern was expressed on both sides of the House about the number of Members available to serve on Select Committees, may we, before Christmas, have a debate on Select Committees and their numbers before we set up the new Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, which we have agreed on, and before debating any regional Select Committees for England? It is a nonsense to try to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. The Government might be wise to back off and think again.

As we all know, next Tuesday sees the United States election. The Liberal Democrats look forward unanimously to the election of Senator Obama as the next American President, and hope that he will be a beacon of light and hope in a very gloomy and threatening world. May we have a debate as soon as is practical after Tuesday on the effect of the American presidential election on worldwide issues? It is the most important election outside this country to people here, and I hope that we can have an early debate on its foreign policy implications.

Next Thursday sees the important by-election in Glenrothes. I do not know whether the Leader has had a chance to visit it and the surrounding villages—

The Leader might, or might not, know that rail fares in Fife are greater, mile per mile, than anywhere else in Scotland. May we have a debate on the rail pricing structure across the UK? If we want to encourage people to use public transport, it is no use their discovering that it is far more expensive in some parts of the country than in others.

Lastly, there is great concern about the effect of the recession on small businesses. We have waited six months since the tenders for the Post Office card account went in. May we therefore have a debate, before the decision is made, about the implications for the future of thousands of post offices if the card account contract does not go to the Post Office? That would allow us to express our hope that the Government will see sense and keep the remaining post offices viable rather than threatening them with another potential death blow.

The hon. Gentleman asked for further debate on the economy and on Heathrow. Of course, his party has an Opposition day the week after next, so he could consider those as topics for debate on that day.

The hon. Gentleman talked about allowing adequate time for the scrutiny of Government business, and mentioned in particular the Climate Change Bill and the Local Transport Bill. We must ensure that at all stages legislation is properly scrutinised and that we bring as many Bills forward as possible in draft form so that before they are even introduced formally into this House there is proper pre-legislative scrutiny. That has assisted greatly in the scrutiny that the House gives to legislation. That was the case with the Climate Change Bill. In addition to Second Reading, it is important that there is full scrutiny in Committee and on Report. It is also important that we have post-legislative scrutiny. It is not just about what we say about the intentions of a Bill: we should look back and see whether what was said in the House by Government or Opposition Members about our aspirations for the legislation was borne out in practice. We need to ensure that across the piece there is proper scrutiny at all stages and we seek to do that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the business of the House that will come before the House on the 12 November and raised the issue of regional Select Committees. I would have thought that he would want better scrutiny of important activity in the regions. Billions of pounds are being spent by regional health authorities, regional development agencies and highway authorities, and that profoundly affects individual regions. Surely it is right that there is accountability to the House when millions of pounds of public money are involved. However, I do not want to pre-empt the debate, which is recognised to be controversial. We will try to ensure that we place the resolutions before the House as early as possible so that Members have a chance to look at them before they come steaming in to disagree with regional accountability. How many Members will sit on the Committees will obviously come within the scope of the resolutions relating to regional Committees.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the United States election. Foreign Office questions are a week on Tuesday, but I want to highlight one point about that election. It looks set to have very high turnout involving people who have previously not necessarily voted. They have registered to vote and then gone out to vote. We should all be preoccupied with tackling the lack of registration in the UK, particularly in inner- city areas and among poorer people, and with tackling low voting turnout. If we can learn anything from the American elections about getting more people—and particularly more young people—to vote, we should try to do so.

The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to discover that I shall be going to Glenrothes on Tuesday.

On the Post Office card account, the hon. Gentleman asked for a debate in order to affect the Government’s decision. The post office network is important, and the card account is important for the post office network. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Post Office is on record as having said that it has put in a strong bid for the contract, but he will also know that there are legal structures for such a public procurement exercise. Asking for the views of the House as a way of contributing to that public procurement process cannot be done. The decision is subject to the legal process at the moment, and when it has been made it will be brought to the House.

May I ask about a rather sensitive and no doubt controversial matter? Could Government time be provided for a debate on assisted suicide in some cases of terminal illness? Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that such a debate in the House would be well timed, whichever line we took? The House of Lords debated the subject some two years ago and we should reflect our point of view as soon as possible, so I hope that debating time can be provided.

