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Business of the House

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 12 February 2009

The business for the week commencing 23 February will be:

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.

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

Monday 2 March—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 3 March—Motion to approve the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in Force of Sections 1 to 9) Order 2009, followed by Third Reading of the Corporation Tax Bill, followed by House Business.

Wednesday 4 March—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland Bill.

Thursday 5 March—General debate on international women’s day.

Friday 6 March—Private Members’ Bills.

As the Chancellor has told the House, the Budget statement will be made on 22 April.

May I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business? However, the truth is that very little serious Government business is being brought to the House, but massive issues of importance are being announced outside it. Can she explain, for instance, why the Secretary of State for Health seems to want to deny Members the opportunity to debate a key matter such as dementia? Moreover, we have been waiting for the child health strategy for five months. It is a very important issue, yet it has only been announced today in a written statement. Indeed, today, as we rise for a half-term break, we find that there are no fewer than 39 written ministerial statements published. Is she really happy with the practice of announcing them at one fell swoop just as people are about to disappear?

May we have a statement from the Chancellor on the extraordinary behaviour in front of the Public Administration Committee yesterday of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson)? His derogatory remarks to a member of that Select Committee, and his comments on Equitable Life, caused uproar. Once again, may I ask for a debate on Equitable Life, and the disgraceful way in which the Government are treating those who have lost their pension? How can the House be said to be doing its job properly when it establishes a system of redress and then wantonly ignores that system in such a callous and unpleasant way?

Likewise, if we believe in ourselves, we must seek to educate people about what we do here. Will the Leader of the House confirm that she will help the Youth Parliament to hold events in the Palace of Westminster to teach young people about the vital importance of politics and political engagement?

On Tuesday, we saw the spectacle of bank bosses apologising in the Treasury Committee. May we have a similar statement of apology from the Prime Minister? Yesterday we learned that officials at No. 10 are being instructed to compile a DVD of President Obama’s greatest apologies, to teach the Prime Minister how to say sorry. We very much hope that such a statement will be delivered to the House, and that he will practise properly in front of the mirror beforehand. Is it his intention, in that same statement, to confirm the status of Glen Moreno, who chairs the trust that holds the shares that bought the banks that saved the world, albeit, sadly, through tax havens in Liechtenstein? With Sir James Crosby being sacked yesterday, and Mr. Moreno being downgraded a few minutes later, is it now confirmed that Mr. Moreno is on the way out altogether?

May we have a debate on unemployment? The dire figures published yesterday, pushing against the 2 million mark, were a brutal confirmation of the Governor of the Bank of England’s assessment that Britain is now in “deep recession”. We also gained an insight into the nationality of those who are employed. We learned that in 2008, employment of workers born in the UK fell by 278,000, while employment of foreign workers rose by 214,000. Where does that leave the Prime Minister’s claim that he wants to create British jobs for British workers?

Finally, on stepping down from jobs, may we have a debate on political blogs? I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Lady is aware of the blog of a Labour councillor from Hackney, who is convinced that he has a winning strategy for the Labour party. He has written what he calls his “unsolicited advice to Gordon”. He says:

“Harriet Harman has too many jobs and isn’t very good at hiding that she wants to add yours”—

that is, the Prime Minister’s—

“to the list. Removing her role as Party Chair will…remind her who is boss.”

So who is the boss? Who is wearing the trousers in the Labour party now? How many jobs does the right hon. and learned Lady hold, and is it not sadly the case that we have a crisis in the labour market, a crisis in the Labour party, a Prime Minister who will not apologise, and a Leader of the House who is unapologetic about wanting his job?

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of important points about our health strategy, child health, the dementia strategy and the importance of memory clinics; I will look at the forthcoming business of the House and see whether we have enough opportunities to debate those important issues, alongside the important issue of the economy, which I know the House wants to prioritise. Of course, the Conservatives have an Opposition day debate in the week in which we get back, so he could consider making the issue the subject of that debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 39 written ministerial statements that are being issued today. Something like 24 of those are spring supplementary estimates. It is custom and practice for the spring supplementary estimates to be given by way of written statements to the House. I think that that is perfectly in order. If he wants us to do things differently he is welcome to make suggestions.

