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Business of the House

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 18 December 2008

With permission, I shall make a statement about the business for the week commencing 12 January:

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—General debate on Iraq: future strategic relationship.

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

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 January will include:

Monday 19 January—Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill.

Tuesday 20 January—Motion to approve European documents relating to a European framework for action and European economic recovery plan, followed by a motion to approve European documents relating to financial management, followed by a motion to approve European documents relating to EU-Russia Relations.

Wednesday 21 January—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 January—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate, subject to be announced.

Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I also offer my best wishes for Christmas and the new year to all hon. Members and, on behalf of all hon. Members, may I offer all our best wishes for Christmas and the new year to the Clerks of the House, the Officers of the House, the catering team, the cleaners, the police, the Doorkeepers and all who keep the House running smoothly? Everyone deserves a good Christmas.

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. She is here fresh from her performance at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. As this is the season of good will, I thought that it might be helpful if I were to point out a few mistakes that she made. First, she said that the Conservative party

“opposed our action to recapitalise the banks.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 1090.]

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out, that is categorically not the case.

Secondly, the Leader of the House claimed, in column 1095, that we opposed the right to request flexible working for parents with children under six, but the official record of the debates on flexible working shows that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said from the Front Bench:

“I would like to place on the record my support for flexible working.”––[Official Report, Employment Public Bill Committee, 24 January 2002; c. 602.]

The right hon. and learned Lady’s third error was to claim that the Conservative national loan guarantee scheme

“is not a guarantee of anything to anybody.” —[Official Report, 17 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 1090.]

Well, that is a different view to that taken by the Federation of Small Businesses, which said that it

“welcomes plans by the Conservative Party to guarantee billions of pounds worth of business lending through this tough credit climate.”

I am sure that the Leader of the House, not wishing inadvertently to mislead anyone, will be keen to correct the Hansard record on these points as soon as possible.

The Leader of the House has confirmed that on 17 January there will be a general debate on armed forces personnel. Last week, when I asked why the Defence Secretary had not made an oral statement on the delay in the procurement of two aircraft carriers, the Leader of the House said:

“There will be a debate on that in the week in which we return from the recess.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 677.]

It would normally be out of order to discuss procurement in a debate on personnel so will she now change the title of that debate to include procurement?

Yesterday, on a point of order, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said he had learned that the Government were set to ratify the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking. No statement has been made to the House and he was not informed, although he is chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on trafficking. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether the convention has now been ratified and explain why that welcome news was not given in a statement to the House?

Last week, I raised the fact that the Housing Minister had cancelled provisions allowing sellers to put their homes on the market before a home information pack had been completed. Yet days after she condemned home owners for exploiting that loophole, her own Department did exactly that when advertising the ex-Home Secretary’s former grace and favour home. If the Government are going to insist on measures that will do nothing to help our ailing housing market, they should at least have the decency to adhere to them themselves. May we have a debate on double standards in Government?

Finally, as this will be a difficult Christmas for many families as they tighten their purse strings, they must be galled to see the Government wasting taxpayers’ money. The Department for Transport introduced an efficiency programme that was supposed to save £57 million but has cost £81million. The Ministry of Justice has spent £130 million on refurbishing an old office block, at a cost of £915 per square metre—18 times more than a standard refurbishment. I can only assume the current Lord Chancellor has been taking design advice from Lord Irvine of Lairg. Finally, we hear that the taxpayer is paying for training for the Culture Secretary to improve his public speaking, for the Home Secretary to boost her confidence and for Lord Mandelson to learn how to use a BlackBerry. I suppose that he is more used to issuing instructions than to taking them. May we have a debate on Government profligacy?

I jumped the gun somewhat last week, but as this is definitely the last business questions before Christmas, may I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr. Speaker, and all the Officers and staff of the House and all right hon. and hon. Members a very happy Christmas and new year?

The right hon. Lady is right this time as this is the last business questions before Christmas, although she is still lacking somewhat in Christmas spirit. She made several points about what I said yesterday. If she wants to challenge what I say at Prime Minister’s questions, she should make her party let her do them. When the Prime Minister is not available for questions, she should stand in for the Opposition, instead of being left to answer the questions on Thursday. As it is panto season, let me say that at least I got to play the principal boy yesterday. Like Cinderella, she had to sit in the shadows.

The right hon. Lady suggested that we have debates on double standards in Government and Government profligacy. They sound more like Opposition day debates than Government debates and I suggest that she choose them. She also suggested that we broaden the terms of the debate on armed services personnel. I said last time that procurement issues are vital for armed services personnel, but I will consider her request.

