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Business of the House

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 29 January 2009

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 2 February—Opposition Day [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Building out of Recession”, followed by a debate entitled “Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful: The Case for Urgent Reform of Parliament”. Both debates will arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.

Tuesday 3 February—Opposition Day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Skills and Further Education in a Recession”, followed by a debate entitled “Child Protection”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 4 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 5 February—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The provisional business for the week commencing 9 February will include:

Monday 9 February—Remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill—day one.

Tuesday 10 February—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Banking Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Banking Bill.

Wednesday 11 February—Opposition Day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed if necessary by consideration of Lords Amendments.

Thursday 12 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Uprating Order 2009 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2009.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. I thank her, too, for her observant personal comments last week, which, she will be interested to know, prompted a letter from a lady in Reading who said that she would put these encounters into her weekly diary as “He-man meets Harman”. I can think of better.

There has been a sudden delay in the Political Parties and Elections Bill. Will the right hon. and learned Lady tell the House why that has happened? Given her close personal links with the aristocracy, is she not doubly ashamed by the apparent conduct of her four Labour colleagues in the Lords? May we also have a debate on cash for influence in this House? Does not the House of Lords pale into insignificance, given that, because more than 90 per cent. of the Labour party’s battleground funding comes from the trade unions, the party remains a wholly owned subsidiary of an interest group with its own policy agenda?

In looking further at the reputation of Parliament, does the Leader of the House not agree that the permanent encampment in Parliament square has become a national embarrassment? It is a total abuse of the legitimate right to protest. Will she make a statement telling us what plans she has to bang heads together in the various Committees of the House to rid ourselves of this grotty eyesore and restore some dignity to the appearance of this iconic seat of democracy?

May I salute those Members who attended the Westminster Hall debate on Equitable Life this week? Members of the Opposition parties outnumbered Labour Members by about five to one, which measures the contempt in which the Labour party appears to hold the thousands of responsible, cautious people who saved with Equitable Life—

We hear shouts of “Rubbish” from the other side.

Is it not a disgraceful breach of trust that those people have waited so long and received so little? What hope is there for justice and redress through Parliament if the ombudsman’s report is so callously ignored? Does the right hon. and learned Lady have enough sense of justice to make her speak up in Cabinet and to allow a full debate on this matter? Will she commit to doing so now?

The Government’s announcement on mixed-sex wards yesterday was long overdue but totally inadequate. After all, with which member of the Cabinet would the right hon. and learned Lady be willing to share a mixed-sex ward? As a champion of equality, will she now give us a debate on the need to end these wards, so that we can give the House an opportunity to adopt our proposals for getting rid of them and for doubling the number of single rooms in the NHS?

The latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund suggests that, contrary to the Government’s mantra that the United Kingdom is well prepared to deal with the downturn, the UK is actually facing the worst recession in the world. Can we therefore at last have a debate in Government time to allow the House to express its lack of confidence in the Government’s handling of the economy, or is the Leader of the House worried that this is yet another issue that would leave the Prime Minister, as reported yesterday, “tearful and dewy-eyed”?

It would appear that the Prime Minister has lost confidence in his own Cabinet and, it would seem, even in himself. He has complained that his Cabinet members are ducking interviews and leaving him to look like the Minister for the recession, yet today, curiously, we have learned that Labour MPs have been instructed by the Whips not to talk about the economy at all. So who is going to win the parliamentary BAFTAs—the “Glumdog in Despair” in Downing street or the Basil Fawltys on the Back Benches shouting, “Don’t mention the recession”? Put simply, when is this country going to get honesty from the Prime Minister about the severity of our plight?

