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Business of the House

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 15 October 2009

The business for the week commencing 19 October will be:

Monday 19 October—Opposition day (18th allotted day). There will be a full day’s debate entitled “Economic Recovery and Welfare” on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 20 October—Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill.

Wednesday 21 October—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be debates on Equitable Life and climate change. Both debates will arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.

Thursday 22 October—Topical debate, (subject to be announced), followed by a motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: The 1st to the 6th, the 8th to the 11th, the 13th to the 23rd, and the 31st reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2008-09, and the Treasury Minutes of these reports (CM 7568, 7622 and 7636.]

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 October will include:

Monday 26 October—Remaining stages of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords] (day 1).

Tuesday 27 October—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords], followed by Opposition day (unallotted half-day). There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the minority parties, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 28 October—Opposition day (20th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion subject to be announced.

Thursday 29 October—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by general debate on the social care Green Paper.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 11 November at 11 o’clock in Westminster Abbey, there will be a Service of Commemoration to mark the passing of the first world war generation. Given the significance of this occasion, I propose to bring forward a motion to change the start of House business on 11 November. Instead of beginning at 11.30, as usually is on Wednesdays, House business will start at 2.30 pm.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 22 and 29 October will be:

Thursday 22 October—A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on the Licensing Act 2003.

Thursday 29 October—A debate on the report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee on UK offshore oil and gas.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) for doing the job before me in a challenging time for Parliament. Along with the Leader of the House, he transformed this weekly session into a lively event. I look forward to working with her in a constructive cross-party manner on some occasions, and holding her firmly to account on others.

On the special arrangements for 11 November, can the Leader of the House confirm that Prime Minister’s questions will be at 3 pm on that day and that the House will continue to sit until 10 pm? Can she confirm that the Minister who will reply to the imminent debate on defence will have an answer to the question on cuts in Territorial Army training that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) put to the Prime Minister yesterday, with a less than satisfactory response?

When will the Chancellor present his pre-Budget report? In 2007, it was on 9 October. When he does so, will he be as open with the public about the tough decisions that lie ahead of us on public spending as my party was at our conference last week, and will he confirm that there will be 9 per cent. cuts in departmental cash limits as recently revealed? Can the Leader of the House also give an indication of when the parliamentary calendar for next year will be published? The arrangements around Easter will be of more than usual interest.

On Tuesday, the Leader of the House announced the Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Why was the Joint Committee of both Houses obliged by the Government to rush through the pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill and complete its work in July last year? Why did the Government dither for 15 months before giving the Bill a Second Reading date? They now plan to push this important Bill through in the dying months of this Parliament. Is that the proper way to treat constitutional reform?

May we have an urgent debate on press freedom? The whole House is concerned about the injunction placed on The Guardian earlier this week, preventing it from publishing details of a parliamentary question. Will the Leader of the House give us a debate in Government time so that hon. Members can express their concerns that the freedoms won by John Wilkes should not be eroded?

May we have an urgent statement on the Government’s legislative programme, which appears to be in chaos? On 21 September, the Government closed their consultation on the 11 Bills in the draft programme—a consultation that cost £80,000 last year, and on which this year there was no debate. Just a week later, at the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister announced at least six new legislative commitments that were not in the draft programme. How does the Leader of the House propose to shoehorn these additional commitments into the remaining months, and do not they make a mockery of having a consultation with the public in the first place?

Finally, may we have a debate on early-day motion 2033?

[That this House is concerned at reports that growing numbers of Returning Officers are considering postponing the counting of votes cast on the day of the General Election until the day after polling; believes that in the 21st century it would be a regressive move not to announce constituency results as early as possible; further believes that public confidence in the results could be undermined by delays in the counting of ballot papers and that fewer voters would be able to watch the results being announced if this were done on a Friday afternoon; and calls on local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that all ballot papers are counted immediately after the close of polls on General Election night, as has been the practice in previous General Elections.]

The early-day motion refers to general election night—an event that I hope will take place as soon as possible. It has attracted 126 signatures in three days and is a burning issue in the blogosphere. The gruelling marathon of election night specials, along with the imperative of not delaying the count, is as intrinsic to our democratic process as voting itself and an even older tradition than a Dimbleby presenting the coverage. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate so that the House can ensure that that tradition is not lost and that as many counts as possible take place when the polls close?

