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Business of the House

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week:

Monday 26 January—Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Tuesday 27 January—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Wednesday 28 January—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a full day’s debate on an Opposition motion about the Government’s proposals for Heathrow.

Thursday 29 January—Topical debate: Holocaust memorial day, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 February will include:

Monday 2 February—Remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 3 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Wednesday 4 February—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 February—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on food safety.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for February 5 and 12 will be:

Thursday 5 February—A debate on the report from the Justice Committee entitled “Towards Effective Sentencing”.

Thursday 12 February—A debate on the report from the Transport Committee entitled “Delivering a Sustainable Railway: A 30-year Strategy for the Railways”.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and, in turn, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement just now.

Apart from a short exchange on a point of order yesterday, this is my first formal encounter with the right hon. and learned Lady. May I say to her and the House that I am delighted to have been appointed her shadow? I have always held a dangerously romantic affection for the House of Commons, and it looks as though my teenage years spent reading Hansard and “Erskine May” under the duvet might now finally pay off.

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will allow me while I hold this position to work towards three principal objectives: to explore all ways of making Parliament work better for Britain; to help overcome the low reputation of Parliament in the eyes of much of the press and the public; and to take an understanding of Parliament and our democracy into schools, so that younger people can overcome their instinctive derision for politicians. As shadow Leader of the House, one must work on many levels. One must be able to work on a non-partisan basis of trust as well as take part in vigorous exchanges of political difference. I undertake to do both.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us a debate on Holocaust memorial day; I hope as many Members as possible will participate in it. Given the Government’s complete change of heart yesterday about disclosing expenses, in the event that the House passes today’s motions, will the Leader of the House confirm that she will continue to take further steps to ensure that we as MPs are open and accountable for all the expenses that we claim from taxpayers’ money?

The UK’s relationship with India is potentially one of our most crucial strategic alliances. Yesterday, however, we learned that senior Indian officials have officially complained about the “condescending” and “totally tactless” behaviour of the Foreign Secretary during his visit there last week. Given that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has also been in India this week, may we inquire whether he has been sent there to clear up the damage caused by the Foreign Secretary’s visit—or is he there to make things worse? May we have a debate on the relationship between India and the United Kingdom, to remind the Foreign Secretary of the immense value that the whole House places on our continued friendship with a country that will become more powerful and prominent in world affairs?

In their national security strategy, the Government have highlighted the probability of a pandemic influenza outbreak and the risks associated with it. Yet despite that danger, the Government have consistently denied Members the opportunity to raise their concerns about the matter in the House, even though we have been requesting time to debate it for well over two years. Given the importance of that risk, may we have a debate on it in Government time?

Yesterday, we saw the release of the latest figures which show unemployment racing towards 2 million, and most forecasters predict that this year it will burst through 3 million. Today, the value of sterling is at its lowest point for nearly 25 years. The exchange rate is the price tag put on our country’s value by the rest of the world, and it is plummeting. Why, if this is a global phenomenon, is Britain in so much worse a position than other countries across the globe? It is increasingly difficult to persuade the Government to debate the future of the economy in Government time. Only last week, we had to drag Ministers to the House to explain the announcement of their loans guarantee scheme. Given that the Prime Minister is so keen on telling everyone how brilliant he is, the Government’s reticence on the economy seems rather strange. In the interests of recognising the saviour of the world’s achievements over the past few months, may we now have a full debate in Government time on the state of the British economy and how we can escape from the Government’s mishandling of our livelihoods?

Finally, did the Leader of the House see this morning’s headline which says, “What planet are they on?” Ministers have been seeing strange things—green shoots, booming houses and flickering lights at the end of imaginary tunnels. Has the right hon. and learned Lady had any similar hallucinations, and will she now come down to earth and speak of economic reality instead of the fantasy of Government headlines?

I warmly welcome the shadow Leader of the House to his new position and pay tribute to the work done by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I agree with his enunciation of the principles that he is going to stand by as shadow Leader of the House, and I look forward to working with him on them.

The hon. Gentleman welcomed the fact that we have chosen Holocaust memorial day as the subject of next week’s topical debate. Last year’s debate was one of the best attended, most heartfelt and important topical debates on a Thursday that we have had. As the fallout from Gaza affects all communities in this country and everybody has heartfelt concern about it, on Holocaust memorial day we will particularly reflect on the increased anti-Semitic attacks that there have been on the Jewish community and synagogues in this country. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the Holocaust memorial day topical debate. Any time that he wants to suggest a topical debate, I would be more than happy to hear his suggestions. That is an offer that I made to him when we met privately at his request. I was very grateful to him for offering me a man-to-man chat, and I am happy to have one of those chats with him on any occasion.