The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the investigation into the conduct of a number of Members of the House of Lords and I understand that the Leader of the House of Lords is making a further statement there this morning. As hon. Members will have heard yesterday, the Prime Minister is concerned, as I know we all are, to ensure the highest standards in the House of Lords. Its members should have the privilege of serving there in the public interest, not in their own financial interests. We all need to be satisfied, as the public want to be satisfied, that there are clear and proper rules, that they are properly enforced and that there are adequate sanctions. Baroness Royall, the Leader of the House of Lords, is taking that forward.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of Equitable Life. We have been in no doubt about the seriousness of the concern about the effects of these events on people resulting from the mismanagement by Equitable Life management and the failures of regulation, which actually began before this Government took office. We have to recognise, however, that where there have been failures of regulation, there must be an apology and there must be compensation. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave an oral statement to the House, setting out how she was planning to take this forward and to ensure that the compensation process could get under way. Today, the financial services ombudsperson—[Hon. Members: “You can’t say that!”] Oh, yes I can; sorry, Mr. Speaker, it just slipped out. The ombudsman is giving evidence to the Select Committee today. It is important that we seriously address these matters.

The shadow Leader of the House also raised the question of mixed-sex wards. A great deal of progress has been made on ensuring that those taken into hospital do not have to go into mixed-sex wards and can go into single-sex wards. Much progress has been made particularly in respect of those having treatment on planned admissions, but problems have remained with intensive care and accident and emergency. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made available £100 million to support further work and is keeping a close eye on the situation. He is determined to make further progress.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the economy. I take the opportunity to reassure him that I keep a very careful eye on ensuring that the House has sufficient opportunities to debate the priority No. 1 concern for every person and every household in this country. They would expect Parliament to scrutinise Government action and debate what is happening with the economy. We will have opportunities to debate it on the Banking Bill; earlier this week we heard an oral statement on the car industry; and the week before that we heard an oral statement on the banking industry. I undertake that, as far as we possibly can, we will make sure that there is an opportunity for the House to hear statements and to scrutinise and debate important economic issues every week. Next week, there will be a debate in Opposition time on education and skills, which is important and relates to the recession, and there will be a further Opposition day debate the following week. We can all play our part in ensuring that the House has an opportunity to debate these important issues.

Before I deal with the hon. Gentleman’s second point, let me say that I think that he and all hon. Members should focus on how we can help constituents, who may face the dreadful prospect of their homes being repossessed, to obtain the assistance that is being provided, and how, when businesses in our constituencies are struggling, we—as their Members of Parliament—can secure the information that will help them, too, to obtain the extra assistance that is available. Information on the Government’s website provides help for people and for businesses. I urge all hon. Members to download it, to take it to their advice surgeries, and to send it to their local chambers of commerce and citizens advice bureaux. Although there have been a number of focused initiatives, we must ensure that we serve as agents to obtain help for people who need it.

I have always believed that if people are in trouble and if people are struggling, it is the job of Government to step up and help them. That is why we have taken the action that we have taken. We expect people to respond and, if they think there are other things that we can do, to make suggestions, as did representatives of Southwark chamber of commerce when I met them last Friday. We expect people to contribute, to present proposals and suggestions, and to say if they think that we are not doing things right.

As for the hon. Gentleman, I know that just as in my heart of hearts I believe that the Government should help people if they are struggling, in his heart of hearts he does not believe that. He believes that there is no role for Government in this respect. His fundamental critique is that the Government are taking action when he thinks that they should not take action. In his book “Saturn’s Children” , he said that there should be cuts in housing subsidies, cuts in employment and training, and cuts in police services. He also said that the state should withdraw from education altogether.

The reality is that whereas we believe that the Government have responsibilities to people when they are struggling, the hon. Gentleman’s ideology is to do nothing—and, after all, he is a pivot of the Conservative party.

My right hon. and learned Friend may well be aware that the train operating company First Capital Connect, which made more than £48 million in profits in the first half of last year, has said that it will cut ticket office opening hours by 800 hours. That will affect 28 constituencies across the south-east. It will reduce customer services, passengers will feel less safe, and it will cost jobs. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to make representations to the Secretary of State for Transport and his Ministers and to give us time for a debate on the Floor of the House, because the proposal affects so many Members of Parliament and their constituents. It represents very poor value for money from First Capital Connect, and is, in my view, completely unacceptable.

