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Business of the House

Volume 489: debated on Thursday 19 March 2009

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 23 March—Remaining stages of the Coroners and Justice Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 24 March—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Wednesday 25 March—Opposition Day (9th Allotted Day). There will be a debate entitled “The Need for an Inquiry on Iraq”, followed by a debate entitled “The Impact of Business Rates and how Businesses can be Helped Through the Recession”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 26 March—A general debate on defence in the UK.

Friday 27 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 30 March will include:

Monday 30 March—A general debate on Africa.

Tuesday 31 March—A general debate on the economy.

Wednesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [Lords], followed by a motion relating to the Non-domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2009.

Thursday 2 April—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 2 April will be a debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee entitled “Investigating the Oceans”.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. Her response to me last week about the encampment and the harassment by protesters in Parliament square was, I am sorry to say, painfully inadequate. When will she undertake to give a full report to the House so that we can cut through the bureaucratic nonsense governing the issue and remove what has become a permanent embarrassment to British democracy?

May we have an urgent debate on the NHS? Yesterday we heard from the Health Secretary the miserable tale of Stafford hospital. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm to the House that the same senior management who were so devastatingly criticised by the Healthcare Commission on Tuesday saw their salaries doubled in 2008, and that one has been appointed to a Government watchdog? Is it not the clearest possible demonstration of Labour’s priorities towards the health service that while they spent their time lining the pockets of a failed management team, there were patients lining the walls of a filthy accident and emergency ward who were dying of neglect?

Lying behind this is, I sense, a growing problem with how health trusts and other public bodies treat correspondence from Members of Parliament. Too often, Members’ letters about a constituent are fobbed off by being sidelined into a complaints procedure designed for another purpose, and also by hiding behind data protection. Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that when an MP writes to a chief executive they should receive a letter back from that chief executive, that getting a letter from an MP should be regarded as a priority, and that any failure to treat an MP’s letter properly should be a disciplinary offence, even resulting in dismissal?

We are still waiting for the Government’s long-delayed strategic review of reserve forces. We all have reservists in our constituencies. When will we get an announcement, and can the Leader of the House confirm that it will be a full oral statement?

Today 144 further education colleges have their building programmes frozen, and this morning the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), the Minister responsible for further education—or should I say, the Minister requiring further education?—offered no reassurance that the Government would prevent those colleges from going bankrupt. May we have an urgent debate to discuss the future of those institutions, which offer vital training to the rapidly rising number of people facing unemployment?

For the umpteenth time, may we ask for a debate and action on Equitable Life? Today the Public Administration Committee has slammed the Government for their callous betrayal of Equitable Life policyholders. It says that the Government have denied them justice. This is a truly scandalous state of affairs in which an unprincipled Government would rather see them all dead than compensated. When will the Government act properly on what the ombudsman has recommended?

On a number of occasions I have raised the farce of Regional Select Committees. The North East Committee has five Labour members, four of whom are Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and the other a long-serving Back Bencher. I am advised that when they met, they picked one of the PPSs as Chairman, and that the only member not in hock to the Government has now decided to resign. Is this true, and may we have a further debate so that we can give the Leader of the House the opportunity to admit her mistake and abolish those Committees?

Yesterday the scarlet-haired Solicitor-General, who has no experience of economic affairs, claimed that we would soon see “green shoots” in the British economy. As a barrister she was known as the “towering inferno”; yesterday, it seems, she finally went up in flames. Is that not the most crass statement that any politician could have made, on the day when it was announced that more than 2 million people are unemployed?

May we have a statement on the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Washington? It seems that the DVDs that President Obama gave the Prime Minister—rather like the Prime Minister himself—do not work in the UK. We are told that one of them was “Psycho” and the other “Gone with the Wind”.

So those are our requests for debate: there is a rotting encampment outside Parliament; there are failed NHS managers with bloated pay packets; the fate of our reserve forces is left dangling; FE colleges are collapsing; Equitable Life pensioners are betrayed; dysfunctional Select Committees are set up; we have a dysfunctional Government; and the Solicitor-General insults the unemployed. How can the Leader of the House defend any of that, without hanging her head in shame and apologising?

At last week’s business questions, I answered the hon. Gentleman’s question about the encampment of protesters in Parliament square by saying that he or other colleagues could raise the issue at Justice questions. I added that we had said that as part of the legislative programme, there would be consideration of a Bill on constitutional reform that could address the issue. That is very much under consideration, so I endeavoured to answer him fully on the issue.