On freedom of information, we have had no change of heart. We want there to be clear rules, robust audit and proper transparency so that the public can know how much MPs spend and can have that information every year. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to get on his moral high ground against me on the question of transparency, because I have been perusing the transparency on his website. I have had trouble as Leader of the House with my own website, because somebody hacked into it and put all sorts of things on it which I had not said. I think that he has been having the same problem, because on his website—I am sure that he could not have written this himself—it says:

“Alan Duncan has been a pivotal influence in the fortunes of the Conservative Party in Britain for well over ten years.”

I am sure that he will want to correct that. When it comes to transparency, he has been busy putting that sort of thing on his website but has failed to mention his financial interests in oil companies. I really do think that he should put his website where his mouth is.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of relations between India and the United Kingdom, and he made an important point. Our relations with India are important: it is a global player that is important to our economy. There are strong relations between the Prime Minister and his Indian counterpart, and with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There are close links between the communities of Indian origin in this country and those in India, as well as the important relations that the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office Ministers have. I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion as the subject for a future topical debate.

I will discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health whether we ought to have a debate on the question of the protection in place for flu epidemics.

The hon. Gentleman raised the worrying issue of the rise in unemployment, and as the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, when someone becomes unemployed it is not only a devastating blow for them, but of concern to everyone, and it is of great concern to this House and the Government. That is why we have been determined to take action to recapitalise the banks, to have a funded loan guarantee scheme, to have a fiscal stimulus into the economy and to ensure that we bring forward capital infrastructure projects. We will never say, “Let the recession take its course,” or that unemployment is a price worth paying. As far as the opportunity for the House to debate the economy is concerned, we are not backward in coming forward to ensure that it can debate the economy. Every week, we need to have substantive debates, statements and questions, and we make sure that that is the case.

I shall conclude by saying that the hon. Gentleman brings a dash of sartorial elegance to his Front-Bench team, who are otherwise sometimes a bit drab; drab he is not. On a personal note, I would just like to say that I really love his watch. I understand that he was given it by the Sultan of Oman. It is absolutely lovely. Also, I really like the cufflinks that he is wearing today; are those the ones that the Sultan gave him? They are absolutely great.

These are my own cufflinks, Mr. Speaker.

Would my right hon. and learned Friend consider allowing time for a debate on the accountability of local government? A few weeks ago the chairman of Gloucester City football club and I approached Gloucestershire county council for some money to put towards a new football stadium. The council said that no money was available at all, but overnight it has announced the use of £7.4 million to purchase of a piece of land on the edge of my constituency for a 10-storey incinerator, despite the fact that those involved said in their manifesto that they opposed incineration.

The week after next, motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports will be considered. My hon. Friend might find an opportunity to raise that point then.

May I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) to his new position? I am sure that he is indeed a pivot. In the spirit of his congratulations to the Leader of the House on her change of heart on the freedom of information, I also thank him for the change of spirit in the Conservative party from the position adopted in respect of the former Conservative Chief Whip’s private member’s Bill only a couple of years ago—or even the position last Monday, actually.

I ask the Leader of the House to consider seriously the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about a debate on the economy. When I last held my current position, I regularly asked why there were no debates in Government time on the two conflicts in which we were engaged, which were the subject of many statements, but few debates. We have now had debates on those conflicts, but we have not had debates on the economy in Government time. This is a serious issue. We have had statements that refer to mouth-wateringly large amounts of money that have been given to the banks regularly, but that is no substitute for a debate. Apart from anything else, we need to know where that money has gone and why it was not conditional. It seems to many of us that it was not so much capitalisation as capitulation to the banks. We need an urgent debate on the economy.

The Leader of the House has announced that on Tuesday 3 February we will debate motions relating to the police grant and the local finance report. May I ask, as I have in previous years, for those two debates to be separated? It is unhelpful to Members who wish to raise matters about policing not to have the opportunity to engage directly with the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, and a similar point could be made about those who wish to discuss local authorities.