My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. Even if First Capital Connect is a private company, it is operating within a public service framework, and transport is an important public service. This is a matter for the regulators as well as for Ministers, but I shall ensure that it is brought to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport.

Another week is to pass without a debate on the economy in Government time. It is no good the Leader of the House asking the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to use their Opposition days for a debate that ought to be held in Government time.

We have called a debate on public spending because there seems to be a complete separation between the Prime Minister’s mindset and reality. He keeps telling us that he is providing public money to fight the recession, but, as we heard earlier in Question Time, the reality is that all around the country colleges are being told that their anticipated capital spend simply will not happen. Will the Leader of the House encourage the Prime Minister actually to attend next Monday’s debate in order actually to hear what is really happening? He seems to believe that he is the Mikado, and that because he has ordered something to be done, it has been done. It has not.

While we are talking about the economy, can we deal with some of those who can least afford the difficulties at the moment: people who live in council homes? They are being saddled with enormous rent increases in many boroughs and council areas this year, simply because the Treasury has withdrawn £200 million from the council rent account, which means that rents are going up by anything up to £2,000 a year. Is that fair to some of the poorest people in this country?

Can we have a debate, or at least a statement, on the worsening situation in Sri Lanka?

Next week, finally—if it is not delayed again—we will have the Political Parties and Elections Bill. Has there been any progress in establishing the one-stop shop for the registration of Members’ interests to avoid the confusion that there is at the moment? The House asked for that to be done. What is happening about it?

Lastly, last Tuesday we had a statement from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It was eagerly anticipated because the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was speaking from the Conservative Front Bench. He spoke; he roared; he did not ask any questions. But had he asked any questions, there would not have been a Secretary of State on the Treasury Bench to respond. We had a report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, dated 25 November, that made a recommendation in that respect. The Government have not responded within the two-month period. Why not? When will they do so? When will the issue be moved to the Procedure Committee for a new Standing Order to deal with what is clearly a constitutional anomaly and what some would say is a constitutional enormity?

The hon. Gentleman started by saying that I had simply asked for the Opposition to bring forward debates on the economy. That is to misconstrue what I said. I want to make sure that, every week, there are debates and opportunities to scrutinise the Government’s work. There is a rapid pace of change in the economy and, as it has been ever since Dick Whittington’s day, the City of London is an important financial services centre. Therefore, a global financial services crisis inevitably affects the City. We are an outward-facing, trading nation and a global recession affects our economy in particular. We want to make sure that the House is able to focus on the rapid change that is happening internationally and how it is affecting our economy and can call the Government to account for the actions we are taking.

The mindset of the Government and of the Prime Minister is to make absolutely sure that we are looking at what is happening and ahead to what will happen and taking the necessary action. The hon. Gentleman will understand that these measures take time to work through. We can work out the detail and announce them, but it takes time for them to work through and for their effect to be seen on the economy. That is why we can all help in our constituencies by making sure that businesses and families get the help they need.

The hon. Gentleman talked about council rents. There will be an opportunity to debate that next Wednesday 4 February during debates on the local government finance reports. Last week, he asked for those to be separate debates and to be voted on separately. I can tell him that that will be the case.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Sri Lanka, an issue of real and growing concern. I have spoken to Foreign Office Ministers, as I know the House will want an opportunity as soon as possible either to have an oral statement or a debate. The issue has been raised at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but hon. Members want to take it further and I will certainly look for an opportunity so to do, possibly in a topical debate.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the registration of Members’ interests and the question of dual reporting. The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons has done a great of work on this. He tells me that the Select Committee is due to report on Monday and that there will be an opportunity to sort out dual reporting and have a single system of reporting, which will be brought on a motion on business on Monday 9 February.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that, not long after the deputy leadership election, when she assumed her role, I asked her, and the Prime Minister at a later date, for a statement about getting rid of Members of Parliament’s outside interests where they serve more than one master—directorships, consultancies and the rest? She said that she was looking at the matter and had prepared some material on the subject. Is she aware that since that time, members of the shadow Cabinet—not content with £4 million of Short money—have also been making money on the side? More than half the shadow Cabinet have directorships and consultancies and it is time that we put a stop to it. Members of Parliament cannot serve more than one master. Can we start this clean-up now?