I warmly welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role as shadow Leader of the House. Over the years he has always made the proceedings in the House the focus of his attention. He has been shadow Leader of the House before—indeed, I am the third Leader of the House that he has shadowed. He has also served with distinction as Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I look forward to working with him and I agree that the relationship between the Leader of the House and her shadow is a special relationship, and it is in the interests of the House that we work together.

I also pay tribute to the former shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). It was very sad that he was sacked and rusticated out of the shadow Cabinet. It looks like he was sacked for drinking champagne, which he, like most people, probably thought was in the job description of a member of the Tory party, rather than an offence. Anyway, I hope that he finds his way back into the shadow Cabinet, if not before the general election, after it.

I confirm that Prime Minister’s questions will take place on Wednesday 11 November and that the House will sit until 10 pm. The right hon. Gentleman is right, therefore, that all business will be shifted back on that day. He also asked about Territorial Army training, which was addressed not only in the statement made by the Prime Minister to the House yesterday, but in Prime Minister’s questions, and there will be a full day’s debate on defence this afternoon. I am sure, therefore, that those issues can be aired with Defence Ministers at that point.

The right hon. Gentleman asked, too, about public spending, and there will be a debate on the economy next week. No doubt, the Economic Ministers leading for the Government in that debate will make it clear that, although there are encouraging signs of recovery, the economy remains fragile, and that although the recession is abating, we are not yet out of the woods. To pull the plugs, therefore, on important capital investment and support for people who become unemployed will not, I am sure, be part of the agenda to be set out next Monday.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the parliamentary calendar. I know that hon. Members are anxious to hear about this so that they can make their plans to be in their constituencies, working hard on behalf of their constituents and making appointments with them. That is why it is important that I bring the parliamentary calendar before the House as soon as I can. He also asked about the Constitutional Renewal Bill. I place on the record my thanks to hon. Members, in this House and the Lords, who served on the Joint Committee of both Houses that considered and conducted important pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about press freedom in respect of reports of proceedings of this House. That is an issue of great importance and concerns rights and democracy in this country. It is about more than just press freedom; it is about the importance of this House doing its job, and about people in this country knowing what we have said in this House. It remains the case, as it should, that the Speaker, or whoever is in the Chair, decides what can be said in this House. What is said in this House has absolute privilege. The only control comes from the Chair, which is exercised judicially, and always has been. What is said in this House can be reported. So long as it is fair and truthful, it can, and must, be reported by newspapers and other media outside. It should not be subject to rulings by the courts. This House decides its own proceedings, subject only to rulings by the Chair and qualified privilege in respect of truthfulness and fairness. Subject to that only, the proceedings of this House can be reported, and cannot be impinged upon by the courts. That is our responsibility.

Obviously, it is difficult to defend that, in respect of this House, if the House is not aware that our proceedings have been the subject of an injunction and prevented from publication. The House, the Table Office and the Ministry of Justice were not aware that there was an injunction on reporting proceedings in this House. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is liaising on the matter with myself and the Speaker. I assure the House, and people in this country, that we will continue doing our business. We will make absolutely sure that it is reported and that it is not for the courts to stop that.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the Queen’s Speech. We set forth, earlier in the year, the draft legislative programme and those Bills in the pipeline at that time. We published the draft legislative programme so that people could comment on them. It is of course the case that, as the work of the Government and public debate proceed, Bills will come forward and be added later, and there is no dishonour in doing that. If a Bill on fiscal responsibility or on a national social care service is added after the draft legislative programme, it is not because it was planned at the time and held back, but because it was planned after the draft legislative programme was published. I would like to thank everybody who took part in the consultation on the draft legislative programme and remind the House that the Queen’s Speech will be on 18 November.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the campaign to save general election night. There is an early-day motion on that, which hon. Members have signed, but the count is, first and foremost, a matter for the Electoral Commission.

Let me start by also welcoming the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) to the place that he occupied before. I often find that recycled goods are of exceedingly good quality, so I very much welcome him back.

May I just correct the right hon. and learned Lady? She is normally very good at reading out the business, but she appears to have misread the business for Wednesday 21 October. Just to clarify, the first debate on that day is entitled “Government’s Betrayal of Equitable Life Policyholders”, and that is followed by a debate entitled “Government’s Failure of Leadership in the Climate Crisis”. That possibly puts a slightly different gloss on matters, but we look forward to those debates.