The Government have published our pre-legislative programme in advance of the Queen’s Speech to give people the opportunity to propose a bit of legislation, if they think it needs to be included in the programme. Of course, from time to time there are Bills whose long title allows such a provision to be brought forward through a Back-Bench amendment. My hon. Friend will know that the case that has been before the courts, in which a judgment was issued this week, is subject to appeal. There will be further judicial consideration of the subject. The situation under the criminal law is certainly unusual. The criminal offence of assisting somebody’s suicide is unique as it is the only part of the criminal law where it is an offence to assist the commission of something that is itself not an offence. I know that there is concern about the subject, and we will no doubt have a further legal ruling.

In the reassuring, avuncular presence of the Leader of the House’s right hon. and eternal Friend the Deputy Chief Whip, will she have some conversations with those who arrange the business of this House to try to give real priority to the issues that concern our electorates? They expect us to debate foreign affairs; they expect us to debate the economic situation; they do not expect us to waste time on the ridiculous and stupid idea of regional Select Committees that we do not have sufficient Members to man adequately.

We do find time to debate the important issues of foreign affairs and the economic situation. That is one of the issues that we have chosen for weekly topical debates. I do not think that properly holding to account the agencies that implement public policy in the regions is a waste of time, but the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his views known when the resolutions are brought before the House.

At the end of next month, the ballot papers will go out to every household in Greater Manchester for the referendum on the future of public transport in the region. The proposals include an element of peak period congestion charging. As we have been reminded, in our discussions on the Local Transport Bill on Monday we were not able to consider the amendments on road pricing. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on road pricing and congestion charging so that we can have the opportunity to see how those policies fit in with the policies agreed in the Climate Change Bill on Tuesday, which set stringent targets for emission reductions? It would offer a chance for those who supported the Climate Change Bill but who oppose road pricing to justify their position.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The provision for local people to choose a congestion charge was enabled in the Local Transport Bill not only to allow people to tackle congestion, which can be a big drag on businesses and can hold back economic growth in particular cities, but to enable cities to contribute to reduced carbon emissions. That provision has now been included in the Bill, so once the Bill becomes law it will obviously become a matter for local decision making.

May I preface my question with a comment? The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to the workings of the European Scrutiny Committee. As a member of that Committee, I can say that it has never met in private, except under the conditions debated and set by the House.

The Government stated that they are looking to bring forward capital schemes. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on whether such schemes as the Kingskerswell bypass will be considered for early construction?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making it absolutely clear that the shadow Leader of the House was completely wrong to say that the European Scrutiny Committee had flouted the rules of the House. She owes an apology to the Chair of the Committee, who would not think it his business to flout the rules of the House when chairing the Committee, and to the Clerks of the Committee. Even if the Chair did decide to flout the rules of the House, they would play no part in that. She owes all the members and Clerks of the Committee, and its Chair, an apology. Apologies appear to be the order of the day in the Conservative party. Let us see whether she can join the shadow Chancellor in making an apology.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) made an important point about bringing forward capital schemes, and all Members will be concerned to identify capital schemes that could be brought forward in their local area. We firmly believe that it is not the right time to cut public investment, because such investment helps the economy to grow, and because we do not want to do anything that takes money out of the economy at a time when it needs the stability of continued public investment. This is yet another issue on which the official Opposition simply cannot make up their mind.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate, or at least a statement, on the situation facing the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The war there has cost more than 5 million lives in the past decade. Fighting has broken out again in the east, and although there appears to be some kind of temporary ceasefire, we need a statement from the Government on what they are doing to ensure that the ceasefire holds, and that further aid flows. A terrible plight of starvation and homelessness faces refugees in the east, and as much as possible must be done to help them through this dreadful crisis.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is great apprehension and foreboding about the unravelling of the situation, and an absolute determination that the international community should not, as has happened in the past, fail people in central Africa when such situations emerge. I have said that the House needs an opportunity to discuss economic issues and the economy of this country, and I will take his question as a suggestion for the next topical debate.

