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Business of the House

Volume 491: debated on Thursday 23 April 2009

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 27 April—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 28 April—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 29 April—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled “The Erosion of Civil Liberties and Freedoms” followed by a debate on the situation in Sri Lanka. Both debates will arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.

Thursday 30 April—House business.

The provisional business for the week commencing 4 May will include:

Monday 4 May—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 5 May—Remaining stages of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill.

Wednesday 6 May—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 7 May—Topical debate: subject to be announced followed by a general debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee Annual Report 2007-08.

Friday 8 May—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business.

Most of us in the House will be pleased that the case of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has now been satisfactorily resolved. Even though the issue became rather heated, surely we should now stand back and study the implications of what happened. May I therefore ask the Leader of the House to reflect on early-day motion 1307?

[That this House notes the statement of the Director of Public Prosecutions on 16 April 2009 announcing his decision that no charges would be brought against the hon. Member for Ashford in relation to the documents leaked and stating that, ‘Mr Green's purpose in using the documents was apparently to hold the Government to account'; and calls for the House to be given the opportunity to debate a motion to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.]

Will the Leader of the House support the motion that was originally tabled on the Order Paper before the Easter recess to ensure that the House can refer this matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges as soon as possible? Now is the best time to learn the lessons of this affair so that all the confusion can be cleared up for the future. It is no good her saying that the Attorney-General’s opinion was that there was no confusion, because there was. There is a perfectly good process available to us, and we should invoke it; will she confirm that she will co-operate in doing so?

We have still not had a satisfactory report on what the Leader of the House intends to do about the policing of Parliament square. On Monday, the road was shut all day. When will she tell the House how she intends to stop Parliament square becoming a site of permanent protest?

May we, perhaps rather esoterically, have a debate on road signs? We have heard this week that the Government intend to ram through their proposals on reducing national speed limits. Can we have the right hon. and learned Lady’s absolute guarantee that this will not lead to a new forest of pointless metal poles and bossy signs that completely wreck the landscape of our streets? Will she ensure that Government policy is designed to reduce street clutter as much as to reduce accidents?

More importantly, may we have a statement and a full explanation from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families? Yesterday, in highly significant evidence to the departmental Select Committee, Dr. Ken Boston, the former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, accused the Schools Secretary of smearing his name by, as he put it, “sexing up” evidence and dodging the blame by presenting “untrue and false evidence” to last year’s inquiry into the SATS fiasco.

This is the same Minister who is implicated in much of the propaganda and, indeed, economic collapse associated with his Prime Minister—so much so that the poor man has even become—

Order. I say very gently to the hon. Gentleman that he cannot criticise a Minister in this way. Criticism of any hon. Member of this House has to be with a substantive motion of the House. He has made the point, so perhaps he can move on to another matter.

I will move on, Mr. Speaker, but I was responding to a sedentary intervention. I assure you that I had notified the Secretary of State of what I intended to do, but I hear what you sayit is understood. I would certainly say, however, that he should explain himself at some stage about what has happened and is being seen on television and read about in our press.

May we have a debate on the guarding of Budget secrets? By yesterday morning, we were already aware of several of the Chancellor’s headline schemes, including the car scrappage and HomeBuy initiatives. Is there to be an inquiry into these indiscretions? Obviously, it is unthinkable that Ministers would ever have passed those details to journalists themselves, but will the Leader of the House deplore such leaks and urge an investigation?

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister published his proposals for reforming our system of expenses. If I may be a little personal, may I ask whether the right hon. and learned Lady feels sufficiently appreciated by the Prime Minister? Does she feel that she can still be the guardian of Parliament’s voice in the Cabinet? Is it not clear that she was completely bypassed by No. 10 and then bounced into making a written ministerial statement, as the presentable face of Government, after the Prime Minister’s deeply weird statement on YouTube? Is it really true that No. 10 has said that Labour Members who do not vote for the Prime Minister’s proposals will be deselected? How can she possibly defend his barmy plan for an automatic daily allowance, for which no receipts will need to be presented, as an improvement on what we have already?

May I take this opportunity to wish the right hon. and learned Lady a happy St. George’s day? I hope that I am not too much of a dragon against this maiden in distress. In the spirit of St. George, will she now renew her pledge to fight for the rights of this House, the freedoms of the country, and the power of MPs to scrutinise and hold to account an unsuitable and arrogant Executive?