May we have a debate on HM Courts Service, particularly in the light of this week’s announcement of the closure of 20 magistrates courts and one county court, all in rural areas? I have spoken about this before, but it is important that those whom we represent in rural areas should have access to justice and that they can reach the courts that serve them, otherwise they will believe that the criminal justice system has retreated from those areas. I hope that the Ministry of Justice has properly taken into account the difficulties of public transport in rural areas and the fact that they are often remote. Perhaps we could have a debate on that.

Could we have a debate on graduate and youth unemployment? I am pleased that the rate of increase in unemployment has apparently abated, but it is still an increase. There is a particular concern about those who left school or university over the summer and are now finding it very difficult to get jobs. We should usefully debate how we can provide better prospects for those young people.

May we have a debate on the conduct of the banks? We have discussed the matter many times, but is the right hon. and learned Lady as horrified as I am to read in the newspapers of the colossal bonuses, averaging £500,000 per employee in some cases, that banks are again paying this year? Is she as concerned as I am that banks in public ownership are still not providing loan facilities to businesses that are desperate for support to get themselves out of their current difficulties?

Lastly, on the reporting of proceedings in Parliament, I very much welcome what both the right hon. and learned Lady and the right hon. Gentleman said. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has secured a debate on the subject next week in Westminster Hall. May I suggest an innovation? It would be extremely helpful if the Lord Chancellor himself could speak in that debate. I know that Secretaries of State do not normally attend debates in Westminster Hall, but given the importance of the issue, it would be extremely helpful to hear his views at an early stage. I therefore hope that he may be able to attend that debate and respond in person.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the titles given to those Opposition day debates put a gloss on them. I had always understood it that debate titles were for hon. Members to know the subject of the debate and that they should not contain argument. Talk about “betrayal” and “failure” is certainly arguable and by no means a matter of fact. This is something that I am going to have to discuss with the Table Office. In the olden days, we could not put down titles like that; we put down what the facts were. We will have to see. We need a bit of traditional values in that respect.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s important point about the magistrates courts service, I will raise the matter with the Justice Secretary and see whether he wants to respond by writing to the hon. Gentleman or whether he thinks that there should be a written ministerial statement, as the next Justice questions are still some way off.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of youth unemployment. The unemployment figures for the most recent quarter were published yesterday, and, as he rightly said, the rate of increase in unemployment, including youth unemployment, is slowing. However, there is still an increase in unemployment, and in youth unemployment, so we have to ensure that we do everything we can to protect jobs in the economy and to help those who become unemployed.

The Prime Minister has said on many occasions that youth unemployment is absolutely at the top of our agenda. We are not going to stand by and do nothing while a generation of young people are thrown on to the dole. That is why we put in place the education maintenance allowance and the guarantee for young people aged 16 and 17 to be able to stay in education and training, and it is why we are bringing in a guarantee that no one under 24 should go without a job or training for a year. We also continue to invest in the important work of the jobcentres. I am sure that this subject will be raised in next Monday’s debate on economic recovery and welfare.

The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of the conduct of the banks in two respects: loan facilities and bonuses. That, too, will be well within the terms of reference of next Monday’s debate. On loan facilities, the Prime Minister said yesterday that we have agreements with the banks and that we are determined to enforce them. On bonuses, the Government are absolutely clear that there must be no return to business as usual. There must be no return to the excesses that caused risk in the system, the cost of which the public purse ultimately had to pick up, and which resulted in perfectly good businesses going under and people becoming unemployed. That sort of reckless risk-taking is to be stopped. The Prime Minister and the team of Ministers have raised this issue at the G20 in order to seek international agreement across this international industry. There will be no cash bonuses this year in the banks that the public now largely own, and the Financial Services Authority has strengthened the requirements for capital reserves in the context of identifying any reckless risk-taking in relation to the bonus system in any regulated bank. Furthermore, Sir David Walker is going to report on corporate governance, and the role that excessive bonuses have played in taking risks will obviously fall within his remit. I think we all agree that there can be no return to business as usual in this context.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of reporting the House, and drew our attention to the forthcoming Westminster Hall debate. I do not yet know which Minister will deal with that debate, but I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion to the attention of the Justice Secretary, who has been very active on this issue and is every bit as concerned as I am—and as all hon. Members are—that we get things straight in this respect. We might well need to have a debate on this on the Floor of the House—possibly a topical debate. It is a fundamental cornerstone of this democracy that, when we are elected by our electors, we should be able to come and speak in this House without fear or favour, and that the press should be able to report what we say. We continue to be certain that we will defend that on behalf of the House.