Many district councils, like those in my constituency, will be concerned about the widening gap between the amount provided to support the free bus scheme and the amount that it actually costs. I have nothing against the free bus pass scheme, which is an excellent policy, but it is not being funded. South Somerset district council tells me that there is a gap of £567,000 this year, and that it will be £730,000 next year. That is a colossal hole in the revenue of a small district council, and we need to consider how to close it.

I wish to mention the very serious matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on a point of order yesterday, column 753 of Hansard. He told the House that there was evidence of a calculated, pre-meditated conspiracy to subvert the procedures of the House and our ability to scrutinise Ministers in underwriting a contingent liability of more than £250,000 in respect of Sellafield, and to prevent Members from challenging it. That seems an egregious abuse of the House and its procedures. You, Mr. Speaker, gave an answer to the point of order, but I now ask the Leader of the House to undertake a proper investigation, report back to the House and make a statement. We simply cannot have the financial scrutiny afforded to Members diverted by Ministers in such a way.

Finally, may we have a debate on the Government’s concept of social mobility? I have in my hand the Government’s response to the report of the Select Committee on Justice on the appointment of lords lieutenant. The Government congratulate themselves on the progress that they have made, stating:

“However, over the last thirty years the social diversity of the lieutenancy has widened considerably. For example, thirty years ago, 20 Lord-Lieutenants were peers and many were retired senior military officers. This year, out of a total of 55, only 7 are peers”.

Well, that is progress. May I suggest to the Leader of the House that if the slogan in the United States is “Yes we can”, it appears that in this country it is “No we can’t”?

The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the economy. As I said to the shadow Leader of the House, we will ensure that there are opportunities every week to discuss the No. 1 priority and concern of all of us, which is helping the British economy through the difficult and uncharted waters caused by a global banking crisis.

The hon. Gentleman asked for the debates on the motions relating to the police grant and local government to be separated. I shall consider that request and get back to him, and make any announcement in next Thursday’s business statement.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of Sellafield. We have just had Energy and Climate Change questions, and I do not know whether he sought to raise the matter, but I suggest that he take it up with DECC Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the social mobility White Paper, and I thank him for his support for social mobility, which is something we should all be concerned about. In that context, he mentioned the lords lieutenant, and I shall certainly add them to the list of institutions that really need to sort themselves out and get themselves into the 21st century.

May I make my annual plea to the Leader of the House that Government drivers coming on to the estate should be provided with a warm place to sit while waiting for Ministers, so that they do not have to sit in the car park outside Speaker’s House in their hybrid, environmentally friendly cars, with the motors running to keep warm? Symbolism is important, and it is a pretty bad show. They need somewhere warm to sit.

I will raise that important point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and ask him to write to my hon. Friend, after having also consulted the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, as it is not just a matter of personal comfort but an environmental issue.

The Leader of the House may well be aware of the increasingly serious disturbances that are occurring outside the Staythorpe power station in my constituency. That is not the only site where such disturbances are occurring. May we have a debate on the subject, perhaps entitled, in the Prime Minister’s words, “British jobs for British workers”?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks a meeting with the relevant Secretary of State on that important issue for his constituency. I shall alert the Secretary of State that such a request might be forthcoming, and I think that that would be a good way for the hon. Gentleman to take the matter forward in the first instance.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the “Time to Change” campaign. It is intended to bring awareness of mental health issues and provide support for people with mental health problems. Many constituents with mental health problems have written to me about the Welfare Reform Bill, which is to be discussed next week. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a discussion of the wider problems that such people face and of how to raise awareness of them and create more sympathy?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on mentioning the “Time to Change” campaign, and, like her, I give it my backing. That is why we are taking measures in the equality Bill to strengthen the law and protect people from discrimination on the grounds of mental health problems, why this is a major issue for the Department of Health and why the Welfare Reform Bill will ensure that help is available to get people into work, irrespective of their disability. We will ensure that they are able to take up opportunities to work. I shall consider whether we should make the matter the subject of a general or a topical debate, because how we support those with mental health problems is very important.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), is it not the case that the drivers sit in their cars with the engines running not because they have nowhere else to go but because Ministers complain about being driven home in cold cars?

May I raise a point about topical debates? Next Thursday, we are to have a topical debate on Holocaust memorial day, which I welcome, but that inevitably erodes the time available to debate the subsequent business. Today, there is no topical debate and so no erosion of the business that we are shortly to debate. What criteria does the Leader of the House use to decide whether the business needs to be protected from a topical debate? Surely she is not saying that the debate to come today is more important than the debates to be held on the two following Thursdays.

