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Business of the House

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 5 February 2009

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 9 February—Motion to approve a Standards and Privileges Committee report on dual reporting and the revised guide to the rules followed by remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill (Day 1).

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 entitled “Government’s failure to address the increase in housing waiting lists”, followed by a debate on the future of Royal Mail. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

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

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 February will include:

Monday 23 February—Second Reading of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill.

Tuesday 24 February—Opposition day (6th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 25 February—Remaining stages of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill.

Thursday 26 February—General debate on Welsh Affairs.

Friday 27 February—Private Members’ Bills.

I would also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 26 February and 5 March will be as follows:

Thursday 26 February—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on valuing and supporting carers.

Thursday 5 March—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights entitled, “A Life Like Any Other? Human Rights of Adults with Learning Disabilities”.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement, but may I, once again, ask for a debate on Equitable Life? Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady twice used the word “compensation” with reference to those who have lost out from the collapse of Equitable Life, but the word appears in neither the oral statement given to the House by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 15 January nor the Command Paper published immediately afterwards. Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the Government will indeed be giving compensation, and not just means-tested payments? Is she aware of what the ombudsman—or, to use her favoured form of words, the ombudsperson—was complaining about last week when she said that the Government’s response to her report had twisted her words and was spinning deceits?

Leaks to the press have suggested that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are considering delaying the Budget announcement. Given the seriousness of our current economic plight, can the Leader of the House tell us when the Chancellor will deliver his Budget to the House? Some companies facing a slump in demand for their products have decided simply to shut down for a few months; have the Government decided to do the same?

Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady declined to answer a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about her plans for the Modernisation Committee. That Committee has not met since July. May we have a statement on whether she plans to abolish it—as some of my hon. Friends would like—fold it into the Procedure Committee, or revive it?

May we also perhaps have a debate on moral authority, so that this House can help to establish a code of modern manners for privacy, humour and comment, which can be practised and agreed by everyone, in place of the current chaos, which provokes animosity and condemnation when it all could be so much better handled?

It seems that we have more inclement weather moving in. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady can dismiss the scurrilous rumours circulating this week that she spent most of Monday building a snowperson? We are now learning that some councils have been forced to scale back and even halt their gritting and salting programmes owing to national shortages, so may we have a debate on this country’s lack of preparedness for snow and ice?

The report by the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise on the annual report of the Department criticised the lack of proper accountability caused by the large number of Ministers, including the Secretary of State Lord Mandelson, who are not in this House, but in another place. That report, which was published more than two months ago, called for urgent action by the Government to investigate possible solutions to this imbalance, but there has still been no formal response—when will there be such a response from the Government?

We are all in favour of Ministers flying the flag for Britain but, unlike Lord Mandelson, we like to do things the right way up. Given that flying the flag upside down is an internationally recognised sign of distress, was his appearance in front of such a symbol a mistake or a desperate cry for help? The truth is that the Prime Minister has moved from recession to depression, the country has run out of salt, the Government have run out of grit and now they are flying the flag of distress. How long will we have to wait before this Government follow the lead of Iceland and simply decide to pack up and go home?

Well, I give the hon. Gentleman 10 out of 10 for frothy presentation and about zero for substance, but I shall try to glean some substantive points from his comments. On Equitable Life, whatever the terminology—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] Well, we are talking about the Government recognising that there had been not only terrible mismanagement by Equitable Life but regulatory failure, that an apology was due, and that there was a need for financial recompense—whatever the words one uses to describe it. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement made to this House by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the Budget would be announced, so I shall tell him that it will be announced in the usual way. He implied that the Government were not taking action on the economy. I think he would recognise from all the statements made to this House and from all the Government’s announcements that we have taken unprecedented action both to help people through the recession in this country and to work internationally to improve the global financial situation.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Modernisation Committee. I did not avoid the question put last week—I answered it. There are many programmes of modernisation working their way through the system for which we can thank the Modernisation Committee—for example, those on pre-legislative scrutiny, post-legislative scrutiny and having Bills in plain English. The Modernisation Committee’s work runs alongside that of the Procedure Committee. Because of ministerial appointments, there have to be new Members on the Modernisation Committee. I am sure that the Committee of Selection will come forward with those appointments and the work on the modernisation of the House will continue.

