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Business of the House

Volume 498: debated on Thursday 29 October 2009

The business for the week commencing 2 November will be:

Monday 2 November—Remaining stages of the Perpetuities and Accumulations Bill [Lords], followed by a general debate on tackling antisocial behaviour.

Tuesday 3 November—Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 4 November—Further consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 2).

Thursday 5 November—General debate on climate change: preparation for the climate change conference at Copenhagen.

The provisional business for the week commencing 9 November will include:

Monday 9 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 10 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Health Bill [Lords], followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 11 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Colleagues will wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 2.30 pm on that day.

Thursday 12 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

The House is expected to prorogue at the end of business on Thursday 12 November.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 12 November will be:

Thursday 12 November—A debate on the report from the Health Committee on health inequalities.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for next week’s business. Will she tell us whether the Prime Minister will be making a statement to the House on Monday after this weekend’s meeting of European leaders? Will he be using it to report progress on his preferred candidate for a proposed European president?

On the Kelly report, will she clarify what the Prime Minister suggested yesterday, namely that Sir Christopher’s report

“will form the basis of a statement to the House”—[Official Report, 28 October 2009; Vol. 498, c. 285.]

next Wednesday? Will she confirm that there will be an oral statement on the Kelly report and will she tell us whether she or the Prime Minister will be making it? It is a matter of great regret that whole sections of the report were leaked to the newspapers yesterday—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Will she reassure us that when it comes to the real Kelly report, the House will be the first to know and not the last to find out? Will she clarify the confusion caused by the Justice Secretary’s statement last June that any recommendations would be

“subject to approval by this House”—[Official Report, 29 June 2009; Vol. 495, c. 51.]

and the No. 10 briefing yesterday that MPs would not be given a vote on Kelly?

Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady was unable to give me the date of the spring recess. As if there was not already enough mystery surrounding Easter, the Government are now intensifying it. When can she give us the date of the Easter recess and when can she give us the date of the crucial pre-Budget report?

May we have an urgent update from the business Minister on Royal Mail? We are now in week two of crippling strikes, with small businesses being hit particularly hard, but there is no sign of anyone in the Government showing any leadership. The Prime Minister appears to have given up and the normally ubiquitous Lord Mandelson has disappeared.

May we have a statement from the right hon. and learned Lady on the Government’s consistent sidelining of Parliament? Yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) raised on a point of order the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had failed to make a written statement that was directly relevant to the debate that was scheduled for that very afternoon. The week before, the Defence Secretary published 300 pages of the Gray report within two hours of a debate on procurement. As you made clear on both occasions, Mr. Speaker, that was a discourteous way to treat the House. What is the right hon. and learned Lady doing to convey that message to her colleagues?

Next week, my colleagues might wish to pursue the issue that we have just discovered, namely the serious loss of data by the Rural Payments Agency earlier this year, which only became known in the public domain a few moments ago.

Finally, we learned today the disturbing news that an Iranian national working as a political analyst in the British embassy in Tehran has been jailed for patently political purposes. May we have an urgent statement from the Foreign Secretary on what is being done to safeguard employees of British embassies around the world?

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Prime Minister will make a statement following the European Council meeting. It is usual for the Prime Minister to make a statement following major European conferences and summits.

As for Sir Christopher Kelly’s report, I, too, deplore the fact that it has been leaked. We have not seen the report and do not yet know what he proposes or the proposed timescale. We recognise that it is not appropriate for this House to set our own allowances—we know that the public do not want us to set or administer our allowance system. This summer we voted not to do so anymore when we voted to establish the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Future changes to the allowance system following the Kelly report will therefore be carried out by IPSA. The House will have an opportunity to put forward its views when I make an oral statement next Wednesday, but there will not be a vote to decide on our allowances system because the House has already voted that that will no longer be a matter for us to decide. Decisions on allowances will be made by IPSA.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the date for the pre-Budget report and I will announce it in due course. He mentioned the lack of a written statement and the complaint made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). Nobody thinks that what happened was acceptable, and the Secretary of State has apologised.

On the Gray report, there was an issue about ensuring that that very large report was the subject of an oral statement to the House as quickly as possible. It was a very large report, however, so, rather than delay the statement while colleagues considered the report, the idea was to make the oral statement as quickly as possible. That situation was different from the one raised by the hon. Member for Meriden, which was a mistake and for which an apology has been made.

On the arrest and detention of the British embassy employee in Iran, the Foreign Secretary has deplored the arrest and asked for an appeal to be heard as soon as possible. He regards the situation as totally unacceptable.