We have already discussed the position on Equitable Life, which was set out by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in an oral statement, and she was answering questions just this morning. We all share the view that those who have been the victims of gross mismanagement by the management of Equitable Life and who are not protected because of a failure of regulation are owed an apology, and there needs to be financial compensation or financial recompense. That will be taken forward.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the Youth Parliament. I agree with him: it would be right for the Youth Parliament of this country to be able to sit in the Chamber when the House is not sitting—obviously, not when the House is sitting, but in recess. We need to encourage young people to see our democracy at work and to imagine themselves playing a part in it. We tabled a motion that was before the House last night, and it was objected to. I ask the hon. Gentleman to work with me to persuade his right hon. and hon. Friends who objected. Their names are on the Order Paper:—

“Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Greg Knight

Sir Nicholas Winterton

Philip Davies

Sir Paul Beresford

Mr Humfrey Malins”.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, so he should address himself to his Back Benchers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned unemployment. We are extremely concerned about anybody who faces the prospect of losing their job, which is why we have taken all the action we possibly can to stabilise the economy in the face of a global financial crisis and to give as much help to businesses as we can. We have been prepared to see Government borrowing rise in order that we can defer tax requests to small businesses, and about 30,000 businesses have been helped by not having to pay their tax. The only way to allow them to do that is to allow Government borrowing to rise, so we have, as the Chancellor has just told the House, put potentially £12 billion into the economy through the VAT cut in order to keep the lifeblood of business flowing and protect people from losing their job.

When the dreadful blow happens and somebody loses their job, we have taken action to make sure that they do not have to lose their home. Again, that has meant extra public spending, and we have had to allow borrowing to rise to compensate for it—for example, by bringing forward the help on interest payments on their mortgage from 39 weeks to 13 weeks for those who lose their job. That all costs money, and we have allowed the public debt to rise to provide that help. We are concerned about unemployment, but instead of just saying we are concerned and wringing our hands, we are taking action on it and putting money behind it, compared to what the Tories would do—wring their hands and not put any money up behind it.

The hon. Gentleman talks about foreign workers, and I must take issue with him about that. We must be very careful not to overlook the role that migrants have played in the life of this country over the centuries. I will share with the hon. Gentleman some figures that I was reading this morning. The House should listen. The figures relate to the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Welwyn Garden City. In the Welwyn Hatfield area 6 per cent. of the population are from black and Asian minority ethnic communities, but of the people who work in the hospital, 50 per cent. are black and Asian. Migrants to this country are more likely to be standing at our bedside saving our life than lying in a hospital bed. We must recognise the role in the economy and our public services played by people who were not born in this country. Indeed, many hon. Members were not born in this country, so I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s approach.

In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman made a load of snide remarks about the Prime Minister, and he made snide remarks about me, too. I am disappointed. I know my hon. Friends warned me, but I said the hon. Gentleman was different. They said, “He’s just a Tory. He’s the same as all the others,” but I said, “No, I think he’s different.” I even bought him a Valentine’s card, and I thought me might buy me, or rather get me, a little trinket from the Sultan of Oman. It is clear now that he is the same as all the others. He does not see things in the way that I do, and he does not believe in the things that I do—he does not believe in helping people, if they get into difficulties; I do. We started off well at the beginning of the year, but it’s over!

I endorse the shadow Leader of the House’s request that the Youth Parliament be able to use the Chamber for its meetings. Next week, during the recess, the Youth Parliament is holding a conference in London on concessionary fares for young people, and it is obviously sensible for that conference to be held in this Chamber while we are in recess.