On Monday, the business of the House carried on as usual, and I add my tribute to the one that you paid, Mr. Speaker, to the 800 members of staff of this House who came in to keep the House working as usual. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was doing on Monday but, as far as I was concerned, as Leader of the House it was business as usual. He talked about snow, ice and grit. The Highways Agency is working with the Government, the Department for Transport and the Local Government Association to ensure that there is proper distribution of salt and that we can keep as many of the roads open as possible. He ended up with a general swipe at Ministers in the Lords, but I would like to pay tribute to the work of those people who step forward to be Ministers in the Lords; it is a question of serious people for serious times.

Can time be found next week for an urgent debate on early-day motion 426, which I tabled?

[That this House notes the disproportionate impact on building societies of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) levy, resulting from the failure of Bradford and Bingley plc, the Icelandic banks and London Scottish Bank; recognises that building societies’ share of the levy, approximately £200 million per annum in each of the next three years, is equivalent to about 15 per cent. of the sector’s pre-tax profit for 2007-08 financial year ends; notes that building societies’ share of the levy for years beyond 2011 is uncertain, but could well be higher than £200 million per annum; acknowledges that the impact on building societies contrasts starkly with the banking sector, where the FSCS levy is typically well below five per cent. of pre-tax profits over a similar accounting period; further notes that the current allocation of the FSCS levy works to the detriment of building societies’ members, their savers and borrowers; acknowledges that no building society has ever made a call on the FSCS or its predecessor schemes; and calls on the Government to introduce a more equitable scheme for funding the insurance of deposits of failed banks.]

The motion now has 119 signatures, but not many from the Conservatives.

I know that my hon. Friend has raised this issue personally with the Prime Minister. To take the matter forward, she may wish to consider whether it is a suitable subject for a Westminster Hall debate.

On the grounds that we should sometimes talk about what the rest of the country is talking about, there is a case for the topical debate next week to be on planning for adverse weather conditions.

I welcome the statement from the Foreign Secretary on the case of Binyam Mohamed that will follow business questions. I suggest, however, that we may need a statement from the Prime Minister, because the ruling from the court case makes it clear that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is under the Prime Minister’s tutelage, was asked to look at this matter, but 42 relevant documents were not given to it. This is a matter of the greatest gravity on the issue of the rule of law, and the Prime Minister needs to tell the House exactly what has happened.

May we have two statements on Iceland? We need one on the position of the Government and the regulatory authorities in relation to Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander in the Isle of Man and Guernsey, so that we can be sure that the Government have acted appropriately to protect the interests of United Kingdom depositors in that bank? The second should be on the apparent liquidation of Baugur and the impact that that will have on a huge number of retail jobs in this country.

In Prime Minister’s questions, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) asked about the Competition Commission’s proposals to protect primary suppliers from the oligopolistic attitudes of the major retailing supermarkets. The Prime Minister said that my hon. Friend was “absolutely right”. When will legislation be introduced to set up a statutory ombudsman for the supply chain, as recommended by the commission?

Last week, I drew attention to the credibility gap between what the Prime Minister says will happen and what actually happens. He said that the Government would accelerate capital programmes to deal with the recession; certainly in the case of colleges, they have stopped. He said that he would require energy companies to bring down prices; they have not. He said that he would require banks to increase lending and stop paying bonuses; they carry on regardless. He said that there would be a mortgage deferral scheme; two months later, it is not there. He announced an increase in house building, but last year only half as many houses were built as in the year before. May we have a debate on why it appears that nobody takes a blind bit of notice of what the Prime Minister actually says?

The hon. Gentleman’s first point will be the subject of a statement by the Foreign Secretary immediately after business questions, so perhaps he could address that question to him. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask the Prime Minister, Prime Minister’s questions will of course take place next Wednesday.

The hon. Gentleman raised the serious issue of the Icelandic banks. A great deal of information has been given to the House by Treasury Ministers, both by way of written ministerial statements and oral statements, and Treasury questions will take place next week. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems with Baugur, which highlight the importance of the tax stimulus that we have put into the economy, both by bringing forward cash for pensioners, child tax credit and tax rebates, and through the VAT cut, which will add to the benefits felt from the interest rate cuts. We have to recognise that retail is very much affected and should be the beneficiary of the tax stimulus that is being put into the economy.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Competition Commission. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered the question yesterday and I do not think there is anything more I can add today. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman showed that he is fully in support of the point that lies behind the question asked by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George).