May we have a debate on data handling by the Government? We have just had a mini-statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, informing us that material has been lost from the Rural Payments Agency. This is hardly the first time that the Government have lost sensitive material, but meanwhile they continue to collect, by means of the police forces, material that a court has held to be unlawful—in terms of the DNA samples of innocent people. May we have a debate on that issue?

I, too, deplore the fact that Sir Christopher Kelly’s report was partially leaked, but a statement on the report will not be sufficient, because a number of Members from all parts of the House will wish to have their say on the issue. I accept that there will not be a definitive vote, because that power has been given to the independent authority, but the House should have the opportunity to debate the issue. Will the Leader of the House therefore arrange for a debate to take place once the report has been published?

May I return the Leader of the House to the vexed issue of the presidency of the European Union Council? There seems to be at least two schools of thought on the president’s exact role: whether it will be “chairmanic”, to use the apparent term, or traffic-stopping. The House should have the opportunity to debate what the exact role of any such chairman would be, were the Lisbon treaty to be finally ratified in all states, and who might be a suitable candidate. Members from all parts of the House have strong feelings about not only who might be a good candidate for that post, but who might not.

I do not think that the right hon. and learned Lady responded to the question from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about how we might be kept updated on the postal strike. May we also be kept updated on the conflict in Afghanistan? We must never forget that we have troops in the field in Afghanistan, and that is a matter of importance to the House.

Finally, I note that, on Thursday 12 November, there is no indication of either a topical or a general debate. May I suggest that, rather than wait around for Prorogation as we normally do, we use the time profitably? May I repeat my request, therefore, that we have a debate on the military covenant? It would be particularly appropriate on 12 November and an opportunity for Members from all parts to raise issues of importance about not just servicemen and ex-servicemen, but their families.

I did omit to respond to the point about Royal Mail, so let me say that we are obviously very disappointed that yesterday’s talks did not reach a resolution that would have averted the strikes; however, the TUC is willing to continue to facilitate talks, and the Government are urging both sides to continue them. We have been in frequent contact with management and the union, and our message to them has been clear: both sides need to work to resolve the differences through dialogue, via ACAS if necessary, so that we can reach a solution.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the loss of data by the Rural Payments Agency, but that was dealt with in oral questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, so I do not have anything to add to what my right hon. Friend said. I see no connection at all between that loss and the collection of bio data on the DNA database. Think of all the murders that have been solved through the use of DNA data, all the offenders brought to justice, and all the sexual offenders who went unpunished before DNA evidence was available. I really think that the Liberal Democrats should get off the fence on this. The collection of DNA is a proportionate measure to ensure that offenders do not go unpunished. Any link between that and the RPA is tenuous.

Colleagues will have an opportunity to have their say on our allowances following my oral statement to the House. Again, the hon. Gentleman should make up his mind: does he really think it right that this House should pick over the question of our allowances when we have already decided to make that the responsibility of an independent authority? He cannot be on both sides of the argument; he either wants that decision reached independently, which is what this House has voted for, or he wants it to be picked over again in the House. The public want a transparent, fair arrangement for allowances, and—you know what?—they do not want us to be doing it. I do not think that extended debate, whether followed by a vote or not, helps the situation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Europe. We are very clear on our position on this. I thought that the Lib Dems, too, felt that it is important that this country is in the mainstream of Europe and that Europe is effective in safeguarding the interests of all European countries in a globalised economy and in terms of the globalised challenge to tackle climate change and the globalised efforts to ensure security. We want to be at the heart of Europe and for Europe to be strong on those issues. Of course, it is in Britain’s interests, if, as we hope, the Lisbon treaty is ratified, that a Briton—Tony Blair—should take up the post. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] That is what the Prime Minister said yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, in case anybody thinks there is anything novel about that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Afghanistan. We constantly have at the forefront of our mind the task of our troops, the price that is paid by our troops, and the importance of their work in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Prime Minister referred to that yesterday. We had a defence debate that covered the military covenant a couple of weeks ago. As I reported to the House last week, it is very important that we recognise not only the work that is done by our troops but the support given to them by their families. Part of the military covenant also relates not only to our troops, and to veterans, but to Army, Air Force and Navy wives.

Order. Twenty-eight Members are seeking to catch my eye. I am keen to accommodate as many as possible, but I am looking, particularly today, for single, short supplementary questions without preamble, and for brief replies.

Tomorrow is an historic day when you, Mr. Speaker, will preside over debate on these green Benches by the UK Youth Parliament. Will the Leader of the House grant us a statement or a debate when we can mark this historic occasion and perhaps discuss some of the lessons that we will learn?