On the question of the national health service, there was a statement yesterday about the regrettable situation in Stafford hospital. There will be questions next week. The hon. Gentleman asked about our priorities for the NHS. They are simple and straightforward: that there should be more doctors, nurses and other staff in the NHS—and that is what has happened—that those staff should be better paid, because when we came into government they were extremely badly paid; that there should be tough targets, so that nobody should have to wait in accident and emergency or for a referral for cancer treatment; and that there should be tough inspections. We have pressed forward with our NHS priorities, which people who need treatment can expect and deserve.

The hon. Gentleman raised a serious point about responses to Members who write on behalf of their constituents, or of organisations in their constituencies, to NHS authorities—the chief executives of trusts or PCTs. He has raised an important point on behalf of the House. He had mentioned it to me already, so I have spoken to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who has raised it with Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS. They have said that they completely agree with the shadow Leader of the House and that if a Member writes to someone in authority in the NHS, that letter should require personal consideration by the chief executive, and a personal response. There is no guidance to that effect at the moment, but my hon. Friend and Sir David are absolutely clear about their view. They are considering whether they should issue guidance, although the matter should have been self-evident. That is the absolutely clear position. If hon. Members have any concerns about the issue, they can take them to the shadow Leader of the House and he can raise them with me, or go directly to my hon. Friend the Health Minister. We do not expect Members’ letters to go into a complaints system that is designed for individual patients, not for accountability, which is what the House’s job is about.

The hon. Gentleman asked about reserve forces, and I should say that next week there will be a full day’s debate on defence. He also made comments about the Solicitor-General, with whom I work closely and with whom I will be taking the equality Bill through the House. In her role as Solicitor-General, she is a great champion of victims of crime. She is also a great champion of her constituents and her region in the north-east. She is a fine Member of Parliament who cares about these issues and is a valued member of the Government. I will not hear a word said against her—I hope that I have made myself clear on that one.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) also asked about Regional Select Committees. When we passed the resolution to set those up, we determined that they would last just for this Parliament, and be reviewed thereafter, so they have that consideration of review built in. I appreciate that I am not making progress with Opposition Members, but I still take the view that there are important agencies working at regional level, investing hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and it is a shame if Opposition Members cannot be bothered to hold them to account on behalf of their regions. I hope that they will have a conversion with regard to Regional Committees, although I do not set much store by that expectation. That is a pity, but in the meantime Members who are prepared to hold agencies to account in their regions—Labour Members—are getting on with the job. Until other Members join the Committees, they should not be complaining about them.

As for Equitable Life, when the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made her statement in response to the ombudsman’s report she said that the failures that have affected a large number of people were rooted in the original mismanagement of Equitable Life, which goes back to the ’80s. That was compounded by regulatory failure, for which she has apologised. We have acknowledged that regulatory failure and exceptionally, although there is no legal obligation so to do, we are determined to make ex gratia payments, for which a judge has been asked to set up a scheme. Of course, as one would expect, those in the greatest need will be dealt with first. That is how we are proceeding, and we believe that we have made the position clear to the House. The work is under way, and if the Opposition want to hear about it further or debate it, they can choose it as the subject of an Opposition day debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned unemployment. We are very concerned indeed for every person who loses their job, whether they are a man working in the car industry or banking industry, a woman working part time or an older person who is heading towards retirement but whose job is still important to them and to their household budget. Employment in the economy is important for the economy as a whole. That is why we are ensuring that we will not be cutting capital spending, as Opposition Members propose, which would make unemployment even worse. It is why we are providing a fiscal boost and putting more money into the economy to help get it going and help staunch the problem of job loss. That has led to an increase in debt as a percentage of GDP. Hon. Members complain about that, but if they are concerned about unemployment, why do they argue that we should not do all the things that we are doing to try to protect the unemployed and prevent even more people from becoming unemployed?

Of course, one thing that the Opposition simply refuse to acknowledge is that there is an unemployment problem across the country as a whole—[Hon. Members: “Too long!”] I have not taken as long answering as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton took asking his questions—[Interruption.] All right, I apologise. I shall therefore finish by mentioning FE colleges.