While the economic crisis and the credit crunch have dominated the attention of Members and the country—I believe that a full, two-day debate on the economy should be held—should we forget the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe? Despite the intervention of ex-President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and the Southern African Development Community, ex-President Mugabe still clings to power. Is it not time for a full-day debate on the subject? It is our duty to represent the interests of the people of Zimbabwe, as we brought about Mr. Mugabe’s emergence as President, so we should discuss the issue and perhaps indicate what action should be taken.

The people of Zimbabwe expressed their view in the election in March. Hon. Members on both sides of the House—the hon. Gentleman is not least among them—are concerned that the will of the people of Zimbabwe should be reflected in the governance of their country. We have sought opportunities for the House to debate the issue. We had a topical debate and a written ministerial statement from the Foreign Secretary on the subject in July. Oral statements were made on 12 and 15 September, and the Lords Foreign Office Minister met the all-party group on Zimbabwe on 7 October. There will be oral questions to the Foreign Secretary the week after next, and the issue can be raised again then. We remain deeply concerned; there is intense Government action and international action. The situation is far from resolved.

May I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the need to give a more reasonable amount of time to the Report stage of major Bills? It is not as though we are short of time in this House; it is currently sitting for less time than it has done for as long as anybody can remember.

As regards the eastern Congo, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House suggested, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), that the matter be the subject of a topical debate. We need a statement from the Foreign Secretary on what this country can do to assist in averting the catastrophe, which is one of the greatest of recent times; 3 million to 4 million people have died in the Congo in the past 10 or 15 years. I appreciate that our influence is limited, but we really need to hear from the Foreign Office about what we can do, in co-operation with the EU and the UN, to help alleviate that catastrophe.

My hon. Friend reinforces points made by other hon. Members about the need for adequate time, and we are well aware of those points. We need to get Government business through, to have it properly scrutinised, and adequate time to discuss amendments and new clauses tabled by Back Benchers on both sides of the House on Report.

In relation to the Congo, I will have a discussion with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on how best to make sure that the House is kept up to date and has an opportunity to make its view known, through a statement, a topical debate or some other means.

I echo those calls for a debate about the Congo. Ban Ki-moon said that the violence overnight, reported this morning, is in danger of creating a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions. The UN forces are undermanned, and they call for further reinforcements. What can the Government do to provide those reinforcements?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s question as reinforcing the point that the House wants to hear from the Foreign Secretary on the issue; I take that point.

May I endorse all the comments on the appalling situation in the Congo, which I visited with other Members?

Moving on, in this anniversary year of women’s suffrage, may I urge my right hon. and learned Friend, in her capacity as Leader of the House, to do everything in her power to promote the wonderful new exhibition on suffrage that has just been set up by the Admission Order Office? It includes the scarf that Emily Wilding Davison was wearing when she fell under a horse at the Derby, a medal of Emmeline Pankhurst and a picture by Sylvia Pankhurst. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all she can to promote the exhibition, and ensure that the tour guides show the exhibition to our schoolchildren and other parties when they visit and tour the House?

My hon. Friend has made the point extremely well, and I thank her for doing so. We still have further to go; although woman have the vote, there is still unequal representation of women.

That is right; Mr. Speaker, you are holding a Speaker’s Conference on how we can tackle the issue of the under-representation of women and minority ethnic groups in the House of Commons, which should reflect the country as a whole. I looked at the figures just this morning. It is wrong that only 27 per cent.—fewer than one in three—of Labour Members of Parliament are women. However, it is absolutely shameful that only 9 per cent.—fewer than one in 10—of Conservative MPs are women. We all have a long way to go, but some have a great deal further to go than others.

May I ask the Leader of the House to give the House time to debate the Government’s decision to prop up the housing market through its housing clearance policy? The policy will cost several hundred million pounds, and much of that will come from other pots of money, including those set aside for small businesses. Given that £13 million went to one private developer this month, we should scrutinise the issue at the highest level.

I thank the hon. Lady, who is among the one in 10 to whom I referred, for making that point. Obviously, the issue of the housing market and house building is of concern. It was raised in questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government and in Treasury questions, and it was raised with the Prime Minister. We firmly believe that it is an issue on which the Government should act and that there should not be a laissez-faire attitude in the market. Public investment and public regulation of the mortgage markets have a role to play. I hope that the Conservatives will support us as we try to make progress on the issue.