It will be an important occasion. I am looking forward to participating in it myself, as will hon. Members in all parts of the House, and no doubt we will be able to report back.

My constituent, Mary McKie, is about to be repossessed next week, even though the Treating Customers Fairly regime should apply to her. Her mortgage debt has been sold to a company that is totally outside the Financial Services Authority’s remit—Webb Resolutions—and even though her mortgage is a third of her property’s value, she is not being given a chance to sell her home and pay back the debt. Can the Leader of the House allow us to have a debate on Treating Customers Fairly so that thousands of constituents in a similar position can have their concerns heard?

On the general issue of repossessions, there will be Treasury questions next week, when it will be possible to question the Chancellor and the Treasury team about the Treasury’s approach to the protection of people who lose their job or suffer a fall in their income because a family member loses their job or someone is working on short time.

As to the hon. Lady’s constituent, I will get back to her when I have worked out which would be the best Department to approach to see whether some assistance can be given. We do not want anyone who finds themselves in financial difficulties to have to lose their home if arrangements can be made for them to defer the payment of their mortgage interest. We want to ensure that every help is given to them.

It is important to recognise that the rate of increase in repossessions is lower than that predicted by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, and we want to ensure that we help everyone affected.

Can the Leader of the House tell us whether a bribery Bill will be included in the Queen’s Speech and receive a Second Reading soon afterwards? She will recall that it was considered in draft in April and received widespread support from all parties. Will she find time for it to be concluded?

My hon. Friend will know that it was included in the Government’s draft legislative programme, which we published earlier this year. Of course, the Queen’s Speech will announce on 18 November which Bills have made it into the legislative programme.

Will there be a follow-up statement on the lessons of the Nimrod disaster, and how many of the named individuals do the Government expect to accept responsibility and resign?

The Secretary of State for Defence made a statement to the House yesterday, and there will be Defence questions next week if there are any further points that the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue.

We are surrounded by leaks, both in the House and outside, and we will never carry the public with us on data-sharing issues unless we can demonstrate that we can look after things properly ourselves. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on information assurance?

We have had a number of debates over recent months in response to particular such issues, and that might possibly be a good topic for an Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) quite reasonably asked the Leader of the House whether the Prime Minister would make a statement about the European summit on Monday, she replied, “That is usual”. Would it not have been better to have said “Yes”, or is the Prime Minister dithering again?

The custom and practice is that the Leader of the House does not announce on a Thursday the statements for the following week, because they are often subject to change at the last minute. I announce the fixed programme of business for the week, and all that I have done is remind the House what is custom and practice. The right hon. Gentleman’s point is bogus and spurious, and I cannot see why he bothered to make it.

It is painfully clear to the whole country that the two sides in the postal dispute cannot reach agreement. Will the Minister with responsibility for postal services come to the House and explain why he will not instruct Royal Mail to go to arbitration so that we can stop the dispute?

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills made a statement a week or so ago setting out the Government’s position that we want to ensure that further disputes are avoided, as no doubt everybody does, above all in the interests of Royal Mail’s customers but also in the interests of its staff and the organisation as a whole.

Is the Leader of the House aware that it emerged yesterday in evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee that the rules and procedures of the proposed European presidency are being fashioned in secrecy, and that the European Council proposes to adopt them straight away without the opportunity for scrutiny or debate in this House? Might we have some debate at least about the proposed new presidency?

If indeed the Prime Minister were to make a statement next week, the hon. Gentleman could raise that point with him, hypothetically.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend organise an early debate on insolvency fees and solicitors’ fees? Many individuals who lose their businesses and homes find themselves taken to the cleaners by those fees, which are as high as £400 an hour.

We want to make absolutely sure that we leave no stone unturned as the country and businesses face the current difficult economic situation. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will bring it to the attention of Treasury Ministers. It might be one that he should raise at Treasury questions next week.

In August, in reply to a letter, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), told me that the Government were reneging on the promise of extra rail carriages on busy west Yorkshire lines in favour of electrification between Manchester and Liverpool and between London and Swansea. When will a Minister come to the House and give a statement to tell the people of Yorkshire about that, and when can we finally have a debate on the poor deal that this Government give public transport in Yorkshire?

The reality is that more passengers and more freight are being carried by train than ever before and the trains are more on time than ever before, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s general proposition that the situation on the railways is poor or will be in future. That is far from the case, but I will draw his specific points to the attention of the transport team, who will write to him.

Portcullis House has a G rating for energy use, the worst rating that any building can have. May I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to enlist the advice of Green2Go, a company in my constituency that has developed a biofuel based on waste cooking oil, on how the energy rating of Portcullis House can be improved?

