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Business of the House

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 11 December 2008

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 15 December—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. The economy, pensions and welfare will be debated.

Tuesday 16 December—Estimates (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate on energy prices, fuel poverty and Ofgem, followed by a debate on dental services. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Energy prices, Fuel poverty and Ofgem (Eleventh Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, HC 293; Government response— Seventh special Report HC1069; and further Oral Evidence of 24 and 25 November); and Dental services (Fifth Report from the Health Committee, HC 289; and Government response—Cm 7470).]

At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 17 December—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by Third Reading of the Banking Bill, followed by motion to consider the Value Added Tax (Change of Rate) Order 2008, followed by motion to approve a resolution relating to parliamentary pensions. I have tabled that motion today. Copies of the explanatory memorandum and the motion are available from the Vote Office. That will be followed by motions relating to the Electoral Commission.

Thursday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 12 January will include:

Monday 12 January—Second Reading of the Business Rate Supplements Bill.

Tuesday 13 January—Second Reading of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill.

Wednesday 14 January—Opposition Day (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 15 January—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.

We expect to have an oral statement on Equitable Life in the week commencing Monday 12 January.

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

Thursday 15 January—A debate on the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee entitled “Policing and Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland: the Cost of Policing the Past”.

Thursday 22 January—A debate on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport annual report 2008.

Thursday 29 January—A debate on the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Before I come on to the forthcoming business, as these are the last business questions before Christmas, may I take the opportunity to wish you, Mr. Speaker, all the staff of the House and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

On the future business, however, I note that the Leader of the House announced a statement on Equitable Life in the first week back after Christmas. Last week, the Prime Minister promised to the House a statement on Equitable Life before Christmas. So will the Prime Minister come to the House to explain why his Chancellor is not doing what the Prime Minister promised the House he would do? Given that the Leader of the House, on numerous occasions, told us that the statement would be given in autumn, perhaps she can explain why this is the first time in living history that autumn has extended into January?

I will give the hon. Gentleman that one.

Following the disclosure yesterday by the chief executive of Ofsted that three children are killed by abuse every week, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is today due to announce a major shake-up in social services under the children’s plan. This announcement is in a written statement. Why has the right hon. Gentleman not come to the House to be questioned by Members on this crucial issue?

When the Government announced approval for two new aircraft carriers in July 2007, the Defence Secretary made an oral statement. Today, when it is widely reported that he is to announce a delay in their approval, the Defence Secretary is making only a written statement, which, I understand, was not even available in the Vote Office or the Library at the start of business questions. That written statement will, of course, prevent Members from asking key questions about the impact on the defence budget, on jobs and on national security. Again, why is the Defence Secretary not making an oral statement to the House?

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made an oral statement on welfare reform, but will the Leader of the House explain why, the day before, the right hon. Gentleman released an extract from his statement to the press? That was a blatant disregard of his duty to the House. Will the right hon. and learned Lady reassure us that she will speak to her Cabinet colleagues and tell them that this House takes precedence over the media?

Last year, in the final business questions before Christmas, I asked the Leader of the House to

“commit to a debate on the economic slow-down, and the problems in the banking industry and their effects on the housing market”.—[Official Report, 13 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 465.]

She did not give us a debate in Government time then, and she has not given us that debate a year later; the debates on the economy have been chosen by the Opposition. Given that that the pound has now hit its lowest level against the euro and the German Finance Minister has said that the Government’s switch to “crass Keynesianism is breathtaking”, when will the Government give us a full debate in Government time on the economy?

Yesterday, I had a meeting with representatives of Derby and Nottingham chamber of commerce, who expressed dismay at the Government’s announcement this week on home information packs. As the housing market continues to plummet, the Housing Minister is cancelling provisions that allowed sellers to put their homes on the market before the HIP was completed. Sellers will now have to wait longer and have a raft of paperwork in place before they can even put their home up for sale, which is hardly the way to stimulate our stagnant property market. Can we have an oral statement from the Housing Minister, so that Members can question her on that ridiculous policy?

The Leader of the House recently asked the women’s institute to put pressure on local newspapers not to carry advertisements for the sex industry. What a pity that she cannot persuade the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to join her campaign. A new report shows that Jobcentre Plus advertised 351 vacancies in the adult entertainment industry last year, including adverts for

“topless/semi nude bar staff”

and “nude cleaners”. Two jobseekers complained that they were asked to perform sexual services after contacting an employer about a vacancy advertised at Jobcentre Plus. Will the Leader of the House, in her role as Minister for Women, take steps to end this hypocrisy within Government?