In the context of the work of the Youth Parliament and the issue of engagement by young people, can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on youth affairs? Should we not have an annual debate on youth affairs? We have annual debates on fisheries and on Welsh affairs, but the number of young people in the United Kingdom is far greater than the population of Wales. Would that not be an important step forward in raising the profile of the issue of the disengagement of young people from politics? Young people in my constituency have been served excellently by our outstanding member of the Youth Parliament, Catherine Rawsthorne, who would be delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this Chamber.

I thank my hon. Friend for his support and for raising the good work of the Youth Parliament. Just as I have announced the annual debates on Welsh affairs and on international women’s day, the House may want to consider the idea of an annual debate on youth affairs to give a sharper focus to the concern across the House about youth affairs.

I certainly do not intend to be snide—these Benches are a snidety-free zone.

I want to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) about written statements. The Leader of the House and her predecessor said that the House should not be bombarded with vast quantities of statements immediately before a recess. That used to happen before the long recesses, but now there are 39 statements before a one-week recess. It is not the fact that the statements have been made; it is the timing and the fact that they have all been released on the same day before a recess. That cannot be right; will she please look into the matter for us?

I mentioned the weather conditions last week. Snow in my constituency gave way to floods, and we experienced severe flooding before Christmas. It would be helpful, when people have recovered from the difficulties that they have experienced, to hold a debate in this House on the resilience of local communities to adverse weather conditions, how we can make better preparations, how we can properly assess risk and how we can enable local communities and volunteers to play a better part in dealing with adverse weather conditions. Can we have a debate on that?

Immediately after today’s statements, there is a debate on social security and pensions uprating. I suggest that we should also have a general debate on pensioners. A lot of pensioners are finding life extremely difficult at the moment with the return from savings down, pensions not going very far and difficulties with keeping themselves warm over winter and with council tax—there are a lot of factors. Before the 11 wasted years of Labour Government, the Prime Minister said:

“I want the next Labour Government to achieve what in 50 years of the welfare state has never yet been achieved—the end of the means test for our elderly people.”

Well that was another great success over the past few years. We should have a debate on the position of pensioners and how we can properly deal with people in old age.

Lastly, may we have a debate on the future of the British pub? It is a fact that 39 are now closing every week. Insolvencies in the sector have gone up by 45 per cent. in the last quarter. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is barred from practically every pub in the country; that is not surprising, given that his response to the crisis in the pub trade has been to increase beer and cider taxes—that is resented, to say the least. May we have a debate on what we can sensibly do to protect what is a key part of many local communities up and down the country?

I will look into this, but I think that I am right in saying that there is an expectation that we brigade the spring supplementary estimates and publish them at the same time, in a co-ordinated way, so that people know when to expect them. I think that there is a purpose in brigading them all together, and that that is why they have come out just before this recess. However, I will look into the matter. Obviously, if there is a proposal that the publication of the spring supplementary estimates be staged rather than being done at once, and if hon. Members want that change, we will consider it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of resilience to extreme weather conditions. The Secretary of State for Transport is considering our response to the snow, icy weather and floods and will issue a written ministerial statement about the lessons that have been learned from his review of the response all around England, Scotland and Wales. The draft floods Bill, on structural changes in how we deal with extreme floods, will be issued shortly and no doubt the hon. Gentleman could contribute to that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned pensioners and whether we should have a debate on the effect of the economic recession—the global financial economic crisis—on those in retirement. By way of background, I should say that he should bear in mind that retired people—particularly older pensioners, the overwhelming majority of whom are women—have been the biggest beneficiaries. Their incomes have risen more than those of any other group in society, and quite right too. There was an appalling problem of pensioner poverty and many steps have been taken to address that over the years.