Each day, and therefore each Thursday, I look at the business to try to ensure that we have the right amount of time to debate a number of competing issues. For example, I originally picked the Gaza debate last week as a topical debate, which would have lasted just an hour and a half. So many Members wanted to speak that I moved the armed services personnel debate and made the Gaza debate a whole day’s debate. All such issues are important, and we try to make enough space for them. There will be a topical debate before the armed forces personnel debate, but that was always going to be the case even before it was moved. There will be further debates through the year on armed forces issues, whether they concern procurement or other matters.

Can I put it to the Leader of the House that it is very important to have further urgent debates on the banking crisis? They should be led by the Prime Minister, not least because he has been criticising certain erstwhile bankers, particularly Fred Goodwin. That would give us an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister whether that is the same Fred Goodwin whom he knighted, lunched at Chequers and put on his international business advisory panel.

The right hon. Gentleman, like all hon. Members, has an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister questions every week at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I do not think that there has been a single Prime Minister’s Question Time when he has not answered questions on the subject and sought the opportunity to explain the action that we are taking to ensure that we give real help to businesses and to people who are worried about their jobs and their ability to get a mortgage. He explains that we are laying the basis for a sounder future for our economy. Our economy and the global economy will not always be in recession, and we need to ensure that we build for the future. That is why we are bringing forward capital infrastructure projects, instead of doing what the right hon. Gentleman’s party is urging and cutting them.

Last December, in a press release, the Home Secretary told us that knife crime involving teenagers carrying knives had halved. Today, in another press release, which Sky News picked up, she informs us that the number of teenagers carrying knives has increased by 18 per cent. and that murders involving knives have increased by 10 per cent. Although the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Tuesday and spoke in the House on the Policing and Crime Bill on Monday, she did not mention those statistics. In the words of the shadow Leader of the House, could my right hon. and learned Friend have a man-to-man chat with the Home Secretary to ascertain whether she could make a statement to the House? If we are to have a serious debate about crime and policing, we need proper statistics, which the House can scrutinise.

Of course statistics on crime are important. The Home Secretary has been holding discussions with the senior statisticians in her Department and the head of the independent National Statistics organisation. We want to ensure that we get the figures absolutely right so that we can be as clear and open with people as possible about an issue of great concern to everyone. Let me reassure my right hon. Friend—I hope that what I am about to say is not also a matter for statistical discussion: the British crime survey, which asks people whether they have been a victim of crime, year after year shows people reporting that they are less likely to be a victim of crime. That is important.

Hon. Members know that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) has secured a Westminster Hall debate next Tuesday on the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. Following the Government’s announcement last week, and the continuing concern by many policyholders that the response has been weak and inadequate, does the Leader of the House agree that Government time should be found for a full debate, so that all hon. Members who have raised the issue repeatedly have the opportunity to ask questions, and to express their constituents’ concerns?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a statement to the House about Equitable Life and answered questions on it for an hour last week. It is an important issue; it is important that those who need compensation must get it as swiftly as possible. The hon. Gentleman could recommend the subject to his Front Benchers for an Opposition day debate.

May we have an early debate on community cohesion so that Members of all parties can emphasise that we are one nation and that we stand together, regardless of our faiths and backgrounds? In that context, may I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to two matters? First, a Respect party man, Abdurahman Jafar, is misusing the name and money of the Government-funded organisation Redbridge against Islamophobia and Extremism for his Respect party political purposes—he is standing as a candidate in a by-election next week. Secondly, the Conservative candidate, Ikram Wahid, has distributed a leaflet in the same Valentines ward by-election. It is being delivered only to Muslim households and advances no reason for Muslims to vote for him apart from not splitting the vote of the Muslim community.

The points that my hon. Friend raises are of the utmost importance. We should all recognise that party political advantage must not and cannot be gained from hatred and anger that divides different communities. I will raise my hon. Friend’s points with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. In difficult times, it is important that we all stand together and work together.

One aspect of the Planning Act 2008 was a community cohesion fund to put money back into the local community. One of the first big infrastructure projects that will probably come under the Act is the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Both district councils for the area are concerned that the Government have provided no guidelines on the matter. May we have a debate about how the Act will work in future—it is a long-term measure—to ascertain how the community projects will be administered, who will look after them, who will be on the boards and what their remits will be?

