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Commons Chamber

Volume 482: debated on Thursday 6 November 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 6 November 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

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

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 13 November.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Quality (Greater London)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, may I take this opportunity to welcome to the DEFRA ministerial team my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath in the other place?

Responsibility for meeting air quality limits in Greater London rests with the Government, but the Mayor is responsible for taking steps to meet DEFRA air quality objectives in London. Among the steps we have taken are cleaner vehicle standards for cars, lorries and buses and tighter standards for industrial emissions.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. I welcome the improvements that there have been in air quality in Greater London. However, does he share the concerns of my constituents that increased flights from Heathrow and City airports could harm the environment and air quality?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the significant improvements that there have been in air quality in London. The incidence of nitrogen dioxide has reduced from an annual average of 74 micrograms per cubic metre in 1987 to 39 micrograms per cubic metre in 2007. That shows the progress that we have made.

The Government have completed a consultation on Heathrow. We are considering the responses, but we have been very clear throughout about the environmental conditions that would have to be met if permission for development were to be given.

That is exactly the point that I wanted to raise. In December 2006, the Department for Transport White Paper said explicitly that we would put in place

“tough local environmental conditions for our most environmentally sensitive airport, London Heathrow.”

Can the Secretary of State assure me that that commitment will be sustained, whatever happens in the future development of Heathrow?

Indeed it will have to be sustained, because of the requirements of the air quality directive. As the House will be aware, in some parts of the country, including London, we are not meeting the limits relating to PM10—particulates—and nitrogen dioxide. That is why we are likely to have to apply for further time in order to meet them, as the latest directive that has been agreed provides. I should point out that we are not the only member state that is facing this difficulty.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that last year Conservative-controlled Croydon was awarded beacon status for its management of air quality controls, with pioneering developments in technology and the introduction of idling vehicle enforcement patrols and air quality text messages to people with respiratory problems. However, I am sure he will realise that that service does not come for nothing. It is labour-intensive, and unless local authorities are given the funding to provide it, it will be difficult to maintain the standards that he and the country expect.

I greatly welcome the steps that Croydon and several other local authorities have taken, particularly for those who suffer from asthma. The text messaging service is in addition to the information that we provide—it is available on a website and there is a telephone number that people can call. It is very important to give people the advice and information that they need. The Government fund local authorities generally for the range of responsibilities that they have. I hope that other local authorities will follow the lead that has been given, because that service really benefits the public.

I, too, welcome the two new Ministers to the DEFRA brief, which they will no doubt find challenging, just as all their predecessors did.

A memorandum from the Department for Transport obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 concerning the expansion of Heathrow states:

“New modelling suggests that EU limits for Nitrogen Oxide in 2010 will be exceeded around Heathrow, necessitating capacity constraint”.

It goes on to say that the Department for Transport has

“worked with DEFRA to ensure negotiations over”


“directive take account of Heathrow’s position”.

How does the Secretary of State square that with what he told the House in May—that his attempt to delay the implementation of new EU rules on nitrogen oxide had nothing to do with decisions about airport capacity?

The simple reason why we are likely to have to apply for derogation under the new directive that gives member states the ability to apply for additional time is the existing problem that we have with PM10 and nitrogen dioxide, which, by definition, is nothing to do with any decision that may yet be taken about the expansion of Heathrow. That is a problem we have now. Therefore, the answer that I gave in May was completely accurate.

But surely expanding Heathrow can only make the situation worse. The Environment Agency has warned that pollution from a third runway at Heathrow could “increase morbidity and mortality”—in other words, it will mean that more people will die earlier. Does the Secretary of State agree with its analysis, and why does he not spend more time protecting the environment and less time conniving with the Department for Transport on a massive increase in pollution around London? Is it because he lacks the will, or because he lacks the influence?

I think that that is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman. First, the fact that different Departments talk to each other should not come as a great surprise to him. Secondly, as I said, the Government have made it clear that any decision about the expansion of Heathrow will have to be subject to the environmental conditions set down. That is a requirement of the directive. When we apply, the Commission has to decide whether to give us more time, and those extensions can only be until 2011 for PM10 and until 2015 for nitrogen dioxide. At that point, the UK, along with other member states, will have to meet the requirements.

Environmental Awareness

2. What measures his Department has considered to increase public understanding of the environmental effects of everyday activity; and if he will make a statement. (233451)

The Department is supporting a number of campaigns including Act on CO2, Love Food Hate Waste, and Recycle Now, which all aim to raise awareness and understanding of the link between what we do and the challenges of tackling climate change and using resources sustainably.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that just under 50 per cent. of emissions come from individuals. Campaigns are all very well, but does he agree that it is time that energy bills—and the point of source—give details on how to look after the environment, perhaps in the form of an environmental warning like the health warnings on cigarettes?

One thing that the Government have done, working with energy supply companies and following the Prime Minister’s announcement in September about action on insulation and help with bills, is provide more information with bills on ways in which people can save energy. Providing practical advice, places where people can go and assistance is exactly what is required to deal with the environmental challenges that we face.

Yesterday, Westminster was swarming with beekeepers worried about the decline in bee numbers and the huge environmental effects on everyday life. What will the Secretary of State do to address those concerns and to encourage scientific research in that area?

The beekeepers have raised a serious issue, and I have met Tim Lovett, the head of the British Beekeepers Association. We are spending about £200,000 a year on research already, and we have put an additional £120,000 into looking into the problem this year, along with the Welsh Assembly Government. The National Audit Office is looking at our expenditure on bee health research. We are working with the veterinary medicines directorate to get medicines on the market more quickly in order to help beekeepers. We give a lot of advice through the beekeeping inspectorate, and once we have the benefit of the NAO advice, I intend to respond on what else we might be able to do.

Does my right hon. Friend have any advice in the pipeline that would help to encourage parents to walk or to use public transport when taking their children to school? That would have an enormous impact on areas around schools.

That is a really worthwhile thing to do, and a number of local authorities are promoting schemes to encourage parents and children to walk to school. For example, the introduction of 20 mph zones in many residential areas changes the balance between the car and the pedestrian, and we ought to take as many steps as possible—[Interruption.] That was not an intended pun. We ought to take as many steps as possible to encourage more people to walk and to use their cars less.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the National Market Traders Federation on consistently showing commitment to contributing to a greener environment? Its latest initiative has been a campaign called “How green is your market?”, which involves looking for the greenest market in the UK and the greenest trader. Does he agree that markets uphold the values that DEFRA holds dear? They provide cheap local food, they cut down on food miles and they cut down on excess packaging.

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. I think that the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), is coming to talk to the all-party group that my hon. Friend chairs. One has only to consider the figures that show the increase in markets to realise that there is growing public interest, and I hope that the trend will continue.

Broadband (Rural Areas)

3. When he last met the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to discuss the provision of broadband in rural areas. (233452)

I have not yet had the opportunity to meet the new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to discuss rural broadband, though I will do so in addition to meeting other ministerial colleagues, because it is clearly important for rural areas. Department officials will also continue to work closely with DBERR on the matter.

As he represents a Welsh constituency, the Minister will know that the Welsh Assembly is trying to identify what it calls “not-spots”—areas that are not served by broadband. He also knows that farmers need to be able to get on to the DEFRA website, especially for epidemiological information about bluetongue, foot and mouth and other diseases. The availability of broadband is very important for the rural community. What steps will be taken in England to replicate what is happening in Wales to ensure that the large tranches of the United Kingdom that are not served by broadband will be?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He and I served together in debates on the Communications Bill some time ago, when those issues were raised with the original roll-out of broadband. I assure him that not-spots, which are a problem in Wales and England, are being tackled, not least by the Department for Communities and Local Government and DEFRA research. What I tend to call the “ciao” review, but is the Caio review, is examining how we extend the service. The service is market driven, but the review considers ways to remedy market failures, and thus what the Government can do. We are also considering what regional development agencies and local authorities can do. The problem needs to be addressed and I am committed to doing that.

One of the difficulties is that many consumers in rural areas rely on BT’s word about whether they have appropriate broadband access. Regrettably, that advice is often neither objective nor accurate. Is there some basis on which we can get an independent picture of access? In large parts of Derbyshire, access rates are either extraordinarily slow or even non-existent.

That is another important point, which shows the concern in all parties to ensure that we have such access. One reassuring point is that, in the parts of the UK where take-up of broadband has been large, rural areas have outstripped other areas in the past 10 months: take-up there has increased to 59 per cent., compared with 57 per cent. as a whole. However, my hon. Friend makes a valid point—we need to keep an eye on the research and the statistics for the way in which broadband is rolling out, and ensure that we fill the gaps as time goes by. It is vital to his constituents and others.

Will the Under-Secretary abandon the term “not-spots”? It is bandied about by, for example, BT as if it were an explanation or even an excuse for not providing a proper service to places such as Rhiwlas in my constituency, where people want to use broadband for domestic purposes but also for rural businesses and professions.

I am happy to abandon phrases such as “not-spots” if the hon. Gentleman wants me to, but the way we tackle the possibly 1 per cent. of areas that cannot get access under current technology is crucial. We look to technological innovations, such as the Avanti satellite, as well as other methods, to ensure that we deliver. As has been said, that is important for farmers and for rural businesses. We need to ensure some parity of access throughout the UK—Wales and England.

On a more upbeat note, will my hon. Friend congratulate BT and Advantage West Midlands on achieving the complete broadband enablement of the west midlands region? What is the Government’s role in helping people to take up commercial opportunities to use broadband? Is there a role for DEFRA in marketing?

I join in my hon. Friend’s congratulations on the work that has gone on, which is a success story. It reflects the fact that the UK, with 99 per cent. uptake of broadband, is leading in this field. Certainly DEFRA has a role in working with others to encourage, promote and advocate take-up. There is also a place for localisation in RDAs, local authorities and others. There has to be a partnership approach. That is not to abrogate responsibility; we simply recognise that some local issues are best tackled with genuine local input.