Finally, last week at The House Magazine “Year ahead in Parliament” conference, when talking about the economy, the right hon. and learned Lady said

“I know what it’s like for everyone, stuck in a job with an outrageous boss”.

How can she possibly say that about the man who saved the world?

The right hon. Lady mentioned Equitable Life. I acknowledge that we said that the statement would be ready in the autumn, but it is important to note that the issue has its roots in problems that started in the 1980s. In the summer, there was a substantial report from the ombudsman that needed consideration. We are talking about important issues, and if the Treasury needs to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, it should do so. Surely it is more important that the report is properly considered before it is brought to the House than for us to have an artificial timetable. The statement will be made in January.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has made a number of statements on the children’s plan. Issues to do with it were set out in the draft legislative programme, and there have been a number of statements, debates and discussions on it.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned aircraft carriers and the armed forces. There will be a debate on that in the week in which we return from the recess. [Interruption.]

The right hon. Lady talked about welfare reform—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister is replying to questions. [Interruption.] Order. It ill becomes hon. Members—and right hon. Members, for that matter—to barrack a Minister who is giving a reply in good faith. It should not be done.

On welfare reform, we make no apology for constantly considering how we can ensure that people who lose their jobs are helped into work as quickly as possible, and how we can increase the requirement on people not only to look for a job, but to be prepared to receive support that gets them to a position in which they can get a job. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady that there is no way that jobcentres should be used as places in which to advertise jobs in sexual services, lap-dancing jobs, and jobs in sex encounter establishments. I raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and he is reviewing the situation. We do not want any of those sorts of jobs in our jobcentres.

The right hon. Lady wished the House a merry Christmas. She obviously hoped that there would not be a business statement next week, but I have to disappoint her; there will be a business statement next week, so she can repeat her Christmas greetings then.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the economy. There will, of course, be a debate on the economy next Monday. As far as the German Finance Minister is concerned, Germany went into this world economic crisis with higher levels of unemployment and Government debt than us. However, it, too, has sought to recapitalise its banks; it, too, has benefited from a cut in interest rates; and it, too, has provided fiscal stimulus—in its case of €31 billion. It has taken action on its economy, and we have taken action on ours.

As for the man who saved the world, I would rather have Superman than the leader of the right hon. Lady’s party, who is the Joker. [Interruption.]

The Opposition obviously did not like that. Wonder Woman does it again.

Seriously, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will join me in congratulating Mr. Ron Cox, one of our Doorkeepers. He is nicknamed “the father of the Doorkeepers” because he is the longest-serving of them. He looks an awful lot younger than he is—I did not believe that he was up for retirement. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in putting on record the House’s thanks for all his hard work, done in an efficient, professional and pleasant way, and wish him and his family well in his retirement?

I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments, and thank not only Ron Cox, the father of the Doorkeepers, for all his years of service to the House, but all the Doorkeepers and staff who work so hard on behalf of Parliament.

May I first associate myself with the timely request from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat)? We send our best wishes to Ron Cox, his family and his colleagues.

May I join the strong protests from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on two matters that are quite inexcusable? First, every week, my constituents ask me about the Equitable Life statement, and I am sure that that is the case, too, for other hon. Members. We have told them, “Yes, it has taken too long for the Government to respond to the ombudsman’s statement, but there will be a statement before Christmas.” Autumn ends on21 December according to the latest definition, but the statement has now been postponed until the new year. Will the Leader of the House relay to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and to other colleagues that to promise a statement of such importance to so many people, but then not to deliver it, undermines confidence in their ability to respond?

Secondly, may I make the strongest protest about the fact that yesterday we had a full day’s debate on foreign affairs and defence, but there was no word of an announcement about the aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The Order Paper, however, shows that there is a written statement today, which clearly indicates that there will be a postponement of that aspect of defence procurement. On behalf of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and of many people with jobs and job interests in all parts of the country, may I say that it is not acceptable to announce good news on the Floor of the House and bad news later, so we cannot quiz the relevant Minister on the basis of the statement, when it is placed in the Library and the Vote Office?

May I ask the Leader of the House to amend her planning for next week to make sure that the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs appears before the House? On 26 November, there was a credit card summit, at which I gather the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs asked credit and store card companies to consider a reduction in the amount of interest that they charge on credit cards. Those charges have gone up in the past 12 months to an average 17.7 per cent., which, for most people who face the prospect of having to buy things at Christmas, is not the right way for them to go—they are far too expensive. There is a meeting today between those companies and the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs, at which the companies will report whether they have heeded the Government’s request to cut profits and help consumers. Will the Leader of the House make sure that the Minister comes to the House to answer questions, so we can see whether the Government have persuaded those companies that they have to help consumers?