The Act develops even further an innovative approach of ensuring that local communities benefit from developments in their area. The approach is being developed in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Perhaps I may suggest that the hon. Gentleman assists with that by seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State. He could help to shape the blueprint by saying how he thinks it should work in his area to ensure that the local community has a big say in how it will benefit from a development that is nationally important but has a big local impact.

May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the method whereby the Audit Commission arrives at the star rating for some council departments? Conservative-controlled Birmingham city council recently wasted £1 million on a mass eviction of a high-rise block of flats that never happened. A survey that I conducted in my constituency on repair services showed serious failings time and again, yet the Audit Commission has given the department a rating of two stars with excellent prospects. Surely something is wrong.

I think that the most important benchmarks against which local housing authorities can be judged are whether they deliver for their tenants—my hon. Friend gives an example of a local authority doing the opposite—and whether they spend public money wisely; again, from what my hon. Friend says, it sounds as though the council is doing the opposite. Perhaps she could take the opportunity in the debate on Tuesday week about local government finance to raise that point. It is sad if her local authority is behaving in that way.

May we have an in-depth statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on sentencing policy in the light of the horrific case of the multiple rape of a 15-year-old girl with the mental age of eight or nine by up to 10 assailants? Only four of those assailants would probably have been convicted—six had to be let go. One of those who would probably have been convicted was killed in a street brawl because he was out on bail—incredibly—after the multiple rape. The other three were sentenced to between nine and six years each for not only raping the poor young woman but dousing her with caustic soda in an attempt to cover the evidence. There are no mitigating factors, given the total contempt that they showed for their victim even during the court case. The Attorney-General is rightly considering whether the sentences should be increased, but surely we need a statement so that we know whether they are increased and whether such villains would be considered for release halfway through their sentences, which would make nonsense of imposing the sentences in the first place.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes an important set of points. When a sentence causes public outrage or sends out the wrong message about the criminal justice system’s attitude to a particular offence, there is provision for the Attorney-General to consider the judgment and the sentence and decide whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. As the hon. Gentleman says, we are in that position—the Attorney-General is considering whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal as an example of an unduly lenient sentence.

On the wider point about sentencing policy, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity on Thursday 5 February to try to catch the Chair’s eye in Westminster Hall in the debate on effective sentencing.

Earlier this year, the Government refused to support a Bill which had cross-party support in the House and would have staunched the flow of illegal timber into the UK. Their cover for that refusal was that the EU would introduce proposals. After three years of prevarication, the EU has presented proposals which are without content—they are procedural only. They do not achieve the advantage of establishing a universal scheme for all 27 regimes in the EU. Will the Government now urgently discuss what national legislation can be introduced to stop the flow of illegal timber into the UK and ensure that pressure is put on the EU to get the matter right?

We already have rules on the importation of timber, but there is obviously a need to consider strengthening them. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, although we will always seek to work with EU partners, there is never an excuse for waiting for them if we could be getting on with taking national action. We will always take national action on our own account, while at the same time pushing our European counterparts to go as far as we have gone. Perhaps this is something that I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, as well as with Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

May we have a debate on the impact of the ending of the UK opt-out from the working time directive for retained firefighters? Some 321 of the 391 fire stations in Scotland are staffed by part-time firefighters. A strict application of the directive would mean that they would often be left unable to provide the necessary cover, and the stark fact is that many of our more remote communities simply do not have the critical mass of population required to maintain a full-time service. Surely it is wrong that the law of unintended consequences should be allowed to leave some communities without effective fire cover in this way.

The hon. Gentleman has made a detailed and complex point, although it is actually about the simple and important issue of providing adequate fire cover at all times for all communities, including isolated rural communities. Perhaps I could raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman, to see whether he can allay his concerns.

May we have an urgent debate on the current status of the EU-Israel trade agreement? The House has been repeatedly reassured—starting with William Waldegrave, a Minister in a previous Conservative Government—that a breach of the human rights clauses in the agreement could lead to the agreement’s suspension. It is clear from the events in Gaza and from the suspension of the Arab parties in Israel that those human rights clauses have been breached. Parliament needs an opportunity to debate this matter, so that our Ministers can take it into account in their work in the European Council of Ministers.

