The business for next week will be as follows:
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—A general debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee annual report 2007-08.
Friday 8 May—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 May will include:
Monday 11 May—Second Reading of the Equality Bill.
Tuesday 12 May—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 13 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Thursday 14 May—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by general debate: subject to be announced.
Friday 15 May—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 7 and 14 May will be:
Thursday 7 May—A debate on meeting the Government’s commitments to children affected by HIV/Aids in developing countries.
Thursday 14 May—A debate on the report from the Health Committee entitled “NHS Next Stage Review”.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on running the marathon on Sunday and, more to the point, completing it. He has asked for my cheque, but I think that the whole House will approve of his raising money for the Army Benevolent Fund.
In my first exchange in January with the right hon. and learned Lady in my role as shadow Leader of the House, I raised the Government’s apparent reluctance to debate the UK’s preparedness for a flu pandemic. As I said at the time, Conservative Members had been calling for such a debate for well over two years. Although we appreciate the Health Secretary’s willingness to update the House—he has done that twice this week—may we none the less have a full debate, perhaps on 14 May, as Members of Parliament should have an opportunity to discuss the matter more widely than the strict limitations of a statement permit?
Two reports have today been published on the problems in Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. None the less, may we have a ministerial statement on those reports, because, in our view, they do not reduce in any way the need for an independent public inquiry?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her willingness to listen to the House last week when we asked about the investigation into privilege in the wake of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). What is the status of the two potential committees of inquiry that have been suggested, and when might she be able to give a statement to the House on the proposed way forward?
Yesterday, the House soundly defeated the Government’s policy on the Gurkhas. However, there is another group of people whom the Government treat with deep contempt: the policyholders of Equitable Life. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm what I have heard—that, a full three months after the Chief Secretary to the Treasury established an independent review into supposed ex gratia payments for those who have lost out from Equitable Life’s collapse, the man leading the investigation, Sir John Chadwick, has not yet been in contact with Equitable Life or any representatives of those affected? Does not that further underline the speciousness of the review and the Government’s intention to bury the issue? When will the Leader of the House ensure that Ministers come to the House to give us a statement about their plans to compensate—I use that word deliberately; I mean “compensate”—policyholders, as the ombudsman demanded?
Will the right hon. and learned Lady also give us a statement on the status of the Government’s misguided policy on ID cards? On Tuesday, it was reported that a—inevitably unnamed—group of senior Cabinet Ministers were lobbying the Prime Minister to drop the scheme altogether. Later, the former Home Secretary who gave birth to the idea said that he favoured using biometric passports instead. After telling us for the past year—and even before that—that ID cards are essential for national security, the Government are clearly somewhat split on the issue. After this week’s U-turns on Titan prisons and national databases, perhaps the Prime Minister will return to YouTube and give us a U-turn on ID cards, too.
May we also have a debate on our relations with Poland, in which we could take the opportunity to congratulate the Polish Prime Minister on his forthright honesty and sage advice to our Prime Minister on the rigours of fiscal probity and economic management?
May I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on the publication of her leadership manifesto in the guise of the Equality Bill? I know that she is very proud of it, but can she perhaps explain to the House why she will not be entrusted with steering it through on Second Reading? Will she confirm that, in tune with the stardom that she seeks, when the Bill was launched at a press conference earlier this week, she was asked to sign copies of it, as though it were a celebrity photograph? In the spirit of our regular exchanges across the Floor of the House, rather than going on to eBay, may I please have one too?
The hon. Gentleman talked about swine flu, and I acknowledge that he has been asking for a debate about preparedness for flu since December last year. His suggestion that we select flu preparedness as the subject of either the topical debate or the general debate on 14 May is sensible. As he acknowledged, the Secretary of State for Health will come to the House as often as necessary, in order to be accountable to the House for the plans that have been made. However, as I am sure hon. Members will be aware, that is an issue not just for the Department of Health, but for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and a range of other Departments. Local government is also involved and Cobra is meeting daily, joining work from across Departments and the agencies.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a ministerial statement on Stafford hospital. The Secretary of State for Health will make a statement. He wants to make an oral statement, because he knows that the House will want to hear from him personally and ask him questions. We have had to prioritise the swine flu statements, as we do not want to make too many statements on any one day. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State for Health will recognise that the Secretary of State wants to come to the House as early as possible to make that statement, so that he and other hon. Members can ask questions.