The right hon. Lady asked about human trafficking, and I will write to her and set out all the work that is being done across Government on that issue. What is really important is what is done in the voluntary sector, to tackle advertisements in newspapers, by the police, by the prosecution service and by the courts. A wide range of work is being done on the issue and I shall write to her with the details. I thank her for her support on that issue.

May I start by associating myself and my colleagues with the wishes expressed through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to Mr. Speaker and to you and your colleagues and all the staff of the House for the coming Christmas?

On a sober note, I know that I reflect the views of the House when I say that our thoughts are not only with the families of the servicemen and women who have died in this last year. In London in particular, we have had a year when far too many young people have died from knife and gun crime or have suffered other violent deaths. Our thoughts are with their families, too. We realise that they will have a very difficult Christmas, but I hope that they will have the support of the communities in which they live and that they will continue to get that support.

I thought that the Leader of the House did rather well yesterday, and I was not going to make any rude comments about her. I will therefore associate myself with only one little request that was made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which is that the debate on defence in the new year should be on the wider subject of personnel and procurement. That is the only way in which to ensure that we have a debate that covers not only the commissioning of aircraft carriers and the rest, which is a matter of huge interest, but the wider matters of training and the whole set of armed forces and defence issues that will arise in the new year.

In the past six months, we have been told that 320,000 people have lost their jobs. The latest unemployment figures show that 1.86 million people are now out of work and there are further announcements to come. For example, Woolworths has announced that 26,000 people are likely to be out of work in the first part of the new year. On 3 October, the Prime Minister announced the setting up of the National Economic Council. Rather than frustrating requests and Government responses on the subject of when we are going to have debates about the economic difficulties that the nation is in, may I suggest that in the new year the Prime Minister or the Chancellor should come to the House every month to make a statement on the reports or activities of the National Economic Council and that we should have monthly debates on the state of the British economy? Sadly, the economy will be the top issue in people’s concerns for the whole of next year. Will the Leader of the House reflect on a proper way of managing the reporting back of the Government’s responses to the economic crisis?

I know that yesterday there was a short Adjournment debate on the Israeli settlements in Palestine, but at this time of year, above all, thoughts in this country and around the world turn to the Holy Land. Can one of the slots that are not yet filled in the first couple of weeks in the new year be given to a debate on the Government’s efforts and international efforts to ensure that there is freedom of movement around Palestine for Palestinians of all faiths—Muslims, Christians and those who hold other beliefs—not just at Christmas and Eid but all year round? People in that part of the world cannot travel freely, whether they want to travel for faith or family reasons, for study or for work. Until that freedom of movement is given to people in the Holy Land, there cannot be any hope for peace and progress.

Nearer to home, the Leader of the House knows that our borough and three neighbouring boroughs are being asked to pick up the £4 million tab for the de Menezes inquest. Questions have been asked of her colleagues about that matter in the House. Can we have a debate early in the new year, before she introduces the planned police and coroners Bill, to ensure that we can sort out the issue? Inquests of London or national importance should not just be the financial responsibility of one or four local authorities and the cost should be shared much more fairly.

Lastly, let me return to an issue that I often come back to. The Leader of the House has announced three Government Bills to be debated in the first few weeks of the new year. Yesterday, in the Consolidated Fund Bill, we agreed without debate the allocation of £32 billion of additional public money for this financial year and £194 billion for the next financial year. May I suggest a new year’s resolution to the Leader of the House on behalf of the Government? Can we have a year in which we see much more progress in handing power from the Government to Parliament? That would mean that Bills introduced by the Government would have adequate time for debate and amendment by colleagues from all parties on Report and that we could have a proper way of holding the Government to account not just for the taxes they raise but for the money they spend—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has well exceeded the normal ration of time that is allocated to him at this point. I hope that he has now made his points, and the Leader of the House can answer him.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the financial implications of the de Menezes inquest. When a particularly expensive inquest falls on one area, arrangements and adjustments are made. For example, extra resources were available for the coroner service in Oxfordshire because of the returning military who arrived at the airport there. Arrangements are made to adjust resources and that will have been the case in relation to the de Menezes inquest.