The Minister will be aware of the European Commission’s policy on such matters, in pushing for a universal service obligation by 2010. When he meets the Business Secretary, will he make the case strongly that we should be pushing for that universal service obligation? A particularly strong case needs to be put to BT and other companies in rolling the service out to rural areas where, as he has highlighted, the frustrations are real.

As I said to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), such issues were addressed way back when we considered the Communications Act 2003. It has always been the Government’s approach that universal provision should be led by where the market can drive it forward—we have seen success in that—and that the Government should then follow through with other partners to ensure that we fill in those areas where the market cannot provide. We will get there—the evidence shows that we are doing so—but as has been pointed out in other questions this morning, we need to fill those gaps. Our approach in the UK proves that we are doing that above and beyond what some European partners are doing.

I welcome the Minister to his new post. What the hon. Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said demonstrated, perhaps inadvertently, the reason why so many people in rural communities feel that they are seen as second class in the eyes of the Government. Never has that been more graphically demonstrated than in the way they have borne the brunt of the closure of 2,500 rural post offices this year. Will the Minister acknowledge that rural sub-postmasters are facing a 15 per cent. cut this year in their core tier payment—their basic salary—and, perhaps even this week, the loss of the Post Office card account? Will he acknowledge that these developments will further undermine the rural—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has the privilege of coming in on a question of his choice, but he must keep his question within the parameters of broadband.

Order. That was far too long. The Minister will attempt to answer the question with the information that he has been given.

I in no way share the analysis that rural areas are second class, and I say that as somebody with a family background of living in rural areas. The hon. Gentleman perhaps misses the point that the Government have invested £1.7 billion in sustaining the post office network. Also, there are good examples of projects that have worked in rural communities, such as Switch on Shropshire, Project Access, Cybermoor and Community Broadband Network. There have been good innovations in ensuring that we get into rural communities and other difficult areas, and we intend to continue driving that forward.

Supermarkets (Pricing)

4. What recent discussions he has had with farmers’ representatives on the pricing of their goods in supermarkets. (233453)

We do not discuss prices offered by supermarkets, as we believe that they are for the market to determine within the constraints of competition law. I have, however, had a number of discussions with farmers and farmers’ representatives about a range of issues concerning them, including the importance of long-term sustainable relationships between suppliers and retailers.

Does the Minister not agree that the practices currently employed by some supermarkets, including Tesco, which are deliberately delaying payments to suppliers, are having a detrimental effect on UK food prices and availability? Furthermore, does she agree that there should be a full investigation so that we can ensure that we continue to have a sustainable UK-based supply chain?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met representatives of the supermarkets about three weeks ago, when he invited them to follow the Government’s lead and ensure that they review and improve payments to small suppliers in order to address directly the point that the hon. Gentleman made. I can also confirm from discussions I have been having that exemplary practices are being developed in some areas, such as the dairy food supply chain, whereby organisations such as Tesco and Asda have regular and good communications with their suppliers, and farmers can come to local forums. That is the way forward to sustain the food supply chain right across the piece.

Over recent years, there has been an unaccountable reduction in the share of the retail price at the check-out that goes to farmers and growers. Notwithstanding farmers’ markets, which have been quite successful, would it not be a good idea for the farmers’ organisations to work much more closely with the super-retailers, in the French style? For example, Carrefour, Géante and Leclerc have permanent major retail promotions of local produce from a particular area at their larger superstores. Would that not be a way of giving farmers and growers a higher proportion of the money that we pay for their high quality food at the check-out?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion. Indeed, I should like to offer to accompany him on a fact-finding visit, if he would find that useful, to see what procedures are in place in France and to find out whether we could learn any lessons from them.

One of the main conclusions of the report produced by the Competition Commission on the grocery trade was that, in order to protect consumers and producers, an ombudsman needed to be established for the trade to protect against uncompetitive practices. What progress have the Government made in establishing such an office?

I acknowledge the concerns about the concentration of the buying power of supermarkets. I am awaiting the outcome of the discussions between the Competition Commission and the grocery retailers before seeing whether any further action needs to be taken.

Although my right hon. Friend is right not to want to intervene in regard to every single price in a supermarket, is there not a case for farmers joining together in co-operatives—as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) suggested—to give them a much greater ability to deal with the supermarkets? Also, is there not a case for a bit more joined-up government thinking in relation to healthy, local produce being made available in superstores, in the way in which my hon. Friend suggested, as a way of tackling issues such as obesity? Most supermarkets push high value-added foods, which are high in salt, fats and sugars. There is an opportunity here to make enormous progress, and the suggestion for appointing an ombudsman could be a way forward.

My hon. Friend has made a number of valuable points. I will be looking carefully at the recommendations that the Competition Commission has made, and I shall also want to look in detail at the suggestions that he has made this morning.

I personally welcome the Minister across the Dispatch Box, although I have already met her in her new role in Committee. On Monday, she and I were shown numerous examples of misleading and deceitful labelling, particularly of meat in our supermarkets. One example was Cumberland sausage that had been made with imported meat. On four occasions, however, the Government have blocked Bills to require country of origin labelling. On Tuesday, the Irish Minister said that he wanted an

“unequivocal position requiring country of origin to be indicated on food”.

Will the Minister now join him and the Opposition in demanding compulsory, honest country of origin labelling on all our food, to stop the deceit and to give consumers the real power to choose what they buy?

I am very interested in the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. On his statement about our blocking certain Bills, I understand that we have been constrained on the position that we have been able to take independently, particularly given the detail that was being requested in those particular Bills. However, I hope that the House will be reassured to know that we are working very hard in Europe on a new directive that will give countries much more freedom to introduce the kind of labelling that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, including specifying on packaging not only the country of birth of the animal involved but where it has been reared and possibly even slaughtered. That will give consumers much more information about welfare standards, in particular, as I acknowledge that that is a real bone of contention for British farmers.

Water Metering Charges

5. If he will request that Ofwat take into account the findings of the review of metering and charging when examining water companies’ proposals for customer charges for the period from 2010 to 2015. (233454)

Final determinations for water price limits for 2010-2015 will be made by Ofwat in November 2009. I acknowledge that my hon. Friend has raised her concerns on behalf of customers in the South West Water area, and in the Plymouth, Sutton constituency in particular, many times. There is a very tight and difficult time scale involved in Ofwat being able to take the Walker review into account, but I am keeping in mind the need for Ofwat to be able to take some of its recommendations into account.

I thank the Minister for her response and hope that among her early briefings some will have outlined the fact that our region has by far the highest water bills in the country. We also have more than our fair share of people on low incomes, so this is a matter of very considerable concern to Members with constituencies in Devon and Cornwall and across the political parties. Will she agree to meet a group of Members across the parties at an early and appropriate moment to discuss this important issue?

I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and her constituents if she were to bring that opportunity forward. South West Water, the company that supplies water in my hon. Friend’s area, has adopted the findings of a pilot and recent review in that area. The fact that we understood the difficulties that water consumers faced in the south-west was precisely the reason why we chose that area for the pilot scheme. Much more work clearly needs to be done, but the Walker review will be significant in informing us how to take forward our policies on metering and charging, so we await Anna Walker’s findings with interest.

Given that inflation is taken into account when setting price limits, is it right that United Utilities, which provides water in the north-west and to my constituency of Macclesfield, should be seeking to impose rises 2.7 per cent. above inflation for the 2010-2015 period? Is that fair to consumers?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the water companies have submitted outline business plans to the Department. They are being studied in detail not just by Ofwat but by the Consumer Council for Water, which I met a couple of weeks ago. I know that those organisations are very concerned indeed about price rises, particularly in the current economic environment, so they will scrutinise such proposals very carefully. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some reassurance from that.

My right hon. Friend will be very aware that the Ofwat chief executive has taken the view that, because of the impact on customers, Sutton and East Surrey Water should not increase its prices. That is very reassuring. Year after year, however, the south-west has experienced very high rises, yet the area has extremely low wages and high levels of deprivation—unlike, I suspect, in Sutton and east Surrey, although I stand to be corrected. The areas are different. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the chief executive to encourage Ofwat, as it looks into the price rises, to take into consideration demography and the impact of increases on people with low wage levels?

I hope to meet the chief executive of Ofwat very soon. Ofwat has a role to play in determining companies’ price regimes. Those companies have to take into account the responsibilities we place on them to improve supply and the security of supply and, in many cases, to improve the environmental impact of water services. There is thus a wide range of responsibilities, which Ofwat has to balance with costs to customers. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the impact of high price rises on consumers, which is at the forefront of the Government’s concerns in the current economic circumstances when families’ incomes are being squeezed from every quarter.

I endorse the comments of the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) about what is a key issue in the south-west. I urge the Minister to review the whole structure of paying for major works such as the Clean Sweep programme, which has left 3 per cent. of the population—those living in the south-west—paying for cleaning up 30 per cent. of the nation’s beaches. Will the Minister correct the Conservative party’s error under privatisation and allow the cost of those major works to be borne across the country, not just by people living in the south-west?

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue of which I am well aware. As I have said before, the burdens borne by water customers in the south-west relate, to some degree, to South West Water’s responsibilities for exactly the improvements to which he refers. I shall not commit myself this morning to rewriting completely the arrangements for managing water supplies, but the forthcoming period of scrutiny of all water companies’ prices and business plans will be extremely important. That is why I should be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and her constituents to discuss the issue fully with them.


We have recently taken a number of steps to increase the proportion of waste recycled, including an increase in the landfill tax escalator to £8 per tonne and the provision of funds for a range of support for businesses.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, but will she say, in general terms, what action she is taking to help businesses to improve their recycling rates, apart from the proposed landfill measure?

We are simplifying the regulatory system, as a result of which businesses will be increasingly able to recycle materials that would previously have been sent to landfill. We estimate that that will encourage the recovery and reuse of 17 million tonnes of materials, potentially adding approximately £700 million to the economy.

I know that my hon. Friend asked about business waste, but I can tell him that recycling and composting of household waste has nearly quadrupled since 1996. We are making extremely good progress.