Next Thursday’s business for Westminster Hall is a debate on the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on human rights around the world, which is very welcome. However, before we break for Christmas, may we have a debate on human rights in this country? May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on what she is going to do about the case of S and Marper, in which the European Court decided that DNA samples from innocent people cannot be kept—many of us have been saying that for a long time—so the Government will have to change their policy? May we have an explanation why my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill has resigned as the Government’s adviser on constitutional affairs, saying that, after a good start, the Government’s recent record was “dismal and deeply disappointing”, and why the Government persist in wanting to go ahead with identity cards, even though all the evidence is that they are going to be ridiculously expensive and inefficient?

Finally, on the business of the House, will the Leader of the House tell us about any follow-up to the debate on Monday, and whether she has had a conversation with you, Mr. Speaker, or your office, about what is going to happen to the Committee that she, with her colleagues, forced on the House against our understanding of your wishes? I am sure that she knows the figures: only one colleague not in the Labour party voted for her position on Monday, and colleagues from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party, Respect and the independent groups voted against her. All but a handful of Labour Ministers were present, but the Government majority was four. If she wants to have the confidence of the House, may we have a new proposal for a Committee, as Mr. Speaker recommended, and may we have it soon?

The hon. Gentleman returned to the question raised by the shadow Leader of the House about Equitable Life. During the course of business questions in earlier months, I tried to give a sense of timing with regard to when this important statement would come before the House. If hon. Members think that that raised expectations and was insufficiently specific, I could have said, “This statement will come before the House when it is ready,” but I was trying to be helpful. It is in that spirit that I say that I hope that there will be an oral statement next week, but we are trying to be as helpful as possible, and the House will recognise that this is a big issue. There is a big report to be considered and we cannot be that specific about when it will be available, but we will try to give as much indication as possible.

As far as defence procurement is concerned, work is under way on the aircraft carriers that have been procured, and that work will be carried forward. It is important that Government policy is that public procurement, whether in housing, transport or defence, is brought forward, because many jobs depend on it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about consumer affairs and credit cards. I have said that there will be a debate on Monday on the economy, but we had Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform questions just this morning, when he could have put those questions to Ministers. We know that those issues are important, and that they should be kept before the House, which should be given an opportunity to hear from Ministers as regularly as possible.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned human rights and the European court case that dealt with the retention of DNA. I have two things to say about that. First, I find it ironic that other hon. Members—not the hon. Gentleman—protest about the violation of human rights, but would abolish the Human Rights Act. That is inconsistent. The hon. Gentleman does not share that inconsistency, but if one of his constituents were the victim of crime, they would want the police to be able to find the offender and bring them to justice. DNA evidence is vital in ensuring that the police can find people, especially in cases of rape and other sexual offences. It means that offenders who would have escaped justice are brought before the courts and punished. DNA records are very important in the detection and investigation of crime, but we will, of course, consider the implications of the European court judgment for our policy. When we have considered it, if we have anything to say, no doubt we will say it.

On the question of the search of the House in relation to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will know that the Public Administration Committee is looking into the question of leaks, and the Cabinet Secretary has appeared before that Committee. He made it absolutely clear that he will not comment on any issues that are the subject of a police investigation, and that is rightly the case. The Home Affairs Committee will look into the police search of the House, but when I gave evidence to that Committee the day before yesterday, I suggested that it should not put itself in the position—especially as it is the Home Affairs Committee—of carrying out the same investigation as the police. Progress on the Speaker’s Committee, which was the subject of a motion of the House on Monday, is a matter for the Speaker.

Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the decision of the England cricket team to return to India for the test series? Could we have some parliamentary time to look at the implications of what happened in Mumbai for the fight against global terrorism? Will she confirm that there will be a ministerial visit to India at the earliest opportunity? So far, no British Minister has visited, and it is important to show solidarity with a country that is so close to ours.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s welcome of the England cricket team’s visit to India. Ministers in our Foreign Office have been highly active, working with their colleagues in the Indian Government and the Pakistan Government. Everybody shares the huge concern and grief for those who lost their lives and were badly injured in Mumbai, and remembers that Pakistan suffered with the Marriott hotel explosion. Not only have our Ministers been active in supporting the Indian and Pakistan Governments fight against terrorism—we hope that they work together in that endeavour—but they have been working with the Pakistan and Indian community here. We will continue to be active in international work to tackle terrorism.