The hon. Gentleman followed up the point made by the shadow Leader of the House about the defence debate. As he will know, there are set piece defence debates throughout the year. One is always on personnel, one is on defence in the world and one deals with procurement. Generally speaking, without wanting to trespass on the discretion of the Chair, it is possible to raise issues that cross the boundaries in those general debates in quite a substantial way. Procurement issues are very important to the operational ability of our armed services personnel and I am sure that hon. Members who want to raise questions of procurement will be able to do so and will get a response from the Minister in the debate when we return in January.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of accountability to the House for the work of the Government in tackling the global economic crisis. There are, of course, Treasury questions and there have been numerous statements. We want to be sure that at all times the House is kept up to date with information and that there is also a chance to question Ministers. Since the economic crisis hit towards the end of this year, that has happened more regularly than just every month and we expect that to continue to be the case. The economy is a No. 1 priority for the Government and we know that it is a No. 1 priority for the House. We do not expect the House not to have the opportunity to hold the Government to account and to debate economic issues in the future.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the middle east. Without expecting the terms of reference of the debate to go too broadly, there will be an opportunity to raise the question of the middle east in the debate on Iraq and related strategic issues.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned job losses and the National Economic Council. Let me take this opportunity to say that the Government have the utmost concern for those who are faced with losing their jobs at Woolworths. Every possible arrangement will be made to help them to ensure that they can get another job as quickly as possible as soon as they lose their job at Woolworths.

Order. I should mention to the House that since Mr. Speaker placed a 15-minute time limit on speeches in the Christmas Adjournment debate, the number of hon. Members wishing to contribute has swollen considerably, so we may be struggling for time later. I hope, therefore, in a festive spirit, that it will be understood if I adopt a Scrooge-like attitude to the length of supplementary questions now.

In the spirit of Christmas I refer to the fact that the Secretary of State for Transport decided to defer the decision on the expansion of Heathrow until January. My right hon. and learned Friend may have seen this morning that in early-day motion 339 more than 100 Members from all parties are now calling for a vote on that matter on the Floor of the House of Commons.

[That this House notes the Government's commitment given in the 2003 Aviation White Paper, The Future of Air Transport to reduce noise impacts and to ensure that air quality and environmental standards are met before proceeding with a third runway at Heathrow Airport; further notes the assurance given by the Prime Minister on 12 November 2008 that support for a third runway at Heathrow is subject to strict environmental conditions; further notes that Heathrow Airport is already in breach of the European Air Quality Directive to be implemented by 2010; welcomes the statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that these environmental commitments should be honoured; supports the Chairman of the Environment Agency’s decision to oppose the third runway on environmental grounds; and calls upon the Government not to proceed with the third Heathrow runway or mixed-mode and to put the matter to a vote on the floor of the House.]

All we want for Christmas is a vote. Will she pass that on to her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State?

The Secretary of State for Transport will make his decision on Heathrow known in the new year.

May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to the growing number of written answers in Hansard that are only partially answered by the Minister, although they are accepted by the Department, with the rest of the information to be conveyed by private letter to the Member? In some cases, valuable information could be gained from those letters. Would it be possible to consider that more of them might be placed in the Library so there might be greater access to them—

I agree that as much as possible should be put in Hansard. A Minister being held to account for an answer is not a private matter: that is public information, and I shall set my deputy on to it.

May I wish a merry Christmas and a good new year to all?

When we in Britain talk about every child mattering we must not forget about children abroad, especially at this time of year. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive me for labouring the point, but I want to ask once again for a debate about the so-called “witch” children in Nigeria. They are being killed, buried alive and tortured and, if their parents cannot afford to hire someone to exorcise them, they get taken away and we do not know what happens to them. The programme “Dispatches”—

Order. I really did not need that help, but the point is—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Lady is exceeding her ration. Can she please bring her question to a swift end?

I will look into the possibilities of having a debate on the important issues that my hon. Friend raises.

May we have a debate on the Equality and Human Rights Commission? A recent answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled showed that, on average, the commission pays men more than women, white people more than those from ethnic minorities, and non-disabled people more than disabled people. What on earth is the point of a politically correct organisation—it is given huge quantities of taxpayer’s money to give lectures around the country on equal pay —that does not even practise what it preaches?

The hon. Gentleman shows how important it is to have transparency. We must ensure that all organisations publish information about pay gaps between genders and ethnicities, and about how many disabled people they employ. That is not just important for the EHRC, because we need that transparency in the whole public sector—and in the private sector too.

We spend a lot of time in this House passing legislation to sort out previous legislation that has not worked out. Given that this will be the shortest parliamentary Session for many years—and that the Queen’s Speech was also the shortest for many years—may we please have two days devoted to the Report stage of Bills more frequently?

I know that there is a long-standing concern that we should have enough time to debate issues on Report. We always look to do that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will support the post-legislative scrutiny arrangements that we are introducing. They will enable us to look back and make sure that legislation does the job that we thought that it would. Also, he does not know yet that this will be the shortest Session ever, as we have not yet determined when it will end.