I know that my hon. Friend has played a leading role in the quest for justice for the Palestinians, and that she has visited the region on many occasions. She will be aware that we had a full day’s debate on this subject last week, and a statement from the Foreign Secretary earlier this week. I will be speaking to the Foreign Secretary to find out when he will next come to the House to report on this matter, because it is an issue of concern not only internationally but in this country, and I will bring my hon. Friend’s points to his attention.

Yesterday, Ofcom produced its report on the future of public sector broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The report contained proposals to cut news services from Scotland, and to see the south of Scotland being served from Newcastle. May we have a proper debate in this House on the future of public service broadcasting, to ensure that we get the best possible service for all the nations of the UK?

We are grateful to Ofcom for its well-considered report. We are in no doubt about the importance of public service broadcasting, but we are also in no doubt that an important dimension of that is broadcasting from the different regions and from Wales and Scotland. This is a matter that the Government keep under close scrutiny. I take the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will try to work out what to do about this.

May I refer my right hon. and learned Friend back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) about yesterday’s announcement that Gloucestershire county council has decided to obtain a site in my constituency to build an incinerator? This is an issue of probity, and I wonder whether she will look into it. The county council said that it was conducting a full-scale consultation on the options for waste, and that is why it took up the opportunity for a private finance initiative arrangement with DEFRA, although that does not seem to have happened. I hope that the Leader of the House will look into this key issue and allow us an opportunity to debate the matter.

Waste management is an important issue generally. I was going to say that the incinerator was a hot topic, but I shall not do so. It is a very important topic in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I do not know whether he has had a chance to ask for a meeting with the relevant Secretary of State, but perhaps he should do that in the first instance. Perhaps I can talk to him later today, after the next debate, to discuss how he can take forward his concerns.

May we have a debate on access to mortgages? Borrowers are finding it almost impossible to access mortgage finance, and if they can, it is only after paying a very high deposit. The Halifax is now asking for a deposit of 40 per cent., which is pretty much impossible for many people, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders says that it expects mortgage finance to decline for some months to come. It is difficult to see how we are going to get the housing market and the house building and construction industries moving again until the whole question of mortgage finance is sorted out. The Government say that they have done certain things, but the mortgage lenders and the building societies just do not seem to be acting.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there has been a big fall in capacity in the mortgage market, which has come from the collapse of banks in Iceland, in Ireland and internationally. A lot of our mortgage market was already dependent on loans and mortgages that came from abroad, in what is a global financial market. He will also know that the mortgage companies and banks in this country depend on loans from other banks abroad, and that inter-bank lending has, to a degree, frozen up. This is a matter of working nationally to recapitalise the banks and put them in a position where we can expect them to lend again, and of working with our international counterparts to ensure that there is confidence across the banking system internationally. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the lack of mortgage finance going into housing, and about the effect of that on construction, which is absolutely evident. This is a top priority, and if he has any further suggestions that are properly backed with funds and thought out, we will obviously consider them.

May we have a debate on the use of statutory consultation in the Building Schools for the Future programme, given that councils such as Stoke-on-Trent city council take no notice whatever of the outcome of consultations or, sadly, of people’s opinions?

I am sure that we all strongly back the Building Schools for the Future programme, and it is obviously important to get the consultation right, to ensure that the massive capital investment that is going into schools, which we all support, goes to the right place. I suggest that my hon. Friend meets the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

May we have a debate on Warm Front? It is an excellent scheme, but it could be greatly improved. Some of the quotations that people are now receiving are outrageously high. The number of people in Essex who are having to pay a top-up has increased from 304 to 1,429 over the past three years. Those very vulnerable people are now having to pay an average of £640 per top-up for work that could be done by local contractors at half the price. May we have a debate on that?

Energy prices have recently fallen, and that is very welcome, but they are still higher than they were 12 months ago. That is a serious concern for many people. Energy conservation is also an important environmental issue, because of carbon emissions. We have had a topical debate on the cost of energy, environmental protection, insulation and the Warm Front scheme, but I will look for a further opportunity as these issues are very important to households up and down the country and, no doubt, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

May we have a debate on the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995? I tabled early-day motion 510 a couple of days ago.