The hon. Gentleman asked about the arrest of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and the issues of parliamentary privilege that arose from it. The House has already made a resolution to refer the matter to a Committee of the Speaker, and I do not think that it would be a good idea to set up a twin-track approach. All the issues about entry to the premises of Parliament, the searching of parliamentary offices and constituency correspondence and what is, or should be, available to the court can be considered by the Speaker’s Committee, which the House agreed should start its work after the criminal proceedings had come to a conclusion. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should set up a twin-track approach and a separate inquiry into the same issues via the Standards and Privileges Committee.

The hon. Gentleman says that, but he would need to explain why the Speaker’s Committee could not consider the issues that he is concerned about and believes need to be looked into. I am obviously keen for the House to be able to have all the issues that it wants resolved looked into, and I have no vested interest in the House not looking into them and coming to a satisfactory conclusion. I just do not want there to be a twin-track proposal or for us to undermine a resolution that the House has already made at your request, Mr. Speaker, that there should be a Speaker’s Committee to look into the matter.

The second point that the hon. Gentleman raised was about the policing of Parliament square. It is obviously very important that people have the right to demonstrate and are able to make their views known publicly and peacefully, but we have to ensure that the business of this House and the very important site of Parliament square are properly protected, and we do not want the undue tying up of police resources. The matter is under consideration by many authorities and is the operational responsibility of the police. I know that there is ongoing concern and discussions about it, but I do not have anything specific to tell him or the House today.

The hon. Gentleman talked about road signs and a forest of bossy signs. Speed limits are a very important issue, because they are about cutting deaths on the road through traffic accidents, and particularly about cutting pedestrian deaths. This is not being done for the sake of it, and, by the way, it is a consultation; it is not being pushed through. The evidence is that lower speed limits save lives, and particularly the lives of children who would otherwise be killed in road accidents if they were hit as pedestrians. I ask him to reflect on that, and anybody will have the opportunity to involve themselves in the consultations. If it comes to an ugly road sign or a child being killed, I would go for the ugly road sign.

We all want to be certain that the national curriculum tests, which are important, are properly marked and the information made available to schools promptly. That did not happen, and there was great concern about that. The Sutherland inquiry was established jointly with Ofqual, and it looked into the situation and made proposals for change. Ken Boston resigned, and he has now given evidence to the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. Incidentally, the Minister for Schools and Learners, who gave inaccurate information, corrected it is as long ago as February, and Lord Sutherland said that it was not material to his findings anyway, so I urge the hon. Gentleman not to make so much of that. We await the report of the Select Committee, and there will be Children, Schools and Families questions next Monday, so hon. Members who want to ask questions about the matter can do so to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team.

As far as prior publicity about car scrappage is concerned, that first came into the public domain as a demand from the automotive industry. Hon. Members on both sides of the House whose constituents have interests in the automotive industry proposed that scheme to Business Ministers and the Treasury. There was debate and consultation, and the matter could not be kept as a national security issue in those circumstances. There was some discussion in advance—indeed, some of it was in the papers. Rather than focusing on that bit of the process, however, the hon. Gentleman should welcome the car scrappage scheme.

The hon. Gentleman talked about parliamentary allowances. Many Members have constituencies that are far away from Westminster, which inevitably involves extra cost. We do not want only those who can afford to pay the cost of living away from home to represent far-flung constituencies. I hope that there is general agreement on that point. It is important for us to say that, because sometimes the public do not recognise that that would be the result of not assisting with the extra costs incurred in representing far-flung constituencies. First, none of us wants that to happen. Secondly, we all want the public to have confidence in the way in which the House goes about its work and the way in which public money is spent. Thirdly, it is evident that the public do not have that confidence, and, fourthly, we need to do something about that. Fifthly, I hope that we still agree that it is important to involve an independent element.

I hope that the Prime Minister’s asking the Committee on Standards in Public Life to look at the matter will assist the House. I thank Sir Christopher Kelly for agreeing to take on that work, which he has started today. He needs to engage in consideration, deliberation and consultation, and he needs to take some time before he reaches his conclusion, even though he is going to do it expeditiously. In the meantime, because of the high level of public concern, it is important to introduce an interim change. A number of hon. Members think that we should leave the matter until after Sir Christopher Kelly has made his decision, but I do not think that that is right, because we need to introduce interim measures pending the outcome of Sir Christopher Kelly’s report.