On the questions of privilege and the Speaker’s Committee and the request for a reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee, I need to be clear about the exact position of the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats and about their preparedness to nominate their Members to sit on the Speaker’s Committee, which the House resolved to establish earlier this year. I shall have to check the state of play and perhaps discuss the terms of reference for a reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman said about the inquiry into Equitable Life not yet having made any investigations is correct. However, I cannot give him a categorical answer on that, so I will discuss it with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and work out how best to communicate with him and all other hon. Members, whom I know are concerned about Equitable Life, in case what he has told the House is wrong and they need reassurance about that.
As for the policy on ID cards, it is important for foreign nationals to be able to have biometric ID cards. Removing any uncertainty about identity can allow visa sections all around the world to operate much more quickly. When the House was in recess, I spent two days visiting Ghana, where many of my constituents come from, and was taken through the process of taking biometric data. The people there say that they can now issue visas within two days to people who want to visit Britain, because they do not have to worry about what their identity is or make massively expensive checks—the biometric data are captured. That relates to biometric cards for foreign nationals. Hon. Members should also recognise that airport security is very important indeed; biometric identity cards are important for that, too. They are important and we should be pressing on with them.
I was pleased to hear that some Opposition Members welcome the Equality Bill. Although not all of them have been convinced, we will not give up hope and we hope to persuade them finally to enter the 21st century. The Bill was a manifesto commitment for the Government in 2001. I will introduce the Bill’s Second Reading debate on Monday 11 May, but the lead Minister will be the truly excellent and flawless Solicitor-General. I look forward to her dealing with all those who seek to take a different view of the Bill.
I am disappointed that there will be no Liberal Democrat Supply days in the next two weeks, as they seem to be going rather well at the moment. Following the historic win after yesterday’s debate, I should like genuinely to thank the Minister for Borders and Immigration for responding to my request and coming back to the House to make a statement yesterday evening. That was the right thing to do. May I ask the Leader of the House a specific question relating to that? The Minister made it clear that he would “publish”—his word—revised proposals for Gurkha settlement before the recess, but I do not think that publishing will be sufficient. The proposals need to be presented to the House, and Members must have an opportunity to express an opinion on the Government’s solution. I hope that we will have either a statement or a debate on that issue.
Today, the Metropolitan Police Authority is discussing the demonstrations associated with G20 and the police response to them. It is extraordinary that the House has had no opportunity to discuss those matters yet, either by means of a statement from the Home Secretary or of a debate. May we have an opportunity for such a discussion?
One of the changes in the machinery of government that the Prime Minister introduced when he became Prime Minister was to split the Education Department into two. The two Departments are now competing to see which can be the more incompetent. We have had the issues relating to college buildings, to sixth-form numbers and to SATs, and we have had the unseemly dispute with the former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. May we have a debate on how we are running education in this country, and on why those two Departments have become so shambolic?
Pigs have been uppermost in our thoughts over the past couple of weeks, mainly because of pig flu. I welcome the Secretary of State for Health’s statement and his undertaking to keep the House updated, and the Leader of the House’s offer of a debate. That is exactly the right thing to do. However, there seems to be another contagion around the place, and I would call it pig’s ear syndrome. The Prime Minister seems to turn everything he touches into a pig’s ear at the moment. Whether it is the economy, the issue of the Gurkhas, Members’ allowances or even appearing on YouTube, he has not dealt with any of these issues with great competence. Perhaps what we need is a therapeutic debate—a cathartic debate—on the conduct and performance of the Prime Minister, so that Labour Members can have the opportunity to say in the Chamber what they are saying in the corridors and the Tea Room, and it is not desperately complimentary about the Prime Minister.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about our response to the result of the Opposition day debate. The Minister made it clear in his statement that we respect and accept the will of the House, and that further action will be taken, as announced yesterday. The House will be kept informed.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a number of official inquiries are under way into the policing of the G20 demonstrations. Hon. Members will no doubt tell me if I am wrong, but I think that the Home Affairs Select Committee has begun an inquiry.
Ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families answered questions on Monday, and we had Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills questions earlier today. Therefore, any questions about increasing the number of students staying on at school and taking A-levels, about the increasing number going into further and higher education, or about the guarantee of committing to education up to the age of 18 could have been put to Ministers this week. Furthermore, the Prime Minister answers questions every Wednesday.
Order. We have a statement on Sri Lanka, which the House will be anxious to hear, and the main business of the day appears to have attracted a certain amount of interest. I must keep a tight control over business questions today, so I appeal to hon. Members to co-operate by being extremely brief. I do not think it will be possible to call every Member who is seeking to catch my eye. I hope that the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) will get us off to a good start.