Order. Twenty-six right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and, if some are not to be disappointed, I shall need short questions and short answers.

My constituent, Mrs. Jean Edwards, became ill while on holiday in Turkey. She is being treated for a blocked colon at the Mars Mabedi Cad private hospital in Bodrum, and is still in intensive care. She had full travel insurance cover with EHIC Plus Travel Insurance, but the company and its directors have refused to honour their insurance liability. The company is well known to the medical screening industry for acting similarly in other cases. The cost of my constituent’s treatment so far is £64,000, but the hospital will accept only £27,300 before releasing her, and an air ambulance crew would cost about £24,300. Will the Leader of the House consider allowing a debate on rogue travel insurance companies, as a warning to other travellers, to ensure that only—

My hon. Friend has raised an important case on behalf of one of his constituents. I will bring it to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because it goes to the question of the probity and integrity of the insurance industry. I also recommend that he seeks the opportunity for an Adjournment debate on the issue.

May I echo the call from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for an urgent statement on the future of the Territorial Army? People make huge sacrifices to join the TA, and it is now threatened with a six-month suspension of training, although that still has not been published.

There will be a defence debate throughout this afternoon, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt try to catch the Speaker’s eye if he so wishes.

Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that 25 November is the international day for the elimination of violence against women. This year is the 10th anniversary of the formal proclamation by the United Nations. I hope that the Leader of the House is also aware of the Council of Europe’s campaign on violence against women, and of the desire of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to give a parliamentary dimension to the campaign. It is keen to see action in national Parliaments on that day. We could of course have an Adjournment debate on the subject, but I believe that violence against women constitutes one the most serious abuses of human rights in the world today, and it would reflect the seriousness of the issue if we were to have a debate in Government time on—

I absolutely agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. It might well be that we can look to having a topical debate on that. It certainly would be topical around 25 November, with all the concerted national and international effort focused on tackling domestic violence in that week.

Returning to the vexed issue of the training of TA soldiers going to Iraq, surely the Leader of the House is mistaken to say that the Prime Minister covered the matter adequately yesterday. He did not, by his own admission. May we therefore have an absolute guarantee that the Secretary of State will clear up this very serious matter properly at the Dispatch Box during this afternoon’s debate?

The right hon. Gentleman can seek to intervene on the Minister who opens the debate, or he can speak in the debate.

This week marks the third anniversary of the collapse of the Farepak Christmas savings scheme. The directors have not been called to account, and tens of thousands of decent, hard-working families still want to know what happened to their money. May we have a debate on this in Government time, and can we have a report on the matter, similar to the one that was produced on MG Motors?

I commend my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the great length of time that it has taken for the report on the Farepak inquiry to come forward. Many people who could ill afford to lose their money were affected, and I commend him for championing their case. I will bring his question to the attention of Ministers in the relevant Department, and ensure that those conducting the inquiry know that we are impatient for a result.

May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 1995?

[That this House notes that in the National Strategy for Carers the Government pledged that by 2018 carers will be supported so that they are not forced into financial hardship by their caring role; believes that carers cannot wait because too many are living in poverty and financial hardship now, struggling to afford the basic costs of living, unable to study or work without their benefits being cut off, or facing the removal of their allowance when they start to claim their pension; further notes that the UK’s six million carers save the country an estimated £87 billion per year, and that in return, the main carer’s benefit is the lowest of its kind, paid at only £53.10 a week for a minimum of 35 hours caring, equivalent to £1.52 per hour, far short of the national minimum wage of £5.73 per hour; supports the Carer’s Poverty Charter signed by the Alzheimer’s Society, Carers UK, Citizens Advice, Contact a Family, Counsel and Care, Crossroads Caring for Carers, Every Disabled Child Matters, for dementia, Mencap, Macmillan Cancer, Motor Neurone Disease Society, National Autistic Society, Oxfam, Parkinson’s Disease Society, Princess Royal Trust for Carers, Rethink, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and Vitalise; and calls on the Government to set out an urgent timetable of action to improve carers’ benefits and income that protects carers from falling into poverty or financial hardship, reflects carers’ different circumstances, helps carers to combine caring with paid work and study and is easy to understand and straightforward to claim.]