The Minister will be aware that successful recycling depends on good markets for recyclable materials. She will also be aware that there has been a catastrophic fall in the prices of plastic bottles, paper and cans. What steps will the Government take to avoid the accumulation of mountains of those important materials in the coming weeks and months, and to ensure that they are properly stored and looked after until the markets recover?

That is indeed a growing problem, and we shall want to take stock of the situation. We have established a waste strategy that sets out the direction of travel for the Government and the local authorities with which responsibility for general waste policy lies, but I acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue.

Flooding (Pitt Report)

7. What steps his Department is taking to implement the recommendations of the Pitt report on flooding. (233457)

We have already taken a number of steps in response to Sir Michael Pitt’s findings, which I reported to the House on 25 June. We will publish a detailed response shortly, together with a prioritised action plan.

My constituents continue to fear the implications of the Pitt report for the Severn plain in the context of deliberate flooding and the management of standing water. Villages such as Llandrinio, Crew Green, Meifod and Ardleen, along with many others, want to work in partnership on alternatives such as upstream flood mitigation and contained flood pools. Will the Secretary of State ask the authorities to ensure that residents and officials adopt a partnership approach, so that we can find solutions that work for everyone?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman—who I know has taken a close interest in this matter on behalf of his constituents—that the Environment Agency will develop the Severn catchment flood management plan in consultation with local communities, partner organisations and landowners. I know that there was some concern about the original wording of P6, but it has now been revised to make it clear that it is about taking action with others to store water or manage run-off in locations that provide overall flood risk reduction or environmental benefits, locally or elsewhere in the catchment area. I hope that that provides some reassurance.

I do not think it does provide reassurance. What concerns people is that embankments and other flood defences that have existed for a number of years will be allowed to crumble as a result of the programmes—currently up for consultation—relating to catchment flood management plans. Will the Secretary of State assure us that rural areas will not be allowed to be lost to vast tracts of water, resulting in the loss of productive farm land at a time of increasing concern about food security and the Government’s failure to spend as much in rural areas as they are spending in urban areas?

The hon. Lady will know that 95 per cent. of defences are in fair condition or better, which is very important. The Government are putting in considerable additional funding—an extra £200 million over the next few years—to enable the Environment Agency to look at the priorities and provide more protection for more communities in all parts of the country.

Topical Questions

The Department’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that I have appointed Dame Suzi Leather as chair of the new council of food policy advisers. I am greatly looking forward to working with her to tackle the important food security challenges we face, and we will announce other members of the council shortly.

The Environment Agency now has its own geomatics division, acting commercially by undertaking work it would otherwise have outsourced and competing against commercial players in the market. Is the Secretary of State happy that a Government agency is competing against companies in the private sector, or is this not another example of a Government agency sticking the boot into small and medium-sized businesses when they are suffering from a recession?

I do not share that characterisation of the EA’s work. As the previous question highlighted, it does a very good and important job in providing service to the public, including in improving flood defence.

T8. Genetically modified foods were supposed to be a major leap forward, but instead there are concerns that they pose a serious threat to biodiversity and our health. Furthermore, we were told they would help feed the world’s poor, but the United Nations tells us that we are already producing more than enough for all. What assessments are being made from recent trials of GM crops’ effects on the environment, and what are the consequences of these crops for the third world? (233477)

The Government have to be able to answer two questions in relation to GM crops: first, is the product safe to eat? The evidence is clearly that it is. The second is, what is the impact on biodiversity? In order to get the information my hon. Friend refers to, we have to have carefully conducted trials, and it is a matter for regret when trials that are approved are trashed within about a month and a bit—a recent example was a trial to demonstrate potatoes’ resistance to nematode—because how can we answer such questions if we do not have the information? However, it is for those developing GM crops to demonstrate whether they bring the benefits that some have claimed. The Government then need to answer the two questions and, ultimately, it will be for consumers to decide whether they want to buy, supermarkets whether they want to stock and farmers whether they want to grow.

T2. One of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations was that the Government should establish a Cabinet committee dedicated to tackling the risk of flooding, bringing flooding in line with other major risks such as pandemic flu and terrorism. I took a careful look at the list of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet committees published this week and was surprised to see that such a dedicated Cabinet committee on flooding was not on the list. Will the Secretary of State update the House on when that recommendation from Sir Michael will be put into force? (233471)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, we will respond in full to Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations in the not too distant future, and we will address that question along with others. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I continue to talk very regularly with all my ministerial colleagues who have a shared responsibility for dealing with this serious problem.

Following on from the response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), will my right hon. Friend look again at recycling? It is clear that the different recycling schemes that we have throughout this country are not working properly, because different local authorities are recycling different products. The problem is that the quality of the materials that are then presented to industry for recycling is simply not good enough—and in some cases is non-existent. My local authority, for example, has a kerbside collection of cardboard and paper, which it then composts and wastes, but in another part of the country that same cardboard and paper is worth £60 per tonne to the corrugated cardboard packaging manufacturers. Therefore, can we have some joined-up thinking on the different schemes that we have for recycling?

I shall look at the example that my hon. Friend gives with some interest, but figures out today from the Office for National Statistics demonstrate that householders in England are now re-using, recycling or composting almost 35 per cent. of their household waste, which is tremendous progress. I acknowledge that there are difficulties in some areas and that because the system is local authority-led there are differences in the way in which recycling is carried out locally. That is right and proper and as it should be, but it is obviously of interest to local authorities such as my hon. Friend’s that they get the maximum and best value they can from the waste they collect, particularly when householders have gone to the trouble of separating the waste to be recycled.

T4. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment today that the marine Bill we be introduced in the next Session of Parliament? (233473)

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are fully committed to this, and preparation of the marine Bill, on which there has been extensive and lengthy consultation, is well in hand. As he knows, it is well supported, as was shown by the lobbying that took place this week. We remain committed to introducing it at the earliest possible opportunity, and when we do so we hope that there will be genuine cross-party support for all aspects of it.

T5. What are Ministers doing to protect the interests of English farmers in the current discussions on the future of the EU pesticides directive? (233474)

I have been making very strong representations to Commissioner Vassiliou and to my fellow Agriculture and Environment Ministers, because the problem with the proposal is that we do not know what impact it will have. In particular, will we be able to continue to use triazoles, which safeguard against septoria, a disease that affects wheat? The pesticides safety directorate has performed a full impact assessment, which appears not to have been done elsewhere, which is why we have that information and knowledge. There is growing realisation that there is a bit of a problem with this proposal, which has not been fully thought through. The House can rest assured that I will continue to argue the case with the evidence that we have.

Given the high regard in which the Secretary of State is held throughout the House, will he assure us that, at the appropriate moment, he will give his Department’s assessment to Cabinet of whether the third runway at Heathrow will breach quality and pollution standards, so that Cabinet does not have to rely on the assessments of Departments with less environmental expertise?

As I have already said, it is DEFRA’s responsibility, and mine, to ensure that the air quality requirements—our obligations under the directive—are met. The Government made it very clear when the original consultation proposals were published that any decision to proceed would have to be subject to ensuring that the limits were met.

T6. The Secretary of State, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), referred to the impact on wheat of the EU pesticides directive, which the EU environment committee approved yesterday. He said—I was encouraged to hear him do so—that he will take steps to try to spread knowledge of the potential damage more widely in Europe. Will he please also encourage his Labour colleagues in the European Parliament to vote against the directive at the plenary session next month? (233475)

The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the vote in the European Parliament committee that has been scrutinising this legislation. I have been concerned, publicly, that the proposals that the European Parliament was trying to make in amending the directive would take us even further in the wrong direction. That is the problem, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to lobby all those who are part of the decision-making process—the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers—to try to get the best possible outcome. However, as he will be only too well aware, we require other member states to support us in that process.

T7. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), recently told the DEFRA Select Committee that the Ministry of Defence is an exemplar when it comes to its policy on public food procurement. If so, why is not a single rasher of bacon served under the MOD food contract produced in Britain? (233476)

What the hon. Gentleman describes is not what I understood the position to be. I will check the information, and, if what he says is true, I will examine the situation. I have acknowledged that the Government have more to do to give a lead; as a consumer and a significant purchaser, we must ensure that Departments and the public sector use their powers to discriminate in favour of food that is raised to the same high standards of welfare and hygiene used by British farmers.


The Solicitor-General was asked—


1. How many appeals against unduly lenient sentences there have been in the last 12 months; and how many have been successful. (233478)

In 2007, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, the Attorney-General and I brought 106 offenders to the Court of Appeal for a review of their sentences. Permission to refer the sentence was given in 96 cases, the sentence was found to be unduly lenient in 86 cases and was increased in 75 cases.

A constituent of mine, 17-year-old Simon Englefield, was viciously attacked and, as a result, spent several nights in hospital and had three plates put in his jaw. The attacker was given a 36-month supervision order and was ordered to pay £100 compensation, to be taken from his benefits at £5 a week. The family wanted to appeal against that unduly lenient sentence, but they could not do so because he was sentenced in a youth court. Will the Solicitor-General consider extending the rules to the youth courts?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and we should reflect on it. That sentence sounds not to have been appropriate for what transpired, although it is, of course, difficult to comment on individual cases without knowing the ins and outs of what was before the judge at the time and why he exercised the discretion that he did. I shall carefully reflect on what the hon. Gentleman said.

At last night’s Livia awards, we heard moving stories about the responses of police officers, members of the public and victims in cases of driving offences that had caused death. Given that we have recently created some new offences relating to drivers who cause death, will the Attorney-General’s office be particularly alert over the coming months to cases where it thinks that low sentences have been imposed on drivers who have caused death?

I regret not having been able to attend the awards last night, but I understand that, as ever on such occasions, some touching accounts were given. We refer quite a few cases of causing death by dangerous driving; indeed, I recall having done one within the past week. We can send such cases to have the sentence reviewed; we cannot do so for cases of causing death by careless driving, so a distinction has to be made. Although this depends on cases being drawn to our attention, I assure my hon. Friend that when that happens we have proper regard to the guidelines and we refer whenever it is appropriate to do so.