My sixth point concerns the proposed arrangements in my written ministerial statement—if I am going on too long, please put me out of my misery, Mr. Speaker. We all agree that there is no perfect remedy and that all the solutions have different upsides and downsides. The flat-rate daily payment acknowledges the additional costs in far-flung constituencies and is tied to business being conducted in Westminster—if one were in one’s constituency all the time, there would be no additional expenses. That proposal includes a reasonable rate. I admit that we will not reach a perfect solution, but it would be good if we were to try to find as much agreement as possible.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention that it is Shakespeare’s birthday. [Interruption.] He has now. I shall call on the Shakespearean wisdom of the Deputy Leader of the House from his days in the National Youth theatre. He has mentioned a character whom I have never heard of, Autolycus, who might have been describing the hon. Gentleman when he referred to

“a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.”

The National Burn Care Review group is looking at the future of burns units around the country. It has been pushing strongly for the unit in Manchester to be designated as the main one, but that would lead to the units at Merseyside’s Whiston and Alder Hey hospitals being downgraded. We were promised that we would be kept informed of progress, but we heard nothing for 18 months until being told this week that an announcement was to be made that Manchester would be the main centre. Could my right hon. and learned Friend possibly arrange time for an urgent debate on the review of burns units in the north-west?

I suggest that my hon. Friend raise his considerable concerns about this matter with the Secretary of State for Health, and that he should seek a meeting with him or one of his Ministers.

First, may I say that I believe that the right hon. and learned Lady is quite wrong about the affair of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? There are distinct differences between the events surrounding that affair and the more general question of privileges. That question should be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose job it is to look at it. I hope that she will reconsider the matter.

Will the Leader of the House confirm exactly what we will be debating on Thursday 30 April? I notice that the day is now to be devoted to “House business”, rather than to “motions relating to allowances”. Will she confirm that it is the Prime Minister’s motion that we are to be discussing that day? She spoke about the process at some length, but does it not illustrate how the Prime Minister sets about consultation? First of all, he scribbles something on the back of a fag packet, then as an afterthought convenes the leaders of the other parties to rubber-stamp his proposal. When they fundamentally disagree with him, he determines that he will carry on with the scheme that he first thought of anyway—a scheme that in effect proposes a daily banker style bonus to Members of Parliament, without transparency or any relation to real costs incurred. He believes that it will engender the support and confidence of the British people, but it will not. I hope that we will have a chance to debate alternatives to his proposal, because it is very important that we get this matter right.

If that is what we are to debate on Thursday 30 April, will the Leader of the House also confirm that there are a great many details to do with costs and definitions to be discussed? Her statement did not go into those details, which also include the position of staff and questions about whether there will be staff transfers. Will she produce detailed supporting papers for the proposition early next week, so that we know exactly what we are talking about, or are we to be asked to buy a particularly ill-smelling pig in a poke?

In 2002, the Public Administration Committee produced a report on special advisers entitled “These Unfortunate Events”. Given that there have been more unfortunate events over the Easter recess, will the Leader of the House confirm that it is the Government’s intention to introduce the provisions of a civil service Act, either as a stand-alone Bill or as part of the Constitutional Renewal Bill? That intention has been often stated, but when will we have statutory control of the civil service, including special advisers?

Can we have a statement or a debate on broadband? In yesterday’s Budget, the Chancellor referred to extra investment in broadband, but there is a great deal of concern around the country that it will not lead to Britain having the broadband speed that it will need to be truly competitive in the future. That concern is especially strong in rural areas, where people worry that they will simply not get the provision at all. Can we have a clear statement therefore on what will be provided, and the implications?

Lastly, after months of waiting and many parliamentary questions, on Tuesday we finally got the implementation of the homeowners mortgage support scheme that had been announced in December. However, does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that not one UK bank that is not under state control is participating in the scheme? I am talking about the Abbey, Nationwide, Barclays, HSBC, the Alliance & Leicester—none of the major lenders that are not directly controlled by the state is taking part. Is not that a huge omission, and will it not leave many homeowners in a very poor position when compared with others who have borrowed from those banks that have had to take money from the state? Can we have a clear statement on the operation of the homeowners mortgage support scheme, so that hon. Members can ask proper questions about the position of their constituents?

The proposal for a flat-rate daily payment does not come from the back of one of the Prime Minister’s envelopes. It is one of the alternatives that has been considered by this House over a period of time, including by the Committee on Members’ Allowances in its former incarnation. The flat-rate daily payment system proposal is not new and should take no one by surprise, but it would be transparent about the number of days, and precisely which ones, for which each hon. Member claims.

The hon. Gentleman asked about what the House will be asked to support. The motion for debate will be tabled in my name, and I hope that it will set out the situation with sufficient detail and clarity that the House will vote for it. This is obviously a House matter, and we will table the motion in enough time for hon. Members to consider the propositions that it contains. They will also be able to table amendments if they wish.