Last weekend, along with local ward councillors, I went to the Burton upon Stather village post office where I met Hilary Baker who runs the branch, and she presented us with yet more Post Office card account postcards, which all hon. Members will have seen plenty of. I asked for a statement on this issue at the last business questions before the summer recess and we are now some months down the line. I understand the point about not having a debate while the tendering is going on, but I do not mind being on the record as supporting the Post Office card account going to the Post Office, and I hope that we can have a statement next week that at least tells us when the contract will be awarded.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs is present to hear that point, but I do not think that any of us are in any doubt about the importance of the post office network and the Post Office card account contract.

Will the Leader of the House be more specific about when we will hear from the Government on Equitable Life? She said autumn, but the temperature outside tells us that winter is not far away. Given that dozens of people in East Dunbartonshire and across the rest of the country have been waiting eight years for redress, and that the Government have had the ombudsman’s report for four months, surely it is now time that we found out what action the Government intend to take to make redress to the many people who have suffered because of Equitable Life.

The parliamentary ombudsman took four years to construct her report and, as the hon. Lady said, the Government have been considering it for four months. It is an important issue and we will give our response shortly.

This week, Sense, the deafblind charity, lobbied Parliament and drew Members’ attention to potential discrimination in the way in which the travel concessions are being applied, in particular, that some people with disabilities who are entitled to a free travel concession are unable to make use of it because their carer, who is necessary for them to get around, is not eligible for the concession. Will the Leader of the House consider ways in which this potential discrimination within the travel concession system can be debated in the House?

I will bring that important point to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Transport. It is one reason why, in the equality Bill that will be in the next Queen’s Speech, we will be strengthening the duties and obligations on public authorities, including those involved with travel, to ensure that all public services are properly available to members of the public with disabilities.

May we have a debate next week entitled “The Prime Minister’s responsibility for the UK’s recession”? That would enable us to point out, among other things, that his often-repeated boast that he had abolished boom and bust was not only economically illiterate and also untrue, it encouraged many people who should have known better to embark on excessive borrowing and lending, and to that extent he has personally aggravated the situation. It is quite wrong that a man whose judgment has proved so poor should now be in charge of policy making.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister himself at Prime Minister’s questions every Wednesday when he answers on such issues to the House. It is thanks to his time in office as Chancellor that we have had investment in hospitals and schools. Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman like to say which hospitals in his constituency he would rather not have had the investment in? Would he like to say which schools in his constituency he would rather not have had the investment in? Would he like to decry the fact that there are more home owners in his constituency than there were when the Conservative party was in government? This is clearly an economic crisis whose origins are international, and we are fortunate to have a Prime Minister who has not only strengthened our economy but can help to sort out the world economic problems.

I should like to associate myself with the remarks made earlier about having a longer parliamentary year so that we can have proper scrutiny on Report, with two days if necessary.

May we have a debate on the functioning or non-functioning of the parliamentary ombudsman’s office? It is reprehensible that it took her four years to produce a report on Equitable Life, and meanwhile pensioners are dying. I have a constituent, Mr. X, who was told by her office that it would take more than six months to make a preliminary decision as to whether his case would be investigated, although she rowed back on that after I complained. We either have an incompetent ombudsman or one who does not have sufficient resources, and the House should debate the matter sooner rather than later.

The parliamentary ombudsman is giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee this morning, and we will be able to see from the report of those proceedings whether the important points made by my hon. Friend were addressed by her.

Further to the right hon. and learned Lady’s earlier reply, I hope that she will be supporting all those excellent women Conservative candidates who hope to unseat her male colleagues, which would improve the percentage that she criticised.

Last year, the pre-Budget report was in the first half of October. This year it is even more important that the House and country know how much the Government plan to borrow, spend and tax, so will the right hon. and learned Lady now give us the date of the pre-Budget report?

I will announce the pre-Budget report in the usual way as part of the following and the subsequent weeks’ business.