The G energy rating from 2008 recognised that although the initial design of Portcullis House received an “excellent” rating under the Building Research Establishment’s environmental assessment method, significant changes in function—specifically increased catering and more intensive occupation, with more people using the building—have resulted in significant energy consumption. That is why it now has a G rating. An estate-wide environmental assessment is under way and will identify improvement options for the future, and no doubt Green2Go from Stockport ought to feed into it. Meanwhile we must all play our part in helping the parliamentary estate to reduce its carbon footprint by turning off our televisions and ensuring that we do not use heating and air conditioning excessively.

May we have a debate on the next steps in the Lisbon treaty saga? It is clear from Members of all parties that such a debate would be a matter of great interest, not only in relation to the EU presidential issue but because it would allow each party in the House to spell out to the British people in advance of a general election where it stands on a referendum. The parties could make it clear, as they go to the people, that there will be a referendum come what may, so that the people of the United Kingdom will have their say as promised by the Government and the Opposition.

A series of statements about Europe are made by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and no doubt the hon. Gentleman will shortly find an opportunity to raise that point.

The postal workers are back on strike because they are frightened about job losses, bullying management and the future of a vital public service. It seems extraordinary that Ministers do not have more hands-on involvement. May I repeat the calls made by other Members for a special debate to be held, as urgently as possible, on the future of the Post Office and the situation facing postal workers?

Ministers are hands-on, with the intention of getting the management and the union to agree to settle their differences for the sake of the people who use Royal Mail and those who work in it.

Yesterday the Paymaster General confirmed, at column 273 of Hansard, that the Government rank ministerial Departments. The Ministry of Defence is ranked 21st out of 23. That is unacceptable, especially when we are fighting a war in Afghanistan. I genuinely ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a proper statement on the matter next week, so that we can question that priority.

There are Defence questions on Monday, when the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise that matter.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House heard the remarkable defence by a Conservative party spokesman on “Today” this morning of Mr. Michal Kaminski, whom the chief rabbi of Poland has condemned for having been a member of a neo-Nazi party and who whitewashes the massacre of Jews in world war two. May we have an early debate on anti-Semitism and the importance of getting the history of world war two and the massacres of Jews right, particularly with reference to MEPs, not just these Poles but those from other countries? We need to get this matter cleared up and the Opposition’s shameful alliance exposed to the whole world.

Every year in this House, we have a debate on Holocaust memorial day, which is well attended and passionately supported by hon. Members of all parties. Not only what we do in this country and in this Chamber but how we conduct ourselves internationally is important. My right hon. Friend is right—no one in this country, particularly the Opposition, should consort with holocaust deniers, climate change deniers and homophobes. That is not the way that Britain wants to go.

The Leader of the House did not answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the dates of the Easter recess. What is her problem?

I will announce the future calendar in due course. I have not got any problems, but if I do, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be the first to know.

May we have a debate on excessive bank charges? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of Bank of Scotland’s recent announcement that it would raise its overdraft charges for current account holders. That could mean up to 300 per cent. increases for some people. May I ask her to use the Government’s influence with that bank to get it to reconsider those proposals?

We recognise that bank overdraft charges are a source of public frustration in dealing with banks. We issued a call this summer in our White Paper for a speedy resolution to the millions of complaints that have been lodged with the Office of Fair Trading about overdraft charges. We expect a court decision soon on that matter and we are also working on reforms that will force banks to be much more transparent about terms and conditions. There will be Treasury questions next week, when my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise the matter with Treasury Ministers.

Has the Leader of the House had time to consider the reduction by half of the guests’ and Members’ seating in the Terrace Cafeteria? Does she agree that that is an important facility for Members who bring guests into the House? Is she aware that there has been no consultation on the matter? Does she agree that the seating should be restored, and not after Christmas as proposed?

There was less usage of the Members’ part of the cafeteria than of the part for all others working in the Commons. It was a shame that those working in the House were having their meals in a place that was absolutely packed out when the Members’ part was very underused. In response to that, the idea was to move the partition at a small cost to see whether that led to better usage. The matter will be kept under review, but I do not think there is any point in keeping tables and chairs empty.

Arts Council England is facing its second major reorganisation in a decade. A debate would allow us to examine the scope of that, the number of staff being made redundant and the number who have been rehired as consultants.

Obviously, we have to ensure, particularly as we look ahead to deficit reduction, that every pound of public money is properly spent, and that includes in the arts. The British economy as well as the quality of our life in this country is massively enhanced by the arts and the Arts Council’s work. We obviously want to ensure that it is not only properly funded but spends all its money properly. My hon. Friend can probably raise the matter in Treasury questions.