The written ministerial statement did deal with the issue of the status of staff. I can confirm that the Deputy Leader of the House will meet staff members’ union representatives, because we are aware of the very important work that staff do in helping us to serve our constituents and perform our duties in the House. They should not feel insecure or uncertain about how the proposals will affect them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Constitutional Renewal Bill, and he will be aware that it has been discussed by a Committee of both Houses. It proposes putting the civil service on a statutory footing, and will be introduced into the House when time allows.

The hon. Gentleman asked about investment in broadband, and I can tell him that Lord Carter is in the process of producing his second report on the matter. The post-recovery economy must be green and family-friendly, with a big emphasis on high skills and digital communications, and that is why investment in broadband is central to our proposals. Finally, I remind the hon. Gentleman that he will be able to ask further questions on the matter at Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills questions next Thursday.

There is undoubtedly public disquiet about the second homes allowances, although hon. Members are absolutely justified in claiming for the accommodation that is essential when they are away from home. However, if the new proposal is put forward, does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that people are bound to think that hon. Members are being paid extra money just for turning up to do our job? If a flat-rate payment is established, no documentary evidence will be required to show how we have spent the money, so what are we supposed to do—pocket all the money that we do not spend legitimately within the rules? The proposal needs much more explanation. I hope that there will be a vote next week to reform the system, but it is open to question whether the proposal as it stands is the sort of reform that will reassure the public that all is well.

My hon. Friend reiterates a criticism that has been made of the proposal, but the extra money would not be given just for turning up. Instead, it would go towards the costs of having a constituency away from London, but it would not be right for people to claim that money if they did not turn up here. They would not incur those costs if they never came to Westminster and only stayed in their constituencies. The proposal recognises the extra costs incurred by having to be in more than one place.

The system would be transparent because, as I said, evidence would have to be supplied showing that an hon. Member had attended Westminster or performed parliamentary or ministerial duties. Otherwise, claims for the extra expense incurred by having to do both constituency and Westminster work at the same time could not be justified.

Although it was most welcome to hear the Chancellor announcing £50 million in the Budget yesterday to upgrade the homes of our armed forces personnel, I understand that that is an acceleration of money and that there is probably only £500,000 of new money in that announcement. What he did not address, and what the House has not addressed, is our responsibilities to members of our armed forces returning to the communities in which they grew up, particularly when they have been medically discharged or disabled in some way. The Leader of the House may be aware, because it has been in the national press, of the case of a constituent of mine, Lance Corporal Paul Baker, who has been unable to find accommodation in East Devon. He says:

“You join up, serve your country and expect you will be allowed to come back to live where you grew up—then you find you’re not allowed.”

The problem is that the Government have changed the responsibility in that respect. Although Lance Corporal Baker is based at Bulford camp, from which he is about to be evicted, under the current legislation it is Bulford’s responsibility to find him accommodation, not East Devon council’s. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate in Government time so that we can look at allowing local authorities additional resources to provide accommodation for our returning armed forces personnel who have been discharged in that way?

Order. Before we go any further, I understand that these matters are very important, but supplementaries should be brief, not mini-Adjournment debate contributions.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek a meeting with one of the Ministry of Defence Ministers about his constituent’s concerns. The hon. Gentleman will know, because he follows these matters closely, that we have given priority in the NHS to returning members of our armed forces. We are reviewing the provision in primary care for former members of our armed forces. There are major issues relating to housing, which he touched on and which were raised in our recent debate on the armed forces. However, perhaps he should seek a meeting with a relevant Minister to try to help his constituent further.

Mr. Speaker, I forgot to answer the important point about the home owners mortgage support scheme that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised. I think that there is a genuine misunderstanding. Eighty per cent. of lending for mortgages is covered under the scheme, because those who lend into 80 per cent. of the mortgage market have signed up to it. That means that we will back those lenders so that they can allow people who get into difficulty with their mortgage interest payments to defer them, either in whole or in part, for up to two years. That means that those people will not face repossession, which is very important indeed.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that 80 per cent. of mortgages are covered by the scheme, but it is not the first thing that we have done. We have also brought forward the point at which people can claim payments through social security benefits for their mortgage payments, from 39 to 13 weeks, and we have increased the amount for which people can claim in interest. We have also issued rules for the courts, so that repossession ought to be the last resort and not the first, and agreed a moratorium with all building societies and banks, so that they should not take any repossession proceedings for at least three months. The home owners mortgage support scheme is not the first thing that we have done; it is one of a number of things that we have done, and it covers 80 per cent. of the mortgage market.