I remind the House that when we came into government in 1997, the capital budget for FE colleges—[Interruption.] I would just like to ask hon. Members whether they can remember what the capital budget for FE colleges was then. It was £0—there was no capital budget. Since then we have invested massively in further education, and rightly so. I reassure hon. Members that there are 261 colleges for which final approval has been given, or at which there is already work on site, and that the capital investments in those 261 colleges will go ahead as planned. Sir Andrew Foster will examine how preliminary approval has been given beyond the programme budget. We acknowledge that that is a problem, and it is being looked into. However, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we will go ahead with the £2.3 billion in this comprehensive spending review period that we have allocated to further education colleges—and I think that £2.3 billion contrasts favourably with £0.

It was reported yesterday that the disgraced former chairman of RBS was seeking re-election to the board of BP and, surprisingly, was supported in his request by the chairman of BP, who had been a director of RBS. Until we break into the magic circle and old boys’ club, in which the same directors appoint each other to boards, remuneration committees and so on, we will never sort out accountability and the problems that have arisen in the banks and elsewhere. May we have a debate on corporate governance, to ascertain how to address the issue fundamentally, so as to stop problems occurring not only in the banks but in other sectors of our economy?

The question of corporate governance—and of remuneration, which is intrinsic to it—has been part of the Turner review, which was published yesterday. It will be the subject of a Government response, with national action to gear up financial regulation, which will also be taken forward to the G20 international summit to ensure not only that we have good national action but that it is reinforced by international co-operation on regulation and remuneration.

May we have a debate on communications between the Prime Minister’s office and the outside world? A few years ago, I was in Turkmenistan when the Turkmenbashi was the president. I was told that the Karakum canal was leaking disastrously, but that none of his Ministers dared tell the Turkmenbashi, because they were afraid of the consequences. I wonder whether something similar is happening with the Turkmenbashi of No. 10. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) gave one example—the further education colleges. It is no good talking about what happened 12 years ago; we need to consider what is happening now. Colleges throughout the country are having their capital schemes frozen.

Another example is the mortgage relief scheme, which I raised directly with the Prime Minister a month or so ago, and which others, including the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), have subsequently taken up. It is no good saying that it will happen when I—I am sure that I am not alone in this—have people in my advice surgery in tears because they are going to court next week, when their house will be repossessed, and the mortgage relief scheme is still not in place. May we therefore have a debate to bring the Prime Minister into the real world loop? He is giving orders, which are not being carried out.

Many students will be alarmed this week by universities’ proposals to double fees. Before a further generation is put into deeper debt, may we have a debate on the matter so that we know the Government’s position? They know that many of us will oppose any such proposals bitterly.

We had the sad statement about Stafford hospital, and many of us recall earlier events at Maidstone. I wonder whether it would be appropriate to have a debate on professionals’ duty of care. I understand that administrators appear to have taken an extraordinary view of targets and abused the system at that hospital, but clinicians, doctors and nurses have a duty of care to individual patients and they should be reminded of that. It is not part of their role simply to accept whatever orders they are given, if they are detrimental to patients. May we therefore have a debate on that?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister made a statement about allegations of collusion with torture. That written statement raised more questions than it answered, not least because, as I read it, it confers on the Attorney-General a wider role, which I believe to be entirely unconstitutional, whereby a Minister of the Crown determines—not only in the case referred by the High Court, but in others—not whether Government agents are prosecuted, but whether they are even investigated. That cannot possibly be right constitutionally or legally. May we have a serious, sober debate about that matter, about which hon. Members of all parties will be concerned?

I shall not add anything further to my answer to the shadow Leader of the House about FE colleges, except to say that 261 colleges will go ahead with their capital improvement, and that over three years, £2.3 billion will be invested. An inquiry is being set up under Sir Andrew Foster about the preliminary approvals that were given, but should not have been. It will report shortly.

The mortgage scheme—the help for people to defer their interest payments—was announced in January, but it was made clear when it was announced that because the scheme involved the major mortgage lenders, it would have to be worked up with them. It was not just a Government scheme, like the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs scheme, which could be announced and then implemented straight away. It had to be worked up in partnership with the mortgage lenders—and that is happening. In the meantime, we have given more help to those who become unemployed by shortening the amount of time for which they have to be unemployed before they get help with their mortgage payments, and increasing the amount for which they can get help with their payments. We have issued guidance to the county courts to ensure that they enforce the position that repossession is a last resort. We also have a moratorium with the mortgage lenders on moving to repossession. That work is under way, and some has already come on stream.

