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Business of the House

Volume 483: debated on Thursday 20 November 2008

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 24 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Planning Bill, followed by a motion relating to the salary of the Information Commissioner.

Tuesday 25 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Pensions Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 26 November—It is expected that there will be an oral statement on the local government finance settlement, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by Report stage of the Banking Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 27 November—Consideration of Lords amendments.

The House will prorogue either at the end of business on Wednesday 26 November or during the course of business on Thursday 27 November.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 27 November will be a debate on help for the socially excluded.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. This morning, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), issued a written statement saying that the Home Office will tomorrow publish a consultation paper on draft secondary legislation under the Identity Cards Act 2006. That will include a draft code of practice on civil penalties; in other words, enforcement measures. This is a significant document, but it will not be available in the Library of the House for Members until tomorrow when the House will not be sitting. Why was the document not published today with the statement so that Members had the opportunity to raise issues before the House rises this afternoon?

On 8 October, the Chancellor told the House in relation to action being taken to help the banking sector:

“The public are entitled to share in the upside of these proposals, so in return for our support, we will be looking at…lending practices, particularly to home owners and small and medium sized enterprises.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 279.]

Yesterday in the House, the Prime Minister said:

“We have done what we can”.—[Official Report, 19 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 226.]

Yet, as Members in all parts of the House will know, lending opportunities are not getting through to companies. Someone who runs a company in my constituency wrote to me saying:

“We tried to apply for a business loan as we are desperate and the bank, due to the credit crunch, declined us…If my business fails my family stand to lose their home…My employees have their own families to worry about too.”

May we, therefore, have a debate in Government time on lending to companies, so that Members can raise their constituency concerns and the Chancellor can set out to the House exactly what he required from the banks when he pumped tens of billions of pounds of tax payers’ money into the banking system?

In the summer, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was forced to sack ETS, the firm responsible for marking standard assessment tests, following shambolic delays. The firm had been appointed despite a track record of failure in America. Now, three months into the academic year, thousands of students are still waiting for their education maintenance allowance, and yesterday the Children’s Secretary was forced to sack Liberata, the company responsible for the delays, yet that firm was also appointed despite a well-publicised record of failure and having been described by the Financial Services Authority as reckless and inadequate. May we have a debate in Government time on the inept failure of this Department in handling major contracts? May we also have a Government statement on why the Department refused to put a Minister on “Newsnight” last night to discuss this issue? In fact, there was a Cabinet Minister on the programme last night—the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—but what was she discussing? The exit of John Sergeant from “Strictly Come Dancing”. Does that not say a lot about this Government? Cabinet Ministers will go on television to discuss a popular TV show, but will duck responsibility for decisions that affect the lives of thousands of young people.

May we also have a debate on justice for victims of violent crime? Fewer than half of violent crimes committed each year are solved by the police, partly because officers are tied up with bureaucracy and are pressured to solve minor crimes to achieve targets. Today, the Public Accounts Committee has said that victims of violent crime are not claiming compensation because of excessive bureaucracy and complex forms, so not only do victims fail to see perpetrators being caught, but they also miss out on the compensation to which they are entitled.

Finally, earlier this week, we learned that the Cabinet enforcer, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), likes his newspapers laid out in the morning, his coffee at certain times of the day, and his soup at a precise temperature. I note that these instructions were issued when he was immigration Minister. Perhaps it is no wonder that we discovered this week that 300,000 visas had been wrongly allowed; Home Office officials were obviously far too busy fetching the Minister’s coffee and heating his soup.

With bureaucratic disasters at the DCSF, Ministers talking about “Strictly” rather than about their own mistakes, and Home Office officials busy heating Ministers’ soup, does this not tell us all we need to know about this failing Government?

The right hon. Lady asked about the written ministerial statement and the consultation on identity cards. When the Government formulate proposals and have firm propositions on the back of the consultation, information will, of course, be brought before the House, but I will look into her concern that the consultation document should have been made available to Members at the same time as the written ministerial statement. I am not aware of the facts behind that, but I will look into it.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the importance of ensuring that finance is made available through the financial services industry to home owners and small businesses. She is absolutely right that the focus of our priorities is to back-up the economy with Government action, and I hope she will back what is necessary, which is fiscal action to make sure we do not simply stand by and say, “We’re not going to do anything about this. We’re not going to take any action. We’re not going to capitalise the banks. We’re not going to ensure credit lines to small businesses.” We think that is unacceptable. We have already taken action: we have recapitalised the banks; we have seen interest rates fall; we have taken co-ordinated international action; and, as I have just announced, we will have the pre-Budget report on Monday. I hope that, in the interests of the issues the right hon. Lady has rightly raised, she will back the Government when we take the necessary fiscal action to do what she wants and what we all want to see happen.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ procurement of Liberata. She will know that procurement is not done by Ministers sitting in their offices deciding which company should have a contract, that strict rules govern procurement processes, that, as the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, if a company fails to deliver under a contract that it has entered into with a Department, that contract is terminated, and that Liberata is no longer providing those services. I hope that she will also back the Government on the increased support that we are putting into the EMA to help young people continue their studies and not be deterred for financial reasons. I hope that she will also back the additional support that we are offering to students across the board in higher and further education and to young people in general, so that all young people under the age of 18 are in continuing education or training.