If my Tamil constituents who are demonstrating in Parliament square were in the House today, they would be the first to apologise to everybody here for the disruption that they may have caused. However, it is their anxiety, fear and terror for their families and friends in Sri Lanka that have driven them to these actions. They look to the Government to be a world leader in fighting against a Sri Lankan Government who spend 20 per cent. of their GDP on arms to use against their own people. We have to take a lead for our citizens who are protesting outside, so will the Foreign Secretary come to the House at the earliest opportunity to lend his support to the recent words of the American and Indian Governments?

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, there will be an opportunity to debate the issue next Wednesday on an Opposition motion. However, my hon. Friend makes some heartfelt points. The primary concern for the Government and for us all is the safety of the civilians caught in the conflict area. The Prime Minister has taken a leading role and was one of the first to call for a ceasefire. Although large numbers of civilians have been able to leave the conflict area, a longer pause is needed. We have to work internationally. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) has also been playing a leading role, along with the Foreign Office, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz).

What assurance can the Leader of the House give me, as someone who supports the principle that Members’ staff could be employed by the House centrally, that we would be voting on the general desirability of that and not on a motion that precluded proper consultation with all the staff affected or failed to recognise their rights? Members’ staff are diverse, they work in many parts of the country, some part time and some full time, and they are not subject to the political restraints that hon. Members’ House of Commons staff accept.

The right hon. Gentleman makes some important points, all of which I want to take up. Hon. Members make many diverse arrangements because of their different constituency work patterns, and they might not fall neatly into the working arrangements of, or the demands on, those who work for House. We need to put on a proper footing public recognition that the money is not part of our income, but financial support for work that we have done on our constituents’ behalf. However, we do not want to precipitate a load of unintended consequences—the point the right hon. Gentleman rightly raises. We will perhaps talk to him further about that before we table the resolution.

My right hon. and learned Friend was quite right when she said that speed can kill. However, I hope that the proposed restrictions on rural roads do not take a blanket approach but are based on risk assessments. I also hope that the Department for Transport will look at some anomalies. For example, on the A15, which is one of the most dangerous roads in the whole of Britain, there is a 40 mph restriction on lorries over a certain weight. The restriction relates to their braking capacity and goes back years, but the design and technology have moved on. Lorry drivers tell me that the restriction leads to big queues, tailbacks and people taking risks, thereby causing accidents; it is also not good for optimal fuel consumption. Those are issues that should be addressed as well.

I know that Ministers in the Department for Transport will take on board the point that my right hon. Friend makes. I was just responding to the general point that the shadow Leader of the House made, but there are also specific points about individual roads, such as the A15. That is why there is a consultation, so that the issues can be addressed not only in their generality, but area by area.

Bearing in mind that the Leader of House’s statement on allowances specifically excluded Northern Ireland Members, five of whom never take part in the proceedings, but each of whom draws £20,000-plus on average, and as Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee will almost certainly have to look at the proposal, does that not underline the need to avoid the extraordinary cost of interim measures that may well not meet with his committee’s approval?

I think that it is the case that, depending on how it is validated, a flat-rate daily payment would be cheaper to administer than processing the myriad receipts that come with the current additional costs allowance system. There have been further discussions about the situation for representatives in this House from Northern Ireland parties, but it will be possible to address that matter in the resolution.

May we have a debate on the positive contribution that trade unions make to our society and, in particular, the magnificent contribution of the late Jack Jones? Jack had many achievements, not only as a trade unionist, but as a campaigner for pensioners. I suggest that he deserves the proper recognition of this House.

I very much welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me and all Labour Members to pay our warmest tributes to Jack Jones, who has passed away. I knew him personally for some 30 years. He represented all that was best about trade unionism. He fought for his members in the Transport and General Workers Union up and down the country and, when he retired, he went on to fight for trade union retired members and all pensioners. He was absolutely tough and ferocious in the interests of his members, but he was also a kind, gentle and warm-hearted man. We are proud of him in the trade union movement; we are proud of him as a supporter of the Labour party; and we are proud of him in south London, where he lived.

Will the Leader of the House consider issuing a statement to the House on the way in which Members should expect to receive replies from Ministers? I received a letter the other week from the Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health, which is signed off:

“Approved by the Minister’s private office and electronically signed in her absence.”