My hon. Friend raises a very serious point. If Members are acting as barristers and in court in addition to their work in the House, their constituents sometimes ask, “How do you have time to do it all?” But there is a different point when income is being received by Members that is not related to their duties on behalf of their constituents. The difficulty is that the public say, “If you are receiving money, what are you selling? What is happening? Why are you taking money? What is the person buying your services getting for those services?” We must make sure that there is public confidence in this House, that the public know that we are in here to do our job for our constituents and that we do that in the public interest, and not to line our own pockets. My hon. Friend has raised an important issue and we will have to return to it.

Will the Leader of the House-person—[Laughter]—grant a debate in Government time to allow Ministers to ponder, during this Government-created debt bust and pause in house building, and to give further consideration to their frequent assertions that large housing developments will not take place unless there is a suitable social infrastructure in place to support them, quite outside the normal section 106 agreements? Will the Leader of the House ask her colleagues to look further at this because it results in necessary housing going ahead without the proper infrastructure to support it, to the great disadvantage of all our constituents?

There will be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise the issue in next Wednesday’s debate on local government finance. I am sure that he will be able to make further points there. We must make sure that wherever there are housing developments, there is suitable infrastructure—whether roads, schools or health services—and that the planning system takes that into account. We are very much in favour of more housing being built as there is a need in this country, but it must be accompanied by the proper infrastructure. We certainly want to support the construction industry by bringing forward capital projects. Quite the opposite effect would occur if, at a time when the housing market is struggling, public sector capital infrastructure projects were delayed, so we will attempt to bring those forward.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a “Government-created” recession. He will know that there is a slowing of growth in China. Was that caused by this Government? He knows that there is a recession in America, France, Germany, Canada and Spain. If he simply talks about a Government-created recession, he will reinforce in everyone’s mind one of two things: either that the Opposition do not really know what is going on, or that they do know what is going on, but are more determined to make party-political points than to contribute to working together to help the country through this very difficult time.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend had a chance to see the report issued at 11 o’clock today on the conduct of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway)? Does she agree that his conduct since almost the beginning of this century has brought this House into disrepute, and will we have an opportunity to debate his conduct next week?

The report has been published this morning by the Standards and Privileges Committee, and it is entitled: “Mr. Derek Conway MP: Third Report of Session 2008-09”. I have not had a chance to study it in detail, but the Committee had already found that this Member had wrongly taken £13,000 out of public funds, and this report concludes that a further sum of £4,000 appears also to have been taken. The House must have a chance to consider this: we should all have time to read the report, and then the House will probably swiftly need an opportunity to debate it. The question the public will ask themselves is: quite how much money can somebody wrongly take out of the public purse while still continuing to hold their job as a Member of Parliament?

The Leader of the House has spoken of the responsibility of MPs to ensure that their constituents are made aware of the Government’s announcements on the actions they are taking to combat the economic downturn. My constituents continue to be bewildered by the announcements that are made, and by the lack of relation they bear to their experiences on the ground. In particular, businesses are telling me that they are still struggling to get the banks to lend to them, and councils that are participating in the mortgage rescue pilot, such as Brent, are telling me that they still do not have details of the scheme they are supposed to be piloting. May we have a debate in Government time about not only the measures the Government are taking, but about the impact those measures are having on the ground, because I think there is a very big gap?

I will look for an opportunity to do that. As I have said, it takes time for people to understand the help that is available to them. On behalf of the hon. Lady’s constituents—businesses big and small, and families who might seek her help—I ask her to go on to the Government website and print off “Real help now: for people and businesses”, which explains where to find help with homes, jobs and finances. That will be kept up to date. I acknowledge that there have been a number of initiatives; that is because we have needed to take focused measures, rather than just spread public money at large. That has meant that there is a level of complexity in the measures, but it is important that they are made clear and simple—and I commend the civil servants who have worked on the document to which I referred. I agree that we need to look for an opportunity for a debate but, in the meantime, the hon. Lady, like all hon. Members, can help her constituents.