Having said that, I recognise that many pensioners are worried about not getting income from their savings and the fact that fuel bills are a disproportionately high part of their household budgets. We are trying to take all the steps that we can to give them the help that we can. Again, that has implications for public spending. That is why we are prepared to allow public borrowing to rise. If that means extra insulation, winter fuel payments and putting in £60 extra and bringing the payment forward to January for all pensioners, we are prepared to do it. I know that the hon. Gentleman and his party back us on that. However, it has implications for public spending and we are prepared to face up to them.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the pub industry, and I know that there is a real problem. Pubs play a big part in community life in rural and urban areas, but as people worry about how the recession might affect their families, they start cutting back on going out and on outings. That is why we wanted to ensure that we were putting money directly into the economy in every way that we could. I am disappointed, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman’s party does not back the VAT cut. We will do everything that we can, through both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, to help the pub trade.

May we have a debate on the powers contained in the Scotland Act 1998? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that this House is responsible for overseeing and administering parliamentary elections in Scotland. At the last parliamentary elections there, many of my constituents were encouraged to vote for a particular party on the basis that it would scrap council tax and introduce a local income tax. That party has now reneged on that promise. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, given that, that party should return to the ballot box?

People in my hon. Friend’s constituency and throughout Scotland will have been able to see the cynical way in which the Scottish National party made promises about cutting council tax and the debacle that has now come about. As my hon. Friend knows, we have set up the Calman commission to look at the whole question of governance. I am sure that we will be able to take that matter forward.

May we have a debate on the cost effectiveness of park-and-ride schemes? Although they may be viable in a few large cities, I am increasingly concerned that in many towns they are a thorough waste of money and should be abolished. Just a fraction of the money saved could be used to provide free car parking. If we cannot have a debate on the issue, will the Leader of the House please pass on my comments to the Secretary of State for Transport and ask him to look at some of the smaller schemes to see whether we are getting value for money? I believe that we are not.

Many park-and-ride schemes help cut congestion and pollution; they work very well in some places, although the right hon. Gentleman says that in others they do not. Perhaps he could choose the subject for an Adjournment debate—or a debate in Westminster Hall, as other Members might want to share their concerns as well. There would then be a response from a Transport Minister.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will think again about the Youth Parliament. As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, he is a beacon of changing procedure in the House and a considerable advocate of modernisation. I am sorry that he cannot answer me now, but I hope that he will change his mind and let the Youth Parliament sit in this House.

My right hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have referred to the weather, which has been rather inclement in the past week, to put it mildly—we have been slipping and sliding all over the place. The situation was not helped by the fact that Gloucestershire county council seemed to run out of salt. Is that not worthy of a debate and investigation, not least because if the council had not invested its money in Icelandic banks, it could have put the money to good use on the roads? With that in mind, should we not also be considering what advice it received, so that we can see why it put the money into Icelandic banks?

The extreme weather conditions have underlined the importance of the work of local authorities and the co-ordinating role of central Government. The Prime Minister was right to point out yesterday that cuts in investment in local and central Government would have made those matters even worse. As I said, the Secretary of State for Transport is learning the lessons from all around the country, and I think that at the moment his plans are to issue a written ministerial statement. No doubt, however, he will review the findings and see how best to handle the issue.

Unfortunately, the Leader of the House was not at the Public Administration Committee yesterday, when the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), appeared before us. What he said was completely unacceptable. He lost his temper with an hon. Member of this House and gave no justification as to how the deregulation is going to work—

Order. I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I know that he does not intend to break any rule, but there is a tradition in the House that an hon. Member should be warned if his or her conduct is to be attacked in the House. We are talking about the business for next week, so we will leave the matter. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman to whom he has referred has not been notified.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a topical debate on the success of free pensioner travel and whether we could extend it to cover trains? Furthermore, could we extend it to the young people of this country, so that schoolchildren and students travel free, as pensioners do? There have been great benefits and the scheme has been a great success. The Government should be proud of it, and if it can be extended to other people, that would be even better.

That is a very good suggestion for a forthcoming debate, and I will consider whether it can be the subject of a topical debate.