On higher education fees, the Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) has said that there will be a review. However, even before the review we know that admissions to further and higher education have increased across the board.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the duty of care of professionals at Stafford hospital. There will be Health questions next week, and he could raise the matter then.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement on detainees. At Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend spoke of our absolute abhorrence of torture and rendition, and our rejection of anything to do with that. To reinforce that, and to reassure people so that they know that our important security services are not contaminated by such abhorrent malpractice, guidance will be published. A further request has been made to the Intelligence and Security Committee to review recent developments, and Peter Gibson will examine the matter and report annually to the Prime Minister. It is not unusual in complex matters for the Attorney-General to examine the issues first and request the police to investigate. Obviously, the police can investigate of their own volition, but it is not unusual for the Attorney-General to undertake a preliminary review—and that is exactly what she is doing.

When my right hon. and learned Friend responded to the shadow Leader of the House, who requested a debate on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, she said that there had been a statement yesterday and that there would be Health questions next week. That is not good enough. That hospital is about 12 miles from my constituency and I am intensely concerned about what happened there. The preliminary reports are horrifying and shocking. Please may we have a debate in Government time soon?

Action has been set out following the statement, and my hon. Friend will be able to ask further questions of the Health Secretary. It is important to reinforce to bereaved families who have lost relatives in that hospital the fact that they can individually have a review of their relatives’ cases.

The Leader of the House knows that although the Government have a good-sized majority, the vast majority of the British public voted for Members of Parliament who sit on the Opposition side of the House. May we have a debate on the need for electoral reform, so that the Government of the day have the support of the majority of the people?

When can we have some time set aside to set up a Regional Select Committee for London? The Mayor has cut major infrastructure projects in London, the 50 per cent. target for affordable housing has been cut, and a £75 million revenue black hole has been created in the budget of Transport for London. London Members of Parliament want a voice on those issues and an opportunity to scrutinise the Mayor—or at least, Labour Members want that, even if the Liberals and the Tories do not. When can we set up a Committee for London?

I agree with my hon. Friend. When we debated the regional Committees in the House, we said that because of the different governance arrangements in London, with the Mayor and the Greater London authority, we would have to consider the issue further. However, I agree with the points that my hon. Friend has made. We need to look into the issue and make progress on it.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, mindless and vindictive vandalism was committed in my constituency. When my constituents woke up, they found that every road sign that had the words “Hospital” and “A and E” on it had been sprayed out. That was legal, because the primary care trust had instructed the highways authority to do it. The vindictive and mindless vandalism that took place was the closure of my acute hospital in the middle of the night. The A and E department, intensive care and the stroke, cardiac, maternity and all other acute services were closed on Saturday night. Can we have a Secretary of State come here for a debate about why so many facilities are closing round the country?

That is an example of where, if the hon. Gentleman had mentioned to me that he was raising that issue, I could have given him a more substantive answer than this, which is simply that he has an opportunity to put that question to the Secretary of State for Health next week.

I do not wish to add to my right hon. and learned Friend’s woes, but could we have an early debate on the problem of FE colleges? A modest college in Rotherham has spent millions of pounds, closed a road and published its plans, but has suddenly been told that it cannot go ahead, having received full authorisation up to that moment. Either the Learning and Skills Council officials who authorised that were wrong and should resign or the senior civil servants who supervised and authorised it should resign. If the matter came across a Minister’s desk, questions have to be asked. The issue is important for the construction industry and for the confidence of some of the weaker economies in our country. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate and tell the Prime Minister that we need clarification and for the money set aside to renew our economy to be put into the FE college building programme?

We have acknowledged that there is a problem and Sir Andrew Foster is investigating how it arose. However, my right hon. Friend will acknowledge that, unlike under the previous Administration, Thomas Rotherham college has had considerable investment over the past 10 years.

Okay. Well, even if my right hon. Friend was not asking about Thomas Rotherham college, it is in his constituency and has had considerable investment. I am not saying that there is not a problem about FE; Sir Andrew Foster is looking into it.

In announcing the business the right hon. and learned Lady suggested that next week’s defence debate might be used as an opportunity to raise the important issue of the reserves review, which is long awaited and much delayed. Will she confirm that the matter is of sufficient importance and involves so many MPs who have reservists as constituents—a great deal of work has been put into this—that it should be the subject of a proper oral statement by the Defence Secretary? Will she also confirm that that should be done as soon as possible, as the review is now completed?

There will be a full-day’s debate next week on defence, as I have said. There will be an opportunity for hon. Members to raise the question of reservists with the Minister concerned, but if they are not satisfied thereafter, we can look at the situation again.