To follow on from some earlier questions, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in 2007 first-time home buyers generated in excess of £2 billion in high street and service-sector sales, but that the sum now being generated is a fraction of that? Being mindful that the business announced for next week focuses on building and public spending, will she agree to have a debate in Government time specifically on the perilous state of the house building market?

There will be an opportunity to consider these issues when the Banking Bill returns to the Commons. My hon. Friend makes the important point about ensuring that money flows back into the housing market very well.

Can the Leader of the House tell us when she expects to convene the next meeting of the Modernisation Committee? [Hon. Members: “Never.”] If, as I suspect, that is not imminent, may we have a debate about the desirability of merging the Modernisation Committee with the Procedure Committee? That would enable one Select Committee of the House to look at modernisation and procedure in a co-ordinated way. If we cannot have a debate, can we have some action on this?

A lot of the work to modernise the House of Commons has come not only from the Modernisation Committee, but from the Procedure Committee that the right hon. Gentleman so ably chairs. I say to any right hon. and hon. Members who might be worried that the process of reform and improvement of the House of Commons has ground to halt that it absolutely has not, because the right hon. Gentleman is taking that forward through his Committee. The Modernisation Committee membership needs to be changed following the elevation of my former Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to his current position as my excellent deputy, but I assure Members that the work of modernisation is proceeding.

May I first declare my interest by stating that I suffer from type 2 diabetes? The Leader of the House will know that on Tuesday the Government’s health profile for England was published, which showed commendable progress in a number of areas, but an alarming rise in diabetes. The rate among adult males is now 5.6 per cent. and for adult females it stands at 4.2 per cent. She also knows that we spend £1 million an hour on treating diabetes-related illnesses and that it is the fifth biggest cause of deaths globally. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we deal with this alarming rise by providing members of the public with the opportunity of being tested? Will she arrange for a statement to be made on this matter as soon as possible?

I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he raise this matter in oral questions to Health Ministers on 10 February. Perhaps I can also take this opportunity to congratulate him on the work he does, not only in raising the issue of diabetes in the House, but in his charitable work to make sure there is public awareness of it. This is a public health issue; better public health can lead to postponing, or preventing, the onset of diabetes. It is important that people get screening for early diagnosis and effective treatment. It is my understanding that my right hon. Friend discovered that he had diabetes when he was helping to promote screening in his own constituency and offered to take a blood test. I congratulate him on his work, and I say to him that the Government will back it up.

May we have a debate on the unelected and unaccountable role of regional government in this country? Bradford council has been told that, on top of the 50,000 homes it is expected to have built in the next few years, which is already against its wishes and the wishes of local residents, it might be hit with a further increase in the number of houses it is expected to have built. My constituents are sick to the back teeth of every scrap of green space being built on, which has been imposed on them by regional government, which is both unelected and unaccountable. May we have a debate about this, as it is of great concern to many constituents?

I am sure that in the hon. Gentleman’s region there is a recognition that there need to be more homes and that there is a need for housing development, but that it must be in the right place and in the right areas with proper infrastructure. It is precisely for the reasons he mentioned that we are setting up regional committees so there can be regional scrutiny of the regional development agencies and the work of the Homes and Communities Agency at a regional level. I hope that soon—once the Committee of Selection has done its work—we will be able to proceed with those regional committees.

Wind farms are becoming increasingly central to the delivery of renewable energy. However, there is no factual knowledge that we can count on that defines the efficiency of the source of energy and there are no guidelines about the location of these wind farms. At present, Stockton and Sedgefield are facing planning requests for more than 90 turbines. This is, of course, a problem that the local authority is attempting to handle. If it turns down these requests, it will then have to face costly appeals. That is not fair and it should not be the responsibility of local authorities to handle this. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make representations on behalf of the many of us who live in areas that are facing planning blight from turbines, which are springing up everywhere in our rural areas?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is why we introduced the Planning Act 2008, which will involve bringing forward a national policy statement on energy. That will include the framework within which renewable energy projects can take place, under which once proposals are made they can be swiftly consulted on and either taken forward or dropped.