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) then made a range of accusations about things that have not worked. Actions have been taken and they are all working their way through the system: pressure has rightly been applied to bring down energy prices; interest rates have fallen; and the announcements for mortgage deferrals need to make their way through the system. He will recognise that against the background of a rapid deterioration in the global economic situation, we are taking all the actions that we can, not only internationally but nationally, to protect people. Yes, some of the measures take time to get through the system, but they are the right measures and we stand ready to introduce more. We will listen to any sensible suggestions from his party if such suggestions are made.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that when the economy was growing rapidly, we legislated to expose empty commercial properties to business rates. When the economy slowed down, we exempted properties with a rateable value of up to £15,000. Is she aware that the South East England Development Agency and my local council have got together to build much-needed industrial premises in my constituency that will help us to attract jobs when the economy starts to grow but, in the meantime, will shortly be a business rate liability on the taxpayer? Will she raise that issue with the Chancellor and will she arrange for us to have an opportunity to debate it in the near future, and certainly before the Budget?

My hon. Friend is right to remind us that that measure was brought in to deter people from leaving property empty. I know that the subject has been raised by many hon. Members. Treasury questions will take place next week, so perhaps he can ask a Treasury Minister about it then.

It was confirmed in a recent written answer by the Minister responsible for prisons that Whitemoor prison in my constituency has seen its proportion of Muslim prisoners increase by 14 percentage points, that is, from 20 to 34 per cent., in the last year for which figures are available. That is by far the largest proportion of Muslim prisoners in a high-security prison in the country and represents a disproportionate and unreasonable burden on the prison officer staff at Whitemoor. May we have a debate at the earliest opportunity on the dispersal policy for Muslim prisoners in the high-security estate?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the scandalous gender pay gap of 40 per cent. in the banking sector? Will she urge her ministerial colleagues to take action to rectify that situation, particularly as far as bonuses are concerned? They hardly ever fall to women and are awarded entirely subjectively. Frankly, it is unacceptable for that industry to carry on in the way that it has been doing.

This issue could also be raised in Treasury questions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that there is a great deal of concern about remuneration policies in the financial services industry. There has been concern about remuneration policies in relation to bonuses, which have appeared to reward failure and have involved huge figures. She also mentioned an unfairness: despite the fact that most of those who work in the financial services sector are women, it has the biggest gender pay gap of all sectors at 40 per cent. That is why I have asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to carry out an investigation into pay discrimination in the financial services sector, which needs a root-and-branch overhaul in respect of remuneration.

The Environment Agency recently scrapped an anti-flooding programme in Marlow, in my constituency, after design errors by Halcrow, the consultants, were discovered. That came at a cost of about £1 million—and rising—to the taxpayer. May we have a debate in the reasonably near future on the use of consultants by Government agencies?

I shall draw the question to the attention of my right hon. Friends in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek the opportunity for a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

In March, there will be a United Nation General Assembly special session on drugs in Vienna. That follows a similar UNGASS in Vienna last year, at which it was decided to consider reforming the three UN conventions that control the world’s drug policy as well as the 1998 UN declaration on countering the world drug problem. There was a debate on the subject in the other place on 22 January. Do the Government intend to have a debate in this House to inform our delegate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), on this extremely important matter?

My hon. Friend is right to say that this matter is extremely important. The UN has a major role to play in drawing countries together internationally in the fight against drugs. I understand that a very high percentage of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan, so that might well be a subject that he could raise, if he can catch Mr. Speaker’s eye, as part of this afternoon’s debate.

Following the support of the both the Conservative and Labour parties for yesterday’s Scottish National party budget to invest in jobs and freeze council tax, may we have a proper debate about how this House funds Scotland? Yesterday, we also learned that this crowd are prepared to slash—

Order. We must use temperate language. Her Majesty’s Opposition are not a crowd; they are hon. Members.

Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition wants to slash Scottish expenditure by altering the way in which Scotland is funded. Meanwhile, the Government want to be more direct and slash £2 billion from the Scottish budget. May we have a proper debate to consider all the options, including full fiscal autonomy so that Scotland pays and raises its taxes and spends them in the way that it sees fit?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to raise that point in Treasury questions. It is difficult to think of a collective noun that could be used for the Opposition if they were not Her Majesty’s Opposition. Today, the collective noun would certainly be “chaps”.