The right hon. Lady asked about victims of crime. We can all agree that it is not acceptable for there to be any failure in the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, and that it is right that a prompt assessment should be made of whether any crime has taken place and of the quantum of compensation that is necessary. However, I cannot help noticing that sometimes the people who complain—rightly, as I would see it—about failures in the compensation of victims of crime are also those who sometimes complain about the compensation culture. Let us hope that they are on our side on this matter. She also worked herself up into a lather about what has been called the “cappuccino memo”, so may I reassure her that it is all just froth?

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the ongoing discussions about the copyright term and of the fact that performers have a shorter copyright term than authors, songwriters and composers. The European Commission is suggesting how to make progress on this issue, but that proposal does not yet appear to have been warmly embraced by the UK Government. Can she arrange for a statement to be made to the House, so that we can correct this anomaly? Of course, I should declare an interest as a member of MP4, the world’s only parliamentary rock band.

Not only is MP4 the world’s only parliamentary rock band, but it is its best one—indeed, it is also a cross-party parliamentary rock band. The Ministers who have just finished answering Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills questions would probably know the specific answer to my hon. Friend’s question, but as he missed the opportunity to raise it then, I shall ensure that I raise it with those Ministers.

The Leader of the House probably ought to announce that there is time in the diary to hear the band in the next couple of weeks, because that might cheer everybody up.

Last week, she was asked by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and others, including myself, if, either before or after the pre-Budget statement but certainly before the end of this Session, there would be a chance to debate the matters that arise from it. May I support that specifically by asking that we have the opportunity, in that context, to debate national housing issues? The recent figures show that the number of planning applications for housing has fallen by 68 per cent. on a year ago and that almost half of the 21,000 low-cost homes built in the past year by housing associations remain unsold. We all understand the huge pressures on many families and on other constituents. There is a common interest across the House on that issue, and if the Leader of the House could find time for a debate on it, that would be widely appreciated in all quarters.

May I endorse the request made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for an urgent debate on victims of crime? The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) secured an answer showing that only 49 per cent. of violent offences—not all offences, but violent offences—result in someone’s conviction for them, which is a serious failure.

The report published this morning by the Public Accounts Committee is damning in two respects. First, it criticises the failure of the CICA to process the applications. The number of applications has fallen by 23 per cent, but the time taken to process them has risen from 12 months to 17 months. The costs have gone up to £6.1 million. Secondly, of the last recommendations that were made, 15 were accepted by the Treasury, but only a third have been implemented. That really is not good enough. We all agree that we are concerned about victims of crime, so can we please ensure that we address how victims—the majority of whom do not apply for compensation—can be told about the system? If they use it, we must also ensure that it works.

The Leader of the House has rightly said that there has been consultation on the draft Queen’s Speech in the past two years. This year was to be the proper consultation, because last year there was only a shortened consultation period. I think that I am right in saying, although I stand to be corrected, that the draft Queen’s Speech was presented on 14 May and the deadline for responses was 6 August, but we have had no report of the responses to that draft. My understanding was that we were to see the outcome of the consultation publicly in good time before the Government announced the Queen’s Speech. We have one week to go: please may we have the outcome of the consultation placed in the Library in the remaining days of this Session?

Yesterday, we saw a demonstration outside the House in support of a journalist called Mr. Tissainayagam, who has been accused under prevention of terrorism legislation and held since March in Sri Lanka. That country has been given the lowest press freedom rating of any democratic country in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders. Given how many journalists are in prison and detained without proper process in so many countries and if we believe in democracy—not just here, but everywhere—can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on journalistic freedom, not only in Sri Lanka but in many other countries?