The motion highlights the carer’s poverty charter, which has the support of Carers UK, other carers’ charities, patient groups and the Daily Mirror. Its intention is to highlight the fact that the Government have committed themselves to a deadline for dealing with carer poverty by 2018. Should not the issue be dealt with more rapidly? We need to eradicate poverty among carers as soon as possible, and we need an urgent timetable from the Government. May we have an urgent debate on this matter?

There will be a debate on Thursday 29 October on the social care Green Paper, in which all those issues can no doubt be raised. The number of people over the age of 85 is set to double in the next 20 years, so the care and support provided by health authorities and social services and, above all, by families is a crucial issue. We have introduced a right to flexible working for those with caring responsibilities, and the Prime Minister has announced that we will legislate for a national care service. My hon. Friend can be assured that the question of care is at the front of the Government’s agenda, and we will be able to debate it on Thursday 29 October.

My right hon. and learned Friend might be aware that 1,175 members of staff of MPs have signed a petition calling on the House authorities to recognise their trade union for collective bargaining purposes. Will she use her good offices to ensure that this aspiration becomes a reality?

My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is shortly to meet the trade union Unite, which represents people who work for Members of Parliament. I think that the legal position is that a recognition agreement may be signed only between the employer and the employee—and the employer is the individual Member rather than the House authorities. None the less, I believe it possible to have full consultation arrangements and for facilities to be made available for the trade unions representing those who work for Members. We will work closely with the unions and the House authorities to ensure that that is the case.

As a member of the reserve forces, may I point out that thousands of my colleagues have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and some have given their lives, so training is not an optional extra? Will the Leader of the House ask the Defence Secretary to ensure that when he comes to the House this afternoon, he comes prepared to explain the difference between the strategic review of reserves, which the Government accepted in full in April, and the cuts we heard about at the weekend?

Hon. Members will get much more extensive and satisfactory answers if they put these questions to the Minister who leads this afternoon’s debate. A full day’s debate will start as soon as we commence the afternoon’s business. Defence Ministers should be asked these questions—otherwise my answer, which is to wait until this afternoon and put points then, is going to get repetitive.

Tomorrow sees the Second Reading of the Media Owners (Residency Requirement) Bill, which stands in my name. Unfortunately, it is listed as No. 62, so it is unlikely to make much progress. The Bill restricts ownership of any media outlet to those who are resident in this country and it demands that they pay full tax. Is this not a good Bill, which the Government should take forward?

I commend my hon. Friend for bringing the Bill forward. I understand that the issues it deals with are of concern to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, so I will ensure that it focuses on the Bill. I am sure that members of the Select Committee will want to look at the issue, too.

May we have an early debate entitled “The Rule of Law”? That would enable the House to repeat the basic principles that everybody is entitled to regulate their affairs in accordance with the law, practices and rules that exist at the time, that they are entitled to rely on the authority given by properly authorised employees, and that any departure from these principles is a denial of natural justice and is likely to be regarded by the courts as unlawful?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is, I think, referring to the report of Sir Thomas Legg. Am I right in that respect? I shall take the fact that he has not responded to be a yes. I think that everyone in the House recognises that the allowance system had become discredited and all sides of the House have accepted that action needs to be taken. That is why the House agreed that, in future, we should have a wholly independent system in which Members play no part in either setting or administering it. The establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is under way.

A payback system was also proposed so that any overpayments outwith the rules and standards that obtained at the time could be paid back. If, for example, payments had been made from the additional costs allowance towards capital on a mortgage when only payments towards interest were allowed, that would be an overpayment which would need to be paid back. Duplication of payments within the rules, paid twice by accident, provides another example of what would need to be paid back. That was the purpose of the Members Estimate Committee—chaired by you, Mr. Speaker—asking Sir Thomas Legg to conduct a review of all past claims of all Members over the last five years in order to look at whether payments were made within the rules and standards that obtained at the time. Those were the terms of reference for Sir Thomas Legg, and you, Mr. Speaker, confirmed that in your letter to all hon. Members of 12 October.

Those terms of reference also require Sir Thomas to consider any representations in respect of his preliminary findings on claims. That is why there is a three-week period in which hon. Members may respond to Sir Thomas. If they believe that there are any inaccuracies or that they are not being judged by the rules and standards that obtained at the time, they will no doubt point that out. We obviously have to judge things by the rules and standards that obtained at the time; doing anything else would be arbitrary.