The falling value of the pound against other currencies creates important opportunities for export industries and inbound tourism. In fact, it would be accurate for advertisements to be placed in the eurozone or United States saying, “Come to Britain for your holiday—30 per cent. off last year’s price.” May we have a debate to discuss what the Government could do to exploit the exchange rate to help tourism businesses and export industries in the UK?

That is something that the Prime Minister answered yesterday. It is very much the preoccupation of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Tourism is very important in the City of York, which my hon. Friend represents, as well as in our coastal towns. I suggest that he could look for an opportunity for a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

May we have an early debate on the regulation of wheel clampers, particularly bearing in mind the case of my constituent, Tara Dougall, a health care professional whose car was clamped in deep snow this week? The cost of getting it back was £345, paid to a company called Park Direct.

I shall bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman writes to him about it. There are too many concerns and justified complaints about cowboy clampers, and perhaps we should be looking for someone to make an example of. The right hon. Gentleman may just have put his finger on a candidate.

On the front of yesterday’s Evening Standard was a picture of uncollected rubbish lying in the snow in Hammersmith. Many of my constituents have had no bus service or refuse collection this week, nor have they been able to walk on their pavements or drive on their streets, all because the incompetent Tory local council was not able to carry out its basic function of planning for, or reacting to, adverse weather. May we have a debate in Government time to explore how the Government can persuade local councils to carry out those basic functions?

I know that there is a great deal of concern about whether all the London boroughs stepped up to the mark to help people to get to work, and about all the problems caused for Transport for London by the fact that traffic could not run along the roads, which had a knock-on effect on bus services. The London boroughs, and London’s Mayor as well, should take full responsibility for that.

In response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), the Leader of the House said that she was sure that the Committee of Selection would shortly come up with some new names. Is she aware that responsibility for nominations to the Modernisation Committee rests not with the Committee of Selection, but with her?

However, may I ask why there is no topical debate next Thursday, or the next sitting Thursday after that? How can the right hon. and learned Lady be so confident that nothing will happen in the next three weeks that merits a topical debate?

On the Thursday before the recess, we are debating social security orders, and on the Thursday following the recess, we are having a Welsh affairs debate. Usually, so many hon. Members from Wales want to speak in that debate that it is better not to carve out an hour and a half for a topical debate. However, if there is a pressing need for a topical debate next Thursday, in addition to the Government business of the social security upratings, I will consider arranging one, as I am aware that there will be a number of weeks without a topical debate. If we want to hold a topical debate on that Thursday, I can always come to the House and rearrange the business. The business that we intend to cover is as I have announced it, but I shall keep an eye on the matter.

There used to be a publishing imprint called “Condensed Classics”, which provided compact versions of our nation’s greatest literature. My early-day motion 665 attempts to do the same thing in relation to the series of articles this week in The Guardian exposing the tax-avoidance industry.

[That this House applauds the Guardian's serialised coverage of the tax avoidance industry and its cost to the public; observes that due to the complex and secretive nature of tax avoidance there is no accurate figure for the amount of tax that big business avoids paying in the UK every year; notes that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates this annual hole in the public accounts to be £12 billion whilst the Public Accounts Committee puts the figure at £8.5 billion; further notes with concern the National Audit Office's finding that in 2006 more than 60 per cent, of Britain's 700 biggest companies paid less than £10 million corporation tax and 30 per cent, paid nothing; regards companies in the FTSE 100 and others indulging in this highly addictive practice as guilty of corporate malfeasance; seriously regrets that families and small to medium-sized businesses continue to plug this gap through disproportionately higher taxes; regrets the Government and HM Revenue and Customs' decision to close local tax offices at a time when the tax system is under sustained attack from the major accountancy firms on behalf of their corporate clients during a recession; believes that those accountancy firms offering tax avoidance products and advice should be excluded from tendering for public sector contracts until they stop serving this highly destructive and socially irresponsible corporate habit; and calls on the Government to respond formally to the Guardian's findings as part of a wholesale review of the corporate tax system.]

This will be of use to fellow parliamentarians, who are beset by many items of work at all times. Can we have a statement on the topic from my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to Treasury, or better still a debate in Government time? The annual hole in the public accounts, which has to be filled by tax paid by families and small and medium-sized enterprises, is at least £12 billion; that equates to about 4p on the standard rate of income tax. It is a scandal and a disgrace, and we really ought to be doing more to combat it.