It is important that we have women Members of Parliament who support women in the country, not women such as the shadow Leader of the House who, having been elected to Parliament, then voted against the national minimum wage, which was the most important measure for women’s income.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that many millions of households are very worried about high energy costs, particularly with winter coming. She will also be aware that the Prime Minister has called on the oil companies to pass on the falls in crude oil prices to their customers as quickly as possible. Many people in rural areas are dependent upon liquefied petroleum gas and domestic heating oil, which are linked directly to the price of crude oil. Yet my constituents have recently received a letter from a major supplier of LPG, Flogas, informing them that the price will not be going down but up. Moreover, one neighbour received a letter from Flogas saying that his price was going up 5p, but for his neighbour the increase was 3p. May we have a debate on competition and transparency in the LPG and heating oil market in rural areas as it is clearly needed urgently?

Those are matters of real concern. We need to maintain the supply of oil internationally and to ensure that it is competitive and well regulated. When there is a fall in the price of a barrel oil, we must ensure that it is passed on to the consumer. My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I will raise with my Government colleagues and make sure that they write to him to tell him what action is being taken.

Earlier this year, the Leader of the House made a decisive intervention on the question of the confidentiality of Members’ home addresses. Will she consider doing the same thing again in the light of the fact that the Ministry of Justice is considering whether in future candidates’ addresses at general elections must be revealed when they nominate themselves and on various documents later? The guidance from the Information Commissioner in such situations is usually that the first part of the postcode is enough. Bearing in mind that the reason the judges made their dangerous decision early this year to allow home addresses to be revealed was the fact that they are revealed every four or five years in general elections, may we now consider closing this loophole?

This matter is under consideration by the Ministry of Justice and I know that it found the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions extremely helpful. He takes a thoughtful approach to this. It is obviously in the public interest for the public to know when they come to vote in an election whether a candidate lives in their area or miles away, but whether the precise address, including the flat number in a block in a particular street, should be given is questionable. We need to ensure that the public have the information that they need and the MPs, candidates and their families have the privacy that they need. I am sure that hon. Members can work together to sort this out.

The shorter daylight hours concentrate our minds still further on the energy challenges—electricity capacity, in particular—that we face as a country. May we have a debate on the need to extend the existing life of currently generating power stations, so that we can meet short-term and medium-term demand while new technologies and stations are being considered and developed?

In an extremely brief intervention, my hon. Friend has made a profound and important point, which relates to one of the reasons why we created the new Department of Energy and Climate Change and to one of the issues that it is addressing. I know that my hon. Friend will play an important part in the new Department’s deliberations.

May we have a debate on what I can only call bogus land banks? An internet site is offering 209 so-called building plots in my constituency for up to £18,000 a time in the village of Dean, which comprises about 30 houses. The plots are on agricultural land that will never, ever have planning permission for such development.

I do not think that the offer is illegal at the moment, but it is undoubtedly a scam. May we have a debate on how we can better protect the potential purchasers, who often will not be in this country, but are expatriates hoping to come home and retire in a house in beautiful rural Somerset? They may find that they have actually bought a field.

If people are offering for sale as building development sites areas of land that are no such thing, that could be fraud. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks a meeting with the Serious Fraud Office about whether criminality is involved. I shall bring the issue to the attention of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

May we have a statement on how aspects of sharia law are being introduced pre-trial in some civil courts? Those are profound changes with enormous implications. Many of our constituents find it absolutely extraordinary that this is happening without any parliamentary scrutiny at all.

Sharia law is not being introduced into our civil courts or any other part of our justice system. If agreement in respect of sharia has been reached, there is sometimes provision for that to be endorsed by the courts. However, that is subject to the agreement not trespassing on the public policy principles of fairness. There is no question that any other legal principles will compromise our own justice principles. If the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have been reading the newspapers or inadvertently listening to him, he can reassure them that they do not have as much to worry about as they thought.