As far as my constituents are concerned, the Minister never even looked at the correspondence. Can we have a position in which Ministers in the main sign off letters personally rather than electronically?

If the House is in recess, an interim reply to an hon. Member by a private office might well serve until the Minister can reply. We all accept the situation in which the reply is approved by the Minister and signed in their absence, but a reply signed by the private office in the Minister’s absence is a step further that I have not cognised before. I will look into the matter. Either the reply is from the private office or it is from the Minister. It can be from the private office on behalf of the Minister, but it cannot be from the private office instead of the Minister.

Every Member of the House will have in their constituency a number of war memorials and so will appreciate the sensitivity about any proposal to move the location of one. In my constituency there is some controversy surrounding the decision by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to move the historic memorial designed by Sir Edward Lutyens. Several thousand constituents have signed a petition asking for the memorial to stay where it is, but the regiment has a good argument for moving the memorial to a new site outside the new Fusiliers museum in Bury. May we have a debate on war memorials in which the case in my constituency and many other issues can be fully explored?

If my hon. Friend has already pursued the matter by raising it with the Fusiliers, the local authority and the relevant Ministers, perhaps he might pursue it further by initiating a Westminster Hall or Adjournment debate. I know that hon. Members will understand—for some reason my deputy has written me a note saying:

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

It is very funny and I agree it was worth pausing, but let us now return to the serious issue of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I put it to the Leader of the House that the accusations made by Mr. Ken Boston to the Select Committee were immensely serious; he is a man who held a considerable job, so he cannot just be ignored. I further suggest to the Leader of the House that just saying that departmental Question Time is on Monday will not be satisfactory. It is vital, in the interests of the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools and Learners and of good governance, that the Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box and makes a statement and answers the serious accusations, and that he does so next week.

Without transgressing the objective of my deputy’s note, which I have now worked out was telling me to shut up, perhaps I can try to engage in answering the right hon. Gentleman’s point. There were serious delivery failures by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and they caused delays to the release of results for 11 to 14-year-olds. That was unacceptable. Ministers had pressed on several occasions for reassurances that delivery was on track, and the Government acted swiftly to respond once it was clear that there would be unacceptable delays. We announced Lord Sutherland’s review. There was an error, which was put right, and we await the Select Committee’s report. If agencies are running something and it goes wrong, they must be called to account, an investigation must be conducted and action must be taken. That is the responsibility of Ministers.

Further to the reply that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), of course we appreciate greatly what the Government, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have done, and the statements by the Indian Government and Hillary Clinton yesterday. However, it remains the case that thousands of innocent Tamil people are being killed in Sri Lanka. A young man has been on hunger strike in Parliament square for three weeks. The situation is not getting better; it is getting worse.

The UK is a permanent member of the Security Council. Could we please take a resolution to the Security Council as quickly as possible? May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the current situation before the debate on Wednesday? The point of being on the Security Council is that we can have an influence. This is our opportunity to influence what is happening in Sri Lanka.

The British Government are working to influence the action taken throughout the world to mobilise the concern and press for a peaceful outcome for civilians. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has been to New York to discuss with Sri Lankan and UN officials how the matter should be taken through the UN, and a Department for International Development Minister is going to Sri Lanka later this week, so action is being taken. We want to reassure the Tamil community here, who play a big part in this country and who are very concerned about what is happening to their friends and relatives back home.

Reverting to next Thursday’s business, how committed is the right hon. and learned Lady to a 1 July start date for all the propositions, which seems to me extremely challenging? If there is some flexibility, does that not strengthen the argument for allowing Sir Christopher Kelly to complete the job that the Prime Minister asked him to do? How on earth can the House sensibly vote next Thursday for a new proposition when we do not know what the daily rate is going to be? There are public expenditure consequences, and we should not sign a blank cheque.

It may well be that we can put a daily rate in the resolution until such time as the Senior Salaries Review Body produces its proposal for the daily rate. The 1 July start date is stretching, but there are a number of simple propositions here. The point is that we have to take action. Public confidence has been draining away. We do not want Sir Christopher Kelly to have to truncate his work and complete it in an unsatisfactory way—obviously, he would not be prepared to do that anyway. He has to take some time to deliberate, but it is not acceptable to leave the present lack of confidence to continue until after Sir Christopher has reported. It is therefore right to take on the issue by way of interim proposals that can come into effect. The public do not accept the current situation and they want it to be changed. We can change it on an interim basis while Sir Christopher Kelly continues to reflect and until he comes forward with his independent proposals.