We all strongly believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes. It is objectionable for anyone to try to avoid paying tax, and is even more so when times are hard. People who are better off ought to step forward and take up their responsibilities for paying tax, not try to shirk them. Making sure that loopholes are plugged as soon as they are opened is a constant source of work in the Treasury. We have Treasury questions next week, when I suggest my hon. Friend raises with Treasury Ministers any further suggestions that he has for plugging tax loopholes.

In a week when much of the country has been paralysed by snow, my constituents in Sutton and Cheam and Worcester Park want to know why all the stations providing rail services into London were still closed on Tuesday. They also want to know why the railway industry seemed so singularly unprepared to cope with the adverse weather, despite the advance warnings that were given. Can we have a debate in Government time as soon as possible, so that we can explore contingency and resilience planning by Network Rail, Government Departments and local authorities?

I am sure that all the organisations concerned will be seeking to learn lessons from their response to what everyone recognises was unprecedented weather. Perhaps I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to issue a written ministerial statement about the lessons that will be learned and how these issues will be taken forward.

Can we have a debate—perhaps a topical debate—on the weather? I pay tribute to my own council in Wakefield, which gritted 1,400 km of snow-covered roads, but it is clear from the experiences of other hon. Members that that was not the case across the country. We have civil contingency plans for terror attacks and floods, but when we get three inches of snow, the buses stop working, the teachers stay at home, and Parliament goes home early. Many people do not get paid if they do not go to work. We need to debate all these issues and make sure that in the 21st century, the world’s seventh-largest economy can deal with three inches of snow.

Obviously, I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Wakefield council on its response to the extreme weather. Lessons need to be learned, and no doubt they will be, but we must also recognise that many people made great efforts to get into work, despite the emergency weather conditions. Hospitals were running and the House of Commons had business as usual, although the Liberal Democrats were kind enough to foreshorten their debate and bring it to a close half an hour early—

They closed the debate an hour early, which allowed those who had come in to keep the House open to get home on time.

During questions to the hon. Member representing the Church Commissioners, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) raised the unfair and ridiculous charge for the disposal of surface water that is being levied by water authorities. In the north-west, United Utilities has temporarily lifted that charge from small sporting clubs and places of worship and from the premises used by organisations such as the scouts and guides. Bearing that in mind, will the relevant Minister come forward at an early date to make it clear that the Government will cancel that fee and charge, with immediate effect?

I shall refer the relevant Ministers to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman and in earlier questions.

On Monday, the Mayor of London said that the problem was not the wrong sort of snow but that there was just too much of it. Does the Leader of the House accept that glib excuse for the chaos in the capital city that followed? Will she listen to the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), and by the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), and enable us to have an early debate on the chaos that followed when we had a little bit of snow?

What people in London wanted was a gritting lorry rather than a soundbite. I can only repeat that we must learn the lessons from what happened. We will have to review what happened as a result of what were unprecedented weather conditions.

The past few days have shown that upland hill farmers have had a pretty tough time, especially in the midlands and through Somerset and Exmoor, which I represent. Can we have a debate in Government time on the desperate situation of upland hill farmers, which has worsened over successive years? If we want to keep the United Kingdom’s upland landscape beautiful, please may we discuss how those farmers can be helped by the Government?

I think that that would be a good topic for a Westminster Hall debate, and I shall bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In light of the right hon. and learned Lady’s earlier remarks, may I place on record my self-sacrificial willingness to step forward and serve as a Minister in the Lords, if the appropriate arrangements can be made—but under the next Government, not this one?

Mr. Speaker, you were in the Chair on Monday when my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and I put questions to successive Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions. There were two Ministers, and two completely contradictory answers were given. Some 1,700 ex-pat UK citizens, all of them by implication disabled, are waiting for payment of disability and related benefits. The matter is to be determined by the European Court of Justice, and the Government have been sitting on the problem for months. Given the confusion caused on Monday, will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement, so that we know what the position actually is?

I shall ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify the situation following oral questions on Monday.

Two months ago, in a written statement, the Secretary of State for International Development said that there would be a pause in the negotiations for an airport on the island of St. Helena, which the Government had long promised and for which the contract was about to be awarded. Two months is more than a pause. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House and hold a debate on why there has been such a long delay to the promised airport on St. Helena?