[That this House recalls the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s recommendation in 2003 which called for the repeal of the exemption from stunning prior to slaughter for animals killed by Moslem Halal and Jewish Shechita methods; notes that these exemptions remain; further recalls the Council’s scientific evidence showing that sheep become insensible within five to seven seconds of the incision whilst adult cattle may take between 22 and 40 seconds, and calves may take up to two minutes to become insensible; abhors all forms of racism and religious intolerance; proposes that the stunning of an animal post-cut addresses animal welfare concerns whilst remaining compliant with the theological tenets upon which halal and kosher are based; supports the existing use of pre-stunning in the slaughter of over 90 per cent. of animals killed in the UK for halal meat; observes that bans on slaughter without pre-stunning in Norway, Sweden and New Zealand have been in place for over five years without harming religious freedom or community relations in those countries; and calls on the Government to work actively and constructively in co-operation with the Muslim and Jewish communities in the UK to address the animal welfare implications of all religious slaughter and to amend the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 accordingly.]

The motion draws attention to the well-argued and scientifically validated report of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, produced back in 2003, which urged the repeal of the exemption from pre-stunning before slaughter of animals destined to be used as halal and kosher food. Will the Government open up discussions with the Muslim and Jewish communities to see how we can make progress on this affront to animal welfare which, among other things, fires racism and religious intolerance among some communities?

Perhaps that could be the subject of a Westminster Hall debate in which my hon. Friend could set out his suggestions about how to build on and take further the work that we have already done on this.

The reputation of our politics has suffered a severe blow this week as a result of the Government’s antics in trying to hide MPs’ expenses. I thank the Leader of the House for eventually withdrawing the order in response to protests from tens of thousands of people across the country as well as many Members of this House. Can she confirm that this shameful attempt to exempt MPs from freedom of information legislation has been dropped not just for today, but for good?

There is going to be a full debate on these issues straight after business questions. I think that what really causes a blow to the reputation of all Members is when any individual Member abuses the House allowances to line their own pockets. That is what undermines the reputation of the House, which is why we are bringing forward tougher rules, a more robust audit and more transparency.

The hon. Lady’s party has been consistent in arguing, as we did, for a Freedom of Information Act, which we actually brought in, and her Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), was quite right to criticise the Johnny-come-latelies in the Tory party who never did freedom of information when they were in government. As I say, at least the Liberals have been consistent and I would say to the hon. Lady that it is right for her, along with the rest of her party, to continue to call for greater transparency, but it is also very important not to get into a party political Dutch auction as to who can do most to besmirch the reputation of MPs.

Could we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the continuing crisis in Darfur and western Sudan? Given that aerial bombing, mass shooting, widespread rape and the chaining together and burning alive of people—to give but four examples—have been recurrent facts of life in the region for well over five years, is it not high time that this House debated how the British Government, working in concert with President Obama and the international community, can secure the full 26,000 UN-African Union troop deployment to the region—before the genocide of Darfurians has been completed?

As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary acknowledged, the attention of the international community has rightly been focused on the terrible ordeal, death and devastation happening in Gaza. At the same time, however, the situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating and things remains dire in the Congo, while the circumstances are still terrible in Darfur. I am looking for an early opportunity for the House to debate Darfur, Congo and Zimbabwe. We cannot forget the role that this country and the international community must play. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the written ministerial statement issued today by the Foreign Secretary, which talks about developing relations with China and making sure that we influence that country to play its role in the international community. It will be very important if we can make sure that China plays its part in helping to end the struggle and strife in Africa.

May I reiterate the calls for an early debate on Ofcom’s public service broadcasting review? Given that the BBC has a never-ending guaranteed increase in its income and given that it is still happy to pay Jonathan Ross £6 million a year, surely the time has come to top-slice the income going to the BBC from the licence fee and give it to other broadcasters whose income is going down and down, which is totally unsustainable. May we have an early debate so that we can understand the Government’s thinking on that important issue and so that the Government can understand the views of hon. Members?

A Government paper on digital Britain will deal with a number of those issues. It seems to me that the questions of public service broadcasting, digitalisation, regional news, Channel 4 and the BBC might well be grouped together in order to provide an opportunity to debate them.

This week, Mr. John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said of the new EU working time directive that it was “an impending disaster” that would “devastate” medical training and lead to “dangerous” lapses in patient care. He went on to say that some hospitals and some hospital units will close. May we have a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Health on the Government’s position in relation to the directive?

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s question to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health. I would say, however, that what certainly caused dangerous lapses in patient care was junior doctors being absolutely knackered from not having any sleep. We have increased the number of doctors and nurses and the number of doctors in training, but we also need to ensure not only that they build up the necessary expertise over the course of their training, but that they have a reasonable working life. That applies to dentists, as well.