My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard earlier what I said about the shamefully low pensions that are payable under the present pension arrangements for Members’ staff. Before Thursday’s debate, will she commission some research into the proportion of Members’ staff and of House staff who are women? I think that there really is a problem of gender bias in the pensions available to our staff and House staff. Will she come to the debate on Thursday well prepared to discuss the matter of transferring Members’ staff to the House of Commons pension scheme if their employment is transferred to the House?

Given the typical state of the Liberal Democrat Benches throughout business questions, it is easy to see why that party is so strongly opposed to Members having to turn up at Westminster in order to be able to claim their allowances. However, my question is about NATO. One of NATO’s two supreme commands is based in America and the other in Belgium. There are reports that the one based in America might now be moved to France as part of the price for France reintegrating with the NATO military structure. That move would be important and very expensive. May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary as soon as possible on whether Britain is involved in negotiations of that sort?

I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Millions of people have seen the videos and photos of the incidents during the G20 demonstrations in London. I accept that my right hon. and learned Friend will not want to comment on individual incidents today, but may we have an opportunity to debate the way in which such demonstrations are policed, so that we can ensure that the right balance is struck between maintaining public order—we all know that the police have a very difficult job—and maintaining the democratic right to protest?

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has pointed out, there will be an Opposition day debate next Wednesday, the title of which is broad enough to allow those issues to be raised. My hon. Friend makes the important point that we want to defend the right of free speech and freedom of protest while allowing the City and the rest of the country to go about their business. There are thorough and rigorous investigations taking place into what happened to cause that tragic death during the G20 demonstration.

In supporting the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), may I ask how we can enter into the debate on Thursday when the proposed per diem allowance will be no more transparent than the present arrangement? It will not deal with Members who are away carrying out duties with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or other parliamentary duties, but who still have to maintain accommodation in London. Furthermore, no mention has been made of how Members will pay for the accommodation that they have to maintain during the summer recess, when no per diem will be paid. This really is absolute nonsense. As many people have said, the proposal appears to have been decided after writing a few notes on the back of an envelope.

If the criteria involve parliamentary duties, duties involving the CPA or the IPU could certainly come within that definition. Obviously, the resolution will need to address these issues and satisfy Members that they will be able to carry out their parliamentary duties. In relation to that, we need to ensure that parliamentary duties are properly defined. As far as the recess is concerned, the proposal is that the new scheme would be introduced in July and that the flat-rate daily payments would depend on the days attended. Because there would be fewer such days between July and 12 October, owing to the recess, there would have to be transitional arrangements.

It is easy to think of all the things that are wrong with every proposal. Among the 650 Members of this House there are 650 different views on what would be the best system—in fact, there are probably more, because some people change their mind from day to day. Actually, there is not a perfect system. I hope that we will all try in good faith to establish a system that recognises the extra expense of representing a constituency outside London, while satisfying the public by showing that Members are claiming expenses for coming to Westminster, rather than simply claiming them because their constituency is far away.

May we have a debate on the funding, role and value of sixth forms in state comprehensive schools, including the excellent Ashby and Coalville King Edward schools in my constituency? Those schools and others around the country were seriously alarmed and unnecessarily impacted by the late changes introduced by the Learning and Skills Council in March. Yesterday, after pressure from many hon. Members, myself included, and from early-day motion 1295, which I amended, the Chancellor thankfully announced the money necessary to head off what would have been a problem.

[That this House is concerned by the late and unexpected reductions in funding allocations to schools and sixth form colleges; notes that these reductions place school managements in great difficulty balancing their budgets; is concerned that schools face the prospect of cutting staff, reducing student numbers, or both; and calls on the Learning and Skills Council and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to restore the cut in sixth form funding.]

It would be useful to reassure those sixth forms of their status in the eyes of the Government by having a proper debate on their work in our society.

I reassure all those concerned about sixth forms that hon. Members’ representations about the problem were responded to by the Chancellor yesterday. More young people want to stay on in education, and the Learning and Skills Council initially indicated to sixth forms and colleges that that would be possible, but then said that the finance was not available. Now, however, in response to representations, the Chancellor has said that finance will be guaranteed, so 50,000 more students will stay on and all concerns should now be allayed. The Department for Children, Schools and Families will write to all schools and colleges to reassure them that they can now get on with their work positively in September.

May I return the attention of the right hon. and learned Lady to early-day motion 1307?

[That this House notes the statement of the Director of Public Prosecutions on 16 April 2009 announcing his decision that no charges would be brought against the hon. Member for Ashford in relation to the documents leaked and stating that, ‘Mr Green's purpose in using the documents was apparently to hold the Government to account'; and calls for the House to be given the opportunity to debate a motion to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.]