Many hon. Members have experienced problems with unjustifiable service charges. I have a constituent who has experienced a service charge of £285 per week on a studio flat. Do not the Government need seriously to address the issue of service charges on such properties?
Following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday on future strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will the Leader of the House try to secure a debate on some of the details that were not made plain, particularly the serious problems of the chain of command and its structure, which are causing real problems in Afghanistan? Without a resolution to that problem, there will be no success.
We have had a debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan since Christmas, but perhaps we should split our debates on 14 May between swine flu and Afghanistan and Pakistan. I do not want to give a running commentary on my thoughts, but that might be a sensible suggestion.
Three weeks ago, the High Court decided that four Rwandans accused of involvement in genocide could not be extradited to Rwanda to face justice. There is a gap in UK law between the War Crimes Act 1991 and the International Criminal Court Act 2001, so may we have an urgent debate, either in Government time or in Westminster Hall, to discuss plans to close the gap in the law and ensure that those who are accused of mass murder do not reside with impunity in our country?
Does the Leader of the House accept that a Member who is not called to speak on the Second Reading of a Bill or put on the Public Bill Committee can contribute to such an important debate only in the remaining stages or on Report? Will she assure the House that programming will be abolished for the Report stage of Bills?
No, I will not. Without programming, all the debate can be on the first part of the Bill, and subsequent issues do not get debated. Programming helps to ensure that all the different elements of a Bill are scrutinised on Report. That is why programme motions were so liberally used by the Conservative party when it was in government.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware, as we have discussed the matter previously, of the important role of carers in our society. She is also aware of the great stress put on carers by looking after someone who is infirm, elderly or disabled—it is often so stressful that the carer’s own health suffers. Such caring is as stressful as looking after a child, yet child allowance is paid to parents regardless of their income as a matter of right. Carer’s allowance is paid only to certain categories of carers, can be cut off if earnings rise a few pence above £95, and is not paid to retired carers. May we have an early debate on carer’s allowance to come up with a fairer system for carers?
I will look for an opportunity to debate carers, which is an issue of growing concern. My hon. Friend might be able to choose the issue for a Westminster Hall debate. He will be interested to know that the Equality Bill includes provision to prevent people from being discriminated against because they are carers: for example, someone who applies for a promotion at work and is told, “Sorry, we know you are caring for your elderly mother, so you can’t have promotion because we don’t think you are committed to work.” We must do everything possible to support carers and to enable them to work as well as care, if that is what they want to do. The number of over-85s in this country is set to double over the next two decades, so family care is a central issue.
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on nitrate-vulnerable zones. Is she aware that the Environment Agency believes that 6 per cent. of all farmland has been wrongly designated, but that farmers are still expected to invest tens of thousands of pounds on additional slurry storage that may prove unnecessary?
It is four years since the high hedges legislation was put on the statute book. May we have a ministerial statement on departmental monitoring of the legislation, and what advice is being given to local authorities to make it more effective?
Last night, the immigration Minister was not able to say in detail how the Government intend to respond to the declared will of the House on the Gurkhas. Will the right hon. and learned Lady therefore arrange for the Prime Minister, who was clearly the principal architect of the Government’s ungenerous proposals, to make a statement in the next two weeks? Will she also be good enough to sit next to him, so that she can prevent him sneaking out before he is called?
I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who was a Member of the House when the Conservatives were in government, that neither he nor they proposed any rights of settlement for Gurkhas. When we came into government, we arranged for all those from 1997 to have rights of settlement. We will respect the points raised in the debate on the Liberal Democrat motion and take them forward.
I have raised previously the use of hazardous chemicals in nail bars in this country. However, research has identified a new hazard—the use of ultraviolet lamps—associated with skin cancer. Will the Leader of the House suggest how the Secretary of State for Health might revisit the non-interventionist approach to the beauty industry and its potential health hazards, and be more active in protecting women’s health?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Whether it is mostly women—and some men—who get melanoma skin cancer from sun beds, hazardous chemicals having a terrible effect on women’s fingernails, breast enlargement surgery or facelifts—[Interruption.] I will get back to her on those matters. Ministers for Women will work with Health Ministers on a set of proposals.
This week’s Helensburgh Advertiser starts off by saying that
“shocked staff at Faslane naval base have hit out, claiming they were kept in the dark over radioactive leaks.”