Many right hon. and hon. Members head back to civilisation on a Thursday to the midlands and the north along the Euston road or through the Euston area. May I counsel them not to go near the 13th floor of Euston tower, 286 Euston road, which houses the central London tax office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for my constituent the Air Logistics Group, as well as for many hundreds of other businesses. There appears to be a serious black hole there, which is obviously a danger to public safety. Information is not coming out of that Government office, despite faxes, e-mails, telephone calls and requests for refunds from my constituent, who is concerned about a bill for more than £25,000 for corporation tax for 2008. We are told that the office is behind with its post. The Government signed up to the prompt payments code at the end of last year and set a limit of 10 days on all transactions with the private sector in particular, but that is not happening. Can we have a debate on the HMRC, its resources and how it handles—

Order. I say to hon. Members that I am not going to get through all the Back Benchers in this question session if the supplementaries are as long as that. They are not an opportunity to make a speech; it is a question that should be put to the Leader of the House.

Treasury questions are next Thursday and there will be a full-day’s debate on the economy. HMRC is processing promptly all the applications from those businesses that want to defer their tax. I will raise with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury the issues to do with the tax office that my hon. Friend raised.

Does the Leader of the House recognise that Select Committees are one of the most important ways in which we have the opportunity truly to hold the Government to account? However, the Regional Select Committees are a total travesty. Will she become the Leader of the House for once and abandon them, and instead have the regional Grand Committees, to which every Member in the region concerned is entitled to attend?

The House voted for Regional Select Committees to be set up and for them to be reviewed at the end of this Parliament. That being the will of the House, that is what is happening.

Derian House, a children’s hospice in my constituency, and St. Catherine’s, which is next door in South Ribble, are doing the good work that the Government rely on. People who are dying, who need that loving care, are dependent on the income of those hospices from charitable donations and the money from the Government. As my right hon. and learned Friend well knows, the children’s hospice is the poor relation for direct funding from the NHS. What can she do through this credit crisis, as charities struggle with the amount of money that they receive, to ensure that the funding gap can be bridged through the NHS? It would be a good idea to have a topical debate on funding for the hospice movement.

I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. The Government have put extra money into the strategy for end-of-life care, and £10 million extra into children’s hospices in particular. We have also helped with gift aid. However, some hospices have been hit particularly hard because their reserves were in Icelandic banks, which has added to their problems at a time when charitable giving has fallen. We are acutely aware of the effect that that might have on health services that are incredibly valued by families who need them. I agree with my hon. Friend’s point and will look into the issue for a topical debate.

At the end of another week when significant redundancies have been announced in the knitwear industry in Hawick in my constituency, will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that when the Chancellor introduces the debate on the economy in due course, he acknowledges the challenges facing that world-class industry and brings forward a set of proposals to support it?

I will bring the points that the hon. Gentleman has made on behalf of businesses in his constituency to the attention of the Chancellor, and if he thinks it right, he can include them in his remarks to the House.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the article in The Independent today about restaurant owners using the credit crunch as an excuse to ask the Government not to stop the inclusion of tips in the national minimum wage? We fought long and hard to close that loophole, so I hope that she and other members of the Cabinet and the Government do not agree with those restaurant owners, who are bad employers exploiting young people. When will the legislation come forward to this House?

I agree with my hon. Friend. From this October, all staff must get the full minimum wage, excluding tips. We can all support the “fair tips, fair pay” campaign and ensure that we give our tips in cash.

In her rather shrill defence of the catalogue of incompetence that has led to the FE crisis, the one thing that the right hon. and learned Lady did not say was whether Ministers would come to the House to answer to Members from across the House whose FE colleges face such difficulties. The Association of Colleges says today that those FE colleges that were encouraged to devise and develop projects for capital expansion have already spent £150 million in doing so. A Minister says that we should not be in this state and that the programme has not been managed properly, but what Ministers will not do is come to this House and answer for the incompetence that has led to this situation. Will the right hon. and learned Lady bring about the opportunity for Members from across the House to defend their colleges and to make Ministers answer the questions that they seem so reluctant to answer?

Given the risk of being shrill, perhaps I should answer the hon. Gentleman in a very deep voice. I refer him to the written ministerial statement that the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills issued on 4 March. The Prime Minister answered questions on this matter yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, and Sir Andrew Foster’s report will be forthcoming shortly. At that point, it might well be that the Secretary of State comes to the House to make an oral statement.