This has been an appalling week in which MPs have been besieged as a result of the letters from Sir Thomas Legg. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on the commencement of the democratic renewal process? She can have as many reviews, reports and inquiries as she likes, but until this weak and insecure Parliament and this weak and discredited Government seek a new mandate from the people, we will never draw a line under the expenses issues.

It is for us in the House to take responsibility for ensuring that the public can have confidence that the allowances issue has been dealt with. Given that the system has been discredited, we need to take responsibility now for setting up a new one that will be independent and one in which in future we play no part; and we need to take responsibility now for setting up a system of payback. Then, when we get to the general election, people can put themselves forward in the knowledge that they are standing for a House whose allowances system has been put on a footing in which the public can have complete confidence.

I speak further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) and the sentiments of early-day motion 1057, tabled last year, and early-day motion 1677:

[That this House congratulates the Unite 1/427 branch on its quarter century of representing staff of hon. Members; and asks the House of Commons Commission to recognise the branch for the purposes of collective bargaining.]

It recognises that the Unite branch of staff who work for MPs has been in existence for more than 25 years and it is high time that it was recognised for collective bargaining. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there is a meeting of the House of Commons Commission at 5 pm on Monday and that she will raise this issue then, because we need good employee relations in this place and doing so would be a good step towards them?

We do need to recognise the important work done on behalf of the House and Members of Parliament by their staff. The legal situation is that the relationship between employer and employee is at issue. The employer is the individual Member, but that does not mean that there should not be arrangements for informal recognition and union involvement when issues affecting Members’ staff come up for discussion. There is indeed a meeting of the Members Estimate Committee on Monday and I undertake to ensure that if the issue is not already on the agenda, it will be.

May we have an urgent debate on the proposals by the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Hospital Trust to close the A and E ward and the paediatric unit at the Princess Royal hospital in my constituency? Is the Leader of the House aware of the size of the county of Shropshire and that if that closure goes ahead, the lives of the young and people of all ages will be lost as they are transferred to the west of the county?

We have just had Health questions and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to raise the issue there. If he did not, I will ask the Minister responsible for hospitals to respond. The main concern is to ensure that people who need A and E services after an accident or an emergency get the best possible expert care and make the fullest recovery. That is a matter of specialisation as well as accessibility.

If the postal strike goes ahead, it will be disastrous for many small businesses and will be complete suicide for Royal Mail itself. Will the Government get both sides of the dispute together and hammer out an urgent settlement. May we have a statement from the Business Secretary on this matter?

The Business Secretary and the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as the Government, are very concerned about the effect of the strike not only on individuals and small businesses, but on the future of Royal Mail itself. If there is a strike, customers such as Amazon and the House of Fraser might take their business elsewhere and it would be very difficult for Royal Mail to get that business back. Royal Mail increasingly depends not on our all sending individual letters to each other, but on individuals ordering goods on the internet, which are then delivered by Royal Mail. There are a number of very big customers and if they were lost, it would be very bad news indeed for the future of Royal Mail.

It is for the unions and the management to get around a table to resolve the issue in the interests of the future of Royal Mail. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are keen for them to do exactly that, and are keeping in close touch with them.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the South West Regional Grand Committee met in Exeter at the beginning of September. She will also be aware that the Government were heavily defeated on the motion that was on the Order Paper. That was a result of the frustration felt by Members who were present about the fact that after we had heard the speeches of the Minister, the Opposition spokesman, the Liberal Democrat spokesman and the Chairman of the Select Committee, there was time for only two Back-Bench speeches. Would it be possible in future for the regional Grand Committees to set their own agendas and their own timings? If not, can the Leader of the House make alternative arrangements?

This is a constitutional innovation, and we need to keep it under review. We shall have to learn from experience as the regional Grand Committees and Select Committees embark on their work. The hon. Gentleman has made a specific critique of the South West Regional Grand Committee. We shall have to examine the way in which it is working, and take on board any suggestions that he makes. We want to ensure that all Back-Bench members of the Committee have an opportunity to have their say as well as an opportunity to listen to the presentations of Front Benchers.

Annual health checks have revealed certain weaknesses in the NHS in Havering, including the measurement of childhood obesity. Surely responsibility for childhood obesity lies with parents, as does responsibility for antisocial behaviour and under-age sex, drinking and smoking. May we have a debate on parental responsibility?