May I ask the Leader of the House to provide an opportunity to debate freedom of speech and political demonstration? She did not answer the point on Parliament square raised by the shadow Leader of the House. Although it is important that people should be free to demonstrate outside Parliament peacefully and to lobby Parliament, it is quite wrong that a squalid encampment should permanently disfigure the centre of our great capital city. Can we please deal with this expeditiously?

This is a matter of concern. Obviously, as the hon. Gentleman says, it is a question of the balance between freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate. This matter involves the City of Westminster police, the Mayor of London and the House authorities, and it is being considered under the general heading of constitutional renewal by the Secretary of State for Justice. I shall draw his attention to the comments made by the hon. Gentleman and the shadow Leader of the House.

During this worldwide economic downturn, none are suffering more than people who have savings. Can we have a debate to see how we can protect, and ensure there is a guaranteed minimum income for, pensioners and people who save? That would be a way forward and it would give them hope.

There is a great deal of concern about this, not least among savers. Many savers are retired, and that is why we have sought to ensure that additional financial support is provided to savers. There will be an opportunity to return to these issues during the remaining stages of the Banking Bill.

May I, too, push the Government for a debate on the economy in these times of recession and credit crunch? It should focus particularly on those who are stopping money reaching the real economy, such as irresponsible bankers, and on the crass and arrogant actions of Labour in Scotland, who, helped by the feeble Lib Dems, yesterday blocked £1.8 billion of new money. This would have been new money for councils, for health, for the vulnerable and for the disabled, and it would have provided support for 5,000 construction jobs. Reckless Labour is now—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not get up and read out a speech. He should ask a question about the business for next week—it should be about the business of this House, not the devolved Parliament of Scotland. Perhaps the Leader of the House should try to answer, and then we can move on.

I know that many Members of the Scottish Parliament were concerned about the lack of investment in apprenticeships and training, and that many Labour MSPs voted against the budget on that basis. However, this is, as you say, Mr. Speaker, not a matter for this House.

Members of all parties met the director-general of the BBC earlier this week and expressed considerable anger over its stance on the refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal on Gaza. That anger is shared by my constituents, many of whom are BBC employees, yet senior management seem determined to ride it out. So can we have a debate on the Floor of the House on this issue, which is wrecking the BBC’s reputation at home and abroad?

No one can be in any doubt about the intensely high level of concern in this House about the humanitarian plight of people in Gaza—that came out in the debate that we had in the past fortnight. Everyone wants to see not only an increase in the levels of Government humanitarian aid, which the Secretary of State for International Development has raised, but a recognition that the voluntary contribution is essential for humanitarian exercises, in addition to Government international pressure on the Israelis to make sure that that humanitarian aid gets through. Obviously, there has been nationwide dismay about this situation but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we need to step back—we should not step over the line—from telling the BBC, which is independent, how it should make its editorial decisions. I see from the papers that it is reviewing the complaints that it has received about this issue, a Westminster Hall debate has taken place on which. A statement will be made just after business questions by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, so provided “digital” is in the question, there might be an opportunity to ask him for an answer too.

I listened to the earlier exchanges about the decision of the ill-fated Learning and Skills Council to suspend its capital funding programme. May I add my voice to concerns about this matter, not least on behalf of Sharnbrook upper school and community college, which found that many months of negotiations with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, its local authority and the LSC had been undermined by that decision and that there was a consequent negative impact on its pupils? Was the Leader of the House disappointed that information on the matter came not from a statement from a Minister but through contact with Members of Parliament? Is she very disappointed that, again, this matter is not being debated by the Government in their time, but has to be brought up by the Opposition in order to pin the Government down about such an important capital freeze?

I do not think we need any lessons from the official Opposition on capital spending. We have said that we are determined to bring forward capital spending on our infrastructure across the board, so that, as well as providing real help for people now, we provide real hope for the future. The hon. Gentleman’s party has suggested cutting capital spending, so I suggest he address his questions to his own Front-Bench team, rather than to me.