It is really important that schoolchildren have an opportunity to visit the House, but I am struggling to arrange that for schools in my constituency. I am told that we are completely booked up until at least September or October. It is particularly difficult for schools in the north, because they have to come on a Monday or Tuesday; the other days are no good to them. Could those schools be given some priority, because it is easier for schools in London and the south-east to come later in the week?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. All our constituents find it incredibly valuable that schoolchildren come to the House. If I may, I will ask the Deputy Leader of the House to look into this matter, and possibly issue a written ministerial statement about it. Speaking as a London MP, I am sure that we would all readily understand the idea of making such visits possible for schools from outside London, for which more complex arrangements have to be made, and do what we can to help.

Given that the Prime Minister appeared to be in denial yesterday, that the Minister responsible for further education, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), was embarrassingly hapless when interviewed on the “Today” programme this morning, and that the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has just made it clear that a serious problem exists, surely it would make sense for the Secretary of State, and not a hapless junior Minister, to come to the Dispatch Box early next week to answer questions from Members who are worried about their colleges of further education. If the Leader of the House will give us a simple yes, we will all be happy.

In order that hon. Members should not be unduly alarmed, and that no one should suffer from any confusion about whether the 261 final approvals that have been given will be going ahead, perhaps I will ask the Secretary of State to issue a written ministerial statement containing a list of the 261 final approvals, so that everyone is clear about which is going ahead this year. Sir Andrew Foster’s report will be forthcoming shortly, and it is at that point that the Secretary of State should come to the House with the full facts of the situation at his disposal.

Could we have a debate on the future of the country’s rape crisis centres? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the excellent work done by their staff, most of whom are volunteers, but there is genuine concern about the future funding for the centres. Will she use her good offices to advance the argument for keeping them funded, in order that women, in particular, can use their services?

I agree with my hon. Friend. All local authorities ought to be supporting those local services that help the victims of rape—one of the most traumatic crimes. We set up a £1.1 million fund last year to help the rape crisis centres that were threatened, and none has closed because they were all able to apply to the fund, 100 per cent. of which was spent. Today, we are announcing the second round of the fund, which will be £1.6 million. It is important to support the victims of rape, but it is also important to hold the perpetrators to account. It is therefore welcome that, over the past 10 years, the number of men convicted of rape has increased by 46 per cent. We have a great deal more to do in the criminal justice system, but we are making good progress, and rightly so.

The Leader of the House did not respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) about Equitable Life. She will be aware, however, that the latest damning indictment of the Government’s mishandling of the Equitable Life fiasco was delivered only today by the Public Administration Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Given the strident criticisms in the Committee’s report, will the Leader of the House now find time for a debate about the Government’s handling of the whole Equitable Life fiasco, so that people can have their money returned to them?

I did respond to the shadow Leader of the House’s question about Equitable Life in some detail. In order not to squeeze the time of other hon. Members, I will not go through it all over again.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the abysmal success rate in tracing employers’ insurance liability certificates in cases of asbestos-related disease? This morning, I received a letter pointing out that last year certificates were traced in only 25 per cent. of pre-1972 cases, and that for post-1972 cases the figure was only 38 per cent. There is an alternative: an employers’ liability insurance bureau. Will she arrange for a topical debate on the concept of such a bureau?

Perhaps there will be an opportunity for my hon. Friend to seek a Westminster Hall debate on that subject. I will bring his comments to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is another example of where regulation is important to protect people.

May we go back to the reply that the Leader of the House gave to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) about Equitable Life? In her first response, she referred to the statement by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury last November. That statement has just been dismissed by a Select Committee of the House as

“shabby, constitutionally dubious and procedurally improper”.

May we have not just a debate but a debate with a vote, so that the House can decide whether it supports the Chief Secretary, or the ombudsman and one of its own Select Committees?

The Liaison Committee chooses which Select Committee reports are debated in the House. I have nothing to add to what I said to the shadow Leader of the House.

In the next few days, the parents of four and five-year-olds will learn which primary school their children will be going to in September. Three weeks ago, the parents of children transferring to secondary school were told which secondary school their children had been allocated. As this is the first year of the new school admissions code, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the working of the code, once we have the full analysis of secondary and primary school admissions?

I know that 87 per cent. of parents got their first choice for their children in the recent admissions allocation. The most important thing is that not only do they get the school that they choose, but that every school is as good as possible. I will raise the question of the monitoring and reviewing of the schools admission code with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and ask him to write to my hon. Friend.