I think that childhood obesity is a public health issue, and that although the primary responsibility lies with parents, responsibility also lies with schools. It is a question of nutrition in schools, as well as education. Responsibility also lies with health authorities, as it is a public health issue. I do not know whether the hon. Lady sought an opportunity to raise the matter during Health questions on Tuesday, but in any event I shall bring her point to the attention of Health Ministers.

The Director of Public Prosecutions recently presented proposals to amend and clarify the law on assisted suicide. As it happens, I approve of the direction in which he is going, but does the Leader of the House agree that it is not for public prosecutors to decide the criminal law of this country? Will she arrange a debate, on a substantive motion, to ascertain the will of the House before the consultation period ends?

The will of the House is expressed in primary legislation which already exists and has not changed. The court decision required the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify the criteria that he would apply when deciding, on the basis of the public interest test, whether to bring a prosecution. The code for prosecutors requires the DPP, or the public prosecutor, to take account of two issues, the sufficiency of evidence and whether there is a public interest in the prosecution. There had been no guidance on how the prosecutors would apply themselves to the public interest test in deciding whether to bring a case in respect of assisting a suicide. Following the court case, the DPP has issued draft guidance, which is being consulted on. When that guidance is concluded, it will be issued to prosecutors.

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes an interest in this matter. Perhaps he will look at the draft guidance and respond to the consultation.

May we have a debate in Government time on the issue of policing and public security in Northern Ireland, given the rise—as we have been warned by the Chief Constable—in the dissident terrorist threat to police officers and others, and the considerable concern throughout the community about the ongoing closure of police stations and the withdrawal of personal protection weapons from ex-members of the security forces? A debate would allow us to raise all those issues which are of such great public concern in Northern Ireland at present.

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about the importance of those issues to people in Northern Ireland, and I think that all of us, throughout the United Kingdom, want to see the peace process make progress in that respect. I note that the minority parties have secured an Opposition day for the week after next. It may be possible for the hon. Gentleman to find an opportunity then to air those issues on the Floor of the House.

May I suggest that the right hon. and learned Lady break precedent, as it were, and insist that a Minister come to the House this afternoon to make a statement on the Territorial Army? The Government have insulted our voluntary army. Having been reassured that it is part of one Army, and having fought side by side with regular soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is now being told that although it can continue to train, it will not be paid until next March. Try that on the retained firefighters!

If the hon. Lady feels sufficiently strongly about the matter, she may wish to ask questions in the debate that will follow business questions, rather than asking questions of me as Leader of the House.

The Government’s Prevent programme has always been based on threats to public safety. It was expanded during the summer to take account of racist extremism as well as extremism claimed in the name of Islam. There can be no objection to that change in principle, but can the Leader of the House confirm that it was accompanied by a security assessment? If she cannot do that, can she tell us whether a Minister plans to come to the Dispatch Box to give such confirmation?

Perhaps I should ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to issue a written ministerial statement, if he has not already done so. I am sure that he has taken account of all the relevant factors mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but this is an important expansion of a valuable and important programme, and the House may wish to see further details of the criteria if they have not already been put on the Order Paper.

In his statement on Afghanistan yesterday, the Prime Minister stated categorically:

“Anybody who goes to Afghanistan has the assurance that we will do everything in our power to make sure that they are fully equipped for the tasks that they undertake.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 306.]

Many Members have been to Afghanistan and have seen the job that the TA and our reserve forces are doing there, and many of our constituents will find it incomprehensible and, indeed, contemptible that the Government are not prepared to allow a debate exclusively on the TA and our reserve forces, so that we can pay tribute to them and find out what is happening in regard to what is effectively a training freeze.

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, in addition to the defence debate, there should be a specific topical debate on the Territorial Army. If other Members have been suggesting that and I have been missing the point, I apologise. Obviously the full afternoon debate on defence will deal with broader subjects than the TA, such as the mission in Afghanistan, troop deployment and procurement. The hon. Gentleman has asked for a separate debate on the Territorial Army, and I will take that into consideration when choosing the subject of the next topical debate.

Could the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made on the sometimes excessively rigid visa system that is currently being applied? During the recess, a pipe band from Pakistan was not allowed to compete in Glasgow, and there have also been cases of speakers at Christian conferences and youth workers from north America being turned back at the airport.