Human Trafficking

2. What assessment she has made of the effect of Operation Pentameter 2 on numbers of prosecutions for human trafficking offences brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. (233480)

The prosecutions produced by Operation Pentameter are still at different stages in the criminal justice system. An overall assessment is being undertaken by the UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Association of Chief Police Officers, and that will address the impact on the number of prosecutions that have come from Operation Pentameter 2.

My hon. Friend may have seen that earlier this week, on 3 November, six traffickers were successfully prosecuted for their treatment of a young Slovakian woman who was raped and made to work in brothels all over the east midlands. Of the six convicted, one was given a 14-year sentence, three received 11-year sentences, one got a three-year sentence and the other a two-and-a-half year sentence. The judge referred to their offences as “despicable”, and we agree.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on those successful prosecutions. We must consider the victims of trafficking, and Citylight is an organisation that has been set up in Hove and Portslade, in my constituency, to offer welfare support to female victims. It has been set up in conjunction with Sussex police as part of Operation Pentameter 2. Will she tell me what plans she has to support such organisations in their fight against sex trafficking?

I am pleased to hear about Citylight and its close work with Sussex police and the prosecuting authorities on Pentameter 2. We engage with such organisations in two ways: first, by providing welfare support and accommodation for victims. We decided recently that the reflection period to which victims are entitled, which is required to be only 30 days, will be 45 days. The POPPY project is the main source of that welfare support, but it has now contracted out some of that work to other third sector organisations. Secondly, a stakeholder group of third sector and voluntary groups has direct input into the inter-ministerial group on human trafficking, which means that organisations such as Citylight can have a say on policy development and our trafficking strategy.

Five hundred and twenty-eight criminals were arrested under Pentameter 2. Why were there so few prosecutions?

I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman thinks that there have been so few prosecutions. Many prosecutions are ongoing, so it is too soon to reckon the final figure for Pentameter 2, but up to September 2008 we had prosecuted 125 people for sexual exploitation trafficking and five for non-sexual exploitation trafficking-related offences. Of course, we prosecute people for inciting prostitution for gain, money laundering, rape, kidnapping and false imprisonment, as well as for specific trafficking offences. As he knows—he takes a great interest in this matter—those prosecutions and convictions do not show on the trafficking statistics.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that only this week the Fawcett Society hosted a meeting in this House at which it was alleged that 40,000 enslaved and trafficked women are currently residing in the United Kingdom? I was astonished by that figure. Does she have a way of checking its accuracy? Will she talk to the Fawcett Society about the evidence given at that meeting?

I cannot comment on that specific point. Figures have been bandied about by various campaigns—by “bandied”, I do not mean that they are calculated irresponsibly, but that some uncertain ways of counting are used. I was at that meeting and I talk to the Fawcett Society all the time.

The scale of the problem of human trafficking is alarming: in the past year alone, some 4,000 women have been the miserable victims of trafficking in the UK. Do we not need to go further than one-off police investigations and operations by adopting an integrated approach, including ratifying the European convention on human trafficking and introducing a proper unified border police force?

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that these are not one-off policing events but opportunities to galvanise what we have learned. Pentameter 2 is significantly better than Pentameter 1, but the process is ongoing. We are improving not only our intelligence on trafficking, but our mechanisms for, among other things, the early identification and treatment of victims. Through Pentameter and other such programmes, we are making those improvements. Again, as he knows, we will ratify the convention in December and implement it three months later.

Domestic Violence

3. What recent discussions she and the Attorney General have had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the sentencing guidelines for domestic violence cases. (233481)

In December 2006, the Sentencing Guidelines Council issued definitive guidelines for sentencing offences of domestic violence. It set out the principles that by law every court must have regard to when sentencing such an offence and, perhaps most importantly, it set out the principle that domestic violence must be treated as seriously as other forms of violence.

Under the existing legal and judicial framework, the police and courts often have difficulty dealing swiftly and effectively with domestic offences. Many victims despair of finding remedies or relief from the day-to-day experiences that they continually endure. I urge my hon. and learned Friend to instigate a major review and reform of society’s approach to domestic abuse, which includes psychological, financial and sexual maltreatment, as well as physical violence.

He must have been nodding off occasionally. Certainly, outside the House he has not had his eye on the ball in the way that some Opposition Members and most of my colleagues on the Back Benches have. We have done the most enormous amount of work on domestic violence. We have set up a system of independent domestic violence advisers, who support and befriend complainants as soon as they make a complaint and who help them right through the process. We have a system of specialist domestic violence courts, and specialist programmes to deal with perpetrators. Between 2005-06 and 2007-08, the number of convictions for domestic violence increased from just over 29,000 to almost 44,000. We are making sterling efforts and they are starting to make an impact. It must be becoming clear, even to the densest of family bullies, that they have no excuse for domestic violence and that the courts will deal with it extremely seriously.

Is there not a problem with domestic violence programmes organised by the probation service? It is under such financial pressure that it is finding it very difficult to deliver them in a timely fashion. The programmes are immensely important for reforming offenders and for victims, many of whom would not come forward if they thought that their partner would be imprisoned immediately. What effect will the proposed cut of £1 billion in the Ministry of Justice budget have on those programmes?

I do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman has tried to generate. As I have said already, the number of complaints to the police about domestic violence has gone up exponentially, largely because the police and the courts have made it very clear that they will adopt a helpful approach to complaints and deal with them strongly. It seems that people are not hesitating about making complaints to the police, even though they cannot predict what the sentence will be and their partner may end up in custody as a consequence.

The specific programmes in respect of the perpetrators of domestic violence have been in place only since 2006. The Liberal Democrats may occupy a fantasy world, but we cannot click our fingers and generate courses for perpetrators just like that. Our target was to set up 1,200 courses in 2007, and we succeeded in setting up 1,800. For 2008, the target was 1,800 and we put in place 2,000. The target for 2009 is 2,000, and we will put in place 2,500. The queues to get on the courses are growing smaller—


4. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the review of demand for prostitution; and if she will make a statement. (233482)

I have discussed with the Home Secretary a number of measures to address the problems of prostitution arising from the demand review. They were mainly announced by the Home Secretary in September, and included improvements to the legislation on kerb crawling, new powers to close brothels, greater restrictions on lap dancing clubs and a new offence of paying for sex with someone who is controlled for another’s gain. The full results of the review will be announced this month.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply. The last of those offences announced by the Home Secretary—the offence of having sex with someone who is controlled for gain—mirrors an offence in Finland. Is the Solicitor-General aware that there have been no prosecutions since the Finnish offence was introduced?

No, I did not know that. However, I do not think that that is an inherent defect of the offence, and I am not sure that the two offences are identical. We prosecute those who control prostitutes for gain, so prosecuting people who pay for sex with a person who has been prostituted for gain goes with the grain of what we do already. We all know that a very high percentage of prostitutes are controlled for another’s gain, so one might think that there is a 90 per cent. chance that any man who buys sex will fall foul of this law. We will have to design its finer points later, but we have every hope that it will make a significant difference and be a significant deterrent.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 10 November—Opposition day [20th allotted day]. There will be a debate on a Liberal Democrat motion on the economy and the future of the Post Office card account.

Tuesday 11 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments followed by a general debate on adding capacity to Heathrow.

Wednesday 12 November—The House will be asked to approve motions relating to regional committees, European scrutiny, modernisation of the House of Commons and the Speaker’s Conference. The House will also be asked to approve a motion relating to the House of Commons Members’ Fund.

Thursday 13 November—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a general debate on international aid—transparency.

The provisional business for the week commencing 17 November will include:

Monday 17 November—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Education and Skills Bill followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Education and Skills Bill.

Tuesday 18 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 19 November—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 20 November—General debate on fisheries.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 20 November will be:

Thursday 20 November—A debate on organ donation.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. Today the Home Secretary is making a written statement, understood to be about the cost of the identity card scheme. She is also making a speech today announcing that the Government have backtracked on plans to issue identity cards to workers at all UK airports; it has been heavily trailed in the press. Why has the Home Secretary not come to the House to make an oral statement on the status of the ID card scheme?

Will the Leader of the House give us a date for the pre-Budget report, or at least a date when she will give us a date for that report? Given the current economic climate, and the state of public finances, it will be a very important statement. Given that we have not had a debate on the economy in Government time, will she take up the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that we should have one or two days’ debate on the pre-Budget report?

On Monday the House of Lords had a debate on the economy. During that debate, my noble Friend Lord Forsyth called for an inquiry on the leaking of information about the banks’ bail-out package. The noble Lord Lea of Crondall suggested a wider public inquiry, including the banks. The City Minister, Lord Myners, said—I quote from Lords Hansard, column 16—“My Lords, I agree”. But yesterday, the Prime Minister said, in Hansard, column 247, that the City Minister “said no such thing”. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister’s statement in the official record is corrected, and when will we have that public inquiry?

Shortly, the Bank of England is expected to cut interest rates, but today it is reported that Northern Rock, the nationalised bank owned by the taxpayer, will instead raise some of its mortgage rates. Businesses and home owners are already struggling, as banks are not passing on interest rate cuts, so may we have a statement from the Chancellor on why a state-run bank is blatantly defying the Government?

Yesterday Labour MEPs voted to abolish the UK’s opt-out on the European working time directive. At a time when businesses across the country are struggling to keep going and families will probably be looking for more work, not less, that just goes to show how out of touch Labour MEPs are. It is time that the Prime Minister got a grip on his party. May we have a statement setting out the official Government position on the working time directive?

In the House of Lords this week, Lord Darzi said that patients have a right to three cycle treatments of IVF. However, guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence only recommends that patients have three full cycles of treatment; it is not mandatory. May we have a statement from the Health Secretary to clarify official Government policy on IVF treatment?