The motion seeks to refer the issue of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and it is sponsored by three very senior Members of this House from all parties, notably the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), among others. The remit of the resolution passed on 8 December makes no reference whatever to the issue of privilege. It also insists that there should be a Government majority on the Committee in question, which is not in the spirit of the way in which the Committee on Standards and Privileges operates. The Leader of the House is now the only apparent obstruction to following the procedure set out on pages 167 and 168 of “Erskine May”—namely, to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges in the normal way. Why is she obstructing the House in that way? Is she really comfortable with being so obstructive on a purely partisan basis, when she should be representing the interests of the whole House?

I object to what the hon. Gentleman says. I am happy for all these issues to be looked into. If there is strength of feeling about them, senior Members need to get together to look into all these issues, to reassure the House that they have all been examined and to produce their analysis of what went on and their proposals for changes, if any are needed. I am perfectly behind the idea that that should happen.

The House decided, at the request of the Speaker, that a Speaker’s Committee would be the way forward, and the resolution says that that Committee will be able to make recommendations for the future. I could say, “I don’t care how many Committees look at it. As many Committees as want to look at it should be able to do so.” As there is so much complaint about the issue, I will look at the matter again.

This is not about being obstructive. The idea that the House first responds to a request from the Speaker to set up a Speaker’s Committee and, shortly afterwards, before the Speaker’s Committee has even started its work, asks the Standards and Privileges Committee to look at it—[Interruption.] They could be technically defined as different issues, but there is no reason why the Speaker’s Committee should not look at all the questions about privilege that Members are asking for the Committee on Standards and Privileges to look at. However, as people are complaining so much, I will have another look at it, and I might do something ill judged and unwise and set up a twin-track process. Then, when there is duplication and overlap, I will say, “I told you so.”

May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the method of composition of our Select Committees? Working on the assumption that, in a modern, healthy, vibrant parliamentary democracy, the Executive should not choose the members of the Committees that scrutinise them, would not such a debate provide an opportunity for the argument to be made for scrapping the present arrangements and replacing them with a sensible system in which the members of Select Committees are elected by a secret ballot of Members of the House?

Whatever people’s views on the processes for appointing the members and Chairmen of Select Committees, I think that our Select Committees do a damn good job on behalf of the House: they are robust, they are independent, and they are fair-minded and fierce in doing their duty of holding the Executive to account. I can see that there are many ways of twiddling how to get people on to Select Committees, but I would ask, “What’s the problem? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” I think our Select Committees do a proud job; as soon as Government Members become Chairmen of them, they go native.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the concern felt on both sides of the House about the number of pubs that are closing each week—a concern that is particularly important to those of us who have breweries in our constituencies. She will be aware that the number of these small businesses closing each week has now reached 40 and she will be aware of the feeling in the industry that the provisions of yesterday’s Budget will only worsen the situation. Will she therefore make time for a debate on a Government motion on the future of the pub industry, particularly on the impact of pub closures on many small communities up and down the country?

I know that this is a matter of continuing concern, not just in urban areas but particularly in rural areas. A number of factors have come together to cause problems for publicans. Will the hon. Gentleman give me some time to reflect further and to talk to my ministerial colleagues before I get back to him? I know that he and other Members have raised this matter on a number of occasions. It is an important issue to which I do not have a snap answer, but I will get back to him.

May we have a debate in Government time about the current squeeze on university finances? The two universities in my constituency—the universities of Reading and of the Thames Valley—are facing considerable financial pressures, so is it not time that the Government started their promised review of funding in that sector and stopped kicking the issue into the long grass? If they did that, at least the sector would know where it stands.

I think the sector does know where it stands. It knows that it has the strong commitment of this Government, which has been exemplified in recent years by a steady increase in capital and revenue budgets. That is the case because we believe that the future of our economy depends on high qualifications, on our science base and on skills. The hon. Gentleman can reassure those in his constituency who are concerned about this issue that, as long as we are in government, we will maintain our commitment to capital and revenue public spending, whereas if his party were in government, they could expect cuts, starting right away.

May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the deteriorating situation in Pakistan, the effective surrender to the Taliban of large parts of Pakistan’s north-west frontier and the strategic risk that presents to British troops fighting in Afghanistan, because of the extended and exposed supply lines through Pakistan?

This remains a very high priority on which we need to work multilaterally through the UN and other organisations and with the Pakistan Government. I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.