I suspect that the Leader of the House is not aware of the huge concern in the agriculture industry about the forthcoming new regulation on the tagging of sheep. It has been shown to be ineffective; it simply does not work and it is very expensive. May we have a debate in Government time so that some of us who care about agriculture can address the issue and try to persuade the Government to seek a derogation, as other states are doing, when pointless regulation is imposed on their farmers?

I am aware that this is a matter of concern which has been the subject of national debate. Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions take place during the week that we get back, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will look for an opportunity to raise the issue then.

When can we have a debate on how we restore the damaged reputation of parliamentarians? If the recent examples of alleged conduct by Members of both Houses are true, and within the rules, then the rules are defective and need to be rewritten. For a start, could we introduce a mandatory register of interests of lobbyists and put in the public domain the locations—not the addresses but the locations—of our main residences?

The possibility of a register of lobbyists was raised with and answered by the Prime Minister yesterday. The Minister for the Cabinet Office also talked about it yesterday. The Public Administration Committee has conducted an investigation into it and has made some recommendations that are being considered by the Cabinet Office, which will respond to that report. As for the rules about parliamentary allowances, we have just rewritten them, set up a new system of audit, and agreed a new, in-depth publication scheme. Some of the vagueness of the previous rules has been addressed in our new rules, which as far as the National Audit Office is concerned are firm and clear enough to be the basis of a full-scope audit.

The matter of second interests—outside financial interests—has been the subject of controversy in the House of Lords. My hon. Friend will know that that is the subject of an investigation by the Privileges Sub-Committee, as the Leader of the House of Lords announced. The House of Lords is concerned that there should be a means of disciplining, expelling or suspending its Members, which it does not currently have. I have been looking at our own Register of Members’ Interests, and I wonder whether we need to be more transparent about MPs who are earning money outside of their earnings as a Member of Parliament and whether we should publish more information about what that money is being earned for and exactly how much is being earned.

I fully support the Liberal Democrat shadow spokesman on the crisis facing pubs, and I hope that the Government will pay attention to that and come forward with some proposals, but may I press the Leader of the House on matters relating to pensioners, particularly those who rely, or have relied, on their investment income and savings to maintain a reasonable quality of life? Their financial position has been devastated in recent months. Could we have a debate on that, even a short one such as a topical debate, so that we can highlight the particular problems facing pensioners—the majority of whom, by the way, are women?

The hon. Gentleman’s question reinforces the point that we should perhaps look for an opportunity to discuss issues relevant to those in retirement—pensioners—such as travel and savings. That might be a subject for a topical debate.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that there are still dramatic differences between the performance of schools, even in areas of similar social composition, and even in the case of the Government’s much-vaunted academies programme. May we have a debate in the Chamber on the matter of teaching methods and philosophies, which is at the root of the fundamental differences between the relative success of those schools? I have raised this problem in the House many times, yet we have never seriously discussed it.

I think that overall my hon. Friend will acknowledge that with more investment in schools, more teachers and more classroom assistants, standards have gone up, but obviously we are not complacent and want them to improve even further. Perhaps he might find an opportunity to raise those points with Ministers when we come to the Second Reading of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is to be considered on the Monday that we get back.

Is the Leader of the House concerned about Members’ liability for negligence following the case of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen)?

Order. We had best be careful, because this matter could be sub judice; it is before the courts at the moment. I am looking into the matter, if that is of any help to the hon. Gentleman, but it is best not to discuss it on the Floor of the House. Hon. Members: What about the general issue?

Well, we will leave the general issue and that means that we are on safer ground.

May we have a debate in Government time about telephone charges in hospitals? Last week, I had the great honour of becoming a granddad for the first time. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That joy was tempered by the fact that every time I phoned my daughter-in-law and my son at the bedside, the call was costing 49p a minute from a landline and much more from a mobile phone. This company is operating throughout the United Kingdom, and it is, frankly, ripping off hard-working families at a very emotional time. It is simply a licence to print money. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me to discuss this issue?