Finally, there has been widespread condemnation of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), for his remarks blaming a commander in the Special Air Service for his choice of vehicle prior to the deaths of three troops in Afghanistan. The fact is that there was no choice. The Minister, when in the House on Monday, refused to apologise to that commander, so will the right hon. and learned Lady assure the House that she will press the Minister to give an unreserved apology to Major Morley and to UK commanders in Afghanistan?

The right hon. Lady raised the question of ID cards and argued that there should be an oral statement, but she is aware, as she said, that there has been a written ministerial statement, which simply updates the House about our progress. As we have previously announced to the House, ID cards with biometrics are being introduced for foreign nationals and piloted at airports, so that people who are airside have biometric ID cards. The written ministerial statement simply announced the progress that we are making with the pilot scheme as we roll it out.

On the date for the pre-Budget report, we have chosen a number of opportunities for the House to debate the important issue of the economy. We have had debates about energy and employment and a statement about small business, in addition to numerous statements from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As for the date of the pre-Budget report, we will announce it, as I said last week, in the normal way. I suspect that Donald Rumsfeld would have called it a “known unknown” as far as this week is concerned, and I am not announcing the date this week.

The right hon. Lady asked for a public inquiry into the global financial crisis, but may I take this opportunity to commend the work of the Select Committee on the Treasury? I should have thought that she would take that opportunity too. The Treasury Committee has asked the public to suggest questions for its evidence-gathering sessions, and the Committee is bringing before it not only the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but, no doubt, those various people who used to be described as the masters of the universe. I pay tribute to the Committee’s work and look forward to receiving its report.

On Northern Rock, the right hon. Lady rightly said that there will be an interest rate announcement from the Bank of England shortly, and, subsequent to that, other banks and building societies will make it clear how they intend to respond to it. She will know that Northern Rock is managed at arm’s length, as we would rightfully expect it to be, but the business Minister will make it clear to chief executives of building societies and banks in a meeting this afternoon that the Government have put in a considerable amount of public money directly, with £37 billion of capitalisation for banks, and made available through guarantees a further £250 billion, and that we expect from them some response to ensure that the interest rate cut is passed on not only to mortgage holders but to small businesses. I am sure that that is the view of the whole House, and the Minister will make it very clear.

The right hon. Lady asked about the European working time directive, and we have always been clear that it is right to give employees legal protections at work. The Opposition have not been in favour of such protections, whether the minimum wage or the working time directive, but we are in favour of people not being forced to work long hours that they do not want to work, or that can impede health and safety. That is why, when we came into government after many years of Tory rule, we introduced a legal prohibition on requiring people to work very long hours. Following a European Court judgment there have been some changes, to which other Governments across the piece are now agreeing, about how on-call time is calculated for the purposes of the working time directive. [Interruption.] I must say that I would be interested to hear whether the Opposition, who are chuntering away about working time, are now in favour of guaranteeing minimum standards and the protection of working hours. Our position is clear, and we are getting on with things.

I will look into the right hon. Lady’s point about Lord Darzi’s comments in the House of Lords about IVF provision and write to her.

As for our troops in Afghanistan, I should say that Remembrance day offers us all the opportunity to remember not only those who lost their lives in the great wars, but those who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will continue to increase investment in equipment for our troops and to work with the other countries around the world who share the important work that our troops are carrying out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s announcement that next week the Government intend to bring forward proposals to amend temporarily Standing Orders to enable the establishment of regional Select Committees and regional Grand Committees. Does she agree that in responding to the Modernisation Committee, the Government are recognising the overwhelming weight of evidence that that Committee received, which showed the accountability gap at the regional level? In bringing forward the recommendations for regional Select Committees and regional Grand Committees, are the Government not also reflecting the difference of opinion on the Modernisation Committee on how best to meet that accountability gap?

I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution to our debate next week. In case hon. Members have not yet seen them, I should say that the motions for that debate which set out the framework for the regional Committees have already been tabled and are available for Members to scrutinise. We have also tabled a business motion that will show how they will be debated. My hon. Friend makes an important point, not least that we need proper scrutiny of the important work of the regional development agencies, particularly at a time when we are concerned to support the economy in every region of the country.

I have regularly raised with the Leader of the House the question of time for the consideration of Back-Bench and Opposition new clauses and amendments. She has announced three items of business for the next couple of weeks that will certainly have amendments from both sides of the House.

In the Employment Bill debate two days ago there was, yet again, no opportunity to complete consideration of the Opposition and Back-Bench new clauses and amendments—indeed, more than half of them were not debated. Yesterday was our 20th sitting day since the House came back following the summer. On nine of those days, there have been no votes at all, and the House has risen early on nearly a third of them. Will the Leader of the House honour her undertaking to me and others that she will review the business of the House to make sure that there is time for Back-Bench and Opposition new clauses and amendments when the Government come forward with their business? Otherwise Parliament will not be doing its job properly, and she will not be honouring the obligation to make sure that we hold the Executive to account.

In the light of the very welcome election result in the United States yesterday, may we have the opportunity of a debate on relations between this country and the USA, before the end of this term and before the Prime Minister meets the President-elect, as we hope he will before long? There have been tense issues between our two countries and many hope that the new regime will mean a much better relationship; I am sure that that view is widely felt in the House and the country. It would be helpful and much appreciated if the House had the opportunity to discuss matters that could lead to a huge improvement in relations between us and the United States.

Yesterday, the OECD produced a report on energy prices across the European Union. It said that gas and electricity bills had increased more than twice as quickly in our country as they had in France and Germany and that in Europe only Norway had suffered higher energy price inflation. It said that prices here had increased by nearly 30 per cent. in the past year. The Leader of the House knows that energy prices are the major driver of fuel poverty. May we have a statement from the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change about what he will do to ensure that our energy price rises are kept roughly in line with those of the rest of the continent and why our energy price increases are hugely higher than those in our competitor countries across the channel?

We are about to have a debate on the Congo, which is very welcome. However, figures revealed in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) show that since 2003 more than 5,000 Congolese asylum applications and more than 7,000 Zimbabwean asylum applications have been turned down. May we have a debate on whether we are honouring our international obligations to ensure that people who cannot go home because of the dreadful political climate in their country are given the right to stay here for the period for which they need safety? I understood that we had all signed up to that arrangement.

There are increasingly common rumours around the House that the Government have made a decision that the Post Office card account will be given to PayPoint, not to the Post Office. I am choosing my words very carefully: can the Leader of the House give us an absolute, unqualified assurance that the statement on this matter will be made first in this House by the Secretary of State, and that no announcement will be made outside the House tomorrow or over the weekend, so that if the decision has been made, we can have the chance to deal with it here? If it has not been made by Monday, my party has chosen the subject for an Opposition Supply day debate on that day. If the rumours are right, we look forward to testing a very dangerous Government decision.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the consideration of amendments on Report. Our concern is that there should be as few as possible Government amendments on Report unless they relate to issues that have been raised by hon. Members and it is the wish of the House to deal with them. As Members representing our constituents, we must strike a balance between the amount of time that we spend working in this Chamber and in Committees scrutinising legislation and the time that we spend working in our constituencies. All the reviews of parliamentary work have shown that our constituents increasingly expect us both to do our work of scrutinising legislation in this House and to be in our constituencies mingling with them and listening to their concerns. Report stage is important, but important opportunities for pre-legislative scrutiny are being introduced, as well as the opportunity for post-legislative scrutiny, which we are introducing for the first time.

The hon. Gentleman sent his congratulations to President-elect Obama. I take this opportunity to celebrate, as so many other people in this country are celebrating, that historic election. It was historic not only because of the victory of President-elect Obama but because it marked a rejection of conservatism. In that respect, it is a very big change that Labour Members warmly welcome.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of gas and electricity prices. We are very concerned about the global impact that increases in commodity prices, particularly for oil, have had on domestic and business energy bills. He mentioned other countries, but it is only fair for him to recognise also that although there have been increases, which we do not want, historically, we have had lower energy prices than other countries in Europe. It is important that we press forward with increasing the supply of energy through renewables and other means to ensure that we have energy independence, and that we continue to provide the winter fuel payments, which have been increased, and to run the insulation programme, which will not only help people with their fuel costs but help to deal with the pressing problem of climate change.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are honouring our international commitments to those who seek asylum in this country. Of course, we regard those commitments as very important and, as he will know, there are no forced deportations to Zimbabwe. All applications are considered on a case-by-case basis. As he has acknowledged, we have chosen the Congo as the subject of this afternoon’s topical debate.

The hon. Gentleman said that he will choose the Post Office card account as the subject of his Opposition day debate. All that I can say in response to his questions is that we are all very aware of the House’s interest in that contract.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider an early debate on Lloyds TSB’s proposed takeover of Halifax Bank of Scotland? That bank employs many thousands of people in Yorkshire, most of them in west Yorkshire in the area that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) and I represent. We know that good things are happening, and we do not want HBOS to fail, but there is a feeling among parliamentarians in Yorkshire that we are not being kept in the loop. We need assurances that the many thousands of jobs in Yorkshire will be maintained under the new structure when it emerges.

I understand only too well my hon. Friend’s commitment to his constituents and his concern for his constituency and the region in terms of the effect on jobs at Halifax Bank of Scotland. I understand that the regional Minister for that area is liaising with its MPs. The regional development agency also has a strong focus on the matter, and the regional council met for the first time yesterday. However, I will raise his point with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

May I ask the right hon. and learned Lady a question that I asked the Deputy Leader of the House a couple of weeks ago? Will she make the strongest representations to the Prime Minister that he should come to this House himself to make a statement on the progress of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is she aware that he has not made a statement to this House on the Afghan war since 12 December 2007? Is she further aware that during the second world war the Prime Minister came to this House on 13 occasions in the Parliament of 1939-1940 and on 25 occasions in the Parliament of 1940-1941 to keep it properly informed of the progress of the war? Many young men and women have died in our name and for us in Afghanistan, and it is a disgrace—a real disgrace—that ahead of Remembrance Sunday the Prime Minister has not been to this House to update us on the progress of this terrible war.