The hon. Gentleman asks for opportunities for debate about economic issues, especially following the pre-Budget report. He will remember that this Monday we had a statement from the Prime Minister following the G20, which centred on economic issues. Next Monday, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we will have the pre-Budget report, and I confidently expect that there will be an opportunity to debate economic issues as part of the Queen’s Speech debate. However, I agree that we need a specific opportunity for colleagues to debate the issues in the pre-Budget report after they have heard the statement. I will look for an opportunity before the House rises for Christmas to give Members that chance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems in the housing and construction industries, which also have implications for employment. We are determined to press on with our housing programme, and there were questions on that issue to the Housing Minister in the Communities and Local Government questions on Tuesday.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the CICA, and I will draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor the concerns that he and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised about the treatment of victims of crime and the importance of getting the compensation they need. All those hon. Members who are about to raise that issue may rest assured that I will bring those points to the attention of the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary in that Department.

On the consultation on the draft legislative programme, I wish to emphasise to the House that, above all, this is an issue of making open something that in previous years had been done by civil servants and Ministers behind closed doors. The key point is that instead of everyone, including Members of Parliament, knowing the contents of the legislative programme only when it is announced in the Queen’s Speech, it is published in draft form so that voluntary organisations, interest groups, MPs and the public can see what is planned. That is the main reason for the consultation. Obviously, reporting back on the specific responses to the draft legislative programme is important. That will happen around the time of the Queen’s Speech or shortly afterwards. Of course, that is in addition to the specific consultation in which Departments will have engaged in respect of particular Bills. There is no attempt to sweep responses from the public under the carpet, but as the hon. Gentleman is interested in the matter, I will find out when those responses will be published.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the important issue of journalistic freedom, which I will bring to the attention of the Foreign Secretary. We might return to that issue, or perhaps the hon. Gentleman will propose a topical debate on general human rights or journalistic freedom.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider an early debate on the future of Parliament, and the way in which we apportion the roles of Members of the House? A senior Clerk recently told me that 10 years ago, there were 200 Select Committee places for Members of Parliament; there are now 400. Additionally, there is now a plethora of Ministers, including unpaid Ministers, unpaid Whips, and so on. Would it be a good idea, and good economics, to stop paying Ministers altogether, given that everyone seems to want to do that job, even for nothing, and pay independent Members of Parliament, because that is where the premium should lie?

My hon. Friend complains about the economic costs of unpaid Ministers—I do not quite follow him on that. He seems to want Ministers to be unpaid for their additional responsibilities, but I presume that he still wants the Chairmen of Select Committees to paid for theirs.

The Leader of the House will know of my long and sincere concern about the plight of the people of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has been put on the back burner because of the tragic crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but will she accept that this country has a unique responsibility for what has taken place? Mr. Mugabe, who, basically, was displaced in a democratic vote in his country, still hangs on to power, and millions of people are starving. He is cocking a snook at the world, including African countries. May we have an early topical debate in the Chamber, if not before the end of the Session, early in the new one? Will she reassure me that we are not going to forget the people of Zimbabwe?

The hon. Gentleman has a long record of raising the issue of Zimbabwe in the House. I should like to reassure him and the House that there is no question of the dire plight of the people of Zimbabwe being put on the back burner. As he will recognise, it is a difficult situation, but the country expects us to have an important role working with other countries throughout the world, including in Europe and the African Union, to do what we can to resolve the dire situation that afflicts the people of Zimbabwe. I take his remarks as a proposal for a topical debate.

My right hon. and learned Friend knows that the pre-Budget report will be on Monday, when, it seems, we will also discuss the Information Commissioner’s salary. In between those things, we will discuss the rather important business of the Planning Bill, which remains controversial. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that there is sufficient time to debate it properly. A number of amendments will be tabled, and it would be quite wrong for the time given to it to be squeezed any more than it has been.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. It is important that we have the amount of time that we need. Consideration of the Planning Bill will come before the motion on the Information Commissioner’s salary.

I hope that the Leader of the House might consider a ministerial statement on the scheme that the Government have announced for free cavity wall and loft insulation for elderly people. The Rev. Sydney Willcox is among my constituents who have written to tell me that they had to meet their own costs, because when they applied for grants, they had run out. I suspect that that will be of interest to other hon. Members whose constituents have similar problems. I should like a statement on the matter.