Will the Leader of the House consider introducing an annual debate on tourism? It is our fifth biggest industry, worth £90 billion a year and the fact that the Olympics are coming to the UK gives us a great opportunity to harness its potential, in London and elsewhere.

That is something that can be debated when we consider the report of the relevant Select Committee.

Can we have a debate on double standards in public life? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of recent reports that senior managers in BBC Scotland shared a bonus of £100,000, while other workers lost their jobs. The trade unions wanted to know who had received the bonus, but they were refused that information on the grounds that it would cause distress to those concerned. Given that the BBC is obsessed with this House and hon. Members’ expenses and salaries, does she agree that that smacks of double standards?

I think that that is something for which the BBC ought to be responsible to licence payers, and perhaps the trade unions should refer their request to the relevant organisation.

May we have an urgent debate early in the new year on job losses in the retail sector? The Leader of the House has mentioned that already, but we already have a well-established way of at least helping to mitigate major job losses in the manufacturing sector. When a manufacturing company closes down, a taskforce involving local authorities and Jobcentre Plus, among others, will be sent in, but we do not have a similar mechanism for large retailers with small numbers of employees spread across the country. Can we see whether we can establish a mechanism that will provide similar support for people who sadly lose their jobs in the retail sector, such as has happened with the closure of Woolworths?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good proposal and it is one that we are considering. Even though the many thousands of job losses involved in the closure of Woolworths are not concentrated in one geographical area, we need something akin to the taskforce approach to make sure that the help that we bring to bear is working.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has issued a short written statement today to the effect that the Prime Minister has received Sir Peter Gibson’s review of the intelligence material about the Omagh bombing that was available to the security and intelligence agencies. It suggests that a statement will be made to the House when the Government have completed their consideration of the review. How long will that consideration take, when will the statement be made, and will it be an oral statement with the opportunity for appropriate questions?

I am making the assumption that it will be an oral statement, but I cannot give the timing. I shall ask the Secretary of State to have a word with the hon. Gentleman and give him a rough idea of when he can expect it. After Equitable Life, I am a bit reluctant to give any firm commitment from the Dispatch Box.

Unemployment in north Northamptonshire has risen by 50 per cent. in the past 12 months. There are now 5,300 people without work, compared with 4,000 in 1997. With unemployment set to be the dominant political issue of 2009, may we have an debate on the Floor of the House early in the new year so that we can discuss an issue that is going to affect so many millions of our citizens?

We have had a statement on tackling unemployment in the past week or so, and I have no doubt that we will return to the issue in January, when we will discuss the action that the Government are taking to prevent unemployment and to help support people who lose their jobs back into work.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend pass on my sincere and profound thanks to the Home Secretary for her decision to look again at ways of making local policing more accountable to those being policed? Will she ensure that hon. Members have the maximum opportunity to propose and explore different models of good practice in effective and accountable community policing at street, estate and ward levels? I do not expect that process to be finished by the 19 January Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill, but perhaps it is not necessary to have a rigid model that is applicable all over the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the provisions in that Bill, and it is very important that we have proper accountability to the local community at all levels of the police. I am sure that he will see something to that effect in the Bill.

If the Leader of the House had been at Treasury questions, she would have heard the Economic Secretary, in front of the Prime Minister, apologise fulsomely but rather tactfully to him and to hon. Members for the Government’s failure to produce a statement on Equitable Life before the House rose for the Christmas recess. The right hon. and learned Lady assured the House that we would have a statement in the autumn, but January 2009 is not the autumn. Will she therefore be kind enough to follow suit and apologise to the House for her statement?

I am sorry that the statement was not available when I said that it would be, but it was not complete. My announcement to the House was contingent on the statement being finished. The point that I want to make is that it is not as though it is complete and the Government are sitting on it. As I said at the last business questions, the Treasury is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and the statement will be brought to the House as soon as it is ready. We are very well aware of the importance of this issue.

Can we have a debate early in the year entitled “The Counter-productive Nature of Government Policy”? That would enable us to point out that it is bizarre of the Government to charge banks 12 per cent. interest on the recapitalisation fund, and at the same time expect them to charge their customers only 1 or 2 per cent. Also, it is very bizarre that representatives from Jaguar Land Rover should be seeing the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform at a time when one of that industry’s real burdens are the differential costs imposed by Government on 4x4 vehicles—one of which, incidentally, I have.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should direct his suggestion for a debate on the counter-productive nature of Government policy to his colleagues. I think that he is suggesting an Opposition day debate rather than a Government debate. He raises the point that the Leader of the Opposition raised about the 12 per cent. and the 6 per cent. The rate at which banks lend out is not just the rate at which they borrow; there is also the question of deposits. Therefore, the rate at which banks borrow and those at which they lend are never the same. So the Leader of the Opposition made a bogus argument, and it is a shame that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has repeated it.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 215?