The Leader of the House will be aware that in the foreign affairs and defence debate yesterday, concern was expressed on both sides of the House about what is happening in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, given the length and breadth of the debate, we were not able to deal with that subject in the depth that it deserves. She will also be aware that a review of future strategy on Afghanistan is taking place in the United States at the moment. Will she arrange for the Prime Minister to come to this House to make a statement on future policy in Afghanistan, and provide a full day for a debate on Afghanistan where the House can fully explore, in depth, the concerns that exist?

I take the points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made, and I will raise those with the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Foreign Affairs. We recognise that those on both sides of the House want to debate our involvement of Afghanistan and hear from Ministers about it.

The House will be aware that Holocaust memorial day takes place on 27 January next year. The theme for that day is “stand up to hatred”. It is very timely, given the European and local elections held later in the year. This year, my right hon. and learned Friend allowed the House a debate on Holocaust memorial day that was supported by all parties. It was an excellent debate, and it gave us time to give credit to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, among other organisations. Will she consider a similar debate to mark 27 January next year?

We had an important and valuable debate on Holocaust memorial day this year, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. We will look for another opportunity to debate it next year; we must never forget these important issues.

May we have an early debate on the written statement made last week by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on the closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices? As I explained to the House in a point of order yesterday, his statement indicated that the Lerwick office in my constituency would be retained, and that it was not part of the review. At the time when that statement was made, HMRC management were arranging to remove the last of its staff, so we might have an office that is open with nobody working in it. I do not question for a second the good faith of the Financial Secretary, who is a man of integrity who is respected on both sides of the House, but it is clear to me that elements in HMRC management do not feel accountable to anyone. We need to make them accountable, and an early debate in this place would be an important start to that process.

If I may, I will ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to write to the hon. Gentleman about the Lerwick HMRC office.

Can we have a debate in Government time to look at the behaviour of the management of the Sunday Herald, The Herald and the Evening Times? Those are quality campaigning newspapers in Scotland, and this time last week, 240 journalists were brought into a room and summarily dismissed. Bizarrely, they were given 90 days’ notice, and then even more bizarrely, they were told to reapply for far fewer jobs. That is totally unacceptable behaviour and shows the need to look at trade union legislation again.

I am sure that the journalists and staff at those newspapers will have the solid support of my hon. Friend and their trade union. Their management will no doubt have heard the points that he has raised and reflect on the fact that there is support on this side of the House for those points.

The autumn has long since gone but

“Now is the winter of our discontent”

because the Prime Minister reneged on a solemn commitment to the House, which was given in the debate on the Queen’s Speech last week, that we would have an Equitable Life statement before Christmas. What are we to say to those of our constituents who are affected, most of whom are elderly and many of whom live on modest means? Indeed, some have already died. When will the Government make a statement to ensure that those people are able to live better in the future, because they have been seriously disadvantaged through no fault of their own?

No one thinks that this is not a serious issue, and it is because it is a serious and important matter that we wanted to ensure that the Treasury has the time necessary to consider it. On the question of what the hon. Lady should tell her constituents, she should say that the statement will be in January.

Many of us have constituents who work for Woolworths. Will the Department for Work and Pensions issue a statement in the near future that gives advice about where those people can go for assistance if they need it, particularly in relation to some of the measures that the Government have recently introduced to help people through these difficult times during the economic downturn? May we have a statement to provide at least some respite to those who have had the worst possible news this side of Christmas?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern for those employed by Woolworths, many of whom have worked there for many years. This has been devastating news for them, and I reassure them that the Government will do everything we possibly can to help them with a difficult situation before Christmas. Jobcentre Plus will be on hand to ensure that they are pointed in the right direction for any training that they might need and towards any vacancies that are available. We will certainly not simply stand by and say that unemployment is a price worth paying and that they can get on their bike. We will give those affected every help possible.

What kind of Government will not even come to the House and make an oral statement about serious defence procurement delays? Journalists outside the House were being invited to a briefing at the Ministry of Defence, while the written statement was not even available to Members. That is totally unacceptable. When can we have a debate in Government time about the complete hash that they are making of defence procurement funding arrangements?