I think that we would all agree that the House is right to expect to be kept informed of the situation in Afghanistan. We have had a number of statements from the Defence Secretary on Afghanistan, and the Prime Minister has on several occasions responded to questions about it at Prime Minister’s Question Time. In addition, we have had a number of defence debates that have allowed the House the opportunity to hear from Ministers, make speeches and debate the issue of Afghanistan. However, I will bear in mind the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend had the opportunity to look at early-day motion 2416?

[That this House condemns the creation of the online computer game Kaboom which asks the player to replicate the actions of suicide bombers; believes that this game is offensive to the families of those killed by suicide bombers and devalues all human life; further believes that this game depicts an unnecessary level of violence; is deeply concerned that vulnerable people under the age of 18 are able to access and play this game; calls upon the game's creator to show sensitivity and responsibility by removing it from the internet; welcomes the findings of a new study from Iowa State University which recognises the link between violent video games and aggressive behaviour; and calls on the Government to revise its regulation of violent video games.]

It refers to an online computer game called “Kaboom”, which asks players to replicate the actions of a suicide bomber. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is offensive to the families of the victims of suicide bombings and that it devalues human life? I have raised this matter on several occasions at business questions and in other debates. What action are the Government taking to remove such material from the internet or, at the very least, to approach service providers to ensure that they take appropriate action? Children and young people will be able to have access to those games. Could we have a debate on this important matter?

The Government are concerned about the effect on children of violent internet and video games, which is why we commissioned the Byron review. That set out how we need action from parents, from the industry itself and from the Government to ensure that there is proper control of content and clear labelling to protect young children. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in these issues, which he had even before he became Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Under his leadership, the Committee has taken a strong interest in such matters. I bring to his attention the fact that on Thursday 13 November, in Westminster Hall, there will be a debate on the question of harmful content on the internet and in video games.

Can the House find time to debate the increasingly topical issue of pub closures, particularly the supply tie and the power and conduct of huge pub companies. Last year alone, bankruptcies among pub landlords increased sevenfold—and that was before the current economic difficulties. The treatment of some licensees is quite disgraceful, as was visibly demonstrated by the excellent front-page story in the Wharfedale and Airedale Observer today about Enterprise Inns quite scandalous and shameful treatment of my constituent Wendy Prangell. Can this important matter, which is of relevance to every Member, be debated so that hon. Members can contribute and give their own experiences?

It is Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions on Monday, so I suggest that the hon. Gentleman brings the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State on that occasion.

Postwatch merged with the National Consumer Council and Energywatch on 1 October to create Consumer Focus. However, may we have a debate on whether it was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money for Postwatch to spend £2,910 on the production of, and a further £2,483 on the distribution of, 2,000 copies of something commemorating its seven years of existence?

My hon. Friend raises a question about whether public money was properly spent in this case. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that, so I will raise it with the relevant Minister.

Further to the announcement by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, that a future Conservative Government will reform the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to allow it to consider the wider social costs of denying treatment to patients when assessing its value or benefit, may we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the criteria used by NICE when making its recommendations?

There has been a lot of concern about the work of NICE, and the Secretary of State for Health announced that there will a review to ensure that it speeds up its consideration of whether it will recommend new treatments developed by the pharmaceutical industry to make them available on the national health service. The availability of new medicines that can help to save lives as well as alleviate suffering is a question not only of NICE getting on with its business quickly and efficiently, but of extra investment in the NHS. It is important that the Government sustain investment in the NHS in the way that we are committed to.

I shall just take this opportunity, because I know the House is concerned about this matter, to say that an interest rate cut of 1.5 per cent. has been announced by the Bank of England. I am sure that that will be widely welcomed, and there will be an equally strong expectation that that interest rate cut should be passed on to those who have mortgages, and those who are running small businesses.

I have received, as have other right hon. and hon. Members, correspondence from constituents regarding the Free Our Bills campaign. They are asking for changes to be made to the way in which Bills are published on the parliamentary internet, and they are making some valid points. For example, when Bills have been amended in their progress through both Houses, it is sometimes difficult to understand their content when they reach their final stages. Would my right hon. and learned Friend look into that matter to see what improvements can be made to ensure better public scrutiny of our proceedings?

My hon. Friend, as a long-standing member of the Modernisation Committee, makes an important point. It is important that Members, let alone the public, can decipher the situation. The House authorities are looking at how we can make the business of the House more readily understandable in the House, and on the House website—so information is available to the public. The Deputy Leader of the House is working closely with them to take those matters forward.

In the St. Andrews agreement, the Government indicated that they would take action if any party defaulted on its commitments to ensure that the rest were not disadvantaged. As Sinn Fein is refusing to allow Executive meetings to take place in the Northern Ireland Assembly, can the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to come to this House and tell us how he intends to make good on this commitment?

I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s important point with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on inequality? She will be aware of the OECD report that says that inequality in Britain is reducing, but we remain one of the most unequal societies. In the present economic situation, those who will be hardest hit are those who are already finding things hard. I would like a debate on that subject so that we can hear what Members believe the Government can do for their constituents.

I, too, very much welcome the report that shows finally, after many years of a growing gap between rich and poor and decreasing social mobility, that that situation is beginning to turn around, following the actions that the Government have taken since 1997. Provision for children has been particularly important, such as Sure Start centres. My hon. Friend will know that the House will shortly receive a Green Paper on social mobility, and the Queen’s Speech will include an important equality Bill.

May I reinforce the message of the shadow Leader of the House to the effect that we should have an early and full debate on the economy? I suggest that we entitle it, “Boom and bust: the Prime Minister’s competence and credibility.” That will enable us to ask whether, when he said that he had abolished boom and bust, he believed what he was saying, in which case he was economically illiterate, or whether he did not believe it, in which case we can ask whether his moral compass is a reliable instrument.

This is a serious issue. The economy faces a big challenge, and we are concerned to protect homeowners, small businesses and jobs, and to ensure that we keep energy costs as low as possible. Those are the issues we remain concerned about. The Prime Minister made it clear only yesterday that it is fortunate that we face this economic challenge against a background of relatively high levels of employment and relatively low levels of unemployment. Having paid off debt over the past 10 years, as well as investing in the NHS and education, we are in as good a position as we could be to face those difficult economic circumstances. [Interruption.] Hon. Members have questioned the point about debt, and let me remind them—[Interruption.] They challenged my point about us paying off debt. When we came to government in 1997, debt was 43 per cent. as a percentage of GDP, and while still investing in hospitals and schools, we brought that down to 37 per cent.

Could we please have a debate on the Government’s role in regional spatial strategy? In Solihull, after the strategy had been agreed, the Government commissioned an outside consultant—Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners—to produce a report that suggests that we should triple the number of homes that we had agreed to build. I am sure that this matter concerns all hon. Members, so could we have a debate on the role that the Government should be playing in regional spatial strategy?

I hope that, next Wednesday, when we establish—if the House so wishes—the regional Committees, there will be an opportunity for much better accountability to the House on matters such as regional spatial strategies.

Further to that answer—and we are, indeed, to debate regional accountability next Wednesday—I see from the Order Paper that the right hon. and learned Lady proposes to restrict to 90 minutes the debate on that highly controversial and divisive motion, which was carried on her casting vote in a Select Committee. Between now and then, will she reflect on whether we should have more time to debate the matter? When she introduces the motion, will she make it clear that anybody who votes for a regional Committee should be prepared to serve on it and attend all its meetings?

The Modernisation Committee has conducted extensive scrutiny, including several important evidence sessions. Its report and the minutes of the evidence sessions are available for hon. Members to read. The issues are clear. Some of us believe that there should be stronger, proper accountability to the House for the billions of pounds that make an enormous difference at regional level, and some believe that the current structures should not be changed. Others believe that there is a democratic deficit, but have different ideas from us about how we should change that. The issues are clear, and an hour and a half should be enough to discuss them. It will then be up to the House to make up its mind and vote.

May we have a debate on the rate of value added tax levied on housing repairs? It is currently 17.5 per cent., compared with 5 per cent. for new build. Housing repairs are much more important than new build in Wales because we have a large stock of old, unfit and substandard housing, and the differential tax rate is a significant burden.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, tax rates are a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who considers those issues and makes announcements to the House in the pre-Budget report and the Budget.

May I emphasise the request from Conservative Members for a major debate in Government time on the economic situation? I personally believe that it should be a two-day debate because the matter is so important and so many people will want to speak. I would want to represent the position of savers and those who invest because, currently, all who invest make a loss on every pound that they invest because of the marginal rate of tax and the rate of inflation. Should not the Government take account of those who are responsible, provide for their pension, invest and save?

Protecting the economy and people in this country in these difficult economic times and seeing the economy through is the Government’s No. 1 priority. We have no intention of restricting the opportunity for the House to call Ministers to account and debate the effect in their constituencies and regions. I will therefore look again to ascertain whether there are further opportunities for a more general debate as well as the specific debates about energy, small businesses, jobs and training. I hear the point that people want a general economic debate.

May I associate myself with the point that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made about the need regularly to update the House about the two conflicts that are being waged in our name and about which we have had little information recently?

May I make a more general point, as we approach Remembrance day? We should have a debate on the legal status of, and the responsibility for, war memorials, first, to establish that they will be maintained appropriately, and, secondly, to ensure that there is no doubt that communities that wish to commemorate those who have lost their lives in conflicts since the first and second world wars, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, are entitled to do that.

Obviously, we want to ensure that war memorials are properly maintained in all the cities, towns and villages where they provide such an important reminder.

The hon. Gentleman adds his voice to concerns that the Secretary of State for Defence should make a statement about Afghanistan, and I will raise the issue with my right hon. Friend.

May I reinforce the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for an early debate in Government time on ID cards? The Home Secretary is announcing today that, despite the constant stream of private, personal data that companies working for the Government have lost, she proposes to hand over the job of taking and storing the fingerprints of every adult in this country to outside contractors. It is bad enough if someone loses one’s bank account details, but at least one can set up a new bank account. If somebody loses one’s fingerprint details, one’s identity is compromised for ever. The House needs to debate that potentially disastrous idea.