Perhaps I could suggest that my hon. Friend seeks a meeting with other hon. Members, because I am sure that this is a matter of concern more widely across the House; it is not only about phone charges but charges for TV and parking. It is an important issue, and perhaps he could have a meeting with a Health Minister and a Scotland Office Minister to address it.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming a grandfather and welcoming to the world Erin Molly Devine.

I welcome the Leader of the House’s response to right hon. and hon. Members who have been asking for a debate about pensions. Many of our constituents who have saved for many years are now finding it very hard to get by, with interest rates coming down as they have. Given that she has been responsive on that, may I appeal to her to be more responsive on the issue of Equitable Life? For years now, Equitable Life policyholders have been denied justice, and only recently have they got a grudging apology from the Government and a half-promise that there will be some kind of compensation in future. Rather than waiting for the random chance that this subject comes up at Treasury questions, will she make a commitment that before Easter, in Government time, on the Floor of the House, we will have a proper debate on what the Government are doing about it?

It seems as though there is a cluster of issues that I should look for an opportunity to fashion a debate around—from the dementia strategy raised by the shadow Leader of the House, to insulation and energy bills, transport, bus and travel passes for older people, the value of savings, and Equitable Life.

May we have a debate on the integrity of the internet? My right hon. and learned Friend will no doubt have seen press reports this morning that reveal that a few minutes after the end of Prime Minister’s questions yesterday someone attempted to interfere with the Wikipedia entry on Titian to make it retrospectively consistent with what their party leader had said a few minutes earlier. If the Conservative party is prepared to fiddle the figures with regard to the age of dead Italian painters, surely we cannot trust them on the economy either.

I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House intimate that she was considering a debate on pensions. Will she extend that to consideration of the public sector pensions problem, which is becoming an intolerable burden on the nation, especially for local government, where a quarter of all locally raised council tax is now used to support pension funds? Will she include that particular matter in the debate that she is thinking of having?

It looks as though it is expanding beyond a topical debate into a full-day debate. As well as public sector pensions, which is an important issue, I was thinking, as I listened to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, that there is an opportunity to discuss age discrimination and related provisions in the forthcoming Equality Bill. We have added to the list, and I thank him for his suggestion.

Just. [Laughter.]

I have a business question about next Wednesday week—that is original. The Government have announced that Northern Ireland legislation should go through all of its stages on that one day. I have protested about that practice time and time again to Secretaries of State and to the Leader of the House, and they look at me as if I am being unreasonable. They say that it is a one-off, but now it is happening again, and it is an abuse of this House. I hope that the Leader of the House will reconsider the matter, particularly as there are often statements on Wednesday, which further diminish the time available for such a debate.

The legislation goes to the heart of the political system of Northern Ireland by altering the d’Hondt system. I am not opposed to that, but it is a major piece of legislation and I am protesting about this myself and on behalf of colleagues from Northern Ireland. We should not push the legislation through all at once. We cannot get a copy of the Bill as far as I am aware, so we cannot even prepare and submit amendments. It is outrageous.

We want to ensure a full discussion, but we also want to ensure that the Bill, which is an important part of the Northern Ireland peace process, gets through the House as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend will know that the House of Lords Constitution Committee is looking at how we deal with emergency legislation—

It is time critical, and I hope that my hon. Friend will seek a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who will explain to him why the matter could not be scheduled earlier because agreement had not been reached. The legislation has to be passed within a certain period of time so that the necessary action can follow. I have dealt quite closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on this matter because I know that the House does not want legislation to be rushed through unless there is a really good reason. Perhaps my hon. Friend and I could meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss the matter, and I am sure that he will be satisfied by what my right hon. Friend has to say.