The UK Border Agency and our commissions overseas have a difficult balance to strike. They must be absolutely sure that visa applications are genuine and that those who seek to come to this country are really coming for the purpose specified in the visa, which requires them to make certain checks, but they must also exercise flexibility in allowing entry expeditiously to genuine visitors who come here to attend celebrations such as weddings, or funerals. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise an individual case with the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the staff of the UK Border Agency and those manning the Minister’s hotline in the Home Office will always assist. I pay tribute to those people: I have always found that they work very hard on behalf of Members wishing to raise emergency questions about visas.

I think that the right hon. and learned Lady is overlooking the anger in the House about the issue of the TA. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised a specific case with the Prime Minister, who failed to deal with it adequately. It now transpires that many more service personnel are affected. As the Secretary of State for Defence is in the Chamber to hear my question, can we ensure that, without anyone having to question him about the matter, he will be prepared to come to the Dispatch Box to deal with it comprehensively to the satisfaction of Members? It is not acceptable for our armed forces to be sent on operations to Afghanistan without the appropriate training. The Leader of the House has a responsibility to ensure that members of the Government come to the House adequately prepared to deal with the issues of the day.

This is becoming a bit surreal. The Secretary of State for Defence is present and no doubt will be able to respond to Members who seek to put questions about the Territorial Army to him, rather than to me. I have not missed the substance of the points that hon. Members have been making; I acknowledge that I might have missed the procedural point, but I certainly do not miss the point about the importance of the Territorial Army—far from it—and nobody in the Government does.

May we have a debate on the damage caused by the Human Rights Act 1998? Over the summer recess, we read reports of paedophiles and rapists winning the right to have their names removed from the sex offenders register in what was described as a landmark human rights ruling. I have no idea whether this is what the Government had in mind when they championed the Human Rights Act, but is it not another example of the human rights of rapists, murderers and other criminals being put before those of decent law-abiding people in this country?

There is no question of the Human Rights Act putting the rights of criminals ahead of those of victims; far from it. Most of the reports about what has been done in the name of the Human Rights Act are extremely misleading and downright wrong. I think the Human Rights Act has been a very important piece of legislation. The Government are proud of it, and one very good reason for stopping the Tories getting into Government next time around is their commitment to abolish it.

The contract to run the Eccleshill independent sector treatment centre, used by both NHS Leeds and NHS Bradford, is currently out to tender, and despite the fact that in 2006 it emerged that operations that were not being carried out were still being paid for and also that, tragically, in 2007 my constituent John Hubley unnecessarily died owing to the woeful safety practices there, we are being told that there will be no public consultation whatever about this contract. Frankly, that is a scandal. Will the Secretary of State for Health come to the House to explain this to the people of Leeds and Bradford? Also, when will we finally get a debate in Government time about the use of independent sector treatment centres in the NHS, which I have asked for again and again and again?

Order. I have had reason several times in recent days to say that questions must be brief. That question was too long.

The Government are concerned that any work that is done, either directly by the health service or under contract to the health service for NHS patients, should be done to the highest possible standards of patient safety and care. Those standards must obtain in independent treatment centres as well as in direct provision by the NHS. I know there have been recent reports on this, and I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health.

I appreciate that unemployment across the country is higher now than it was in 1997, but in my constituency it has doubled since 1997. I am not trying to make a political point, but two more companies in my constituency are closing which will result in even more people becoming unemployed. May we have a statement or a debate on those constituencies where there has been a disproportionately high rise in unemployment and what the Government could do to help in those constituencies?

There are about 2 million more people in jobs than there were in 1997. As I have said, although there is still growing unemployment, the rate of increase is down. The regional Committees provide a very important opportunity to scrutinise the work of regional development agencies and Government Departments within a region to ensure economic prosperity in that region. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman pursues this issue on the regional Committee.

Notwithstanding the progress of the Autism Bill, which is, of course, a hugely important step forward, the National Autistic Society has launched its “Don’t write me off” campaign, which seeks to raise issues to do with making the system fairer for people with autism. Given that only 15 per cent. of adults with autism have full-time jobs and nearly 80 per cent. of those who are on incapacity benefits want to work, does the Leader of the House support the campaign and agree with me that it is time that the House found an opportunity to debate the important issues it raises?

There may well be an opportunity to debate it on Thursday 29th when we discuss social care generally, as I am sure it will be within the terms of reference of that debate.