The Home Secretary has regularly updated the House on ID cards. She has ensured that they are rolled out by piloting them and made it clear that they will not be extended into a national scheme compulsorily without a further vote in the House.

May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 2008 about the Post Office card account?

[That this House notes with concern the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions has written to Post Office card account holders informing them that the Post Office card account contract ends in 2010; further notes that Post Office card account holders, many of whom have made a conscious decision to support the Post Office by retaining their card account, are being instructed to take out bank accounts in order to receive benefits beyond 2010; expresses its dismay at the fact that the letter does not mention the fact that a replacement for the current card account is currently out to tender, or make any mention of other Post Office products or services; believes that this is a deliberate attempt to encourage people to switch payment to direct debit and remove the role of the Post Office; notes the additional damage inflicted on the Post Office by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, who are currently sending out licence renewal reminders as part of a communications campaign which makes no mention of the Post Office; calls on Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to encourage Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions to consider the impact on communities across the country if the Post Office card account is not renewed; and encourages all Government departments to make their services available through post offices in order to ensure that they have a viable future.]

The early-day motion has been signed by 80 hon. Members from all parties, and expresses concern about the impact of the loss of the card account business to the Post Office’s bottom line and the consequential impact on local communities. Will the Leader of the House answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who asked for a clear assurance that there will be no pre-announcement of the matter, and that the decision will be announced in a statement to the House so that hon. Members can ask questions of the Secretary of State?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman, as I reassured the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), that I understand the importance of the Post Office card account contract to hon. Members of all parties. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman can make any further points in the Liberal Democrat Opposition day debate on Monday.

Following the bovine remarks of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), and his woefully incomplete apology in Defence questions on Monday, will the Leader of the House let us know on which day next week he will return to the House to apologise from the Dispatch Box for the slur that he cast on commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially Major Morley?

All our Defence Ministers are strongly committed to supporting our armed services—I am sure that that applies to all hon. Members—and ensuring that they have the right equipment as they do their important and dangerous work. There has been record investment in equipment for the armed services.

A simple yes/no answer from the Leader of the House, please. Will the statement on the Post Office card account be an oral statement to the House before the announcement is made anywhere else—yes or no?

All I can say is that, when the decision has been made, the House will be made aware of the arrangements for communicating it. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a yes or no answer now—the subject is not part of the business that I announced today.

You, Mr. Speaker, will have noticed that the Leader of the House failed to respond to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the Prime Minister’s comments about Lord Myners. It is an important matter, about which the Prime Minister should make a statement, because either Lords Hansard is wrong or the excellent, highly paid and professional civil servants failed to brief the Prime Minister correctly—none of us can believe that the Prime Minister, with his moral compass, could possibly have misled the House.

All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman should support the inquiry that the Treasury Committee is conducting.

May we have a statement on the position of the Tibetan community in Nepal? Following anti-Chinese demonstrations, many in the community face extradition to China because India has said that they cannot move there. Given our relations with India, our past history with Nepal and the fact that we occupied Tibet for nearly 40 years, may we have a statement about what the Government will do to help that community?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raises the matter with the Foreign Secretary next Tuesday, when he will answer oral questions.

The right hon. and learned Lady will be only too aware of the enormous sacrifices that loyal British citizens of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories made during conflicts. Will she explain why, yet again, on Remembrance Sunday, they will not be allowed to lay a wreath in their own right at the Cenotaph in Whitehall? Will she arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement about the overseas territories and for the Lord Chancellor to explain why the Crown dependencies are not represented?

I am afraid that I will have to look into that issue. I will call the hon. Gentleman this afternoon and let him know what the situation is.

The Leader of the House will recognise the widespread eagerness to see the Government’s national dementia strategy for England, so may we have a ministerial statement on when it will be published? The original Government indication was for it to be ready in the autumn, although I accept that that is becoming a relatively flexible concept. Can she also ask that that ministerial statement include confirmation that an immediate review into the prescribing and use of anti-psychotic drugs to treat sufferers of dementia will be completed before the publication of the strategy?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the national dementia strategy, which I shall bring to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health.

Rural areas, including my constituency of Beverley and Holderness, have large numbers of elderly people and infrequent buses. Can the Leader of the House tell the hundreds of constituents who have written to me about the pharmacy White Paper when the House will be informed of whether the Government are going to press ahead with proposals that could lead to the closure of dispensaries and GP practices serving elderly people in rural areas, who will then have to leave their GP’s surgery in the rain and snow and go across to a local chemist, before perhaps missing a bus back to their village?

I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with the Secretary of State for Health. An important point is not only the availability of pharmacies, but public transport in rural areas, the commitment to free travel for elderly people and the increasing availability of rural transport.

Is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that the Land Registry has stated that later this month it will destroy up to 17 million original documents and deeds? Is she aware that those manuscript documents do not belong to the Land Registry? They belong to our constituents and are held on trust. Can we have an urgent statement on the matter? Have the public been properly consulted on the proposed move?

I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, who is responsible for the Land Registry. Let me also take this opportunity to congratulate the Land Registry on how massively it has improved over the past decade or so.

I just want to press the right hon. and learned Lady on the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and others have raised. It seems clear that the Prime Minister was not well briefed at questions yesterday in his answer about the City Minister, Lord Myners. A facility has been introduced in Hansard whereby ministerial corrections can be made. If the record is not correct—and I believe that it is not—the Prime Minister should take steps immediately to put matters right.

I think that the Prime Minister and all the Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and across the Government are rightly focused on protecting jobs and small businesses and ensuring that we have a proper financial services industry and proper accountability to this House.

Last Thursday, the excellent Conservative candidate Ben Lewis was elected as a councillor in my constituency. At the same time, however, a Minister visited the constituency without letting me know in advance. I have not received a personal apology yet, but I understand that one might be in the post. My point to the Leader of the House, however, is this. It seems to be a trend that Ministers do not let Members know that they are coming or they let them know just before. Will she provide a written statement next week on the advice that she gives to Ministers on this matter?

It is imperative that Ministers on ministerial visits give information to the local Member of Parliament well in advance of their visit and not just at the last minute. As far as party visits are concerned, my visit to meet friends and colleagues in the Labour party in St. Austell was a party visit. It had nothing to do with my ministerial responsibilities, but I very much enjoyed it.

May we have a debate in Government time about the impact of cheap alcohol sales in supermarkets on the local licensed pub trade? There are 25 pubs and clubs in Kettering that are members of Kettering Pubwatch and they have contacted me to say that they are suffering financially from those deeply discounted sales. There are also law and order problems, because people are arriving in Kettering town centre for a night out already tanked up and ready to cause trouble.

Perhaps the issue is one that hon. Gentleman, too, can raise with Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on Monday in oral questions.

This House, as part of the Palace of Westminster, acts as a welcoming host to 1.2 million visitors a year. As part of the newer version of security, many people are given their ID cards with cords. I was very grateful to an Officer of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House for taking an interest in what happens to those cords after they are disposed of. Can the Leader of the House’s office do something to ensure that they are fully recycled?

The issue has been raised by a number of hon. Members and the House authorities are aware of it. There is a concern about whether straightforward re-use, which would mean people wearing a lanyard that had been worn by a number of other people, would be right. There is also the question of how they could be recycled. However, they are not being thrown away while the issues are being considered, but kept until the big decision about what to do with them is made.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you this question in your capacity as the guardian of the rights of Members of Parliament. I imagine that you feel as ashamed as I do that this House has not had a full debate on the economy during a time of serious difficulties in this country, both nationally and for all of us locally, with many of our constituents having a hard time. I know that you cannot insist on this, but could you do your very best to remind Ministers that it is the job of this House to hold them to account and to be informed on the great issues of the day? Such matters are debated in every forum in the country, but not in the House of Commons. That is a great shame.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that what he has done today, through his point of order, is to put the matter on the record. It will be noted by Ministers that they are accountable to this House and that they must come here on a regular basis.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek some clarification. I was keen to raise with my neighbour, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the dismaying news that the Tetley brewery in Leeds is to close. The issue is about beer, our great national drink, but I have received conflicting advice on whether beer comes under the remit of his Department. Can you clarify, Mr. Speaker, whether it is appropriate to raise an issue of huge importance to British beer—in terms of the product, rather than the industry—in that way, just as it would be to raise an issue of such importance for Scotch whisky or British wine, which are clearly important products, too? Indeed, should the Department not really be called the Department for Environment, Food, Rural Affairs and Drink or DEFRAD?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s fears, because although I am a teetotaller, I have a brewery and the whisky industry in my constituency, and I used to have the tobacco industry. What I can tell him is this. The industry that he talks about is a very good employer of labour and he as a local Member of Parliament must concern himself with the redundancies. I suggest that he applies for an Adjournment debate, puts down questions for other Departments and ensures that he lets the workers in that industry know that he is trying to be their voice here in Parliament.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) raised with the Leader of the House the propriety of Ministers’ notifying local MPs of visits. The Leader of the House quite correctly made it plain that, when a Minister goes to a constituency on ministerial business, he or she should notify the local Member. I understood her to suggest that Members of Parliament attending party functions were not under a duty to notify local Members. However, reaching back to when I first entered the House, my understanding is that whenever a Member goes to another Member’s constituency on anything other than private business, they ought to notify the local Member. Can you assist us on this?

A Minister going to another constituency on ministerial business has an obligation to notify the Member of Parliament concerned, and I do not expect the Member to receive that notification through an e-mail appearing in their system. That has been cropping up recently, but this should be done properly. However, I would say that a party activity is, in a sense, a private matter for a Minister. If a Minister is taking part in a party activity as a member of a political party, it is not necessary to inform the local Member of Parliament. We should not be over-sensitive when someone visits a constituency, but when they do so in their ministerial capacity, or when a Back Bencher goes to a constituency to carry out an official function such as an opening, they should notify the local Member of Parliament. I would not expect them to notify the Member about party activities.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are very good at wanting to protect the interests of Back Benchers, and I want to ask you to help us on a specific matter. My hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and I expressly asked the Leader of the House for an undertaking that no statement on the future of the Post Office card account would be made outside the House by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions unless or until such a statement had been made here. There are strong rumours that a statement might be made tomorrow, which, according to normal convention, would be completely unacceptable. Will you make it as clear as you can that you expect the statement on the Post Office card account—a matter that colleagues in all parties have raised regularly and that affects all four countries in the United Kingdom—to be made here, and only here, first? In that way, the Secretary of State will be in no doubt that no statement, press release or leak can be made until he comes to the Dispatch Box to make the statement.