I will ask the relevant Minister to look into the case that the right hon. Member has mentioned. The programme to ensure maximum insulation is very important, not only because it protects people from the costs of the increased energy prices, but because it helps to reduce carbon emissions. I will ensure that we look at the matter and that the programme goes ahead smoothly.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary made an announcement that made it an offence for men to seek prostitutes who have been trafficked or who are being held against their will. I welcome that move and believe that it is an absolutely right, valid step. I was appalled yesterday to hear the English Collective of Prostitutes arguing that it was a retrograde measure. How could it be when we are seeking to protect vulnerable women? I welcome and endorse the measure. Will my right hon. and learned Friend persuade the Home Secretary to come to the House to make a statement on the measure, so that we can squash once and for all the appalling rhetoric that comes out of that organisation?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the consistent work that she has done for many years to tackle the problem of the sexual exploitation of women. I hope that everyone in the House welcomes the Government’s determination to protect the vulnerable victims of human trafficking, and women from this country who are forced into prostitution. For them, prostitution is not a choice, because they are made vulnerable by mental illness, or alcohol or drug addiction. We must recognise that those women are vulnerable only because of the sex trade, and the sex trade is only there because of men choosing to pay for sex. The question is this: whose rights should we protect? Should we protect vulnerable women from exploitation, or the right of men to buy sex? I certainly know my answer to those questions.

I pay tribute to those on both sides of the House who have raised this issue, many of whom are here today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). On this issue, we will look back and ask ourselves, “Why did we ever say that there should be a law to prevent the sale of a faulty iron, yet allow men to pay for sex?”

May I support the request for an early debate on the state of the economy? I should personally like the opportunity to explain, and apologise for, a phrase that I used on Monday, when I said that the recession must run its course. I realise that that may have caused deep offence to victims of the recession. I meant that the economy cannot recover until levels of private sector debt have been reduced. I did not mean to convey the impression that I thought that the Government should not help the victims of the recession, and I fully support borrowing by the Government to do so. May we have that early debate?

I am sure that everybody will have taken note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. As one hon. Member said earlier this week, it is an important time for everyone, including different countries, to pull together, to ensure that the impact of the global economic downturn in this country is as short and as shallow as we would all wish.

May we have a debate on the future of the British manufacturing industry? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that Rolls-Royce has today announced 2,000 redundancies worldwide, including a significant number in this country. I must tell her, in the nicest possible way, that there is a school of thought among those in the manufacturing industry, including both employers and employees, that the House does not give priority to manufacturing when compared with other things. That has been crystallised today by the Leader of the Opposition, who is more interested in John Sergeant and who is drinking cups of coffee.

My hon. Friend is a long-standing champion of manufacturing industry, in Scotland and throughout this country. He has raised the question of Rolls-Royce job losses, which are very worrying indeed. This is an important British company, and 4 per cent. of its work force in this country will be affected. Once again, this shows the importance of Government action to support investment, apprenticeships and training, and of Government action through the regional development agencies. This is not the moment to stand back and say that there is nothing we can do. This is the moment for us to step forward and to recognise the importance not only of small businesses but of our big manufacturing companies, and for the Government to back them up.[Official Report, 24 November 2008, Vol. 483, c. 7MC.]

I seek the assistance of the Leader of the House regarding the efficiency of ministerial correspondence and response rates. I say this following the remarks made by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), on local radio on 14 October. When talking about upper gastro-intestinal cancer surgery at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, he said that “twice as many people” were “dying unnecessarily” at the hospital. That has caused deep offence to the clinicians and staff there. Patient groups, the trust and I wrote immediately to the Minister asking him either to provide evidence for his claim or to apologise, but we have received no response whatever. Will the Leader of the House use whatever influence she has to expedite a response?

I will look into the question of ministerial correspondence that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I would also say, in respect of the stance taken by my hon. Friend the Minister, that he was making what I think is a very important point. That is that the outcomes for those suffering from gastro-intestinal problems are very much dependent on specialisation and expertise, and we obviously want services to be accessible to people as locally as possible. However, we must also keep a close eye on what is the best outcome for patients, especially those who are suffering from cancer. My hon. Friend the Minister was engaging in a big discussion that has been taking place in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the country, on how we can ensure that the very best services are delivered for patients, and that we do not have a postcode lottery.

Twice in the past 18 years—in Bosnia and in Rwanda—western Governments have been reluctant to intervene in ethnic conflicts that subsequently escalated into genocide. This month, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is on the brink of another civil war, only two years after its presidential election, following 10 years of civil war and 35 years of dictatorship. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence will shortly have to decide on our Government’s position regarding providing further assistance to the Government in the DRC. May I suggest that we have a debate on this matter, so that the whole House can consider the arguments for and against increasing our involvement, and that of our European partners, in the eastern DRC, to ensure that the present conflict does not escalate into total civil war and genocide?

My hon. Friend’s concern about the Democratic Republic of the Congo was echoed widely in our topical debate on the subject a couple of weeks ago. He will know that the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown, has recently returned from that part of Africa and is working with our international partners in the United Nations and the European Union. I will also raise my hon. Friend’s points with the Foreign Secretary.