That is not the situation at all; we are pressing forward with important defence procurement. Regarding the enthusiasm for that subject shown by Opposition Members, I say to them that receipts coming into the Treasury are decreasing because of stamp duty and the retail sector is declining, so VAT receipts are decreasing. If defence spending is to be maintained at such a time—we have committed to maintain it—borrowing has to increase. I hope that all of those who want defence procurement to continue will support our decision to allow borrowing to rise.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend either initiate a debate in the House or consult the appropriate House authorities about an important matter? A few weeks ago, Scope had an event in the Terrace Pavilion. Most of the representatives were wheelchair bound and had to go through a designated smoking area to gain access to that part of the Palace. That is disgraceful and totally unacceptable. Will my right hon. and learned Friend have another look at that so that we show the rest of the country that we practise what we preach?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a serious issue when people who need wheelchair access have to go through a fog of tobacco smoke. Perhaps the shadow Leader of the House, other members of the House of Commons Commission and I can consider that matter.

The plans for the publication of Members’ expenses are: to ensure that we comply with the laws passed by the House and that the public have the information that they need to reassure them that public money is being spent properly by Members as we do our work; to ensure that there is a redrafted green book; and to ensure that there is better audit and assurance to reassure the public. However, the amount spent on gathering information for the public must be proportionate, and there has to be a sense of balance. The public have the right to know and we must ensure that they have the information they need, but that has to be done at a reasonable and proportionate cost.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen the recent report “Carers in Crisis”, which shows, notwithstanding the improvements the Government have made, that carers continue to struggle and their true worth continues to be undervalued and under-rewarded? May we have a debate soon on the huge contribution that carers make to our country, as that would provide an opportunity for Ministers to spell out what more they intend to do to ensure that carers are supported properly?

I will look at finding time for a debate specifically on carers. The increase in the number of people with disabilities and in the number of people aged over 85 means that the issue will only get bigger. Most people want to ensure that their families can provide care, and that is what most families want. We have already taken action on the right to request flexible working for carers, and important services—the local authority health service, voluntary and respite services—support family carers. Providing cash to those who are unable to work as often as they would have been because they are caring is also important. I will consider the points my hon. Friend has raised and see whether we can find an opportunity to debate the matter.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport early next week on what has gone wrong with the latest Stonehenge project? It is not just a local or regional issue; it is a matter of national and international concern, because the visitor facilities are a national disgrace. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Transport and the Treasury are in agreement about the matter, and that the problem lies with one or more of the stakeholder partners in the project who cannot agree a compromise? Alternatively, as the chairman of the National Trust wrote in an article entitled “The neglect of our heritage is shameful” in The Guardian on 12 September, is it the case that

“In Britain, nobody gives a damn”?

It is certainly true that there has been a big focus on Stonehenge, and I know that the hon. Gentleman, as the local Member, has been anxious to be at the forefront of that. He will know that the stakeholders’ group met yesterday. This is a question not of whether Stonehenge will, as a site, be improved, protected and made more accessible, but of where the visitors centre will be, and of knocking heads together to ensure proper agreement. It is not that the Government have been holding back, but that we need to work with all the stakeholders to agree where the visitors centre should be.

May we have a debate on the role and powers of local authority trading standards services, because as trading conditions get more difficult, the likelihood is that there will be more disputes between consumers and retailers? I shall tell the Leader of the House about the long struggle that my constituent, Mr. James McMahon, has had with the major national company, Everest Windows, to get recompense for a faulty product. It took Mr. McMahon two years to fight his case through the county court. He was eventually vindicated and received compensation, but if trading standards services had had the power to intervene more forcefully in civil cases, all of that time, expense and anxiety could have been avoided to the benefit of the consumer and the retailer.

In difficult economic times, people want to ensure that their money is well spent and that they get value for money. I will raise my hon. Friend’s point with my fellow Ministers.

May we have a debate next week on a motion to refer the matter of the search of the offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) to the Committee on Standards and Privileges? The Leader of the House knows that the vote on Monday was profoundly unsatisfactory and that the result was distorted by the activities of the Labour Whips. It denied Mr. Speaker the purpose of his statement and kicked the matter into the long grass, where I know that the Leader of the House wants it to be. That is a disgrace and ought to be debated by the House on a motion to refer the matter to the remit of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

If a Member wants something to be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee, and if a motion is introduced to that effect, the Government make time available as soon as possible thereafter so that the House can express a view on whether it wants something to be referred to that Committee.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend urgently consider the inclusion of small-scale wind devices and air source heat pump devices in the terms of the general permitted development orders? She may be aware that the orders in respect of other microgeneration were laid last spring, that the devices I mention were excluded and that considerable distress is being caused to manufacturers by the fact that the orders have not yet been laid.