The Ministry of Defence must be completely open when such incidents happen. Attempts at excessive secrecy cause great concern locally and play into the hands of those who would like to see the base closed for ideological reasons. May we have an urgent statement from the Ministry of Defence about the recent radioactive leaks?
The Health Secretary has published two important reports today about Stafford hospital. Given that one says that there are further urgent actions to be taken at the hospital, and the other has wider implications for the NHS about public and patient involvement and the responsibilities of primary care trusts and strategic health authorities, may I stress the urgency of the need for an oral statement, and will the Leader of the House say whether we will get it on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday next week?
My hon. Friend has pressed on the issues of concern for patient care and safety and good treatment for his constituents. There will be an oral statement, although I cannot give the specific day at this point. When the Secretary of State is nearer to being clear on the matter, I will ask him to write to constituency Members at least to ensure that they know that the statement is happening.
On 25 March, the right hon. and learned Lady was incredibly kind in arranging a meeting between my constituents and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Today, I have received a letter in which he says that his officials have met my constituents, and in view of that he does not feel that a meeting is necessary. Will she explain why the noble Lord Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire is so unwilling to meet people from that constituency in the county of Herefordshire?
Can the Leader of the House assist those Members who wish to come to work by public transport? The pavements and roads around Parliament square have been dug up, fenced off and left abandoned, resulting in significant traffic congestion and danger to pedestrians. Will she therefore make representations to the appropriate authorities to find out how long this will last?
Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”
Why is there nothing about grace and favour homes for Ministers in the motions that the Government have laid before us for debate later today, given that that matter was included—very welcome it was too—in the Prime Minister’s original proposals?
Can we have a debate about early-day motion 1297, which I have co-sponsored?
[That this House, observing that the intention of the founding Act of the Bank of England in 1694 was ‘that their Majesties’ subjects may not be oppressed by the said corporation’, notes that those subjects have been seriously oppressed by the Bank’s failure to control the greed, risk-taking and speculation of the banking system over which it presides; and therefore suggests that this oppression should be dealt with as the Act provides by fines three times the value of the abusive trading.]
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) is not in his place, but he will see that the early-day motion deals with a failure to control the greed, risk-taking and speculation of the banking system. When community banking is turned into casino banking, when training is in sales and not in banking, and when over-centralised decision taking has relegated local staff to box-ticking with no room at all for initiative, we need to review the ethics of our banking system.
Can we have a debate on the National Offender Management Service and, in particular, the ongoing contract with ClearSprings to provide bail hostels in the community? I recently received conflicting replies from ClearSprings and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is responsible for prisons. When I asked whether there were any future plans for bail hostels from ClearSprings in Crewe. ClearSprings’s reply was that it had no such plans, whereas the reply that I received from the Minister stated that
“one new property will be sourced.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 1120W.]
There is apparent confusion in the Government’s policy, so can we have a debate to clear it up?
I shall bring the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised to the attention of Ministers in the relevant Department. He might wish to ask a written question if he is not satisfied with the answer that he has received in the letter. May I congratulate him on running the marathon, although he did not run as fast as my deputy?
I welcome the Government’s concessions to the Gurkhas yesterday, but when they are published can we have a debate in the House? I sincerely hope that they will put the mistakes of last Friday behind us, because we will then be able to focus on the sheer naked opportunism of the Leader of the Opposition, whose party did nothing for the Gurkhas during 18 years of government.
It appears that the resource required in Northern Ireland to fund adequately the transfer of policing and justice powers in Northern Ireland is increasingly significant. When might we have a debate in the House to discuss and consider the long-term implications of such a possible move?
May we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the important report of the Rose review on the primary school curriculum, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), amidst the enjoyable badinage in which he invariably specialises, declined or omitted to mention?
May we have a debate on the iniquitous tax, IR35, which for the past 10 years has caused chaos and confusion for freelancers in this country? The tax is ambiguous and confusing, and it does not bring any money into the Treasury, so can we please debate it?
May we have an urgent debate on women’s rights? The Leader of the House will know that, like her, I have been a champion of women’s rights over many years. I am not talking about the half-baked plans in the Equality Bill; I wish us to discuss, in particular, the extension of sharia council powers, which, in some circumstances, discriminate against some women in some ethnic minority communities.
The Secretary of State for Justice has said that when private arrangements based on sharia law are raised with the courts by way of an argument for a contract or a particular disposition in a family case to stand and those are contradicted by our laws on equality, they will not be taken into account.