Can the Leader of the House tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government will accept the strongly worded recommendation from the European Parliament earlier this year that piracy be treated as a criminal offence rather than an act of war? The effect of doing that would be to require our armed forces to risk their lives trying to capture pirates—who might then, in some circumstances, be able to claim asylum—rather than simply blowing them out of the water, as the Indian navy has just done.

If the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to look at the draft legislative programme that we published earlier this year, he might have seen our proposal to change the law on our obligations in relation to piracy at sea. I suggest that he await the inclusion of such issues in the legislation to be introduced following the Queen’s Speech.

I would like to call for a debate on the misuse of drugs, whether controlled drugs or otherwise. In the past two weeks, the House has been denied a full debate on the reclassification of cannabis, unlike in 2004 when there was a full debate on that matter. A further controversy involves the vigorous debate that is taking place outside the House on whether treating addicts in residential accommodation or treating them by maintaining them on substitute drugs is the right way forward. It is a long time since we had a debate in the Chamber on the misuse of substances, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will agree to organise one.

As my hon. Friend has made clear, the question of drug abuse and addiction crosses a range of issues, including children and young people, crime and health. I will look at his proposal that we should find an opportunity for the House to debate the issue across the piece.

Has this week been so uneventful that the Leader of the House can find no subject at all for today’s topical debate, or is she beginning to lose confidence in this innovation?

We are having a debate on fisheries this afternoon. That is a very important issue for our coastal towns. There will also be an important statement from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, which will be topical.

On 7 October, I tabled early-day motion 2191, to express my concern that the Government had yet to ratify the United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities.

[That this House is concerned by the delay in the Government’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; notes that to date 41 signatories have ratified this progressive international human rights instrument, including Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, India, Kenya, New Zealand, Niger, Paraguay, Qatar, South Africa, Spain and Tunisia; believes that the UK’s delay in ratification compromises the Government’s existing achievements and objectives in tackling disability discrimination; and calls upon the Government to ratify the Convention without reservation or further delay.]

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the reassurance that ratification would be announced before the end of this year is still on track? We run the risk of compromising our extensive achievements of the past 10 or 11 years in tackling disability discrimination, and ratification of the convention would be the last piece in the jigsaw. May we also have a debate on the subject?

My hon. Friend is right to draw our attention to the need to press forward with our support for the rights of people with disabilities. I know that he will welcome and support our new equality Bill, which will entrench rights and opportunities, and offer people with disabilities protection from discrimination. I do not know the technical details relating to how on track we are with the ratification, but I would say that, across health, education, the Home Office and the Government Equalities Office, we are really pressing forward to highlight issues of concern for people with disabilities.

Please may we have an urgent debate on the impact that retrospective changes to rating arrangements are having on businesses in the statutory ports? I was recently told by representatives of those businesses, which employ about 100,000 people, that the ports sector is now facing multi-million pound bills as a result of those changes, which were carried out without any impact assessment. Those liabilities have to be accounted for in the current accounting year, and many firms risk being tipped over into bankruptcy as a result of those bills arriving at a time when the sector is being badly hit by the economic downturn.

Across the piece, the Government are looking at how we can support business in this difficult time of global economic downturn. I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s point to the attention of the relevant Minister. The hon. Gentleman might also like to look for an opportunity to raise the matter during the statement on the pre-Budget report.

Is the Leader of the House aware that only 7 per cent. of UK households are able to leave out batteries for collection by a recycling scheme? Under new European Union regulations, we shall have to recycle 25 per cent. of our household batteries by 2012. Will she grant time for a debate on recycling, so that the House can explore ways of meeting that target, including making facilities such as battery bins more widely available—perhaps even in the House?

It is important in all respects for this House to be setting an example, but my hon. Friend is right to say that recycling materials safely saves the cost of landfill and the pressure that that puts on space. People sometimes jeer at such suggestions as examples of political correctness or the nanny state, but they are really important for sustainability. I shall draw her remarks to the attention of Ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Two constituencies adjoin: in one, a secondary school has been demolished and not replaced, rail services have been cut and many post offices closed, and there is no hospital; in the other, there is to be a new railway station and a new hospital. What is more, the out-patient facility in the first constituency is being closed and transferred to the second constituency. The first constituency is the Conservative marginal seat of Wellingborough, and the second is the Labour marginal seat of Corby. Can we have a statement on Labour’s gerrymandering?

The hon. Gentleman has made some very unjustified allegations about the motivation behind the allocation of investment. I am not going to look for time for a debate or pass his remarks on to Ministers; in fact, I am going to ignore them.