May I again raise Criminal Records Bureau checks with the Leader of the House? They were brought in to protect the innocent and the young, but they are also blighting the lives of innocent people who have malicious accusations made against them, which remain on record. I have several such cases in my constituency. People cannot clear those CRB checks and the law needs to be changed. May we have a debate?

We all agree that we need a sensible and proportionate approach, which puts children’s safety first and ensures that the system is manageable. I cannot think of an immediate opportunity to raise the matter, but I will consider whether the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families needs to update the House. I know that several developments have taken place that he might want to report to the House.

May we have a debate on the importance of public expenditure on large infrastructure projects, which create many jobs? For instance, the proposed Mersey gateway would create hundreds of jobs through its construction and around 4,000 jobs after its construction.

The Planning Act 2008 and the opportunity for a more streamlined approach to major infrastructure projects will no doubt help not only my hon. Friend’s constituency but others places around the country.

Given that the number of annual hospital admissions for alcohol-related injuries has more than doubled in the north of Northamptonshire to 5,451 in the past six years, may we have a debate in Government time on drink-related violence and the Government’s 24-hour drinking culture?

I think it was the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we have the topical debate on fireworks this afternoon, and doubtless he will make a long and interesting speech. I note that he is now making another suggestion, which we will consider alongside others. Misuse of alcohol and alcohol-related injuries are serious matters and I will consider his suggestion.

I declare an interest as a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. May we have a debate on better regulation of the accountancy profession? There are egregious examples of firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers frequently having conflicts of interest by acting as company adviser, bank adviser and then administrator. That insolvency gravy train must be derailed as soon as possible in the interests of all so that we are not in a position whereby the practitioners get the pounds and creditors get the pence.

My hon. Friend has made another important point about the way in which insolvencies are handled. It is probably more of a question for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills than for the Treasury, although it is obviously a matter for both. I will consider how it perhaps needs to be taken forward in the House.

Given that recent research by the Prostate Cancer Charter for Action shows great inequalities still existing in the NHS for prostate cancer services, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in the near future on that important issue?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might consider seeking the opportunity for a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment—

In addition, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to consider the matter. There is no doubt that proper awareness of the opportunity for screening for prostate cancer and early intervention are important for prevention and treatment. It is an important issue, on which we can make progress.

May I support those who are calling for an urgent debate on the situation facing Royal Mail? May I also ask for consideration to be given to sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, who face immense problems at this time? Is it not right that the Government, as the shareholder, should examine ways how they can provide support to ensure that we do not lose more of those invaluable services?

We are committed to the post office network and the important work done by sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that it is not only those directly employed by and working for Royal Mail who are affected by the dispute. Not only businesses who use the services and the people who rely on them are affected, but the post office network is too. I will draw the matter to the attention of Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers.

Thousands of people replied to the consultation on the Badman review of elective home education. Many pointed to the lack of evidence and the weakness of the data that underlay his recommendations. May we have a debate in Government time on home education so that Ministers can be informed by it before they introduce any draft legislation?

Again, that is something that could usefully be debated in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment.

To revert to the European Union, is not the deeper issue not only the relative merits of individual candidates but the fact that so many hon. Members still oppose the Lisbon treaty, and that a considerable minority of hon. Members oppose Britain’s membership of the EU? Is that not the most powerful argument for a full debate about our future relationship with the EU, and whether it should be one of isolation or of full participation? If the Government are considering any sort of referendum, should it not be on our membership so that those who oppose the consensus of the past third of a century have the opportunity to say so?

The Government—the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—have made it absolutely clear where we believe Britain’s interest lies. Our interests in terms of the economy, tackling climate change and security depend on our working together with our European partners, and not in drawing away from them at precisely the time when international co-operation is absolutely essential. It is also important that we have a strong Europe to work with the United States, China and India, so we will be pressing forward for better co-operation and working in Europe, and putting Britain at the heart of Europe.

May we debate early-day motion 2180 and the Government’s Sustainable Development Commission’s conclusion that the cost and problems of new nuclear power stations far outweigh any benefits?

[That this House notes that on 26 October the Government’s Sustainable Development Commission said that they had ‘found the problems of nuclear power far outweigh the potential benefits’; agrees with this timely and sensible assessment; and calls on the Government to abandon proposals to build new nuclear power stations.]

There will be questions for the Department of Energy and Climate Change next week, when my hon. Friend can raise that issue.