The Secretary of State will come to the House next Wednesday. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks an opportunity to ask him about the issue then.

In a week when a devoted community nurse was suspended from her duties for wanting to pray for one of her patients and then the BBC, which is even more misguided than that nurse’s health authority, dismissed an eminent broadcaster for a remark made in the green room, while retaining the odious Jonathan Ross on £6 million a year, is it not time that we had a debate on the utter absurdities of political correctness?

On the question of the nurse, whose case was reported in the newspapers, the matter is, I presume, a disciplinary issue for her employers. On the BBC, whether or not material is offensive is a question for trustees of the BBC.

Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), will the Leader of the House invite the Flag Institute to go to No. 10 Downing street to provide a training module for the Prime Minister, the noble Lord Mandelson and Downing street officials, to ensure that the embarrassing incident in which the flag of our country was displayed upside down in front of the Chinese Prime Minister never occurs again? Also, will she enable a debate to be held so that we in this country can consider introducing a flag Act similar to that in Australia, so that such a thing is not allowed to happen again and so that the procedure and protocol can be clearly laid down?

Consideration has been given to the question of flags in the debate on the constitutional renewal Bill. As and when any such Bill is introduced, no doubt the hon. Gentleman and colleagues who agree with him can table amendments.

May we have a statement or a debate—or even, if we cannot have those, an expression of opinion from the Leader of the House—on the improper use of written statements as a substitute for ministerial statements made on the Floor of the House? I have in mind the written statement made on the postponement of the building programme for the two aircraft carriers. I know that the right hon. and learned Lady did her best to promise us that we could raise the issue in the armed forces debate held a week ago, but in the end, Mr. Speaker quite understandably decided that we could not. Will she at least try to send a signal to Ministers that, in future, when there is an important matter to be announced to the House, we should be able to question them, rather than the announcement being sneaked out as a written statement?

I do not think that there is any intention to sneak out information by way of written statements. If information is put in a written statement, it is laid before the House, so it is not sneaked out at all; it is put in the public domain. Ministers and I, as Leader of the House, have to share the decision on whether time is needed for the Second Reading of an important Bill, the remaining stages of a controversial Bill, or Opposition day debates. There has been an unprecedented number of statements, not least because of statements from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Treasury on the economic situation, as well as a number of statements from the Home Office. We have to be careful to ensure that the main business of the House is not too squeezed by statements.

It is a question of striking a balance. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes such matters seriously, so I will be prompted by his question to review the balance between written and oral statements, and the balance between oral statements and the rest of the business of the House, to make sure that we get both right. I absolutely assure him that we are proud of our procurement from the important industries that provide for our armed services. There is no way that we would want to sweep that under the carpet.

The Leader of the House will be aware that I raised a point of order last night about the dwindling supplies of salt and grit in the country. Gloucestershire is in a particularly difficult situation: it has a 72-hour contract with Salt Union, but has been told that it may not get another supply next Tuesday, so it is severely rationing the number of roads that it can salt, which has implications for road safety. Will the Leader of the House guarantee to bring that to the attention of the Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government today? If conditions deteriorate over the weekend, will she ask the Secretary of State to come and make a statement to the House? Clearly, we cannot have a situation in which the country is running out of salt.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, unprecedented demands have been made on the stocks of salt, and difficult decisions about priorities have to be made. I think that it is a matter of the Department for Transport working with the Department for Communities and Local Government, agencies such as the Highways Agency and local government bodies to make sure that we can replenish stocks and ensure that salt supplies are where they are needed.

Will the Leader of the House clarify the statement that she made in December and again on 13 January that when a debate is on armed forces personnel, the title should be interpreted broadly? She will understand that one can no more debate soldiers, sailors and airmen without debating the kit that they use than one can debate teachers or nurses without debating schools or hospitals. Will she confirm that in future, in debates on armed forces personnel, we can debate the equipment that they use and on which they rely?

Traditionally, the House has debated armed services personnel separately from armed forces procurement; that has been the custom and practice. As for the scope or remit of any particular debate, that is obviously a matter for the Speaker. If the Defence Committee makes proposals on the subject, or if colleagues in the House want to make suggestions for change, that can be considered.