I wonder whether the Leader of the House could find time for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House next week to explain the Highways Agency’s extraordinary decision to close the A303 entirely for three months early next year. Aside from the west country, I can think of no region of the country where the main arterial route could be closed for a quarter of the year for the convenience of contractors, rather than being operated in the economic, environmental and social interests of the people whom I represent.

This is just the sort of issue that the hon. Gentleman’s regional Committee will want to address. As we will have that new accountability mechanism, he will not need to raise such an issue in business questions; he and his fellow Members who represent the region will be able to get to grips with it with the Highways Agency directly.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the strong support across the House for the campaign run by the Federation of Small Businesses to “Keep Trade Local”. Is she aware of my early-day motion 107, which calls on hon. Members to move on from that and to support the campaign by procuring their Christmas dinner from local shops and retailers in their constituency?

[That this House congratulates the Federation of Small Businesses on their Keep Trade Local campaign; notes that local high streets are increasingly under threat with 2,000 local shops closing each year; believes small businesses form an essential part of local communities and economies; and calls on hon. Members to source their Christmas dinners from small independent retailers in their constituencies in order to support local businesses at this time of economic difficulty.]

Only 29 Members have signed it so far, but, ever optimistic about the great generosity of all hon. Members, will she encourage Members to sign it and to procure their Christmas dinner from local suppliers, thus making it a merry Christmas not just in their households, but in those of our small retailers?

There are five more days in which to sign early-day motions before the Christmas recess, and hon. Members will be able to take note of the points my hon. Friend raises.

I am always anxious to give the Leader of the House the benefit of the doubt, so I accept that she was acting in good faith when she told the House in July, when the ombudsman’s report was published, that there would be a statement on Equitable Life in the autumn. I am less able to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt about what he told the House during the debate on the Address:

“There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that that will be done. There will be a statement”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 38.]

That was only a week ago. What has happened in that week? Has the Prime Minister saved the world but lost his grip here?

What was said then was that there was an expectation—[Interruption.] Well, it stands to reason, does it not, that if the statement had been ready, it would have been made, so what was being talked about was a statement that was under preparation? The preparation has taken a bit longer than anticipated, but I think that Members are going way beyond things if they are asserting that there has somehow been some calculation about the timing and that Ministers are not acting in good faith. All we have been trying to do is give a reasonable estimate of when the statement might be ready, and the latest estimate is that we hope it will be ready in the week of the 15th.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has just asked that the privilege issues relating to the search of the House be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. If he moves the motion that the Leader of the House advises, will she ensure that there is an opportunity to amend the motion to ensure that the standards issue inherent in the apparent suborning of a public servant to breach the civil service code is also considered by that Committee?

The Public Administration Committee and the Select Committee on Home Affairs are both looking into aspects of this. I understand that if there was a reference to standards and privileges, the Speaker would decide whether there should be a reference and a debate would then be held on a motion to the House.

On behalf of all colleagues whose constituencies have interests relating to dockyards or shipyards, or substantial defence interests, may I impress upon the Leader of the House that today’s written statement by the Secretary of State for Defence announcing a two-year delay in the procuring of both the aircraft carriers, on which thousands of jobs depend, which appears to fly in the face of Government policy to bring forward major spending projects, is completely unacceptable? Has she any idea of the dismay that this is causing thousands of constituents up and down the country? Will she, even at this late stage, bring the Defence Secretary to the Chamber so that we can quiz him about the implications for the jobs of our constituents?

We are very concerned not only that the right defence equipment should be procured, but that the jobs and skills dependent on it should be secure. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that with this Government’s support for capital expenditure and for public expenditure, we will sustain the capital investment that we have announced. Obviously, that involves a question of phasing, which will depend on the circumstances and on priorities. Unlike the Conservative party’s policy, our policy is to make sure that we sustain public investment.

Will the Government consider including in the Bill on political party funding that they announced they would introduce this Session measures to make political parties that receive donations that result from the proceeds of crime return the cash to the people from whom it was stolen? Will the Leader of the House examine the issue?

There will be an opportunity to consider that when the Political Parties and Elections Bill comes back to the House in the new year.

I am about to write to the hundreds of Equitable Life policyholders who have written to me about their concerns. Could the right hon. and learned Lady offer me a form of words so that I can explain to them, first, that they will have to spend another Christmas in a state of uncertainty and, secondly, why her promise that there will be a statement in the first week back in January is any better than the Prime Minister’s statement of a week ago or than her statement last July that this would be dealt with in the autumn?