[That this House notes the findings by the Parliamentary Ombudsman of 10 counts of maladministration by Government Departments in relation to Equitable Life; expresses concern at the Government’s failure to respond to the Ombudsman’s report within its own specified timescale; notes with concern that over 30,000 Equitable Life policyholders have died without seeing their situation resolved since the society’s near-collapse in 2000; and calls on the Government to give a public response without delay to the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s recommendations and set out a timetable for action.]

Other hon. Members have referred to that subject today.

On behalf of my constituents David Peters, Thomas Higgs, Kathleen Davies, Janice King, Vivien Knell and 30 others who have been in touch with me in the past few years, may I ask the Leader of the House when we can expect the statement and, more importantly for my constituents and thousands of others around the country, when they can expect the compensation that is long overdue?

The Leader of the House will be keen to ensure that our debates in this place are as well informed as possible. She will therefore be alarmed to find that the Ministry of Defence is increasingly reluctant to sponsor visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, my planned visit this Christmas has been turned down. Will she impress on her defence colleagues the importance of such visits in informing right hon. and hon. Members of what is going on in theatre and ensure that, unless there is good reason for visits not to take place, they do occur so that we can better conduct the business of the House?

These visits are important, as is the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

The Leader of the House kindly last week promised to chase up her colleagues on the mounting confusion over the rerating of businesses in ports. Since then, we had a large meeting of Members of Parliament, many of them her colleagues, downstairs on Monday. We have also had the comments made by the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) that when she was the Treasury Minister responsible for the Valuation Office Agency, it did not tell her about this developing muddle. Businesses are on the verge of going to the wall. Please will the Leader of the House chase this one up?

Will the Leader of the House give the House a categorical assurance that neither she nor any Minister, civil servant or adviser sought to influence the contents of Mr. Speaker’s statement that was delivered on the day of the state opening?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute categorical assurance that I made no attempt to influence the Speaker’s statement. I think that, had I done so, I would have got a quick, dusty answer.

Following on from the Prime Minister’s statement on Iraq, hon. Members will be aware from their constituencies that, due to improved medical services at the front line, armed forces personnel are returning from Iraq with serious injuries that might have caused their death in previous conflicts. Some of the people returning are suffering from mental illnesses that might stay with them for the rest of their life.

The public support these people very generously through charities such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and Combat Stress. The Leader of the House said that she would extend the terms of the debate on military personnel to include procurement and middle east relationships.

I hope that the debate will not rule out support for veterans. If it does, may we have a debate later so that we can concentrate on that issue?

The important issue of supporting those who return with injuries will be four-square within the terms of the debate on Thursday 15 January on armed forces personnel.

May we have an urgent debate on child protection and the future of the social work profession, perhaps on one of the allocated topical debate days? It is now more than five weeks since the baby P court case. Numerous reviews have been ordered and statements made, mostly outside the House, and the issue remains in the headlines and is of great concern to many of our constituents. May we please have the opportunity to air the subject fully to gauge the Government’s latest thinking? There is great distress and confusion in local authorities, not least among social workers. They feel put upon and demoralised, and we need to give them some words of encouragement about the way forward as well as about the future of vulnerable children, of whom there are still too many.

I understand the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. Hon. Members of all parties are concerned about child protection. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families made a statement to the House, in which he said that he had set up the Laming review. No doubt when he has received that review and been able to respond to it, there will be a further statement. I am sure that the issues will continue to be discussed in the House next year.

I am grateful to hon. Members and the Leader of the House for the speed with which we have been able to dispatch that business.

bill presented

Policing and Crime Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Jacqui Smith, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Straw, Mr. Secretary Johnson, Mr Secretary Hoon, Mr. Secretary Balls, Mr. Secretary Burnham, Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick and Mr. Vernon Coaker presented a Bill to make provision about the police; to make provision about prostitution, sex offenders, sex establishments and certain other premises; to make provision for reducing and dealing with the abuse of alcohol; to make provision about the proceeds of crime; to make provision about extradition; to amend the Aviation Security Act 1982; to make provision about criminal records and to amend the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006; to confer, extend or facilitate search, forfeiture and other powers relating to the United Kingdom’s borders or elsewhere; to make further provision for combating crime and disorder; to repeal redundant provisions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 12 January, and to be printed (Bill 7) with explanatory notes (Bill 7-EN).