May I correct what I said about Sir Jim Rose’s review? It is actually a review, which the Government have accepted, that will raise standards by prioritising literacy and numeracy and embedding them across the whole curriculum to ensure that all children leave school secure in the basics. It is not a consultation exercise—that has already taken place.
The Leader of the House may know that the two reports that have just come out on Stafford hospital will not deal with the underlying lack of confidence in that hospital, welcome though they are in shedding some light on the situation. Does she accept that in order to get to the bottom of what has been going on, we need to have evidence on oath and the production of papers? Some evidence is emerging, which I am looking into, that some people in the hospital, who would be whistleblowers, are effectively being shut up by the authorities concerned—this is a very serious situation.
May I say to the Leader of the House that she cannot keep running away from a debate on Equitable Life? Her deputy is a long runner, but this is a marathon that the Government are not going to win. We need a debate on this, because thousands of people have lost out. They need the compensation that they deserve and that they have rightly been told they will get. May we have a debate on Equitable Life soon, before more of these people, sadly, die off and do not get the compensation that they deserve?
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1296, which concerns the case of Margaret Haywood, who was disgracefully struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council for blowing the whistle on the neglect of older people in the hospital at which she worked?
[That this House supports nurse Margaret Haywood who raised issues of concern around poor patient care; believes that Margaret was justified in exposing the worrying conditions at her local hospital and that the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) was wrong to strike her off the nursing register; notes the e-petition in support of Margaret Haywood organised by the Royal College of Nursing; calls on the NMC to reverse its decision; and further calls on the Government to take steps to ensure that the procedures and protection afforded to whistleblowers are understood and applied by all in positions of responsibility in the NHS.]
Is it not right that this House should have the opportunity to express its view about that case and the urgent need for this House to legislate to provide proper protection for frail and vulnerable older people and for those who blow the whistle on those who abuse them?
There will be a great deal of sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I shall draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health. We must also ensure that there is consistency, so that if there are stringent penalties on nurses, such penalties operate in respect of people at all levels of the system. We should not find that there are much tougher rules for, and more stringent penalties on, nurses.
Next week, will the Modernisation Committee, which the Leader of the House chairs, be meeting? If not, can she tell us when it last met? If that was some time ago, will she consider transferring its responsibilities to the Procedure Committee, so that all Select Committees of the House are chaired by Back Benchers and not by members of the Cabinet?
If the right hon. Gentleman has issues that he would like the Modernisation Committee to address, perhaps he could write to me or just tell me what issues he thinks it should turn its attention to. The Modernisation Committee has worked well in partnership with the Procedure Committee and, on many issues, the Procedure Committee has taken things forward.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1190?
[That this House notes that many firms have introduced short time working for employees during this time of recession; further notes that many workers who are in receipt of tax credits are facing difficulties as the reduction in hours takes them below the minimum hours required to qualify for tax credits; and calls on the Government to take action to ensure that those who are so affected are deemed to still be working for the minimum hours and that their tax credits are maintained until such time as their hours are reinstated.]
This is an increasing problem during the recession. May we have a debate in Government time on the possibility of reducing the minimum hours necessary to qualify for tax credit during the recession?
The early-day motion and the hon. Gentleman’s comments show a good recognition of the flexibility of tax credits in making up for shorter working hours by boosting the family income. He makes a proposal in the early-day motion, supported by other hon. Members, and I will ensure that the Treasury responds to him.
Can the Leader of the House arrange for a general debate on London so that we can raise a wide variety of London issues and highlight the successes of the first year of the Boris Johnson mayoralty?
I do not know where to start on the complaints and concerns of many hon. Members who represent London constituencies. The most alarming has been the abandonment of the requirement that developments must include a minimum amount of social housing. That is a big problem when we need more social housing. Perhaps I should ask the Ministers with responsibility for housing whether we should have a debate on the Mayor of London’s sell-out on social housing.
The Christie charity, which supports the world-famous Christie cancer care centre in Manchester, stands to lose some £6.5 million as a result of the Icelandic banking collapse. As there are some 30 charities that stand to lose more than £50 million for the same reason, is it not time that we had a debate on the Government’s handling of the situation?
I will consider how best Ministers can update the House on this issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that constant work is being done on the issue by various Departments and the administrators of the Icelandic banks. It is hoped that most of those caught out by the collapse will get a large portion of their deposits back.