I cannot go into such a specific matter or give an instruction to a Minister. The House is not sitting tomorrow, but the rule is that the Minister concerned should come to the House as soon as possible. I cannot prevent a Minister from saying something to the press, just as I could not prevent the hon. Gentleman from doing so. All I can do is give a broad hint that this is a very serious matter that I have heard being raised at every opportunity on the Floor of the House, and Ministers must take note of the deep concern being expressed in every part of the House. However, I cannot issue an instruction along the lines that the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you provide some clarity on the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) about visits to constituencies? Is it the case that, if a Member from another party visits a constituency for a party event, but then uses it for press or publicity purposes, notice should be given to the Member of Parliament for the constituency concerned? A whole string of Conservative Members of Parliament have been visiting part of my constituency that I am about to lose—it is going into Central Devon—but they have not had the courtesy to tell me of their visits. Perhaps people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the political and humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This is a very timely debate. The stark images from recent days of the suffering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a reminder of the human consequences of conflict in Africa. The numbers, too, are sobering. In a country with a population close to 60 million, around 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by conflict, many of them uprooted repeatedly. The last week alone has seen an estimated 55,000 people forced to leave their homes as troops under the command of the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda have advanced on the key regional city of Goma. They contribute to a total of 250,000 displaced people in North Kivu province since the resumption of fighting there in late August. Many of them are beyond the reach of agencies that can help them, caught in territory held by rebels where access is impossible.

All of this is taking place against a background of militias killing and torturing the civilian population, pillaging their belongings, and recruiting and deploying children as soldiers. The international community faces a substantial challenge in addressing the factors that have contributed to the unrest in the DRC and its appalling consequences.

Does the Minister agree that the problems of the DRC and the ongoing conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis are not simply limited to that country? Is it not about time that the international community examined the wider conflict in that sub-region—in Burundi and Rwanda—and tried to initiate a genuine peace conference to try to bring about peace between the Hutus and the Tutsis?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a wider issue. Certainly, the role of the African Union is key to addressing that concern. There are also specific issues relating to the DRC, however, and I shall talk about those in a moment.

It is clear that the events played out in recent weeks stem from regional political tensions. The terrible events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide resonate in the ethnic strife seen today in eastern DRC. The ethnic Hutu FDLR traces its origins to the Genocidaire Interahamwe militia, and poses a real threat to the security of the Tutsi population. The abuses that it continues to commit mark the group as a destabilising factor, and I endorse the condemnation that it received in United Nations Security Council resolution 1804.

However, no party involved in the violence is free from responsibility for the region’s very real suffering. Nkunda portrays himself as the defender of Tutsis, yet his militia, the CNDP, has committed atrocities of its own. The warlord Bosco Ntaganda, an International Criminal Court indictee, is among its most senior leaders, and it has been responsible for many of the excesses reported in the region. It is the march of the CNDP towards Goma, in defiance of the authority of a legitimately elected Government, that has triggered the latest displacements in North Kivu.

The Nairobi agreement, concluded between the Governments of the DRC and Rwanda with the support of the international community in November 2007, offers a framework for addressing the threat of the FDLR. Though implementation has been slow, the agreement contains the right elements to begin to defuse the ethnic tensions between communities in eastern DRC.

Is the Minister prepared to search for any information on the links between the mining industry, the sales of minerals and the funding of various militia groups as a consequence of the theft of the wealth from the Congo?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. That is one of the reasons why we have pushed strongly internationally for an extractive industries directive to tackle those causes. I think that there is an economic driver, but there are other factors as well. I shall talk about them in a moment.

The Government of the DRC must make sustained and comprehensive efforts to persuade the FDLR to disarm and leave, backed by military force where necessary. The needs to deliver on its commitment to bring war criminals to justice, too. For its part, Rwanda must create the conditions for demobilised FDLR members unconnected with the genocide to return to its territory.

I am slightly alarmed that the Minister has mentioned military force. Will he itemise which elements of the British armed forces have already been warned off for a possible deployment to the DRC? Will he also confirm that that would not involve any of the scarce elements of our strategic airlift capacity, which are fully involved in Afghanistan? Will he also tell us what he is doing with our European allies to ensure that any possible European deployment to the DRC will not cut into their commitments in Afghanistan?

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is getting way ahead of himself. I have been keen in the statement that I made earlier this week and again this afternoon to make it clear that although no contingency is ever ruled out, we strongly believe that MONUC—the United Nations organisation mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the largest peacekeeping force anywhere in the world—needs to be deployed effectively. That is our overriding priority at the moment.

Some International Development Committee members recently visited Goma, and I would like to put a point to the Minister. It seems to me that every time we hit a crisis, we respond in a box. It is now a human conflict crisis, but it has also been a development crisis and, in the past, a political crisis. Can we join those together? I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), in his place on the Front Bench. When we talk about action from the international community, however, can we integrate efforts to tackle conflict, the politics and development at the same time, because if we do not, we will simply return to these situations time and again?

My right hon. Friend, who has huge experience in this area, is absolutely right that we must have a concerted and co-ordinated effort; ultimately, however, the circumstances call for a political solution. I know that several Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall now make some progress.

I certainly applaud the decision of the UN Secretary-General to appoint the former President Obasanjo of Nigeria as his special envoy to eastern DRC. His task will be to find effective ways of mediating between the two Governments, encouraging them to make progress and fulfilling their commitments. The diplomatic initiatives being launched elsewhere are also welcome. The engagement of President Kikwete of Tanzania, the current chair of the African Union, is a hopeful sign of the readiness of regional leaders to help end the conflict in their neighbourhood and cement stability in its place.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that President Kagame will definitely attend the Heads of State meeting in Nairobi this weekend? I understand that he has been somewhat equivocal in some of his public statements, although he claims that he is going.

My understanding is that he will attend that critically important meeting tomorrow. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is leaving this evening in order to attend it. The need for it is even more urgent, because in the past 24 hours the fragile ceasefire announced last week seems to have been broken with clashes around Kiwanja, just north of Rutshuru, 80 km north of Goma, between the CNDP and the PARECO Mai-Mai elements. MONUC engaged during the day and succeeded in pushing them further north outside Kiwanja. The fighting stopped at around 4 pm local time and both sides have retreated a little way from Kiwanja—the CNDP to the south and PARECO to the north. Things have been quiet so far this morning, but those events underline the urgency of the situation.

Given that Britain is a substantial donor to the nine countries that border the Democratic Republic of the Congo, does the Minister agree that we, too, should play a significant role in arriving at some settlement, rather than leave it to others?

I believe that we have a role to play, which is why the Foreign Secretary attended the meeting, along with the French Foreign Minister, and why my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is leaving for the Heads of State meeting this evening. We are playing a constructive role and it is important for us to do so.

It is only through constructive co-operation that the DRC and Rwanda will deal effectively with the threat to regional security that the FDLR represents. With the international community’s support, they must resume their efforts and end the recriminations they have exchanged as the situation in the region has deteriorated. We have heard reports of cross-border interference as the violence has intensified in recent weeks. The two Governments need to agree and consistently apply a robust and reliable method of investigating the allegations, and they must deal effectively with cases where illegal activity is proven. Together with increased border security, that will isolate the destabilising forces in the region and promote collaboration towards the lasting political solution that the region needs. The international community will do whatever it can in support.

The DRC faces a further internal challenge to resolve the questions underlying the tensions between its indigenous communities on its eastern borders. The UK was closely involved in the peace and security conference held at Goma in January this year. After a long and constructive series of debates, that initiative saw a ceasefire and, crucially, agreement was reached between the Congolese Government and more than 20 indigenous Congolese groups on a range of important questions. It brought representatives of rival organisations under one roof to consider the issues affecting the east of the country and it set the Amani process in motion.

The UK has been among the most closely involved of all international players in the effort to implement the accords signed at Goma, which I know has been widely welcomed. There is also no doubt that resolving such urgent questions as access to land, the return of refugees from outside the DRC and greater respect for human rights will encourage better inter-communal relations.

Nkunda’s declaration in October that he was withdrawing from the Amani process was very damaging. The international community should reject Nkunda’s call for bilateral talks with the DRC Government, as the issues behind regional instability run wider than his concerns. The Amani process still offers the best opportunity for all communities, including the Tutsis whom Nkunda claims to represent, to settle issues jointly. The way is open for Nkunda to rejoin the Amani process; I strongly believe that he should take that opportunity.

The DRC Government bear the responsibility for their citizens’ security. Their armed forces need to be better equipped and trained to confront the illegal militias that prey on the civilian population.

With the best will in the world—not always present in the Congo—there is no way that the Congolese armed forces will be in a position to enforce the rule of law in the east. What is needed in the short term at least, and probably in the medium term, is to reinforce MONUC, which Alan Doss has requested since early October. Failing that, mounting the sort of operation suggested by the French, involving an EU force, could be suggested. What is our position on both those matters?

As I said earlier this week—I think in direct response to questioning by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—we believe that MONUC forces on the ground are best placed to deal with the situation. It is the biggest single peacekeeping operation anywhere in the world. We certainly support its efforts and commend it for its work. I have to say that it is unlikely that a rapid deployment of forces from the EU or elsewhere could significantly increase the capability that already exists in the region. Discussions with our EU partners have revealed a broad consensus in line with that assessment. MONUC is our most productive way forward. We need to ensure that troops are deployed appropriately. There are issues about the caveats of a number of the national forces that are part of MONUC; we are certainly seeking to address them and have them removed—