May I join other hon. Members who have asked for a debate on Stafford hospital? Almost 15 years ago to the day, my mother died in that hospital. She got excellent care there, and there are a number of people who work there who will be horrified at what has happened. For the sake of those people, who have given good, loyal service to the national health service, we need a chance not only to say what has gone wrong in this instance, but to pay tribute to those people who have worked so hard in that hospital.

I am sure that many of the people who work in that hospital will appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. Perhaps I can also remind the House that the Secretary of State for Health has said that there is new leadership in the accident and emergency unit—which had been the major problem—to ensure that all patients can be confident that they will be properly looked after from now on.

Next week, we will consider the massive Coroners and Justice Bill on Report. Mr. Speaker, you will be selecting the amendments and, as there are so many parts to the Bill, they will inevitably fall into at least eight substantive groups. We are grateful to the Leader of the House for providing two days’ debate, but does she recognise that the ability of the House to scrutinise the legislation will be measured, in part, by whether we have time to debate all those groups? Will she take steps to ensure that there is adequate consultation between the parties so that those two days are used effectively to scrutinise all the parts of this important piece of legislation?

I take seriously the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. It was on the insistence of the Secretary of State for Justice that we should have two days of debate for the important remaining stages of this Bill. I will reflect together with my right hon. Friend on the hon. Gentleman’s points about how to ensure that those two days are used in the best possible way for these important measures.

Can we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on asylum policy? Given that Adam Osman Mohammed, a south Darfurian, who came to this country to seek asylum in 2005 was denied that asylum, was returned to Sudan and subsequently shot dead by Sudanese security officers, does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that it is important that this House should debate the issue of returns—and sooner rather than later—so that we can establish that, while war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing are taking place in that country, Ministers have no plans to return further Darfurians to risk of imprisonment, torture or death?

There will be a debate on Africa the week after next and there are Home Office questions next week. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in that case, an appeal was made against the decision of the authorities and a court went through all the evidence and decided that the man should return. Obviously, the very sad subsequent circumstances are being looked into, but this happened following a judicial challenge and a judicial process.

I agree with the Leader of the House’s earlier comment that this is a time to put more money into the economy. Could she therefore find time for a debate on the proposed cuts to the budgets of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will have an effect on those economies?

There are not cuts to the budget in Scotland. In fact, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said yesterday and as other Ministers have made clear, there is increasing investment going into Scotland and Wales, as there is into England. At the same time, as the fiscal situation becomes more difficult as a result of a fall in stamp duty and a fall in other money coming into the Treasury across the board, it is important that we all play our part—whether it be central Government, local government or the devolved Administrations—to make sure that every single pound of public money is properly spent. That is what the First Ministers in Scotland and Wales have agreed to work on with the Chancellor. That is the right process to be going through, but it should not be alleged that these are cuts in the budget. That is not what is happening. Cuts in the budget are being proposed by the Tories, but it is not what we are doing. That is why the public sector debt as a percentage of GDP is rising.

Can we have an urgent debate on the decision of the House of Lords last night to vote down Government proposals for a retrospective business tax for UK ports, which would give the Government an opportunity to review the implications and perhaps review their decision?

There is an Opposition day debate next week, which I suspect might well include those issues. Meanwhile Government business is dealt with in the normal way.

Can we have an urgent statement from the Defence Secretary in response to this morning’s report by the Public Accounts Committee on the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrence capacity. The Committee points out that Britain will have to design the new submarines before the United States designs the new missiles that will have go into them. As the Committee points out, it will be difficult to design a missile compartment before knowing the design of the missile, so can we have an urgent response from the Defence Secretary?

We welcome the Public Accounts Committee report. The defence equipment Minister has said:

“Our ability to maintain the Trident nuclear deterrent is not in doubt… Although I recognise the timelines are challenging, I remain very confident that we will deliver a new submarine on time and maintain our continuous at-sea deterrence.”

It is a challenging timetable, but the Minister expressed his confidence, and there will be a defence debate next Thursday.

Can we have a debate as soon as possible on motoring in the United Kingdom, which is one of the most expensive parts of the world in which to be motoring? With the recession, it has got a lot tougher. The Chancellor has an opportunity to repair some of the damage he has done by axing the proposed 2p a litre tax increase, which is about to come about next month. In rural areas, a car is not a luxury, but a necessity. The Chancellor might also like to look at the scheme rolled out in France and Germany, whereby people with old bangers are able to trade them in and get a €2,500 or £2,500 benefit, as that would be environmentally friendly and would help to get rid of some of the clapped-out vehicles on our roads.