According to the leaked British National party manual “Language and Concepts Discipline”, the term “racial foreigners” should be used to describe black and Asian Britons, because such people “do not exist”. Given the forthcoming candidacy of BNP leader Nick Griffin, may we have a statement from the appropriate Minister on the role of proportional representation in making it far more likely that fascists, racists and neo-Nazis will get into the European Parliament?
Justice questions is on Tuesday, and the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise those issues with the Department with responsibility for electoral law. He makes an important point, and the message from all of us who deplore and abhor racism and division of the sort peddled by the BNP is that everybody must vote on 4 June. Anybody who does not vote is helping the BNP get into the European Parliament and it would be shameful if Britain were to be represented by racists and fascists.
May we have a debate on the safety implications of the operation of the Calor Gas Canvey Island site in the light of the spillage on 27 October last year of 163 tonnes of liquid propane gas, the operation of the leak detection equipment and the abject failure even now to inform Canvey residents about the leak—especially in the light of Buncefield?
May we have a debate on the situation of the nuclear academies, the Government’s flagship method of training for the future civil nuclear programme? In the south-west, the regional development agency is holding up the funding for the nuclear academy in Bridgwater. We need an urgent debate on that because we must start building soon to provide for the future of the civil nuclear programme.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the civil nuclear programme. He highlights the important role of the RDAs, and I point out to him and to other hon. Members that they would have an opportunity to hold RDAs to account for the work that they do in their regions if they attended the Regional Select Committees.
Thousands of former council tenants in south Manchester were promised that they would be no worse off if they voted for transfer to a housing association, but they are now being short-changed by the Government’s decision not to include housing associations in the lower rent increase. Will the Leader of the House meet the Minister for Housing and make proposals for fully compensating those people?
Several housing issues have emerged today, including the need to ensure that a certain percentage of social housing is included in planning permissions, the question of service charges and the housing association rents that the hon. Gentleman raises. All those issues bear examination and we may look for an opportunity to debate housing. The House will know that the housing sector has been affected by the global credit crunch, but we need many new houses.
I know that hon. Members want me to answer briefly on these points, but I shall now take a little more time. I know that the House is looking forward to the Foreign Secretary’s statement, but unfortunately he is not here yet.
The Leader of the House will know that the ministerial code says that when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament. Last week, when she published the Equality Bill—which was not available to Members until Monday—she should have restrained herself from giving on-the-record briefings and making media appearances over the weekend on details in the Bill that were not previously available to Members. If the Leader of the House, who is supposed to be the guardian of the interests of Back Benchers, cannot make announcements to the House first, the concept of the Government’s accountability to Parliament is clearly dead and buried for this Government.
The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is especially relevant to statements. If hon. Members are coming to the House to hear a statement, they should have the opportunity to ask the first questions on it, rather than being the second in line after those questions have been asked by a presenter on the “Today” programme or another media outlet. On the publication of Bills, the situation is slightly different. Action on gender pay gaps, positive action and the duty to narrow the gap between rich and poor have all been the subject of consultations and statements. I know that the hon. Gentleman has written to me on this issue, and I have thought carefully about it, but I find myself not guilty in that respect. I am sure that that will reassure him.
We need a debate on the conduct and competence of Home Office staff at immigration appeal tribunals. I attended one such hearing on 30 March in Bradford for my constituent Enid Ruhango, who is a victim of torture and rape in Uganda. As the hearing was about to start, the Home Office staff withdrew the entire decision, meaning that no appeal could be made—it was a complete farce. They then promised a new decision within 10 working days, but it has now been a month. I wrote to the Home Secretary on 30 March, but I have had no reply. This is not good enough for someone in such a position. When can MPs call the Home Office to account for such farces?
There will always be occasions on which the Home Office decides on appeal that it will withdraw its case. I have more immigration cases coming through my constituency office than any other Member, and I know that there has been a big improvement in the promptness, accuracy and courtesy with which the Home Office deals with cases, and we should put that on the record. There will always be cases in which things go wrong, including human error or facts that are discovered later in the process that mean that a decision has to be changed. Overall, however, Home Office staff are doing a good and important job, and improving how they do it.
We all hope that pandemic flu, even though it now seems pretty inevitable, will not prove too dangerous for people in the United Kingdom. However, has the Leader of the House thought through the implications for this place if it does prove dangerous? On the face of it, gathering a representative from every community in the United Kingdom, putting them in one Chamber, forcing them through old-fashioned crowded Lobbies and then redistributing them to every part of the United Kingdom sounds like the perfect transmission mechanism. Is this perhaps not a good time to try out more modern methods of voting, such as electronic voting?