May I also emphasise to the Leader of the House that the treatment of today’s written statement on defence equipment is disgraceful? May I suggest that she take some advice on the difference between personnel and equipment when she suggests that we will debate this next January?

The question of defence spending is a question of prioritisation between different sorts of equipment available for our armed forces personnel. Therefore, I was assuming that if Members were to catch the Speaker’s eye during the debate that will be held in our first week back, the question of what equipment is available for our armed forces would be within the remit of that debate. I was trying to assist hon. Members by saying that there would be an opportunity to debate these concerns. The hon. Gentleman does not need to patronise me and assume that I do not know the difference between a tank and somebody serving in the Army—I do.

On Equitable Life, I can only say what I have already said; I do not want to repeat it too often, but this was an expectation—[Interruption.] There was an expectation of when the statement would be ready, and I tried to assist the House by sharing that expectation with it. Hon. Members should be focused not only on the timing, but on what we are focused on: the substance of ensuring that we get the answer right on Equitable Life.

May we have a debate on the issues in early-day motion 229, which is about mobile termination rates?

[That this House notes that mobile telephones remain a popular gift for Christmas time, with an estimated one million telephones waiting under the tree this year; but regrets that in spite of this popularity, fixed and mobile customers in the UK will be charged in excess of £3 billion in unnecessary call charges in 2009 due to mobile termination rates; and calls on Ofcom to take immediate action to lower these outdated and unnecessary charges so that consumers can get a better deal from their new mobiles this Christmas.]

This Christmas many of our constituents will receive mobile telephones as presents, but £3 billion of unnecessary call charges will also be under the Christmas tree. May we therefore have a debate to explore those costs and expose the companies responsible, either on the Floor of the House or elsewhere with the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs?

My hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have been looking into the issue to ensure that there is no unfair charging. One of the things that my hon. Friend and others will welcome is the fact that the VAT reduction of 2½ per cent., which I am afraid Opposition Members have so derided, will help people with their mobile phone bills.

There is a sense of betrayal on the island of St. Helena at the Government’s failure to build an airport, which has been promised for many years. On Monday, there was a written statement, which said that there had been “a pause in negotiations”. For “pause” read: the dead hand of the Treasury cancelling the project. May I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 175, which is about the airport for the island of St. Helena, an overseas dependency, and reinstating the airport project?

[That this House agrees with the people and government of the island of St Helena that the construction of an airport is crucial for the island's economic future; notes that the British Government has for many years promised that an airport would be constructed, and that plans had reached an advanced stage where the award of a contract to build an airport was imminent; is therefore appalled at the announcement, by means of a Written Statement on 8 December 2008 by the Secretary of State for International Development, that there is now a pause in negotiations over the St Helena airport project which brings it to a halt; believes that the dead hand of the Treasury is responsible for the betrayal of this loyal overseas dependent territory; and calls on the Government to proceed with the award of a contract for the construction of an airport on the island of St Helena without further delay.]

Getting an airport is the only way in which the island and its people can have an economic future.

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise the matter if he seeks to intervene on the relevant Treasury Minister in the debate next Monday.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assist the Minister for the West Midlands in securing a meeting between the Coventry MPs and Mr. Adam Crozier, with whom we have been trying to arrange a meeting for many months about the relocation of the sorting office in Coventry to Northampton? The proposed relocation has the potential to cause an industrial dispute and, equally, has generated vast public concern in Coventry.

I will draw those points to the attention of my hon. Friends the Ministers concerned and ask them to write to my hon. Friend.

May I ask the Leader of the House, as I asked her colleague the Deputy Leader of the House some time ago, to investigate why the Department for Transport seems to be incapable of meeting deadlines for freedom of information requests? I know of at least two outstanding requests that took several months to receive a substantive answer. Today the Department will breach the 40-day maximum limit on internal reviews, and those answers that I have received have been shoddy. Will she investigate the matter and ask the Department why it seems to feel that it is above all guidelines set by the Information Commissioner?

My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House says that he has been looking into those questions on behalf of the hon. Lady. I will ask that she meet him, so that they can pursue the matter jointly with the Department for Transport.

Just over two hours ago, in the most important lottery in central London, 20 hon. Members were successful in the private Members’ Bills ballot. Assuming that none of them decides to adopt the excellent draft autism Bill, which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) introduced on 7 October, may we have what is by now a long-delayed debate on autism and in particular on improving the local planning and commissioning of services for people with autism? Two thirds of adults with autism say that they do not have access to appropriate services and only one in seven is in work. We need to ensure that they do not have to struggle to access the services that they deserve, so let us have a proper debate.