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has had extensive meetings, and, indeed, a summit with the automotive industry, which we are determined to support. We continue to invest in public transport so that people have an alternative to relying on their cars—and that means public transport in rural as well as urban areas. In particular, we look ahead to new technology, new design and new manufacture of green cars, which are more environmentally friendly. The Budget is due, I think, on 22 April. The hon. Gentleman is doing what the Prime Minister yesterday accused the Leader of the Opposition of doing—of asking us to do more, while saying that we should spend less. The hon. Gentleman should decide which side he is on.

Can we have a debate on the probation service, so that we can discuss why, at a time when the Government continue to increase numbers at the headquarters, they are cutting services on the front line? In the Thames Valley over the next three years, that means a 20 per cent. cut—of some £6.4 million—with an anticipated loss of some 140 front-line jobs. Why are we increasing the number of bureaucrats while cutting front-line probation officers? What impact will that have on reoffending rates in my constituency?

I will raise that with the Secretary of State for Justice and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

When the Leader of the House responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) and tried, not very successfully, to defend the Solicitor-General for her ill-judged comments, she mentioned her role in leading for the Government in the detailed stages of the equality Bill. At oral questions last October, I asked the Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office, when that Bill would be brought forward and she said that it was in a good state, but that she wanted it to be in the “best possible state” and that it would be introduced “soon”. It is now five months later, and just two weeks ago, the Leader of the House said that we would not see it for a few months. Will she tell the House when we will see that Bill?

Soon, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s giving it his full backing. I hope that he will feel able to support it when he sees its progressive and far-reaching proposals.

Could I take the Leader of the House back to her reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and really urge her and her colleagues to think again about the imposition of retrospective rates on businesses in ports? The fact is that the Treasury Committee had condemned what is going on, and we have had completely different conflicting versions from the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government, and now the House of Lords has passed a motion of regret. Meanwhile, back in the real world, one business has gone bust and a whole mass of them are shedding labour in our ports. I urge the Leader of the House to talk to her colleagues to get them to have a fresh think on this matter.

There is an Opposition day debate on Wednesday 25 March on a subject chosen by the Conservatives—the impact of business rates and how to help businesses through the recession. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise the matter then.

Could we have a debate on the parliamentary ombudsman generally? When our constituents send us cases of alleged maladministration and we pass them on to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, our constituents expect, if the ombudsman finds maladministration, that some remedy will follow the inquiry. If there is no remedy, it doubles the sense of injustice, but also reflects on Parliament as a whole. After all, this is the parliamentary ombudsman. What is the point of having a parliamentary ombudsman if, when she finds some maladministration, absolutely nothing happens? Can the House please have an opportunity to debate the parliamentary ombudsman’s role and powers and how the ombudsman’s reports should be implemented?

What has happened in response to the ombudsman’s reports is not nothing, but three things. We have acknowledged that there was regulatory failure, we have apologised for it and we have set up an ex gratia payments scheme for those who lost out not only through the regulatory failure, but through the management failures in Equitable Life that started it all off.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has now written to you, Mr. Speaker, to confirm that details of this year’s programme of spending on preventing violent extremism will be published. I raised the matter in business questions last week. However, the letter also confirms that the Department does not currently hold the details. The question that naturally arises is how we can be sure that violent extremists, or at any rate extremists, have not got their hands on some of the money. Does the Secretary of State plan to come to the House to make a statement?

I am sure that the Department for Communities and Local Government will want to understand how all the money that forms part of the budget for the Prevent programme has been spent, and will want to account for it fully to the House.

The Traffic Management Act 2004 gives local authorities extra powers to control the proliferation of roadworks in their local areas, yet to date no such permitting schemes have been introduced anywhere in the country. Could the Secretary of State for Transport come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement about this sorry state of affairs?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman table a written question to the Secretary of State for Transport.

May we have an urgent debate on human rights in China, and in particular on the case of Shi Weihan, who is currently languishing in a Chinese prison on the basis of what I believe to be trumped-up charges, and will the Leader of the House express a view on whether a British diplomat should be present at the trial, which is to be held tomorrow?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of human rights in China, and for bringing the specific case of Mr. Weihan to the House’s attention. I think we all share his belief that human rights should not be abused in China. Ministers have raised the matter, and I understand that our embassy has asked whether it is possible for someone from the embassy to attend the trial and has raised its concerns about the issue with the Chinese authorities. I will ask the Foreign Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman informing him of the latest developments.