May I say how delighted I was when the Leader of the House gave me such a splendid answer the last time I asked her a question? It was about the answers that Ministers should give in response to parliamentary written questions on ambulance trusts, and she said that it was quite unnecessary that we should have to use freedom of information requests to get information out of Ministers that they should give in parliamentary answers. I am now a little disappointed with her after I tabled a question to ask her

“what meetings she has attended with Mr Speaker on the arrest of the hon. Member for Ashford and the search of his office; what was discussed; if she will place”

copies of this material

“in the Library”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 67W.]

I got the answer that she has regular meetings with the Speaker. I do not think that that was a full and frank answer. Will she now give the House a full and frank answer and place the material in the Library of the House, or do I have to make a freedom of information request?

Order. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not get anywhere with the Freedom of Information Act on that one. That is not a matter for the Leader of the House—[Interruption.]

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not challenging my ruling. It is believable, and he has no right to raise that matter at business questions.

When the House returns after our short recess, the new transitional Government in Zimbabwe will, we hope, be doing their work, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of Members of all parties when I wish Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai well in the task ahead. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development make a statement at an appropriate time? At some point, we have to make a judgment about lifting sanctions and, more importantly, about increasing aid. The Government have got it right by not doing so yet, but we need to be kept updated.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) have been asking for a debate on Zimbabwe for some time. I have had discussions on that matter and I have identified time for a debate not too long after we get back from the short recess. I hope to be able to announce it soon; I cannot give the House the exact date, but I am on it.

May we please have a full day’s debate, in Government time on the Floor of the House, on the relationship between Parliament and the Executive? Given that the scope of Government activity is greater than ever before, and that the operation of the 24-hour media is a fact of life, would the right hon. and learned Lady accept that the responsibility of this House to hold the Executive to account should be our single biggest and most pressing concern? We need to consider what reforms to the composition of Committees and the use of parliamentary time would enable us better to discharge that responsibility in the future than perhaps we do at present.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the general principles of the importance of our role, and I suspect that behind his comments of principle, he has a number of suggestions. Perhaps I could ask him to come and meet me and he can set out those suggestions in more detail so that we can talk them through.

The Leader of the House and all Members will be aware that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is currently waging a high-profile campaign on how we can better protect young people from harm. Given that we all agree that such concerns are of the utmost importance, can the Leader of the House guarantee a debate in Government time on the wider concerns so that individual issues can be addressed?

On the Monday we get back we have a Second Reading debate that relates not only to apprenticeships, skills and learning but to children, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can outline the areas he is concerned about in that debate.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree with this point because she considers herself a champion of fairness and equality. May we have a debate in Government time on systematic and institutional discrimination against Christians? We saw last week the case of Mrs. Petrie who was suspended by North Somerset primary care trust and reinstated only after a media furore. This week, anti-Christian zealots in Devon are on the verge of suspending a lady who works in a school for defending her Christian beliefs and those of her daughter. Do fairness and equality apply only to people who are non-Christians in this country?

Fairness and equality should apply to everyone, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek a Westminster Hall debate on the issues he raises.

When may we debate yesterday’s written ministerial statement on defence planning assumptions? Last month, we had the unedifying spectacle of delays to the carrier programme not being debated properly, or at all, in this House, and the Leader of the House commented favourably on our request that the matter should be brought before the House. I have to say that this is becoming something of a habit with Defence Ministers. Could she encourage her shy and retiring colleagues to come to the House to discuss these matters, which are of vital national importance?

We recently had a debate on armed services personnel, and we will shortly be having a debate on procurement for the armed services. We are phasing the carrier programme, which is very important, and there is no way the investment in procurement will be cut back. We have Defence questions on the Monday after the recess.

I think that we are pushing at an open door as far as getting a debate on the elderly and pensioners is concerned. The Lancashire Telegraph in my area covers Chorley and a number of other constituencies, and today it is launching its own campaign for the elderly, raising the profile of the problems that they face such as the recession, high energy prices and access to health care. The number of elderly people in east Lancashire who have died from respiratory diseases in the past six weeks has increased dramatically. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that an urgent debate, sooner rather than later, would allow the House to address such real issues?

The issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned could certainly be included in the debate that I said I am considering and I congratulate the Lancashire Telegraph on raising those issues. That is why we have been so determined to press down food and fuel prices and to do everything that we can to help pensioners in difficult times.

Order. I say to the five hon. Members remaining that if they ask brief supplementary questions, I can take them all.

The right hon. and learned Lady would be disappointed if she did not have her weekly update on the farce over the port rating system. Could we have an early debate on Tuesday’s statement from the Department for Communities and Local Government that said that port owners must talk to their tenants or be faced with the prospect of empty premises and empty rate policies? That was the day after the Valuation Office Agency confirmed to MPs that port owners will continue to be rated on a different basis so that they would never face any such threat.

Unless I am mistaken, that matter was raised in Treasury questions this morning. I know that it is an issue to consider, and it is being kept under review.

May we have what I stress must be a general statement by the Leader of the House on the relationship between parliamentary privilege, parliamentary accountability and the separation of the powers that are due to politicians and those that are due to the judiciary? We understand that, not content with previously having ruled that MPs’ home addresses should be published regardless of security concerns, while jealously guarding the privacy and security of their own home addresses, judges in courts might now second-guess constituency cases. Given that even the most assiduous of MPs will always have a few constituents who will not accept that nothing more can be done for them, how appropriate is it that judges should second-guess our work? We are responsible to our electors for what we do and do not achieve on their behalf.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continuing work on Members’ home addresses. I hope that there will be agreement on that soon, so that electors can be satisfied that they know whereabouts candidates live without necessarily knowing the actual number of their flat or their street address, if the candidate does not want that known. He has done the whole House a service on that issue.

We are accountable to the courts in respect of criminal and contract law. If we breach a contract, we can expect to be taken before the courts, and we are accountable as employers under employment law. However, a duty of care to our constituents is set out in the code for Members to which we all subscribe. For that, we are accountable not to the courts but to our constituents at the general election. The courts can get on with criminal, contract and employment law, but when it comes to our duty to our constituents, we have to subject ourselves to the court of public opinion at general elections.

May we have a debate on the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas? I should declare my interest as, I believe, the only Member of Parliament who has served in the brigade. Many comments have been made about the plight of the Gurkhas, most of which have been ill-informed. My personal fear is for the brigade’s future. Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to British jobs for British workers, does the Leader of the House share my concern that, although the Gurkhas may have won their most recent battle against the Government, they may ultimately have lost the war?

There will be Defence questions on the Monday we return, during which the hon. Gentleman can seek to raise the matter. We are proud of the work of the Gurkhas and pay tribute to them for it. Their settlement is under review, and new guidance will be issued shortly.

May we have a debate on how rules are applied in the House? My constituents do not understand how some members of the Cabinet are able to prove that their main home is in their constituency by having Sunday lunch there, whereas another escapes investigation while claiming public money to pay for her main family home.

No one escapes investigation if there are justified grounds for complaint. The independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards will consider complaints and decide whether they merit an investigation. We have clarified the new rules, the House has agreed them and there is an independent element to the process. It does not help anybody if hon. Members make smearing comments about other Members without mentioning their name. It is absolutely clear to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, however, and I am disappointed about that.

May we have a debate about free speech and political correctness? It is reported in the paper today that a man who worked at a warehouse has been sacked for displaying a Daily Star poster saying “British jobs for British workers”. Is it not ludicrous that anybody could lose their job for displaying such a slogan, or does the Leader of the House believe that anybody who uses that slogan should be sacked?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman urges me to have a debate about political correctness. The answer to that might be yes, and I am sure that he will want to congratulate the leader of his party on insisting that a Tory candidate take down a nude pin-up that he was displaying in his office. I am sure that he agrees with his party leader about that.