As this is international brain tumour awareness week, may we have a debate as soon as possible on the issue of brain tumours, in Government time and on the Floor of the House? Given that brain tumours can attack anyone, that their causes are unknown, that screening is unrealistic, that prevention is impossible but that treatment is improving, will the Leader of the House accept that we need to debate the case for more research, more access to cutting-edge therapies, more clinical trials and more support for families at the earliest opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman might draw that issue to the attention of the Health Committee. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to write to me about what is being done in all parts of the country to improve the treatment of brain tumours once they have been diagnosed. I shall ask him to send a copy of the letter to the hon. Gentleman as well.

This week, the Transport Committee published its report on road safety which has again confirmed the Government’s lack of progress on tackling drunk drivers and on the problem of uninsured drivers. Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on those issues so that more lives are not needlessly lost?

I pay tribute to the Chair and all the members of the Transport Committee. Over the years, the Committee has played an exceptional role in taking forward and pressing issues of transport safety. Some call that evidence of the nanny state, but it is about saving lives. The Committee’s important recent report will get full consideration from the Government.

In the hands of the Government, the seasons can be a somewhat flexible concept. For the purposes of the right hon. and learned Lady’s statement on Equitable Life, on what date does autumn end?

I have simply repeated to the House what the Chancellor has said. We all recognise that many people have been profoundly affected by the problems at Equitable Life. The issue is being investigated. The Government are considering that investigation, and will respond.

In response to the remarks on assisted suicide made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), with whom I fully agree, the Leader of the House said that Back Benchers had the opportunity to raise controversial issues in Bills on Report, when the scope is wide enough for amendments to be selected. In respect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, such issues were raised but the Government took what I understand to be the unprecedented step of whipping through a programme motion to deny a free vote on the controversial issue of abortion, in which Back Benchers on both sides were engaged. Two weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Lady intimated that that would be a normal procedure and no notice was given to those who tabled the amendments—many of them women with whom she has worked on equality issues for many years. For her sincerity to be recognised, will she give time to explain to the House how programme motions are normally used to decide the time given to controversial issues on free votes on Report?

When deciding on a programme motion, consideration is paid to how Government and Back-Bench amendments and new clauses can be given adequate time for debate on Report. That time follows the consideration that there would have been during pre-legislative scrutiny and in Committee. In the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, exceptionally, there had been time on the Floor of the House for consideration of amendments. The normal procedure is for the programme motion to come before the House to be discussed.

The hon. Gentleman and I agree that it is important that not only should there be proper sex education and proper availability of contraception, but that if a pregnancy has to be terminated, the facilities should be there for that to happen as early as possible. That is the position in all parts of the country. I suggest that he and I work together on what is a free-vote, not a Government-versus-Opposition, issue. Instead of attacking me, he should work with me to make progress for women all around this country.

On 17 October, the Government opposed my Bill to abolish the television tax, arguing that having the licence fee was the only way to protect the editorial freedom of the BBC. In the light of what the Prime Minister said this week, in what seemed a blatant attack on the independence of the BBC, may we have a fresh debate on the issue? In that way, we can get all the people together in this country and recognise that the licence fee is outdated and regressive and that it is a tax that should be abolished.

We have no plans to abolish the BBC and its important public financial support, which comes through the licence fee.

In parts of Birmingham, commercial property is being offered for as little as 50p a square foot. Other commercial properties are being needlessly demolished because their owners cannot afford to pay the empty property business rate. May we have a debate on Government policy to see whether it is possible to get some shift for those companies, which are in a bad state at the moment?

The hon. Lady makes a serious point. This subject was raised immediately preceding business questions in Treasury questions, when one of the Treasury Ministers said that they understood the concerns and were looking into them. I refer her to that earlier exchange in the House.

Can we have a debate in Government time on changes to train timetables? Kettering rail users’ group is rightly outraged. This week, signs have been put up at Kettering railway station promising major improvements to the train service from December, yet the number of trains north from Kettering is due to be halved, the evening peak time return service from London is going to be the worst that it has been for 25 years, and the Saturday service will be quite appalling.

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport. However, people in Kettering, as well as throughout the country, have benefited from more trains being on time, better quality rolling stock and more investment in the rail network. We certainly have further to go, but I hope that he recognises the progress that has been made on rail transportation for passengers, as well as freight, in Kettering and elsewhere in the country.