May I add my appeal to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), because there is widespread concern, including among my constituents, about the BBC’s decision not to show the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal on Gaza? People up and down the country are licence fee payers and, although I appreciate that the Government cannot tell the BBC what it should be doing, Back-Bench Members across this House want to express their views and would welcome an opportunity to do so on the Floor of the House.

I take the point that hon. Members are saying that even if the Government cannot take a position, they feel free, on behalf of their constituents, to do so and therefore I should look to provide an opportunity to discuss the issue, possibly through a topical debate.

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a Procedure Committee report, which was accepted by the Government, that would enable them to take action immediately on the eyesore and noise nuisance that desecrates Parliament square?

Will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on Zimbabwe? I press this point week after week; my commitment to that country is 100 per cent. Horrors as great, if not greater, than those occurring in Gaza are taking place there daily—starvation and cholera are killing thousands of people. May we have a debate in this Chamber to reflect our horror and to urge action?

The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter previously. Since it was raised by him and other hon. Members, I have spoken to my colleagues in the Foreign Office and I will seek an opportunity to debate Africa, in particular the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur and Zimbabwe; I know that these are really important issues and I will look for an early opportunity.

May I, too, echo the concerns about the BBC’s decision on Gaza?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Legal Services Commission is planning to move the processing of legal aid from its office in Wales, at a time when Welsh law is diverging from English law because of the developments resulting from the Government of Wales Acts, with the loss of 40 jobs? Can she suggest any parliamentary opportunities for me to raise this very important issue further?

I suggest that my hon. Friend, who is a champion for jobs in her constituency, should look for an opportunity to raise this matter in Justice questions next Tuesday. I understand that she could also seek a meeting with Lord Bach, who is the Minister responsible for legal services. I think everybody appreciates that these are important jobs for her constituency.

The latest figures show that in the year to come council tenants in the London borough of Sutton will be paying £10.5 million of their rent to the Treasury, which, in effect, means that council tenants in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park will be paying their April to August rents to the Treasury. May we have a debate in Government time with the title “Treasury profiteering from hard-pressed tenants”?

The hon. Gentleman’s party has already chosen two topics for the Opposition day next Monday, but he will find an opportunity to raise these issues next Wednesday in the local government debate.

The Leader of the House will recall that she and I debated the need to change the law on cohabiting couples in Westminster Hall about two or three years ago. On 13 March, in the other place, Lord Lester will introduce a private Member’s Bill to reform the law for cohabiting couples. Following a two-year study by the Law Commission that reported in 2007 and the fact that the law has been changed in Scotland, do we not now need an urgent debate on the Floor of this House to see how we can change the law to protect the 2 million couples who are living together, and the 1.25 million children who are living with these parents and who are completely unprotected in the event of a breakdown of a relationship?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have just seen research that shows that after marriage breakdown the woman is likely to be around 25 per cent. worse off, and she usually looks after the children, so that has a bad impact on them. Men are likely to be some 25 per cent. better off, and that is why I strongly commend the proposals in the Welfare Reform Bill to ensure that fathers do not stop paying for their children when a relationship breaks down. My hon. Friend has been a champion, reminding everybody that although it is often unfair on children and women after marriage break-up, it is often even more unfair when cohabiting couples break up. This issue is under consideration by the Secretary of State for Justice and I suggest that she reminds him to make progress on that in Justice questions on Tuesday.

In better economic times, the Government set considerable store by praying in aid support by the International Monetary Fund for their economic policies. Yesterday, the same body issued a damning report on the state of the British economy. May I ask the Leader of the House for a statement by a Treasury Minister about the IMF’s findings, as many companies rely on such forecasts to enable them to organise their business affairs? As she said earlier, the provision of timely and accurate information to business is essential in these difficult times.

In that case, the right hon. Gentleman can respond to my request to give timely and accurate information to his constituents.