Mr. Speaker, like you, I hope, on Monday, when Britain came to a halt, I decided to run to work. [Hon. Members: “From Bournemouth?”] Absolutely. When I arrived, I found that it was not business as usual, as the Leader of the House claims. The car park was shut. When I asked the policeman why it was shut, he said that the 15-metre ramp leading down to it was covered with snow. When I asked why the snow had not been removed, he said that there was no contract for it. When I asked him to join me in removing the snow, he said, “No, it’s against health and safety.” Setting aside the issues of community that that raises, may I endorse the calls for a debate on how Britain copes with snow, starting with how we deal with it here in the Palace of Westminster?

I drove in on Monday, and I drove straight into the car park—[Interruption]—so I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I do not know what his hon. Friends are talking about, either—no change there.

Now that we have a national dementia strategy for England, the long-awaited arrival of which was announced to the world by the Secretary of State for Health on the “Andrew Marr Show”, and to the House by written, not oral, statement on Tuesday, may we please have a debate on it in Government time, so that the people who are affected can hear the House discuss what is not in the strategy and how what is in it can be implemented and paid for?

I shall take that as a suggestion for a future topical debate. I hope that all hon. Members welcome the national dementia strategy and the further announcement that was made. Of course, we will need to make progress on the issue; not everything was announced in one go. Rather than decrying what is not in the strategy, I ask the hon. Gentleman to welcome the important advances made by the national health service as part of the national dementia strategy.

May I reiterate the calls for a statement to be made by a Minister about the country’s salt stocks? The Leader of the House will be aware that yesterday the Minister for Local Government responded to the points of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and myself. He said at column 938 that the Highways Agency had sufficient stocks available to make

“at least a day’s worth available to local… authorities”—[Official Report, 4 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 938.]

That is not the case in the Highways Agency south-west region. There are not sufficient stocks. Gloucestershire has been put in a very difficult position, which will impact on businesses and families across the area. Ministers should come to the House to say what the national position is. They do not have a clear understanding of it and we need to be able to question them appropriately.

We have a very important statement, followed by a debate on Sri Lanka and another on Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it would not be right to have an oral statement today, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to consider a written statement and hon. Members can pursue issues afterwards.

May I ask for another debate on port rating? A fortnight ago the Minister for Local Government told the House that most of the money had gone to port owners, but at Question Time last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), assured us in the strongest possible language that that was not the case. The day afterwards, in an Adjournment debate on port rating, the Minister for Local Government, despite hearing that read to him twice from Hansard, repeated his assertion. Meanwhile, businesses are going bust on the Mersey, on the Humber and in other parts of the country. May we have a debate to sort this out?

By his question, the hon. Gentleman has shown that the issue, which I know is of concern around the House, has been raised on numerous occasions, and there will be another opportunity to raise it in Treasury questions next week.

Following the mention by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), may we have an urgent debate on the freeze in funding of further education colleges and their plans? For example, the regeneration of Beverley depends very much on the East Riding college move to Flemingate, and I know that Hull college, which serves my constituency and areas of Hull, also has plans and has spent a lot of money on the basis of Government promises. May we have a debate to ensure that the promises made to FE colleges will be honoured by the Government?

We have put unprecedented investment into further and higher education, and we intend to continue to do that, particularly on the capital side. We intend to bring forward the investment programme and we are working with colleges and the relevant agencies to do exactly that.

May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the plight of the thalidomide victims? Given that there are 457 remaining victims in the United Kingdom, that in many cases their health is progressively deteriorating, and that the cost of domestic adaptations to enable them to perform sometimes simply basic tasks, let alone to live rewarding lives and to fulfil themselves, is so extortionately high, is it not time that the House considered whether we favour a publicly funded compensation scheme, analogous to those in Canada, Germany, Ireland and Sweden?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important topic. Everybody remembers the shameful situation of the drug companies trying to evade their responsibilities to those who had suffered because of the drug thalidomide. As a first step, I suggest the hon. Gentleman raises the issue in Health questions next week.

With my constituency under 6 inches of early morning snow, making minor roads impassable, my constituents understand why all the local schools are closed today. However, they do not understand why half the local schools were closed on Tuesday, when the roads were icy but passable. Will the Leader of the House make sure that there is a topical debate next Thursday and that the debate is on Britain’s reaction to adverse weather conditions?

In the first instance, the hon. Gentleman should raise the matter with his local council. If he is unhappy with the response, perhaps he can take it up with the Department for Transport.