This issue could be raised in the six-hour Christmas Adjournment debate. I am sure that hon. Members will have the opportunity to raise the important issues of support services for those with autism and their families on that occasion.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the plight of the hundreds of small businesses in Britain’s ports and the enormous backdated rating demand, which many of them are quite unable to pay? I understand that since I raised the matter last week some informal guidance has been issued saying that they may not have to declare that on their balance sheets. However, all the legal and accounting advice is that the requirement remains. Those businesses will have to close on 1 January unless the Government improve their offer of simply phasing the payments.

The issue has been raised by a number of hon. Members and is obviously an important one, so I will raise it with Ministers in the Treasury and the Department for Transport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) asked the Prime Minister for a “concrete date” for when the Equitable Life statement would be made. The Prime Minister said:

“There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that that will be done.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 38.]

If we cannot believe the Prime Minister’s word, whose can we believe?

The point was that at the time he said that, obviously the statement was not ready; otherwise it would already have been before the House. The statement will be ready, we hope, shortly, but the important thing is not only that it comes forward as soon as it is ready, but that the substance is right.

Is it possible to have an early debate on the “Alice in Wonderland” workings of the Child Support Agency? I have a constituent with four children who is separated from her husband. She made a claim from the father, who built up arrears, but when one of the children went to live with the father temporarily while he was doing an education or training course, the father claimed from the mother, who had to pay him. That is absolutely nonsensical. As BT said, “It’s good to talk.” Is there any chance of the people in the Child Support Agency talking to one another, at least so that the payments that the mother would otherwise have made could be taken out of his arrears?

The hon. Gentleman should not minimise the important work done through the Child Support Agency. If people have children, they should be responsible for their financial upkeep and should not expect the taxpayer to foot the bill. The Child Support Agency has to deal with complex family circumstances, and he has just illustrated that. The more people there are who do not pay up and have to be chased, the more difficult it is for the CSA to devote its time to sorting out those sensitive and difficult cases. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will welcome the fact that the Queen’s Speech said that we will introduce a Bill—this was the subject of yesterday’s statement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—so that all child support payments will be disregarded in income-related benefits. That means that when parents—usually fathers—pay up, all the money will go to the children.

I received a letter this week with a postscript in the handwriting of the Minister concerned saying that the Government would make a statement to the House on Equitable Life. If the Minister who sent me that letter, which I received 48 hours ago, cannot be accurate, why has there been such a delay in bringing forward a statement from the appropriate Minister? To my mind, that is unacceptable. I do hope that the Leader of the House will accept that the matter is one of deep concern to hon. Members in all parts of the House. This has gone on long enough. The statement should be delivered to the House before Christmas.

I hear what hon. Members are saying and I know where they are coming from. I understand what the concerns are. We know where we are on this issue, which is that we will hopefully have a statement in the week of 15 January.

Today is the third anniversary of the Buncefield disaster in my constituency and I know that the Leader of the House will not be surprised that I am raising it with her. Today, Lord Newton will conclude his inquiry, which has been conducted behind closed doors. The Department for Work and Pensions has washed its hands of the explosion, yet we still have problems, with people who will never be able to return to their homes and thousands of workers, at this difficult time, with businesses that are just not safe enough to return to. Which Department will take responsibility from today onwards, and may we have a statement from a Minister from whichever Department that happens to be?

As the hon. Gentleman says, the third report—the major incident report—will be concluded today. The first two have already been published and the Government have responded to them. There is no question of the Government washing their hands of that important incident. We will reflect on the report and take the appropriate action.

Next week, will the Leader of the House investigate and make a statement on what seems to be a significant problem relating to the setting up of the regional Select Committees, resulting from the sloppy drafting of an amendment? If she looks at Hansard for 12 November, she will see that amendment (a) to her main motion, tabled by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), inserted the words:

“except that Chairmen of regional select committees shall not be paid.”—[Official Report, 12 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 810.]

I understand the intention of that amendment, but because of its sloppy drafting, it means that no hon. Member can be the Chairman of a regional Select Committee—because all hon. Members are paid, as Members of Parliament.

The intention of the amendment was clear. It means that the Chairs should not be paid for their work as the Chair. It does not refer to their being paid in respect of their work as Members. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that it will not be possible for Members to chair those Committees because they would then lose their parliamentary salaries as Members; they will not.