Will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland make a statement next week on the proposal to compensate the families of terrorists? That is causing great distress in Northern Ireland and affecting the peace process. The sooner that the Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box and knocks that crazy idea on the head, the better for all concerned.

We all hope and expect Northern Ireland to have a successful future, and we also have to honour the memories of those who have suffered, including the 4,000 who lost their lives during the 40 years of the troubles. We have to learn the lesson that Northern Ireland cannot prosper in the future if it continues to live in the grip of that painful past. I thank Lord Eames and Mr. Bradley for their report. In 200 pages, they made 30 proposals, one of which is especially controversial and the Prime Minister spoke about it to the House yesterday. We have to find a way towards reconciliation without endless repeats of massive inquiries such as the Saville inquiry, useful though that may turn out to be when it finally concludes its work.

Will the Leader of the House prevail on the Home Secretary for a debate on the management of the UK Border Agency? I wrote to the Home Office recently about my constituent Mr. Gary Allen, and the reply said that the agency could confirm that his application for indefinite leave to remain was still awaiting consideration. It went on to say that it was not able to give a precise date for that consideration. Mr. Allen began his application in 2002, so he has been waiting for six years. Does that indicate that something may be going wrong in that agency?

I think I have more immigration cases than any other Member, and I know that some cases—if they are complicated or involve different items of information that have to be obtained from other countries—can take a very long time to be sorted out. However, the agency is much quicker than it was and I commend its work. I suggest that, instead of raising the issue in business questions, the right hon. Gentleman seek a meeting with the Minister responsible to try to get Mr. Allen’s case sorted out.

On the matter of the demonstrations in Parliament square, I make the plea that we treat the individual demonstrators with respect and that we respect their views, which are sincerely held.

Will the Leader of the House have a word with her Cabinet colleagues about how they answer written questions? I have been attempting to obtain data about the performance of the ambulance service in the two districts in my constituency. That information used to be given in parliamentary answers, but since the regionalisation of the ambulance service it has been denied to us. The Colchester Gazette has been told that it can obtain the information through a request under the freedom of information legislation. Given that the Secretary of State for Health is constitutionally responsible for the conduct of the health service, should he not provide the information in parliamentary answers that a local newspaper could obtain on request?

The hon. Gentleman is right. We cannot have a situation in which freedom of information requests are answered but Members elected to hold Ministers to account do not get answers to their questions. That is the wrong way round. I know that every Minister wants questions to be dealt with properly, and if things are going wrong they need to be brought sharply to their attention. The Deputy Leader of the House is the clearing house for such concerns and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman meet him to talk about it.

May we please have a debate in Government time and on the Floor of the House about violence against women? The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the End Violence against Women Coalition will tomorrow publish a seminal report highlighting the fact that 3 million women suffer this terrible scourge every year in England and Wales, at an estimated cost to the country of £40,000 million, so is it not high time that this House debated its approach to some of the most vulnerable people in our society to whom we owe a particular duty of care?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. The British crime survey showed a fall in the number of women reporting that they had suffered domestic violence, and that is a welcome trend, but it remains a massive problem. He mentions the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission—I have had a chance to see it already. It shows that although statutory agencies are making progress with the support they provide—such as health authorities providing sexual assault referral centres—the map of gaps last year showed that one in three local authorities were providing no support services to women under threat of domestic violence. That has now fallen to one in four, so progress has been made, but it is still too few. Local authorities need to recognise that they must play their part in the battle against domestic violence. We should not wring our hands and say that nothing can be done, because action can be taken. There will be a debate on international women’s day, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise the issue then.

I add my voice to those on both sides of the House who are calling for a debate on Sri Lanka. While events there have been overshadowed in recent weeks by events in Gaza, the death toll continues to rise every day with many thousands of civilians caught between the warring factions. I urge the Leader of the House to do all she can to encourage the Government to bring that war to an end.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments and I will bring them to the attention of the Foreign Secretary. He is already acting on this issue, but he will be grateful for the support and encouragement of hon. Members. I will also look for a chance to debate the situation.